It has taken a while, with preliminary studies and articles before I managed to gain a clear sense of this book. So, a revised outline:

The focus of the book is the thought of Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili in relation to philosophy and religion. Much of the material I analyse relates explicitly and – more often – implicitly to religion, if not theology. Such topics include language, human nature, the delay of communism, and the patterns of veneration and demonization. The concern with theology and Marxism is an abiding concern of mine. However, these topics also intersect with philosophy, which emerges more clearly on matters relating to the national question, affirmative action, anti-colonialism and efforts to redefine what ‘people’ may mean. Thus, in order to incorporate the full range of Stalin’s thought, I examine this thought at the intersections between theology and philosophy. This study operates with a simple assumption borne out of careful study: Stalin’s thought is to be taken seriously.


The introduction states the main aims of the book and examines the various approaches taken in studies of Stalin (some of which has been outlined above). Within this wider field, I discuss the few works that have engaged with Stalin’s thought, whether political theory (Van Ree 2002) or the rhetorical structure of his texts (Vaiskopf 2002). I identify what may usefully be drawn from such texts, but – more importantly – where they fall short. Van Ree tends to fall back onto external factors to understand Stalin’s political thought, while gliding too quickly over the complexity of that thought. Vaiskopf has a particular agenda, which is to identify the complex elasticity of the negative dimensions of Stalin’s rhetoric and structures of thought, to the point of reducing dialectics to a series of oxymorons. In particular, Vaiskopf overplays his hand by suggesting the central influence of theological Orthodox categories – due to Stalin’s theological study – such as ‘belief’, ‘soul’, ‘sin’, ‘spirit’ versus ‘law’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘Trinity’, ‘dogma’, ‘saints’ and even Stalin’s ‘Christ-like’ nature. By contrast, Stalin’s engagement with theology is both more subtle and contested, where it can be identified. The introduction closes by outlining a ‘translation’ model for the relations between Marxism and religion, in contrast to those of historical influence or all-encompassing source.

Chapter One: Background: At the Spiritual Seminary

The first two chapters concern the explicit background and content of Stalin’s engagements with religion, theology and the church. In this chapter, I set some crucial background, while resisting the suggestion that it should be regarded as the key in terms of the category of influence. Stalin is unique among world communist leaders in at least one respect: he studied theology for five years (1894-1899) at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, a training college for priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. He was notably intelligent and devout. Yet, despite the importance of this theological study, few if any take the time to analyse what Stalin studied and how he did so. Thus, I investigate closely Stalin’s studies, especially the theological content of his study with an eye on the themes he would contest and redevelop in his thought. The training was thorough. In the earlier years, he studied both secular and theological subjects, such as Russian literature, secular history, mathematics, church singing and biblical studies. By the later years, the focus was more intensely theological, with ecclesiastical history, liturgy, homiletics, dogma, comparative theology, moral theology, practical pastoral work, didactics, and the two staples: church singing and biblical studies. But I am particularly interested in the continuity (rather than the discontinuity) between his theological knowledge and the activism in which he increasingly engaged. Stalin left the college just before the final examinations in 1899, of his own will. Yet in Georgian revolutionary circles he was for many years known as ‘The Priest’.

Chapter Two: Religions and the Church

This chapter focuses on the explicit content of Stalin’s texts concerning religion. In the first part, I analyse his statements and observations concerning other religious groups, especially Muslims and Jews. The latter raises the important question concerning the charge of Stalin’s anti-semitism and examines the evidence. This then enables me to consider the various positions concerning religion in the party program and later in the Soviet government. My specific interest here is the explicit establishment of freedom of religion in the 1936 constitution. This encouraged the Russian Orthodox Church, parts of which had experienced significant repression, to agitate for the enactment of the clause in the constitution. Eventually, these developments led to the historic compact between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church in the early years of the Second World War. In return for support of the war effort that eventually defeated Hitler, Stalin allowed the reopening of tens of thousands of churches and the re-establishment of the church’s leadership hierarchy. I seek to analyse the complexity of this development, in light of both Stalin’s knowledge of the church and the development of religious iconography around Stalin, fuelled by rumours of a ‘mysterious retreat’ in 1941.

Chapter Three: Sentence Production: Between Poetry and the Bible

The third chapter shifts gear. As a way into the deeper and subtler patterns of philosophical and theological thought in Stalin’s texts, I begin with the formal question of sentence production. Initially, I consider his early and widely appreciated poetry, which enables me to analyse the various styles of his later writings and speeches. These evince poetical flights, homiletical expositions, liturgical rhythms, catechetical patterns, stark oppositions, rich imagery, painstaking methodological structures and a liking for storytelling. The most significant story is repeated and revised often: the ‘political myth’ of the communist party and the victory of the October Revolution. I also investigate the patterns of biblical imagery and invocation, especially by one who was well-versed in the Bible. These allusions go beyond a general cultural context, with a distinct liking for the biblical image of the ‘light to the nations’. I close by examining what may be called a scriptural dynamic, which is translatable across different scriptural traditions. Thus, in traditions in which written texts of founders play an important role, the claims made upon and reinterpretations offered of the founding texts are crucial for justifying new directions. In debates, all sides claim to be faithful to the texts of Marx, Engels and Lenin, with each denouncing the other as undertaking misguided interpretation. This scriptural dynamic is particularly important for understanding the struggles between Stalin and Trotsky.

Chapter Four: Modalities of Dialectics

From sentence production I move to the related area of the patterns of Stalin’s thoughts, with a focus on the multiple modulations of dialectics that appear in his works. These include the staples of subject-object and form-content, but also 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. The two major developments in dialectics are in terms transcendence and immanence and a dialectic of crisis. The former refers to the relations between workers and the communist party, between theory and action, and between the party and the multi-ethnic state. The latter – dialectics of crisis – emerges in a complex pattern, particularly in light of the civil war, sustained international opposition, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The key to this dialectic is what may be called a ‘theology of class struggle’, manifested in the argument that the closer one’s gaol becomes, the more ferocious become internal and external opponents.

Chapter Five: Redefining Nation and People: Between Universal and Particular

A major form of Stalin’s dialectic thought is the focus of this chapter. At its heart, it concerns the universal and the particular, taking the form of what may be called the international and the national. It begins with his efforts to produce a socialist approach to the national question and ends with a redefinition of ‘people’. The argument has five steps. First, the international category of class is not opposed to nation (which was itself understood in the particular sense of nationality), but enables a new approach to the latter. Second, one may understand this connection through the paradox of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which totalising unity produces new levels of diversity. Third, this leads to the theoretical elaboration of the world’s first affirmative action program. Fourth, the program provides the basis for the international anti-colonial struggle. Fifth, within that international context, a new definition of the ‘people’ (and by implication ‘nation’) emerges, in which the ‘Soviet people’ are constituted by workers, collective farmers and intellectuals.

Chapter Six: Babel versus Pentecost: Stalin and Linguistic Diversity

A further dimension of Stalin’s dialectical arguments concerns language, although he glimpses rather that fully articulates such a theory. Its core is that the greater the totalising unity, the greater the linguistic diversity produced; the more diversity arises, the more does a new form of unity arise. In this respect, Stalin may be seen as a Pentecostal (Acts 2) in regard to language, rather than a utopian pre-Babelian (Genesis 11). In the first part, I analyse the initial stage of the dialectic, where he indicates the unexpected creation of more languages as a result of soviet practices. In the second part, I deal with the question of unity, specifically in terms of the widespread ideal of an eventual universal language under global socialism. However, Stalin’s thoughts are not always consistent, so when faced with questions, he resorts to a conventional stages theory of linguistic development, in which initial diversity would eventually lead to unity. Yet, even when he resorts to such a theory, I discern a desire to push the final age so far into the future that it may well never come. The interim provides ample time for a more dialectical approach. In light of this position, it becomes possible to see the essay on linguistics (1950) as an anomaly. It results in a closing down of the dialectic in terms of a stability-flux opposition.

Chapter Seven: The Delay of Communism

In this chapter, I both pick up an element of the previous chapter and set the scene for the next. It concerns the ‘delay of communism’, which is translatable with the Christian phenomenon of the ‘delay of the Parousia’. The early Christians believed that Jesus Christ would return soon, so much so that their lives were ordered for the brief time in between. However, it soon became apparent that Christ was not in a hurry. The result was that the interim became in many respects the norm. This situation produced a significant number of developments in thought and practice, although the one that interests me concerns different approaches to Christ’s return. For some it lay fully in the future, for others it had already happened in Christ himself or the Church (realised eschatology), while for others it had begun but awaited fulfilment, so much so that the future return already determined the present (proleptic eschatology). The analogy with the delay of communism sheds light on the latter. After the world’s first socialist revolution, many expected that a worldwide revolution would soon follow. There were to be disappointed, an experience that led to the distinction between socialism and communism, with the former understood to be a transition to communism. Stalin in particular was all too aware that the rest of the world was not moving towards a socialist revolution in the near future, so much so that he pushed communism into an almost mythical distant future. The interim, socialism, became the norm. I examine a number of important features of this development: class struggle within socialism; the state; socialism on one country; the appropriation of features from communism, especially with the claim that socialism had been achieved in the 1930s. I close by asking whether Stalin developed his own form of proleptic communism.

Chapter Eight: Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil: Stalin’s Revision of Marxist Anthropology

Perhaps Stalin’s most significant contribution is to Marxist anthropology, by which I mean the theory of human nature. The core of this theory (which arose from practice and experience) is that a new human nature entails an exacerbation of both good and evil. On the one hand, the new human being is capable of hitherto unexpected great achievements; on the other, the same human being can be responsible for untold evil. This tension may be described as one between passion and purge, both of which were generated out of socialist enthusiasm. By passion I mean the extraordinary and widespread fervour for human construction of the socialist project, especially the ‘socialist offensive’ – the massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s. By purge I refer to the systemic purges of that period, which the Bolsheviks themselves described in terms of the Red Terror. My analysis has two main parts, after setting these developments within a theological frame: the tensions between Augustine and Pelagius, in light of a Russian Orthodox context, concerning human nature and its transformation. The first part deals with the revolutionary passion of the socialist offensive of the 1930s, focusing on the glimpse of a new human nature embodied in Stakhanovism and its attendant features of emulation, tempo and grit, as well as the claim that the Pelagian project of socialism had been achieved in the Soviet Union by the second half of the 1930s. By contrast, the second part of the chapter analyses the increasing awareness of the depths of evil produced by this new human nature – which may be seen in theological terms as an Augustinian irruption. Above all, the Red Terror signals this moment, which requires discussion of the terminology of purging (with its theological echoes), the demonstration trials and the shocking awareness of a new depth of evil within both the collective and individual self. Throughout and especially in the conclusion, I argue that the two sides should not be separated from one another: they are necessarily connected, for without one, the other would not have existed. All of this is central to a thorough recasting of Marxist understandings of human nature, with evil now playing a substantive role.

Chapter Nine: Veneration and Demonization

No other political leader has been – and continues to be – as venerated and as reviled as Stalin. 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 the Second World War and in the construction of socialism. In this chapter, I argue that such polarisation is due not only to political factors during the Cold War and its aftermath, but also to the distinct dynamic of Stalin’s thought. His tendency to intensify dialectical oppositions – in terms of class, state, socialism and human nature – has left an unwitting trace in assessments of his legacy. By now it should be clear that such polarisation has philosophical and theological dimensions, in which both intense veneration and the ‘black legend’ are two parts of the same process. This also entails treatments of the creation of ‘Leninism’ (by Stalin), his disavowals of the ‘personality cult’ and the way Stalin remains such a divisive figure in the Marxist tradition, if not in global history of the twentieth century. Above all, I seek not to take sides in this polarisation, but to understand it.


The conclusion seeks to answer the question: does Stalin have a distinct contribution to make to Marxist philosophy, particularly through the theological undercurrents of important dimensions of his thought? Since I have not yet completed the manuscript, I leave the answer to this question open for now.


I am writing an article on Farnham Maynard (1881-1973), who was a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. He wrote a number booklets and contributions to books on Christianity and communism, which were texts of speeches he gave: Economics and the Kingdom of God (1929), ‘Christianity and Socialism’ in A Fair Hearing for Socialism (1944) and Religion and Revolution (1947). More on this material soon, but I am quite intrigued by a forword given to the final work by none other than the secretary of the Victorian branch of Australian Communist Party, Jack Blake.

This foreword manifests the tensions of Marxist approaches to religion, found in the works of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Indeed, does so in a rather sharp fashion:

The Communist Party welcomes the growing interest among Christian people in the popular striving for a new social order as revealed in this collection of lectures which correctly set forth the Marxist viewpoint.

The Communist world outlook is based on dialectical materialism, which means that the Marxist does not include religion as part of his mental outlook.

Precisely because we Communists base ourselves on the dialectical materialist outlook, we are strongly opposed to any kind of persecution of religion, or attacks upon people’s religious beliefs. Frequently it is said that this is merely a tactic of the Communists to dupe innocent Christian people; actually it is a matter of deep principle with us; it arises from the fundamentals of our Marxist outlook on life.

Marxism teaches that religion arises from the economic and social foundations of society, and as society is changed and reaches the highest pinnacles of human attainment and enlightenment, religion as such will wither away.

Christian people believe otherwise, but the great question now posed before them is whether they are so lacking in faith as to defend an outmoded form of society as a means for preserving their religion, or whether they have enough faith in Christianity to play their part in the advance to a new form of society for the betterment of mankind: a society in which all religious freedoms will be preserved and even increased.

No person is excluded from the ranks of the Communist Party because of religious beliefs. For our part, we gladly welcome any steps to increase co-operation between Christians and Communists having a common interest in the advancement of mankind.

The Communist Party of China has launched a series of books, in English, explaining its functions and roles.

Understanding the CPC

More in the People’s Daily. Actually, I’ve been commissioned to write one or two articles for the People’s Daily, one on the sinification of Marxism and the other on the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States.

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is out. Permit me to say that I like the way this book has turned out, largely due to careful and detailed attention from the people at Westminster John Knox Press. It is part of the Library of Ancient Israel series. The blurb reads:

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel offers a new reconstruction of the economic context of the Bible and of ancient Israel. It argues that the key to ancient economies is with those who worked on the land rather than in intermittent and relatively weak kingdoms and empires. Drawing on sophisticated economic theory (especially the Régulation School) and textual and archaeological resources, Roland Boer makes it clear that economic “crisis” was the norm and that economics is always socially determined. He examines three economic layers: the building blocks (five institutional forms), periods of relative stability (three regimes), and the overarching mode of production. Ultimately, the most resilient of all the regimes was subsistence survival, for which the regular collapse of kingdoms and empires was a blessing rather than a curse. Students will come away with a clear understanding of the dynamics of the economy of ancient Israel. Boer’s volume should become a new benchmark for future studies.

Sacred Economy

Having just returned from a lively panel on ‘Marxism and Theology’ at the New York Historical Materialism conference, I have been asked whether I would be interested in a panel on my Deutscher-prize book, In The Vale of Tears, for the Sydney event – on 17-18 July. The catch is that not so many Marxists in Australia know much about philosophy, let alone Marxism and religion. One or two come to mind, but this is probably a good moment for some crowd-sourcing. Suggestions welcome (send to my University of Newcastle email address).

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is due out by the end of the month, in the prestigious Library of Ancient Israel series with Westminster John Knox. But I have been sent (thanks Dan) the endorsements that will adorn the first pages of the book and the back cover. I must admit to being somewhat embarrassed by posting them here in shameless self-promotion:

This is a remarkable book. It is a brilliant analysis of ancient Israel in its broader historical context. Boer has a more profound and extensive knowledge of the ancient economy than any other scholar working on the ancient world. Given the prevailing neoliberal ideology in Western societies, many biblical and ancient Near East scholars looked for trade in an early capitalist market economy; but working from a profound knowledge of the history of political economic theory, Boer offers a desperately needed counter to such anachronistic analysis. In opposition to individualizing, desocializing, and dehistoricizing neoclassical theory, he investigates, explains, and documents how both subsistence and extractive economic life was embedded in social relations, cultural traditions, and institutionalized social forms. He carefully builds a flexible theoretical framework in a multifaceted analysis that is able to comprehend the many interrelated factors and institutional forms of the ancient “sacred economy.” Supplementing his magisterial discussion, his excursuses, critical comments on other approaches, and bibliography provide guided tutorials and rich resources for specialist and nonspecialist alike. Boer’s book finally sets study of economic life in ancient Israel and Southwestern Asia in general on a sound critical theoretical basis from which archaeological explorations, historical investigations, and textual interpretation can work with confidence.

—Richard A. Horsley, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion, University of Massachusetts

This bold and theoretically rich economic analysis should stimulate the rereading of many biblical texts and the rethinking of Israelite life altogether. Rather than dwelling on temple, palace, and the apparatus of empire, Boer shows the economic resilience through centuries of subsistence-level households and villages. While recognizing the injustices common in kinship-based communities, he nonetheless dares to suggest that agricultural subsistence models may hold the greatest promise for the thriving of contemporary communities.

—Ellen F. Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology, Duke Divinity School

Marxism as a practical political ideology may have lost its momentum, but Marxism as an analytical method has not. Rather, this method is very precise and produces surprising results. Roland Boer’s study is a fine example of what can be achieved by a consequent use of this method. Boer distinguishes between two societal systems in the ancient Near East: the subsistence survival strategy in its various forms and extractive regimes such as states. Thus he has authored a highly readable new kind of book about the society of ancient Israel and its economic forces.

—Niels Peter Lemche, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biblical Exegesis, University of Copenhagen

Roland Boer is without doubt the world’s foremost scholar on the relation between Marxism and religion. Ste. Croix’s magisterial work on ancient Greece set the absolute standard for scholarship on the economies and societies of that part of the world; this book will set the same bar for work on the ancient Near East.

—Kenneth Surin, Professor of Literature and Professor of Religion and Critical Theory, Duke University

Roland Boer’s informative and colorful study provides a thorough treatment of the “sacred economy” of ancient Israel. Boer examines household structures, the plight of subsistence farmers, and financial exchanges. By applying the insights of economic theory, Boer is able to offer a fresh appraisal of key biblical texts. Full of interesting facts and lively prose, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the vagaries of economic life during the period in which the Bible was written.

—Samuel L. Adams, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Union Presbyterian Seminary

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is nothing short of groundbreaking. Through an unparalleled understanding of economic theory, Boer corrects two misguided assumptions in approaching biblical economies: the tendency to assume capitalist structures and the tendency to isolate economy from the rest of the social world. Boer cogently articulates how the economy of Ancient Israel was deeply integrated into its religious institutions. With lucid prose and engaging style, this book will be a welcome resource for students and scholars for years to come.

—Roger S. Nam, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, George Fox University

A masterful integration of biblical studies, archaeology, and Marxist critical theory that greatly enriches our understanding of the economics of ancient Israel in the larger context of Southwest Asia. Boer analyzes how the five building blocks of this economy—subsistence survival, kinship household, patronage, (e)states, and tribute exchange—rearranged themselves under three economic regimes to respond to different economic situations. Key to Boer’s argument is the fact that any economic crisis or collapse in the Levant, including Israel, primarily affected the upper classes, not the majority of the population. From the perspective of subsistence farmers, indentured servants, and debt slaves, the collapse of kingdoms and empires meant a reprieve from oppressive forms of extraction and the reemergence of the durable subsistence regime. A stimulating and provocative contribution that will be required reading for future investigations into the Bible and economics.

—Gale A. Yee, Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies, Episcopal Divinity School

Roland Boer offers the reader a comprehensive and exhaustive study of Israel’s economy in the context of the ancient world. He draws all sorts of economic theories and models into both use and criticism. The reader is encouraged to read through to the end, where Boer asks the question—and seeks to answer it—as to what normative patterns can be discerned for considering economic life today.

—Patrick D. Miller, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary

Boer’s growing corpus of critical work has not received nearly the attention that it merits. With this book Boer establishes himself as a frontline critical scholar whose work will be an inescapable reference point for future work. This courageous book is nothing short of a tour de force in which Boer probes the economic organization, structure, practice, and resources of the ancient Near East and ancient Israel as a subset of that culture. His study is organized around “regimes” of allocation that distribute resources and of extraction that plunder resources according to the deployment of sociopolitical power. The discussion maintains a continuing dialectic of “subsistence” and “surplus” that kept economic practice endlessly open and unstable. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this book and the sheer erudition that has made it possible. Boer’s patient attention to detail, his mastery of a huge critical literature, and the daring of his interpretive capacity combine to make this book a “must” for any who want to probe the economic substructure of biblical faith and the culture that was its environment.

—Walter Brueggemann, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary

Sacred Economy

We are looking for a French-English translator for:

Jean-Michel Rey: Le christianisme avant le Christ

The essay is for the first volume in the Religion and Radicalism series with Palgrave Macmillan.

In this case it will be all glory and honour, for we cannot pay you directly.

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