Walter Baier: The dialogue between religions and Marxism is possible

Walter Baier spoke about the dialogue between Marxists and Christians, to which he has long been devoted

Cross-Border Talks spoke to Walter Baier, one of the founders of the transform!network, Austrian economist and (former) Communist politician, about the dialogue of Marxists and Christians, in which Walter Baier has long been engaged. During the talk, we have a look at liberation theology and Pope Francis’ ecological and egalitarian encyclicals, wondering if this current in Catholic thought could once turn the whole Church into a progressive institution. We examine potential common grounds for Christians and Marxists, such as common engagement in helping refugees. Also, we have a look on the Church from a class point of view, that allows us to understand why there is an opposition to Pope Francis’ ideas even among the clergy for whom he is, theoretically, the highest and infallible authority.  

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Welcome everybody to another episode of Cross-Border Talks. This is a kind of special episode, one of the two special episodes on the Transform!Europe 2022 Yearbook. We have selected two interesting authors of the articles published in the Yearbook to come to us to talk about their interest, to talk about what they suggest as intellectual inspiration in the Yearbook. And today’s guest is Walter Baier. But before Veronika, my friend here and co-host, will introduce our guest in a little bit more detail, let me tell you what intellectual issue is being brought to you in this episode.

We will be talking about Christian-Marxist dialogue, or in other words, can we socialists or we people of the broadly understood left-wing draw inspiration from what Pope Francis says to his faithful flock. This question may seem difficult obviously, especially to people here in Eastern Europe who are pretty used to seeing Catholic Church involved in some reactionary actions, like advocating the anti-abortion ban in Poland. But perhaps we should look beyond these contemporary developments and have and find some deeper inspiration on what the Pope says and what Karl Marx said about religion. There are many sources of inspiration for both sides. And just before I pass the microphone to Veronica, a word on the Transform! Yearbook, which is the reason for which we are meeting today.

The 2022 issue entitled Left Strategies in the COVID Pandemic and Its Aftermath, edited by Walter Baier, Eric Canepa and Haris Golemis is a regular Transform!Europe publication. You can get it from the place which is indicated in the link that you will see on the screen. And this year’s key topic is the COVID pandemic, what the left was taught by the pandemic, what geopolitical shifts happen during the pandemic, and what can we learn from that, and what political strategy we can draw from this experience. There is a part of the book especially devoted to Marxist Christian dialogue, which we are encouraging you to read. This is enough of an introduction, and I’ll just say that my name is Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat and  I am connecting with you from Katowice, Poland. And now I pass the microphone to my friend Veronika.

Veronika Sušová-Salminen: Hello, everybody! Welcome to the next episode of Cross-border Talks, and I’m happy to introduce an Austrian economist and former politician, if it’s possible to be former politician, the former chairman of Communist Party of Austria, also former political co-ordinator of the network Transform Europe, and also journalist and intellectual Walter Baier, who is today’s guest of our episode. I think Walter Baier is quite a known person, but probably the topic which we are talking about is not so known. So it will be great if he will be the person who will introduce us and speak about the topic called Christian-Marxist dialogue, with contradiction in a way in the name. But I think it is very interesting and in a way also intellectually challenging. I would like to also add here that Walter is not only the author of the article in the yearbook, but also with other colleagues. If I remember well last year, 2021, he published as one of the editors and authors a book, called Europe as commons: exploring transversal ethnic dialogue, which was actually dealing badly with the same topic. If I remember, there were not only Christians but also other religious people from other religions. So it was not closely Christian, but it was the part of this, of this, of this topic.

Okay. First, I think we need to clarify that the Christian-Marxist dialogue is not a wish and not a plan. Iit’s a reality that has been taking place for more than two decades. It is taking place in Austria. It is taking place in Germany, a range of other states in Europe. And Mr. Baier, I would like to ask you, what is the result of this exchange? Can we describe the dialogue as a fruitful exchange or not? And why?

Walter Baier: Well, I would say it’s a fruitful experience which has produced results. But let me start by saying that there has been a dialogue in Austria between the Communist Party of Austria and a group of Christian, mostly Catholic theologians. But in 2014, it was shifted to a higher level since Alexis Tsipras and I received an invitation by Pope Francis for a private audience. And that was quite sensational because actually it took place in the run up to the forthcoming Greek elections. And then the ruling Conservative Party was quite upset that the Pope decided particularly to meet Alexis Tsipras. And partially this had to do with the outrage, yes, I could say the outrage of the pope regarding the circumstances under which the refugees were held in the camps at the outside, the exterior border of the European Union. And when we met the pope, it was an intensive conversation, it lasted about 34 minutes. We ended by saying that there are a lot of fields in which the ideas of us as socialists and non-believers on the one side and the head of the Catholic Church converge. That concerned the refugees that were concerned about the climate crisis.

 That particularly concerned the option for the poor, a topic which entered in the Catholic discourse through the theology of liberation, which started already in the 1970s. But now, as we have a pope who comes from Latin America and is partially rooted in these traditions, now became more or less the official discourse of the top of the of the of the head of the Catholic Church. And finally, you may remember the quote of one of the encyclical letters by Pope Francis which read as “This economy kills”. That’s what he deliberately and clearly and literally expressed: this economy kills. And that, of course, opens the gate for a fruitful discussion.

But your question was what happened so far and what has been achieved. First of all, we established a cooperation among several universities working in the field of transversal social ethics, trying to figure out what could be the measures and the politics employed to change the course of the world, which is obviously heading for disaster. What distinguishes this dialogue from other dialogues is the fact that it targets young people. So we organized, for example, in 2018, a Selma University at the Isle of Syros in Greece, in the Aegean, with a group of 50 young people, young scholars, activists from social movements which created or which yielded a network which is still active in which we coordinate ourselves, for example, in organizing solidarity actions with refugees on the Balkan route. And what we achieved last year was, after a very long discussion, a joint statement of those intellectuals which adhere to the Christian part of our effort and the Marxist part of our effort in order to define more clearly what the common goals of this of this effort might be and how it could be placed in a way that it will be sustainable and more sustainable then, I would say diplomatic dialogues, which already took place in 1970. But this time we tried to do something more serious, something more orientated towards concrete politics and towards joint actions.

You already mentioned that it was the theology of liberation and the partial roots of Pope Francis. So let’s say intellectual, intellectual profile. And I would like to ask you about that in general, because probably on the leftist side, Marxism will be much more known than the liberation theology, and particularly the approach or the interpretation of liberation or theology of liberation connected with this means Pope Francis. Francis. So I would like to ask you about the intellectual roots of the pope, current theology and the relation between the, let’s say, the theology and the social criticism – because this is the social criticism – what he’s offering. It is the social criticism of the current conditions. You nicely write in the article that the point is not that the Church would like to interfere in politics necessarily be a political actor in the sense of actor, but in any way it wants to contribute to the dialogue. It wants to contribute to the social critique of the current environment. So what is attractive for the leftist in the pope’s way of thinking, what is attractive in leftist for the Church, and what are the roots of these intellectual approaches?

Well, I would say this reflects the experience in the dialogue. We must be aware that there is no symmetry between Christianity and Marxism. Marxism is an instrument of social analysis, and Christianity is a religion or a philosophy, or maybe even an ideology. So what Marxism can provide is a high quality, developed instrument of social criticism. And as the Catholic Church is an organization of, if I am not wrong, of 1.6 billion people in the world, it reflects every kind of class identity and every kind of ideological conviction. 

Since the crisis, particularly in countries of the global south and especially in Latin America, raises questions also to Christian communities. Large parts of the Christian church in Latin America started to employ Marxist social analysis in order to better understand the reasons for the exploitation, the reasons for poverty, the reason for ecological disaster. And this is something which happened already in the 1970s, and actually it started in the basic communities, meaning where priests were directly confronted with the living conditions of the poor. They had to tell them something. Rightfully before telling them something, they decided to listen to them. And so they got a very intensive understanding of the living conditions of the poor and that are, so to say, the theological and also social roots of theology, theology of liberation.

 Then Pope Paul VI passed away. After the short pontificate of Pope John Paul I, John Paul II, the Polish pope came.He introduced the conservative and the reactionary turn. So the hierarchy of the Catholic Church turned aggressively against liberation theology, and they were very strongly opposed and driven back. Leonardo Boff, for example, was forced to accept silence, to  promise not to publish and to speak anymore. But when Karol Wojtyla passed away again, a change happened. We are having the pope now from Latin America, who gradually – it was not all at once – adopted the topics of the theology of liberation.

You have now, again, the option for the poor in the center, but in a new way, because in the seventies, the option of the poor was not connected with the environmental crisis. Nowadays, you cannot talk about social crises without taking account of the environmental crisis, but that also has a consequence for the way of looking at the societal crisis, because it means you do not deal only with poverty as a social evil. You must confront the fact that poverty is a symptom. It’s part of a much larger, deplorable situation. And that’s what the Pope did with Laudato Si’, which is commonly known as the ecological encyclical, and the next one, Fratelli tutti, then concluded, I would say from Laudato Si’, that confronting the crisis, coping with the crisis requires dialogue. The Pope put forward the idea that, of course Christianity is that to which he himself belongs, and he wants Christianity to be transformed into a force which changes the world. But at the same time, he has to admit that Christianity is not the only way in addressing today’s global crisis. 

So he opened up the discourse for the dialogue with all philosophies in the first place, with the other religions. By the way, there is also a theology of liberation in Islam and in Judaism, but also with the big world of non-believers to which we belong,I belong. And what is attractive in all this is I share the view of the Pope from the other side of the mirror. So to say that there is no political or philosophical tendency in today’s world which can pretend to be the only one capable of addressing the crisis.

 If we want to avoid ecological disaster, if we want to preserve peace, if we want to introduce a new model of production and of consumption, we need a broad alliance of all those forces who would like to contribute to this global transformation.

You quoted in your article beautiful words by the pope who said that he wants the Christianity to transform the world. In your article, you also quote a lot of the pope’s comments that are more courageous, more, I would say, transformative towards the world than what the modern left is able to say, either about environment or about inequalities or about general social conditions. But you also point out that there is opposition to this liberation theology inside the Church as well. And I’m happy that you mentioned how John Paul II’s ascension to the throne in Rome actually stopped the progressive transformation of the church that seemed to be taking place under his predecessors. So you pointed out that the Church is far from going into this way of being a progressive force. And I wanted to ask you, do you believe, do you think it is ever possible for the Church to really be a progressive force?

I believe we have to look at the Church from a class perspective. The Church understands itself as a universal organization, embracing the entire humanity. But that means that inside the Church you find all class forces and all ideological tendencies, which is why it is a battlefield, it is a battleground of different and opposing and antagonistic social tendencies. And on the other hand, as in the global society, also in its entirety, the majority of people belong to the working classes. That means if the Church allows the masses to express themselves through structural transformation. 

By the way, we should not think that the dialogue between Marxists and Christians is free of conflict or free of mutual criticism. I always use the opportunity when speaking with my friends from a Catholic background, that as long as the Church is not addressing the issue of female equality, it will not be able to overcome the conservative tendencies and not even be able to get rid of outrageous abuses of children and young people in Catholic institutions. To a large extent, it reflects the, I would say, pathological sexual morals, which still govern a large part of the of the Catholic Church. So we have to see the Church as something which is transforming continuously. Leonardo Boff described the historical path of the Church by saying the tragedy of the Church lies in the fact that it always relied on its former opponents against its friends in future. And that is a very true remark, because the Church, of course, followed the historical path and had to adapt its theology to social reality.

 But I believe in the crisis in which we are now it is not different from the political left. It has to accelerate its adoption. It has to accelerate its transformation. So to answer your question directly, I would say yes and no. Yes, because if the Church reflects the interests of the people which are believers, then it must transform itself into a progressive force. Now, on the other hand, because the Church will always address humanity in its entirety, meaning it will also talk to the conservative forces in society. So after all, it is a question of hegemony. And I would also say it’s a question of power in the hierarchy and in the structure.

My next question would be to develop on this, but I would like to ask you about the internal obstacles, not the institutional obstacles, let’s say, which are obviously on the side of the Catholic Church. Clearly, it is the institution of its long time traditions, and it is really institutions. But I would like to ask about the internal obstacles which you met within the dialogue, because as you mentioned, these two approaches are asymmetric. They are not, they are not the same. They don’t approach the same way. So if you would, if you could describe us or tell us mostly about these internal obstacles within the dialogue, what you met as the biggest problem to approach each other. For example, if you wanted, let’s say of course within some circle of people, it can work. But if you want to approach more people and involve more people, I guess there can be some prejudices which you can meet. So what are the obstacles or prejudices for the fruitful dialogue between these two different groups of thinking or different ways to approach the world?

Last summer, I was invited to speak at a large congress of theologians, and the groups whom I met there were quite different. One group were conservative theologians. They were very much, I would say, astonished and opposed to the idea I’ve maintained for a dialogue. They were polite because in academic congress people used to be polite, but it was obvious that they did not like us and they did not like the idea that we were part of the discussions. Then there was a second group which also was conservative, but somehow accepted the idea of dialogue, which was introduced by the Pope. Their attitude would be: we have to listen to anybody because everybody is part of the human family and even the non-believers are humans. So listen to them and let’s look at what they have to say. 

Then there was a third group, which is very deeply, I would say, mobilized and moved, by the way, to how refugees are treated in our societies. This contradicts absolutely everything which they believe is the content of the message of Jesus Christ, who, by the way, also was a refugee. So for them, this is such a disappointment with the society in which they are living in and which in many cases declare themselves being inspired or imbued by Christian values. This, for them, is a break in, in the way they perceive the societies and the politics and the political parties, which often call themselves Christian Democrats or Christian socials. They can not accept this. 

And then there is a fourth group which studies very carefully the preaching of Pope Francis and particularly the option for the poor. In many cases, they come from the environmental movement. They are  dealing with the environmental question in the view of the global south. They come to the conclusion that the environment can only be saved under the condition that the social relations are changed. 

These groups of people are very open to a dialogue with the left. So when I spoke at the event, I mainly tried to address the latter two groups, namely those who feel solidarity with the refugees and those who, meanwhile, are open to the idea of a common social ethic in order to change society. And of course, we also are polite to everybody, but the latter two groups are those who are really the ones who have the possibility and the capacity to contribute to societal change and also to a transformation of the Catholic Church.

You write in your article that Christians, Catholics if you want, and left wingers are today a kind of minority, alone people in consumerist society that stands for other values, such as solidarity, such as mutual help, protection of the weak and so on. However, this, however, is not really a reality in such countries as Poland, where the Catholic Church is still a big social political force and where it advocated one of the most awful counter reforms of the last decade – the complete ban on abortion. And often when I look at the Catholic Church in Poland, I wonder how I could enter in a dialogue with such people, even if I profoundly agree with a lot of the thoughts of Pope Francis. In fact, I agree with him to a greater degree than the Polish bishops or even many Polish priests. How then to build a dialogue in such an environment? Perhaps there must be some conditions, some class conditions, some material conditions, something like that to start a talk between left wing and the Christians.

Yeah. I agree with you, not only with respect to the Catholic Church in Poland, maybe I expressed myself not properly or precisely enough, but I wanted to say that people who support the preaching and the agenda of the Pope are even in the Catholic Church, a minority, a critical minority and the left. Such is a critical minority, at least in the consumerist and privileged parts of Europe. 

But I basically wanted to say that those parts of the society, we should not have any illusions that the idea of social and cultural transformation in the moment is an agenda which is hegemonic in our societies. And that concerns both the progressive Catholics and the progressive political left.

 I think that the intellectual and cultural landscape is structured in the following way. On the one side, you have neoliberalism – the ideology of relentless consumerism, individualism, which tells people, as long as you can manage your own thing, you are on the side of the better off. So take care of yourself and don’t look for anybody else. If you fail to be on the better side, then you fail. Personally, it’s your fault. This ideology, which in that part of Europe where I come from, worked from 1990, let’s say, to 2007, 2008, but is now undergoing restructuring. It doesn’t work anymore. So the question arises, which is the cultural, psychological, mental alternative to this relentless individualism and obviously is collectivism. 

We see three different kinds of collectivism. One is nationalism, one is religion, and one is class identity. Since you can only distinguish these three possibilities in theory, while in practice they go through each and every individual, we have to ask ourselves in which way they can be brought into a frame which opens the gate for a progressive change. And I believe that the strategic challenge for both, namely those parts of the Catholic Church who put human center stage and of the political left is to oppose fiercely nationalism, to oppose fiercely religious fundamentalism, but at the same time create alliances between those forces in the churches or in the religious communities who not only see humans in the center of their attention, but also believe in that the personality is a composite them of individual and social relation, which by collective identities must be created. And I think that this is a new constellation in the struggle for creating a progressive hegemony.

So in a way, you took my question away now, because I was exactly preparing to ask a question about this issue. What is the key political purpose of this endeavor? What should be the starting point for the transformation? We can maybe have a look more precisely on this, because this is important. This is actually about the creation of the new transformative hegemony for the world. And, of course, the reality is that there are over 1 billion of Christians. So this is important for us. And besides, we maybe didn’t touch this, but I believe there can be a person who is using the Marxist analysis of the society and still can be religious. I don’t think it necessarily must be a contradiction. It shouldn’t be put in some kind of sharp conflict. And it’s not always you must be Marxist and you must be atheist, or you must be on the left and be atheist. That’s definitely not true. But so if we put it in the nutshell, if you will think about, okay, we have not only theories very important for politics and for left leftist politics always, but I would like to more specifically ask about the the political praxis, what what is going to be what you think ideally, of course, should be the the political purpose of connecting these or traversing because Marxism is one type of universalist theory and actually Catholicism or Christianity is the other type of universalist approach. And this transversality is, I think, important. It’s something that we always are missing and it is maybe one of the reasons for our problems. We are not able to deal with world problems because we are in these boxes. So what is this ideal outcome politically and the political practice of this dialogue or the trying to put and communicate together these two seemingly contradictory camps?

Well, there’s a lot of practice out there in Latin America. Many Christians participate in joint struggles, even for even in electoral campaigns, for socialist candidates, or an example is that in Italy, the peace movement can refer very strongly to what the pope says, because what Pope Francis says about the war in the Ukraine actually is of course, there is aggression, there is an aggressor, there is a victim, but it’s not sufficient to talk about how the war started. It’s more important to find ways, how it could end. And I fully agree with him when he was saying that every war is the capitulation of politics, that’s what it actually is. And if I listen now, people are saying we must fight until this or that side wins. Zelensky recently said hundred Ukrainian soldiers die per day. In a couple of days he had to endure possibly 200 or 500 casualties. Now you can assume that the same number of dying soldiers are on the other side. So is it that worse? And can we socialists confine ourselves or restrict ourselves for saying the war started in that way? And that’s why one side has to win and the other side has to have to be defeated. No, we must find political ways and political solutions. And this will not only be achieved by addressing the politicians, that requires movements. And ideally, I would like and in some cases I see this already: Catholics, trade unionists, socialists, environmentalists pulling out to the streets saying, no, the war must stop. No, we don’t want more armaments in Europe. We want less armament. We want to get rid of the nuclear weapons which threaten the continent with complete destruction. So we need broad civic movements and alliances. And that’s what the dialogue is about.

 Of course, you can have interesting and fascinating talks on different issues. But after all, the question is what follows from them, from that practically. Do we help refugees? We will have next week a seminar in Vienna where Catholic PhD students present their projects and Marxists comment on them. One of these students deals with solidarity work on the Balkan route and from the transform! side Katerina Anastasiou will comment on it, and I’m pretty sure that the result of the discussion will not only be hopefully a better dissertation, but it will be an agreement on how to join forces because they do things. We do things by not helping one another, by creating networks of support and help for the refugees. So I believe hegemony is a word and that’s what we aim for. But it grows also, or even in the first place from joint political practice.

I think that one of the most important messages of this episode is that we need to join all the forces interested in building a different world. We should not close up to progressive Catholics, to progressive Christians, to progressive religious people of any denomination, just as we should wish that they still maintain the dialogue with the left wing people who have a genuine wish to see this world as more just more sustainable, more open to everybody, whoever he or she is. I think this is an important message. And as I mentioned the awfully reactionary church in Poland, I would like to mention in the end that even in these unfavorable conditions, we also have these examples of the Left Catholic dialogue on the question of refugees. We had beautiful moments when the Catholic activists and left wing activists held together the refugees stuck on the Polish-Belarusian border. So perhaps even in the most unfavorable conditions, this alliance of progressive forces is possible. The alliance of people of goodwill is possible, if you wish. And with this message, I want to close up this episode. Thank Walter for being with us this evening. And please don’t forget to subscribe to cross-border talks, to comment, to write what you do. You think we are waiting for your comments and thank you very much for being with us.

Thank you very much for having me. Goodbye.

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