As everyone knows, today is Hegel’s birthday (ht cp). And having been struck down with the flu virus that is afflicting all and sundry in these parts, I was reminded of the dialectic arising from the argument from design. To wit, God did not design the intricate and wily variations of the flu virus merely to afflict human beings with misery. Rather, the careful design of the flu virus produces in response very useful narcotics, such as codeine and pseudoephedrine. I have imbibed both this afternoon and can vouch for their effectiveness. Forget the pretend efforts, such as ‘natural’ remedies or placebos (false dialectical responses). As a chemist once said to me, only narcotics will do the trick. This is the true dialectic.

On 12 July, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague made a non-binding ruling concerning the Law of the Sea. The former regime of the Philippines (under Aquino) had made a unilateral application to have the Nanhai Zhudao (South China Sea Islands, known in English as the Spratley Islands) declared rocks rather than islands and therefore solely under its jurisdiction. The tribunal found in favour of the Philippines, which has led to the inevitable flurry of arguments back and forth. China indicated from the beginning that a ruling either way would have no impact or force. Taiwan has rejected the finding as well, since it lays claim to some of the islands, as does Vietnam. Of course, spokespersons in the USA and Australia are huffing and puffing about the ‘law of the sea’ and ‘freedom of navigation’.

So let us backtrack a little to get some perspective on the so-called ‘freedom of the seas’. The argument dates back to the ingenious Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). He was called upon by the Dutch East India Company to find some way of justifying the capture of the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina by the Dutch captain, Jabob van Heemskerck, on February 25, 1603. The seized cargo was sold in Amsterdam later that year for no less than three million Dutch guilders. It increased the coffers of the Company by fifty percent.

Obviously, much was at stake. Grotius musters all his legal, philosophical and theological to pen De jure Praedae (Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty). Two elaborate and key arguments were made with relevance to the current situation.

First, using all his Eurocentric assumptions, Grotius argues that possession of land and sea could only be claimed if there was evidence of human activity involving construction or the definition of boundaries. Wharves and jetties on shore may be fine, but on the open seas it is another matter entirely. Crucially, this argument is part of a much longer effort to retell the story of Genesis 1-3 so as to show that God willed and ordered private property and a universal ‘natural law’.

Second, he argues – good Armenian theologian that he was – that an individual is responsible for good and evil. This also means that an individual can punish evil and recompense good, subject of course to the universal principles established by God. Thus, Dutch mariners on their gunboats-cum-merchant ships were justified in seizing Portuguese ships. He does not mean a fleet of Dutch war ships under the direction of the government but individual captains working for a private company in the distant seas of the Indies, far from the practices of Western European customs and laws. As rational, free-willing actors, the Portuguese had willingly violated the laws of nature by claiming the seas as their own, but the Dutch captain also acted in accordance with those principles by punishing them for such an act.

What did the hard-headed directors of the Dutch East India Company make of all this? They were somewhat nonplussed by the deft philosophical, theological and legal arguments, peppered with quotations from classical Greek and Roman authors. Instead, they seized on a section and published it in 1609, with the title Mare Liberum (On the Freedom of the Seas). Another 250 years had to pass before the whole text was accidentally discovered.

These directors saw clearly that all of Grotius’s complex arguments were really propaganda. ‘Freedom of the seas’ really meant that the gunboats of the Dutch East India Company could sail where they wanted and seize who they wanted. A convenient argument that has been used ever since, whether by the British Empire or now the declining American Empire.

To return to the current situation concerning the South China Sea. Back in 1603, the Santa Catarina had been on its way from Macau to Malacca, laden with Ming porcelain, Chinese silk, musk and so on. Heemskerk seized the ship just off Singapore, after it had passed through the South China Sea. Further, the ship may have been Portuguese, but at the time Portugal was part of the Spanish Empire. And it was the Spanish who colonised the Philippines in 1565.

In 2016 we have China, a former Spanish colony (the Philippines), and the South China Sea, where a significant portion of the world’s shipping once again can be found. And the ‘arbitration’ takes place in The Hague, the Netherlands, where the Dutch East India Company first sought to develop the international law of the ‘freedom of the seas’ for its own purposes.

I cannot help thinking of Marx’s observation, ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce‘.

How often do you hear a leader of a world power, a socialist one at that, say this? ‘It is time for philosophy to flourish’. The People’s Daily reports that Chairman Xi addressed a gathering leading philosophers and social scientists on 17 May.

President Xi Jinping held a rare, high-profile symposium on Tuesday on building up philosophy and the social sciences, marking Beijing’s latest effort to beef up its soft power and push for a larger say on the world stage.

He called for ‘more independent and innovative theories and ideas’ that will take root from China’s reality. ‘While China undergoes the most extensive and sophisticated social reform in its history,this is an era that needs theory and gives rise to theory, this is an era that needs thought and gives rise to thoughts’.

And you have to love this: he urged the scholars to follow the guidance of Marxism, to base their work on national conditions, and to draw on achievements from foreign countries and history.


The website concerning the first China Road conference in the southern hemisphere is now up at the University of Newcastle (screen grab below). This is obviously a notice to save the date and begin thinking about a potential conference paper or panel proposal. More details will be posted as the conference planning develops early in the new year. This is sponsored by none less than the Academy of Marxism within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.




When 19 to 21 August 2016

Where University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia

Contact Roland.Boer


Paper proposals and abstracts for The China Road international conference due 1 June 2016.

The China Road has a number of levels of meaning. It concerns China’s distinct path in the modern world, a path that has also been called the ‘Beijing Consensus’ and ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, with deep historical roots and a broad basis in reality. It also refers to the new ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which seeks to revitalise countries along and around the old Silk Road – a revitalisation that includes economic, cultural, social and educational dimensions.

In this light, the conference will examine the China Road from a range of perspectives. These include philosophy, Marxism, economics, politics, society, education, culture, different forms of democracy, and international relations in the Asian Century. With an eye on past and present, the conference will also examine possible future developments. It will be undertaken in a supportive environment, seeking insight, understanding and constructive criticism. The conference is ideally placed to make a significant impact, attracting attention by the media and the wider public.

Scholars from Australasia and China, as well as international scholars, are invited to participate. The conference will also include keynote speakers.

Please save the date and return to this website for more details, including registration, as they become available.

The China Road conference is sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the University of Newcastle, Australia.

Academy of Marxism image

It has taken a while, with preliminary studies and articles before I managed to gain a clear sense of this book. So, a revised outline:

The focus of the book is the thought of Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili in relation to philosophy and religion. Much of the material I analyse relates explicitly and – more often – implicitly to religion, if not theology. Such topics include language, human nature, the delay of communism, and the patterns of veneration and demonization. The concern with theology and Marxism is an abiding concern of mine. However, these topics also intersect with philosophy, which emerges more clearly on matters relating to the national question, affirmative action, anti-colonialism and efforts to redefine what ‘people’ may mean. Thus, in order to incorporate the full range of Stalin’s thought, I examine this thought at the intersections between theology and philosophy. This study operates with a simple assumption borne out of careful study: Stalin’s thought is to be taken seriously.


The introduction states the main aims of the book and examines the various approaches taken in studies of Stalin (some of which has been outlined above). Within this wider field, I discuss the few works that have engaged with Stalin’s thought, whether political theory (Van Ree 2002) or the rhetorical structure of his texts (Vaiskopf 2002). I identify what may usefully be drawn from such texts, but – more importantly – where they fall short. Van Ree tends to fall back onto external factors to understand Stalin’s political thought, while gliding too quickly over the complexity of that thought. Vaiskopf has a particular agenda, which is to identify the complex elasticity of the negative dimensions of Stalin’s rhetoric and structures of thought, to the point of reducing dialectics to a series of oxymorons. In particular, Vaiskopf overplays his hand by suggesting the central influence of theological Orthodox categories – due to Stalin’s theological study – such as ‘belief’, ‘soul’, ‘sin’, ‘spirit’ versus ‘law’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘Trinity’, ‘dogma’, ‘saints’ and even Stalin’s ‘Christ-like’ nature. By contrast, Stalin’s engagement with theology is both more subtle and contested, where it can be identified. The introduction closes by outlining a ‘translation’ model for the relations between Marxism and religion, in contrast to those of historical influence or all-encompassing source.

Chapter One: Background: At the Spiritual Seminary

The first two chapters concern the explicit background and content of Stalin’s engagements with religion, theology and the church. In this chapter, I set some crucial background, while resisting the suggestion that it should be regarded as the key in terms of the category of influence. Stalin is unique among world communist leaders in at least one respect: he studied theology for five years (1894-1899) at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, a training college for priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. He was notably intelligent and devout. Yet, despite the importance of this theological study, few if any take the time to analyse what Stalin studied and how he did so. Thus, I investigate closely Stalin’s studies, especially the theological content of his study with an eye on the themes he would contest and redevelop in his thought. The training was thorough. In the earlier years, he studied both secular and theological subjects, such as Russian literature, secular history, mathematics, church singing and biblical studies. By the later years, the focus was more intensely theological, with ecclesiastical history, liturgy, homiletics, dogma, comparative theology, moral theology, practical pastoral work, didactics, and the two staples: church singing and biblical studies. But I am particularly interested in the continuity (rather than the discontinuity) between his theological knowledge and the activism in which he increasingly engaged. Stalin left the college just before the final examinations in 1899, of his own will. Yet in Georgian revolutionary circles he was for many years known as ‘The Priest’.

Chapter Two: Religions and the Church

This chapter focuses on the explicit content of Stalin’s texts concerning religion. In the first part, I analyse his statements and observations concerning other religious groups, especially Muslims and Jews. The latter raises the important question concerning the charge of Stalin’s anti-semitism and examines the evidence. This then enables me to consider the various positions concerning religion in the party program and later in the Soviet government. My specific interest here is the explicit establishment of freedom of religion in the 1936 constitution. This encouraged the Russian Orthodox Church, parts of which had experienced significant repression, to agitate for the enactment of the clause in the constitution. Eventually, these developments led to the historic compact between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church in the early years of the Second World War. In return for support of the war effort that eventually defeated Hitler, Stalin allowed the reopening of tens of thousands of churches and the re-establishment of the church’s leadership hierarchy. I seek to analyse the complexity of this development, in light of both Stalin’s knowledge of the church and the development of religious iconography around Stalin, fuelled by rumours of a ‘mysterious retreat’ in 1941.

Chapter Three: Sentence Production: Between Poetry and the Bible

The third chapter shifts gear. As a way into the deeper and subtler patterns of philosophical and theological thought in Stalin’s texts, I begin with the formal question of sentence production. Initially, I consider his early and widely appreciated poetry, which enables me to analyse the various styles of his later writings and speeches. These evince poetical flights, homiletical expositions, liturgical rhythms, catechetical patterns, stark oppositions, rich imagery, painstaking methodological structures and a liking for storytelling. The most significant story is repeated and revised often: the ‘political myth’ of the communist party and the victory of the October Revolution. I also investigate the patterns of biblical imagery and invocation, especially by one who was well-versed in the Bible. These allusions go beyond a general cultural context, with a distinct liking for the biblical image of the ‘light to the nations’. I close by examining what may be called a scriptural dynamic, which is translatable across different scriptural traditions. Thus, in traditions in which written texts of founders play an important role, the claims made upon and reinterpretations offered of the founding texts are crucial for justifying new directions. In debates, all sides claim to be faithful to the texts of Marx, Engels and Lenin, with each denouncing the other as undertaking misguided interpretation. This scriptural dynamic is particularly important for understanding the struggles between Stalin and Trotsky.

Chapter Four: Modalities of Dialectics

From sentence production I move to the related area of the patterns of Stalin’s thoughts, with a focus on the multiple modulations of dialectics that appear in his works. These include the staples of subject-object and form-content, but also an early articulation of what would later be called ‘constitutive resistance’ (Negri). In this case, the resistance of the workers becomes the determining feature of the constantly changing tactics of the capitalists and the bourgeoisie – initially on a national level but later in a world-historical form. The two major developments in dialectics are in terms transcendence and immanence and a dialectic of crisis. The former refers to the relations between workers and the communist party, between theory and action, and between the party and the multi-ethnic state. The latter – dialectics of crisis – emerges in a complex pattern, particularly in light of the civil war, sustained international opposition, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The key to this dialectic is what may be called a ‘theology of class struggle’, manifested in the argument that the closer one’s gaol becomes, the more ferocious become internal and external opponents.

Chapter Five: Redefining Nation and People: Between Universal and Particular

A major form of Stalin’s dialectic thought is the focus of this chapter. At its heart, it concerns the universal and the particular, taking the form of what may be called the international and the national. It begins with his efforts to produce a socialist approach to the national question and ends with a redefinition of ‘people’. The argument has five steps. First, the international category of class is not opposed to nation (which was itself understood in the particular sense of nationality), but enables a new approach to the latter. Second, one may understand this connection through the paradox of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which totalising unity produces new levels of diversity. Third, this leads to the theoretical elaboration of the world’s first affirmative action program. Fourth, the program provides the basis for the international anti-colonial struggle. Fifth, within that international context, a new definition of the ‘people’ (and by implication ‘nation’) emerges, in which the ‘Soviet people’ are constituted by workers, collective farmers and intellectuals.

Chapter Six: Babel versus Pentecost: Stalin and Linguistic Diversity

A further dimension of Stalin’s dialectical arguments concerns language, although he glimpses rather that fully articulates such a theory. Its core is that the greater the totalising unity, the greater the linguistic diversity produced; the more diversity arises, the more does a new form of unity arise. In this respect, Stalin may be seen as a Pentecostal (Acts 2) in regard to language, rather than a utopian pre-Babelian (Genesis 11). In the first part, I analyse the initial stage of the dialectic, where he indicates the unexpected creation of more languages as a result of soviet practices. In the second part, I deal with the question of unity, specifically in terms of the widespread ideal of an eventual universal language under global socialism. However, Stalin’s thoughts are not always consistent, so when faced with questions, he resorts to a conventional stages theory of linguistic development, in which initial diversity would eventually lead to unity. Yet, even when he resorts to such a theory, I discern a desire to push the final age so far into the future that it may well never come. The interim provides ample time for a more dialectical approach. In light of this position, it becomes possible to see the essay on linguistics (1950) as an anomaly. It results in a closing down of the dialectic in terms of a stability-flux opposition.

Chapter Seven: The Delay of Communism

In this chapter, I both pick up an element of the previous chapter and set the scene for the next. It concerns the ‘delay of communism’, which is translatable with the Christian phenomenon of the ‘delay of the Parousia’. The early Christians believed that Jesus Christ would return soon, so much so that their lives were ordered for the brief time in between. However, it soon became apparent that Christ was not in a hurry. The result was that the interim became in many respects the norm. This situation produced a significant number of developments in thought and practice, although the one that interests me concerns different approaches to Christ’s return. For some it lay fully in the future, for others it had already happened in Christ himself or the Church (realised eschatology), while for others it had begun but awaited fulfilment, so much so that the future return already determined the present (proleptic eschatology). The analogy with the delay of communism sheds light on the latter. After the world’s first socialist revolution, many expected that a worldwide revolution would soon follow. There were to be disappointed, an experience that led to the distinction between socialism and communism, with the former understood to be a transition to communism. Stalin in particular was all too aware that the rest of the world was not moving towards a socialist revolution in the near future, so much so that he pushed communism into an almost mythical distant future. The interim, socialism, became the norm. I examine a number of important features of this development: class struggle within socialism; the state; socialism on one country; the appropriation of features from communism, especially with the claim that socialism had been achieved in the 1930s. I close by asking whether Stalin developed his own form of proleptic communism.

Chapter Eight: Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil: Stalin’s Revision of Marxist Anthropology

Perhaps Stalin’s most significant contribution is to Marxist anthropology, by which I mean the theory of human nature. The core of this theory (which arose from practice and experience) is that a new human nature entails an exacerbation of both good and evil. On the one hand, the new human being is capable of hitherto unexpected great achievements; on the other, the same human being can be responsible for untold evil. This tension may be described as one between passion and purge, both of which were generated out of socialist enthusiasm. By passion I mean the extraordinary and widespread fervour for human construction of the socialist project, especially the ‘socialist offensive’ – the massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s. By purge I refer to the systemic purges of that period, which the Bolsheviks themselves described in terms of the Red Terror. My analysis has two main parts, after setting these developments within a theological frame: the tensions between Augustine and Pelagius, in light of a Russian Orthodox context, concerning human nature and its transformation. The first part deals with the revolutionary passion of the socialist offensive of the 1930s, focusing on the glimpse of a new human nature embodied in Stakhanovism and its attendant features of emulation, tempo and grit, as well as the claim that the Pelagian project of socialism had been achieved in the Soviet Union by the second half of the 1930s. By contrast, the second part of the chapter analyses the increasing awareness of the depths of evil produced by this new human nature – which may be seen in theological terms as an Augustinian irruption. Above all, the Red Terror signals this moment, which requires discussion of the terminology of purging (with its theological echoes), the demonstration trials and the shocking awareness of a new depth of evil within both the collective and individual self. Throughout and especially in the conclusion, I argue that the two sides should not be separated from one another: they are necessarily connected, for without one, the other would not have existed. All of this is central to a thorough recasting of Marxist understandings of human nature, with evil now playing a substantive role.

Chapter Nine: Veneration and Demonization

No other political leader has been – and continues to be – as venerated and as reviled as Stalin. This is so in Russia, where he is reviled by some but revered by many others (even to the point of religious observances in his native Georgia), and internationally, where he functions either in terms of the reductio ad Hitlerum or as the architect of a stunning victory in the Second World War and in the construction of socialism. In this chapter, I argue that such polarisation is due not only to political factors during the Cold War and its aftermath, but also to the distinct dynamic of Stalin’s thought. His tendency to intensify dialectical oppositions – in terms of class, state, socialism and human nature – has left an unwitting trace in assessments of his legacy. By now it should be clear that such polarisation has philosophical and theological dimensions, in which both intense veneration and the ‘black legend’ are two parts of the same process. This also entails treatments of the creation of ‘Leninism’ (by Stalin), his disavowals of the ‘personality cult’ and the way Stalin remains such a divisive figure in the Marxist tradition, if not in global history of the twentieth century. Above all, I seek not to take sides in this polarisation, but to understand it.


The conclusion seeks to answer the question: does Stalin have a distinct contribution to make to Marxist philosophy, particularly through the theological undercurrents of important dimensions of his thought? Since I have not yet completed the manuscript, I leave the answer to this question open for now.


The University of Newcastle is offering the following PhD scholarships to high calibre international applicants. This is – as usual – extremely competitive. A few details:

  • A high quality, international University partner
  • Agreement of the supervisors and student to undertake a jointly supervised PhD with at least one supervisor from each University
  • Availability of a high quality (top) student preferably from the partner institution
  • Student to spend (face-to-face) time at both institutions during their PhD, the time distribution being flexible
  • Up to 50% full scholarship support from University of Newcastle and the remainder from the partner

Please contact me at my university email address if you know of anyone eligible and interested in a joint PhD in Marxist philosophy and religion.

Some of the most fascinating material in Stalin’s Works (from volume 11 onwards) concerns the theoretical debates over collectivisation. The campaign, of course, remains the butt of much anti-communist ranting, with assertions that it ’caused’ the famines of the 1930s, that it curtailed the natural incentive of private property and farming, indeed that it was nothing more than a return to medieval patterns of indentured labour, if not outright slavery.

All of that avoids dealing seriously with the actual issues at stake. To begin with, the furious process of industrialisation in the 1920s had to do so in a new way. The USSR was unable to plunder colonies for industrialisation, as had happened in Western Europe, and it did not wish to rely on foreign loans (it pretty much couldn’t anyway, since it had simply annulled the debts racked up by the tsarist autocracy). So the whole industrialisation process had to rely on internal, or socialist accumulation. Large-scale industrialisation needs massive injections of funds. But where to get those funds? The government decided to set higher prices for manufactured goods, as a type of super-tax that would flow back into industry. This was despite the increasing abundance of such goods. Meanwhile, prices on agricultural goods were set lower, even if there were occasional shortages. Obviously, this went directly counter to the supposed ‘iron law’ of supply and demand. Obviously, it led to not a little speculation by the kulaks, or wealthy farmers, among others. Most importantly, it produced the first layer of economic contradiction.

The second layer was between the rate of industrial change and the rate of agricultural change. The furious pace of industrialisation (the proverbial unleashing of productive forces) left agriculture far behind, so that an ever larger gulf opened up between them. The ‘super-tax’, or ‘scissors’ approach would not hold out forever in such a situation, so something had to be done in relation to agriculture. Stalin toyed with the idea that the small farmers should be fostered, since their approach had been tested over centuries. But in the end, he and the government opted for the very Left approach of collectivisation as a way of dealing with the growing contradiction between industry and agriculture.

As some have suggested, and as the editors of Stalin’s Works also point out, the collectivisation drive was the most difficult task since the conquest of power. In short, it really was an other revolution, a massive undertaking never quite seen before, achieved in a breathtakingly short period of time and not without a few unexpected side-effects.

In this context, Stalin reflects on such revolutionary changes in a letter to Gorky from 1930. He is discussing the responses of young people to the turmoil:

It cannot be the case that now, when we are breaking the old relations in life and building new ones, when the customary roads and paths are being torn up and new, uncustomary ones laid, when whole sections of the population who used to live in plenty are being thrown out of their rut and are falling out of the ranks, making way for millions of people who were formerly oppressed and downtrodden—it cannot be the case that the youth should represent a homogeneous mass of people who sympathise with us, that there should be no differentiation and division among them. Firstly, among the youth there are sons of wealthy parents. Secondly, even if we take the youth who are our own (in social status), not all of them have the hardiness, the strength, the character and the understanding to appreciate the picture of the tremendous break-up of the old and the feverish building of the new as a picture of something which has to be and which is therefore desirable, something, moreover, which has little resemblance to a heavenly idyll of “universal bliss” that is to afford everyone the opportunity of “taking his ease” and “basking in happiness.” Naturally, in such a “racking turmoil,” we are bound to have people who are weary, overwrought, worn-out, despairing, dropping out of the ranks and, lastly, deserting to the camp of the enemy. These are the unavoidable “overhead costs” of revolution (Works, vol. 12, p. 180).

Arkady Plastov - Collective-Farm Festival,   1937 (320x195)

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