Franz Hinkelammert (1931-2023)

Image: Eugene Liashchevskyi


The theologian, philosopher and economist leaves an extensive, far-fetched and revolutionary work

Early this morning (July 17, 2023), the theologian, philosopher and economist Franz Hinkelammert died. Appointed by Enrique Dussel as the greatest theorist of Liberation Theology, Franz leaves us an extensive, far-fetched and revolutionary work. As we will see below, the author showed a special interest in the themes of the ideology of the economy, underdevelopment in Latin America and commodity fetishism – issues that still pervade the great economic debates of our time. 

Born in 1931, Hinkelammert lived his childhood under the Nazi regime in Herford, a small town in Germany. Franz said that he was very young at the time, but that he remembered that he used to go with other children to the train station in the city to see the locomotives. On these occasions, he would see the trains carrying the prisoners of the Third Reich pass by. On the locomotives there was a kind of poster with an inscription that said: “We are assured of final victory. We have the best human material”. This message was etched in his memory, surfacing whenever he heard the word “human capital” or other related terms.[I]

The author's intellectual trajectory began in the post-war period, from 1946,
when he came into contact with magazines, books, periodicals and films about the war and the holocaust. An older friend, who had worked as a nurse in the war, had kept many of these materials and, at that moment, lent them to Hinkelammert - every week, he brought five or six books to his house, and so he devoted a lot of time to these readings, even more than than the regular school. The taste for books, therefore, began when Franz was only 15 years old, which certainly influenced the high degree of erudition of his intellectual production.

Later, after spending a year with the Jesuits, Franz Hinkelammert decided to enter university to study economics. Due to the flexibility of the curricula of the three universities he attended, Hinkelammert ended up taking several courses in areas such as public law, philosophy and theology. He did graduate work at the East European Institute of the Free University of Berlin, where he studied the Soviet Union and the socialist camp and earned a doctorate. In his university education, Hinkelammert delved into the classic works of Marxism and the Soviet economies of Eastern Europe. During this period, he sought to analyze what he interpreted as an implicit theological dimension in the idea of ​​socialist planning. 

After completing his doctorate, Hinkelammert was hired by one of his professors to work as an assistant and researcher. Under these circumstances, he turned to studying topics such as commodity fetishism and growth rates in the socialist economy; the relationship between ideology and economics in Soviet thought; between others. The reflections developed at that time were later incorporated into his work Criticism of the utopian reason,[ii] launched in 1984.

Franz Hinkelammert's interest in Latin America goes back to his youth, when he had already read about Simón Bolívar. After finishing his studies at the Free University of Berlin, the author began to look for possible jobs in one of the Latin American countries. In 1963, he was invited to represent the Konrad Adenauer Foundation – linked to Christian democracy – at the Catholic University of Chile, thus beginning his trajectory in that country, which would end in 1973 with the military coup of Augusto Pinochet. 

In Chile, Franz Hinkelammert came into contact with Liberation Theology and dependency theory, taught at the Catholic University of Chile and at ILADES (Latin American Institute of Doctrine and Social Studies), in addition to being a member of CEREN (Center for Studies of the National Economic Reality), a group linked to the Catholic University. During this period, the author also worked in political and trade union training centers outside the academic field. 

Specifically with regard to political action, Hinkelammert participated in the debates within the Christian Democratic Party of Chile (PDC) that led to the creation of the Unitary Popular Action Movement.[iii] Along with MAPU, Hinkelammert was part of the Popular Unity, a left-wing coalition created to contest the 1970 elections, which brought Salvador Allende to the presidency of the Republic of Chile. In this way, the economist clashed with the social doctrine of the Church and especially with the anticommunism of some of the main ideologues of Christian democracy, such as the Jesuit priest Roger Vekemans.

With regard to contact with dependency theory, Hinkelammert personally met Theotônio dos Santos, André Gunder Frank and other theorists of this current who made up the CESO (Center for Socioeconomic Studies) at the University of Chile. In the wake of debates with these authors, she launched three fundamental works on the ideologies of development, as well as the causes of underdevelopment in Latin America. Are they: Dialectic of uneven development; Ideologies of Development and Dialectics of History e The Latin American underdevelopment - A case of capitalist development.[iv]

In 1973, after the coup that overthrew the Popular Unit and consolidated the military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet, Franz Hinkelammert took refuge in the German embassy as a guest and then returned to his country of origin through an agreement between the nations. After a few years in his native country, he returned to Latin America, this time to Costa Rica, when he was invited to work as a professor and researcher in the Degree in Sociology at the Conselho Superior Universitário CentroAmericano (CSUCA). 

Franz arrived in Costa Rica in 1976 and that same year he helped found the Ecumenical Department of Investigations (DEI), an independent organization that established itself as a theological center for multidisciplinary studies and analysis of Latin American reality.[v] Its creation dates back to a series of debates held between 1972 and 1973 by Franz Hinkelammert, Hugo Assmann and Pablo Richard, in Popular Unity Chile. The Department was founded by these three theologians, aligning itself with the common perspective and objectives of Liberation Theology.

Alongside Hugo Assmann, Jung Mo Sung and Wim Dierckxsens, Franz Hinkelammert articulated a theoretical field at DEI especially dedicated to the critique of political economy. One of their main concerns was the analysis and critique of neoliberalism from a theological perspective, through which they conceptualized that the market, in capitalist society, presented itself as a god - a false god who was the target of idolatry, such as the golden calf idolized by the people of Israel in the desert.[vi] To this end, these theologians mobilized Marxist formulations such as alienation, ideology and fetishism.

In 1977 Franz published The ideological weapons of death, one of his most famous works.[vii] The book is divided into at least two parts, the first of which is devoted to the analysis of Marx's fetishism. In later chapters, Hinkelammert deals with the theme of life and death in Christianity, in general, and more specifically in Catholic thought in the terms in which it was presented at the time – in Catholic social doctrine and Liberation Theology. The two parts are related to the extent that fetishism is seen as a theoretical justification of the ideological phenomena verified in the field of religion, such as the author presents in the second part of the work. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Franz Hinkelammert began to dedicate himself to a new set of issues – linked to the new context, marked by the triumph of neoliberalism and globalization. Thus, he paid special attention to themes related to humanism, the condition of the subject and human rights. Nevertheless, the perspective of Liberation Theology articulated with the critique of capitalist society, the relationship between life and death, and the problem of the market (and idolatry), continued to play a structuring role in his work. 

Thus, on the occasion of his passage, I intended to briefly demonstrate the trajectory and content of Franz Hinkelammert's intellectual production, little known and discussed in academic circles and in the spaces of debates of the Brazilian left. It should be remembered that today we face a fascism closely linked to the Christian perspective of the theology of prosperity, professed by a large part of the population and institutionally defended by the neo-Pentecostal churches.

In this sense, it is useful to recover the writings and history of Liberation Theology agents, whose content is not only reformist, but revolutionary. The work of Franz Hinkelammert is an excellent object for this exercise and can be accessed virtually through the collection created by Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas: (accessed on 17 Jul. 2023). May our teacher finally rest and may his legacy live on in history!

* Adriana Carneiro Marinho is a master's student in economic history at USP.


[I] NADAL, Estela F.; SILNIK, Gustavo D. Conversations with Franz Hinkelammert – 1st ed. Buenos Aires: CICCUS; CLACSO, 2012, p. 95.

[ii] HINKELAMMERT, FJ A critique of the utopian reason. San Jose, Costa Rica: DEI, 1984.

[iii] The Unitarian Popular Action Movement (MAPU) was founded in 1969 as a dissidence of part of the Catholic left of the PDC. The driving force behind its founding was the Marxist youth cell of the Christian Democratic Youth (JDC). A reconstruction of MAPU's trajectory can be found in VALENZUELA, Esteban, Christianity, revolution and renewal in Chile. The unitary popular action movement (MAPU) 1969-1989, Universitat de València Servei de Publicacions, Valencia, Spain, 2011.

[iv] HINKELAMMERT, FJ Dialectic of uneven development. Santiago de Chile, special issue of Cuademos de la Realidad Nacional magazine, n° 6, 1970; Ideologies of Development and Dialectics of History. Buenos Aires: Editorial Paidós, 1970; THE LATINOAMERICAN SUBDESARROLL – A case of capitalist development. Buenos Aires: Editorial Paidos, 1970.

[v] PÉREZ, Claudio J.; MURPHY, John W. The work of the Ecumenical Department of Investigations and Latin America. Bogotá: Revista Comunicación, Cultura y Política, 2013, p. 12. Available at:

[vi] The worship of the golden calf is a passage from Exodus 32. At this point in the narrative, the people of Israel no longer trusted Yahweh and Moses, encouraging Aaron to create an idol that would lead them back to Egypt. The golden calf is used in popular language as a synonym for a false god.

[vii] HINKELAMMERT, FJ The ideological weapons of death. Costa Rica, San Jose: EDUCA–DEI, 1977.

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