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.


On Friday evening at the Historical Materialism conference in London, I had the opportunity to deliver the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Lecture. I must admit, I was somewhat nervous, but Gilbert Ashcar, the chair, put me at ease. He enabled me to redirect my energies to the lecture, at which a good crowd seemed to pay close attention. A photo sent to me after the lecture:

Yazhi_DP lecture (3) (800x707)

The text of the opening of the lecture, called ‘Marxism, Religion and the Taiping Revolution‘, is as follows:

In early 1837 one Hong Xiuquan sank into a delirium and had a vision in the small southern Chinese village of Guanlubu. The vision was populated by many of the figures one would expect from traditional Chinese mythology and some not. Taken up into heaven he was greeted by children dressed in yellow, a cock, a tiger, a dragon. They led him to a high gate bathed in light, surrounded by musicians. Here some other men in dragon robes and horned hats cut his body open and replaced his organs with clean new ones. The wound was healed as though it had never been. Now he became aware of his mother, who washed him in a blood-coloured stream. He also became aware of an older brother, who would later become crucial. Inside the gates, he was led to his father, a tall erect man with a black dragon robe. His father’s golden beard flowed down to his waist.

Hong and his father spoke of many matters, but especially the demons and devils who had even begun to infiltrate the 33 levels of heaven. Hong urged his father to overcome reluctance and allow Hong to attack the demons. With the gift of a seal and a powerful sword called ‘Snow-in-the-Clouds’, Hong (supported by his elder brother) wreaked havoc among the demons, to the point of having the king of the demons in his grasp. He stayed his hand only at his father’s request. The demon king and his minions were banished to earth. For a time Hong stayed in heaven, with a wife who had born him a son. He studied mysterious texts that took some effort to understand (much to the impatience and annoyance of his elder brother).

Yet Hong’s father would not let him rest in heaven, for the demons still roamed the earth. So Hong was given two mysterious poems, a new name (Xiuquan) and a title, ‘Heavenly King, Lord of the Kingly Way, Quan [Completeness]’. To earth Hong returns, with his heavenly father’s urging not to fear and promise to help.

Meanwhile, what did his family and friends do as they kept watch at his bed in the village of Guanlubu, while he ranted and raved? They thought he had gone mad. At times during his delirium, he would call out, get up and run around the room while making sword thrusts, only to collapse back on his bed. At one point he wrote out his new title in red ink and posted it on the door. That door was kept firmly locked, since the family would have been held to account should he have done harm to anyone else.

Perhaps Hong Xiuquan himself understood the dream? Not so, it seems. Upon waking, he was unable to make sense of it. So he gradually settled back into village life, began teaching children again and studying the Confucian texts in preparation for his next attempt at the civil service examinations.

And to add to the festival, an interview with Gilbert Ashcar was made before the lecture. It should be available shortly.

All in all, I had a wonderful time, having to chance to meet and talk with the friendly people of the Deutscher Prize committee. But I should say that a real highlight also was to meet George Hallam, from Lewisham.

I am increasingly drawn to the Taiping Revolution of 1850-1864, especially in light of Samir Amin’s observation: it was the ‘ancestor of the “anti-feudal, anti-imperialist popular revolution” as formulated later by Mao’. However, what no student of the revolution has yet examined is that the Taiping Revolution marks the moment when the revolutionary Christian tradition arrives in China. I will be speaking about this to some extent – as a way to deal with the question of Marxism and religion – in the Deutscher Lecture later this week. In the meantime, I have been tracking down some images, especially after visiting the Taiping museum in Nanjing last month.

This is Hong Xiuquan, the man with the vision and biblical interpretation:

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Central to Taiping practices was the weekly church service (alongside daily prayers and recitals from the Bible):

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They gave great attention to ensuring the Bible was reprinted and interpreted:


Taiping Bible 02

Interpretation of the Bible led them to a revolutionary position and to practice forms of Christian communism. Their revolutionary armies (with both women and men) numbered up to a million and the innovative tactics saw them control the cradle of Chinese civilisation in the Yangze (Chang Jiang) basin:

Taiping battle 02

Taiping battle 03

Taiping - storming a fortress

This one is a battle flag held on behalf of a general:

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Their aim: to overthrow the whole Chinese imperial system and inaugurate the ‘heavenly kingdom’ (tainguo). This was part of the widespread appeal among peasants and miners. They abolished the Confucian examination system, replacing it with one based on the Bible and open to women and men. The women had their feet unbound and young women were not permitted to bind their feet. The men grew their hair long, without the queue and the shaved front insisted by the Qing rulers.

Taiping vs queue

Among many things, I am intrigued by the character used for ‘heaven’, tian. Usually in Chinese, it is written so:

The second stoke is longer than the upper stroke. However, the Taiping wrote the character in a different way:

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In this case, the upper stroke is the longest. The reason is not quite clear, but it may have something to do with the respect shown for heaven, and indeed that it was a different heaven from Chinese mythology.

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The Taiping were on the verge of crushing the Qing dynasty, shaking it to the foundations. Were it not for foreign intervention (the British Empire had lost much of North America and they certainly weren’t going to let the Chinese market opium slip away), the Taiping may well have done so. Meanwhile, in the space of 14 years they achieved an immense amount: rebuilding Nanjing, land reform, new forms of social organisation, the publication of an extraordinary collection of texts. And they had some seriously weighty coins:

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In many respects, the Taiping Revolution was the forerunner of the Republican Revolution of 1911. Sun Yatsen was known by the nickname of ‘Hong Xiuquan’ and some of the revolutionary wore their hair in the same way as the Taiping. And when Mao writes of revolutions in which the masses rose up against the international (imperialist) and national ruling class, he speaks of three: the taping Revolution, the Republican Revolution and the communist revolution.

The Deutscher Memorial Prize Committee informs you of the title and venue of the 2014 winner’s Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize Lecture
Roland Boer – Marxism, Religion and the Taiping Revolution
Hosted by Historical Materialism 2015 Conference at SOAS, University of London
Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG,
Friday November 6, 2015, 18:15 – 20:00pm, Khalili Lecture Theatre
We are also pleased to announce the 2015 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize Committee shortlist
Dave Beech, Art and Value, Brill 2015
Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography, Monthly Review Press, 2015
Lucia Pradella, Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy: New Insights from Marx’s Writings, Routledge, 2014
David Roediger, Seizing Freedom, Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All, Verso, 2014

The winner of the 2015 prize will be announced at the start of the 2015 Lecture.

from The Deutscher Prize committee


At the recent World Cultural Forum, held in Beijing and sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, I happened to hear a rather intriguing paper. It offered comparisons between some major European countries, the USA, Japan, South Korea and China, among others.

It turns out that of these places, China ranks highest for confidence in the government and the greatest equality of wealth. Strange how these facts fail to make it into the corporate new networks.

I am somewhat thrilled that The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review has just published my first article on Stalin. It appears in issue 42.3 and is called ‘Against Culturism: Reconsidering Stalin on Nation and Class’ (247-73).


This article argues that the key to Stalin’s early theoretical work on the national ques­tion may be read as an attack on culturism – the propensity to identify an intangible ‘culture’ (often with religious factors) as the basis for collective identity. Although his criticism is directed at a number of social democratic organisations at the turn of the twentieth century, it also has pertinence for today due to the persistence of culturist assumptions. Two factors are important in his criticism. The first is to define ‘nation’ in order to sideline the culturist position, although his own definition is not without its problems. The second tackles the question of the structure of the state: does one begin with ‘national culture’ or with class? Stalin proposes that class is the determining fac­tor, which then enables a very different approach to ‘national culture’. The unexpected result is that the unity provided by a focus on the workers and peasants produces both new levels of cultural diversity and enables a stronger approach to ensuring such diversity. The approach undertaken in this article pays careful attention to Stalin’s theoretical and philosophical arguments as they appear in his written texts.

Full details of the journal issue:

As part of a rather crazy rush conferences in China last week, I went from one in Nanjing celebrating 120 years since the death of Engels to the World Cultural Forum in Beijing. It was organised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and had many Russians present – a sign of the increasingly close ties between the two countries that make up the bulk of Eurasia. However, my favourite moment was a paper by a general from the People’s Liberation Army. He saluted us before he began and delivered his paper with military overtones, as though he were giving orders. The paper concerned the role of Marxism in the culture of the PLA.

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Even better, he posed for a photo with me, since we were on the same panel:

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