Towards a Theology of Labour – Theo Pirker (1949)

[Theo Pirker was born in 1922 to a Catholic family. He came to addressing theological questions after Germany’s defeat in the war, in which he lost a foot and became an opponent of Nazism. He founded the Catholic magazine Ende und Anfang, a biweekly until 1949. It distinguished itself from the Frankfurter Hefte (published by Walter Dirks, a Catholic and SPD politician) by its internationalism, through its close connections with French periodical Esprit, it extensively covered colonial revolutionary developments. In Pirker’s academic life as a sociologist, he published books about the Moscow show trials, the SPD after Hitler, and the industrialisation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). He was also at one time involved as a German representative to the International Committee of the Fourth International, having a deeply antagonistic attitude towards the British Trotskyist Gerry Healy (of whom he said: ‘A beefy little Irishman, who always filled me with terror. I thought with dread of what would happen if he were to take power.’)

The following essay was first published in Frankfurter Hefte in 1949, when Pirker was twenty-seven years old. In reflecting on the essay forty years later, he stated that ‘In writing this article, I was deeply influenced by young Marx. It could have almost been a piece by young Marx if he had become a Catholic.’ His other theoretical influences in this article were the French Dominicans, worker priests and the JOC (Jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne) movement. Although the article received a poor reception in Germany and was not read, the French Dominicans invited him to France to discuss the essay. The translation is according to the reprinted text in Sozial- und Linkskatholizismus: Erinnerung, Orienterung, Befreiung (Frankfurt am Main, 1990), pp. 149–66. Much of the biographical information has been drawn from the interview by Wolfgang Schroeder of Pirker in the same book.]

Part 1

The divine commandment to humanity remains irrefutable (and nothing does or will revoke it): to subdue the Earth. The consequence of this divine commandment cannot be evaded: to make the earth subject with pain, with effort – in labour.

The foundation for suffering in labour is the Fall. The human being who grasped the idea of becoming like God had to appropriate the ‘main characteristic’ of God, his omnipotence and omniscience. Hence he had to aim to appropriate the power of all creation and with the appropriation, to perfect the knowledge of all created things. If the likeness with God is to be complete, he had to attempt to bring the entirety of creation under his authority. Only when all the power of creation and hence all the knowledge would be his, would there be the human characteristics of mastery and knowledge of the ‘substance’ of humanity that does not come from outside, but from himself.

However, at the moment that man grasped the idea of becoming like God, or rather, the moment he gave himself up to the deception that he could become like God, the paradisiacal state collapsed.

By trying to give the entirety of creation a foreign focus, man was thrown out of the true order of things at a stroke: he was no longer creation among creations, one among equals (in spite of all diversity), he instead became a stranger. As he became a stranger to creation, he conceived himself as an individual. The alienness of the Earth increased to hostility in man’s endeavours to wholly subdue this alien Earth. From this, there resulted only one possibility: to make the fruits of earth his own with sweat and toil, in labour. The illusion of an easy way to become like God – with one step, in one swoop –, this Luciferian illusion was immediately destroyed.

The second reason for the collapse of the paradisiacal state was that man overlooked the endlessness of God. He forgot the endlessness of divine power and the endlessness of divine knowledge and he believed that through the accumulation of power and aggregation of knowledge, he could become like the endless God. Hence he set out on an endless road, in which he had to collapse, because on this road, the endless power and greatness of God encounters humanity in a creation (which is finite, but necessarily surpasses the dimensions of man) in its constant resistance, and hence, the resistance of the Earth. The path has been taken, it must be followed, but this resistance is what makes ineffective all human victories in labour that amount to the complete conquest of creation.

The labouring man does not want to grasp this defeat, because he works from the compulsion to fully secure his singular existence of which he has become conscious. Absolute security and hence absolute testimony to his ‘originality’, his individuality, is the utopian aim of his labour. By not understanding himself as a servant of God’s command, but rather as lord of the Earth, his aim is not making the Earth subject, but its enslavement. As man wants to persist absolutely in his originality and labour for the sake of this originality, however this originality is annihilated in the realisation of labour. The I that wants itself loses itself willingly to the object. This labouring fate of humanity is however not a Sisyphusian fate that repeats itself to absurdity and folly; this process of labour does not mean for humanity that their power is consumed by the Earth, that they are being devoured by it. No, it is a meaningful destiny – as it points beyond itself – and a meaningful process – as it can have a goal.

The result of the process of labour is a new world in which the power of the earth and the compelled or voluntary sacrifices of humanity in labour resides and confers a new status. Because plainly the existence of man is not extinguished in this process of labour, instead only his ‘Adamitic’ existence which stands in the shadow of the Fall. Man is annihilated insofar as he is eager to set a like existence against God; man is annihilated insofar as he makes the I absolute and wants to set it in opposition to God. This existence of man is disproven and ultimately forced into capitulation in the process of labour, daily, hourly, at every moment that needs a handle. 

The form of the labour process brings human originality to failure because human labour is the human division of labour and this division of labour devours originality, the particularity of man. The more man labours and the more fanatically he does so to secure his particularity, the more the division of labour advances. Ultimately it threatens to eliminate the particularities of the labouring so that their power becomes thoroughly interchangeable. The propped-up individual character of his labour is specious: it proves itself as a result of the division of labour and not as the result of his originality.

Labour is always directed towards a goal. Yet the idea that man strives to represent through his labour becomes alien to him. The product is therefore not what he wants – he wants to present himself in it – but the product is – through its alienness – a testimony to his defeat.

Hence the more active man is in order to present and secure his originality, the sharper is the demonstration of his defeat. 

At the same time, the meaning of the process becomes apparent: man cannot assert himself as an other against God, who confronts him in the process of labour as the active force of the world and who reveals Himself to humanity in His singularity. This consciousness can be imparted to man in the history of human labour, because labour will make his defeat clear and labour will hence allow him to recognise the authority, the power and the command of God. In labour he must learn that he can exist under the authority, in the power and under the command of God. In labour he can even try to release himself from loneliness and isolation and restore the disturbed order and the broken unity with God. Labour is correctly understood as towards the restoration of this unity – the sole possibility – but not labour as such, rather the labour that man takes up for himself in a particular way as a Christian.


Unity with God, that the Christian can obtain through Christ and in Christ, means freedom, and if freedom should be achieved, then should the condition of fatigue, of sickness, of death be overcome, should even the separation between mankind and nature be overcome? The historical process itself should hence be at an end. A tremendous ‘utopia’! Can the Christian profess this utopia?

The command for the subdual of the earth fundamentally sets no limits for the Christian, his hopes for the end state of human history are limitless – infinite like God, who constantly encounters him on the way to subduing the world. The eschatological mystery approaches the Christian in history. He and his labour are what shortens the time to the final state. It is an error to believe that the Christian could overcome the world in a ‘mystical’ way or has already overcome it in ‘mystery’. He has to overcome it in labour in a particular way, in the epoch of the mystery that has broken out, in the aeon of the Eucharist, and the particular labour of the Christian has as a distinguishing characteristic that he knowingly and voluntarily overcomes the Earth, in faith, aware of his weakness, aware of the commandment and of the sin and aware of the law of the cross. He can only overcome the world through the process of labour and not without it because this process is the historicity of humanity, just as the command of the subdual of the Earth is the commandment of historical time. The historicity of man demonstrates itself in the process of labour as the weakness of man, but this, his weakness, is his absolute possibility. There isn’t a Christian possibility outwith history, outwith the process of labour because there is no possibility of human existence and human becoming-conscious outwith the process of labour. The Christian in this respect cannot identify with Christ. Christ as the meaning and power of the world is free, the Christian as a bearer of the cross becomes free in Him, who will come, and is only free as Christ always comes in an unfathomable way and is with him at all times. In the Eucharist, the Christian anticipates the aeon of unity with God, the demise of history, of time, of space, of wearying and of death. In an unfathomable way, he is not living on the other side of death, but in death (and in the promise of resurrection). In the accomplishment of faith, he comprehends that it is meaningful for him to take difficulty, sickness and death upon himself, in order to realise the labour of subduing the earth.

The Christian hence cannot profess that utopia. Only a blind heroism of labour will declare the obvious failure of human labour attempts through utopian dreams of a future, painless condition for working people. The utopias demonstrate themselves as reflections of originality, as growths of the absolute will for ‘freedom’ and they are also mirages of original desire if they are collectivist, here originality is only seemingly sacrificed for appearances; in truth it is also about the securing of originality, independence. However, this is the existence in Christ: to sacrifice yourself completely, to sacrifice yourself really to a reality – and that in the process of labour and of history – to sacrifice yourself in obedience. The erroneous belief that the Christian can overcome the Earth in a ‘mystical’ way is based on the view that knowledge of God and the world is given to the Christian in a detached way, as a ‘pure’ way of experience, as if the Spirit does not blow through things and people and history, but is unattached and unexpected. The recognition of God and the world is not a process outside reality and hence outwith the process of labour. The human spirit requires its object in order to become conscious of the world and itself. However, the human and the world transform into the object of human recognition essentially through the process of labour. This objective world does not reach further than the world of human labour and everything that lies outside the labour process can only become the object of human recognition in analogy to the reality of the world of labour.

Here, as overall, labour is in no way only understood as pure ‘manual labour’. Even the labouring mind experiences the meaning of the labour process most terribly, Only when he annihilates his originality, when he hates himself, when he himself becomes an object, when he ‘lives as if dead’, does he comprehend himself. To take the difficulty of becoming-conscious upon yourself, to take the difficulty of comprehension upon yourself, is the highest form of accomplishment in human labour. Man can only meaningfully realise it in the discipleship of the Crucified. By the human mind grasping the paradox, that death is the fear of labour, the world is torn open in the cross.

This, therefore, is the conclusion: Human history is the history of human labour. The historical world of the mind is the comprehension of the world, that is grasped as matter, as the result of the processes of labour. Through labour, man subdues the world. By subduing the world, he himself becomes a product of his labour. He can only understand himself by becoming an object himself in his labour. Hence he learns in labour the cross of the world, the meaning of the labour process: to give yourself up. He can only realise this – now consciously – in the discipleship of Jesus Christ.

Part 2

History as the history of human labour is as much the history of human obedience as it is of human disobedience. Nevertheless, in no case can man evade the divine commandment to subdue the earth, because it is not only an order by which he is compelled, but also a desire that wants to have its fulfilment. In the history of the human world of labour, the disobedience of humanity demonstrates itself in the constantly repeated attempt to escape from the fruits of labour, difficulty, sickness and death, and hence escape from the cross. However, since the human world of labour is self-contained, its result is always a sum of products based on a fixed sum of working capacity, and with it a sum of consumed human energy, of human victims of labour and hence a fixed sum of difficulty, debilitation, suffering, sickness and death. Nothing can be negotiated from this marked sum. If the aim of labour is to be achieved, it must be done.

It is a fallacy of the mechanistic spirit to believe that the mechanisation of labour must have a reduction in the pain of labour as a consequence. Only the product rises with the mechanisation of labour, with the rise in production, the consumption and deterioration of resources increases, and with this increase, the resistance of the Earth rises against its total subdual, and so the mechanisation of labour leads to furious struggle as a consequence that takes on enormous proportions, and both sides, the labouring as much as the Earth, are dealt ever more violent and terrifying wounds. The mechanisation of labour leads only to a seeming subdual of the Earth. It is only when labour’s reckoning is acknowledged, when humanity is prepared, collectively and individually, to bear the sum of suffering falling on them, that the subdual of the Earth will be possible and fruitful.

The pure increase of the product in no way leads to the goals that production sets itself to fulfil, namely to satisfy a fixed sum of demands limited in time and scale, because during production and through production, new types of demands emerge. Yes, the expansion of the world of labour may make the new part of the world of labour appear as alien to the human mind, to grasp and subdue in turn as a new task. The ignorance of the Earth and the new territories of the world of labour is, however, the deepest reason for human suffering in labour. If man were aware, his toils would be identical with power, with the laws and commandments, identical with the world of God.

Man only becomes aware through suffering, by taking up the cross of labour with all its consequences for himself. An optimistic epoch can temporarily veil humanity from this fundamental law of human existence. However, by man veiling himself from this fundamental law, his awareness does not progress, although at the same time his production advances. His idea of the world does not come close to the world in which he lives, with the world of his labour. His existence becomes progressively illusionary: the contradictions between imagination, will and reality mount up to such an extent that his existence gets flung from one crisis to another – the law of sin frustrates the ideality of the world of the ‘pure’ spirit.


A man can try to free ‘themselves’ from the law of the cross, by this he is striving to offload the consequences of labour, difficulty, sickness, death – the cross –, onto others. Hence human history becomes the history of attempts to pass on the suffering as a necessary consequence of labour onto others. Man degrades his fellow men into instruments of his will, into slaves. There is no other way of passing on pain aside from this. All more humane forms are merely pretence, they always have slavery as their fundamental form, the objectification of fellow men.

However, the perspective that one can offload suffering onto fellow men as slaves is an illusion. The slaves, who have become compelled to directly subdue the earth by their labour, obtain through labour all the power and knowledge of their world of labour, and the slave owners are merely the ones who put this power in their hands through their illusory belief in an existence without labour, and hence suffering. If the slaves raise the justice and order of their world of labour to social law, that is revolution. And it is the revolution that now heaps suffering, harshly and relentlessly, upon the groups who wanted to escape it, who had devoted themselves to the pretence of the enjoyment of the fruits of labour without effort and without pain.  They will be broken in the revolution, devoured, and their nothingness, their true position in the world of labour will be found guilty. The revolution always makes the law of the world of labour visible afresh: the order of the pretence of a world without suffering will be abolished by it.

That the system of exploitation and oppression is illusionary is proven from the fact that it can fundamentally never be purely implemented. Absolute slavery, absolute exploitation and oppression would be the absolute destruction of man as a means of labour and therefore the destruction of the world of labour. The system of exploitation and oppression hence turns itself against its own sponsors: the system purely implemented annihilates the foundations of society, – the system not purely implemented annihilates the foundations of society, – the system not purely implemented allows a formidable new power to emerge in the oppressed through revolution.

The way out becomes sought in the attempts to stop the movement of the world of labour, to put the brakes on history, to hold it still in a steady state. This is the impulse of the historyless, who inhabit every system of exploitation and oppression. The oppressors no longer want to encounter God in history, just as much as they no longer want to encounter effort, labour, the law of the cross. And yet it is they whom God encounters most fearsomely, their fate is an enormous testimony to the law and the triumph of the cross.

The Christian, who knows and recognises the cross as the law of the world, cannot knowingly participate in the attempts to offload suffering. It is possible that he is only aware of the law of the cross ‘in itself’, namely that he has sympathy with the suffering of Christ, however, this suffering was a one-off event in the past. Then this Christian knowledge is empty and void, an illusion that can have terrible consequences as they can carry out their own attempts for an existence without suffering and the cross and the enslavement of fellow men, that can even be undertaken in the name of Christ. The reality of the suffering of Christ is historical, but not historical in the sense of the past – that is bourgeois historicity – but in the sense of the real. And in the reality of the suffering of Christ, the suffering of humanity at every hour of their labouring existence is incorporated. This distinguishes the Christian from philosophers, that his truth is living and that this living truth of the cross reaches far beyond the philosophical or theological concept. The vitality of his grasp is because he not only grasps what he wants to grasp – his vindication of his originality – rather he grasps what he doesn’t want to grasp, the destruction of his originality in the law of the cross. The Christian cannot participate in attempts for illusionary ‘orders’ that are built on the suffering of fellow men.

He cannot redeem himself from the guilt of an illusionary existence without suffering as a possessor who gives away. Alms-giving is good and salutary as a demonstration of compassion of men for men at a certain time, in a historical moment so to speak – it is not a possibility to order the world in a Christian sense, least of all if it is based on the idea of redemption from the cross. There is only one possibility for the Christian: love. Love wants nothing for itself, it gives away itself and what is its – completely. All ‘riches’, if he lets this love work, are flung down into the existence of those who possess nothing, on whom the entire burden of the rich world without suffering falls, into the existence of those who suffer commensurate to their labour, incommensurate to their needs. The Christian should take up the cross of the world in the footsteps of Christ – where is another example for human history? – in the love of God and of humanity, knowingly for the sake of the commandment of subdual, the law of the cross. He should take this up in freedom. In taking the cross of history upon himself, labouring in sweat and tears, suffering, dying, he affirms history, he fulfils God’s command.

Part 3

Just like the Christian may not escape the cross ‘for himself’, he also cannot affirm slavery ‘for himself’ – he cannot do it anymore. The Pauline possibility of affirming slave existence is no longer a possibility for the Christian in our epoch because he has become aware. To recognise the possibility of the slave existence for oneself means – he knows this now – not only affirming slavery for yourself but also for others. However he is not entitled to make decisions for his neighbours. The Pauline Christian could still affirm the slave existence for himself because he was a solitary existence in hope and in his consciousness towards the world of Antiquity. The modern Christian can no longer carry out this affirmation because he has become a conscious, social existence through the process of history. The social consciousness of modern Christians has its equivalent in the folk consciousness of the Jews. This folk consciousness was destroyed through the consciousness of Pauline solitude. Our modern social consciousness can only be a transnational consciousness and for that the transitional existence of Pauline consciousness was an urgent necessity.

The social consciousness of the Christian is not a collective consciousness. It is the knowledge of individuals of others and of the overarching relations in which he is dependent on others and they are dependent on him. In the social consciousness of the Christian, the individual is not annihilated. What is annihilated is just making individuality absolute, ‘originality’. The modern Christian characteristically has the virtue of solidarity through his historic-social consciousness. What distinguishes him from Pauline Christians is only this historic-social consciousness – but this consciousness distinguishes him considerably. He cannot foist the suffering of history, the suffering of labour onto others; he cannot take it for himself, he can only incorporate the suffering of labour in himself. He is a slave with the divine command to subdue the earth, and when he fulfils this command in labour, he is obedient to God’s commandments. He can only become just in God’s commandment in the organisations of suppressing pain by being a slave. What differentiates him from the other slaves is therefore nothing other than obedience towards the commandment, nothing other than the will to not flee the world of the slaves for himself – becoming a master is denied to him. And by purely accepting the position of the slave, all the power of the slave condition is clearly visible: the Christian existence is hence a revolutionary existence. Revolution means the conscious transformation within the organisations and ‘orders’ of the suppression of suffering. [1]

Yet the revolution is not a means for the Christian to escape from the cross in another way. Only the unbelieving European revolutionary requires this impression. He needs the illusion of a painless human existence because, without this revolutionary optimism, the revolution must appear senseless for him. The Christian takes up the revolution as part of the order of God: to subdue the Earth. For him, the revolution is not an act of will that wants to impose originality. It is an act of will under the cross: obedience. The abolition of the cross is not his goal – how could he want that, because for him the revolution itself is the cross – but the abolition of the ungodly, false pretence of an existence without the cross, that is based upon the exploitation and oppression of men by men. He cannot fulfil the revolutionary command by his original will – that would be private resistance or mere revolt – but only by the power of the position he occupies in the world of labour. By becoming conscious of this position, it is power for him and by affirming it in obedience, revolution becomes a duty for him. He must therefore take up the consequences of this position just as freely. If he tries to cover this necessity with a mystical sheen, he will be knocked down by a day of deception. It would be self-deception, it would be aYet the revolution is not a means for the Christian to escape from the cross in another way. Only the unbelieving European revolutionary requires this impression. He needs the illusion of a painless human existence because, without this revolutionary optimism, the revolution must appear senseless for him. The Christian takes up the revolution as part of the order of God: to subdue the Earth. For him, the revolution is not an act of will that wants to impose originality. It is an act of will under the cross: obedience. The abolition of the cross is not his goal – how could he want that, because for him the revolution itself is the cross – but the abolition of the ungodly, false pretence of an existence without the cross, that is based upon the exploitation and oppression of men by men. He cannot fulfil the revolutionary command by his original will – that would be private resistance or mere revolt – but only by the power of the position he occupies in the world of labour. By becoming conscious of this position, it is power for him and by affirming it in obedience, revolution becomes a duty for him. He must therefore take up the consequences of this position just as freely. If he tries to cover this necessity with a mystical sheen, he will be knocked down by a day of deception. It would be self-deception, it would be a lie: through the reality of the cross, through the simple, unconcealed suffering of millions of human brothers, who, guilty or innocent, give painful witness of the law of the cross and therefore of the sinful failure of Christians, because the cross is judgment.

To not desire to fulfil this vast demand of the followers of Christ is the characteristic way of transgression for the followers in our time. The characteristic mortal sins of today’s Christians are no longer private sins, but they are public, political sins. Upon these sins, the charitable cloak of secrecy does not fall, the light of the political world shines on them, the light of history. The modern world in its public sphere is theological in a particular way, theology is no longer one science among others. God does not sneak in ‘from behind’ in the system and in the activities of humanity, rather He is at the forefront, His nearness scarcely bearable before humanity. The law of the cross becomes visible not only after a series of ‘good’ years, not as the delayed consequence of private sins (that are more often weaknesses). It is the immediate, present law, it is only possible for pharaonic blindness not to see it.

Through the subdual under the law of the cross in the reality of history, the Christian occupies the social order and the revolutionary existence in the highest degree of purity. In this way he becomes a servant of the revolution, everything is lacking in him for the demagogue of revolt. This specific position within the revolution is his particular power. Where this power becomes force in the execution of the revolution as the self-defense of the exploited, he is not permitted to take this as a means for the increase of his originality, but only as a means to constitute universal justice as law. Brotherhood cannot be abolished by him becoming a bearer of brotherly power. And only the power of the solidary position entitles him to conscious, changing engagement. The actual obedience towards domination from above is null and void, because all power is below, in humans, in their consciences: all the power of history, every possibility of labouring society. The state as a fixed power is no longer the counterpart for the Christian who has freely taken up revolution. It is a product of his free will.

History has reached a stage in which man comes to it as a bearer of history, and because he comes to it, the law of the cross, the law of his labouring existence, becomes sharply clear. All attempts to overlook this carry the stench of either the ludicrous or of the satanic – to know God and be against him. The pseudo-worlds of a painless and crossless existence are crumbling – their collapse is judgement. They will be shattered by the reality of the cross. The cross convicts them of their emptiness in social reality. The revolution can only be a revolution against lies, in which not a whisper of pretense remains. Knowing his weaknesses, the Christian knows that the total revolution is the revolution in permanence: the constant struggle against making absolute relative orders of society, ideas and norms – to set a greatness of human originality against the greatness of God. The Christian revolution must be a permanent revolution against every system of exploitation and oppression, against the deification of the human spirit.

This moment, in which Christians are constantly called to fight this struggle, which calls to them to submit to the commandment and use their reason, to live as if dead, this moment is none other than that in which the Christian, believing, hoping, loving has been called to serve, once and for all. To fulfill the divine commandment through revolution is the great, positive possibility of humanity – in historical consciousness, there is no other.


[1] The reader may adhere to this definition when revolution is spoken of in the following in a way which is offensive to customary consciousness. Vast breakthroughs accompanied by violence are not excluded in this definition but this vastness or violence is not what is meant. All the more, the chaotic outbreak of unfettered violence is not meant. What is meant is the desired and responsible transformation of the structure by human beings, which of course is bound to the breaking of the resistance of the beneficiaries of the existing order, whatever dimension of life this resistance and its breaking take place in. However, the problem that arises when a Christian comes into a situation in relation to responsible common actions, hence in the execution of real history, because the circumstances or the partners expect actions that the Christian may not do, is not discussed in this essay. It does not move into the realm of casuistry.

[Translated by R. V.]