I am delivering the following public lecture at the University of Auckland, on 9 September.


What has Marxism to do with Religion?

‘Opium of the people’ is one description of religion that we find in the work of Marx and Engels. When it came to socialists in power, they were supposed to have repressed all forms of religious expression. The curious fact is that many of the major Marxists – Marx and Engels included – had a good deal more to say about religion, especially Christian theology.

This lecture explores some of the key questions in that extended engagement. It begins by reconsidering the metaphor of opium, or what Lenin called ‘spiritual booze’. Second, it examines Engels’s proposals concerning the revolutionary religious tradition, beginning with early Christianity. This would become a staple in Marxism, with subsequent thinkers and activists elaborating on this tradition. Finally, it considers the thorny question of a religious person being a member of the communist party. Did one have to tick the box marked ‘atheist’ before being allowed to join? On this matter we visit the First International, the Bolsheviks, the Cuban Communist Party and the Communist Party of China.

Wednesday 9 September, 5.30pm
Room 315, Arts 1 (Building 206)
The University of Auckland
For more information and full abstract

The following two days will be taken up with the ‘Radicalism, Violence and Religious Texts’ Conference. Abstracts may be found at Robert Myles’s blog.

It is usually suggested that Stalin agreed to let the Soviet Union join the United Nations when Roosevelt offered him the power of a veto at the Yalta conference in February 1945. One should be wary of such spin, since Stalin had already – at conferences in 1942 and 1943 – been strongly in favour of such an organisation. Even more, we find clear public statements in support of the UN, as with the following from the celebration of the October Revolution in 1944:

Accordingly it is not to be denied that in the future the peace-loving nations may once more find themselves caught off their guard by aggression unless, of course, they work out special measures right now which can avert it.

Well, what means are there to preclude fresh aggression on Germany’s part and, if war should start nevertheless, to stifle it at its very beginning and give it no opportunities to develop into a big war?

There is only one means to this end, apart from the complete disarmament of the aggressor nations: that is to establish a special organization made up of representatives of the peace-loving nations for the defence of peace and safeguarding of security; to put at the disposal of the directing body of this organization the necessary minimum of armed forces required to avert aggression, and to oblige this organization to employ these armed forces without delay if it becomes necessary, to avert or stop aggression, and to punish those guilty of aggression.

This must not be a repetition of the sad memory of the League of Nations, which had neither the right nor the means to avert aggression. It will be a new, special, fully authorized international organization having at its command everything necessary to defend peace and avert new aggression.

Can we expect the actions of this world organization to be sufficiently effective? They will be effective if the great Powers which have borne the brunt of the war against Hitler Germany continue to act in a spirit of unanimity and accord. They will not be effective if this essential condition is violated. (Works, col. 15, p. 398).

By 1942, the German Wehrmacht had suffered its first and stunning defeat at Stalingrad. Here the tide of the Second World War turned. Stalin reflects at some length on the reasons, one of which he puts down to the German propensity for orderliness.

In this respect, things are far from well with the Germans. Their strategy is defective because, as a general rule, it under-estimates the strength and possibilities of the enemy and over-estimates its own forces. Their tactics are hackneyed, for they try to make events at the front fit in with this or that article of the regulations. The Germans are accurate and precise in their operations when the situation permits them to act as required by the regulations. That is where their strength lies. They become helpless when the situation becomes complicated and ceases to “correspond” to this or that article of the regulations, but calls for the adoption of an independent decision not provided for in the regulations. It is here that their main weakness lies (Works, vol. 15, p. 38).

Earlier I wrote a post on Stalin’s definition of cultural revolution, in which education played the central role. On that occasion I called the pentecost of languages and people. But by 1939 he began to include the creation of a Socialist intelligentsia in his definition:

As regards the cultural standard of the people, the period under review has been marked by a veritable cultural revolution. The introduction of universal compulsory elementary education in the languages of the various nations of the U.S.S.R., an increasing number of schools and scholars of all grades, an increasing number of college-trained experts, and the creation and growth of a new intelligentsia, a Soviet intelligentsia – such is the general picture of the cultural advancement of our people.

I think that the rise of this new, Socialist intelligentsia of the people is one of the most important results of the cultural revolution in our country. (Works vol. 14, p. 391)

In the 1930s, appreciation and even veneration of Stalin was on the rise. One example was a proposed children’s book concering Stalin’s own childhood. He was not impressed. When this item is cited, it is usually done so to point out that Stalin preferred not to have some uncomfortable experiences from his earlier life recounted. However, no attention is paid to the main reason for his misgivings: that it would foster the veneration he detested so much.

I am absolutely against the publication of ‘Stories of the childhood of Stalin.’

The book abounds with a mass of inexactitudes of fact, of alterations, of exaggerations and of unmerited praise. Some amateur writers, scribblers, (perhaps honest scribblers) and some adulators have led the author astray. It is a shame for the author, but a fact remains a fact.

But this is not the important thing. The important thing resides in the fact that the book has a tendency to engrave on the minds of Soviet children (and people in general) the personality cult of leaders, of infallible heroes. This is dangerous and detrimental. The theory of ‘heroes’ and the ‘crowd’ is not a Bolshevik, but a Social-Revolutionary theory. The heroes make the people, transform them from a crowd into people, thus say the Social-Revolutionaries. The people make the heroes, thus reply the Bolsheviks to the Social-Revolutionaries. The book carries water to the windmill of the Social-Revolutionaries. No matter which book it is that brings the water to the windmill of the Social-Revolutionaries, this book is going to drown in our common, Bolshevik cause.

I suggest we burn this book. (Works, vol. 14, p. 327).

Stalin unknown 01

This observation speaks much not only of role of the communist party (as part of a dialectic of transcendence and immanence), but also of the direction of any veneration:

The leaders come and go, but the people remain. Only the people are immortal, everything else is ephemeral. That is why it is necessary to appreciate the full value of the confidence of the people. (Works, vol. 14, p. 302)

As I read through History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), commonly known as the Short Course, I am increasingly intrigued by the genre of communist historiography. This was the first time a communist party was in power and had the power to write a history. Examples of course continue today, but this first effort is most intriguing. Earlier, Stalin had already begun commenting on efforts to write such histories, giving advice to the writing teams. For instance:

Without these explanations the struggle between factions and contradictions in the history of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R., would appear to be merely the facts of an incomprehensible dispute and the Bolsheviks to be incorrigible and tireless quibblers and scrappers (Works, col. 14, p. 299).

As one would expect, these accounts are usually dismissed as ‘ideologically driven’, but that dismissal misses the unique shape the genre first took and has taken since.

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