2 Thessalonians: The Difference between Lenin and Conservatives

What is the difference between Lenin and conservatives? The key – believe it or not – lies in the interpretation of a biblical verse, 2 Thessalonians 3: 10:

He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

Let us see how they interpret the text. In a speech from 1999, one Tony Abbott (a forgotten Australian politician) opines, ‘Disincentives to work have been recognised at least since the time of St Paul (who said that those who did not work should not eat)’. The speech itself concerned unemployment and the work-for-the-dole programme. For Abbott, of course, those who do not work are those who are at the bottom of the social heap, the unemployed, the riff-raff, the no-hopers. For conservatives like Abbott, they really don’t want to work and must therefore be given incentives to do so, such as cut their benefits or get them to engage in government-designated slave labour, euphemistically called ‘work-for-the-dole’. By contrast, the owners of capital, the multi-billionaires, work hardest of all, for otherwise how would they have become rich?

As for Lenin, it is precisely the rich capitalists, as well as the bourgeoisie who do no work, for they rely upon the labour of others for their obscene profits. During the famine of 1918, brought about not through a shortage of grain but through the destruction of the transport network by the First World War and the White Armies, Lenin addressed a crowd of workers in Petrograd as follows:

The bourgeoisie are disrupting the fixed prices, they are profiteering in grain, they are making a hundred, two hundred and more rubles’ profit on every pood of grain; they are disrupting the grain monopoly and the proper distribution of grain by resorting to bribery and corruption and by deliberately supporting everything tending to destroy the power of the workers, which is endeavouring to put into effect the prime, basic and root principle of socialism: ‘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).

It looks like this biblical text may well be a shibboleth between reactionary and revolutionary approaches to the Bible.

As an afterword: this slogan was plastered throughout cities, towns and villages during the dire situation of the ‘civil’ war (1917-23). The Metropolitan Vvedensky, a left-leaning priest and a leader of the Renovationist Church that sought to work with the communists, comments on this slogan in a debate with Anatoly Lunacharsky:

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.


21 thoughts on “2 Thessalonians: The Difference between Lenin and Conservatives

    1. Often his texts read like they were written today. He uses this biblical text often, occasionally giving it a slightly different reading, In the State and Revolution, it becomes the mark of socialism as the first stage to communism, since it still has bourgeois remnants (a problematic distinction). By 1918, however, he had shifted to arguing for its key role.

      1. We might also consider the way biblical references would be designed to seduce an audience who might otherwise be alienated by the communist (= atheist) message. Again I am thinking of the way leftist politicians offer simple reforms as a (hopefully?) first stage: with reference to bus fares in the ongoing London Mayoral election, but I am also reminded of Jack Shepherd, in Trevor Griffiths’ Bill Brand, asking if the price of sugar is really all we have to talk about. Or is that too far off-topic?

      2. That is a common argument regarding Lenin and Lunacharsky – that they used biblical and religious references and images when addressing peasants and workers for whom these were important. But that leaves such an approach at a tactical level (not a bad one). It seems to me that deeper issues are at stake as well – just finishing a book on all this.

    1. Sorry old chap, but speaking as someone based in the US, there are large numbers of ‘super rich’ who do no work/sweat, but who manage to eat pretty well. One of them– Mitt Romney– is about to become the Republican presidential candidate.

  1. I would also want to suggest that Lenin’s interpretation is the one most faithful to Paul (without getting into the question of who wrote 2 Thess) whereas Abbott’s is not.

    1. My tendency is that the Bible easily slides one or the other, without too much twisting. But you can’t argue that with every text and on this one, Lenin seems to get it (unwittingly)

      1. The Bible, sure. Harder to make the same statement about material attributed to the same author within the Bible.

      2. Not sure I entirely agree: the same sentence maybe, but over an entire collection all manner of inconsistencies appear (Paul is a very good example). Apart from ideological tensions, the human brain is far from the consistent, calm rational beast that scholarship assumes. Or at least mine is.

      3. I agree that people are not nearly so consistent and rational as some scholars like to think. I disagree about Paul for the most part though. I exclude the contested letters from the genuine Pauline corpus, which solves a lot of problems, and I also stress that all of “Paul’s” letters were the products of multiple contributors, which solves more problems (this multiple contributors thing doesn’t get nearly the attention that it should — perhaps because we’re still looking for a single hero figure?). While people are inconsistent on a regular basis, I still think our default position should be to try assume that they want to be or are trying to be consistent (and maybe they even are!).

      4. Yes, in some ways. Not to say that Paul wasn’t a single person and all that, but all the so-called “Pauline” material was produced by a group of people. All that we’ve been accustomed to call “Paul’s” theology, was the theology of different overlapping groups of people (given that the different epistles reference different but overlapping co-authors or scribes). True, Paul plays a prominent role — what with the autobiographical sections of the epistles — but he is not alone in producing them.

      5. I’ve always been puzzled by the certainty with which scholars are able to determine the ‘genuine’ Paul, purely on external criteria, so the overlapping, collective ‘Paul’ makes more sense. Beats endless ruminations on the supposed ipsissima verba.

      6. I do think this recognition problematizes arguments for authenticity that are based upon the appearance of certain words or the tone of the letter (the primary but not only reasons for excluding Col and Eph). Maybe in those epistles the voice or tone of TImothy comes through more forcefully but this is no reason to conclude that Paul was uninvolved in the composition. Maybe, for that matter, Romans sounds so much more heavy in tone because of the influence of the scribe used to write that letter (scribes were permitted to impact content more than we tend to realize). Still, we are left with letters that seem to possess content that is blatantly contradictory to the content of other letters — compare the Pastorals with Galatians or 1-2 Corinthians — so I find that to be a more solid basis for distinguishing “genuine” from “non-genuine” letters. Sure, it’s possible that (the collective) “Paul” became more Conservative over time (much of the movement did, especially the part that gained ascendency over other parts… as tends to happen with any radical movement that is institutionalized over time and often very rapidly as it gains attention and members)… but I’m less convinced because that seems to be (a) such a radical about face; and (b) because I don’t think Paul lived long enough for such a turn around.

      7. I still think that there is a deeper assumption in all of this concerning consistency or its lack. There’s the old text critical paradox, that the smoothest text is the most suspicious, since it is probably to most worked-over to remove problems. The catch is that text criticism can work only with texts that shows inconsistencies. But at the level of the processes of the human brain, especially in light of significant events and experiences, it seems to me that we are systemically inconsistent (and a good thing too). You work with a different a priori, assuming consistency until proven otherwise.

      1. Of course. I’d like to think that all my arguments are watertight, or at least give the appearance of doing so. But they are never going to be. Is this a case of paradox, dialectic or the usual functioning of my limited mind?

      2. Or it’s just a case of me making a ding-dong comment that doesn’t really affirm or refute anything we were discussing.

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