Lenin and Theology: a preliminary outline

Some way to go yet with my reading of Lenin’s Collected Works (vol. 8 done, 37 to go), but a preliminary chapte routline for the book.

The juxtaposition of Lenin and theology is intended to be as arresting and as productive as Althusser’s linking (1971) of Lenin and philosophy. I explore not only the complex and contradictory engagements with religion in Lenin’s collected works, engagements that are far more extensive than expected, but also explore possible contributions Lenin may make to theology.

Ch. 1. Spiritual Booze and Freedom of Religion

This chapter focuses on Lenin’s explicit statements on religion, including ‘Socialism and Religion’ and ‘The Attitude of the Worker’s Party to Religion’ and ‘Classes and Parties in their Attitude to Religion and the Church’ (Vols 10 and 15). Here we find Lenin tied up in a series of contradictions: religion may be an idealist and reactionary curse, 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 contradictions provide alternative windows into the issues of church and state, and religion, society and revolution.

Ch. 2. God-Builders

A major feature of Lenin’s writings, especially Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (vol 14), is his critical engagement with the ‘God-builders’ – also called ‘otzovists’, ‘ultamists’ and ‘Machists’. Rather than pursuing links between Orthodoxy and Marxism (‘God-seekers’), God-builders held up early Christianity as a model of collective living and encouraged the spiritual elements within Marxism itself, focusing on the elevation of science, human achievement and collectivity. This chapter assesses Lenin’s long and perhaps futile struggle – akin to Marx’s struggle with utopian socialists – to minimise the God-builders’ influence on the revolution.

Ch. 3. Lenin, the Gospels and What Is to Be Done?

This chapter analyses the way the sayings and parables of Jesus lace one of Lenin’s key works from 1902, What Is To Be Done? Not only do we find extended deployments of parables such as those of the Tares and Wheat or of the Sower, or of sayings concerning the light under a bushel or the log in one’s own eye, but Lenin also develops his own parables, as with the parable of the door or the forest. In the process the Gospels themselves become radicalised.

Ch. 4. Miracles Can Happen

Among Lenin’s favoured turns of phrase were ‘miracles can happen’ and ‘Lo! A miracle’. In dealing with such usage, this chapter turns to a capillary analysis, concerned with unconscious undercurrents of Lenin’s thought revealed through his linguistic usage. In this case, ‘miracle’ may be regarded as the theological mode of speaking about revolution, especially if Pascal’s deployment of miracle and Alain Badiou’s theory of the event (via his engagement with Pascal) are brought into play.

Ch. 5. Revolutionary Prophet

Continuing the capillary analysis of the previous chapter, here I explore Lenin’s widespread usage of ‘prophet’ and ‘prophecy’. Rather than arguing for an unwitting theological underlay to his thought, my argument investigates Lenin’s place in the long interplay of revolutionary prophecy in both Marxism (and other radical traditions) and Christianity.

Ch. 6. Venerating Lenin

This chapter shifts gear, investigating the personality cult that grew around Lenin through the slogan, ‘Lenin Lives’ (via an engagement with Tumarkin’s flawed book). Despite his own opposition to the personality cult, Lenin’s embalmment, the erection of a cubist tomb at the foot of the Kremlin, and the tradition of viewing his preserved body all became part of such a cult. Rather than facile comparisons with religious ritual, this chapter analyses both the necessity and problems of venerating Lenin.

Ch. 7. Lenin, Althusser and Theology

The book closes by asking what contribution Lenin may make to theology. I begin by using Althusser’s famous essay, ‘Lenin and Philosophy’, to pursue the ‘unthought’ of both Althusser’s and Lenin’s intersections with theology. Not only was Althusser’s work saturated by theology, even after he turned from his explicit theological writings to Marxism, but in this essay he mentions religion on every second page. And given that religion belongs to the same category as philosophy (idealism), then Lenin’s reflections on philosophy apply just as much to theology. In particular, I make use of Althusser’s three categories to explore Lenin’s contribution to theology: Lenin’s philosophical/theological theses; Lenin and philosophical/theological practice; partisanship in philosophy/theology.

A place is still needed for discussions of anti-Semitism and Zionism, especially via engagements with Marx and Bauer in On the Jewish Question, as well as a treatment of Lenin and Hegel.


7 thoughts on “Lenin and Theology: a preliminary outline

  1. From reading your other work I don’t think length would be a huge problem. Your writing is really enjoyable to read, and I’ve been able to put it up and pick it back up again with ease, as you break up sections very well. I’m happy you’ve been cross publishing your books with Haymarket in the U.S. or I might have not seen your work. I’ve loved Ernst Bloch for a long time and I’m happy to have a good overview I can give to friends who are a bit intimidated jumping right into Bloch without understanding where he’s coming from. I look forward to what you have to say on Lenin!


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