How does one come to understand China? Many are those who wish to do so, especially in light of China’s growing global influence. I am not so interested in the motivations for seeking to understand China, ranging all the way from the personal to the geopolitical, although that motivation may colour one’s approach. Instead, I am interested in the ways such understanding is sought.

For some, language is the key that opens the door. With Chinese language, one is able to enter a people and their culture, opening up communication, literature, philosophy, belief and much more. To a limited extent, this is true, for engaging and studying in translation always presents a barrier to understanding. But language is not enough.

For others, the Chinese classics provide the way to understand the place. You may focus on the traditional ‘four books and five classics’ (四书五经) , from before the unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BCE), or on the many texts gathered until the end of the last dynasty, the Qing, in 1912. Again, there is some truth in this approach, especially in light of the way the Classics are restudied and reinterpreted at every important turn in Chinese history – as is the case now.

For others still Confucius provides the way into China, if not each country deeply influenced by Confucianism. ‘The four books and five classics’ are themselves from this tradition, with the former containing some material attributed to Confucius along with subsequent commentary and elaboration, and the latter containing other material in the tradition. Once again, such study is important, but does not provide the sole key to modern China.

Yet more possibilities are proposed, whether Daoism, or some mystical notion of the ‘East’, or kinship, or the metaphysics of yin-yang (阴-阳), which found its way into nearly every tradition or school of Chinese thought.

On a different note, some eschew language, culture, philosophy or belief and focus on economics. In this case, the economic models of the ‘Asian Tigers’ – Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea – provide the template for China. Here export focused economies, industrialisation and state intervention led to rapid growth, high incomes and now economic specialisation. Or perhaps Japan provides the model, with its rise to economic pre-eminence under patronage from the United States. This is perhaps the least persuasive option.

Yet, the missing item is Marxism. China remains a socialist country, with the Communist Party being the largest political party in the government. Many continue to dismiss Marxism in China, whether in terms of a repressive and inadequate ideology or as empty words in which no-one ‘believes’ any longer. This is a great a mistake and risks neglecting what is arguably one of the most important factors for understanding China.

Mao Zedong is the point at which one should begin, although it helps to understand Marx, Engels and Lenin, let alone the history of successful socialist revolutions from Russia onwards. Mao’s thought remains the focus of intense study and debate in China today – so much so that the current Chinese president quotes Mao frequently in national and international contexts. Indeed, Xi Jinping has a PhD in Marxism and has recently directed even more resources to the study and fostering of the Marxist tradition and the work of Mao Zedong, so much so that Marxism is now a distinct discipline.

More controversially, Mao Zedong’s acts as a leader are also vital for understanding China. Most debate turns around the role of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which he fostered over the last decade of his life. Was it an aberration, an outburst of revolutionary enthusiasm, or perhaps an effort to restore his sliding power? The semi-official narrative is that the Cultural Revolution set China back in terms of economics, politics and society. The aberration was thus corrected after Mao’s death, when the path of reform was undertaken. However, another and persuasive argument is that it was precisely the Cultural Revolution that set China on its current path. Thoroughly shaking up vested interests in society, from top to bottom, it cleared the ground for China’s rapid rise to becoming the leading global power. This was the shakeup needed to unsettle centuries, if not millennia of social assumptions and cultural norms. And against the orthodoxy that the economy came to a standstill during the Cultural Revolution, it has become clear that the economy actually forged ahead as though released from its shackles.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find a ‘mainstream’ foreign commentator who is even partly aware of the nature of Chinese Marxism. Obviously it entails careful study and a feel for the subject matter. It requires some sense of the meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in all its complexity and apparent paradoxes. And it entails the understanding that in China a ‘Marxist entrepreneur’ is not a contradiction.

Languages, the classics, Confucius – these and more are obviously important for understanding China. But they neglect the crucial factor of Marxism. Many may aspire to becoming a Zhongguotong (中国通) – one who understands and senses at a much deeper level how China ticks. But without Marxism, such an aspiration is mere pretence.

In his extended struggle with Trotsky, Stalin turned to a detailed study of Lenin. Both sought to claim the legacy of Lenin, in what may be called a ‘scriptural dialectic’, in which the texts interpreted can lead to both positions. It was also part of the growing veneration of Lenin (rather sought to negate any veneration of himself). Repeatedly in those arguments, Stalin sought to counter Trotsky’s argument that socialism would be successful only with a world, or at least European, revolution. So Stalin argued that socialism in one country is indeed possible, yet that does not remove the threat of international intervention, if not the potential destruction of socialism. He writes:

The point at issue is not complete victory, but the victory of socialism in general, i.e., driving away the landlords and capitalists, taking power, repelling the attacks of imperialism and beginning to build a socialist economy. In all this, the proletariat in one country can be fully successful; but a complete guarantee against restoration can be ensured only by the ‘joint efforts of the proletarians in several countries’ … for as long as capitalist encirclement exists there will always be the danger of military intervention. (Works, volume 7, pages 122-23).

A foreboding of 1991, or perhaps a warning concerning events he hoped would never come to pass?

Almost 20 years ago I actually used a diary for a while. It was given to me by some friends in an activist group who felt that I was forgetting too many things. The friend who had the idea used to have a massive diary, into which he put all sorts of things. He could not imagine his life without it. For me, my brief experience with such a thing felt: a) like a prison, since my life was seemingly organised and ordered by something else; b) my life was too busy – the diary was not a solution, but a sign that I had to simplify things.

So for years, I have used a scrap of paper:


Each morning, I take a minute or two to write down what I want to do for the day, and then in the bottom corner I note the things that are coming up over the next few days. The emptier the paper, the better. But now I have been given this tome as a diary, with the gentle point that at my age I am no longer mentally able to remember what I need to do:


So I am not sure whether to make the switch. Initially, I resist, preferring my scrap of paper.


It’s now official: In the Vale of Tears is listed as the winner of the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize at the prize website (see also the announcement at the Historical Materialism page and at the University of Newcastle). The award was for the book and for the whole Criticism of Heaven and Earth series, which is just as well, since I have always been a little ambivalent about In the Vale of Tears. All the same, I am somewhat gobsmacked by the fact that the other short-listed books were Frederic Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, Costas Lapavistas, Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, and John Saul and Patrick Bond, South Africa – The Present as History.

In the Vale of Tears 02

In the Vale of Tears 01

On 30 November, I will be be part of a panel on ‘Religion and Marxism’. It is part of the ‘Sunday Marxism’ series here in Newcastle, organised by the Socialist Alliance.


Political progressives often associate religion with bad things like imperialist crusades and wars for oil, attacks on women’s freedoms and moral/political brainwashing.

In recent weeks we have seen reactionary fundamentalists decapitating ‘infidels’ and misogynistic homophobic varieties of Christianity receive the endorsement of government ministers.

At the same time it is also often assumed that all Marxists/Socialists abhor religion and spirituality.

Of course, dig beneath the stereotypes and you will find a rich current of dialogue between anti-capitalist activists and revolutionaries and socially minded followers of various religious faiths.

This session on Religion and Marxism will feature a panel including Roland Boer who directs the ‘Religion, Marxism and Secularism’ project at Newcastle University, Farooq Tariq, General Secretary, Awami Workers Party (AWP) of Pakistan, and Malik Mohamed Aslam, Senior Advocate, Lahore High Court and AWP leader.

PS. Of course, I voted for Steve at our recent by-election in Newcastle, after the former Liberal who held the seat was called out for systemic corruption.

I have a free Jethro Tull ticket to give away: at the Palais Theatre, Melbourne, 15 December. I bought this one first and then a second concert opened up in Sydney on 12 December. Although I have done a one-two concert in the past, I figure that after more than a dozen concerts in different countries, one will be enough this time.

Any takers, or do you know of any takers?

2014 01a

2014 03a


As many may have been aware, I am working towards a book called Saint Iosif: Stalin and Religion. Preparation entails a careful reading of his written works, from which I have posted from time to time. To my knowledge, few actually read Stalin these days, and yet he is, for good or ill, possibly the most important communist of the twentieth century, precisely because he remains such a controversial figure. My approach deploys both critical commentary, with careful attention to his intimate connection with religious thought, and it works with and develops a translation model for understanding the subtle connections between Marxism and religion. The prime focus is Stalin’s thought. Unlike the vast majority of studies on Stalin, I do not attempt to locate the tyrant in yet another way, now in terms of religious and philosophical thought. Rather, I take seriously Stalin the thinker, seeking to understand instead of praise or condemn. Such understanding extends to the very question of that polarisation, exploring the deeper reasons why he has been and continues to be venerated and demonized.

Chapter One: Setting the Scene: ‘The Priest’ and the Church

This chapter functions as the background to understanding Stalin’s texts. It deals with two items: Stalin’s historic compact with the Russian Orthodox Church during the Second World War; and his theological study at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary.

In 1943, Stalin made a historic compact with the Russian Orthodox Church (it may be traced back to the religious freedom clause of the 1936 constitution). In return for support of the war effort that eventually defeated Hitler, tens of thousands of churches were re-opened and the leadership hierarchy was re-established. In its turn, the church began to speak more openly of its support for the government (Acton and Stableford 2007, 71-74, 159-65). The result was that the church grew during Stalin’s era. At that time too, rumours began circulating of Stalin’s 1941 ‘mysterious retreat’, leading to a tradition of iconography that continues to this day. Good work on the political realities has been done (Miner 2003), pointing out that these developments were not due to a need for religious nationalism or to foreign policy pressures in relation to religion. However, I am interested in the way these factors provide a background for core issues I explore later: religion and national question; the dialectics of crisis; and the polarisation of Stalin’s image.

A second background factor attests to Stalin’s uniqueness among world communist leaders: he studied theology for five years at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, the training college for priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. A brilliant student and notably devout, this deeply formative time (from the age of 15 to his 20th birthday, 1894-99) had a lasting effect. A careful analysis of the theological content of his studies reveals ecclesiastical history, liturgy, homiletics, dogma, comparative theology, moral theology, practical pastoral work, didactics, and the two staples: church singing and biblical studies. Years later, Stalin still memorised long passages from the Bible, annotated religious works in his library, and refused to include anti-religious works. These factors provide insights into his literary style, preference for biblical citations, and materialist doctrine of evil. It is not for nothing that in revolutionary circles he was known as ‘The Priest’.

Chapter Two: Sentence Production and the Bible

In light of the background material, this chapter delves deeply into Stalin’s writing. It begins by focusing on form, specifically on the style of Stalin’s sentence production. His style ranges from methodical analysis (evincing detailed preparation), through rhetorical if not homiletic subtlety, to poetic flights of imagery and the ability to tell a story – most notably in the long process of creating the ‘political myth’ of the communist party and the victory of the October Revolution. One factor that influenced such a style was his early poetry, which was published and widely-appreciated in Georgia (Rayfield 1985). Another factor is the cadence of biblical texts in his writings. In order to account for this influence, I analyse his habitual patterns of biblical and religious allusions.

Chapter Three: Religion and the National Question

From the form of Stalin’s writing, I move to content and theory. In this chapter, I focus on the intricate interweaving of the ‘national question’ and religion. As the preeminent theorist of the national question, Stalin initially set out to counter the position of the Bund – the General Jewish Labour Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia. However, in the end he adopted a modified version of their proposal. In order to counter divisive nationalism, the Bund sought a federated system that recognised the distinctive ethnic, cultural and religious nature of each group. Over two decades (1905-24), Stalin developed a delicate dialectical argument that was based on voluntary unity through autonomous diversity. Eventually, his position became the foundation of the USSR’s constitution (1924 and 1936) and of the first ‘affirmative action empire’ (Martin 2001). This entailed fostering languages, cultures, literature, education, religion and political leadership by local people. It also meant severe penalties for racial abuse. Further, Stalin saw the crucial implications for anti-colonial struggles around the world. Thus, the national question became internationalised. Throughout these developments, the question of religion was never far away. Practically, it appeared in the policies of allowing sharia law in Muslim-majority regions, as well as heavy penalties for anti-Semitism, especially in light of the many Jews in the Soviet administration. At a deeper level, the national question embodied Stalin’s own way of working through to a position that resembled that of the Bund.

Chapter Four: Modalities of Dialectics

Dialectics may owe some debts to Hegel and Marx, but it also has a long pedigree in theology. Stalin deploys many variations on the dialectic: unity through diversity (and struggle); subjective and objective; form and content; legal and illegal; backwardness as the basis for leaping forward; revolution and counter-revolution; intensification of the dialectic before its resolution; and an early articulation of what would later be called ‘constitutive resistance’ (Negri). In this case, the resistance of the workers becomes the determining feature of the constantly changing tactics of the capitalists and the bourgeoisie – initially on a national level but later in a world-historical form. More importantly, Stalin develops the dialectic of transcendence and immanence, with distinct translations from the theological shape of this opposition. This applies to the relations between theory and action, but especially to relations between the communist party, on one side, and workers and peasants on the other. The party may appear to be transcendent, but when one perseveres long enough, it becomes immanent with workers and peasants. So also with workers and peasants: their position may initially seem to be immanent, but only through them does the transcendence of the party appear.

Chapter Five: Dialectic of Crisis

The most significant and sustained form of the dialectic is one of crisis. At its heart is the idea that the closer one’s gaol becomes, the more ferocious become internal and external opponents. The translation with theology is both clear and important: the more grace is apparent, the more active do the forces of evil become. And the closer one becomes, the clearer becomes the division between either-or. For Stalin, this dialectic of crisis is the basis for revolution. Indeed, this argument is Stalin’s unique contribution to the theory of revolution itself.

Chapter Six: Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil

Crisis dialectics then leads to what I call a materialist doctrine of evil. This doctrine, worked out more in practice than theory, profoundly challenges the Enlightenment-inspired assumption of inherent human goodness so characteristic of many socialist movements. It entails a recalibration of the crucial opposition of good and evil, now in terms of socialism and capitalism, of workers and bosses, and of international politics. Important features of the doctrine include external and internal dimensions. Externally, the reality was a situation of constant threat, by the sustained international blockade against the new Russia, which included support of the white armies, systematic sabotage and spying, and enfolded into the Cold War. Internally, the constant threat of a ‘fifth column’ was linked with the continuing elaboration of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the need for constant purges (Khlevniuk 2009, 169-79). In fact, the internal feature of the doctrine is its most powerful. Above all, the Red Terror, especially in the extensive purges of the late 1930s, is the practical manifestation of this doctrine: good and evil are internal, with the one generating more of the other.

Chapter Seven: Veneration and Demonization

No other political leader has been – and continues to be – as venerated and as reviled as Stalin. This chapter moves from analysing Stalin’s thought to assess how he has been understood. It argues that the polarisation over Stalin constantly translates categories between religion and politics, in Cold War and post-Cold War contexts. This is so in Russia, where he is reviled by some but revered by many others (even to the point of religious observances in his native Georgia), and internationally, where he functions either in terms of the reductio ad Hitlerum or as the architect of a stunning victory in WWII and the builder of socialism. In order to understand that polarisation, I analyse the ‘foi furieuse’ of the new utopian project, which includes the foreign fascination with the new socialist experiment (David-Fox 2012), and its contrast in the many disappointments and eventual disillusionment with the project. Further, I deal with the path from his adulation in Russia and near universal appreciation at the close of WWII to the growth of a ‘black legend’ after his death (thanks to Khrushchev’s ‘secret report’ and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (Arendt 1973 [1951])). I also assess the way such polarisation is manifested in critical work on Stalin, with many seeking to demonize him in new ways and others attempting to resurrect him (Volkogonov 1990, Radzinsky 1997, Viola 1996, 2007, Edele 2011, Losurdo 2008, Furr 2011, Zyuganov 2012). But my primary focus is how such polarisation illustrates the translatability of religious and political terms. Veneration and demonization operate between both languages, with neither language claiming priority. Indeed, the intersection between them creates the intensity of the polarisation.

Select References

Acton, E., and T. Stableford, eds. 2007. The Soviet Union: A Documentary History. Volume 2: 1939-1991. Exeter: U of Exeter P.

Arendt, H. 1973 [1951]. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

David-Fox, M.. 2012. Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Vistors to the Soviet Union, 1921-1941. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Edele, M. 2011. Stalinist Society, 1928-1953. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Furr, G. 2011. Khrushchev Lied. Kettering: Erythros.

Khlevniuk, O. 2009. Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle. Trans. N. Seligman Favorov. New Haven: Yale U P.

Martin, T. 2001. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Thaca: Cornell UP.

Losurdo, D. 2008. Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera. Rome: Carocci editore.

Miner, S. M.. 2003. Stalin’s Holy War: Religion, Nationalism, and Alliance Politics, 1941-1945. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P.

Radzinsky, E. 1997. Stalin. New York: Anchor Books.

Viola, L. 1996. Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Viola, L. 2007. The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Volkogonov, D. 1990. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove.

Zyuganov, G. 2012. Report of the Chairman, G. A. Zyuganov, to the XIV (October) Joint Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.