Roland Boer answers questions about religion, capitalism, Christian communism – and Christmas. Culture Matters is also giving away a downloadable PDF of Professor Boer's new ebook on Christian communism, with best wishes to all our readers for the midwinter celebrations. Let's hope we have a culturally and politically progressive 2019........
Q. To start with, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your path to Marxism?
A. My path to Marxism came through religion, particularly the Reformed (Calvinist) part of Protestantism. This may seem like a strange path, since the more common one is through Roman Catholicism – think of Terry Eagleton, Louis Althusser, David McLellan and so on. But it is one I share with far more illustrious people such as Friedrich Engels and Kim Il Sung.
How did this happen? My parents emigrated to Australia in the 1950s from the Netherlands, where the long post-war recession was still being felt. My father became a minister in the Reformed Churches of Australia, and later the Presbyterian Church. So I grew up as a minister’s son, with all of its benefits and drawbacks. It did mean that this type of Christian faith was part and parcel of everyday life – a rare experience these days. It was the fabric of my life, my assumptions and ways of experiencing the world.
Intellectually, this meant that I would inevitably study theology, but only after a degree in European classics (Greek, Latin and Sanskrit). While studying for a Bachelor of Divinity at the University of Sydney, I took a course in the 1980s called ‘Political and Liberation Theologies’. It was a real eye-opener – my first in-depth engagement with the intersections between Marxism and religion, which would shape much of what I did later. A Master’s thesis on Marx and Hegel followed, with a doctorate in Montreal on Marxist literary criticism of the Bible.
Various jobs followed: a minister in the church, a lecturer in a theological college, a university research scholar. But I have always been somewhat ambivalent about such institutions and their demands. There is always one foot outside, searching for another path.
The reality was that I was on some type of quest: to follow the whole Marxist tradition in all its many directions. In a Western European situation, this meant – given my interests – the complex intersections with Christianity. It is a commonplace that Western European cultures and traditions are deeply shaped by the realities of Christian (and Jewish) thought in so many ways. This meant that many Marxists, from Marx and Engels onwards, had to engage with religion. A similar point could be made about Russian Marxism, although this was now the Eastern Orthodox tradition, with its distinct theological developments.
The study of Russian Marxism brought me to a new awareness: as Lenin said on many occasions, winning power through a communist revolution is relatively easy; trying to construct socialism, often in a hostile environment, is infinitely more complex. So I became more interested in what might be called ‘After October’, after the revolution. What communist parties do when in power is an extraordinary area to study, especially since it remains so under-studied. New problems arise that could simply not be foreseen by Marx and Engels, who never experienced what may be called ‘socialism in power’. New solutions must be found and new theoretical positions developed.
All of this took me to China (and more recently North Korea). Here communist parties are in power, and I prefer to take that reality seriously rather than simply dismiss it. What are the practical and theoretical developments? How do the cultural and historical contexts – so different from Western Europe and Russia – influence the developments of Marxism? One obvious point is that the history of engagements with religion is so different that one must start again in order to understand what is going on.
So I am now, along with a number of others, working on a project called ‘Socialism in Power’. My interest is in Chinese Marxist philosophy, which entails knowing the language and engaging with the rich tradition of this philosophy and its relations with traditional Chinese philosophy. What topics interest me? They include the socialist state, a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, Chinese approaches to ‘utopia’ and how these are reinterpreted in light of Marxism, and even what the Chinese mean by a socialist market economy.
Q. You’ve written for Culture Matters on a number of topics. Can you start by saying something about Marx, Engels and Lenin’s comments on religion?
A.‘Opium of the people’ is where we should begin. For a young Marx in his twenties it meant not simply a drug that dulls the senses and helps one forget the miseries of the present. Instead, the metaphor of opium in the nineteenth century was a complex one. On the one hand, opium was seen as a cheap and widely available medicine, readily accessible for the poor. Marx himself used opium whenever he felt ill, which was often. On the other hand, opium became increasingly to be seen as a curse. Medical authorities began to warn of addiction and that perhaps its healing properties were not what many people believed. And the scandal of the British Empire forcing opium on the Chinese in order to empty Chinese coffers became more and more apparent. In short, opium was a very ambivalent metaphor: blessing and curse, medicine and dangerous drug, British wealth and colonial oppression. This ambivalence carries through to religion.
As for this ambivalence, Engels is our best (early) guide. Despite giving up his Reformed faith – with much struggle – for communism, he kept a lifelong interest in religion. He would frequently denounce religion as a reactionary curse, longing for it to be relegated to the museum of antiquities. But he also began to see a revolutionary potential in religion, which came to its first full expression in his 1850 piece on the German Peasant War. This was a study of Thomas Müntzer and the Peasant Revolt of 1525, which was inspired by a radical interpretation of the Bible.
It was the first Marxist study of what later came to be called (by Karl Kautsky) Christian communism, although Engels tended to see the theological language as a ‘cloak’ or ‘husk’ for more central economic and political matters. But Engels was not yet done. Not long before his death in 1895, an article appeared on early Christianity. Here Engels challenged everyone – Marxists and Christians alike – to take seriously the argument that early Christianity was revolutionary. Why? It drew its members from slaves, peasants and unemployed urban poor; it shared many features with the communist movement of his own day; it eventually conquered the Roman Empire. We may want to question the last assertion, as indeed later Marxists like Karl Kautsky did, for Christianity – unexpectedly for some – became a religion of empire rather than conquering it.
Does Lenin have any insights for understanding religion? Generally, he was more trenchantly opposed, not least because the Russian Orthodox Church sided so clearly with the collapsing tsarist autocracy. Yet there are some insights. Apart from Lenin’s continued interest in sectarian Christian groups after the October revolution, let me make two observations.
The first is that Lenin agreed with a position that had been hammered out in the German Social-Democratic Party: religious belief is not a barrier to joining a communist party. Marx and Engels had already indicated as much in terms of the First International. Why? Religion is not the primary problem; instead, the main target is economic and social exploitation. Indeed, this principle has by and large been followed by nearly all communist parties since then (although the Communist Part of China is an interesting exception).
Second, Lenin reinterpreted Marx’s ‘opium of the people’ not as ‘opium for the people’ (as is commonly believed) but as a kind of ‘spiritual booze’. This term has many layers in Russian culture, all the way from Russian Orthodox theology to the complex role of vodka in Russian society. The main point is that ‘spiritual booze’ is not immediately a dismissal, but rather a grudging acknowledgement of the sheer complexity of religion itself.
Q…..and on the topic of religion and capitalism?
A. Let us go to the heart of the matter, with Marx (and leave aside the superficial efforts to see capitalism as a type of ‘religion’). The most thorough analysis of how religion works in capitalism comes through Marx’s reinterpretation of the idea of the fetish.
Over forty years, Marx turned this idea over and over. He was always aware of its religious dimensions, but he also transformed it (the German is Aufhebung) into a very useful way to understand the core functions of capital. To find this insight, we need to go to the third volume of Capital. After pointing out that fetishism attaches to every feature of capitalism, he then points out the key fetish: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Or as his formula puts it: M–M1. Why is this the main fetish? It is both unreal and real, mystical and concrete. On the one hand, it obscures labour and production, pretending that money produces money; on the other hand, it is very real and profoundly oppressive. It is what would now be called the ‘financialisation of the market’. This is what he means by the ‘religion of everyday life’.
Q. The ebook that you’ve written for Culture Matters is on the topic of Christian communism. What are the biblical roots of Christian communism?
A. Let us begin with the socio-economic situation, because Christianity, like most religions, is a response to economic injustice and oppression in this world. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Rome’s imperialism was reshaping peasant agriculture, and the burdens of taxation and debt were growing, deeply affecting local economies, village communities, cultures and health – malaria, for example, was rife.
When the Romans eventually took possession of the Eastern Mediterranean, they found a colonial system that was working rather well – if one thinks in terms of the colonisers. They took over what the Greeks had already established for a few centuries and modified it in the light of their own preferences. This was a system of Greek ‘cities’ (polis), which marked the colonising presence of foreigners. These cities were Greek-speaking, with Greek culture, institutions and town planning.
Above all, they relied on all of the surrounding territory (called the chora) to supply everything the cities needed. Their ‘needs’ were substantial, transforming the economic structures of this chora.
But what was the chora? In a colonial situation, the chora was not the arable land around the city (as in Greece). Instead, it comprised all of the villages, land and peasants who worked the land. They spoke the local language, followed local customs and practices and saw the colonising cities as thoroughly foreign. Given the immense demands from the cities, the lives of the peasants were transformed. They were often forced to move into lower areas rife with malaria, with profound consequences for short lives – life expectancy was around 30.
Roman armies frequently cut swathes through this countryside, as ‘punishment’ for revolt. Mass enslavements took place, further reducing rural labour power. In a recently published book with Christina Petterson (Time of Troubles), we have described this as a ‘colonial regime’. The Romans gradually transformed the system they inherited. Even though the cities remained Greek in culture, they were also required to provide the relatively large city of Rome itself with even larger supplies of grain, and of course slaves.
Q. Given this context of exploitation and oppression, can you give us some examples of parables and stories from the NT which can be interpreted as revolutionary hopes, prescriptions, exhortations etc.?
A. Perhaps it is best to begin with an item that is often a stumbling block to modern readers: the healing stories. To modern eyes, they seem magical, the stuff of ‘faith healing’. But they can be read at two levels. The first is the reality of lives broken by disease. Earlier, I mentioned the pervasiveness of malaria, born by mosquitoes. Malaria does not necessarily kill immediately, but it makes one prone to a multitude of other diseases. The healing stories provide an answer to this reality.
At a symbolic level, these stories also respond to lives broken by poverty, exploitation and the profound disruption to kin networks. At the same time, we need to be wary: the Greeks and Romans liked to characterise peasants as ugly, misshapen and deformed (among other items of class consciousness). The presence of so many people in the Gospels with what would now be called ‘disabilities’ may also be seen as a standard way of depicting peasants. In this light, the healing stories disrupt this type of anti-peasant class consciousness.
More obviously, we find in the Gospels a whole series of sayings and events that challenge Roman perceptions of private property, imperialism and exploitation of colonised areas of the empire. Let me give one example of each:
A challenge to private property, which the Romans had invented as a legal category in the late second century BCE. At one point, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’.
A challenge to imperialism: asked about a coin and whose bust was on it, Jesus replies, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’. In other words, the emperor is due nothing, while God is due everything. ‘What has Rome given us?’ Jesus says. ‘Nothing’, is the reply.
A challenge to imperial exploitation: the best example here is a central item of the church’s liturgy. Each week at evening prayer, I recite the following, which are the words of Mary from the Gospel of Luke: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’. I suspect that the radical sense of these words has been lost through two millennia of repetition.
Also lost to view has been the practical way of life that early Christians led, which was essentially communist. Their solution to the problems of exploitation and oppression was sharing, and common ownership, as described in Acts of the Apostles:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common … and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Q. How did this ‘communist’ tradition continue, and how was it suppressed and co-opted by the ruling classes?
A. At this point, we need to backtrack a little. The idea of Christian communism was first proposed by Karl Kautsky, the leading intellectual of the second generation of Marxists. In a massive study – called Forerunners of Modern Socialism – that has been translated only partially into English, Kautsky and his comrades set about identifying a whole tradition of European Christian communism. A careful analysis of this work appears in the first chapter of a book called Red Theology, which will be published in early 2019.
Kautsky identifies the basic impulse for Christian communism in many sayings of the Gospels, but above all in two brief texts from the ‘Acts of the Apostles’. The first is quoted above, the second was: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common’. For Kautsky, this was enough of an inspiration for a Christian form of communism that would resonate through the ages.
For our purposes here, Kautsky notes that this communist impulse was appropriated by the powers that be in terms of ‘charity’ and ‘alms’. As Christianity spread, it adapted to imperial power. The turning point was when Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion. The radical texts remained, but they were softened and spiritualised into admonitions for alms, family life and simple living.
But it could not be completely appropriated and suppressed. At the moment of this appropriation, the monastic movement arose, which rejected the trappings of wealth and power and sought the simplicity of the original Christian life far from the centres of power.
Q. What examples of Christian communism have there been in the West?
A. There have been many, not least the ongoing monastic movement. The Christian communist impulse refused to die. It kept reappearing, challenging the status quo and the tendency for the Church to become a surrogate for imperial values. The examples are many, but they are predicated on a basic dynamic of Christianity. In the name of returning to the original Christian community, one movement after another has tried to reform the Church from within or challenge it from outside.
Christian communism has had a fascinating history of 2,000 years. There have been two currents: a) communal life with all things in common; b) revolutionary uprisings, due to persecution and radical criticism of the status quo. The communal expression is found in the Franciscans, Beguines, the Moravian Brethren, the Levellers and Diggers in England, and the many American Utopian communes, such as Pantisocracy and the communities inspired by Étienne Cabet.
The revolutionary impulse appears first with the Dulcinians, who took up arms in the early fourteenth century. Later, it appears all over Europe, especially with the rise of early capitalism: Taborites in Bohemia, Peasant Revolutions in England and Europe, especially with Thomas Müntzer (1525) and the Anabaptist Revolution in Münster (1534-1535).
Keir Hardie and Tony Benn are two more recent examples of socialists who were shaped by Christian beliefs.
Q. What examples of Christian communism have emerged in other parts of the world?
A. Russia has a long history, with sectarian groups (Old Believers, Doukhobors, Molokans and so on) and an older peasant Christian communism, with its slogan, ‘the land is God’s’. Tolstoy was a champion of this type, based on the village-commune with land in common.
During the Russian Revolution a unique form arose: ‘God-Building’. According to Anatoly Lunacharsky, Soviet People’s Commissar for Education and Culture, the gods of religion represented the ideals to which human beings were striving. Socialism could embody this approach in education, art, culture – and especially through revolution.
In modern times, the Christian churches of the DPRK have come to support the Korean effort to construct socialism. They are actively engaged in domestic social work and internationally work to overcome the deep anti-DPRK prejudice.
The Chinese tradition of Christian communism, which arose in the early twentieth century, is the most interesting of all.
One of its main theologians was Wu Yaozong, who spoke of two conversions: one to Christianity and one to Marxism-Leninism. Wu established the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church, established in 1951 and supported by the government, which is now the largest Protestant organisation in the world, with more than 38 million members – and growing.
Even the Vatican understands the natural links between the Chinese state’s struggle for socialism and practical application of the Gospel. It recently pointed out that the Chinese state’s commitment to the common good has much more affinity with Catholic Social Teaching than the individualism of Western liberal democracies. Let me focus on the recent agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese government, which has confounded many observers, including on the socialist left.
Three recent statements are important for understanding the agreement, which seeks to solve a centuries-long problem: who will appoint bishops, the Vatican or the Chinese government. Up to recent times, there have been two Roman Catholic Churches in China, one recognised by the Vatican and the other recognised by the Chinese government. The 2018 agreement finally solves this problem. But from the Vatican’s side, it was framed in terms of some very important observations.
First, in 2016, Pope Francis observed:
It has been said many times and my response has always been that, if anything, it is the communists who think like Christians. Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide.
Second, in 2018 Massimo Faggioli (from Villanova University) pointed out that:
…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.
In other words, the church has its own agenda and is not to be co-opted by a Western liberal ideological agenda.
Third, and most importantly, Bishop Sorondo, who is head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, made the following arresting observation in 2018:
Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese … They seek the common good, subordinating things to the general good … The dignity of the person is defended … Liberal thought has liquidated the concept of the common good, not even wanting to take it into account, asserting that it is an empty idea, without any interest. By contrast, the Chinese focus on work and the common good.
This may seem like an extraordinary development, especially in light of the ramped-up Sinophobia in a small number of Western countries, but it makes quite clear that the Vatican has its own agenda in the light of a long history of Catholic Social Teaching, and that it values the social good. For the Vatican, China embodies in our time a focus on the common good.
Churches in China are full to overflowing, apart from the many, many Muslims in China (Hui and Uyghur minorities that number in tens of millions) and indeed the Buddhists. Obviously, they are doing something right.
Perhaps we can learn something from the Chinese experience, not least in the way different Christian churches are seeking to contribute to the construction of socialism.
Q. So there seems to be quite a lot of evidence, throughout history and across the world, that Christianity and communism can be mutually supportive - although clearly there have also times when they have been deeply opposed! What are the lessons for Western socialist politics, and political parties?
A. Churches, mosques, temples and meditation centres need to remember that religion is not all about a private spiritual life focused on another world. This world too, with its exploitation, injustice and inequality, is also vitally important. As each tradition recognises, faith is collective and unitive, a fundamental part of our social natures.
That means working with others for the core aspirations of socialism. One example is to become part of the movement for cultural democracy, to liberate itself from the legitimation of exploitation and oppression and like other cultural activities become part of the struggle to transform the material world.
Let me make the following initial suggestions: first, Western churches may want to begin rethinking their comfortable alignment with liberalism and the modern Euro-American project. I am not using liberalism here in the American sense, where it has come to mean – for various reasons – what is progressive. Instead, I mean liberalism – and its more recent form as neo-liberalism – as the main ideological framework for modern capitalism. It means the primacy of the private individual at the expense of the social and the dismissal of any notion of the common good. Aligning with this ideology has been deadly for Western Churches, as empty pews on any Sunday can attest. The answer is not more liberalism, which we often find in Pentecostal churches and others on the religious right. The answer is to recover the Christian affirmation of the common good.
It is important to do so from within the dynamic of Christianity: the faith and the creeds and the practices of the churches and of religious belief. My influence is the Christian communist tradition, which arises from within such affirmations. This suggestion may seem slightly strange for those who have never experienced religious faith or find it simply mystifying and nonsensical (as the New Atheist movement tries to do in our time). But this is where the inspiration lies – a kind of ‘spiritual reserve’ to inhibit the usual drift away from radicalism,.
For example, the Chinese Christian communist, Wu Yaozong, made it clear that his position arose from faith, prayer and Christian belief, and not from some opportunist compromise with the communists. Thus, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church – which Wu Yaozong helped to establish – in China today is deeply confessional. Or if you look at the statements concerning the Vatican’s reasons for the agreement with the Chinese government, they make it clear that the ultimate basis is theological and pastoral.
Let me put it this way: the Christian call to conversion is far more than an individual moment. The original Greek is metanoia, which means a change of heart and mind. This change of direction, of a turn in one’s life and setting out on a new road, is very much a collective change.
What does this entail? In terms of communist parties, which seem to be undergoing a revival as I write, it is worth reminding them of the Christian communist tradition. This tradition is so important for the Western developments of communism (it was first identified by Marxists, after all) and it reminds us that Christianity is not simply a reactionary and conservative force.
In the context of the UK, it may mean influencing an actual Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. The traditions of British Labour can play a role here, with inspiring leaders like Keir Hardie and Tony Benn, who have drawn on the Christian tradition. The trap, of course, is that such a government may end up losing its radical agenda once in office, as has happened so often before. For this reason, I wrote ‘influencing’, or working to keep the radical agenda at the forefront and even pushing it further to the Left. This may be called a Western version of working with progressive movements, but not identifying with them completely. Perhaps the best slogan here is ‘within and for socialism, but holding socialism to account’.
Or it may mean becoming part of a wider dynamic like ‘cultural democracy’ that seeks to reclaim culture for the people rather than big business and its overwhelming drive for profits As writers on Culture Matters and elsewhere have argued, we need democratic control and various forms of social ownership over the arts, sport, the media – and the churches, mosques and temples.
We need it because culture is integral to the socialist project, an essential part of an all-round healthy, happy, human existence. Our participation in cultural activities like religion should be part of our individual and collective realisation of the common good, and not be undertaken for commercial profit or to ignore, deny or legitimise profit-seeking economic systems like capitalism.
Q. Finally, do you have any other thoughts for our readers, relevant to this Christmas season?
A. Yes – the nativity story is full of radical potential! Jesus is born to a poor family, perhaps in a stable or even on the street, and placed in a feeding trough after birth. Why? An innkeeping businessman turned them away, and then the family was harassed and hunted by the puppet king Herod. Think of the Magnificat, when Mary says:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
And as for the great tradition of Christmas gifts, and Boxing Day, we should remember that the communist slogan – ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ – comes originally from the Book of Acts: ‘everything they owned was held in common … and it was distributed to each as had any need’.
Christian Communism, by Roland Boer, published as a downloadable PDF by Culture Matters, December 2018.