Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the March 8, 1985 issue of National Review.
Something was missing in most journalistic accounts of Pope John Paul II’s voyage to Latin America from January 26 to February 5. Liberation theology, these accounts usually said, is “political action to correct injustices.” What on earth can be debatable about that? As it often must, however, the press tended to deal with two antagonists: “liberation theologians” and “conservatives.” And so missed the point.
As God is Triune, so (you will find) are most created realities, made in His image, it should be a rule for commentators to speak in threes. So it is in Latin America. The missing third term in the press accounts is the liberal alternative to both socialism and traditionalism — what in Latin America is called liberalismo. Liberalism means a commitment in peace and civility to democracy, to capitalism, and to pluralism. Liberals abhor the statism both of traditionalists and of socialists.
Clearly, Pope John Paul II speaks for change, structural reform, and a broad move away from long-standing injustices. Just as clearly, he opposes “Marxist analysis” and “class struggle”; to him these represent both false theory in pursuing justice and aberrant praxis. Without quite saying so, he implicitly sketched in Latin America a Third Alternative, neither traditionalist nor socialist.
The historical exhaustion of the traditionalist way is obvious. In most Latin American states, the traditional state smotheringly controls more than half the economy, its jobs, and its wages. Banks are stubborn about making crucial small loans to poor persons who would like to start their own businesses (a villager, e.g., who would like to purchase a truck to carry his village’s produce to market). Where economies are not free, human relations tend to be political — i.e., based upon whom you know, not what you can do. A habit of mind develops in which success is thought to come from outside, from “above,” by favors rather than by personal achievement.
In an important sense, this traditionalist habit of mind throws oil on the fires of “Marxist analysis.” The template of Marxist analysis is exquisitely simple: If you are poor, your poverty is caused by others. Search out and destroy the enemy. Poverty has a cause; the cause is structural; it is embodied in commerce and industry — i.e., in the capitalist bourgeoisie. Therefore, progress entails class war.
The canons of traditionalism are anti-capitalist for one set of reasons. (Among these are the aristocratic point of view, exhibited often in literature and belles-lettres, and the antagonism of traditional “organic” and “corporatist” Catholicism toward the commercial republic of the Anglos, etc.) The canons of Marxist-Leninism are anti-capitalist for other reasons; viz., that they serve an illiberal revolution.
The social base of Latin American traditionalism is the land-owning class, pre-capitalist, corporatist, tight-knit, inter-familial. The social base of Latin American Marxism lies in journalism, the universities, the intellectuals.