Bible


Cross posted from Bible and Class Struggle:

This academic colloquium on Radicalism, Violence and Religious Texts will take place at the University of Auckland from 10-11th September 2015.

cristo
José Clemente Orozco – Christ Destroying His Cross

What is the relationship between religion, violence, and the interpretation of texts? On the one hand, sacred texts are populated by depictions of divinely-sanctioned violence. On the other hand, both insiders and outsiders repeatedly emphasize the non-violent aspects of various religious traditions. This seminar will facilitate critical discussion on the associations and contradictions between radicalism, violence, and religious texts in an age of terror, abuse, and capitalist exploitation. Papers will utilize the most revolutionary-oriented methods currently available in biblical and religious studies, including critical theory, Marxist exegesis, radical indigenous, postcolonial, and genderqueer hermeneutics, and other ideological and political readings.

Confirmed speakers:

There are slots available for additional papers from both established scholars and PhD students. To be considered, please send a title and brief abstract (150 words) to Robert Myles at r.myles@auckland.ac.nz by the deadline: 24 July.

When: 10-11 September 2015
Where: University of Auckland
Official twitter hashtag: #RVRT2015
Deadline for abstracts: 24 July 2015

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.

In response to all the well-wishing on his fiftieth birthday, Stalin wrote:

Your congratulations and greetings I place to the credit of the great Party of the working class which bore me and reared me in its own image and likeness. And just because I place them to the credit of our glorious Leninist Party, I make bold to tender you my Bolshevik thanks. (Works, vol. 12, p. 146)

Not only did Stalin study Holy Scripture for almost 6 years at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, but he also made annotations on the Bible in his library, priding himself on memorising long sections. And it shows, as in this lyrical appeal at fourteenth congress of 1925:

But even if we do not receive outside assistance we shall not become despondent, we shall not cry out for help, we shall not abandon our work (applause) and we shall not be daunted by difficulties. Whoever is weary, whoever is scared by difficulties, whoever is losing his head, let him make way for those who have retained their courage and staunchness. (Applause.) We are not the kind of people to be scared by difficulties. We are Bolsheviks, we have been steeled by Lenin, and we do not run away from difficulties, but face them and overcome them. (Voices: “Quite right!” Applause.) (Works, volume 7, pp. 358-59)

The more I read and hear about it, the more I am puzzled: the new secularist fad in religion studies and biblical criticism. Studies in religion has been engaged in a turf war for some time, or, to shift the metaphor, in teenage rebellion against its parent, theology. Some biblical critics have been scurrying around making similar noises, forgetting that biblical criticism broke with theology more than 150 years ago. This approach has the same form as other disciplines that saw the need to hive off from theology some time ago: denigrate the parent and say loudly and frequently that theology is not even a scholarly pursuit. So also with studies in religion and secularist biblical criticism. But a few items are now added to the list, the most curious one being the hypothesis that religion is a ‘construct’ and that therefore it doesn’t exist sui generis. Instead, we should study how it is constructed. But since when is a construct unreal? A similar silly suggestion is made concerning the Bible.

However, I am interested in another part of this argument: theology or the Bible or religion isn’t going to save the world, or even make things a little better. A few points need to be made here. First, it is an old move, which took place in other disciplines in the earlier part of the twentieth century: remove any political agenda from a discipline, call it ‘scientific’, and set about explaining the world as it is (that is, the world viewed from the Atlantic). Second, it is deeply conservative, for it supports the status quo with such a move. Third, it is a very bourgeois project, which Marx, Engels and Lenin derided: targetting religion is a diversion from real socio-economic problems. Finally, and for me most importantly, it seeks to negate the religious revolutionary tradition that Kautsky first mapped out. In the end, the problem is not religion, or indeed theology and the Bible, but rather the radical political possibilities they may have.

Why use ten when two commandments are enough (Matthew 22:35-40)? So also Stalin:

The first commandment: Don’t allow yourselves to be provoked by the counter-revolutionaries; arm yourselves with restraint and self-control; save your strength for the coming struggle; permit no premature actions.

The second commandment: Rally more closely around our Party; close your ranks in face of the assault of our innumerable enemies; keep the banner flying; encourage the weak, rally the stragglers and enlighten the unawakened. (Collected Works, vol. 3, p. 113)

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Stalin was rather fond of the Bible in his library, reading it often and memorising quotations. So it should be no surprise that occasional echoes should appear in his writings. This one appears in his speech after the October Revolution, given to Finnish workers in November 1917:

I should like first of all to bring you the joyful news of the victories of the Russian revolution, of the disorganization of its enemies, and to tell you that in the atmosphere of the expiring imperialist war the chances of the revolution are improving day by day.

The bondage of landlordism has been broken, for power in the countryside has passed into the hands of the peasants. The power of the generals has been broken, for power in the army is now concentrated in the hands of the soldiers. A curb has been put on the capitalists, for workers’ control is rapidly being established over the factories, mills and banks. The whole country, town and countryside, rear and front, is studded with revolutionary committees of workers, soldiers and peasants, which are taking the reins of government into their own hands.

Compare the ‘Magnificat’, spoken by Mary in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour …
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name…
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

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