Red Theology: Table of Contents and Introduction

This book – subject to reviewer suggestions – may well be published later in 2018. It is called Red Theology: On the Christian Communist Tradition. It began as a collection of essays, but as I worked through the material, I realised my thoughts had developed, so I ended up rewriting most of the book, along with with chapters that have not as yet appeared in print.

Here are the table of contents and the introduction.

Chapter 1 – Karl Kautsky’s Forerunners of Modern Socialism

The Manifold Types of Heretical Communism.

Müntzer and Münster

Theology and Revolution

Chapter 2 – Early Christian Communism as a Political Myth

Reconstruction: Kautsky

Reconstruction: Rosa Luxemburg

Consumption Versus Production, or, Transition

The Question of History

Political Myth

Chapter 3 – Reaction and Revolution: How to Read the Apostle Paul

Anti- or Pro- Empire?

Contradiction Analysis

Imaginary Resolution


Chapter 4 – Omnia Sunt Communia: Theology and Politics in Luther Blissett’s Q

Q and the Marxist Tradition


Conclusion: How to Be Truly Radical

Chapter 5 – John Calvin and the Problem of Ungodly Rulers

Two Kingdoms or One

Anarchy or Tyranny

Ungodly Rulers


God’s Agents


Let Princes Hear and Be Afraid!

Subject Only in the Lord


Chapter 6 – From Luther to Marx and Engels

Human Nature

Engels, Luther and Thomas Müntzer

Marx and Luther

Two Revolutionary Stages

A Revolutionary Reformation?

The New Revolution


Chapter 7 – Heilsgeschichte, History and Marxism

Calculating the Day.

Bruno Bauer and Marx

Engels and the Apocalypse

Early Eschatological Communism

Moving Mountains: Concerning Narrative Structure

Stirner’s Ego and Christ

Towards Contradiction

Relativising Theology

Chapter 8 – Revisiting the Marxist-Christian Dialogue


From Then …

To Now

Human Nature


Prometheus and the Future

Conclusion: Reconsidering the Background

Chapter 9 – Althusser and the Possibility of Religious Revolution

Trapped in the Past

Sources of Hope

From Social Revolution …

To Spiritual Revolution


Chapter 10 – By Science and Prayer: The Christian Communism of Farnham Maynard

Science and Prayer

Modulations of an Anglo-Catholic Dialectic

Discerning the Tension between Revolution and Reaction

Christianity and Socialism

Conclusion: On Enthusiasm

Chapter 11 – Christian Communism and the Bolsheviks

Peasant Socialism

Twisting over Tolstoy



Chapter 12 – The Taiping Revolution: Christian Communism Comes to China

Hong and the Bible

Revolution and Community

Interpreting the Taiping Revolution

Mao Zedong and the Taiping Revolution

Chapter 13 – Chinese Christian Communism in the Early Twentieth Century

Revolutionary Times and Influences

Christianity and Communism



Identity and Difference

Conclusion: Christianity and Marxism with Chinese Characteristics?

Chapter 14 – Religion and Revolution in Korea


Protestant Christians

The DPRK Today

Juche Theology?


‘All things in common’ has been the slogan of Christian communists for some two millennia. It originally comes from Acts 2:44, with a variation in Acts 4:32. But it was actually a Marxist, Karl Kautsky, who established that there is a distinct tradition of this form of communism, inspired by these biblical texts and constituting the longest continuous form of communism in the world. I will have more to say about Kautsky in the first chapter, for I have long been intrigued by his massive work from 1895, Forerunners of Modern Socialism, which traces the history of Christian communism through European history. Given its relative obscurity, I set about rereading Kautsky as a preparation for writing this book, especially since much of the work remains untranslated. As is the way with such re-readings, I saw it in a way I had not seen before, identifying new insights and avenues of thought.

This experience led me to change the original plan of the book, which I had imagined would take shape as a volume of collected essays that I had written earlier, with some mild editing for the sake of the present work. Instead, I revised and rewrote most of what I had studied earlier, in the light of new research and thought. Only a few of the chapters have come through somewhat unscathed: those on the novel Q, Calvin, Luther, Althusser and Chinese Christian communism. The remainder is almost or completely new, especially since I have delved into areas I had not researched before, such as the Marxist-Christian dialogue of the 1960s and 1970s and the distinct developments of Christian communism in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (informally known as North Korea). The result is a largely new work with its own logic.

I have organised the chapters in a geographical manner, following the intriguing path of Christian communism. After a careful reassessment of Kautsky’s identification of the tradition itself, I focus on the West Asian provenance of Christianity. This entails an examination of the nature of early Christian communism and the debates that swirl around this phenomenon, before engaging with its appropriation and transformation in a European context. By this time, my preferred approach should become clear, for I deal with the manifestations of Christian communism from different angles, whether a popular novel concerning the revolutionary currents during the Reformation, Calvin’s struggles over whether one should overthrow ungodly rulers, or the engagements with Luther by Marx and Engels. In the modern era, I engage with debates over whether Marxism is a ‘secularised’ form of ‘salvation history’, the Marxist-Christian dialogue and the intriguing efforts by a young Louis Althusser to develop a form of spiritual revolution. My love of finding unexamined corners of the tradition appears yet again with a chapter on the Australian Christian communist and priest, Farnham Maynard. This chapter provides the first step into other parts of the world, with studies of the consistent need for the Russian Bolsheviks to engage with new forms of Christian communism, its initial appearance in China with the Taiping Revolution in the nineteenth century, the development of a distinct Chinese tradition in the early twentieth century and then the unexpected but fascinating transformations on the Korean peninsula, with a focus on Kim Il Sung.

A couple of major themes appear early in my analysis, so let me identity them here. The first is that Christian communism is predicated on profound criticisms of the state of the world, usually from a sense of radical divine transcendence. For some, the answer has been to establish alternative and inevitably small communities that seek to embody a different way of living out their belief and practice within the world. They may wish to provide alternative models, hoping that others will see the benefits and thereby gradually transform society as a whole. Or they may distance themselves from the world, desiring to be left in peace so as to develop their communities. For others, the answer has been revolutionary. The theologically inspired criticisms of the injustices and oppressions of the status quo have led them to the position that the only answer is a revolutionary overthrow. At times, we find that both of these elements – the communal and the revolutionary – come together, while at other times a peaceful community is forced to engage in revolutionary action in response to oppression from outside forces. The only path left to achieve their desired communism is to engage in revolutionary violence.

The second theme concerns the political ambivalence of Christian thought and practice, embodied above all in the biblical texts that picture early Christian communism and those that advocate obedience to and support of the rulers of this world. I argue that this tension should not be seen in terms of a core-periphery model. According to this model, one may argue that either Christianity’s conservative or revolutionary dimensions constitute the core and that the other is thereby a peripheral element, or perhaps even a distortion of the basic truth. Instead, it is clear that Christianity struggles with a tension between these two positions. The same sacred texts and the same doctrinal positions can easily support the status quo or they can inspire profound criticism, if not revolutionary action. We see this dynamic time and again through the history of Christianity.

It remains to offer a synopsis of the fourteen chapters in the book. The first chapter provides a critical engagement with Kautsky’s landmark Foundations of Modern Socialism, identifying his key structuring assumptions (which are not always consistent), the nature of his engagement with the many historical manifestations of Christian communism, with specific attention given to his enthusiasm for the 1525 Peasant War (Thomas Müntzer) and the 1534-1535 Anabaptist revolution in Münster. Apart from establishing a tradition of Christian communism, which moves well past Engels’s initial efforts, Kautsky also hints at a key insight: the biblical and theological nature of this communism was not a mere cloak for more central political and economic issues. Instead, its theological form was integral to its political nature.

Now we can turn to the West Asian origins of Christianity. Chapter two entails a more detailed study of early Christian communism, focusing initially on Kautsky’s comparatively well-known Foundations of Christianity (1908). Kautsky wrote the book – the first Marxist study of Christianity – in response to criticisms of his briefer and earlier outline. But I am also interested in Rosa Luxemburg’s reconstruction, which shares much with Kautsky, but seeks more explicitly to address the concerns of the many workers joining the Social-Democratic party who were also believers. Both of them make the specific argument that this early communism was one of consumption rather than production, which meant that there was no change in the mode of production itself. Only modern communism, they argue, proposes such a shift, but the argument faces some difficulty when one tracks carefully through Kautsky’s work to find that a significant number of communist movements before the modern era also engaged in distinctly new productive activities. The final argument of this chapter concerns political myth. Given that the historical evidence for early Christian communism is not conclusive, I propose that it functions as this type of myth: it offers an image and promise of a community that produced distinct and concrete historical manifestations.

In the third chapter, I pick up the other side of the political ambivalence noted earlier. In this case, my concern is a key text that continues to be used to support the powers that be: Romans 13:1-7. After an assessment of efforts to deal with this troublesome text, I examine the many contradictions in the texts of the Apostle Paul so as to develop a Mao-inspired contradiction analysis. This takes me to economic realities. As in the previous chapter (and based on earlier work), I examine the relevant aspects of the ancient economy of the Greco-Roman world, concluding that Paul’s many contradictions are simultaneously formal trace and persuasive efforts to provide an imaginary resolution – with distinct historical effects – of the profound tensions of the socio-economic situation.

Chapter four moves into the European sixteenth century (Reformation), but from a different angle. It examines the translations between theology and radical politics in the popular novel Q, originally published in Italian in 1999. Written by the Italian collective, Luther Blissett (now Wu Ming), this long novel provides a skilful and engaging retelling of the revolutionary waves of the time, working around a central and unnamed character (shadowed by a Vatican agent) who is involved in the Peasant and Münster revolutions, the radical groups in the northern Netherlands and in Antwerp, as well as the possibility of revolution in Italy itself. I seek to situate the novel within the Marxist approach Christian communism, which includes – apart from Engels and Kautsky – Anatoly Lunacharsky and Ernst Bloch. Antonio Gramsci also peers over the pages of Q, especially in his wish that Italy too might have experienced the Reformation. From there, I analyse four themes or tensions with which the novel deals, themes that are inherited from that tradition but to which it gives new angles: passion and reason, rupture and communalism, the political ambivalence of Christianity, and the issue of translation between radical politics and theology.

The next chapter moves to another expected corner – the work of John Calvin, especially the last chapter of his Institutes (4.20.32). Why Calvin? Is he not the arch-conservative, proponent of predestination and at the roots of so much evangelical conservatism today? In this part of the Institutes, we find a somewhat different Calvin. Despite his strenuous efforts to advocate obedience to rulers (Romans 13), he is too careful a student of the Bible to avoid the conclusion that one is duty-bound to disobey any ungodly and tyrannical ruler. By focusing on the literary structure of Calvin’s argument, I analyse his struggles over this question: his assertions that rulers should be obeyed come what may; the recognition that God and God’s appointed agents may under certain conditions punish and remove tyrannical rulers. All of this leads to his final recommendation not to obey ungodly rulers. In this matter, Calvin reveals the tension mentioned earlier, between radical and conservative elements of Christian theology.

The sixth chapter concerns the other great leader of the ‘magisterial’ Reformation, Luther, but it does via another angle. I examine the engagements with Luther by Marx and Engels, doing so in three sections. The first focuses on human nature, showing how the Augustinian focus of Lutheranism contrasts with the tendency towards a more Pelagian position in Marxism. The second turns to Engels’s assessment of the German Peasant revolution of 1525, in which Engels seeks to characterise Luther as the champion of a fledgling bourgeoisie (burghers and reforming princes), only to signal his awareness of Luther’s more radical, if not revolutionary edge that inspired leaders like Thomas Müntzer. The third and longest section concerns Marx, who, somewhat surprisingly, offers a critically dialectical engagement with Luther. For Marx, Luther marks the necessary first stage of the German revolution, without whom the second stage could not happen.

By now we have moved into the modern era in Europe, when Christian communism and Marxism found themselves in constant, albeit often uneasy, interaction. In this light, chapter seven focuses on the abiding question as to whether Marxism is a form of ‘secularised’ Jewish and Christian Heilsgeschichte, or salvation history. The answer turns out to be negative, although this entails analysing specific materials from Marx and Engels. These include Marx’s close interactions with Bruno Bauer, Engels’s lifelong fascination with the biblical Apocalypse and the apocalyptic and biblically inspired forms of communism with which Marx and Engels engaged. In each case, we find that both of the founders of modern communism opposed those forms that were shaped by biblical models. The key, however, is the lengthy and oft-ignored polemic against Max Stirner in The German Ideology. Finding that Stirner is still beholden to Christian themes, Marx and Engels begin to develop the first and rough outlines of what would become historical and dialectical materialism. The fulcrum of history becomes contradiction, understood in a dialectical fashion that cuts a path away from Heilsgeschichte to a new model of history, albeit one that still relies on a fulcrum. In the process, they offer a radical relativisation of the claims that theologians and philosophers have often made concerning the ontological and historical priority of theology.

The eighth chapter concerns the Marxist-Christian dialogue of the 1960s and 1970s. This is a topic that has interested me for more than three decades, although this is the first opportunity to assess its insights and shortcomings, with a view to current debates. While it was born from a sense of crisis, in terms of profound changes brought about by the anti-colonial struggles, the realities of potential nuclear war and the sense that both communist and capitalist societies had stagnated, it was also a very European debate on which the rest of world only impinged in certain ways. Of less interest now are their concerns over theism and atheism in relation to Marx’s works, as well as praxis, which they interpreted from Marx’s early theses on Feuerbach as ‘sensuous human activity’. Indeed, this emphasis reveals the profound influence that the publication of Marx’s early ‘humanistic’ works had on the debate. Both the ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ of 1844 and The German Ideology had been collated, organised and published in 1932. Here was a Marx many felt shed a new light on the whole tradition, so much so that they could talk about humanism, alienation, protest (via Prometheus) and the future. Here too theologians found much that could be appropriated, transformed and criticised. However, my treatment of these issues shifts the register, dealing now with human nature, the need for a materialist doctrine of evil, the question of how protest appears under socialism in power and the possibility that the development of proleptic theology at the time was actually due to the influence of Marxism. I close by suggesting – contrary to the participants – that the opening for the dialogue was actually created, belatedly, by the decade long compact between the Soviet Union’s communist government and the Russian Orthodox Church between 1943 and 1953.

One of the traps of the Marxist-Christian dialogue is to assume that person was one or the other, but not both at the same time. The reality was that some were indeed both Marxists and Christians, so this chapter and the next examine the work of two examples. In chapter nine I engage with Louis Althusser, particularly an important text, a ‘Matter of Fact’, written in 1948. In this essay, Althusser attempts to develop a theory of the revolution of religious life. It appeared at an important juncture of his life, for he was still a member of the Roman Catholic Church, but had recently joined to Communist Party of France. The tensions of that conjunction are clear, but I am interested in his attempt to extend, by analogy, the Marxist theory of social revolution into a revolution of personal spiritual life. In this effort, the context is the apparent untranscendable horizon of the Roman Catholic Church. So Althusser begins by outlining the condition of an ailing, out-of-date, and reactionary church. He then focuses on the conditions for wider social revolution, with which progressive members among the faithful must join in a politics of alliance. Finally, he attempts – all too briefly – to outline what a personal religious revolution might be. In his own way, Althusser finds himself part of the long tradition of revolutionary Christianity.

The other person who embodies both dimensions within his own thought and action, thereby carrying on the dialogue internally, is the Australian priest, Farnham Maynard (1882-1973). Long the Anglican priest at St Peter’s Eastern Hill in Melbourne, he was not only a proponent of the spiritual revival embodied in Anglo-Catholicism, but also one who had trained in science. So his approach to Christian communism was via a method that may be called a dialectic of science and prayer. With this method, Maynard – in papers usually written for conferences at which Marxists, Christians and Christian communists were involved – develops his own understandings of the tension between reaction and revolution, seeking to address both communists who were somewhat sceptical of religion and Christians who had their reservations about ‘godless’ communism. That Maynard felt they should work together is obvious, but he also retained a distinct role for Christian theology in constructing socialism. It could provide what Marxism could not, namely, answers to the deeper questions of existence and the purpose of life. My interest in Maynard is not merely due to the fact that he was an Australian priest, but that he was also enthusiastic about socialism in power, visiting both the Soviet Union and China at a time when travel to such places was banned by the Australian government.

Maynard’s travels – apart from the fact that we have already moved outside Europe – takes me to both places. Chapter eleven deals with the Russian Revolution and the effort to construct socialism in that part of the world. Although I draw on earlier research, the shape of the chapter is new. It begins with the constant need for the Bolsheviks and especially Lenin to come to terms with Russian peasant socialism, embodied in the simple but profound slogan, ‘the land is God’s’. The next section analyses Lenin’s complex engagements with Tolstoy, the most well-known exponent of this tradition of peasant Christian communism. While Lenin seeks to identify the distinct insights from Tolstoy, especially in terms of the profound criticisms of feudal and capitalist exploitation in Russia, he dismisses Tolstoy’s Christian communism as simplistic, spiritualised and impractical. But Lenin misses the way Tolstoy deploys both the revolutionary and communal dimensions of the tradition I have identified. In Tolstoy, they are inseparable. The third section engages with Anatoly Lunacharsky, who offers the most unique Russian contribution to the whole tradition. As a resolute atheist, Lunarcharsky developed ‘God-building’, by which he meant that the gods of religion were ideal models to which human beings should strive through socialist construction. Lunarcharsky saw revolutions as high points of this God-building, but his lasting contribution was to structure the world’s first socialist education system in terms of God-building, leaving a legacy for later socialist education policies.

In the twelfth chapter I move to China, back in time a little to the Taiping Revolution in the mid-nineteenth century. It was not only the largest revolutionary movement in the world at the time, but also one that was inspired by Christianity. Indeed, it marks the moment when the revolutionary religious tradition arrived in China. My account of the revolution stresses the role of the Bible, its radical reinterpretation by the Taiping revolutionaries, and the role it played in their revolutionary acts and reconstruction of economic and social relations. My assessment of the Taiping Revolution needs to engage with the many interpretations offered in both Chinese and foreign works, since I seek to provide a distinct interpretation in light of the Christian communist tradition. To this end, I identify a number of key features: its revolutionary nature, challenging the whole imperialist system in China; its effort at constructing a different social order; the role of unorthodox or ‘heterodox’ interpretations of the Bible, which is a distinct feature of the tradition; so also is the role of dreams and visions; it was deeply contextualised or ‘sinified’; and it appealed primarily to peasants and disaffected labourers, especially miners. I close the chapter by considering Mao Zedong’s cautious assessment, particularly since it is so often seen as the first modern revolution in China.

Still in China, the thirteenth chapter moves to the first part of the twentieth century when a number of Christian theologians engaged actively with communism and Marxist theory. I focus on the work of Wu Leichuan (1870-1944), Wu Yaozong (1893–1979) and Zhu Weizhi (1905-1999), who creatively sought engagements between Christianity and historical materialism and thereby articulated a unique Chinese development, although they also drew on international currents of thought. The chapter analyses their varying methods of doing so, their reconstructions of the figure of Jesus and early Christianity, and the efforts to see both the links and differences between Christianity and communism.

The final chapter concerns Korea, or more specifically the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. That this part of the world is in our own time somewhat demonised and misunderstood is perhaps an understatement. But this situation has meant that very little serious study has been undertaken. My analysis begins by considering the role of Chondoism, a uniquely Korean form of religion that arose in the nineteenth century. Not only does it reveal that religion and revolution are not restricted to Christianity, but it also enables me to delve into the work of Kim Il Sung. He offers a knowledgeable assessment, seeking to emphasise the deeply revolutionary credentials of Chondoism. The next section continues with Kim Il Sung, now in terms of his extensive assessments of Protestant Christianity. While he is in two minds about how much he was part of the Presbyterian Church in his youth, he is certainly appreciative of the sustained support he received from the close family friend, the Reverend Son Jong Do. At times, he deploys classic Reformed theological arguments, leading him to assert that there is ‘no law preventing religious believers from making the revolution’. The final section analyses the situation in the DPRK today, drawing on some insightful studies that show how Christianity has survived and flourished once again in this part of the world – contrary to many unfounded assertions that would have us believe otherwise. Most intriguingly, it is a form of Christianity that is part of the socialist construction in the DPRK and one of its main avenues of international diplomacy.

Two final comments. First, a book such as this does not seek to deal with every aspect of the Christian communist tradition, for this would require an encyclopaedia. For example, I do not engage with Latin American Liberation theology, which for many is the most well-known recent manifestation of the tradition. Since this subject has been tackled competently by many others, I have nothing to add. Instead, I prefer to focus on different angles, forgotten works and unexpected corners, such as Kautsky’s Forerunners, Farnham Maynard or the DPRK. Second, as I mentioned earlier, a few of the chapters have appeared in earlier publications, with some moderate editing to render them suitable for the longer format of a monograph. The remaining chapters – the majority – have either been completely rewritten or appear here for the first time.


Class and grain

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.

Book outline: Time of Troubles: Economics and the World of Early Christianity

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.

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel now published

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is out. Permit me to say that I like the way this book has turned out, largely due to careful and detailed attention from the people at Westminster John Knox Press. It is part of the Library of Ancient Israel series. The blurb reads:

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel offers a new reconstruction of the economic context of the Bible and of ancient Israel. It argues that the key to ancient economies is with those who worked on the land rather than in intermittent and relatively weak kingdoms and empires. Drawing on sophisticated economic theory (especially the Régulation School) and textual and archaeological resources, Roland Boer makes it clear that economic “crisis” was the norm and that economics is always socially determined. He examines three economic layers: the building blocks (five institutional forms), periods of relative stability (three regimes), and the overarching mode of production. Ultimately, the most resilient of all the regimes was subsistence survival, for which the regular collapse of kingdoms and empires was a blessing rather than a curse. Students will come away with a clear understanding of the dynamics of the economy of ancient Israel. Boer’s volume should become a new benchmark for future studies.

Sacred Economy

This is almost embarrassing: endorsements for the Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is due out by the end of the month, in the prestigious Library of Ancient Israel series with Westminster John Knox. But I have been sent (thanks Dan) the endorsements that will adorn the first pages of the book and the back cover. I must admit to being somewhat embarrassed by posting them here in shameless self-promotion:

This is a remarkable book. It is a brilliant analysis of ancient Israel in its broader historical context. Boer has a more profound and extensive knowledge of the ancient economy than any other scholar working on the ancient world. Given the prevailing neoliberal ideology in Western societies, many biblical and ancient Near East scholars looked for trade in an early capitalist market economy; but working from a profound knowledge of the history of political economic theory, Boer offers a desperately needed counter to such anachronistic analysis. In opposition to individualizing, desocializing, and dehistoricizing neoclassical theory, he investigates, explains, and documents how both subsistence and extractive economic life was embedded in social relations, cultural traditions, and institutionalized social forms. He carefully builds a flexible theoretical framework in a multifaceted analysis that is able to comprehend the many interrelated factors and institutional forms of the ancient “sacred economy.” Supplementing his magisterial discussion, his excursuses, critical comments on other approaches, and bibliography provide guided tutorials and rich resources for specialist and nonspecialist alike. Boer’s book finally sets study of economic life in ancient Israel and Southwestern Asia in general on a sound critical theoretical basis from which archaeological explorations, historical investigations, and textual interpretation can work with confidence.

—Richard A. Horsley, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion, University of Massachusetts

This bold and theoretically rich economic analysis should stimulate the rereading of many biblical texts and the rethinking of Israelite life altogether. Rather than dwelling on temple, palace, and the apparatus of empire, Boer shows the economic resilience through centuries of subsistence-level households and villages. While recognizing the injustices common in kinship-based communities, he nonetheless dares to suggest that agricultural subsistence models may hold the greatest promise for the thriving of contemporary communities.

—Ellen F. Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology, Duke Divinity School

Marxism as a practical political ideology may have lost its momentum, but Marxism as an analytical method has not. Rather, this method is very precise and produces surprising results. Roland Boer’s study is a fine example of what can be achieved by a consequent use of this method. Boer distinguishes between two societal systems in the ancient Near East: the subsistence survival strategy in its various forms and extractive regimes such as states. Thus he has authored a highly readable new kind of book about the society of ancient Israel and its economic forces.

—Niels Peter Lemche, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biblical Exegesis, University of Copenhagen

Roland Boer is without doubt the world’s foremost scholar on the relation between Marxism and religion. Ste. Croix’s magisterial work on ancient Greece set the absolute standard for scholarship on the economies and societies of that part of the world; this book will set the same bar for work on the ancient Near East.

—Kenneth Surin, Professor of Literature and Professor of Religion and Critical Theory, Duke University

Roland Boer’s informative and colorful study provides a thorough treatment of the “sacred economy” of ancient Israel. Boer examines household structures, the plight of subsistence farmers, and financial exchanges. By applying the insights of economic theory, Boer is able to offer a fresh appraisal of key biblical texts. Full of interesting facts and lively prose, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the vagaries of economic life during the period in which the Bible was written.

—Samuel L. Adams, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Union Presbyterian Seminary

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is nothing short of groundbreaking. Through an unparalleled understanding of economic theory, Boer corrects two misguided assumptions in approaching biblical economies: the tendency to assume capitalist structures and the tendency to isolate economy from the rest of the social world. Boer cogently articulates how the economy of Ancient Israel was deeply integrated into its religious institutions. With lucid prose and engaging style, this book will be a welcome resource for students and scholars for years to come.

—Roger S. Nam, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, George Fox University

A masterful integration of biblical studies, archaeology, and Marxist critical theory that greatly enriches our understanding of the economics of ancient Israel in the larger context of Southwest Asia. Boer analyzes how the five building blocks of this economy—subsistence survival, kinship household, patronage, (e)states, and tribute exchange—rearranged themselves under three economic regimes to respond to different economic situations. Key to Boer’s argument is the fact that any economic crisis or collapse in the Levant, including Israel, primarily affected the upper classes, not the majority of the population. From the perspective of subsistence farmers, indentured servants, and debt slaves, the collapse of kingdoms and empires meant a reprieve from oppressive forms of extraction and the reemergence of the durable subsistence regime. A stimulating and provocative contribution that will be required reading for future investigations into the Bible and economics.

—Gale A. Yee, Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies, Episcopal Divinity School

Roland Boer offers the reader a comprehensive and exhaustive study of Israel’s economy in the context of the ancient world. He draws all sorts of economic theories and models into both use and criticism. The reader is encouraged to read through to the end, where Boer asks the question—and seeks to answer it—as to what normative patterns can be discerned for considering economic life today.

—Patrick D. Miller, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary

Boer’s growing corpus of critical work has not received nearly the attention that it merits. With this book Boer establishes himself as a frontline critical scholar whose work will be an inescapable reference point for future work. This courageous book is nothing short of a tour de force in which Boer probes the economic organization, structure, practice, and resources of the ancient Near East and ancient Israel as a subset of that culture. His study is organized around “regimes” of allocation that distribute resources and of extraction that plunder resources according to the deployment of sociopolitical power. The discussion maintains a continuing dialectic of “subsistence” and “surplus” that kept economic practice endlessly open and unstable. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this book and the sheer erudition that has made it possible. Boer’s patient attention to detail, his mastery of a huge critical literature, and the daring of his interpretive capacity combine to make this book a “must” for any who want to probe the economic substructure of biblical faith and the culture that was its environment.

—Walter Brueggemann, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary

Sacred Economy

Deutscher Prize for In the Vale of Tears

It’s now official: In the Vale of Tears is listed as the winner of the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize at the prize website (see also the announcement at the Historical Materialism page and at the University of Newcastle). The award was for the book and for the whole Criticism of Heaven and Earth series, which is just as well, since I have always been a little ambivalent about In the Vale of Tears. All the same, I am somewhat gobsmacked by the fact that the other short-listed books were Frederic Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, Costas Lapavistas, Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, and John Saul and Patrick Bond, South Africa – The Present as History.

In the Vale of Tears 02

In the Vale of Tears 01

Updated outline of Saint Iosif: Stalin and Religion

As many may have been aware, I am working towards a book called Saint Iosif: Stalin and Religion. Preparation entails a careful reading of his written works, from which I have posted from time to time. To my knowledge, few actually read Stalin these days, and yet he is, for good or ill, possibly the most important communist of the twentieth century, precisely because he remains such a controversial figure. My approach deploys both critical commentary, with careful attention to his intimate connection with religious thought, and it works with and develops a translation model for understanding the subtle connections between Marxism and religion. The prime focus is Stalin’s thought. Unlike the vast majority of studies on Stalin, I do not attempt to locate the tyrant in yet another way, now in terms of religious and philosophical thought. Rather, I take seriously Stalin the thinker, seeking to understand instead of praise or condemn. Such understanding extends to the very question of that polarisation, exploring the deeper reasons why he has been and continues to be venerated and demonized.

Chapter One: Setting the Scene: ‘The Priest’ and the Church

This chapter functions as the background to understanding Stalin’s texts. It deals with two items: Stalin’s historic compact with the Russian Orthodox Church during the Second World War; and his theological study at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary.

In 1943, Stalin made a historic compact with the Russian Orthodox Church (it may be traced back to the religious freedom clause of the 1936 constitution). In return for support of the war effort that eventually defeated Hitler, tens of thousands of churches were re-opened and the leadership hierarchy was re-established. In its turn, the church began to speak more openly of its support for the government (Acton and Stableford 2007, 71-74, 159-65). The result was that the church grew during Stalin’s era. At that time too, rumours began circulating of Stalin’s 1941 ‘mysterious retreat’, leading to a tradition of iconography that continues to this day. Good work on the political realities has been done (Miner 2003), pointing out that these developments were not due to a need for religious nationalism or to foreign policy pressures in relation to religion. However, I am interested in the way these factors provide a background for core issues I explore later: religion and national question; the dialectics of crisis; and the polarisation of Stalin’s image.

A second background factor attests to Stalin’s uniqueness among world communist leaders: he studied theology for five years at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, the training college for priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. A brilliant student and notably devout, this deeply formative time (from the age of 15 to his 20th birthday, 1894-99) had a lasting effect. A careful analysis of the theological content of his studies reveals ecclesiastical history, liturgy, homiletics, dogma, comparative theology, moral theology, practical pastoral work, didactics, and the two staples: church singing and biblical studies. Years later, Stalin still memorised long passages from the Bible, annotated religious works in his library, and refused to include anti-religious works. These factors provide insights into his literary style, preference for biblical citations, and materialist doctrine of evil. It is not for nothing that in revolutionary circles he was known as ‘The Priest’.

Chapter Two: Sentence Production and the Bible

In light of the background material, this chapter delves deeply into Stalin’s writing. It begins by focusing on form, specifically on the style of Stalin’s sentence production. His style ranges from methodical analysis (evincing detailed preparation), through rhetorical if not homiletic subtlety, to poetic flights of imagery and the ability to tell a story – most notably in the long process of creating the ‘political myth’ of the communist party and the victory of the October Revolution. One factor that influenced such a style was his early poetry, which was published and widely-appreciated in Georgia (Rayfield 1985). Another factor is the cadence of biblical texts in his writings. In order to account for this influence, I analyse his habitual patterns of biblical and religious allusions.

Chapter Three: Religion and the National Question

From the form of Stalin’s writing, I move to content and theory. In this chapter, I focus on the intricate interweaving of the ‘national question’ and religion. As the preeminent theorist of the national question, Stalin initially set out to counter the position of the Bund – the General Jewish Labour Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia. However, in the end he adopted a modified version of their proposal. In order to counter divisive nationalism, the Bund sought a federated system that recognised the distinctive ethnic, cultural and religious nature of each group. Over two decades (1905-24), Stalin developed a delicate dialectical argument that was based on voluntary unity through autonomous diversity. Eventually, his position became the foundation of the USSR’s constitution (1924 and 1936) and of the first ‘affirmative action empire’ (Martin 2001). This entailed fostering languages, cultures, literature, education, religion and political leadership by local people. It also meant severe penalties for racial abuse. Further, Stalin saw the crucial implications for anti-colonial struggles around the world. Thus, the national question became internationalised. Throughout these developments, the question of religion was never far away. Practically, it appeared in the policies of allowing sharia law in Muslim-majority regions, as well as heavy penalties for anti-Semitism, especially in light of the many Jews in the Soviet administration. At a deeper level, the national question embodied Stalin’s own way of working through to a position that resembled that of the Bund.

Chapter Four: Modalities of Dialectics

Dialectics may owe some debts to Hegel and Marx, but it also has a long pedigree in theology. Stalin deploys many variations on the dialectic: unity through diversity (and struggle); subjective and objective; form and content; legal and illegal; backwardness as the basis for leaping forward; revolution and counter-revolution; intensification of the dialectic before its resolution; and 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. More importantly, Stalin develops the dialectic of transcendence and immanence, with distinct translations from the theological shape of this opposition. This applies to the relations between theory and action, but especially to relations between the communist party, on one side, and workers and peasants on the other. The party may appear to be transcendent, but when one perseveres long enough, it becomes immanent with workers and peasants. So also with workers and peasants: their position may initially seem to be immanent, but only through them does the transcendence of the party appear.

Chapter Five: Dialectic of Crisis

The most significant and sustained form of the dialectic is one of crisis. At its heart is the idea that the closer one’s gaol becomes, the more ferocious become internal and external opponents. The translation with theology is both clear and important: the more grace is apparent, the more active do the forces of evil become. And the closer one becomes, the clearer becomes the division between either-or. For Stalin, this dialectic of crisis is the basis for revolution. Indeed, this argument is Stalin’s unique contribution to the theory of revolution itself.

Chapter Six: Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil

Crisis dialectics then leads to what I call a materialist doctrine of evil. This doctrine, worked out more in practice than theory, profoundly challenges the Enlightenment-inspired assumption of inherent human goodness so characteristic of many socialist movements. It entails a recalibration of the crucial opposition of good and evil, now in terms of socialism and capitalism, of workers and bosses, and of international politics. Important features of the doctrine include external and internal dimensions. Externally, the reality was a situation of constant threat, by the sustained international blockade against the new Russia, which included support of the white armies, systematic sabotage and spying, and enfolded into the Cold War. Internally, the constant threat of a ‘fifth column’ was linked with the continuing elaboration of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the need for constant purges (Khlevniuk 2009, 169-79). In fact, the internal feature of the doctrine is its most powerful. Above all, the Red Terror, especially in the extensive purges of the late 1930s, is the practical manifestation of this doctrine: good and evil are internal, with the one generating more of the other.

Chapter Seven: Veneration and Demonization

No other political leader has been – and continues to be – as venerated and as reviled as Stalin. This chapter moves from analysing Stalin’s thought to assess how he has been understood. It argues that the polarisation over Stalin constantly translates categories between religion and politics, in Cold War and post-Cold War contexts. 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 WWII and the builder of socialism. In order to understand that polarisation, I analyse the ‘foi furieuse’ of the new utopian project, which includes the foreign fascination with the new socialist experiment (David-Fox 2012), and its contrast in the many disappointments and eventual disillusionment with the project. Further, I deal with the path from his adulation in Russia and near universal appreciation at the close of WWII to the growth of a ‘black legend’ after his death (thanks to Khrushchev’s ‘secret report’ and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (Arendt 1973 [1951])). I also assess the way such polarisation is manifested in critical work on Stalin, with many seeking to demonize him in new ways and others attempting to resurrect him (Volkogonov 1990, Radzinsky 1997, Viola 1996, 2007, Edele 2011, Losurdo 2008, Furr 2011, Zyuganov 2012). But my primary focus is how such polarisation illustrates the translatability of religious and political terms. Veneration and demonization operate between both languages, with neither language claiming priority. Indeed, the intersection between them creates the intensity of the polarisation.

Select References

Acton, E., and T. Stableford, eds. 2007. The Soviet Union: A Documentary History. Volume 2: 1939-1991. Exeter: U of Exeter P.

Arendt, H. 1973 [1951]. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

David-Fox, M.. 2012. Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Vistors to the Soviet Union, 1921-1941. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Edele, M. 2011. Stalinist Society, 1928-1953. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Furr, G. 2011. Khrushchev Lied. Kettering: Erythros.

Khlevniuk, O. 2009. Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle. Trans. N. Seligman Favorov. New Haven: Yale U P.

Martin, T. 2001. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Thaca: Cornell UP.

Losurdo, D. 2008. Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera. Rome: Carocci editore.

Miner, S. M.. 2003. Stalin’s Holy War: Religion, Nationalism, and Alliance Politics, 1941-1945. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P.

Radzinsky, E. 1997. Stalin. New York: Anchor Books.

Viola, L. 1996. Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Viola, L. 2007. The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Volkogonov, D. 1990. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove.

Zyuganov, G. 2012. Report of the Chairman, G. A. Zyuganov, to the XIV (October) Joint Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.