Hegel certainly provided plenty of material for his right-wing followers, especially concerning the state:

The state consists in the march of God in the world, and its basis is the power of reason actualizing itself as will. In considering the Idea of the state, we must not have any particular states or particular institutions in mind; instead, we should consider the Idea, this actual God, in its own right [für sich]. Any state, even if we pronounce it bad in the light of our own principles, and even if we discover this or that defect in it, invariably has the essential moments of its existence [Existenz] within itself (provided it is one of the more advanced states of our time). (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, p. 279)

Needless to say, the caveat is crucial for this dreadfully Euro-elitist moment in Hegel’s text. Then again, to give Hegel credit, he does identify the fundamental alienation at the heart of civil society (which we now like to call the ‘public sphere’), even if he fearfully and desperately offers lame ways to overcome it.


Our friend, GWF, has a knack of turning out some juicy observations. Take this one from The Philosophy of Right (319), on freedom of the press:

To define freedom of the press as freedom to say and write whatever one pleases is equivalent to declaring that freedom in general means freedom to do whatever one pleases. – Such talk is the product of completely uneducated, crude, and superficial thinking [Vorstellens].

As part of my research concerning the alienated nature of the public sphere (which is normally assumed to be the domain of ‘democratic freedom’), I have been reading Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right. As I do so, I keep coming across all manner of other enlightened observations. For instance, on women:

Man therefore has his actual substantial life in the state, in learning, etc., and otherwise in work and struggle with the external world and with himself, so that it is only through his division that he fights his way to self-sufficient unity with himself … Woman, however, has her substantial vocation in the family, and her ethical disposition consists in this piety (§ 166).

In other words:

Women may well be educated, but they are not made for the higher sciences, for philosophy and certain artistic productions which require a universal element. Women may have insights, taste, and delicacy, but they do not possess the ideal … When women are in charge of government, the state is in danger, for their actions are based not on the demands of universality but on contingent inclination and opinion (§ 166).

As for barbarians:

The barbarian is lazy and differs from the educated man in his dull and solitary brooding, for practical education consists precisely in the need and habit of being occupied (§ 198).

Barbarians are governed by drives, customs and feelings, but they have no consciousness of these (§ 211).

That is, ‘uncivilised’ people simply cannot act rationally. I hear that still today in some parts, concerning Greenlanders or Australian Aborigines.

For the enlightened Hegel, barbarians and indeed women are much like the planets:

The sun and the planets also have their laws, but they are unaware of them (§ 211).

Too often do we neglect the fact that Hegel was German through and through. Every now and then it shows through with one of those sentences that brings you up short. In the midst of his long and rather unoriginal ramble on the question of evil, he writes:

For to err is human and who has not been mistaken about this or that circumstance, about whether there was cabbage or sauerkraut with yesterday’s lunch, and about countless matters of greater and lesser importance? (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 140(e))

‘Are you really sure you want to eat that?’ she asked.

‘Why not?’ I said, pointing to the picture menu. ‘It looks like a delectable dish of tofu’.

‘Stinky tofu?’ she said. ‘Not many foreigners like it’.

‘How can I not eat stinky tofu?’ I said.

I was about to engage in what is arguably one of the most pleasurable experiences in China: a meal with a colleague from Fudan University’s Centre for the Study of Contemporary Marxism Abroad. Why so pleasurable? Apart from the food, it is because my colleague has one of the quickest and sharpest minds I have encountered in a very long time, often leaving me floundering. We share many interests, so we push each other to new thoughts, dipping and weaving in a free play of the mind.

We spoke of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) and the metaphysics of Marxism; of Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933) and God-building in the Russian Revolution; of revolutionary enthusiasm and calm analysis; and of vulgar Marxism and its dialectical form. All this turned out to be a knot more complex than at first appears to be the case. How so? That knot presents a series of overlapping but apparently irreconcilable oppositions. These oppositions begin with the warm and cold streams of Marxism, but then move on to include fiery passion and careful reason, subjective and objective conditions, and vulgar and ruptural approaches to the dialectic. Let me begin with the warm and cold streams, which will then enable me to engage with the other oppositions.

Lunacharsky and Bloch (who is many respects the heir of the former, even though he was not aware of Lunacharsky’s work) were both proponents of the warm stream of Marxism. By the warm stream I mean the importance of revolutionary passion, of the appeal to the emotions, of a political myth in which one can believe despite the most devastating of setbacks, of a Marxist metaphysics that is able to bring about an Aufhebung of religion. Both Lunacharsky and Bloch were responding to what may be called the cold stream of Marxism, in which rational analysis of the objective conditions of history was the key. All one needed was a greater knowledge of the objectively existing laws of history, especially of the phases of historical development, so that the path to revolution was clear. For Lunacharsky, who was a central figure in the Russian Revolution and to the Left of Lenin, the Second International was the embodiment of this approach, in which Hegel was a bad influence and in which his residue needed to be excised from Marx’s thought. Bloch too found this mechanistic approach troublesome – he had lived long enough to know a little of the Second International, but then also the resolute ‘history is one our side’ approach that continued to bedevil Marxism into the midst of the twentieth century.

So far, this is relatively straightforward: they want a more vibrant, warmer Marxism that touches the heart as well as the mind. They wish to restore the enthusiastic, subjective and moral dimension of Marxism. At this point, one may object: is this not the stuff of demagoguery? Does not such an approach leave one open to the traps of deploying specific techniques to fire up the emotions of the masses? That is, does not this approach leave one open to the charge of ‘vulgar’ Marxism, especially if we understand ‘vulgar’ in its Latin sense of ‘crowd’ and ‘common people’?

Now our knot of problems becomes much more interesting, for Lunacharsky and Bloch (and indeed the Frankfurt School and their inheritors) were profoundly suspicious of ‘vulgar’ Marxism. It all turns on what one means by ‘vulgar’. For them, vulgar Marxism is precisely the coldly rational Marxism I mentioned earlier. Here is the mechanistic, causal understanding of history, which may be broken down into carefully defined stages that lead inexorably to a socialist revolution. But vulgar also operates with the slogan of ‘the base is to blame’. The base or infrastructure provides the real and material cause of all that is; all that is of the superstructure – culture, philosophy, politics, religion, ideology – may be regarded as excretions or epiphenomena of the base. These two elements work smoothly together, for once you know the mechanisms of the base, once you know the socio-economic causes of all that is, you may be able to predict the course of history.

A further question needs to be asked: who is responsible for this vulgar Marxism? Given that it is the exercise of reason over the emotions, the use of cold theory, of calm and calculated analysis and discussion, vulgar Marxism is actually the domain of intellectuals. In other words, this type of Marxism is an intellectualist development.

Its obverse is the warm Marxism I mentioned earlier, the Marxism of emotional engagement, of powerful political myth, of the heart rather than the mind. At this point, the dialectic comes into play. The intellectualist, cold stream of vulgar Marxism is a version that flattens the dialectic inherited from Hegel. Here we find the triads of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; here is the Hegel of the progress of history in grand stages. The other Hegel is somewhat different. Now he becomes the proponent of a ruptural dialectic, one of breaks in continuity. Here subjective intervention creates history, over against the objective unfolding of history. This is the complex and sophisticated dialectic that enamoured Lenin so and was a major factor in formulating the revolutionary strategy that led to the success of the October Revolution.

So we have arrived at an unexpected juncture: vulgar Marxism is the simplistic, intellectualist tendency; ruptural Marxism is the sophisticated, complex dimension. On the side of the former may be gathered cold theory, the exercise of reason and the mechanistic understanding of the stages of history. On the side of the latter do we find warmth, myth, inspiration, and above all the revolutionary break.

Do we then take sides, preferring one or the other in light of our predilections? No, for both are actually part of, and necessary to, the dialectical Marxist tradition. I speak not of an Aristotelian golden mean, with a dose of sober theory functioning to dampen too much revolutionary ardour; or perhaps some fire and zeal in order to counter the killjoy rationalists. Instead, I speak of a dialectical tension between them, the one needing the other in order to make the movement viable. In this tension may be found the classic merger theory of the Erfurt Program of 1891: socialism at an organisational level is the merger of intellectuals and the masses, both of whom learn from one another and are changed in the process.[1] It was certainly not a process of some advanced intellectual lifting workers and peasants to a new level of consciousness.

In this tension may Lenin’s thought and practice be located, between a mechanistic vulgar Marxism and a deep awareness of the ruptural possibilities of the dialectic. Lenin often moves between one and the other, but at his most luminous moments the two are juxtaposed against one another. And here do we find Marx’s own thought (let alone that of Engels), who could outdo the best of the vulgar Marxist themselves in his formulations. At the same time, he was by no means unaware of the depths and complexities of a ruptural appreciation of the dialectic.

Part of the ongoing debate in Western bourgeois states is the role and status of the public sphere. All the recent commentators I have been able to check attempt to widen the public sphere by including those that have been excluded in some fashion. Most recently this involves religion. The problem is that the public sphere is built on what Tim dubbed the other day as the ‘myth of secular inclusion’. That is, it’s an exclusive universal, gate-keeping who counts as part of that universal. It is simply unable to include all. Ultimately, the identification of this problem goes back to Hegel, who identified the basic alienation of the bourgeois state in the rupture between the state and civil society (the realm of social, economic, religious activity, etc). So if the public sphere is constituted by civil society, then it is built on a structural alienation. The zone that is supposed to foster debate, ‘freedom’ of the press, new thoughts and political directions, even ‘democracy’, is actually a warped and twisted space. All of which shows up in the myth of secular exclusion.

As a result, I have been fascinated by what Tien Chenshan calls ‘focus-field’ in Chinese communism, in which civil society or the public sphere is rather meaningless. I wonder whether this limited description by Edgar Snow captures some of this, when he writes of  the Red government of northwest China in the 1930s:

The structure of representative government was built up from the village soviet, as the smallest unit: above it were the district soviet, the county soviet, the provincial and central soviets. Each village elected its delegates to the higher soviets clear up to the delegates elected for the Soviet Congress. Suffrage was universal over the age of sixteen, but it was not equal [favouring tenant peasants, handicraft worker, and rural workers].

Various committees were established under each of the district soviets. An all-powerful committee, usually elected in a mass meeting shortly after the occupation of a district by the Red Army, and preceded by an intensified propaganda campaign, was the revolutionary committee. It called for elections or re-elections, and closely cooperated with the Communist Party. Under the district soviet, and appointed by it, were committees for education, cooperatives, military training, political training, land, public health, partisan training, revolutionary defense, enlargement of the Red Army, agrarian mutual aid, Red Army land tilling, and others. Such committees were found in every branch organ of the soviets, right up to the Central Government, where policies were coordinated and state decisions made.

Organization did not stop with the government itself. The Communist Party had an extensive membership among farmers and workers, in the towns and villages. In addition there were the Young Communists … organization for women … adult farmers … partisan brigades … The work of all these organizations was coordinated by the Central Soviet Government, the Communist Party, and the Red Army. Here we need not enter into statistical detail to explain the organic connections of these groups, but it can be said in general that they were all skilfully interwoven, each directly under the guidance of some Communist, though decisions of organization, membership, and work seemed to be carried out in a democratic way by the peasants themselves.

This has become a somewhat largish book, but what do you expect from material that covers 45 volumes in English translation and 55 volumes in the Russian? After a very preliminary outline some time ago, I can now offer the full outline:


Why Lenin and theology? The introduction sets out to provide the reason for such a juxtaposition. Here I argue not that Lenin was dependent on theology of whatever stripe, not that theology is the fons et origo of his thought. Instead, I am interested in what theological questions arise and how they are reshaped in his voluminous texts. The key areas turn out to be the ambivalence of his explicit engagements with religion, his surprising attraction to the parables and sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (as well as extensive process of producing his own parables), the wide range of encounters with varieties of Christian socialists, from Tolstoy through to the God-builders, the implications of his rediscovery of Hegel for theology, the question of miracle-as-revolution (which includes the crucial questions of freedom and illegality) and then the veneration of Lenin, especially after his death. These topics are the subjects of the book’s chapters. The introduction also engages with the crucial question of how Lenin’s political biography is perceived.

Chapter One: Spiritual Booze and Freedom of Religion

Religion may be an idealist and reactionary curse, a manifestation of and support for oppression, but to oppose it is a red herring; atheism may be a natural position for socialists, but one should embrace a comrade who is also a believer; one may oppose religion on class terms, but atheism should not become a doctrinaire platform, for the party holds to radical freedom of conscience and religion. These are some of the forms in which an intriguing tension manifests itself in Lenin’s explicit writings on religion. The book opens with these texts, not merely because they are the known works in which Lenin directly addresses the question of religion, but also because they open out into the substantial, if occasionally subterranean, engagements with religion that form the subject matter of the chapters to follow.

The chapter begins with the content of Lenin’s arguments concerning religion, ordering the analysis in a logical fashion. After a detailed treatment of the content of his direct statements on religion, I deal with a couple of case studies that evince the very same logic and tensions of his arguments on religion, one concerning the ‘national question’ and the other dealing with oppressed religious groups, with a particular focus on the Jews and the Bund (The General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia).

Chapter Two: Gospels and Parables

A careful reading of Lenin’s texts reveals a clear preference for the sayings and parables that we find in the mouth of Jesus. The chapter begins with a study of the famous What Is To Be Done? (1902), in which the key organising parable deployed by Lenin is the wheat and tares (or weeds) from Matthew 13. He draws upon this parable in order to rethink the organisation of the communist party (or Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, as it was then known), specifically in terms of the need for discernment, vigorous and open argument, and the dialectic of illegal and legal organisation.

Yet this exploration is only the first step of my argument, for Lenin’s engagement with the parable of the tares and the wheat is not an isolated occurrence. He draws upon other biblical parables, especially those of an agricultural nature with a focus on seeds, growing and harvesting. Further, Lenin goes on to create a large number of his own parables, at times drawn from Russian folklore and literature, at times developed from an opponent’s writing, but mostly of his own creation. Not only does Lenin turn out to be a creative and innovative exegete (and ‘translator’), appropriating, redirecting and providing new angles on the biblical texts, but he also deploys the genre of parables throughout his writings.

Chapter Three: Christian Revolutionaries and God-Builders

A particular group of opponents – or ‘tares’ – were the various manifestations of the religious Left. They range from Christian revolutionaries of various stripes to the God-builders. Throughout I examine in detail Lenin’s often ambivalent responses to this persistent and variegated thread of the religious Left. The Christian revolutionaries comprise the tradition of Christian socialism (and indeed anarchism) and peasant socialism, although the most consistent expression was to be found in the works of Leo Tolstoy. Lenin found Tolstoy particularly troublesome from a theoretical point of view. In a series of pieces prompted by Tolstoy’s death, Lenin twists and turns, attempting to argue that Tolstoy may have asked all the right questions, but that his answers were inadequate. I deal with all of this material in the first part of this chapter.

The second part focuses on the God-builders, perhaps one of the most intriguing components of the Bolsheviks and central to the revolution. Among others, they included Anatoly Lunacharsky and Maxim Gorky, both particularly close to Lenin. Rather than pursuing links between Orthodoxy and Marxism (‘God-seekers’), God-builders sought to promote the affinities between Marxism and religion, fostering the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism in terms of enthusiasm, feeling, the new human being, the radical dimensions of religion, all of which were to be embodied in revolution.

The third section turns to analyse Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, the text in which Lenin extensively attacked the God-builders, especially Lunacharsky. Both vilified and redeployed in ingenious fashions, the book arrives at its critique of God-building by lambasting empirio-criticism. A philosophical trend that persists in various forms today (through the pragmatism of William James), empirio-criticism was initially developed by Richard Avenarius and Ernst Mach. Building on the thought of Berkeley and Hume, and putting itself forward as both radically empirical and positivist, empirio-criticism argued that the only knowledge available comes from sensation; therefore knowledge must be restricted to experience. To claim that a material world exists outside our senses, or that it is structured in terms of causation, is not a materialist position at all, but a metaphysical postulate that is unverifiable. In light of the increasing influence of empirio-criticism, Lenin viciously attacks it, drawing deeply on Engels’s effort to cut a line through all philosophy in terms of materialism and idealism. If materialism means the existence of an objective world which we gradually understand more comprehensively through science, then empirio-criticism must be a species of idealism. And if it is a form of idealism, then it surreptitiously enables God to sneak back into philosophy. At this point, my own interest in Lenin’s argument is aroused, not least because Lenin attacks some of the God-builders who were drawn to empirio-criticism. My discussion of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism acts as the link to the following chapter, where I trace Lenin’s reassessment of this argument through a rediscovery of Hegel, a rediscovery that opens up a more ambivalent position on God-building.

Chapter Four: Returning to Hegel: Revolution, Idealism and God

With this chapter we have arrived at a point where Lenin has developed a dubious and rather undialectical argument in order to counter the growing influence of Bogdanov, as well as the position of the God-builders, especially his close friend, Lunacharsky. But the story is not complete, for it has two further, quite fascinating episodes. The first is Lenin’s intense reengagement with Hegel six years later. After the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin found himself cloistered in the library in Berne, where he read Hegel’s core text, The Science of Logic. I am interested in two dimensions, namely, a recasting of the relation between subjective and objective approaches that would lead to a renewed sense of subjective revolutionary intervention, and Lenin’s direct encounter with the core of Hegel’s idealism, which has a direct bearing on his perceptions of God-building and even the revolutionary possibilities of varieties of religion outside the mainstream.

The second episode involves setting this intense period within the wider context of Lenin’s encounters with Hegel and his understanding of the dialectic. On this matter, we face two competing narratives. One argues that up to 1914 Lenin held to a mechanistic, vulgar and evolutionary notion of the dialectic, dependent on the late Engels, Second International socialism and Plekhanov, but that after truly encountering Hegel for the first time, he finally appreciated the depth and complexity of that dialectic. The other narrative holds that Lenin fully appreciated that depth and deployed in varying ways throughout his life. Given these two narratives, a careful assessment of all of the relevant texts is in order. The result: the time in the Berne library becomes less an isolated occurrence than a rediscovery and deepening of his understanding of Hegel’s dialectic on a materialist register. The reason is that his writings show both earlier appreciations of what may be called a ruptural approach to the dialectic and a continuation of the more vulgar reading after the time in the Berne library. All of which leads to the conclusion that Lenin maintained, before and after 1914, a perpetual tension between the vulgar and the ruptural dimensions of the dialectic. This tension explains the apparently contradictory approaches to Lunacharsky’s God-building and religion itself, especially after the October Revolution.

Chapter Five: Miracles Can Happen

‘In certain respects, a revolution is a miracle’. Revolution = miracle; революция = чудо: the permutations of this equation are the concern of this chapter. Although revolution is arguably the central theme of Lenin’s extensive writings and political practice, my angle is different from the many others who have dealt with Lenin and revolution, for I am interested in its theological translation – hence miracle. What does it mean for Lenin to say that revolution is a miracle?

Miracle is not so much a moment that changes the very coordinates of existence (or in Hume-derived terms as an event that is inexplicable according to the ‘laws’ of nature), but rather a point of contact between two seemingly incommensurable worlds. In theological terms, a miracle is a touching between heaven and earth, or rather, the moment when transcendence is bent towards immanence. In Lenin’s appropriation, the two worlds are no longer heaven and earth but those of spontaneity and organisation, between the unexpected the expected. Time and again, he emphasises and devotes immense energy to the need to organise in preparation for the revolution, whether in terms of party structure, publicity organs, propaganda, parliamentary involvement, agitation on the streets or military training. Yet the moment of revolution inevitably occurs without forewarning, a spark that turns instantaneously into a conflagration. Both January 1905 and February 1917 were precisely such events, let alone the myriad strikes that surrounded them. In the first part of this chapter, I explore various manifestations of this tension at the heart of miracle-as-revolution – in terms of the ‘lightning’ strike, the closely related issue of kairós and then Lenin’s relation to those that may be called the spontaneous philosophers of our own day.

Second, the tension between transcendence and immanence embodied in the miracle also manifests itself in the struggle over working within and without the old order. Should socialists concern themselves primarily with reform, working within and changing the system, or working towards revolutionary overthrow of that system? Lenin offers us no easy answer, working between the options available towards a more dialectical position. So also with the complex matter of freedom, concerning which Lenin castigates the formal and limited ‘freedom’ offered by the bourgeoisie for the sake of the real freedom of revolutionary transformation. Once again, he does not stop here, for the key to freedom is an open, explicitly partisan (proletarian) freedom, which then becomes a genuine universal. The analysis of these tensions is the burden of the second part of the chapter.

Chapter Six: Venerating Lenin

Lenin’s veneration is the topic of this chapter, at times called the Lenin ‘cult’. The importance of revisiting the veneration of Lenin lies not merely in its significance for the question of Lenin and theology, insofar as theological matters emerge from a close engagement with Lenin, but also because the sustained veneration of Lenin became the prototype for later revolutionary communist leaders. By focusing on the veneration of Lenin, I hope to provide some steps towards a more in-depth analysis of the crucial role such veneration played in the new communist situation in Russia. The argument distinguishes between the more overtly theological factors and those that were not so obviously theological. The former include the saint, the prophet and the martyr. I find that none of them provide a simple background that fed into the veneration of Lenin. Instead, the revolutionary possibilities developed counter-traditions that relativise the absolute theological claims concerning saint, prophet and martyr.

More significant and far less noticeably religious factors in the veneration of Lenin include a never discussed but crucial feature, namely, the curious juxtaposition between his passion for vigorous outdoor exercise – swimming, ice-skating, hunting, and above all hiking in the mountains (he was always shod in hiking boots) and cycling – and his simultaneous fascination with diseases, decaying bodies and corpses. This juxtaposition operates at the intersection between the conscious and the subconscious. Rather than one element undermining the other, I argue that they operate in a tension that expresses an anxiety over, if not an aversion to a sickly, decaying body. And it was an aversion that could not help being communicated to his closest comrades as well as the many who read his texts. Beyond these two interleaved currents, other significant factors also play a role. So we return to Anatoly Lunacharsky and introduce another God-Builder, Leonid Krasin, both of whom were important figures in the veneration of Lenin after his death. While the less articulate Krasin was in charge of the initial phases of the preservation of Lenin’s body and the plans for constructing a wooden mausoleum, Lunacharsky headed an elaborate competition for the design of the permanent mausoleum. Both were prominent members of the Immortialisation Commission, the successor to the Funeral Commission. A third major factor was the sheer extent of popular and creative veneration, initially following the assassination attempt in 1918 but above all after his death. This outburst of intense reshaping – through new folk tales, stories and art – of the symbols and images of the existing worldviews of those who had found their voices after the revolution took the government by surprise. But they soon caught up and built upon that veneration through a vast program of Agitprop. In that intersection, as well as in the continued practices of both popular and official veneration, the outline a new political myth was born. All of which brings me to my final point concerning the specific economic and social function of that veneration. I argue that Lenin’s veneration became a necessary feature of a new form of compulsion for people to engage, with revolutionary fervour, in constructing a new social and economic system.