‘Are you really sure you want to eat that?’ she asked.

‘Why not?’ I said, pointing to the picture menu. ‘It looks like a delectable dish of tofu’.

‘Stinky tofu?’ she said. ‘Not many foreigners like it’.

‘How can I not eat stinky tofu?’ I said.

I was about to engage in what is arguably one of the most pleasurable experiences in China: a meal with a colleague from Fudan University’s Centre for the Study of Contemporary Marxism Abroad. Why so pleasurable? Apart from the food, it is because my colleague has one of the quickest and sharpest minds I have encountered in a very long time, often leaving me floundering. We share many interests, so we push each other to new thoughts, dipping and weaving in a free play of the mind.

We spoke of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) and the metaphysics of Marxism; of Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933) and God-building in the Russian Revolution; of revolutionary enthusiasm and calm analysis; and of vulgar Marxism and its dialectical form. All this turned out to be a knot more complex than at first appears to be the case. How so? That knot presents a series of overlapping but apparently irreconcilable oppositions. These oppositions begin with the warm and cold streams of Marxism, but then move on to include fiery passion and careful reason, subjective and objective conditions, and vulgar and ruptural approaches to the dialectic. Let me begin with the warm and cold streams, which will then enable me to engage with the other oppositions.

Lunacharsky and Bloch (who is many respects the heir of the former, even though he was not aware of Lunacharsky’s work) were both proponents of the warm stream of Marxism. By the warm stream I mean the importance of revolutionary passion, of the appeal to the emotions, of a political myth in which one can believe despite the most devastating of setbacks, of a Marxist metaphysics that is able to bring about an Aufhebung of religion. Both Lunacharsky and Bloch were responding to what may be called the cold stream of Marxism, in which rational analysis of the objective conditions of history was the key. All one needed was a greater knowledge of the objectively existing laws of history, especially of the phases of historical development, so that the path to revolution was clear. For Lunacharsky, who was a central figure in the Russian Revolution and to the Left of Lenin, the Second International was the embodiment of this approach, in which Hegel was a bad influence and in which his residue needed to be excised from Marx’s thought. Bloch too found this mechanistic approach troublesome – he had lived long enough to know a little of the Second International, but then also the resolute ‘history is one our side’ approach that continued to bedevil Marxism into the midst of the twentieth century.

So far, this is relatively straightforward: they want a more vibrant, warmer Marxism that touches the heart as well as the mind. They wish to restore the enthusiastic, subjective and moral dimension of Marxism. At this point, one may object: is this not the stuff of demagoguery? Does not such an approach leave one open to the traps of deploying specific techniques to fire up the emotions of the masses? That is, does not this approach leave one open to the charge of ‘vulgar’ Marxism, especially if we understand ‘vulgar’ in its Latin sense of ‘crowd’ and ‘common people’?

Now our knot of problems becomes much more interesting, for Lunacharsky and Bloch (and indeed the Frankfurt School and their inheritors) were profoundly suspicious of ‘vulgar’ Marxism. It all turns on what one means by ‘vulgar’. For them, vulgar Marxism is precisely the coldly rational Marxism I mentioned earlier. Here is the mechanistic, causal understanding of history, which may be broken down into carefully defined stages that lead inexorably to a socialist revolution. But vulgar also operates with the slogan of ‘the base is to blame’. The base or infrastructure provides the real and material cause of all that is; all that is of the superstructure – culture, philosophy, politics, religion, ideology – may be regarded as excretions or epiphenomena of the base. These two elements work smoothly together, for once you know the mechanisms of the base, once you know the socio-economic causes of all that is, you may be able to predict the course of history.

A further question needs to be asked: who is responsible for this vulgar Marxism? Given that it is the exercise of reason over the emotions, the use of cold theory, of calm and calculated analysis and discussion, vulgar Marxism is actually the domain of intellectuals. In other words, this type of Marxism is an intellectualist development.

Its obverse is the warm Marxism I mentioned earlier, the Marxism of emotional engagement, of powerful political myth, of the heart rather than the mind. At this point, the dialectic comes into play. The intellectualist, cold stream of vulgar Marxism is a version that flattens the dialectic inherited from Hegel. Here we find the triads of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; here is the Hegel of the progress of history in grand stages. The other Hegel is somewhat different. Now he becomes the proponent of a ruptural dialectic, one of breaks in continuity. Here subjective intervention creates history, over against the objective unfolding of history. This is the complex and sophisticated dialectic that enamoured Lenin so and was a major factor in formulating the revolutionary strategy that led to the success of the October Revolution.

So we have arrived at an unexpected juncture: vulgar Marxism is the simplistic, intellectualist tendency; ruptural Marxism is the sophisticated, complex dimension. On the side of the former may be gathered cold theory, the exercise of reason and the mechanistic understanding of the stages of history. On the side of the latter do we find warmth, myth, inspiration, and above all the revolutionary break.

Do we then take sides, preferring one or the other in light of our predilections? No, for both are actually part of, and necessary to, the dialectical Marxist tradition. I speak not of an Aristotelian golden mean, with a dose of sober theory functioning to dampen too much revolutionary ardour; or perhaps some fire and zeal in order to counter the killjoy rationalists. Instead, I speak of a dialectical tension between them, the one needing the other in order to make the movement viable. In this tension may be found the classic merger theory of the Erfurt Program of 1891: socialism at an organisational level is the merger of intellectuals and the masses, both of whom learn from one another and are changed in the process.[1] It was certainly not a process of some advanced intellectual lifting workers and peasants to a new level of consciousness.

In this tension may Lenin’s thought and practice be located, between a mechanistic vulgar Marxism and a deep awareness of the ruptural possibilities of the dialectic. Lenin often moves between one and the other, but at his most luminous moments the two are juxtaposed against one another. And here do we find Marx’s own thought (let alone that of Engels), who could outdo the best of the vulgar Marxist themselves in his formulations. At the same time, he was by no means unaware of the depths and complexities of a ruptural appreciation of the dialectic.

At Deane’s request: was Marx a vulgar ‘Marxist’?

The answer is yes and no. Marx could be as vulgar as the best of them. Let us take the example of religion. He writes in The Holy Family:

The figments of his brain assume corporeal form. A world of tangible, palpable ghosts is begotten within his mind. That is the secret of all pious visions and at the same time it is the general form of insanity (MECW vol. 4, p. 184; MEW vol. 2, pp. 195–6).

Then in Capital I, Marx makes the much-cited crass and ‘vulgar’ point that the ‘religious world is but the reflex of the real world’. He is talking about Roman-Catholicism, which is an external religion and appropriate for a monetary system, in contrast to Protestantism, which is the appropriate reflex of the internalised world of credit and commodities (MECW vol. 35, p. 90; MEW, vol. 23, p. 93). This opposition also turns up in the third volume and Capital and Engels follows suit (MECW vol. 20, p. 267; MEW vol. 16, p. 247). It is in fact an old argument, appearing first in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (MECW vol. 3, pp. 290–1; MEW vol. 40, pp. 530–1).

Too many have cited such passages as though they expressed Marx’s quintessential position, in which the ‘base is to blame’ (a slogan once used for a ‘Vulgar Marxist’ group I organised). But Marx can also turn out the most dialectical assessment, which seems to stand in stark opposition to the vulgar Marx. Once again, on religion:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering but also the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people (MECW vol. 3, p. 175; MEW vol. 1, p. 378).

Of course, the last sentence, the famous opium statement is usually taken as an example of Marx’s vulgar approach to religion. So it is worth noting that in contrast to our own associations of opium with drugs, altered states, addicts, organised crime, wily Taliban insurgents, and desperate farmers making a living the only way they can, opium was a much more ambivalent item in nineteenth-century Europe. Widely regarded as a beneficial, useful and cheap medicine at the beginning of the century, it was gradually vilified by its end by a coalition of medical and religious forces. In between debates raged: it was the subject of defences and parliamentary enquiries; its trade was immensely profitable; it was used for all manner of ills and to calm children; it was one of the only medicines available for the working poor; it was a source of utopian visions for artists and poets; it was increasingly stigmatised as a source of addiction and illness. In effect, it ran all the way from blessed medicine to recreational curse.

Marx too was a regular user, along with those other useful medicines, arsenic and creosote. As he slowly killed himself through a punishing schedule of too much writing and smoking, too little sleep, and an inadequate diet, Marx would use it for his carbuncles, toothaches, liver problems, bronchial coughs and so on. As Jenny wrote in a letter to Engels in 1857:

Dear Mr Engels, One invalid is writing for another by ordre du mufti. Chaley’s head hurts him almost everywhere, terrible tooth-ache, pains in the ears, head, eyes, throat and God knows what else. Neither opium pills nor creosote do any good. The tooth has got to come out and he jibs at the idea (MECW vol. 40, p. 563; MEW vol. 29, p. 643).

All of which means that a Marxist approach plays off vulgar and dialectical dimensions, as Lenin saw so well. Lose the vulgarity and you lose the Marxism; but so also with the dialectics.

This has become a somewhat largish book, but what do you expect from material that covers 45 volumes in English translation and 55 volumes in the Russian? After a very preliminary outline some time ago, I can now offer the full outline:


Why Lenin and theology? The introduction sets out to provide the reason for such a juxtaposition. Here I argue not that Lenin was dependent on theology of whatever stripe, not that theology is the fons et origo of his thought. Instead, I am interested in what theological questions arise and how they are reshaped in his voluminous texts. The key areas turn out to be the ambivalence of his explicit engagements with religion, his surprising attraction to the parables and sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (as well as extensive process of producing his own parables), the wide range of encounters with varieties of Christian socialists, from Tolstoy through to the God-builders, the implications of his rediscovery of Hegel for theology, the question of miracle-as-revolution (which includes the crucial questions of freedom and illegality) and then the veneration of Lenin, especially after his death. These topics are the subjects of the book’s chapters. The introduction also engages with the crucial question of how Lenin’s political biography is perceived.

Chapter One: Spiritual Booze and Freedom of Religion

Religion may be an idealist and reactionary curse, a manifestation of and support for oppression, but to oppose it is a red herring; atheism may be a natural position for socialists, but one should embrace a comrade who is also a believer; one may oppose religion on class terms, but atheism should not become a doctrinaire platform, for the party holds to radical freedom of conscience and religion. These are some of the forms in which an intriguing tension manifests itself in Lenin’s explicit writings on religion. The book opens with these texts, not merely because they are the known works in which Lenin directly addresses the question of religion, but also because they open out into the substantial, if occasionally subterranean, engagements with religion that form the subject matter of the chapters to follow.

The chapter begins with the content of Lenin’s arguments concerning religion, ordering the analysis in a logical fashion. After a detailed treatment of the content of his direct statements on religion, I deal with a couple of case studies that evince the very same logic and tensions of his arguments on religion, one concerning the ‘national question’ and the other dealing with oppressed religious groups, with a particular focus on the Jews and the Bund (The General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia).

Chapter Two: Gospels and Parables

A careful reading of Lenin’s texts reveals a clear preference for the sayings and parables that we find in the mouth of Jesus. The chapter begins with a study of the famous What Is To Be Done? (1902), in which the key organising parable deployed by Lenin is the wheat and tares (or weeds) from Matthew 13. He draws upon this parable in order to rethink the organisation of the communist party (or Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, as it was then known), specifically in terms of the need for discernment, vigorous and open argument, and the dialectic of illegal and legal organisation.

Yet this exploration is only the first step of my argument, for Lenin’s engagement with the parable of the tares and the wheat is not an isolated occurrence. He draws upon other biblical parables, especially those of an agricultural nature with a focus on seeds, growing and harvesting. Further, Lenin goes on to create a large number of his own parables, at times drawn from Russian folklore and literature, at times developed from an opponent’s writing, but mostly of his own creation. Not only does Lenin turn out to be a creative and innovative exegete (and ‘translator’), appropriating, redirecting and providing new angles on the biblical texts, but he also deploys the genre of parables throughout his writings.

Chapter Three: Christian Revolutionaries and God-Builders

A particular group of opponents – or ‘tares’ – were the various manifestations of the religious Left. They range from Christian revolutionaries of various stripes to the God-builders. Throughout I examine in detail Lenin’s often ambivalent responses to this persistent and variegated thread of the religious Left. The Christian revolutionaries comprise the tradition of Christian socialism (and indeed anarchism) and peasant socialism, although the most consistent expression was to be found in the works of Leo Tolstoy. Lenin found Tolstoy particularly troublesome from a theoretical point of view. In a series of pieces prompted by Tolstoy’s death, Lenin twists and turns, attempting to argue that Tolstoy may have asked all the right questions, but that his answers were inadequate. I deal with all of this material in the first part of this chapter.

The second part focuses on the God-builders, perhaps one of the most intriguing components of the Bolsheviks and central to the revolution. Among others, they included Anatoly Lunacharsky and Maxim Gorky, both particularly close to Lenin. Rather than pursuing links between Orthodoxy and Marxism (‘God-seekers’), God-builders sought to promote the affinities between Marxism and religion, fostering the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism in terms of enthusiasm, feeling, the new human being, the radical dimensions of religion, all of which were to be embodied in revolution.

The third section turns to analyse Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, the text in which Lenin extensively attacked the God-builders, especially Lunacharsky. Both vilified and redeployed in ingenious fashions, the book arrives at its critique of God-building by lambasting empirio-criticism. A philosophical trend that persists in various forms today (through the pragmatism of William James), empirio-criticism was initially developed by Richard Avenarius and Ernst Mach. Building on the thought of Berkeley and Hume, and putting itself forward as both radically empirical and positivist, empirio-criticism argued that the only knowledge available comes from sensation; therefore knowledge must be restricted to experience. To claim that a material world exists outside our senses, or that it is structured in terms of causation, is not a materialist position at all, but a metaphysical postulate that is unverifiable. In light of the increasing influence of empirio-criticism, Lenin viciously attacks it, drawing deeply on Engels’s effort to cut a line through all philosophy in terms of materialism and idealism. If materialism means the existence of an objective world which we gradually understand more comprehensively through science, then empirio-criticism must be a species of idealism. And if it is a form of idealism, then it surreptitiously enables God to sneak back into philosophy. At this point, my own interest in Lenin’s argument is aroused, not least because Lenin attacks some of the God-builders who were drawn to empirio-criticism. My discussion of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism acts as the link to the following chapter, where I trace Lenin’s reassessment of this argument through a rediscovery of Hegel, a rediscovery that opens up a more ambivalent position on God-building.

Chapter Four: Returning to Hegel: Revolution, Idealism and God

With this chapter we have arrived at a point where Lenin has developed a dubious and rather undialectical argument in order to counter the growing influence of Bogdanov, as well as the position of the God-builders, especially his close friend, Lunacharsky. But the story is not complete, for it has two further, quite fascinating episodes. The first is Lenin’s intense reengagement with Hegel six years later. After the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin found himself cloistered in the library in Berne, where he read Hegel’s core text, The Science of Logic. I am interested in two dimensions, namely, a recasting of the relation between subjective and objective approaches that would lead to a renewed sense of subjective revolutionary intervention, and Lenin’s direct encounter with the core of Hegel’s idealism, which has a direct bearing on his perceptions of God-building and even the revolutionary possibilities of varieties of religion outside the mainstream.

The second episode involves setting this intense period within the wider context of Lenin’s encounters with Hegel and his understanding of the dialectic. On this matter, we face two competing narratives. One argues that up to 1914 Lenin held to a mechanistic, vulgar and evolutionary notion of the dialectic, dependent on the late Engels, Second International socialism and Plekhanov, but that after truly encountering Hegel for the first time, he finally appreciated the depth and complexity of that dialectic. The other narrative holds that Lenin fully appreciated that depth and deployed in varying ways throughout his life. Given these two narratives, a careful assessment of all of the relevant texts is in order. The result: the time in the Berne library becomes less an isolated occurrence than a rediscovery and deepening of his understanding of Hegel’s dialectic on a materialist register. The reason is that his writings show both earlier appreciations of what may be called a ruptural approach to the dialectic and a continuation of the more vulgar reading after the time in the Berne library. All of which leads to the conclusion that Lenin maintained, before and after 1914, a perpetual tension between the vulgar and the ruptural dimensions of the dialectic. This tension explains the apparently contradictory approaches to Lunacharsky’s God-building and religion itself, especially after the October Revolution.

Chapter Five: Miracles Can Happen

‘In certain respects, a revolution is a miracle’. Revolution = miracle; революция = чудо: the permutations of this equation are the concern of this chapter. Although revolution is arguably the central theme of Lenin’s extensive writings and political practice, my angle is different from the many others who have dealt with Lenin and revolution, for I am interested in its theological translation – hence miracle. What does it mean for Lenin to say that revolution is a miracle?

Miracle is not so much a moment that changes the very coordinates of existence (or in Hume-derived terms as an event that is inexplicable according to the ‘laws’ of nature), but rather a point of contact between two seemingly incommensurable worlds. In theological terms, a miracle is a touching between heaven and earth, or rather, the moment when transcendence is bent towards immanence. In Lenin’s appropriation, the two worlds are no longer heaven and earth but those of spontaneity and organisation, between the unexpected the expected. Time and again, he emphasises and devotes immense energy to the need to organise in preparation for the revolution, whether in terms of party structure, publicity organs, propaganda, parliamentary involvement, agitation on the streets or military training. Yet the moment of revolution inevitably occurs without forewarning, a spark that turns instantaneously into a conflagration. Both January 1905 and February 1917 were precisely such events, let alone the myriad strikes that surrounded them. In the first part of this chapter, I explore various manifestations of this tension at the heart of miracle-as-revolution – in terms of the ‘lightning’ strike, the closely related issue of kairós and then Lenin’s relation to those that may be called the spontaneous philosophers of our own day.

Second, the tension between transcendence and immanence embodied in the miracle also manifests itself in the struggle over working within and without the old order. Should socialists concern themselves primarily with reform, working within and changing the system, or working towards revolutionary overthrow of that system? Lenin offers us no easy answer, working between the options available towards a more dialectical position. So also with the complex matter of freedom, concerning which Lenin castigates the formal and limited ‘freedom’ offered by the bourgeoisie for the sake of the real freedom of revolutionary transformation. Once again, he does not stop here, for the key to freedom is an open, explicitly partisan (proletarian) freedom, which then becomes a genuine universal. The analysis of these tensions is the burden of the second part of the chapter.

Chapter Six: Venerating Lenin

Lenin’s veneration is the topic of this chapter, at times called the Lenin ‘cult’. The importance of revisiting the veneration of Lenin lies not merely in its significance for the question of Lenin and theology, insofar as theological matters emerge from a close engagement with Lenin, but also because the sustained veneration of Lenin became the prototype for later revolutionary communist leaders. By focusing on the veneration of Lenin, I hope to provide some steps towards a more in-depth analysis of the crucial role such veneration played in the new communist situation in Russia. The argument distinguishes between the more overtly theological factors and those that were not so obviously theological. The former include the saint, the prophet and the martyr. I find that none of them provide a simple background that fed into the veneration of Lenin. Instead, the revolutionary possibilities developed counter-traditions that relativise the absolute theological claims concerning saint, prophet and martyr.

More significant and far less noticeably religious factors in the veneration of Lenin include a never discussed but crucial feature, namely, the curious juxtaposition between his passion for vigorous outdoor exercise – swimming, ice-skating, hunting, and above all hiking in the mountains (he was always shod in hiking boots) and cycling – and his simultaneous fascination with diseases, decaying bodies and corpses. This juxtaposition operates at the intersection between the conscious and the subconscious. Rather than one element undermining the other, I argue that they operate in a tension that expresses an anxiety over, if not an aversion to a sickly, decaying body. And it was an aversion that could not help being communicated to his closest comrades as well as the many who read his texts. Beyond these two interleaved currents, other significant factors also play a role. So we return to Anatoly Lunacharsky and introduce another God-Builder, Leonid Krasin, both of whom were important figures in the veneration of Lenin after his death. While the less articulate Krasin was in charge of the initial phases of the preservation of Lenin’s body and the plans for constructing a wooden mausoleum, Lunacharsky headed an elaborate competition for the design of the permanent mausoleum. Both were prominent members of the Immortialisation Commission, the successor to the Funeral Commission. A third major factor was the sheer extent of popular and creative veneration, initially following the assassination attempt in 1918 but above all after his death. This outburst of intense reshaping – through new folk tales, stories and art – of the symbols and images of the existing worldviews of those who had found their voices after the revolution took the government by surprise. But they soon caught up and built upon that veneration through a vast program of Agitprop. In that intersection, as well as in the continued practices of both popular and official veneration, the outline a new political myth was born. All of which brings me to my final point concerning the specific economic and social function of that veneration. I argue that Lenin’s veneration became a necessary feature of a new form of compulsion for people to engage, with revolutionary fervour, in constructing a new social and economic system.

While I was out on my bicycle tour, Sean Burt posted this comment on my entry from 25 January called Dis/Re-enchantment:

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a bit. I fundamentally agree with you here, though I’ve been wondering — if the narrative of re/disenchantment is fundamentally of a capitalist world, what can that lead us to say about pre-capitalist (i.e. ancient) fantasy literature? I’m thinking about Apulieus, Lucian, even Tobit (maybe you could even go with apocalyptic here, but I’m thinking more of the narrative, ‘novelistic’ mode). Why would ancient people have flights of fancy if their world wasn’t disenchanted? That’s not a rhetorical question — it really is something that’s been puzzling me!

This post was ages ago in internet time, but in the chance you see this, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

In a few earlier posts (here, here and here) I had argued that the idea of re-enchanting the world is one that is generated out of a capitalist context, where the narrative of enchantment-disenchantment-re-enchantment itself arises. Only in a world that seems to be abandoned by God (Lukacs) does it become possible to dream of re-enchantment. So a politics of re-enchantment (as the Radox – Adam Kotsko’s wonderful term – people propose, or as some like Michael Carden would like to see) is itself tied in with the logic of capitalism itself.

However, Sean raises another issue: did people view the world in this way at other times and places? Initially, I would have to say yes. Think of the ancients who began to allegorise the gods of Homer, as but one example. What do I do with these earlier moments? One path is to pick up the argument of Adorno and Horkheimer and suggest that a dialectic of enchantment and disenchantment has been with us for some time now. Invoke disenchantment (science, reason, common sense) and you get all manner of enchantments cropping up; push for re-enchantment and you will find an internal push to disenchantment (as, for example, with the Christian logic of the secular state). Another path, which actually carries on from the preceding one, is to argue that the possibility of thinking in such terms only arose in a certain capitalist context, which can then be retrofitted into earlier historical moments. It’s a little like the feeling one gets in applying a new method to the Bible: it all seems to work so well, so much so that the biblical authors seem to have read Lacan, Derrida, Zizek or Marx …