Report on United States human rights abuses in 2017

The Information Office of the State Council in China has published its annual report on human rights abuses in the United States. You can find a full copy of the report here, and a news summary at Xinhua News. While the report details abuses of civil rights, systemic racial discrimination, increasing flaws in US-style democracy, and flagrant abuse of human rights in other countries, an underlying theme concerns the right to economic wellbeing (a basic principle of Chinese Marxist approaches to human rights).

On this note, the following points are relevant:

In December 2017, 52.3 million Americans lived in “economically distressed communities” and 18.5 million were living in deep poverty.

Of those living in poverty in the United States, there were about 13.3 million children – 18 percent of those under the age of 18. The U.S. Urban Institute statistics revealed that nearly 9 million children in the United States (11.8 percent of American children) would grow up in persistently poor families.

The average wealth for white families is seven times higher than average wealth for black families and that median white wealth is twelve times higher than median black wealth. More than one in four black households had zero or negative net worth.

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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)

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).

Red Theology: Table of Contents and Introduction

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

Here are the table of contents and the introduction.

Chapter 1 – Karl Kautsky’s Forerunners of Modern Socialism

The Manifold Types of Heretical Communism.

Müntzer and Münster

Theology and Revolution

Chapter 2 – Early Christian Communism as a Political Myth

Reconstruction: Kautsky

Reconstruction: Rosa Luxemburg

Consumption Versus Production, or, Transition

The Question of History

Political Myth

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

Anti- or Pro- Empire?

Contradiction Analysis

Imaginary Resolution

Conclusion.

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

Q and the Marxist Tradition

Issues

Conclusion: How to Be Truly Radical

Chapter 5 – John Calvin and the Problem of Ungodly Rulers

Two Kingdoms or One

Anarchy or Tyranny

Ungodly Rulers

Obey!

God’s Agents

Magistrates

Let Princes Hear and Be Afraid!

Subject Only in the Lord

Conclusion.

Chapter 6 – From Luther to Marx and Engels

Human Nature

Engels, Luther and Thomas Müntzer

Marx and Luther

Two Revolutionary Stages

A Revolutionary Reformation?

The New Revolution

Conclusion.

Chapter 7 – Heilsgeschichte, History and Marxism

Calculating the Day.

Bruno Bauer and Marx

Engels and the Apocalypse

Early Eschatological Communism

Moving Mountains: Concerning Narrative Structure

Stirner’s Ego and Christ

Towards Contradiction

Relativising Theology

Chapter 8 – Revisiting the Marxist-Christian Dialogue

Limitations

From Then …

To Now

Human Nature

Alienation

Prometheus and the Future

Conclusion: Reconsidering the Background

Chapter 9 – Althusser and the Possibility of Religious Revolution

Trapped in the Past

Sources of Hope

From Social Revolution …

To Spiritual Revolution

Conclusion.

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

Science and Prayer

Modulations of an Anglo-Catholic Dialectic

Discerning the Tension between Revolution and Reaction

Christianity and Socialism

Conclusion: On Enthusiasm

Chapter 11 – Christian Communism and the Bolsheviks

Peasant Socialism

Twisting over Tolstoy

God-Builders

Conclusion

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

Hong and the Bible

Revolution and Community

Interpreting the Taiping Revolution

Mao Zedong and the Taiping Revolution

Chapter 13 – Chinese Christian Communism in the Early Twentieth Century

Revolutionary Times and Influences

Christianity and Communism

Method

Reconstruction

Identity and Difference

Conclusion: Christianity and Marxism with Chinese Characteristics?

Chapter 14 – Religion and Revolution in Korea

Chondoism

Protestant Christians

The DPRK Today

Juche Theology?

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Vatican moves slowly, but it does move: the China-Vatican deal

Christians have been in China, on and off, since at least the seventh century CE. At that time, the Church of the East – the largest Christian church in those days – made contact and established churches during the T’ang Dynasty (based in Chang’an or modern Xi’an). The Church of the East had a distinct Christology, which is often dubbed ‘Nestorian’ (Jingjiao) but should be called dyophyticism, stressing the divine and human natures of Christ. It lasted in China until the 10th century, only to return in the 13th and 14th centuries during the Yuan dynasty.

By the time the Roman Catholics (Tianzhu jiao) appeared in China in the 13th century, Christianity had already been in these parts for some six centuries. The Roman Catholic story is a long and rocky one, with Matteo Ricci (Li Madou) in the early 17th century, periods of support and restriction, and then finding itself eclipsed by Protestant missions in the 19th century and  the establishment of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church in the 1950s.

However, the Roman Catholics found themselves in an old bind after the liberation of China in 1949. On the one hand, the government recognises the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which is under the direction of the government’s department of religious affairs. The Vatican has never recognised this organisation, but it has also never condemned it as schismatic. On the other hand, there is the unofficial Roman Catholic Church in China, which is recognised by the Vatican but not the government. At heart is the old problem of who appoints bishops: the state or the Vatican.

For some 60 years this problem has seemed intractable – until China’s new ordinance on religious affairs (2017) took effect. To be added is Pope Francis’s desire to unite Roman Catholics in China under one organisation. So we find serious efforts to come to an agreement, much like the deal in Vietnam. Needless to say, arguments have gone back and forth among Roman Catholics, with some condemning the new deal and others advocating it.

Most recently, the Global Times has carried a piece by a Roman Catholic theologian – Massimo Faggioli – advocating the move on historical and theological grounds. To quote:

The negotiations between the Vatican and the government of the People’s Republic of China represent the most important diplomatic effort by the Holy See in decades, and it is no surprise they are encountering significant opposition in the Western hemisphere.

There are two dimensions that we need to take into account to understand these negotiations. The first dimension is historical-theological. There is a long history of relations between the papacy and political authorities that goes back at least to the early fourth century, under the Roman Empire of Constantine and later of emperor Theodosius, when the Church acquired public relevance. It was the beginning of a long history of bilateral relations between the Church as a community of believers and the political community. It is a history that always had at the center the care of the bishop of Rome (the pope) for his brother bishops and the local Churches, the good relations between the Church hierarchy and the political authorities, and especially the appointment of bishops.

These issues were crucial in the “investiture controversy” of the 11th-12th century, in the tensions with emerging nation states in Europe in the early modern period, and in the struggle with nationalisms in the 19th and 20th centuries. The issue of the bishops’ appointments was important also in the relations between the Vatican and Soviet Russia and Eastern European countries under communist rule after World War II.

But the parallels that are often drawn between the current negotiations with China today and the history of the Vatican Ostpolitik during the Cold War are misleading: the proper historical context for a correct understanding of the ongoing efforts is the entire 2,000-year long history of the Church and of the papacy. In this long history, the procedures for the appointment of bishops have always been very complex: they were often, and in many cases still are (in various forms, always subject to change in the long run) a moment of collaboration between the papacy and secular political authorities.

There is also a theological development that adds to this historical context. During the last century, Roman Catholicism has become a more globalized Church: Catholics and the papacy have come to terms with a wider variety of social and political contexts around the world. This means that the Church does not look for the same kind of arrangement for all Catholics in all nations, but strives for improving the relations of Catholics with the political authorities in order to maintain and foster the unity of the Church.

The goal of negotiations with political authorities is not ideological, but pastoral in the sense of helping the local Churches live their faith in a given, concrete reality, without artificial divisions between factions in their midst. Those who believe in this possible breakthrough between the Vatican and China today know that there is already a long history of Christianity in China, with which the global Catholic Church needs to be more directly in touch. This is an integral part of the vision of Pope Francis for a Catholic Church that is truly global, at the service of all humanity and of world peace.

What is typical of the international activity of the Holy See today is a direct appeal to the logic of the Gospel and not to a worldly or political logic. This is true for all the activities of the Holy See in all countries, encouraging Catholics to be fully Catholic, safeguarding communion within the Church, keeping the genuine tradition and ecclesiastical discipline, and at the same time respecting Catholics as authentically rooted in their particular countries and nations. The Vatican believes in a respectful and constructive dialogue with the civil authorities, and in doing this the diplomacy of the Vatican expresses the wishes of the global Catholic community, which cares for the Chinese Catholic community and its unity, and wants the good of the Chinese people.

Much of the resistance against this new relationship between the Vatican and the government of the People’s Republic of China is rooted in a lack of understanding of these two key dimensions – the long-term historical framework of the international activity of the Holy See and the pastoral goal of its diplomatic activity. The big historical picture and the proper goals of the international presence of the Holy See are often missing in the criticism against the Vatican negotiations with China. The use of Catholicism as an ideological surrogate for Western ideologies is not new, but is especially at odds with Pope Francis’ vision of Catholicism, and it makes it impossible to understand this important moment in the relations between the Vatican and China.

Or, more directly, as Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo put it, ‘Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese’.

Not a bad development in the new era of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, or Xi Jinping Thought.

Some powerful images out of Pyeongchang (updated)

As CP pointed out to me today, international sport has taken the place of religion when it comes to dealing with international political issues. How so? In the middle of the nineteenth century in Prussia, the only language in which one could engage in political issues was religion, or more specifically theology. This was due to the heavy censorship over political debate in Prussia, so all of the issues were expressed in and through religion. The youthful Marx and Engels were no exception.

In an analogous fashion, international sport – for better or worse – seems to have taken on that role. For example, Russian athletes cannot be banned for overtly political reasons, so the excuse of ‘doping’ is used. And of course, the complex issues of Korean unification can be broached much more readily through the avenue of the Winter Olympics than other forms. Obviously, these images are as much social and political as they are focused on sport, but they take place in the context and language of sport.

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The combined Korea team, under the ‘Korea is One’ flag, which raised by far the loudest applause.

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So far, this sort of thing has happened before, albeit not at such an important juncture. But the arrival of Kim Yo Jong is another story. She is the younger sister of Kim Jong Un and a serious politician in her own right.

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The handshake between her and Moon Jae-in, president of the south, as the united Korea team came out during the opening ceremony was powerful in its symbolism.

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Alongside Kim Yo Jong is the president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong Nam.

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He was received warmly indeed by Moon Jae-in before the games.

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And here is a toast with Moon Jae-in, Kim Yong Nam and the Olympic chair.

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This first part of this video is fascinating, since it speaks volumes about the common ritual of who should sit in the most important seat. Initially, Kim Yong Nam suggests Kim Yo Jong should sit there. But she pauses and insists he should sit there, especially in light of his seniority (he is 90). At last, after back and forth, he takes the seat, as he knows he should – but not before umpteen signals of humility.

 

Last but by no means least, the north has sent no less than 229 members of a cheer squad, replete with instruments.

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Their chant: the simple but powerful ‘We are one’.

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You cannot help thinking that Kim Jong Un and the leadership team are becoming quite masterful at international leadership. Meanwhile, the USA’s representative at Pyeongchang, Mike Pence, was made to look like a frustrated and petulant little boy who could not get his way. He refused to attend the welcoming dinner and did not stand and cheer as the united Korea team came out. Unlike the leaders of the two Koreas:

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Update:

Things move fast in this environment. Kim Yo Jong has by now delivered a written invitation from her bother to Moon Jae-in: a personal meeting between the two of them at the ‘earliest date’ possible.

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Moon is said to have been positive but cautious: ‘Let us make it happen by creating the necessary conditions in the future’.

To add to the picture, the entries by Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam in the visitors book at the south’s presidential office express positive hopes:

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While Kim Yong Nam (left) wrote of the Korean people’s desire to be reunited, Kim Yo Jong (right) wrote: ‘I expect Pyongyang and Seoul to get closer in the hearts of our (Korean) people and the future of unification and prosperity will be advanced’.

Given that the north’s policy has always been consistent regarding reunification, but that the south’s approach has lurched back and forth depending on political circumstances, the ball is clearly in Moon’s court. Will he make the most of the opportunity on the 70th anniversary of the separation of the two Koreas so that serious progress is made to reunification – as this DPRK joint conference make clear? Or will he waste the chance? Perhaps a small signal may be found in the rebuttal of Japan’s urging to resume military preparations – the so-called ‘war games’ with the USA and South Korea – for invading the north. After the militant Abe suggested this, the southern Koreans told him to get lost, since he was interfering in Korean sovereignty.

Of course, if the two parts of Korea do reunite, the urgent question is what in the world are US soldiers doing occupying one half of the Korean peninsula.