The 1936 Constitution of the USSR contains two biblical verses:

He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.

The first is clear enough, being drawn from 2 Thessalonians 3:10. But the second is a little more obscure, although it comes originally from Acts 4:35. Clearly, the appearance of such texts in the Constitution is not by chance. So how did they end up there?

A hint may be found in the slight obscurity of the origins of the second text, for it is not exactly the same as that of Acts 4:35. That hint suggests a unique exegetical path that winds its way from the Bible, through Lenin and the slogans of the early Bolshevik government in the USSR, to none other than Joseph Stalin. Let me trace that path.

I begin with the text from 2 Thessalonians: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’. Among the Bolsheviks, Lenin was the first to use it. It was 1918, during the famine brought about by the shortage of grain through the disruption to rail transport by the First World War and the White Armies of the Civil War. With the grain shortage came massive speculation by the profiteers – kulaks in the countryside and business owners in the cities. In that context, Lenin addressed a group of workers in Petrograd:

‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’. ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’ – every toiler understands that. Every worker, every poor and even middle peasant, everybody who has suffered need in his lifetime, everybody who has ever lived by his own labour, is in agreement with this. Nine-tenths of the population of Russia are in agreement with this truth. In this simple, elementary and perfectly obvious truth lies the basis of socialism, the indefeasible source of its strength, the indestructible pledge of its final victory (Collected Works, volume 27, pp. 391-2).

As the Civil War raged on and shortages continued, the text from 2 Thessalonians became a major feature of Agitprop. It featured on posters plastered throughout town and country. And it led to the Metropolitan of Moscow, Aleksandr Vvedensky, to observe:

When you say you are for the principle of work, I remind you of the slogan, ‘he who does not work shall not eat.’ I have seen this in a number of different cities on revolutionary posters. I am just upset that there was no reference to the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Thessalonians, from where the slogan is taken (Vvedensky in Lunacharsky, Religia i prosveshchenie, 1985, p. 193).

So it should be no surprise that Stalin should make much use of this text – with Lenin’s blessing – and that it should appear in the Soviet Constitution of 1936.

What about the second text from the Constitution: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work’.

I suggest that it is a reinterpretation of Acts 4:35 in light of 2 Thessalonians 3:10. This reinterpretation was undertaken by the erstwhile theological scholar and avid student of the Bible, Joseph Stalin. Let us begin with Acts itself:

They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

The context is the brief account of early Christian communism, in which everything was held in common and no-one had private possessions (see also Acts 2). Everyone would put whatever wealth they had into the common property and then it was distributed according to need. I do not wish to go into the long history of the various interpretations of this passage, save to point out that Acts 4:35 eventually became a socialist slogan, ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’. The influence of Engels’s argument for revolutionary Christianity had an influence here, as did Marx’s use of the slogan.

Yet, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 does not use this version of the slogan. Instead, it has ‘to each according to his work’. The exegetical work of Stalin is responsible. In texts leading up to the constitution (a revision of the one from 1924), Stalin interprets the text in light of what was by then a well-established distinction between socialism and communism. Socialism became the first stage of communism, which would eventually – albeit without a specified time frame – become fully fledged communism. Indeed, after the frenetic and profoundly disrupting drives for industrialisation, collectivisation and socialisation of economic and social life in the late 1920s and 1930s, the government announced that socialism had been achieved in the Soviet Union. But communism was still to come.

So Stalin distinguished between two slogans, one appropriate for socialism and the other for communism. Under socialism, the appropriate slogan was ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work’. Under communism, it would be ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. The first slogan was clearly a combination of the texts from 2 Thessalonians and Acts 4. Not only does one need to work in order to live (targeted at capitalists and the idle rich), but one also works according to ability and is recompensed in light of the work done.

But what does this mean in practice? It means people will be paid according to the labour they have provided. It means different pay scales (within reason) in terms of skills, type of labour, and contribution to the overall good of the socialist project. It also means that one should take responsibility for one’s labour and stay in the same job for a while. This is far from the idea of ‘equalitarianism’, under which ‘everybody would get the same pay, an equal quantity of meat and an equal quantity of bread, would wear the same clothes and receive the same goods in the same quantities—such a socialism is unknown to Marxism’ (Stalin, Works, volume 13, p. 120).

Is communism different? In one respect it is, for this is the time when ‘labour has been transformed from a means of subsistence into the prime want of man, into voluntary labour for society’ (p. 121). Yet, communism is like socialism in that it does not fall into the trap of individualist equalitarianism in relation to labour. One provides labour according to ability and is given what one needs. Obviously, the abilities differ, as do the needs – depending on one stage in life, whether one has children or not, whether one is sick or healthy.

Until then, the socialist version of the two biblical texts remained in force:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.

Three features of a Bolshevik:

If we really want to maintain and develop a Bolshevik tempo … the main thing is to have the passionate Bolshevik desire to master technique.

And when we have done that we shall develop a tempo of which we dare not even dream at present. (Works, volume 13, pp. 43, 44, 75)

For some reason, this reminds me of that great Australian film, Children of the Revolution.

CR

For some time now I have been pondering, and asking advice, concerning a Chinese name for myself. I am after a proper Chinese name, rather than a version that sounds like my name: 罗兰博尔.

The family name was little trouble, since a reasonably common Chinese family name is 薄 (Bó).

However, the personal name took more work. A breakthrough came on a recent trip to Shanghai and some very good advice.

‘Roland’ means ‘mighty in the land’, or ‘powerful in the land’.

A good Chinese character for ‘powerful’, ‘strong’ and so on is 强 (Qiáng). The rest should be easy, I thought. Just add 国 (Guó)  and you have 强国 (Qiángguó): powerful in the country.

Now came the good advice: this form draws attention to me, as being the one who is powerful and so on. But it is not really the done thing to make such grandiose claims on one’s own behalf. So far better to have 国强 (Guóqiáng), since this means a powerful, strong country. The emphasis is on the country, not me.

So my full Chinese name is now 薄国强: Bó Guóqiáng.

One of curious pleasures of getting older is that I become more and more optimistic, about life, the world, everything. However, this is not as it should be. Men my age tend to become cranky, realising that they are actually mortal. So what should I do? I am pondering the need to practice becoming a cranky old man. They say you need practice something new only for a month before it becomes a habit.

International Critical Thought has just published issue 5.1. I am taken with a couple of articles from the issue. The first is by Chen Ping, called ‘Has Capitalism Defeated Socialism Yet?—Kornai’s Turnaround on Liberalism, and the Evaporation of Myths about Eastern Europe’. The abstract reads:

The Hungarian economist Janos Kornai has warned the West of the possibility of a reversal of liberalization in Eastern Europe. He advocates a new policy of containment aimed at countries such as Russia and China. This prompts us to investigate the truth concerning the transition in Eastern Europe. After 1990 the West recalculated economic data from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (FSUEE thereafter) before 1990, for creating an illusion that “shock therapy” had made progress in FSUEE. However, the Eastern Europeans including the Hungarians, who were enthusiastic for liberalization from socialism, soon discovered that joining the European Union (EU) was damaging the interests of the majority of people in Eastern Europe, while Western Europeans also came increasingly to oppose the financial burdens imposed by EU enlargement and immigration inflows. The short-sighted transition strategy carried out in Eastern Europe and the preoccupation with geopolitical interests have in fact exacerbated the EU’s economic crisis, triggering a civil war in Ukraine and causing Russia to become disillusioned with the West. Kornai’s theory of soft-budget constraints as well as his anti-Keynesian policies during the transition recession, is responsible for the economic downturn triggered by rapid liberalization in Eastern Europe. The reversal of the liberalization trend in Eastern Europe and the change in the mass psychology of Eastern Europeans towards the West together constitute an important rebuff to utopian capitalist thinking in China. Has capitalism defeated socialism, as Western propaganda claims? The success of China’s autonomous open-door policy and the failure of Eastern Europe’s unilateral opening indicate that the collapse of the FSUEE occurred mainly for political rather than economic reasons.

The second is an article review by Tony Andréani & Rémy Herrera, called ‘Which Economic Model for China?—Review of La Voie chinoise by Michel Aglietta and Guo Bai’. In their conclusion they observe:

Our analytical framework being different from that of Michel Aglietta and Guo Bai (2012), whose work is welcome, we interpret the Chinese reality differently. It seems to us that, in China, the socialist road has not been abandoned. At present, the public sector is gaining ground over the private sector—public companies are acquiring many private firms. Besides, the idea that the Chinese policy, including economic policy, can be explained by the will of a hierarchical, disciplined Communist Party to remain in power and, for this, to meet primarily the interests of a state bureaucracy that it dominates and on which it relies, does not seem to correspond to reality. First, it is quite normal that a party claiming to be itself in the line of a revolution seeks to remain in power in order to achieve the goals it thinks are of people’s interest. Second, we must look closely at the efforts of self-reform that this party has started. It is not afraid to expose its own deficiencies concerning its internal democracy, as well as the reforms of its political system step by step. Under these conditions, we can have a different reading of the Chinese political system. That said, there is—this is what we believe—a hidden struggle (not an open one, as during the Maoist era) inside the Party, universities and research centers, intellectual circles and even, more discreetly, within local media, between two political lines, namely, a social-democrat orientation (some people just say “liberal”) and a socialist one. The latter is attributed in part to the “new left,” which is placed in a certain continuity with the Maoist legacy. The socialist way far outweighs the social-democrat way in the strength of its argument—let’s add that, if it were to dominate, it would also experience its own internal struggles. In a sense, we can rejoice at this: nothing is worse in social discourse than monolithic thinking.

The Occupy Movement – with its slogan ‘we are the 99 per cent’ – may perhaps not be willing to acknowledge the origin of that idea. But it comes from none other than Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili, more commonly known as Joseph Stalin. In his lengthy report to the sixteenth congress, in 1930, of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), he observes:

The share of the kulaks and urban capitalists was in 1927-28—8.1 per cent; in 1928-29—6.5 per cent; in 1929-30—1.8 per cent.

Meanwhile, what was happening to the 99 per cent, or more exactly, the 98.2 per cent?

All this taken together, plus the introduction of the seven-hour day for over 830,000 industrial workers (33.5 per cent), plus the introduction of the five-day week for over a million and a half industrial workers (63.4 per cent), plus the extensive network of rest homes, sanatoria and health resorts for workers, to which more than 1,700,000 workers have gone during the past three years—all this creates conditions of work and life for the working class that enable us to rear a new generation of workers who are healthy and vigorous, who are capable of raising the might of the Soviet country to the proper level and of protecting it with their lives from attacks by its enemies. (Applause.)

It is not surprising that the workers and peasants in our country are living fairly well on the whole, that general mortality has dropped 36 per cent, and infant mortality 42.5 per cent, below the pre-war level, while the annual increase in population in our country is about three million. (Applause.)

As regards the cultural conditions of the workers and peasants, in this sphere too we have some achievements, which, however, cannot under any circumstances satisfy us, as they are still small. Leaving out of account workers’ clubs of all kinds, village reading rooms, libraries and abolition of illiteracy classes, which this year are being attended by 10,500,000 persons, the situation as regards cultural and educational matters is as follows. This year elementary schools are being attended by 11,638,000 pupils; secondary schools—1,945,000; industrial and technical, transport and agricultural schools and classes for training workers of ordinary skill—333,100; secondary technical and equivalent trade schools—238,700; colleges, general and technical—190,400. All this has enabled us to raise literacy in the U.S.S.R. to 62.6 per cent of the population, compared with 33
per cent in pre-war times.

The chief thing now is to pass to universal, compulsory elementary education. I say the “chief” thing, because this would be a decisive step in the cultural revolution. (Works, volume 12, pp. 301, 308-9)

Yes, this is Stalin’s definition of ‘cultural revolution.’

Changes are afoot at the Bible and Critical Theory journal. Specifically, in 2016 there will be two new managing editors: Caroline Blyth and Robert Myles, from the University of Auckland. They both blog at the Auckland theology site from time to time. Meanwhile, through 2015, they will be working with the current editors on getting the two issues of volume 11 through the ropes. Ah yes, you can check out the latest issue of the journal at the website.

With this development, I can safely say that Auckland has become the nerve centre for innovative biblical studies in New Zealand – having previously opined that the honour belonged to Otago in Dunedin. Sorry, Dunedin, but the yellow jersey has gone to another team.