Critical Social-Spiritual Theory for Human Liberation

                                                          Glen T. Martin

March 2019

Human liberation has been an idea that has inspired philosophers and thinkers around the world for many centuries. People have always dreamed of a world of peace, justice, and freedom. This vision is present in some of the great religious texts of the world.  However, as scholar of religions John Hick (2004) points out, it was not until the 19th century rise of a social scientific understanding of society (with its class divisions and power relationships) that human beings became capable of more correctly diagnosing the problems of lack of peace, injustice, and unfreedom. Hence, it was only by the 19th century that we have been capable of taking real social, economic, and political steps to address these problems.

The first tier in articulating a credible process of human liberation involved the powerful 19th century analysis of capitalist society developed by Karl Marx (1972) showing that human poverty and misery were not the inscrutable “will of God” but were the result of specific social-economic relationships. We now understand, as the young Marx put it, that true human emancipation only begins when “all the conditions are overturned in which human beings are humiliated, enslaved, forsaken, and distained.” We need planetary economic and social conditions in which every person can live with dignity, freedom, peace, and personal security.

This analysis was creatively deepened and carried forward by many other thinkers concerned to clarify the dimensions of political and economic liberation. This tradition includes far too many thinkers to identify here, but I will mention a few more familiar names in order to help delineate the subject matter under discussion. Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Bloch, and Jürgen Habermas were all influenced by Marx and all attempted to go deeply into our human situation to identify the central features of our domination and unfreedom and to articulate the nature and direction we must take to further human liberation.

The second tier that developed for articulating the process of human liberation belongs to world systems theory. Thinkers began to apply the critical-social insight not only within societies, but to the world system of nation-states as a whole. This analysis revealed systems of domination and exploitation that linked global capitalism with a set of dominant nation-states who used military violence and social-economic hegemony to exploit peripheral nations and peoples for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful elites in the world’s center nations.

This system began, of course, as colonial conquests. It has continued to the present as neocolonial imperialism, domination, and economic exploitation. Today, we need a new world system that transcends these evils. As Boswell and Chase-Dunn put this: “Fundamental change in the system happens only at the global level. For socialism to replace capitalism, it too must be a global system that embraces a democratic world polity” (2000, p. 11).

Some thinkers in this tradition, or influenced by it, are Immanuel Wallerstein, Terry Boswell, Christopher Chase-Dunn, Samir Amin, Thomas Shannon, Michael Parenti, and James Petras. These thinkers add to the classical Marxist analysis described above the insight that human liberation must not only take into account economic relationships but the political organization of the world system as well. A system of militarized sovereign nation-states with absolute borders, recognizing no enforceable laws above themselves, is a disaster for the well-being of humankind and future generations. The unity of humankind is the only possible way to overcome the threats to human existence such as possible nuclear holocaust or global climate collapse.

The third tier in understanding the process of human liberation involves the ethical-spiritual dimension. Human liberation cannot be reduced to economic relationships, nor to political and nation-state relationships. It also requires spiritual growth and development to higher modes of awareness and consciousness, freeing people from egoism, ethnocentrism, materialism and immaturity and opening up the process of awakening and inner self-realization that is described within the great religious traditions of the world as well as by many psychologists and spiritual thinkers.

In this tradition, I would include Christian liberation thinkers such as Gustavo Gutierrez and Jürgen Moltmann, Buddhist thinkers such as Nolan Pliny Jacobson and Abe Masao, Vedic-based thinkers such as Swami Agnivesh and Mahatma Gandhi, Moslem thinkers in the Sufi tradition going back to Jalaladdin Rumi, contemporary scholars of spirituality and religion such as John Hick and Ken Wilber, and humanist psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Erich Fromm (1947). Whether they be secular psychologists or spiritual visionaries, there is a consensus that spiritual and moral growth is a necessity if we are to create a decent world where people can live with peace, justice, and sustainability.

Critical social-spiritual theory (CSST) as I am describing it, therefore, involves a collection of social perspectives and analyses on capitalism and class societies in general, along with reflection on the political structure of the world system. These investigations have advanced to the point of seeing through the deceptive ideological justifications of capitalism and sovereign nation-states that have been promulgated by the ruling classes of the world. Secondly, these perspectives and analyses arise from an awareness of a set of ethical-spiritual values or fundamental truths that allow thinkers to identify the system of class domination as wrong, distorted, exploitative, or spiritually corrupt in various ways. If there were no objective values, there would be no grounds for critically evaluating unjust economic, social, and political arrangements and advocating fundamental change.

We need to discern and actualize ethical-spiritual values in our own lives and create the social-economic conditions leading to their broad actualization for all of humanity. Those who claim that “the human heart must change” before the world system changes express only a “half-truth.” As Christian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez elaborates: “And this was a half-truth because it ignored the fact that ‘hearts’ can only be transformed by altering socio-cultural structures” (in Leonard p. 183). In other words, human ethical and spiritual awakening is dialectically related to social-political-economic transformation. Transformed hearts promote transformation of the world system and a transformed world system in turn transforms human hearts. We must work for both these dimensions simultaneously.

For Marx, the dynamics of capitalism have little to do with promoting human welfare and everything to do with the growth and maintenance of ruling class power, domination, and exploitation. Marx himself embraced the objective values of freedom, democracy, and justice (see Miranda 1986). Marx showed that the capitalist system included an inherent tendency to break down periodically, throwing society into economic chaos, and that it was directed to “exchange value” and the maximizing of profit, not toward “use values” and the satisfaction of human needs.

In addition, Marx saw that the daily operation of the system appropriates the surplus wealth created by workers for the private enrichment and use of the owners of capital, a fact that amounts to institutionalized theft of the life energy and productive efforts of those who produced the goods and services upon which society is built. This fact also accounts for the massive poverty and misery we see all around us today (as well as in Marx’s day), and it results in the vast militarized violence designed to protect and promote this status quo.

Mahatma Gandhi declared that under capitalism, “the few ride on the backs of the millions.” But “socialism,” he declared, must be “pure hearted.” In other words, without spiritual awakening to truth and love (the core of Satyagraha), there can be no legitimate socialism (1972). Human liberation must be both spiritual and socio-economic, and it must be worldwide.

Jürgen Habermas (1998) also contributed to critical social-spiritual theory through revealing the communicative core of language. The presuppositions of the very possibility of language involve the claims (within every utterance) to truth, truthfulness, and normative rightness.  These claims are present in all uses of language and can be distilled out of our complex and multiple uses of language to isolate the “ideal speech situation” that serves as the presupposition for the possibility of all uses of language. The ideal speech situation also presupposes the equality and democratic right of each speaking participant to participate equally in the dialogical effort of arriving at general principles that serve everyone’s interests and exclude none.

Hence, Habermas shows that instrumental or strategic uses of language are parasitic upon the communicative core of language. Social, political, and economic arrangements use language strategically to cover up and veil the equality at the heart of our common humanity. Equality is defined in terms of our common ability to use language. Strategic uses of language justifying inequality, therefore, often violate of the very nature of language itself and our common human right to participate in the formulation of the principles by which we all live. Therefore, analysis of language itself generates a critical social theory exposing class domination, deception, and distortion of our common human project.

Habermas (1998) affirmed the model of growth put forward by prominent psychologists from egoism through ethnocentrism to worldcentric and kosmocentric modes of awareness. We can only actualize real “dialogue directed toward mutual understanding” if we have grown out of egoism into a worldcentric perspective that makes it possible to recognize others as my equal and as deserving of my respect. For him, therefore, spiritual and social liberation must go together.

For Swami Agnivesh (2015), spirituality involves an awakening beyond the ego of self-interest and the collective identification with this or that party or religion to the point at which the spiritual awakening of the individual becomes identical with the transformation of society through love and compassionate action. This involves seeing the “unimaginable powers of coercion” that have accumulated in the hands of the dominant classes of the world and the imperative for taking action to address this coercion. It involves enunciating a spiritual vision for the world community that sees our planet as one family in which all persons have equal rights to decent, secure, and peaceful lives, liberated from poverty, domination, and exploitation. The holism of God, acting in and through our personal lives, empathically embraces the holism of the human family and acts on behalf of integral human liberation.

My own work has emphasized a fourth tier to Critical Social-Spiritual Theory, a tier that has always been part of CSST but has not, to my knowledge, been fully recognized nor emphasized. My writings focus on the objective feature of human self-transcendence as necessary to the matrix of concepts making up CSST. In my recent book Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence (2018), every human being lives as a temporalized project moving from a past through a dynamic present into an imagined future.

This temporalized process generates in the present a “utopian horizon,” which includes a broad understanding that things could always be better, that needs could be better satisfied, and social relations could be improved. The future, and the call of the future to create a harmonious, just, and peaceful human community, takes on an ontological priority over the present and past. The process allows us to envision a transformation from present conflict to kindness and love, from injustice to justice, from overt and institutionalized violence to nonviolence, and from systems of exploitation and domination to systems of prosperity and freedom.

“Utopia,” as a word indicating our common human ability to realize that things could be fundamentally different (that we could live in a world of peace, justice, freedom, and sustainability) is central to Critical Social-Spiritual Theory. As Gutierrez points out, this is not the same as “ideology” (1988, p. 137). Ideology often covers up and justifies the violence, domination, and exploitation of the established order. Utopia represents the clear-sighted vision inherent in our capacity for self-transcendence. We see that things could really be different, and that transformation of the world system can really lead to transformation of the human heart.

In addition to living within our utopian horizon, human reason can discern objective values implicit within that horizon that should be pursued and actualized in life. These objective values can be articulated in terms of at least 10 distinct, yet interrelated goals inherent in our temporalized human situation: dialogue directed toward mutual understanding, nonviolence, human rights, political and economic democracy, compassion and kindness, unity in diversity, justice-making, sustainability, global education, and Earth Constitution (Martin, Chap. 8).

Since each item on this list of objective values articulates a part of the holism that is integral to human life, and is itself part of the nexus of ideals inherent in the human utopian horizon, analysis of each one can reveal the others as implicit within it.  For example, an elaboration of “justice” would reveal communicative dialogue, nonviolence, human rights, political and economic democracy within the concept of justice.  An analysis of compassion and kindness would reveal the same nexus of ten values within our utopian horizon, including justice, nonviolence, etc.  This means that a critical social-spiritual theory (CSST) is inherent in the very structure of human existence.

For Critical Social-Spiritual Theory to actualize itself in individual persons or social groups requires a growing sophistication into the processes by which class societies systematically generate a deceptive ideology to justify and legitimate their class divisions and unjust political and social arrangements. For example, who owns the mass media and why?  How does the mass media select and privilege certain topics and issues while excluding others as outside the range of acceptable discourse?  How does the electoral system encourage politicians to lie and to serve wealth and power rather than the people?  Who does the government really represent and why? How do the laws institutionalize injustice and class divisions?

The temporalized development of a critical theory within persons and groups requires the growth of persons through the objective stages of development articulated by critical thinkers and psychologists: from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric to kosmocentric levels (see Wilber 2007). In other words, just as class structures impede human liberation by setting up distorted communication systems designed to privilege certain groups in relation to the majority, so individual egoism and self-interest distort communication and clear vision in ways that privilege the immature persons (who may well be rich and powerful adults) over and against all others (see Wilber 2007; Leonard 1990).

Nevertheless, critical social-spiritual theory is implicit in our human condition and provides a revolutionary “voice” that calls to us from the future to actualize our practical utopian potential through continuing intellectual, moral, and emotional growth. This call from the future includes the Earth Constitution.  Of course, insofar as world democracy is implicit within our common human utopian horizon, this value is not dependent on a specific document like the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. (I have argued in Martin 2018 and elsewhere why it is to our great advantage to focus on this particular document.) Nevertheless, our common utopian horizons directly imply globalized democracy.

Implicit in the Earth Constitution are all the other values on the list: creating the Earth Federation under this Constitution will help maximize dialogue directed toward mutual understanding on the Earth. It also outlines social and economic arrangements of humanity that significantly maximize nonviolence, protection of human rights, economic and political democracy, unity in diversity, compassion and kindness, justice-making, sustainability and global education. This makes the Constitution for the Federation of Earth a key tool for critical social theoretical analysis of oppression, domination, and exploitation and a key document for envisioning a liberated and liberating global society.

Although the Earth Constitution, like these other values, is implicit in our utopian horizon as a general concept of a democratic (peaceful, just, and sustainable) world system, it is important to understand that it is not a blueprint for a detailed utopian society in the sense of identifying the specifics of some such future “perfect” society.  Thinkers such as Hannah Arendt (1958) have pointed out that the use of state power to impose upon people in the present some vision of a detailed perfect society in the future is one of the roots of totalitarianism.  Stalinism violently imposed collective farming on the peasants of Russia, Maoism, through its Red Guards, violently imposed a cultural ideology on the people of China, Hitlerism imposed the vision of a “pure Aryan” society on the people of Germany. Mussolini violently imposed the theory of fascism on the people of Italy.

The Earth Constitution, by contrast, sets up democratic procedures by which the people of Earth can move with reason and common sense into a better future for humanity. It gives us the necessary means to creating a decent future. It articulates a “practical utopia,” a way to move legitimately into a better future. Means and ends must be in harmony. The means, like the ends, must be nonviolent, democratic, and just. This understanding itself is integral to our utopian horizon.

The Earth Constitution does not impose a specific vision on that future using the false utilitarian reasoning that these violent means can be justified by some “utopian” end called “the greater good” (see Finnis 1983). Our utopian horizon cannot be legitimately coopted by utilitarianism to allow for any means that might violate human freedom, rights, and dignity in the present for some future goals. The Constitution is about creating a reasonably just, peaceful, equitable, and free society in the present that will allow human beings the means to have a future at all.  In this sense, it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for human liberation. It is the necessary means. It alone, through global democracy, gives the people of Earth the means to achieve everything sufficient to complete a world of peace, justice, and sustainability.

Critical Social-Spiritual Theory (CSST) must include four tiers: first, economic analysis of class domination and exploitation; second, global political analysis of the world system of nation-state violence, domination and exploitation; third, description of an objective process of human spiritual growth and liberation from ego-centric existence to kosmocentric existence, from self-centeredness to compassion, from hate and fear to love and justice. The latter in each case provides the values through which the current systems of domination and exploitation can be judged, as well as the direction we must move to progressively actualize human liberation on planet Earth.

The fourth tier involves the recognition that human liberation is built into the very structure of our temporalized human consciousness. A utopian critique of today’s unjust world system is not a product of some idle imagination. Rather, such a critique, and the praxis necessary for actualizing the utopian vision, are fundamental to our very nature as human beings. We were born for liberation, for a world of love, peace, justice, freedom, and sustainability. Critical Social-Spiritual Theory analyzes the economic, political, and spiritual reasons why we have not achieved our true human potential. It shows how economic systems impede liberation, how the system of militarized sovereign nations impedes liberation, and how spiritual immaturity impedes our liberation.

What were the great documents directed toward human liberation in the 19th century?  Perhaps Marx’s Das Kapital?  What were the great documents in the 20th century? Perhaps the UN Declaration of Human Rights or the Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi? (Certainly not the UN Charter, which solidifies the system of militarized nation-states.)  But Das Kapital, the UN Universal Declaration, and Gandhi’s Autobiography point forward toward global democracy. For Gandhi, “the future peace, security, and ordered progress of the world demand a world federation of free nations, and on no other basis can the problems of the modern world be solved” (see Martin 2017).

The Earth Constitution extends a concrete vision beyond these 19th and 20th century documents to offer a more complete 21st century critical theory for human liberation. It ends economic exploitation, establishes a global democratic community, encourages a change in the human heart, and actualizes the practical utopian dimensions of human life. Today, it constitutes a necessary component within any credible theory of planetary peace, justice, and sustainability.

Brief Bibliography

 Agnivesh, Swami (2015). Applied Spirituality.

Arendt, Hannah (1958). The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Boswell, Terry and Christopher Chase-Dunn (2000). The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism: Toward Global Democracy.

Chase-Dunn, Christopher (1998). Global Formation: Structures of World Economy. Updated Edition.

Constitution for the Federation of Earth: Compact Edition (2016). Edited, with an Introduction by Glen T. Martin. On-line at

Finnis, John (1983). Fundamentals of Ethics.

Fromm, Erich (1947). Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics.

Habermas, Jürgen (1998). On the Pragmatics of Communication.

Hick, John (2004). An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent.

Gandhi, Mahatma (1972). All Men are Brothers. Compiled by Krishna Kripalani. UNESCO Publications.

Gutierrez, Gustavo (1988). A Theology of Liberation. Trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson.

Leonard, Stephen T. (1990). Critical Theory in Political Practice.

Martin, Glen T. (2017). “Gandhi’s Satyagraha and the Earth Constitution,” in Cook, ed. Examining Global Peacemaking in the Digital Age: A Research Handbook.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation.

Marx, Karl (1972). The Essential Writings. Frederic L. Bender, ed.

Miranda, Jose Porfirio (1986). Marx Against the Marxists: The Christian Humanism of Karl Marx.

Wilber, Ken (2007). The Int

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