theology


Three wise communists

Another gem from G.E.M. de Ste. Croix. In his discussion of the viability of Marx’s approach to class, he mentions as an aside the chances of becoming an individual saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Of the thousands of saints, only 5 per cent have come from the lower classes which have constituted over 80 per cent of European populations (Class Struggle, p. 27).

A new website has just been launched by the Communist Party of the UK, along with a range of other people, called Culture Matters. I have the first post of what should be a number on the complex issue of Marxism and religion.

Is this a new low in efforts to demonise refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere? The Danish minority government, run by Venstre and supported by the Danish People’s Party, has proposed that the bags and clothes of refugees be searched for money and valuables such as jewellery so as to be confiscated for the ‘cost’ of travelling through Denmark. Mind you, the government has thus far refused to accept refugees, although it generously allows them to travel through Denmark to Sweden. Indeed, the government is trying to claim that it is exceedingly generous – by allowing people to keep their phones and wedding rings. Of course, the underlying assumption is that they are not ‘genuine’ refugees but supposedly rich ‘economic’ refugees.

As Christina pointed out to me, not only are such minor items easily transportable for an emergency (like food), but the next step is to remove gold teeth. Further, my experience from a recent rail journey across Europe on trains full of refugees is that they have only a small bag with the absolute basics.

I have been meaning to write something on the increasing shift in Russia to appreciating the positives of the Soviet era. Or rather, the increasing numbers of Russian scholars at Chinese conferences drawing upon the Soviet experience for common ground with China. However, that will have to wait, for my bed-time reading of late has been none other than Anecdotes of the Life of Kim Il Sung, the founding president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. So here is the first of a selection, called ‘Arranging Grace Before a Meal’:

On July 3, 1981, Kim Il Sung met the Rev. Kim Song Rak, a Korean resident in the United States.

Kim Song Rak was the president of the Society for the Promotion of National Reunification, an advisor to the South Korean Churches Association and a member of the Corps of Chairmen of the Asociation of the Overseas South Koreans for Democracy and National Reunification in the United States. He had previously served as president of Sungjon University in South Korea.

He had received religious education in the United States and obtained permanent residence there: he was influential in US religious circles and was widely known among US politicians. He was the only Korean to be receiving an annual salary from the US government. In short, he was deeply immersed in anti-communism.

As soon as he arrived in the north, he asked the relevant officials to make arrangements so that there was no news coverage of his activities there, saying that he wanted to return to the United States soon, after a quiet visit to his home-town, Pyongyang.

President Kim Il Sung met him and called him a patriot, praising his national conscience out of which he had made up his mind, though belatedly, to devote himself to the reunification of the country. The President arranged a luncheon in honour of his guest.

Kim Il Sung advised him to say grace before eating.

The Rev. Kim Song Rak was completely taken aback at his host’s advice. His face turned red and his heart beat faster.

His face beaming, his host again urged him to say grace, arguing that he should not violate the rules of Christianity he had observed for his whole life.

The guest’s deep-seated fear and doubts about communism disappeared in an instant.

In fact, he had decided not to say grace on that particular occasion, even if it meant violating the rules of his faith. Moved by his host’s broad-mindedness and magnanimity, he said grace, just as he had done for decades. However, the grace he offered there was totally different from anything he had done before.

He prayed for the good health of President Kim Il Sung, a peerless great man, and for the country’s independent reunification and complete sovereignty.

Before his departure, the Rev. Kim Song Rak asked for a press conference to be convened, contrary to his previous request made upon his arrival. He talked about his feelings when he had said grace before the luncheon: ‘I offered grace because I could not reject the President’s advice. I earnestly prayed for him’ (Anecdotes II, pp. 18-20).

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.

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

In light of all the hyperbole over the recent attacks in Paris, it may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of the modern history of ‘terrorism’. To begin with, it was the favoured mode of the radical Anabaptist groups in the sixteenth century. In the wake of the Münster Revolution of 1534-35, the most radical part of Europe at the time was the northern Netherlands, especially in the areas of Friesland and Groningen. Here squads of some hundreds engaged in systematic ‘terrorism’, including arson, destruction, large-scale killings of ‘infidels’ and so forth. Their leaders were a colourful lot, including Jan van Batenburg, Cornelis Appelman, and Johan Willemsz. Crucially, this was a Christian development in the radical north. Soon enough, the area would become home to staunch Calvinists.

A second moment appears with some anarchist elements in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They were keen to make an impact and spread uncertainty among governments and corporations. In Western Europe and North America, they managed to bomb an opera house in Barcelona in 1893, bomb the French parliament in 1893, bomb the Cafe Terminus in Paris in 1894, assassinate Marie-Francois Sadi Carnot, the French President, in 1894, bomb the Greenwich Observatory in London in 1894, assassinate William McKinley, the American President, in 1901, bomb the wedding of King Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenie in Barcelona in 1906, and bomb Wall Street in 1920.

A third moment appears in Russia of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will), especially its militant wing, engaged in bombings, assassinations and so forth. They managed to assassinate Tsar Aleksandr II in 1881 (after a few attempts). Notably, Lenin’s brother, Aleksandr Ulianov, was involved, although he was arrested and executed in 1887 for his part in the attempted assassination of the next tsar.

The fourth moment follows on the heels of Narodnaya Volya, namely the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs). A significant force in the wider Left in Russia, they retained terrorism as a tactic, even to the point of being involved in the attempted assassination of Lenin – not a good move when the Bolsheviks were in power.

Indeed, a notable feature of communist movements is that they eschewed ‘terror’ as a revolutionary tactic, since they saw it was counter-productive.

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