Tuesday, 12 December 2017 22:16

Religion: opium of the people?

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Image by Ignacia Ruiz
Image by Ignacia Ruiz

In the first of a series of essays on Marxism and religion, Roland Boer discusses Marx's description of religion as 'the opium of the people'. It is also available as a free ebook here.

Marx’s most well-known observation concerning religion is that it is ‘the opium of the people’. The meaning would seem to be clear: opium is a drug that dulls the senses and helps one forget the miseries of the present. So also with religion. The catch is that Marx’s use of ‘opium’ is not so straightforward, for it actually opens the door to what may be called a political ambivalence at the heart of religion.

Background: Germany and Theology

But before we can deal with this question, we need to deal with some preliminary groundwork: how much did Marx and Engels know about religion – which in their context meant Christianity? As for Marx, although he never seems to have professed any religious belief, even from a young age, he identified himself ‘of Evangelical faith’,[1] where ‘Evangelical’ means in a German context Protestant. This identification came from his certificate of maturity from the Gymnasium (or high school) in Trier, the town where he was born. Much later, in 1861, when Marx was applying to recover his German citizenship (he had been deported due to revolutionary activity), he wrote: ‘I … profess the Evangelical religion’.[2] But these claims were more cultural than religious, especially since Marx’s Jewish father had formally assimilated for the sake of German identification and rights, being baptised as Heinrich (from Herschel). Not only cultural, but also educational. At the Gymnasium, Marx was taught a full curriculum of theological and biblical studies. He studied Latin, Greek, French and Hebrew, as well as ‘religious knowledge’ and church history. As his certificate observes: ‘His knowledge of the Christian faith and morals is fairly clear and well grounded; he knows also to some extent the history of the Christian Church’.[3] All of this is revealed in one of the final examination papers, which involved an interpretation of the Gospel of John.[4]

As for Engels, his background was somewhat different from that of Marx. In his home town of Elberfeld and Barmen (together known as Wuppertal), the Reformed or Calvinist tradition was strong. Engels grew up a devout young man, attending church more than once a week, sitting at the feet of a minister who was to become the most famous in Germany, Friedrich Wilhelm Krummacher. At the local gymnasium he had studied similar subjects as those of Marx, notably becoming competent in classical and New Testament Greek (he was also to master a range of other languages). But Engels’s inquiring mind did not find its outlet in university study. Instead, he entered the family cotton production business, first established in Barmen by his grandfather and later to become the Ermen and Engels firm, with factories in Germany and Manchester. Soon, Engels was posted to Bremen for a couple of years before moving to Manchester. Somewhere between Bremen and Manchester, Engels lost his deep faith, a struggle that caused a profound sense of loss, sadness and release. He was never one to accept the dominant orthodoxies at face value, penning biting critical pieces on the hypocrisies of the Reformed burghers around him, who would be dutifully devout on Sunday and yet see no problem exploiting those around them during the week (see especially ‘Letters from Wuppertal’ from 1839).[5] He also observed the fascinating tensions in the preaching and behaviour of his minister, Krummacher. Already at this stage, it is obvious that he found time to read and write, although he had to publish his early pieces under pseudonyms. It is easy enough to maintain one’s faith while being critical of its practitioners. More difficult for Engels were the challenges posed by contemporary philosophy, theology and biblical criticism, all of which he read with enthusiasm.

I will return to Engels’s struggles in a moment, for now we need to set the wider context in Germany at the time. This was a relatively backward context, economically and politically. The German states lagged well behind The Netherlands, England and France in the development of capitalism. On a political register, the Prussian kings, Friedrich Wilhelm III and IV, sought to ensure the continuance of the monarchy, stifle any reform movements and foster the ‘Christian state’. Unlike France, with its revolutionary experiences and the radical atheism of Voltaire and company, and unlike England, with its burst of industrialisation and the growth of deism, in the German states debate over modern issues was mediated through theology and the Bible. Many topics were censored and could not be discussed directly: republicanism, bourgeois democracy, parliamentary representation, freedom (of the press and assembly), individual rights. So they were addressed in coded form through arguments over the Bible and core theological issues. Thus, to criticize the Bible or Christianity was to criticize the reactionary political situation.

It should be no surprise that the most controversial works of mid-nineteenth century Germany were those of David Strauss, Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach. The furore over Strauss’s The Life of Jesus arose over its argument that the narratives of Jesus in the Gospels are purely mythological and that each person is able to become a democratic Christ.[6] Similarly, Marx’s one-time teacher and collaborator, Bruno Bauer, developed a radically atheistic position through his biblical interpretation. In this work, he challenged the oppressive particularism of religion and urged a democratic self-consciousness. And Feuerbach’s proposal in The Essence of Christianity – a work that deeply influenced Marx and Engels in their younger years – that religion is the projection of what is best in human beings was seen as deeply revolutionary.[7] It is telling that all of them either could not find work in a university or lost the posts they had as a result of their work.

Given such a context, both Marx and Engels could hardly avoid debating and discussing theology. But due to their different backgrounds, they followed different paths until they first met in the early 1840s. For Engels, it entailed a slow break from his faith, passing through different stages as he attempted to hold on. We can see this process intimately in a series of letters with his close friends, Friedrich and Wilhelm Graeber from 1838 to 1841. They discussed at length biblical questions, especially the effects of the latest research on internal contradictions and the historicity of the biblical accounts. Engels was unable to reconcile these insights with his faith, not least because he had no role models or mentors who could guide him through to a more critical position. Right up to his break and perhaps even afterwards, Engels’s wrote of calling out to God in prayer, but he also saw the exhilarating if frightening prospects, like crossing the sea: ‘it was like a breath of fresh sea air blowing down upon me from the purest sky; the depths of speculation lay before me like the unfathomable sea from which one cannot turn one’s eyes, straining to see the ground below’.[8] At the same time, this intimate experience of Christianity would sustain a lifelong interest in matters biblical and theological. Instead of turning his back entirely on religion, he sought a different way to understand it in a way that went beyond Marx. We will see in a later pamphlet how this was so.

Marx took a somewhat different path after completing his PhD at the University of Berlin. While there, he had become a close collaborator with Bruno Bauer, with whom he planned books and even a journal, Archiv des Atheismus. Nothing much came of the plans, although Marx wrote a long manuscript called A Treatise on Christian Art. The manuscript is lost, but the themes turn up in Marx’s other work at the time. This is especially so in articles he wrote while editor of liberal newspaper, Rheinische Zeitung. Let me give one example from 1842: ‘The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung’.[9] The article is a sustained response to a certain Karl Hermes, editor of the journal mentioned in the title, who was a conservative Roman-Catholic and government agent. Hermes had fired a broadside against the Young Hegelians and the relatively new critical approach to the Bible and theology. We find Marx in a curious position: he wants to defend these new approaches to the Bible and theology, but at the same time he seeks to get past the theological nature of public debate. How does he do so? Theology is presented as an other-worldly, reactionary and traditional venture; against it are ranged scientific research, history and philosophical reason. The catch is that Marx ends up defending a form of theology and biblical research that is scientific, historical and rigorously philosophical. In this article, we also find Marx mercilessly tackling the contradictions of the ‘Christian state’ and introducing one of his first explorations of the fetish.

For both Marx and Engels, the big question was how they could find a way of thinking and acting that was free from the dominant theological frame of German thought in the 1830s and 1840s. Apart from the material I have already mentioned, we can see the beginnings of this process in the first two works they produced together: The Holy Family and The German Ideology.[10] While the first book was a sustained polemic against the theological undertones of much of the work of the left-wing young Hegelians, the second work begins to move beyond that framework and offers the first rough outline of what would become historical and dialectical materialism. This approach arose as a response to the theological context of thought in which Marx and Engels found themselves. Instead of following them down this path, let us stay with what Marx (and later Engels) say about religion. In what follows, I will examine the meaning of ‘opium of the people’, after which I develop its implications in the thought of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Opium and the Ambivalence of Religion

The opium metaphor appears in an early text, written by a 24-year old Marx soon after he and Jenny were married. The text is brief, only a few pages that comprise the introduction to his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law. The full manuscript was not published at the time, but the introduction did appear. For obvious reasons, it has become Marx’s most well-known statement on religion:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.[11]

Three key points can be made about this text. First, to understand the famous phrase – opium of the people – we need to consider the sentences that precede it. Note carefully: religious suffering may be an expression of real suffering. Religion may be the sigh, heart and soul of a heartless and soulless world. But religious suffering is also a protest against real suffering. Religion does not merely try to make one feel better in a world that has gone to the dogs, or passively accept those conditions. It is also a protest, pointing out that such suffering should not be borne. Here is a hint – a slight one – of what may be called the ambivalence of religion, since Marx’s use of the opium metaphor is more complex than we might initially think. Alongside its more negative associations, it may also have positive ones.

This brings us to the second point. In our time, we may associate opium with drugs, addicts, organised crime and destroyed lives. The situation in nineteenth century Europe was quite different.[12] Opium was regarded as a beneficial, useful and cheap medicine, especially for the poor who could hardly afford a doctor. Even in the early twentieth century, opium was used by doctors to treat melancholy and other ailments. As the left-leaning theologian, Metropolitan Vvedensky of Moscow, said in 1925, opium is not merely a drug that dulls the senses, but also a medicine that ‘reduces pain in life and, from this point of view, opium is for us a treasure that keeps on giving, drop by drop’.[13] However, opium was at the same time seen as a curse, doing more harm than good. Opium was the centre of debates and parliamentary enquiries in England; it was praised and condemned; it was a source of utopian visions for artists and poets, but it was increasingly stigmatised as a source of addiction and illness. To be added here is the ambivalence of colonialism: opium had been forced by the British Empire on the Chinese, so as to empty Chinese coffers of gold and silver. Thus, a significant portion of the wealth of the British Empire was based on the opium trade. Perceptions of opium ran all the way from blessed medicine to recreational curse.

Third, Marx himself used opium regularly. He consumed it to deal with the many illnesses that were produced by obsessive overwork, lack of sleep, chain smoking, and endless pots of coffee: liver problems, toothaches, eye pain, ear aches, bronchial coughs, and of course his infamous carbuncles. On one occasions, Jenny Marx wrote to Engels:

Chaley’s head hurts him almost everywhere, terrible tooth-ache, pains in the ears, head, eyes, throat and God knows what else. Neither opium pills nor creosote do any good. The tooth has got to come out and he jibs at the idea.[14]

Opium, it turns out, was a multidimensional metaphor. This is precisely why Marx chose it as a metaphor for religion. Like opium, religion may be source of hope, a way of curing an illness, a sigh for a better world; but it is also a result of world out of kilter, and may even be a source of harm in its own right.

Lenin and Spiritual Booze

What was the subsequent history of the opium metaphor? I would like to give one example, from Lenin. In 1905 he wrote:

Religion is opium of the people [opium naroda]. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image [obraz], their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.[15]

I have actually changed the translation of Lenin’s text. Why? The English translation in Lenin’s Collected Works has ‘opium for the people’, which changes the meaning. ‘Opium for the people’ gives the sense that religious beliefs are imposed upon people rather than emerging as their own response: religion is no longer of themselves, but has become something devised for them. But this not what Lenin’s text says. He writes ‘opium of the people [opium naroda]’, which is a direct translation of Marx’s ‘opium of the people [das Opium des Volkes]’.

However, in the USSR ‘opium for the people’ became the dominant sense. People mostly used the phrase ‘opium for the people’ rather than ‘opium of the people’ as the standard definition of religion. Perhaps the most famous example is the line from the movie, Twelve Chairs (based on Ilf and Petrov’s satirical novel of the same name from 1928) where the main character keeps greeting his competitor, the Orthodox priest, with the line: ‘How much do you charge for the opium for the people?’ It may be that Lenin hints in this direction, since he does say that religion is ‘a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image’. At first sight, this seems to mean the conventional ‘drowning of your sorrows’. Religion becomes a flask of vodka that dulls the pain of everyday life.

But Lenin’s text is not so straightforward. He also speaks of ‘human image’ and ‘demand for a life more or less worthy of human beings’. Something else is going on here, more than simply drowning your sorrows. I suggest that Lenin is alluding to theological language, especially from Russian Orthodoxy. How so? This tradition offers an intriguing interpretation of a key text from the Bible, Genesis 1:26: ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’. Russian Orthodoxy argued that the two terms – image and likeness – indicate different meanings. Thus, Adam and Eve may have been created in the image of God, which meant that they could participate in the divine life. However, sin (Genesis 3) has blurred and fractured the union of divine and human, resulting a less-than-human existence, with the unnatural result of death. Now we get into the intricacies of theology: according to Eastern Orthodox theology, the first human beings had missed the likeness to God. They may have been created in the image of God, although this had been distorted through sin. Likeness is another matter. The reason is achieving likeness to God is actually the task of Jesus Christ. This is a new state of existence, beyond that of Adam and Eve. They called this process of becoming like God theosis, or deification. This is a closer fellowship with God than even the first human beings experienced.

Did Lenin allude to this complex interplay between image and likeness, with his usage of ‘human image’ and ‘worthy human life’? Our human image may be obscured, drowned, inebriated, blurred – as though one were blind drunk – but even so the demand for a decent life persists. That is, a life worthy of human beings echoes not merely the broken image that runs through Russian Orthodoxy, but especially the restoration to the likeness of God through Christ.

This is not all, for ‘booze’ is also more ambivalent. As the Moscow Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexander Vvedensky, pointed out in 1925, ‘booze’ is a good translation of ‘opium’. Vvedensky was fully aware of the theological dimensions of Lenin’s phrase, but he was also aware of the role of alcohol in Russian culture. Even today, one finds that beer has only recently (2011) been designated an alcoholic drink, although most people continue to think that it is not. Two-litre bottles are still available in most shops and the famous vodka may be bought in useful bottles that fit comfortably in one’s hand. And there is the great Russian tradition in which an opened bottle must be emptied. Italy and France may be fabled as wine cultures, Germany, Scandinavia and Australia as beer cultures, but Russia’s drinking identity is inseparable from vodka.

Russians may be admired for their fabled drinking prowess, vodka may be a necessary complement to any long-distance rail travel (as I have found more than once), it may be offered to guests at the moment of arrival (for otherwise the host is unforgivably rude), it may be an inseparable element of the celebration of life, but it is also the focus of age-long concern. One may trace continued efforts to curtail excessive consumption all the way back to Lenin. For example, Khrushchev and Brezhnev sought in turn to restrict access to vodka with tighter controls, although their efforts pale by comparison to the massive campaign launched by Gorbachev in 1985. And Lenin fumed at troops and grain handlers getting drunk, molesting peasants and stealing grain during the food shortages of the Civil War (supported by foreign forces). Nonetheless, vodka was a vital economic product. Already in 1899 in his painstakingly detailed The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin provides graphs and data concerning the rapid growth of distilling industry. Finally, when Russians drink they toast the Holy Trinity. They say ‘soobrazit’ na troih’, that is, ‘to do the thing among the three’, or, even more literally, ‘to co-image among the three’. To drink is therefore a co-imaging the Trinity.

Booze turns out to be a metaphor as complex as opium, if not more so. It is both spiritual booze and divine vodka: relief for the weary, succour to the oppressed, inescapable social mediator, it is also a source of addiction, dulling of the senses and dissipater of strength and resolve. Religion-as-booze thereby opens up even more complexity concerning religion in the Marxist tradition.

Between Reaction and Revolution

By now it should be clear that religion is politically ambivalent. It can go one way or the other, to reaction or revolution. Throughout history, we find that a religion like Christianity – on which I focus since I know it best – has easily supported all sorts of tyrants and despots. From the moment the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the religion of empire (from 312 CE and confirmed by Theodosius I in 380 CE), it became clear that religion fits very easily into this role. To be sure, there was plenty of preparation in Christian literature and thought (already in the Bible), as the text of Romans 13:1 reveals: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God’. But Constantine’s act made this process perfectly clear.

The danger, however, is to assume that this is the default position for a religion like Christianity. We can easily assume that religion is inherently reactionary, supporting the worst forms of oppression, holding onto outmoded thoughts and practices. The list of examples is long indeed, but perhaps the best example is the condemnation of Galileo’s proposal that the earth goes around the sun. This took place at the hands of the Inquisition between 1616 and 1633. The error was not acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church until 1992.

But we would be mistaken for thinking the church is at its heart reactionary. A common position is to argue for a conservative core to religion. This could be the church’s support of reactionary power, its support of slavery for many centuries, opposition to marriage equality, or simply the idea that believers should be ‘good’ citizens and not upset the status quo. So if some group challenges its conservatism, they are variously branded as ‘heretics’, anti-religious, persecuted and – as so often happened in the past – executed. On this approach, the rebels are outsiders, developing alternatives at the fringes of religion and its institutions. They distort the core ‘truths’ of religion to suit their political purposes.

However, among these groups we can also find a reverse approach. They sometimes argue that the original ‘truth’ of Christianity was a rebellious, revolutionary and communistic one. Jesus himself was seen as a revolutionary and therefore executed, and the early Christian movement was a form of communism in terms of its social organisation. A favourite text here is Acts 4:32 and 35: ‘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 … They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’. We find this approach even in Engels and Karl Kautsky, but many on the religious Left would hold to it as well. Thus, the various churches and their accommodation with power constitute a betrayal of the original nature of Christianity. This understanding leaves two options: try to reform the church from within, as many have done throughout history, or move outside the church to form new movements, which has also taken place again and again.

The problem here is not the efforts themselves, but the assumption that there is a core and original truth and that it has subsequently been betrayed. In itself, this is an approach that draws from the Bible, especially the story of the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Once there was an almost perfect state of existence, but human beings betrayed that state and now we live with the consequences (as an aside, this narrative often appears among Marxists as well when dealing with new developments in Marxism elsewhere in the world).

I would like to suggest another approach. It is not that the truth of Christianity lies with either the conservative or radical approach, with either the religious Right or the religious Left. Instead, both approaches come from the core of religion. It is not either-or, but both-and. At one and the same time, Christianity is reactionary, with self-serving institutions validating despotic power, and rebellious, so much so that Jesus was seen as a revolutionary and that Christians should be opposed to imperialism and colonialism. Both positions are possible and they do not require any twisting of biblical texts or theology to justify their approach. What we find throughout the sacred texts, theological debate and historical examples is a constant tension between reaction and revolution, between the religious Right and the religious Left.

‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat’: Interpreting a Text

However, since Christianity is primarily a religion based on a collection of texts, the Bible, I would like to focus on one specific text that illustrates this point very well. It comes from 2 Thessalonians 3:10: ‘anyone unwilling to work should not eat’. I will need to put the text in its context, before dealing with two ways this text has been interpreted. The first and more reactionary interpretation is usually found among biblical scholars and conservative politicians, while a more radical interpretation appears with none other than Lenin.


Let me set the context for this biblical verse: the problem for the letter as a whole, which was sent by an unknown author to the small group of Christians in Thessalonica, was the delay in the return of Christ. Many of the early Christians (the Apostle Paul among them) believed that Christ would return very soon, well within their lifetimes. Soon enough, it became clear that Christ was in no hurry to return and bring in a new age. How to deal with this problem? This particular letter proposes that an increasing number of conditions have to be met before Christ would do so: first there must be a time of turning away from the faith (apostasy) and even rebellion; then a mysterious figure called the ‘man of lawlessness’ (or anti-Christ) must appear; then another comes, called the ‘one who restrains’, but he must be removed. Only after these conditions have been met will Christ come and begin the new age by destroying the lawless one.

The language is very mythological and may well have been as much a mystery to its first recipients as it is to us. But I want to stress a few points in relation to this text. First, it was very important in Eastern Orthodoxy, which provided the cultural context for Lenin and other Bolsheviks. This theological tradition had a strong sense of the tribulations leading up to the end time. The Antichrist (man of lawlessness) looms large, resisting God, if not trying the appear as God. And this time was not to begin at some point in the future: it had already begun when Jesus Christ was on earth. It would come to an end only with his return.

Second, the transition period would become drawn out, so much so that it became the new normal. During this period, one should of course await Christ’s return. But since that moment is unknown and it may take quite some time for it to happen, everyone needs to pay attention to keeping the faith while under threat, focus on the importance of the tradition, and work steadfastly. This is where the text from chapter 3, verse 10, comes into play: ‘anyone unwilling to work should not eat’.

Conservative Interpretation

 The verse – really a slogan – seems clear enough: if you do not want to work, you should not be provided with the means for living – specifically food. But interpretations of the verse reveal a fascinating division along class lines. Many biblical commentators suggest that the target of the verse is made up of labourers and artisans. In the new Christian community, they have – argue these commentators – been avoiding work, so the text is telling them to get back to work. Explanations may vary in their details:

  • ‘idle beggars’ who took advantage of Christian ‘brotherly love’;
  • noisy and troublemaking poor who depend on rich patrons;
  • lazy and greedy unemployed manual labourers who no longer wanted to work and relied on wealthy Christians;
  • some manual labourers among a larger number who shirked work and left the burden to others.

Obviously, class plays an important role here. This is expressed clearly in Nicholl’s commentary: ‘It is not difficult to imagine that some from the manual labouring class would have exploited the opportunity to be indolent rather than return to a life of hard manual work’. They are doing nothing less than ‘leeching’ and ‘sponging’.[16]

Biblical commentators are not the only ones who have offered a conservative interpretation of the verse. Not a few politicians and apologists for capitalism have also invoked it. For example, when James Smith arrived at the Jamestown settlement (North America) in 1908, he quoted the verse in order to correct – as he saw it – the problems in the colony. The anti-socialist clergyman, William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), used the verse to promote laissez-faire economics. More recently, ‘shock jocks’ in the United States, such as Glenn Beck, use the verse to attack any form of welfare for the ‘undeserving poor’ (the former Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, used it exactly the same way). Not to be outdone, Margaret Thatcher quoted the verse at least once. In her infamous ‘Sermon on the Mound’, delivered to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1988, she suggested that this verse offers a biblical ‘principle’ for social and economic life: ‘We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth’. In short, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 has been used again and again to target the poor unemployed: they are poor because they are supposedly lazy and do not want to work. They should not expect any support from the state.

Revolutionary Interpretation

We may also read the verse in a very different direction: it is not unemployed workers who shirk honest work, but the members of the ruling class, the rich who do not engage in productive labour. They are the ones who sponge off those who actually work. In the history of interpretation of this text, it is difficult indeed to find this reading. The only one who comes close in the Christian tradition is the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus (1371-1415), who – in a work called On Simony (1413) – denounces the practice of church leaders, who were enmeshed with the ruling class and held many estates so as to generate income without working themselves. Hus writes: ‘Woe to the canons … bishops … and prelates who eat, gorge themselves, guzzle, and feast abundantly, but in spiritual matters amount to nothing’.[17]

The first person who really offers a thoroughly new interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 was none other than Lenin. He does so in ‘The State and Revolution’ from 1917, precisely when he is interpreting Marx’s brief comments on the stages of communism in his late piece, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. Lenin reinterprets the initial and subsequent stages as socialism and communism – the first time such a distinction was clearly made. Under socialism, argues Lenin, we still have wage labour, contradictions, classes and recompense in terms of work done rather than needs (the latter would comprise communism).

What is the most appropriate slogan for the stage of socialism? Lenin writes that the ‘socialist principle, “He who does not work must not eat” [Kto ne rabotaet, tot ne dolzhen estʹ], is already realised’.[18] Note carefully: Lenin reinterprets the biblical verse in a small but important way. He does not write ‘he who is unwilling to work’ (as in the biblical text), but ‘he who does not work’.[19] And to spell out what he means, Lenin adds: ‘An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labour’.[20]

A year later, Lenin makes use of the same biblical verse. Now he addresses a gathering of workers in Petrograd. Grain was short, due to the destroyed transport network from the ravages of the First World War and the internationally supported ‘civil’ war. Grain speculation was rife, despite the effort at fixing prices. So Lenin attacks the bourgeoisie for profiteering, bribery, corruption and for trying to undermine the new workers’ state. In reply, he defines the ‘prime, basic and root principle of socialism’:

‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat [kto ne rabotaet, tot da ne est]’. ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’ – every toiler understands that. Every worker, every poor and even middle peasant, everybody who has suffered need in his lifetime, everybody who has ever lived by his own labour, is in agreement with this. Nine-tenths of the population of Russia are in agreement with this truth. In this simple, elementary and perfectly obvious truth lies the basis of socialism, the indefeasible source of its strength, the indestructible pledge of its final victory.[21]

This biblical slogan was erected in villages, towns and cities during the worst days of the food shortages during the ‘civil’ war. In this situation, it entailed state control of grain supplies, bans on private hoarding and trading, strict registration of grain, delivery to places in need, and a ‘just and proper distribution of bread’ among all citizens. Obviously, this did not favour the rich, for the old capitalists and the bourgeoisie did not engage in productive labour. Now they would have to do so.[22]

Of all people, it was clearly Lenin who first offered a fully revolutionary interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 3:10. Indeed, for Lenin this biblical text embodies the ‘prime, basic and root principle of socialism’. Socialism defined through a biblical text, radically reinterpreted! Quite a stunning development. But Lenin is also clear that while this may be socialism, it is ‘not yet communism’.[23]

This socialist biblical verse, or at least the new socialist interpretation became a standard shorthand for identifying the realities of the distinct stage of socialism. Thus, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 contains this verse in one of its opening statements: ‘In the U.S.S.R. work is a duty and a matter of honour for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat [kto ne rabotaet, tot ne est]’.[24]


To wrap up: for Marxists, religion is not merely reactionary, but is actually caught up a profound ambivalence when it comes the political matters. Without any twisting, it may find itself all too comfortable with oppressive and exploitative power. At the very same time, it can offer a distinct alternative, challenging and even overthrowing the very same powers, with a communistic form of community. I began with the question as to how much Marx and Engels actually knew about their religious contexts. The answer, obviously, is very much. Through their education, they learnt it thoroughly indeed – and Engels experienced it first-hand as a young man. I will have more to say about Engels in another pamphlet, but here I pointed out that Marx’s famous metaphor of opium is actually ambivalent in its nineteenth-century context. This ambivalence was brought out even further with Lenin’s gloss as ‘spiritual booze’: the intersection of Russian Orthodoxy and the complex role of alcohol (vodka) in Russian culture made this restatement perhaps even more complex. Finally, with these possibilities in mind, I explored an important text from the Bible itself: ‘anyone unwilling to work should not eat’. While the tradition of Christian interpreters and not a few politicians and commentators overwhelmingly read and continue to read this in a reactionary direction, Lenin and then the Bolsheviks offered a different – and very feasible – alternative interpretation in a revolutionary direction.

Perhaps Ernst Bloch, a Marxist in between eastern and western Europe, expresses it best: while the Bible is ‘often a scandal to the poor and not always a folly to the rich’, it is also ‘the Church’s bad conscience’.[25]


Bartlett, Joseph. "Bourgeois Right and the Limits of First Phase Communism in the Rhetoric of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15." Bible and Critical Theory 8, no. 2 (2012): 36-56.

Bloch, Ernst. Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom. Translated by J. T. Swann.  New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

"Certificate of Maturity for Pupil of the Gymnasium in Trier." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 643-44. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1835 [1975].

Engels, Friedrich. "Landscapes." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 2, 95-101. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1840 [1975].

———. "Letters from Wuppertal." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 2, 7-25. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1839 [1975].

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Das Wesen des Christentums.  Stuttgart: Reclam, Ditzingen, 1841 [1986].

Hus, John. On Simony. Advocates of Reform. edited by Matthew Spinka London: SCM, 1953.

Lenin, V.I. "On the Famine: A Letter to the Workers of Petrograd, 22 May, 1918." In Collected Works, vol. 27, 391-8. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1918 [1965].

———. "Socialism and Religion." In Collected Works, vol. 10, 83-7. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1905 [1966].

———. "The State and Revolution." In Collected Works, vol. 25, 385-497. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1917 [1964].

Marx (senior), Jenny. "Jenny Marx to Engels in Manchester, London, about 12 April 1857." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 40, 563. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1857 [1983].

Marx, Karl. "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 175-87. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1844 [1975].

———. "The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 184-202. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1842 [1975].

———. "Marx's Application for Naturalisation and Right of Domicile in Berlin." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 19, 355-56. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1861 [1984].

———. "The Union of Believers with Christ According to John 15:1-14, Showing Its Basis and Essence, Its Absolute Necessity, and Its Effects." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 636-39. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1835 [1975].

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. "The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 5, 19-539. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1845-46 [1976].

———. "The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 4, 5-211. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1845 [1975].

McKinnon, Andrew M. "Opium as Dialectics of Religion: Metaphor, Expression and Protest." In Marx, Critical Theory and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice, edited by Warren S. Goldstein, 11-29. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Nicholl, Colin. From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica: Situating 1 and 2 Thessalonians.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Stalin, I. V. "Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, With amendments adopted by the First, Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sessions of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., Kremlin, Moscow, December 5, 1936." In Works, vol. 14, 199-239. London: Red Star Press, 1936 [1978].

Strauss, David Friedrich. Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet.  Tübingen: C.F. Osiander, 1835.

Vvedensky, Aleksandr Ivanovich. "Otvetnoe slovo A. I. Vvedensky." In Religia i prosveshchenie, edited by V. N. Kuznetsova, 214-23. Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1925 [1985].

———. "Sodoklad A. I. Vvedensky." In Religia i prosveshchenie, edited by V. N. Kuznetsova, 186-93. Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1925 [1985].


[1] ‘Certificate of Maturity for Pupil of the Gymnasium in Trier’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 643-44 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1835 [1975]), 643.

[2] Karl Marx, ‘Marx's Application for Naturalisation and Right of Domicile in Berlin’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 19, 355-56 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1861 [1984]), 355.

[3] ‘Certificate of Maturity for Pupil of the Gymnasium in Trier’, 644.

[4] Karl Marx, ‘The Union of Believers with Christ According to John 15:1-14, Showing Its Basis and Essence, Its Absolute Necessity, and Its Effects’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 636-39 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1835 [1975]).

[5] Friedrich Engels, ‘Letters from Wuppertal’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 2, 7-25 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1839 [1975]).

[6] David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (Tübingen: C.F. Osiander, 1835).

[7] Ludwig Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christentums (Stuttgart: Reclam, Ditzingen, 1841 [1986]).

[8] Friedrich Engels, ‘Landscapes’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 2, 95-101 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1840 [1975]), 99.

[9] Karl Marx, ‘The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 184-202 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1842 [1975]).

[10] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 4, 5-211 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1845 [1975]); Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 5, 19-539 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1845-46 [1976]).

[11] Karl Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 175-87 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1844 [1975]), 175.

[12] Andrew McKinnon, ‘Opium as Dialectics of Religion: Metaphor, Expression and Protest’, in Marx, Critical Theory and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice, ed. Warren S. Goldstein, 11-29 (Leiden: Brill, 2006).

[13] Aleksandr Ivanovich Vvedensky, ‘Otvetnoe slovo A. I. Vvedensky’, in Religia i prosveshchenie, ed. V. N. Kuznetsova, 214-23 (Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1925 [1985]), 223. This comes from a very popular debate between Vvedensky and Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Enlightenment in Soviet Russia, on September 20–21 in 1925. It is the first observation concerning the ambivalence of the opium image.

[14] Jenny Marx (senior), ‘Jenny Marx to Engels in Manchester, London, about 12 April 1857’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 40, 563 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1857 [1983]), 563.

[15] V.I. Lenin, ‘Socialism and Religion’, in Collected Works, vol. 10, 83-87 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1905 [1966]), 83-84.

[16] Colin Nicholl, From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica: Situating 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 174.

[17] John Hus, On Simony, ed. Matthew Spinka, Advocates of Reform (London: SCM, 1953), 247.

[18] V.I. Lenin, ‘The State and Revolution’, in Collected Works, vol. 25, 385-497 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1917 [1964]), 472.

[19] Joseph Bartlett, ‘Bourgeois Right and the Limits of First Phase Communism in the Rhetoric of

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15’, Bible and Critical Theory 8, no. 2 (2012): 37.

[20] Lenin, ‘The State and Revolution’, 472.

[21] V.I. Lenin, ‘On the Famine: A Letter to the Workers of Petrograd, 22 May, 1918’, in Collected Works, vol. 27, 391-98 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1918 [1965]), 391-92.

[22] The biblical text also featured in the debate (mentioned earlier), between Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Enlightenment, and Metropolitan Vvedensky, the leader of the Renovationist movement in the Russian Orthodox Church. Vvedensky observes: ‘When you say you are for the principle of work, I remind you of the slogan, “he who does not work shall not eat.” I have seen this in a number of different cities on revolutionary posters. I am just upset that there was no reference to the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Thessalonians, from where the slogan is taken’ Vvedensky, ‘Sodoklad A. I. Vvedensky’, 193.

[23] Lenin, ‘The State and Revolution’, 472.

[24] I. V. Stalin, ‘Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’, in Works, vol. 14, 199-239 (London: Red Star Press, 1936 [1978]), article 12. Indeed, this verse was used to reinterpret the old socialist slogan (itself originally drawn from Acts 4:32 and 35). As the next line in the constitution states: ‘The principle applied in the U.S.S.R. is that of socialism: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work’. Communism, which was now a distinct stage (as Lenin first argued), was defined as ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’.

[25] Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom, trans. J. T. Swann (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 25, 21.

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Roland Boer

Roland Boer is a distinguished professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, Renmin University of China, Beijing.