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.”

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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)

Liturgics

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.

Bibliography

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.

Notes

[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).

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.

Alternatives

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), http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/boer081011.html; Roland Boer, “The ‘Failure’ of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative,”  Philosophers for Change(2014), http://philosophersforchange.org/2014/10/28/the-failure-of-communism-a-fall-narrative.

[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).

Different ways to interpret the Marxist tradition

In recent discussion in China, I have become more aware of different ways the Marxist tradition can be interpreted. You can take any core feature, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the distinction between socialism and communism, the nature of the socialist state, and many more.

For example, Marx uses the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ 11 times, where he means a coercive force of the state that crushes class opponents. This is in tension with his treatments of the Paris commune, where he praises the diminishment of state power and its continuance only as apparatus. Engels, by contrast, does not use dictatorship of the proletariat, but coins the phrase (only in 1894), the dying or ‘withering away of the state’. Lenin develops the argument further, distinguishing between two phases, the dictatorship of the proletariat and then the state’s withering. He pushes this into a distant future, but Stalin argues that it would take place only after global communism had been achieved and communism had become second nature – which may take 1000 years or more. And in Chinese Marxism, dictatorship of the proletariat becomes ‘democratic dictatorship’ in Mao’s hands and then ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ with Deng Xiaoping, now as an inclusive category operating in terms of non-antagonistic contradictions.

What about socialism and communism? This distinction is not in Marx and Engels. Only in the late notes, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’, does Marx distinguish an initial stage of communism and a further stage. He leaves open the possibility of more. Lenin then distinguishes these as socialism and communism, with socialism still bearing many features, such as state, classes, law and so on. Only with communism will the earlier prescriptions of Marxism begin to appear. Stalin takes this further, pushing communism into a very distant future, while socialism has a strong multi-national state, tensions between forces and relations of production continue, people are rewarded according to work, equalisation (a petty-bourgeois idea) has no place, and the state’s domestic responsibilities, affirmative action and fostering of anti-colonial struggles play huge roles. In a Chinese situation, they take an even longer view, with the preliminary stage of socialism lasting 100 years, after which a next stage emerges, the moderately prosperous, peaceful and stable society. During this process, a whole spate of new approaches emerge.

How do we interpret these developments? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A narrative of betrayal. Engels betrays Marx; Lenin betrays Marx and Engels; Stalin betrays all of the former; Mao betrays them; Deng betrays Mao … Pick your place, but betrayal of Marxism happens at some point. I find this approach quite common among ‘western’ Marxists.
  2. Continuity, sometimes radical. A smaller number take this line, arguing that all of the ideas found in Stalin, Mao or Deng have precursors in the Marxist tradition.
  3. Clarification. Each stage of the tradition and each of its different branches constitutes a clarification of some idea or practice that was not so clear before. This is a more common Chinese approach.
  4. Changing historical circumstances, which may be connected with the first or third approach. Obviously, specific circumstances, cultural histories, political realities and so on produce new problems, which require new solutions. This is what the Chinese call ‘seeking truth from facts’ (drawn from Mao).
  5. The differences between socialism seeking power and socialism in power. As Lenin and Mao pointed out repeatedly, winning a revolution is relatively easy; infinitely more complex is the effort to construct socialism. This is obviously connected with the fourth point, but plays a crucial role.

Losurdo’s new book on Western Marxism

Recently published is a new book by the stakhanovite, Domenico Losurdo, called: Western Marxism: How It Was Born, How It Died and How It Can Rise Again.

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The brief description (found here) reads:

Western Marxism was afflicted by a sort of myopia: it didn’t realize that the wind of the revolution was blowing  from Russia to China and the Third World, joining with the national revolutions against Western imperialism.

There was a time when Marxism was an obligatory point of reference for any philosophical and political debate: those years saw the biggest victories for ‘Western Marxism’, which presented itself in stark contrast to its Eastern counterpart, accused of being a state ideology that propped up ‘Socialist’ regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia. Although at first the October revolution was viewed with hope, 20th century Communism contributed to the disintegration of the global colonial complex rather than creating a radically new social system. An extraordinary result that Western Marxism failed adequately to understand or appreciate. Hence its crisis and collapse. If it is to be revived, it must examine the anticolonial revolution and answer three key questions: What has the global anticolonial uprising meant in terms of freedom and emancipation? How is the clash between colonialism and anticolonialism played out today? What relationship was there between the anticolonial and anticapitalist struggles?

Losurdo puts these questions to the great authors of the 20th century – Bloch, Lukács, Adorno and Foucault – and of today – Agamben, Badiou and Žižek – in a heated debate that combines historical reconstruction and philosophical enquiry.

Exactly! For it was the Soviet Union that developed a thoroughly anti-colonial policy (arising from its ‘affirmation action’ nationalities policy). This policy enabled arms, personnel and know-how to support most of the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century as part of the global undermining of imperialist capitalism. Indeed, what is now called ‘post-colonialism’ could not have arisen – temporally and theoretically – without the anti-colonial theory and practice developed in the Soviet Union (especially by you-know-who).

Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power

I am happy to say that Springer Beijing will publish my book on Stalin later this year. I didn’t realise this until today, but Springer has the largest presence in China of any international press by a long way, publishing works by Chinese authors or Chinese-based authors.

The book is called Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power.

Here is a modified version of the preface:

This book has taken me longer than most. The subject matter has much to do with it, given the preconceptions, if not the knee-jerk reactions, that are produced by the cipher of ‘Stalin’. Some years ago, I managed to acquire a set of Stalin’s works, from none other than a second-hand bookshop in Kansas. Kansas! Yes, for it used to be – many, many years ago – a left-wing, if not Marxist centre in North America. How times have changed. But I soon found that the ‘Works’ were incomplete, ending abruptly in January of 1934. Eventually, I tracked down the remaining volumes, published by Red Star Press in London. To add to my collection, I became aware in the process of a new edition of Stalin’s works, Trudy, which is in the process of publishing what may well be a full collected works by Stalin.

I set to reading Stalin, slowly and painstakingly, as I had done earlier with Marx, Engels, leading western European Marxists, and then Lenin. For some reason, Stalin took me longer, even though he wrote a little less than the others. My earlier hunch that Stalin may actually have something to offer the Marxist tradition was slowly being confirmed, but what that contribution might be took a lot more effort. It required working through the texts many times, seeking to discern the key ideas in light of the frameworks that I was developing. Why? Few had actually worked in such a way, with many simply dismissing Stalin and thereby not even giving him the benefit of serious attention. My starting point with a theological radar meant that I was even more alone. More to the point, I began to realise that many of my assumed categories were being broken down, forcing me to begin thinking again, rethinking everything in the process.

This was, after all, socialism in power, however one may interpret the term. I also realised that socialism in power continues to be chronically under-thought, with many ‘Western’ Marxists simply refusing to countenance the possibility that anything could be learnt from socialism in power – which by 2017 offered a century of immense experiences, stunning achievements, abysmal failures, but above all, an immense resource for reflecting on socialism after the revolutionary seizure of power. Precisely this reality attracts me so much, especially now with my immersion in Chinese socialism. Stalin is one – although not the only one – of the theorists of socialism in power, whether people like it or not.

As I point out at various moments in the book, it was written largely in the context of China, my second home. I am often here for extended periods of time, especially in Beijing. Initially, I was not so enamoured with the place – too large, too hectic, too much change all the time. But after a few years, I realised why I like the place so much, with all its flaws. It is the centre of the strongest socialist state in world history, eclipsing now the Soviet Union. In the middle of Tiananmen square, the gate of heaven no less, lies the body of Chairman Mao. Here is socialist power, with a Communist Party in control. It is like a magnet to me and I am working to understand what it means. This study of Stalin is a first step in the process.

In a little more detail: half of my time is now devoted to living and researching in the People’s Republic, which has had a significant influence on the shape of the book. In an unexpected conjunction, the topics that arose through carefully reading and reflecting on Stalin’s texts turned out to be topics that are very relevant for understanding Marxism in China. The intersection initially seemed fortuitous, but it eventually became clear that the common ground is socialism in power. More specifically, the creative influence of Stalin and the Soviet Union rose to a peak in the Yan’an period of the 1930s and into the 1940s. After the failure of earlier revolutionary efforts, and the trials and triumphs of the Long March, the Chinese communists had an opportunity to study, reflect, discuss and write. Apart from works by Marx and Engels, they had recourse to the developed positions coming from the Soviet Union. Translations brought them the works of Lenin and Stalin, as well as a number of key Soviet philosophers from Stalin’s era. It was this context that framed the significant materials delivered in lectures and written in Yan’an, although the Chinese communists also clearly developed their own positions in debate with Soviet thought. Indeed, some of Mao’s most important theoretical works come from this time, continuing to influence the frameworks of Chinese Marxism today. In my study of these works, it has become clear that many of the categories first broached by Stalin are taken and reworked in the writings of Mao and others. Thus, Stalin – so often excised from the history of Marxism, let alone Marxist philosophy – is the crucial link from Marx, Engels and Lenin to Mao and modern China.

The book is predicated on the fact that Stalin was actually able to think. It may be surprising, but he is not often credited with this ability, let alone the ability to think dialectically. Was he not the one who was a novice at theory, mocked by his comrades for his faltering efforts? Many are those who have reiterated this curious dismissal, perhaps adding the hypothesis that Stalin was either deluded and out of touch with reality or cynically in touch with reality, spinning words to justify yet another deviation. By contrast, for all its many flaws, Kotkin’s biography notes Stalin’s ‘vigorous intellect’. And as Van Ree points out, the ‘evidence is overwhelming’ that ‘Stalin took his own publicly avowed doctrines seriously’. I must admit that I have come to agree with Kotkin and Van Ree on these points, overturning many of my preconceptions through patient and careful attention to Stalin’s works.

I have also come to the position that Stalin must be studied carefully as part of the Marxist tradition. No matter what one’s assessment of Stalin may be, it is an act of intellectual laziness to deny him, for whatever reason, a place in the tradition. Stalin’s library was overwhelmingly Marxist and he made extensive notes in the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Even more, all of the key ideas developed by Lenin and Stalin can be found in earlier moments of the Marxist tradition. After all, a political tradition like Marxism is constantly developing, revising positions and developing new ones in light of changing circumstances.

As Copleston observed some years ago, ‘The point to notice is that Stalin was very well aware that the revolution in Russia had given rise to tasks which required fresh ideas, a development of Marxism to suit the new situation’.