The new book by Christina Petterson and I will be out soon. It is called Time of Troubles: A New Economic Framework for Early Christianity and is published by Fortress Press. The listed release date is 1 May, 2017.

The book is the third instalment in a series of books dealing with economics, religion and Marxism. The other two are Idols of Nations, also by the both of us and published by Fortress in 2014, and The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, published by Westminster John Knox in 2015.

Time of Troubles

The journal Critical Research on Religion has recently published a symposium on my Criticism of Heaven and Earth series. The symposium originally took place as a conference a couple of years ago, although the pieces have been revised. Matt Sharpe, Geoff Boucher and Rory Jeffs offer critical perspectives and I try my hand at a respond. The symposium can also be found at the Critical Research on Religion webpage.

As part of our research for The Time of Troubles, we have come across the class struggle of grain, or perhaps the in-grained class struggle. Our focus is the Hellenistic era in the eastern Mediterranean. When we enter our era, barley and two basic types of hulled wheat – emmer (Triticum dicoccum) in wetter areas and einkorn (Triticum monococcum) in the Levant and parts of northern Greece – were dominant. Apart from areas under irrigation (such as Egypt or lower Mesopotamia) or well-watered by other means, the average yield was 4:1, or a net product of 400 kilograms per hectare. Both barley and wheat can be used for the staples of beer and bread, although barley was much preferred for beer. Indeed, it may be argued that a major motive for human beings opting to live in such villages, with all their problems, was precisely the desire to produce alcoholic beverages from cultivated grains.

At the same time, class factors began to determine the preferences for barley or wheat. Barley (Hordeum vulgare) was already regarded by the Greeks as a food fit for slaves, peasants, and the poor. Barley is tougher than wheat, and requires less water and labour – precisely why it was preferred by those who knew its value. Both alcohol and bread played crucial roles in the class struggle over the granary. As for alcohol, the Romans and indeed Greeks preferred wine to beer, and with the spread – at least in the poleis – of Hellenistic cultural assumptions, wine displaced beer as the preferred beverage for the citified – on occasion threatening grain supplies since so much land was given over to viticulture. As a consequence, barley was not needed for such refined folk, although it remained a staple in the countryside and among peasants.

Further, the same classes and their aspirants preferred fine-floured bread rather than the course and tough loaves of the village dwellers. On slave estates and in villages required to provide produce for the local polis, the pressure was on to grow so-called naked grains rather than hulled grains, especially high-yield bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), poulard wheat (Triticum turgidum) and durum wheat (Triticum durum). Not only do they require less labour than hulled grains, but, depending on the type, they produce relatively fine-floured breads and semolina. In particular, the most desired bread was the Roman panis siligneus (siligo designated wheat flour), which was produced best in colder zones such as the Crimea, northern Italy and Gaul. If this type of wheat flour was not available, a local variant would have to do. By contrast, the peasants continued to grow the tougher hulled wheats, along with barley and oats, which were courser, more durable, and resistant to disease. Their breads the Roman ruling class called, with some disdain, panis plebeius. Slaves and city poor would also eat such bread, along with types of porridge. It is not for nothing that Josephus noted in the first century CE that in Galilee the rich ate wheat while the poor ate barley.

Joseph Ryan Kelly has just let me know that an interview, which we did last November on the Sacred economy book, has just gone online at Marginalia, a project by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

This is the outline of a book we are working on at the moment. It is due with Fortress Press by the beginning of July. In many respects, it is the companion work to the widely acclaimed book, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, published in 2015.

Time of Troubles: Economics and the World of Early Christianity


Here we situate the book within current studies of economics and the New Testament. We indicate where they fall short, in terms of both economic theory and concrete analysis. Included in this treatment are works dealing with gender, sexuality (including power and the body) and ethnic or postcolonial studies (Schüssler Fiorenza 1983, Schüssler Fiorenza 1999, Marchal 2006, Schüssler Fiorenza 2007, Marchal 2008, Glancy 2010, Nasrallah and Schüssler Fiorenza 2010, Bird 2011, Marchal 2012). Although they do not deal extensively with economics (exceptions are Horsley 1995, Horsley 1996, Elliot and Horsley 1997, Horsley 1997, Cadwallader 2008, Elliott 2008, Cadwallader 2013), these works have implications for understanding the economic situation. By contrast, we indicate the sources of our study, which includes the Régulation School of economic theory and the exhaustive study of slavery by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix. We also present a concise outline of the proposed reconstruction, with a synopsis of the chapters to follow. Each chapter provides both a reconstruction of a key feature of the economy and analyses a relevant biblical text that responds to that feature.

Chapter 1: Theory

This section of the book will outline three main approaches to economics in relation to ancient societies and their literatures. The first is the oft-unexamined approach of neoclassical economic theory, which is applied to the ancient world. Neoclassical economics assumes the role of the individualising ‘homo economicus’, the rationality and self-interest of such a figure, and the ‘normal’ state of equilibrium of an economic system. This perspective is not limited to New Testament scholarship (see Friesen 2014), but also bedevils studies of the Western Classics (Ian Morris and Joseph G. Manning). The second is the so-called oikos debate (or the primitivist-modernist debate), which arose in the late 19th century. It consisted of either positing an extreme difference between ancient economies and our own (oikos, or primitivist perspective) and the presumption that the ancients operated with the same economic forms as us—to which the well-known quote from Adam Smith on the propensity of all humans to truck, barter and exchange testifies. The oikos, or primitivist perspective, was subsequently revised and reformulated by Karl Polanyi in relation to the Ancient Near East (with his formalist-substantivist distinction), and the influential work of Moses Finley on the Greek and Hellenistic worlds. The drawbacks of framing debates over ancient economies in this way are many, but we would highlight the tendency to ignore the core economic role of agriculture, as well as a preference – for those who opt for a primitivist or substantivist position – for redistribution as the key to economic activity.

The third approach is the one we adopt. Theoretically, it draws on the work of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix and a modified version of Régulation Theory (Boyer and Saillard 2002; Jessop and Sum 2006) for the context of early Christianity.[1] Ste. Croix’s Marxist-inspired work remains the most thorough study of slavery as a social and economic formation, from 600 BCE to 600 CE. Régulation theory is notable for its flexibility, in terms of developing its categories from the data available and ensuring that such categories remain flexible. In particular, régulation theory argues that the normal state of affairs is not stability disrupted by crisis, but rather assumes the normal state as one of economic instability and crisis, interspersed with periods of controlled stability. The key question is, therefore, how specific economic systems stabilize crises in order to establish continuity for certain periods. In a little more detail, an economic system (mode of production) is made up of key building blocks (institutional forms) that come together in unique formations (regimes) to provide very limited continuity for a time within the larger scale of a mode of production. Due to internal contradictions, these regimes easily fall apart, giving way to the economic norm of “crisis.” In those efforts at continuity, a whole series of compromises have to be made, which are enabled and sustained by cultural assumptions, social forces, and above all religious beliefs (mode of régulation). We use this flexible approach to analyse the shifts that took place in the transitions to the slave-based economy of the Roman Empire.

Chapter 2: Plucking Peasant and Slave: Transformations in Subsistence-Survival

The building blocks of the ancient economy were what we call, drawing from régulation theory, institutional forms. These are the codifications of the fundamental social relations that underpin economics. The first of these institutional forms is subsistence-survival; or rather, the profound and disruptive transformations experienced by subsistence-survival in light of slavery. Our reason for beginning here is that such an institutional form concerns agriculture, which was the prime form of economic activity in the ancient world. Understanding agriculture – its practices and social determinations – is the key to that economy. So this chapter examines practices of crop-growing and animal husbandry, undertaken by peasants in the face of profound disruptions brought about by the increasing imposition of slavery. This appeared in the form of slave estates, and especially the way Roman authorities treated the hinterland as estates for the supply of the poleis. In order to provide a biblical touchstone for this analysis, we focus on the way the Gospel of Mark responds to the economic shifts underway.

Chapter 3: Disrupting the Household

The social determination of any economic activity is intrinsic to that activity. In this case, the social determination took place in terms of the household. Studies of the household have burgeoned in relation to early Christianity, as have those of the related but distinct phenomenon of patronage (Gager 1975, Kee 1980, Malina 1983, Meeks 1983, Rohrbaugh 1996). However, they have tended to elevate the household to become the key to ancient economies, rather than seeing it in relation to the other institutional forms. To a lesser extent, this tendency is also true of patronage and the pattern of honour and shame. However, we argue that patronage was a feature of both the very rich and the closely related ‘gangsterism’. We draw upon those studies, but do so in order to investigate two features. First, we examine the modes by which households determine the practices of subsistence survival agriculture. Second, we pay close attention to the way households were profoundly disrupted by and how they managed to deal with the economic shifts underway. In order to focus our study, we critically engage with archaeological and sociological research, and pay close attention to the way 1 Peter responds to and manifests the disruptions under way.

Chapter 4: Re-Producing Space: Polis, Chora and Estates

Conflicts between modes of production are inevitably marked by changes in the production of space (Lefebvre). In order to see how such shifts took place, we draw upon Ste. Croix’s insights into the patterns of polis and chora, focusing on the Gospel of John to indicate literary responses to such patterns. In their original Greek form, a polis required a chora (with its komai) to be a polis at all. The chora was the agricultural land that surrounded the polis, supplying the polis with the necessary materials of life. The choice of a new polis was predicated on the potential of a fertile chora. However, by the Hellenistic period and its patterns of colonialism, in colonised areas the relationship between polis and chora changed profoundly. Now the polis was a colonial presence: Greek-speaking, with Greek institutions and modes of life. The chora became colonised space: Aramaic-speaking (in the southern Levant), still using modes of subsistence survival and household. However, the deep disruption to these institutional forms appears in their redeployment as colonial chora, which was now understood (by those in the polis), as the hinterland. The chora as colonised hinterland was subjected to providing the colonial polis with the way of life to which its inhabitants had become accustomed.

With the development of colonial chora we find yet another instance where a where new socio-economic system draws into itself previous institutional forms. New patterns of exploitation are quite able to absorb those older forms. However, the colonised chora was overlaid with yet another layer of economic activity. These were the slave estates, which were also established for the supply of larger cities. Slaves worked the estates and slave overseers managed them. Already we find this tendency in ancient Greece, especially among the Spartans. But such estates came into their own in the Roman era. Initially they were characteristic of the immediate territory of Rome on the Italian peninsula. However, with the expansion of Roman colonialism, such estates began to be established in the colonised areas. Compared to the colonial chora, with its subsistence survival villages, the slave estates provided higher yields for the demands of the poleis (up to 50%). The result is a complex economic situation, with slaves estates interspersed in some colonial places with the patterns of subsistence survival reconfigured in terms of chora.

Chapter 5: The Slave Relation with Regard to Tribute and Exchange

The mention of slave estates brings us to the issue of slavery itself, which has been the subject of increasing attention among scholars of early Christianity (Harrill 1995, Glancy and Oxford Scholarship Online Religion. 2002, Harrill 2006). While we draw upon these valuable studies, they tend to treat slavery in isolation from the wider economic framework. Our reconstruction approaches slavery in three ways. First, slavery as the prime mode of extracting surplus generated the first theories of absolute private property. This innovation (which has made its way into capitalism via a winding route) had a profound impact on social consciousness, which we track in relation to Luke-Acts and the Letter of James. Second, we investigate how slavery altered the patterns of tribute and exchange of the Hellenistic era, with specific focus on the southern Levant. Here we draw upon Ste. Croix’s study in order to show how slavery became the prime mode of extracting surplus – from agriculture, from trade and from tribute. In doing so, we treat tribute and exchange as connected parts of the same institutional form. The third feature is what may be called the ‘slave relation’, which operated at a social, intellectual and psychic level (see Martin 1990). As slavery became integral to economic activity, it influenced the modes of human social interaction. Such interaction became mediated through slaves, but the key is that mediation itself became a wider norm within human consciousness and thereby the literature, linguistic forms and even religions produced at the time. Such was the saturation that slaves need no longer be actually present, for mediation itself became central to the way people thought and behaved.

Chapter 6: Time of Troubles: Between the Sacred and Slave Economies

Thus far we have dealt with the key institutional forms: subsistence survival, household, chora, slave estates and the slave relation. Institutional forms, however, do not exist in isolation, for they coalesce into regimes, which in turn form the parts of an over-arching mode of production. A regime is unique constellation of the institution forms, with one of those forms dominating the others. Such a regime enables a period of relative economic stability, where the system manages to reproduce itself, and crises are managed.  By contrast, a mode of production comprises varying regimes over time. It is a comprehensive socio-economic system in which a specific combination of the forces (material, technology, products) and relations (social forces) of production may be found. Our study requires careful analysis of the regimes in question, albeit in relation to a significant shift in modes of production.

In order to set the scene, we describe the regime of plunder first (with the institutional form of tribute-exchange dominant), for it characterised the late period of the Persian presence in the southern Levant before the arrival of the Greeks and then the Romans. This regime was part of what may be called the sacred economy, the mode of production dominant over the previous millennia. Initially, the Greek conquerors were content to adapt such a regime to their own uses, as we see with the Seleucids and the Ptolemies.  However, the situation became far more complex with the Romans. Instead of a shift in regimes, we encounter the deeply disruptive, violent and drawn out process of imposing a new mode of production itself. We describe the shift in modes of production as a move from a sacred economy to a slave-based economy. It produced a profound ‘time of troubles’, with the instability ensuring that new regime became clearly dominant. This transitional status is crucial for understanding the economic situation of the southern Levant. Old institutional forms – subsistence survival, household and patronage – are reconfigured in light of the new situation, with their relations to new institutional forms – slave estates, the slave relation and tribute-exchange – shaking them to the core. But these disruptions are also central to the writings of the Apostle Paul, upon which we focus, for his theological innovations may be seen as creative responses to the time of troubles in which the early Christian movement found themselves.

Chapter 7: Christianity as a Mode of Régulation

In light of this reconstruction, how should we understood the rise and eventual appeal of Christianity? We suggest that early Christianity may be understood as a mode of régulation, by which we understand a set of behavioural patterns and institutions which enable and challenge the ideological reproduction of a given regime. All of this takes place in three domains: those of (1) constraint (laws and rules) and compromises; (2) patterns of behaviour and assumptions; and (3) the methods by which these are socially reinforced and undermined. A mode of régulation need not be religious, but in the context of the first centuries of the Common Era, the primary nature of such a mode was deeply and inescapably religious. Further, during periods of relative stability, a mode of régulation provides the necessary social and ideological glue to enhance such stability. Yet, during times of turbulent change, modes of régulation become plural, exploring ways to challenge the problematic status quo, and attempting to find ways through times of troubles. This is how we understand the rise of early Christianity, as both challenge and promise. That it would also fulfil the role of constraint and stability is to be seen when the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the ideology of empire.


The conclusion wraps up the argument of the book by asking what the implications might be for understanding Christianity and economics today. Clearly, we find that careful attention to the economic situation of early Christianity is vital, so that one does not seek to make hasty analogies between its initial context and the context of capitalism. This insight is particularly pertinent for the spate of anti-empire studies that have sought to enlist New Testament texts in arguments against capitalist imperialism. Further, our study provides a way of understanding the way Christianity may be seen as a response to a time of troubles. Thus, it bears the marks of those difficult times in its various formulations (often as contradictions), undermines existing efforts at establishing a status quo in the name of a better world, and offers insights into a new order for which it all too easily becomes the ideological justification.

[1] We use “régulation,” in its French form, and not “regulation,” since the latter suggests juridicopolitical regulation at a microeconomic level (for which the better French word would be réglementation). By contrast, régulation designates the social, institutional, and ideological factors that determine the stabilities and transformations of a system as a whole.


Bird, Jennifer G. Abuse, Power and Fearful Obedience: Reconsidering 1 Peter’s Commands to Wives. London, T & T Clark International, 2011.

Boyer, Robert, and Yves Saillard. Eds. Régulation Theory: The State of the Art. Translated by Carolyn Shread. Updated ed. London: Routledge, 2002. French original, 1995.

Cadwallader, Alan. ‘The Markan/Marxist Struggle for the Household: Juliet Mitchell and the Challenge to Patriarchal/Familial Ideology’. Marxist Feminist Criticism of the Bible. Eds. R. Boer and J. Økland. Sheffield, Sheffield Phoenix, 2008: 151-181.

———. ‘Name Punning and Social Stereotyping: Reinscribing Slavery in the Letter to Philemon.’ Australian Biblical Review 60 (2013): 18-31.

Elliot, Neil and Richard A. Horsley. Romans 13:1-7 in the Context of Imperial Propaganda. Harrisburg, Trinity Press International, 1997.

Elliott, Neil. The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire. Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press, 2008.

Friesen, Stephen J. ‘The Economics of the New Testament Interpretation: Invisible Hands at Work’. Paper presented at the Society of Biblical Literature’s International Meeting, Vienna, 2014.

Gager, John G. Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Glancy, Jennifer A. Corporal Knowledge: Early Christian Bodies, Oxford University Press, 2010.

———. Slavery in Early Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Harrill, J. Albert. The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity. Tübingen, J.C.B. Mohr, 1995.

———. Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2006.

Horsley, Richard A. Galilee: History, Politics, People, Valley Forge, Trinity Press International, 1995.

———. Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis. Valley Forge, Trinity Press International, 1996.

———. Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Harrisburg, Trinity Press International, 1997.

Jessop, Bob, and Ngai-Ling Sum. Beyond the Regulation Approach: Putting Capitalist Economies in Their Place. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2006.

Kee, Howard C. Christian Origins in Sociological Perspective. London, SCM Press, 1980.

Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. London, SCM Press, 1983.

Manning, Joseph Gilbert, and Ian Morris. eds. The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Marchal, Joseph. A. Hierarchy, Unity, and Imitation: A Feminist Rhetorical Analysis of Power Dynamics in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Leiden, Brill, 2006.

———. The Politics of Heaven: Women, Gender, and Empire in the Study of Paul. Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press, 2008.

———. Studying Paul’s Letters: Contemporary Perspectives and Methods. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012.

Martin, Dale B. Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity. Yale University Press, 1990.

Meeks, Wayne A. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1983.

Nasrallah, Laura S. and E. Schüssler Fiorenza. Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2010.

Rohrbaugh, Richard L. The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation. Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.

Schüssler Fiorenza, E. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York, Crossroad, 1983.

———. Rhetoric and Ethic: The Politics of Biblical Studies. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1999.

———. The Power of the Word : Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2007.

de Ste. Croix, Geoffrey Ernest Maurice. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquest. London: Duckworth, 1981.

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.


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.


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.


I am writing an article on Farnham Maynard (1881-1973), who was a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. He wrote a number booklets and contributions to books on Christianity and communism, which were texts of speeches he gave: Economics and the Kingdom of God (1929), ‘Christianity and Socialism’ in A Fair Hearing for Socialism (1944) and Religion and Revolution (1947). More on this material soon, but I am quite intrigued by a forword given to the final work by none other than the secretary of the Victorian branch of Australian Communist Party, Jack Blake.

This foreword manifests the tensions of Marxist approaches to religion, found in the works of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Indeed, does so in a rather sharp fashion:

The Communist Party welcomes the growing interest among Christian people in the popular striving for a new social order as revealed in this collection of lectures which correctly set forth the Marxist viewpoint.

The Communist world outlook is based on dialectical materialism, which means that the Marxist does not include religion as part of his mental outlook.

Precisely because we Communists base ourselves on the dialectical materialist outlook, we are strongly opposed to any kind of persecution of religion, or attacks upon people’s religious beliefs. Frequently it is said that this is merely a tactic of the Communists to dupe innocent Christian people; actually it is a matter of deep principle with us; it arises from the fundamentals of our Marxist outlook on life.

Marxism teaches that religion arises from the economic and social foundations of society, and as society is changed and reaches the highest pinnacles of human attainment and enlightenment, religion as such will wither away.

Christian people believe otherwise, but the great question now posed before them is whether they are so lacking in faith as to defend an outmoded form of society as a means for preserving their religion, or whether they have enough faith in Christianity to play their part in the advance to a new form of society for the betterment of mankind: a society in which all religious freedoms will be preserved and even increased.

No person is excluded from the ranks of the Communist Party because of religious beliefs. For our part, we gladly welcome any steps to increase co-operation between Christians and Communists having a common interest in the advancement of mankind.

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