Sergei and the “Divinely Appointed” Stalin

A new article has just been published in Social Sciences – download here. Entitled “Sergei and the ‘Divinely Appointed’ Stalin: Theology and Ecclesiology in Church-State Relations in the Soviet Union in the Lead-up to the Cold War,” it deals with material that I could cover only briefly in the book on Stalin. The abstract is as follows:

In contrast to the tendency to focus on political and social reasons for the rapprochement between the Soviet government and the Russian Orthodox Church, between Stalin and the later patriarch Sergei, this article deals with theological and ecclesiological sensibilities. One would expect such reasons from the side of the church but I also argue that they were important for Stalin’s considerations and acts. His deep awareness and intimate knowledge of the church, and active involvement and concrete proposals in the long interaction between church and state, were as important as those of Sergei. The article begins with a reconsideration of Stalin’s period of theological study, which influenced him deeply and provided him with unique insights into the nature of the church. After this period, an intriguing path unfolds, through key categories of Stalin’s thought thought and his effort—which was strongly opposed – to include the article on religious freedom in the 1936 constitution, let alone the definition of socialism (in contrast to communism) in terms of two biblical verses in the very same constitution. At the same time, the statements and actions of Sergei, already from 1927, were also part of the narrative, so the analysis moves between church and state until the meeting in 1943. All of this is crucial material for understanding developments in the period officially known as the Cold War.

And as a teaser, I quote part of the final paragraph, where Patriarch Sergei and then his successor, Aleksii, speak of Stalin in the following terms (I leave out the Russian here): Stalin, they write, is “deeply revered” and “beloved by all,” is a “wise, divinely appointed leader,” who had become so through “God’s Providence.” Indeed, they express feelings of “deep love and gratitude” for his “constant, wise attention to Her [the Church’s] needs.”


Stalin’s Theological Education

I had a brief paragraph in my Stalin book on his theological education, but did not have the opportunity to develop that material further. Here is a much fuller analysis of that crucial time:

What did Stalin have in common with communists such as Friedrich Engels and Kim Il Sung, let alone Louis Althusser, Henri Lefebvre or indeed Terry Eagleton? He made the transition from a youthful religious faith to Marxism. Crucially, none of them gave up their interest in matters theological. Even if they had “lost” their faith (and not all did), they maintained a lively interest in, if not an insight into, the realities of belief, theology and the church. So also with Stalin.

However, Stalin did have an experience unique to a world communist leader: he studied theology for five years (1894-1899) at the Tiflis (Tbilisi in Georgian) Spiritual Seminary, a training college for priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. The college was located in the historical capital of Georgia,[1] which was also – since the early nineteenth century – the centre of Russian power in the Caucasus and its main gateway into the Near East and Anatolia. As one of the highest educational institutions in Georgia – alongside the more “secular” gymnasia – the college took in students mostly of Georgian background from across class backgrounds, from sons of church leaders to poor students needing scholarships. The aim was to take the best and brightest young men and train them for the priesthood, university study and even the civil service – the roles were closely connected.

The college had its negative and positive aspects, at least from the perspective of the students. On the negative side, this meant speaking and writing only in Russian, even in private, and not in the native Georgian of so many of the students – although by 1895 some concession was made, with courses in Georgian literature and history. The church hierarchy in the seminary was somewhat reactionary, seeking to instil reverence for the tsar and God, in equal measure. Discipline was tight, with the whole day carefully organised: bells rung for waking, prayers, meals, classes and lights out.[2] Outside excursions were limited, random checks were made to ensure the teenage boys were not engaged in any nefarious activities,[3] and reading was heavily censored. Textbooks and the Bible were standard fare, the students wore cassocks and the weekends were given over to prayer and liturgy in the college chapel. On the positive side, the young man with the biblical name of Joseph (given to him at his baptism by his godfather, Father Mikhail Tsikhitatrishvili (Kun 2003, 8)) experienced – for the era – an exceptionally thorough theological education. And he came to appreciate the ascetic life of a theological student, with its simple diet of bread and beans and the ability to get by with little.

But before we consider in a little more detail what he studied and how he fared, let us backtrack for a moment, for this was not Stalin’s first encounter with a church institution. Before he arrived at the theological college, Stalin had already spent six years, from 1888 to 1894, at the parish school of his home town, Gori. This was a Russian language school, normally taking seven years,[4] with four basic and three preliminary grades. The three grades were themselves divided into lower, medium and upper, where Russian was the focus. Kun (2003, 13) observes that the school had “surprisingly well trained pedagogues” – surprising, perhaps, given that Gori was not a large centre. They were nearly all tertiary trained, whether in university or theological college, and languages included – apart from Russian – Church Slavonic and Greek.

Stalin may have started his studies at the Gori Church School slightly later than other children who had been given the opportunity – due to illness and the family’s inability to pay the fees (he required initially a scholarship and later a family friend paid his fees)[5] – but the experience not only provided him with his social network, but also set him on the path to the priesthood. This calling was the fervent wish of his (literate) mother, who had prayed and cared for her only son (two earlier sons had died) through a range of childhood mishaps and diseases, including scarlet fever and smallpox. Her now estranged husband was not so keen on the idea and on one occasion managed to get the young Stalin away from school for a while (1890) to work as an apprentice at the same shoe factory in Tiflis where he was employed. Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, Stalin did well indeed at the Gori Church School. The curriculum was notably theological, with sacred history, Orthodox catechism, liturgical exegesis and ecclesiastical Typtikon, Greek, Russian and Church Slavonic, Georgian, geography, arithmetic, handwriting and liturgical chant (Khlevniuk 2015, 14). The school reports at the end of his time in Gori give him an “excellent” for conduct and the top marks of “excellent” (5) for all subjects, except Greek and arithmetic, for which he received “very good” (4). He was clearly an “outstanding pupil” (Kun 2003, 14), at the top of his final year. He also impressed with his devoutness, attending all church services, reading the liturgy and leading the choir singing. A fellow student recalled many years later: “I remember that he not only performed the religious rites but also always reminded us of their significance” (Service 2004, 28). The school awarded him a copy of the biblical Book of Psalms, with the inscription: “To Iosif Jughashvili … for excellent progress, behavior and excellent recitation of the Psalter” (Kotkin 2014, 20). As a result, the teaching staff at the school recommended – unanimously – that he take up further studies at the theological college in Tiflis, subject to success in the entrance examination.

At the age of 15, in September 1894, Stalin arrived in the Georgian capital to begin the next stage of his study. Let us return to that institution and see what he and his fellow students studied. The earlier years included both “secular” and theological subjects: Russian philology and literature; secular history; mathematics; Latin; Greek; Church Slavonic singing; Georgian Imeretian singing; biblical studies. By the final years, the subjects became more theological: ecclesiastical history; liturgics; homiletics; comparative theology; moral theology; practical pastoral work; didactics; church history; church singing; various aspects of biblical studies. Some subjects may have changed, but throughout the Bible and church singing were constants. The young Stalin was noted by his teachers for his phenomenal memory, subtle intellect and voracious reading (albeit not always of the proscribed variety). His marks varied over the years, ranging from high to low, especially from the middle years onwards when he became more involved with revolutionary groups. Thus, he may have risen to fifth in a class of twenty-nine in his second year, after coming eighth in his first year (with top marks in all subjects barring Greek), but by the fifth year he had slipped to twentieth out of twenty-three. We must remember that Stalin was no longer in the local school in Gori, where he was the top student, but now among others who had also been accustomed to being the brightest. They all struggled to adjust to the tough requirements and the reality of being amongst others with comparable intellectual ability. The fact that he was increasingly engaged in extra-curricular activities did not help his marks, but this also was not unusual for students.

The “copy of the final certificate” – which Stalin requested four months after he left the college – indicates that Stalin had overall performed quite well:

Iosif Dzhugashvili, student at the Tiflis Theological Seminary, the son of Vissarion, a peasant living in the town of Gori in the province of Tiflis, who was born on the sixth day of December in the year 1878, having completed the course of studies at the Gori Church School was admitted to the Tiflis Theological Seminary in the month of September 1894. He studied at the aforesaid institution until the twenty-ninth day of May 1899, and in addition to excellent conduct (5) he achieved the following results:

Exegesis of the Holy Script – very good (4)

History of the Bible – very good (4)

Ecclesiastical history – good (3)

Homiletics – good (3)


Russian literature – very good (4)

History of Russian literature – very good (4)

Universal secular history – very good (4)

Russian secular history – very good (4)

Algebra – very good (4)

Geometry – very good (4)

Easter liturgy – very good (4)

Physics – very good (4)

Logic – outstanding (5)

Psychology – very good (4)

Ecclesiastical Georgian subjects – very good (4)

Greek language – very good (4)

Latin language – not studied

Ecclesiastical singing: Slavic – outstanding (5)

in Georgian language – very good (4).[6]

While not at the peak of academic achievements, these results are hardly cause for shame. More significantly for my purposes, Stalin had become thoroughly versed in theological matters. He knew the history of the church back to front; he could sing very well indeed (his tenor was a core of the chapel choir); he read Greek; and he knew intimately how the church itself worked. Above all, he knew the intricacies of theology and the Bible. More than a decade of training in such subjects, let alone periods of diligent study and achievement, were bound to leave their impression on a young man.

At the same time, the college was also one of Georgia’s prime sources for producing revolutionaries of various stripes, albeit unwittingly. The enforced Russification could be expected to lead to Georgian nationalist protests, but the young sons of Georgia were inescapably drawn to radical currents that would challenge not only Russian dominance but traditional Georgian culture and politics. Students were regularly expelled for “subversive” activities, such as radical study circles, engagement outside with revolutionary groups, and direct challenges to the college’s structures. For example, between 1874 and 1878, 83 students were expelled. After a peak of unrest in 1885, the college was closed for a while, so as to “stabilize” the situation. Biographers note that Stalin himself received increasing punishments for “misconduct” as his years in the college progressed. In the first year, he was punished for only three minor misdemeanours, but by the last year he was cited for eleven breaches of a somewhat serious nature, including failure to attend prayers, ignoring and being rude to teachers, possession of proscribed literature and reading revolutionary material to other students late at night – with the obligatory punishments of solitary confinement and even a month (in early 1899) when he was forbidden to leave the college. Although college authorities seem to have missed his engagements with Marxist cells outside the college walls, especially in a small apartment rented through contributions by the wealthier students, one fact is often passed over by biographers: none of these activities were enough to expel Stalin from the college, unlike many others.[7] Was he less of a radical than those who were expelled? Did he manage to conceal his activities more successfully? I suggest the type of behaviour Stalin exhibited was not far from what one might expect from a teenage boy at a strict theological college in the late nineteenth century. Strictness was the norm, with liberal doses of corporal punishment and confinement.[8] But so was student rebelliousness. The teaching staff, for all their failings, were quite familiar with the antics of young men like Stalin, especially from a cultural background in which males especially were encouraged to express their independence in overt ways.

Stalin was not expelled: he left the seminary shortly before sitting for the final examinations in May of 1899, which would have qualified him to become a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, if not to proceed to university. While the “final certificate” I quoted earlier includes a short decree to the effect that he left for “reasons unknown,” biographers remain puzzled as to why he did so. The suggestions are many: some follow Stalin’s own suggestion that he was “kicked out” because of revolutionary activity (Khlevniuk 2015, 20); his mother said on one occasion that she had kept him home for medical reasons, worn out as he was from his studies (Kun 2003, 35); others suggest it was because he was unable to afford the fees, or that the excuse of fees was used by the college to get rid of a troublesome student (Kotkin 2014, 36); or – more outlandishly – that he had become the father of a child (Kotkin 2014, 36).

By contrast, a hint may be found in the patience of the college rectorate, especially in light of Stalin’s generally good results. They suggested that he take some time away, perhaps in a temporary church post or in a lower level teaching position. Notably, they did not pursue him for the outstanding fees, an astronomical amount of more than 600 roubles, for not continuing to work in the church or at least become a teacher. The leaders may well have been in a similar position at some time themselves, for it would not be the first occasion that a rebellious young man had made his way to the priesthood and church leadership – in fact, it was often seen as a prerequisite for the priesthood. Time would shape him, they felt. Stalin was not to be swayed. He did not return to the college after the 1899 Easter break at home in Gori, unable for personal reasons to take the final step and sit the examinations. In the end, the reason seems to have been existential: the life of a priest was not for him, so he chose to leave. A big decision, obviously, but it would not be the first time someone training for the church has decided to leave for another life. For anyone who has experienced such a profound shift, the decision is life-changing, but also liberating.

To the end of her life in 1937, Stalin’s devout mother – Ekatarine (Ketevan) Geladze – lamented the fact that Stalin had not become a priest, if not rising higher in the church hierarchy. No matter whether he was the preeminent leader of the USSR, the largest country in the world; no matter that he had driven through the program of the socialist offensive (the twin project of industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation) that made the Soviet Union a global superpower; no matter that he lived in the Kremlin, of all places – he had not seen through the theological studies for which she had worked so hard. As Svetlana Allilueva, Stalin’s daughter recalled:

She was very devout and dreamt that her son would become a priest. She remained religious until her last days and when father visited her not long before her death she told him: “It’s a shame that you didn’t become a priest” … He repeated these words of hers with delight; he liked her scorn for all he had achieved, for the earthly glory, for all the fuss (Suny 1991, 51).

After all, the highest calling in life for a young man was to be a priest in the church.


Khlevniuk, Oleg. 2015. Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator. Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kotkin, Stephen. 2014. Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928. New York: Penguin.

Kun, Miklós. 2003. Stalin: An Unknown Portrait. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel. 1988. The Mind of Stalin: A Psychoanalytic Study. Ann Arbor: Ardis.

Service, Robert. 2004. Stalin: A Biography. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Shakhireva, Stephanie. 2007. ‘Swaddled Nation: Modern Mother Russia and a Psychohistorical Reassessment of Stalin’. Journal of Psychohistory 35 (1):34-60.

Stalin, I. V. 1931 [1954]. ‘Talk with the German Author Emil Ludwig, December 13, 1931’. In Works, Vol. 13, 106-25. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. 1991. ‘Beyond Psychohistory: The Young Stalin in Georgia’. Slavic Review 50 (1):48-58.

Tucker, Robert. 1973. Stalin as Revolutionary 1879-1929: A Study in History and Personality. New York: Norton.


[1] Given its position between “west” and “east,” it was culturally extremely diverse, with Georgians, Russian, Armenians, Tatars, Persians, Turks and Germans all represented in significant numbers.

[2] As one of Stalin’s classmates recalled: “We were brought to a four-story building and put in huge dormitory rooms with 20–30 people each … Life in the theological seminary was repetitious and monotonous. We arose at seven in the morning. First, we were forced to pray, then we had tea, and after the bell we went to class … Classes continued, with breaks, until two o’clock. At three we had supper. At five there was roll call, after which we were not allowed to leave the building. We felt as if we were in prison. We were again taken to vespers, and at eight we had tea, and then each class went to its own room to do assignments, and at ten it was lights out, sleep” (quoted in Khlevniuk 2015, 16).

[3] In an intriguing interview with Emil Ludwig in 1931, Stalin recalled: “At nine o’clock the bell rings for morning tea, we go to the dining-room, and when we return to our rooms we find that meantime a search has been made and all our chests have been ransacked” (Stalin 1931 [1954], 116).

[4] Stalin had skipped the preliminary year due to his prior study of Russian.

[5] The family was poor enough to require assistance for fees, but not in abject poverty. Until the breakdown in the marriage of his parents, the family was in many respects quite average for that time and place: “Stalin’s childhood and adolescence seem to have been utterly typical of the environment from which he came – the world of poor, but not destitute, craftsmen and shopkeepers in a small town at the outskirts of the empire” (Khlevniuk 2015, 13). His advantage was being a single child reaching adulthood and a devoted and determined mother.

[6] The statement continues: “In keeping with the decree passed on May 29, 1899 by the pedagogical assembly of the Seminary’s governors, acknowledged by His Eminence Archbishop Flavialos, the Exarch of Georgia, the named Iosif Dzhugashvili has been expelled from the Tiflis Theological Seminary. It has been taken into account that he had accomplished the fourth grade and had begun the fifth. Due to his expulsion he is not entitled to the privileges enjoyed by those students who have completed their studies at the Seminary. […] If, on the other hand, he were to be conscripted as a soldier he would be entitled to the privileges enjoyed by the students of educational institutions of the first category. To certify this we have issued this document for the aforesaid Dzhugashvili, complete with the proper signatures and with the seal of the council, in the name of the council of the Tiflis Theological Seminary. The city of Tiflis, June 1899. October 2. Archemandrite Germogen, Rector. Dmitry, ordained monk, supervisor at the Seminary. The members of the council. The secretary of the council” (quoted in Kun 2003, 31-32).

[7] Khlevniuk (2015, 20) twists and turns to claim that Stalin was expelled, in some form of mutual consent: the college was keen to get rid of a rebel, but Stalin jumped before he was pushed. In doing so, Khlevniuk must skip by the details of the “final certificate” (see above).

[8] Obviously, I resist efforts at “psychohistory,” seeking to espy the making of a tyrant in the experiences of the young Stalin – whether a strict regime at the theological college or indeed corporal punishment at the hands of his parents (which was actually the norm in so many places at the time). Tucker (1973) is perhaps the most notable example of such psychohistory, but others follow a similar line (Rancour-Laferriere 1988, Kun 2003, Shakhireva 2007). The warnings of Suny (1991) against this approach are still relevant. And Stalin’s later observation to Emil Ludwig should be given its due: “My parents were uneducated, but they did not treat me badly by any means” (Stalin 1931 [1954], 115).

What do Friedrich Engels, Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton, Kim Il Sung and Stalin have in common?

They all made the – often difficult – step from religious faith to Marxism. Engels, with his Reformed background and the strong religious commitment of his youth, set the initial example. In his footsteps followed Louis Althusser, Henri Lefebvre, Terry Eagleton and Kim Il Sung, to mention but a few. Crucially, they did not give up their interest in matters theological and ecclesiastical. Even if they had “lost” their faith (and not all did), they maintained a lively interest in, if not an insight into, the realities of belief, theology and the church. So also with Stalin.

Petition for Verso to publish English translation of Losurdo’s Stalin book

Verso Books has initially refused to publish an English translation of Domenico Losurdo’s book on Stalin, even though they have published other works by him. Those who know the press will not be surprised by this. However, a petition is underway to get Verso to change its opinion. You can find the petition here.

Please sign the petition!


Karl Barth on Stalin

The socialism of Karl Barth – the greatest theologian of the twentieth century – is reasonably well-known, but for many the following observation is a step too far:

It would be quite absurd to mention in the same breath the philosophy of Marxism and the “ideology” of the Third Reich, to mention a man of the stature of Joseph Stalin in the same breath as such charlatans as Hitler, Göring, Hess, Goebbels, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Streicher, etc. What has been tackled in Soviet Russia – albeit with very dirty and bloody hands and in a way that rightly shocks us – is, after all, a constructive idea, the solution of a problem which is a serious and burning problem for us as well, and which we with our clean hands have not yet tackled anything like energetically enough: the social problem (‘Die Kirche zwischen Ost und West’, 1949).

Obviously, for me this is where Barth actually becomes interesting.

Narratives of Betrayal: A ‘Western’ Trope

A characteristic feature of European-derived, or North Atlantic[1] approaches to communism is the narrative of betrayal: at some point, a communist revolution was betrayed by someone, betrayed itself, ran into the mud, ‘failed’.

I was first struck by this narrative some years ago when I was working intensely on Lenin.[2] And it was inescapable in much of the secondary literature when I was engaging deeply with Stalin.[3] Recently, it has struck me once again while delving into the theory and practice of the socialist state. Let me be clear: the betrayal narrative is one found mostly in European-derived traditions. Although Marxists in these parts are fond of the narrative, it is also common among liberals and conservatives. One can find stray examples other parts of the world too, in the mouths of one or two who have been unduly influenced by this narrative. In what follows, I outline some examples of the narrative, before turning to consider the closely related dimension of pristine origins.

Betrayals, Betrayals Everywhere

If you hold to this type of story, a betrayal can be found almost everywhere you look. The initial example is that Engels betrayed Marx. Being of lesser intellect and not adequately trained – or so the story goes – Engels did not understand Marx. So Engels ‘glossed’ and ‘distorted’ what Marx said, especially in work that he produced on his own or after Marx’s death. It may have been Engels’s immense efforts in editing the second and third volumes of Capital, or his Dialectics of Nature (1873-82) and Anti-Dühring (1877-78) from which Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) was drawn. Thus, the editing efforts botched Marx’s work, while the effort to extend dialectical materialism into the natural sciences was fatally flawed. Given the profound influence of Anti-Dühring on the subsequent tradition – every Marxist of the second and third generations studied this text closely – that tradition was impossibly betrayed at the hand of Engels. It is relatively easy to refute this narrative, but this is not my task here.

Lenin’s putative betrayal is more contested ground, with some seeing Lenin as a purveyor of distorted Marxism from the beginning, others that Lenin betrayed the revolution after October 1917, or that Stalin was responsible for the betrayal. But what is meant by ‘betrayal’ in this case? Let me take the example of Lenin’s betrayal of himself, for this is consistent with the role of Stalin in this case. According to this story, Lenin held to some form of ‘democratic’ position, envisaging the soviets as versions of the Paris commune. The model may have been updated and reshaped a little in light of circumstances, but it held to ‘democratic participation’ by workers and peasants at local and national levels, open and free-wheeling debate within the communist party, and would form the basis of socialism after the revolution. However, what happened very rapidly was an authoritarian move, hollowing out the soviets in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat, if not replacing the proletarian dictatorship with the dictatorship of the party. In short, Lenin moved from a ‘democratic’ commune model to an authoritarian approach. Stalin merely carried this through to its logical conclusion. The examples could be multiplied: economically, ‘state capitalism’ was gradually introduced, a global revolution was abandoned for the sake of socialism in one country, the ‘withering away of the state’ was replaced with an authoritarian state characterised by the secret police, the self-determination of minority nationalities turned into their forced assimilation, and so on. The only difference is where one draws the line, whether within Lenin’s own thought and practice or between Lenin and Stalin. The latter is, of course, the one who began to be systematically demonised not long after he died.[4]

These days, I am most interested in the way a betrayal narrative has been constructed and is now assumed by many in the case of Chinese socialism. I am less interested in the hypothesis that Mao betrayed Marxism himself, whether because he took over unreconstructed Soviet Marxism of the 1930s or whether he did so of his own initiative. I am more interested in how the betrayal narrative has been deployed by self-confessed ‘Maoists’ and how this has influenced a wider misperception from conservatives to radicals.

According to this version, Mao was indeed a true communist, developing a breath-taking version adapted for Chinese conditions. The culmination of Mao’s vision was the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here was full collectivisation, public property, equality in pay and even clothes, idealism, the beginnings of socialist culture …. However, waiting in the wings was Deng Xiaoping, the ‘capitalist roader’. Rising high, deposed, then returning on Mao’s death and dispensing with the ‘Gang of Four’, Deng began – so it is asserted – the process of turning China from a socialist country into a capitalist one. All of this is embodied in the ‘reform and opening up’ from 1979. And Deng began the process of using coded language to indicate the shift: ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was and is a code for rampant capitalism; a ‘socialist market economy’ does equal service; ‘core socialist values’ means liberalism. All this was extremely clever, it is suggested, since the CPC could not give up on the rhetoric of Marxism, so it emptied Marxism of any meaning (perhaps replacing it with nationalism. The purpose: to keep the CPC firmly in power.

This story continues: subsequent presidents – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – played the same game. Now we find the destruction of the ‘iron rice bowl’ (Chinese welfare state), the rise of a ‘middle class’, the ‘suppression’ of the working class – all with a nod and wink while speaking of Marxism. And Xi Jinping has produced his own collection of terms: the ‘Chinese Dream’, the ‘two centenary goals’ and revitalised the term ‘moderately prosperous’ society, all the while clamping down on ‘dissent’ and ‘freedom of speech’ to enhance his hold on power. A communist party has – according to this spectacular story – enabled the transition not from capitalism to socialism, but from socialism to capitalism.

The pieces of this narrative have been laid carefully for two or three decades, trading on half-truths, wilful ignorance and sheer twisting of the facts. Apart from the fact that it faces enormous difficulties in understanding the role of Marxism in Chinese socialism, all the way from culture and education, through society and politics, to economics, it usually entails a pre-judgement that means one does not even need to bother with Marxism as such in China. After all, no-one ‘believes’ in it anymore, do they?

As a final sample of this narrative of betrayal, let me return to Marx. In this case, it is the younger humanistic Marx who betrays the older scientific one. How so? It begins with the late publication of some key materials from the young Marx, such as ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’ in 1927, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ in 1932, and The German Ideology, co-authored with Engels, in 1932. Here is a younger, more ‘humanistic’ Marx, which led and continues to lead some to emphasise this dimension of his thought as a counter to ‘Scientific Socialism’ (whether of the Soviet Union or in other forms). In response, Althusser in particular has argued that this earlier material – published later – was not the true Marx, who is to be found in his later, scientific works. This would have to be the most intriguing betrayal narrative of all, since it operates in reverse.

Pristine Origins

As I have already indicated, I focus here neither on how these specific accounts face immense hurdles on closer scrutiny, nor the motivation for them, but on the nature of the narrative of betrayal itself. Two points are relevant.

First, the story has profound resonances with the biblical story of the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Here a ‘paradise’ – if somewhat flawed due to the forbidden tree(s) – is lost due to the wilful disobedience of the first human beings. Initially, it was a southwest Asian story that has overlaps with others from the same part of the world, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but it eventually became a crucial story in European culture. The story in its biblical form has a distinct political setting, providing the eventual justification for a form of governance (monarchy) and control of wayward human beings (Thomas Hobbes comes to mind as an influential later version of this account). But it has come to be seen in much wider terms, speaking of the human condition, characterised by a mythical account of disobedience, sin and betrayal of an original ideal impulse. In this form, it became part of the wider foundations for European-derived cultures, shaping cultural assumptions, the nature of thought processes, if not historical reconstructions even of the modern variety. Thus, the narrative of Genesis, European assumptions concerning human nature, the way history is so often reconstructed, as well as narratives concerning Marxism seem to have a remarkably similar pattern.

Second and related, the account of betrayal trades on a notion of pristine origins. Time and again, I have found that a purveyor of one or another version of the story assumes a distinct idea of what socialism should be (never what actually exists). They base this idea on some texts of Marx. I write ‘some’ deliberately, for the texts selected form a ‘canon within the canon’: favoured texts that are meant to express the core of Marx’s position. Thus, socialism (which Marx did not distinguish from communism) appears in the Paris commune, concerning which Marx waxed lyrical in ‘The Civil War in France’ (1871). Here workers devolved the functions of parliament, army, police and judiciary to workers’ bodies that were directly elected and subject to recall. The commune was decentralised, removed repression and did away with the ‘state’. Or one may invoke parts of ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, especially in the higher stage of communism, when economic exploitation is removed, classes disappear, even divisions between town and country, if not between mental and physical labour, so that the biblically-derived communist slogan applies: ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’.

Once you have these original and authentic definitions of socialism and/or communism, you can make an easy connection with a betrayal narrative.[5] Before a revolution, or perhaps for a while afterwards, the revolutionaries held to the ideal – think of Lenin in particular, but also Mao. But soon enough, they gave up on the ideal. It may have been force of circumstances, or a turn in the face of imminent failure, or simply a weakness of will. And if Lenin or Mao did not do so themselves, then Stalin or Deng were responsible for overturning the socialist ideal and destroying it. The outcome: socialism has never been realised as yet, for the true moment still awaits us.

Once again, this search for and latching onto a notion of pristine origins has resonances with Christian thought and practice. In this case, the authentic moment may be found somewhere in the biblical texts, preferably in the words of Jesus himself (the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is a favoured location). Soon enough, these words and the community they envisaged was adulterated and betrayed. Here the line can be drawn at almost any point: between Jesus and the early church (the Apostle Paul); between the form of the early Christian community and the later betrayal by the institutional church; between the doctrine of justification by faith through grace and the doctrine of salvation by works …

The problem here is that one can find justification for a number of positions in the texts, for these texts are not uniform. So one has to choose some texts, downgrade or ignore the others that contradict one’s choice and then criticise those who latch onto precisely these downgraded texts. The history of Christianity reveals this process again and again. A group or a spokesperson emerges, argues that the institution as it exists has betrayed and sullied the original impulse, and begins a process of reform in the name of an authentic and original ideal based on a selection of texts. Sometimes, these movements were contained and channelled within the institution (think of the medieval orders in the Roman Catholic Church or monastic renewal in the Eastern Orthodox Church). At other times, they were brutally repressed and crushed, as many a radical religious movement in the European Middle Ages. And at other times, due to wider cultural, social and economic shifts, the reform effort became a whole new and enduring movement. The Protestant Reformation is the most notable example.

The analogies with European-derived Marxism should be obvious, if not the struggles between the varieties of socialist, communist and anarchist movements today (as Engels already noted in his ‘On the History of Early Christianity’ from 1895). But we can find it also among non-Marxists and even anti-Marxists. They too assume a certain definition of an ideal socialism, usually based on the very same texts used by Marxists, and then use those to dismiss the actual efforts to construct socialism.


I have focused on European-derived, or ‘Western’ Marxism due to its preference for betrayal narratives and ideas of pristine origins. It can also be found in Russian Marxism, given the comparable cultural dynamics of that part of the world (think of the long-running struggle between Stalin and Trotsky and what their names have come to signify).

Are there alternative approaches that may well do better than the one I have been analysing? Recently, I was having one of my many discussions with a Chinese comrade and we came to the topic in question. In fact, these reflections arose in part from that discussion. She is fully aware of the narrative of betrayal, having devoted much of her working life to studying ‘Western’ Marxism. But she also admitted to not understanding it; or rather, she finds it difficult to understand how it can make sense of actual tradition. Instead, she prefers a process of clarification of previously obscure or unresolved points in each subsequent development. Is that a more Chinese approach? I wondered. Yes, it is, she affirmed. How do mistakes arise, or is every statement a clarification? Mistakes do arise, such as when there is an effort to turn back the clock, to reassert an older and more obscure position that has subsequently been clarified. Or perhaps if someone moves to undermine and dispense with Marxism itself.

I am still working out the implications of this clarifying approach, particularly if it can also incorporate the following possibilities. One is to argue for interpretation in the spirit, rather than the letter of Marxism. Or: instead of invoking the letter of the original text and judging all in its light, one sees Marxism as a method for dealing with every new situation. As Lenin, Stalin and Mao were fond of saying, Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action.

The other approach is related but takes a different approach. Changing historical circumstances produce new problems that must be analysed and solved in new ways. These problems did not face Marx or Engels, while other problems did not face subsequent leaders. The circumstances have been and are many, ranging from unforeseen economic problems, through the development of policies in relation to minority nationalities, to what a socialist culture might actually be. Perhaps the two main changes in circumstances turn on the question of power. Marx and Engels were never in a position to exercise power after a successful communist revolution (as they well knew), so most of the developments in relation to socialism in power had to deal with issues that they simply had not experienced and could not foresee. And none of the previous experiences of socialism in power has prepared us for the moment when China becomes not merely the most powerful socialist country in human history (it already is), but the most powerful economic, political and cultural force in the world.

[1] Or ‘Western’, but this term is loose and impossible-to-pin-down. Chinese has an ideal term, meiou, using the first character for the USA (meiguo) and for Europe (ouzhou), but this is impossible to render into English, except perhaps as ‘Euro-American’. Even this term loses the specificity of the USA and replaces it with a term for the two continents of South and North America.

[2] See especially Roland Boer, “Before October: The Unbearable Romanticism of Western Marxism,”  Monthly Review Magazine(2011),; Roland Boer, “The ‘Failure’ of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative,”  Philosophers for Change(2014),

[3] Roland Boer, Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power  (Beijing: Springer, 2017).

[4] Domenico Losurdo, Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera  (Rome: Carocci editore, 2008).

[5] This search for origins can also be manifested in the whole dynamic of ‘revisionism’ in Marxism itself (I have heard the charge levelled at someone only recently and with some vigour).