marxism


I must admit that I have given in to buying an air cleaner for my apartment in Beijing. In general, the air is improving here, with weeks at a time having clear skies. On these days I go for a run outside, and use some outdoor exercise equipment. But the air can also become quite thick, although the particles you can’t see are the ones that can do the most damage. Hence the air cleaner.

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It is basically a strong fan with a good filter. It helpfully indicates when the air is clean, with a friendly blue light illuminating to tell you it is so. However, when the air is less beneficial, it displays an array of red lights: two means mildly polluted, four more so, and six … However, at some points the machine has a habit of suddenly switching from the blue light to six red lights, with no apparent reason.

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After a number of such occurences, I began to suspect that the light system was merely a gimick, to make one feel as though it was doing it’s job. However, then I hit upon the reason: whenever I break wind in its vicinity, it let’s me know it’s displeasure and sets about cleaning up the burst of air pollution.

I realise that the question of socialist exploitation may seem like an oxymoron, since socialism is supposed to abolish exploitation of one person or group by another. But I am interested in whether socialist exploitation is possible and perhaps necessary at certain times. The question arises from my examination of Ernst Bloch’s synchronicity of non-synchronicity, which I will not relate now, except to point out that it is exacerbated after a socialist revolution. It may provide the conditions for such a revolution – thereby providing a philosophical understanding of why socialist revolutions happened first in economically ‘backward’ places – but it also explains the profound dislocations of socialism in a context of emergent capitalism. I dealt with this issue at some length in a recent lecture at Fudan University in Shanghai, so the section that follows comes from that lecture.

The question of the synchronicity of non-synchronicity leads to the question of modes of production. I speak here of what is called the ‘narrative’ of modes of production: tribal society and hunter-gatherer existence are replaced by slavery, or perhaps by the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, which are in turn replaced by feudalism, which is replaced by capitalism, which is then overcome by socialism and communism. Each mode of production is both enabled by internal contradictions (which are thereby constitutive contradictions), but those same contradictions lead to its undoing. Thus, a subsequent mode of production overcomes those contradictions only to produce new ones that are simultaneously constitutive and disabling.

By contrast, I would like to pick up some new developments in Marxist theory (first suggested to me by Ken Surin), which challenge this narrative of successive modes of production. Instead of a narrative succession, determined by patterns of contradictions, this new approach – with seeds in Marx’s thought – argue that each new mode of production absorbs all those that have come before (this is really a different and perhaps more sophisticated form of dialectical understanding). Thus, we find that the earlier contradictions are now included within the new mode of production, creating multiple contradictions that remain unresolved. At the same time, the functions of those earlier modes of production are altered, so that they work within the new mode of production. I have found this approach very helpful in a recently completed study of the economies of ancient Southwest Asia, but here I would like to give the example of capitalism.

Capitalism may have its dynamics of financialised markets, with stock exchanges devising ever new ways to generate money from money (Marx’s ultimate formula for capitalism, M-M’). Large financial hubs provide the foci of such activities, such as New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong. It may also have its bulk commodities production, where labour is cheap and for which shipping provides the means of moving about large amounts of ‘junk’ – as a ship’s engineer once said to me. At the same time, capitalism also includes forms of feudalism, with landlords (or oligarchs as they are called in Russia, or warlords in Africa and the Middle East) and indentured labourers. Further afield we find types of slavery, especially child slavery, in the production of goods for capitalist markets. We do not need to consider the slave states of the southern USA as the only example of such slavery within capitalism. Yet further afield, in areas of South America, the Pacific, Africa or Asia, there exist hunter-gatherer and tribal societies, who produce cultural trinkets for tourists who may happen to visit such areas. And it is also quiet feasible for socialism – in one or more countries – to be part of a global capitalist system. Indeed, it is perhaps necessary for socialist countries in a dominantly capitalist world to engage with capitalist countries in order to survive, if not thrive. The Soviet Union was the first but by no means the last to do so.

But now it becomes interesting, for the question is whether socialism and communism too may operate in this way. The usual understanding of socialism is a system diametrically opposed to capitalism, or indeed to any other mode of production. The ownership of the means of production passes from capitalists to workers and farmers. But is it possible that socialism may absorb all of the previous modes of production at yet a higher level of complexity. This suggestion has both significant potential, yet also profound dangers. Indeed, within socialist theory we find the argument that communism unleashes the forces of production hindered by capitalism. That is, capitalism fetters and binds the real potential of such forces. Yet, if they are unleashed – as happened in the Soviet Union during the 1930s – they must make use of capitalist mechanisms, refining them even further: technological innovation, modes of management and organisation for production, industrialised techniques, forms of agriculture and so on.

But what about other modes of production? Here lie the dangers. At a theoretical level, is it possible for feudal, slave-based, tribal and hunter-gatherer modes of production also to find altered roles in within a socialist framework? For example, in the border areas of Soviet Union, traditional landlord-style social and economic systems still functioned, although the government did its best to replace and modernise them. More significantly, with the massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s, the majority enthusiastically embraced the stunning changes taking place – think of Stakhanovism and the desire emulation the high achievers. However, many were not so enthusiastic, either dragging their feet or actively opposing the process. In this context, the labour camps played a significant role, especially in Siberia. To be sure, they were designed for rehabilitating the people sent to the labour camps, but they also functioned as a reshaped form of labour slavery. And in the areas of northern Russia, above the Arctic Circle, the native peoples still lived in forms of hunter-gatherer and tribal existence. All of this took place during the construction of socialism.

However, the Soviet Union was one state – a large one, it is true, which had the resources for its own internal development. The situation would change once again if socialism were the dominant global form of social and economic life. How would the earlier modes of production be reshaped in such a context? Indeed, how would a minority of capitalist countries relate to the majority of socialist ones? And would a dominant socialist framework alter the patterns of exploitation found within those modes of production, or would new forms of exploitation arise in order to enable socialism? I raise this proposal as a genuine question, although I have not yet thought through how it might work.

 

Some initial dates for the ‘Socialism with “National” Characteristics’ lecture tour, China 2015

15-16 April, Fudan University, Shanghai: ‘Socialism with National Characteristics: Theory and Practice’

20-21 May, Xiangtan University, Xiangtan (at the Mao Zedong Thought Research Centre): ‘Adorno, Marxism and the Ban on Images’

24 May, Henan University, Kaifeng: ‘The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel’.

27-28 May, Harbin Engineering University, Harbin: ‘Christianity and Culture between “East” and “West”‘

29 May, Jilin University, Changchun: ‘Socialism with National Characteristics: Theory and Practice’

More dates soon, although I will not be giving a talk on my visit to North Korea in June.

As I work through the material concerning the industrialisation and collectivisation drives of the 1930s (actually starting in the late 1920s), it is becoming clearer that it this period and its enormous upheavals were crucial for Stalin’s rethinking of Marxist theories of human nature. During those intense periods of extraordinary reconstruction – literally unleashing the forces of production in a way not seen before (no ‘Great Depression’ in the USSR) – there were many who were wildly enthusiastic about the process. This was the time of the ‘foi furieuse’, of Stakhanovism, of mass enthusiasm and emulation. But there were also many losers, since it was a profoundly disruptive time. Many lagged, were doubtful and came actively to oppose the process. This is when what I would like to call a ‘materialist doctrine of evil’ really comes into its own. Ultimately, Stalin would come to see that such evil was deeply internal, within the collective drive, within the party and within each person (himself included). On the way to seeing this stark reality, he can certainly call up word-pictures like the following:

People look for the class enemy outside the collective farms; they look for persons with ferocious visages, with enormous teeth and thick necks, and with sawn-off shotguns in their hands. They look for kulaks like those depicted on our posters. But such kulaks have long ceased to exist on the surface. The present-day kulaks and kulak agents, the present-day anti-Soviet elements in the countryside are in the main “quiet,” “smooth-spoken,” almost “saintly” people. There is no need to look for them far from the collective farms; they are inside the collective farms, occupying posts as storekeepers, managers, accountants, secretaries, etc. (1933, Works, volume 13, p. 235).

The accusation that Stalin was an anti-Semite is a strange one. Neither Stalin’s written texts nor his actions indicate anti-Semitism. Indeed, they indicate precisely the opposite, as I will show in a moment. So those who wish to make the accusation have to rely on hearsay – second- and third-hand snippets from passing conversations, whether from an estranged daughter or from those within and without the USSR who were not favourably disposed to Stalin.[1] And once such a position is ‘established’, it is then possible to read some of his actions and written comments in such a light. For instance, the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign of the late 1940s becomes a coded ‘anti-Semitic’ campaign. Or the ‘doctors plot’ of 1952-53 – in which leading doctors were suspected of seeking to assassinate government officials – is seen as an excuse for a widespread anti-Semitic purge and deportation,[2] halted only because of Stalin’s death (we may thank Khrushchev for this piece of speculation). However, the only way such an assumption can work is that many doctors in the Soviet Union were Jewish; therefore the attack on doctors was anti-Semitic. Equally, even more doctors were Russian, but for some strange reason, the plot is not described as anti-Russian.

Unfortunately for Stalin’s accusers, even the hearsay indicates that Stalin was opposed to the deep-rooted anti-Semitism of Russian culture. During the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of 1948-49 – which was actually anti-capitalist in the wake of the Second World War – it became the practice in some journal articles to include, where possible, the original family names in brackets after the Russian name. Sometimes, such original names were Jewish. When Stalin noticed this he commented:

Why Mal’tsev, and then Rovinskii between brackets? What’s the matter here? How long will this continue …? If a man chose a literary pseudonym for himself, it’s his right…. But apparently someone is glad to emphasise that this person has a double surname, to emphasise that he is a Jew…. Why create anti-Semitism?[3]

Indeed, to the Romanian leader, Gheorghiu-Dej, Stalin commented pointedly in 1947, ‘racism leads to fascism’.[4] At this point, we face an extraordinary contradiction: those who would accuse Stalin of anti-Semitism must dismiss his deep antipathy to fascism and deploy the reductio ad Hitlerum. If one assumes, even subconsciously, that Hitler and Stalin were of the same ilk, then it follows that Stalin too must be an anti-Semite. Apart from the sheer oxymoron of an anti-fascist fascist, this assertion seems very much like the speculative thought bubble that becomes ‘true’ through a thousand repetitions.[5]

I prefer to follow a rather conventional approach, instead of relying on hearsay, gossip and speculation. That approach is to pay attention to his written statements and actions. These are rather telling. Already in ‘Marxism and the National Question’ (1913), in which Stalin deals extensively with the Jews and the Bund (The General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia), he points out that dispersed minorities such as the Jews would be given the full range of protections, in terms of language, education, culture and freedom of conscience, within a socialist state. This would become his standard position, reiterated time and again and contrasted with the tsarist autocracy’s fostering of pogroms.[6] It was also reflected in extensive programs among Jews, including the fostering – not without problems and failures – of Yiddish, Jewish institutions and the significant presence of Jews at all levels of government.[7]

From time to time, Stalin had to deal with outbursts of anti-Semitism that still ran deep in Russian culture (thanks to the residual influence of tsarist autocracy). For example, in 1927 he explicitly mentions that any traces of anti-Semitism, even among workers and in the party is an ‘evil’ that ‘must be combated, comrades, with all ruthlessness’.[8] And in 1931, in response to a question from the Jewish News Agency in the United States, he describes anti-Semitism as an ‘an extreme form of racial chauvinism’ that is a convenient tool used by exploiters to divert workers from the struggle with capitalism. Communists, therefore, ‘cannot but be irreconcilable, sworn enemies of anti-semitism’. Indeed, in the U.S.S.R. ‘anti-semitism is punishable with the utmost severity of the law as a phenomenon deeply hostile to the Soviet system’. Active ‘anti-semites are liable to the death penalty’.[9]

This was no empty boast, as those who accuse Stalin of anti-semitism seem to assume. It is worth noting that article 123 of the 1936 Constitution ensured that this position was law.[10] Active anti-Semitism, even racial slurs, were severely punished. It may be surprising to some, but one of the key tasks of the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) was to counteract waves of residual anti-Semitism.[11] Yes, one of the jobs of the infamous secret police of the USSR was to root out anti-Semitism.

Further, the ‘affirmative action’ program of the Soviet Union,[12] enacted in Stalin’s capacity as Commissar for Nationality Affairs (1917-24), was explicitly a program in which territories of identifiable ethnic minorities were established, with their own languages and forms of education, the fostering of literature and cultural expression, and local forms of governance. As for dispersed minorities, even within such regions, they were provided with a stiff framework of protections, including strong penalties for any form of racial denigration and abuse. Already in 1913 Stalin had prefigured such an approach, specifying among others ‘the Jews in Poland, the Letts in Lithuania, the Russians in the Caucasus, the Poles in the Ukraine, and so on’.[13] They too – in a program of indigenization (korenizatsiia)[14] – should be able to use their own languages, operate their own schools, law-courts and soviets, and have freedom of conscience in matters relating to religion. Indeed, by the mid-1930s the Jews too were identified as a ‘nation’ with territory, having the Jewish Autonomous district in Birobidzhan.[15] This importance of this move (part of Crimea had also been proposed) is rarely recognised. It eventually failed, but it was the first move towards Jewish territory in the modern era.[16]

A final question: what about the attacks on Judaism as a religion? In 1913, Stalin wrote of the ‘petrified religious rites and fading psychological relics’[17] fostered by pockets of the ‘clerical-reactionary Jewish community’.[18] Is this anti-Semitic? No, it is anti-religious. Judaism too was subject anti-religious campaigns, which had the result not so much of divorcing Jews from their religious ‘roots’ but of producing a profound transformation in Jewish institutions and culture, so much so that one can speak of a ‘sovietisation’ of Jewish culture that produced Jews who were not religious but proud of contributions to Soviet society.[19]

What are we to make of all this? Do the hearsay and implicit assumptions speak the truth, or do Stalin’s words and actions speak the truth? I prefer the latter. But if we are to give some credence to the hearsay, then it may indicate a profoundly personal struggle for a Georgian, who was brought up with an ingrained anti-Semitism, to root it out in the name of socialism.

[1] For useful collections of such hearsay, see Erik Van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin: A Study in Twentieth-Century Revolutionary Patriotism  (London: Routledge Curzon, 2002), 201-7; Erik Van Ree, “Heroes and Merchants: Stalin’s Understanding of National Character,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 8, no. 1 (2007).

[2] Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953  (New York: HarperCollins, 2003); Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar  (London: Phoenix, 2003), 626-39.

[3] Van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin: A Study in Twentieth-Century Revolutionary Patriotism, 205.

[4] Van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin: A Study in Twentieth-Century Revolutionary Patriotism, 205.

[5] As a small sample, see Benjamin Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 138-45; Vojtech Mastny, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years, vol. Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1996), 157-58, 162; Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice  (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 33-38; Philip Boobyer, The Stalin Era  (London: Routledge, 2000), 78; Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov, “From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism: Stalin and the Impact of the ‘Anti-Cosmopolitan’ Campaigns of Soviet Culture,” Journal of Cold War Studies 4, no. 1 (2002); Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 310-12; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin  (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007), 264; Van Ree, “Heroes and Merchants: Stalin’s Understanding of National Character,” 45; Paul R. Gregory, Terror By Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin (An Archival Study)  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 53, 265.

[6] I. V. Stalin, “The Russian Social-Democratic Party and Its Immediate Tasks,” in Works, vol. 1, 9-30 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1901 [1954]), 20-21; I. V. Stalin, “Rossiĭskaia sotsial-demokraticheskaia partiia i ee blizhaĭshie zadachi,” in Sochineniia, vol. 1, 11-32 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1901 [1946]), 21-23; I. V. Stalin, “To the Citizens: Long Live the Red Flag!,” in Works, vol. 1, 85-89 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1905 [1954]); I. V. Stalin, “K grazhdanam. Da zdravstvuet krasnoe znamia!,” in Sochineniia, vol. 1, 84-88 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1905 [1946]); I. V. Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” in Works, vol. 2, 300-81 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1913 [1953]), 319-21; I. V. Stalin, “Marksizm i natsionalʹnyĭ vopros,” in Sochineniia, vol. 2, 290-367 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1913 [1946]), 308-10; I. V. Stalin, “Abolition of National Disabilities,” in Works, vol. 3, 17-21 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1917 [1953]), 17; I. V. Stalin, “Ob otmene natsionalʹnykh ogranicheniĭ,” in Sochineniia, vol. 3, 16-19 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1917 [1946]), 16; I. V. Stalin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Party in the National Question: Theses for the Tenth Congress of the R. C. P. (B.) Endorsed by the Central Committee of the Party,” in Works, vol. 5, 16-30 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1921 [1953]), 17, 27; I. V. Stalin, “Ob ocherednykh zadachakh partii v natsionalʹnom voprose: Tezisy k Х s”ezdu RKP(b), utverzhdennye TSK partii,” in Sochineniia, vol. 5, 15-29 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1921 [1947]), 16, 26; Stalin, “Concerning the Presentation of the National Question,” 52-53; Stalin, “K postanovke natsionalʹnogo voprosa,” 52-53.

[7] Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, 58-71, 77-84; Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939  (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), xv-xvi.

[8] I. V. Stalin, “The Fifteenth Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B.), December 2-19, 1927,” in Works, vol. 10, 274-382 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1927 [1954]), 332; I. V. Stalin, “XV s”ezd VKP (b) 2–19 dekabria 1927 g,” in Sochineniia, vol. 10, 271-371 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1927 [1949]), 324.

[9] I. V. Stalin, “Anti-Semitism: Reply to an Inquiry of the Jewish News Agency in the United States,” in Works, vol. 13, 30 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1931 [1954]), 30; I. V. Stalin, “Ob antisemitizme: Otvet na zapros Evreĭskogo telegrafnogo agentstva iz Аmerik,” in Sochineniia, vol. 13, 28 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1931 [1951]), 28.

[10] I. V. Stalin, “Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, With amendments adopted by the First, Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sessions of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., Kremlin, Moscow, December 5, 1936,” in Works, vol. 14, 199-239 (London: Red Star Press, 1936 [1978]), article 123; I. V. Stalin, “Konstitutsiia (osnovnoĭ zakon) soiuza sovetskikh sotsialisticheskikh respublik (utverzhdena postanovleniem chrezvychaĭnogo VIII s”ezda sovetov soiuza sovetskikh sotsialisticheskikh respublik ot 5 dekabria 1936 g.),” (Moscow: Garant, 1936 [2015]), stat’ia 123. This also applied to the earliest constitutions of republics, such as the RSFSR, Ukraine and Belorus. See Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, 52-57.

[11] Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, 84-88; Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 169, 186-87.

[12] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939  (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); Terry Martin, “An Affirmative Action Empire: The Soviet Union as the Highest Form of Imperialism,” in A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin, 67-90 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[13] Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” 375-76; Stalin, “Marksizm i natsionalʹnyĭ vopros,” 362. See also the exposition of the seventh and ninth clause of the Party Program, concerning equal rights, language and self-government in I. V. Stalin, “The Social-Democratic View on the National Question,” in Works, vol. 1, 31-54 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1904 [1954]), 42-46; I. V. Stalin, “Kak ponimaet sotsial-demokratiia natsionalʹnyĭ vopros?,” in Sochineniia, vol. 1, 32-55 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1904 [1946]), 43-47.

[14] Korenizatsiia, a term coined by the Bolsheviks, is ‘derived directly not from the stem koren- (“root”—with the meaning “rooting”) but from its adjectival form korennoi as used in the phrase korennoi narod (indigenous people)’ Martin, “An Affirmative Action Empire: The Soviet Union as the Highest Form of Imperialism,” 74.

[15] Stalin, “Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, With amendments adopted by the First, Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sessions of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., Kremlin, Moscow, December 5, 1936,” article 22; Stalin, “Konstitutsiia (osnovnoĭ zakon) soiuza sovetskikh sotsialisticheskikh respublik (utverzhdena postanovleniem chrezvychaĭnogo VIII s”ezda sovetov soiuza sovetskikh sotsialisticheskikh respublik ot 5 dekabria 1936 g.),” stat’ia 22.

[16] For a little detail, see Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, 71-76.

[17] Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” 310; Stalin, “Marksizm i natsionalʹnyĭ vopros,” 300.

[18] Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” 374-75; Stalin, “Marksizm i natsionalʹnyĭ vopros,” 361.

[19] Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939, 1-43.

My new Chinese name has been something of a hit. As I told both of my classes here at Renmin University, they began to smile and then laugh. Why? Bo Guoqiang is not only a strong name, it is also typically Chinese. Or at least it was for people of my generation. In China, of course, they are the generation of the Cultural Revolution, when one’s parents chose names to express the desire for a strong communist country. I am told it is the typical name an uncle might have – at least Guoqiang. So the students are now calling me Bo Guoqiang, using it when speaking among themselves, even when sending me email messages. But now it becomes even more intriguing. At the first of our informal seminars, for some of the postgraduate class, we began speaking of communism. At one point, I asked whether anyone present was a member of the party. At first one, then two, then more than half of those present raised their hands. Or rather, they are members of the youth organisation, in between the Young Pioneers and the full adult membership. Others are studying the courses in preparation for the exams to enter the youth organisation.

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One even asked me whether we have pioneers and youth organisations in Australia! I began to imagine not only Schools of Marxism in all the universities, but school students keen to join the Young Pioneers, and then young adults studying in order to join the Youth Organisation. I told them I am thrilled to teaching a class like this, not least because we can delve into some of the more complex and intriguing issues around socialism, communism, and the party. Of course, at one point, I was asked whether I am a communist. In reply, I stood up and showed them my Lenin T-shirt:

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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.

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