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: Rosa Luxemburg
Consumption Versus Production, or, Transition
The Question of History
Chapter 3 – Reaction and Revolution: How to Read the Apostle Paul
Anti- or Pro- Empire?
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
Let Princes Hear and Be Afraid!
Subject Only in the Lord
Chapter 6 – From Luther to Marx and Engels
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
Chapter 8 – Revisiting the Marxist-Christian Dialogue
From Then …
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
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
The DPRK Today
‘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.