Letters from the Road: Lenin and Spiritual Booze


In ‘Socialism and Religion’ from 1905, Lenin famously wrote:

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

This text is of course a direct allusion to Marx’s even more famous observation:

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 [das Opium des Volkes] (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: Introduction. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, pp. 175-6).

An initial reading may attribute to Marx’s more elaborate prose a more subtle appreciation of religion – as both expression and protest, as the sigh, heart and soul of oppressed creatures in a heartless, soulless world. And a closer study of the key term, opium, reveals a profound multivalence in Marx’s usage. For opium was both a cheap curse of the poor and a vital medicine, a source of addiction and of inspiration for poets, writers and artists, the basis of colonial exploitation (in the British Empire) and of the economic conditions that allowed Marx and Engels to continue work relatively unmolested, in short, it ranged all the way from blessed medicine to recreational curse. As the left-leaning theologian, Metropolitan Vvedensky said already in Russia 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’ (in debate with Anatoly Lunacharsky, 21-2 September, 1925). That Marx himself was a regular user of opium increases the complexity of the term in this text. Along with ‘medicines’ such as arsenic and creosote, Marx imbibed opium to deal with his carbuncles, liver problems, toothaches, eye pain, ear aches, bronchial coughs and so on – the multitude of ailments that came with chronic overwork, lack of sleep, chain smoking and endless pots of coffee.

Do we find this multivalence in Lenin’s recasting of the opium metaphor? Marx’s ‘opium of the people [das Opium des Volkes] is directly translated as ‘opium of the people’ [опиум народа, opium naroda]. The usage is the same, with a genitive in Russian. Unfortunately, the English translation in Lenin’s Collected Works renders the phrase in the dative, ‘opium for the people’, thereby producing 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. Such a translation may have been preferred due to Lenin’s swift gloss, ‘a sort of spiritual booze’ [род ду ховной сивухи, rod duhovnoi sivuhi], which seems to reinforce this impression. And does not the next phrase – ‘in which the slaves of capital drown their human image’ – deploy the conventional role of alcohol, in which sorrows are drowned? Religion becomes a bottle of wine, a carton of beer, a flask of vodka, with which one dulls the pain of everyday life.

It is worth noting here that even if Lenin did use the genitive construction (following Marx), in the USSR the dative construction came to dominate. Thus, as Sergey Kozin points out, 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?’

In order to draw us back to the ambivalence embodied in the ‘opium of the people’, we need to consider carefully the rest of Lenin’s description. He introduces two items: ‘human image’ [человеческий образ] and ‘their demand for a life more or less worthy of human beings’ [свои требования на сколько-нибудь достойную человека жизнь]. Both terms – human image and decent human life – wrench the text away from a simple drowning of sorrows.

At first sight these terms seem like alternative ways of saying the same thing. Yet, the fact that they appear side by side introduces a minimal difference between them, one that is exacerbated by the biblical and theological echoes in Lenin’s text. Recall Genesis 1:26, where we find that the human beings are created in the ‘image of God’: ‘Let us make humankind in our image [tselem], according to our likeness’ [demuth]. Here too we find a minimal difference, between image and likeness; here too they seem to speak of the same thing, and yet they are different.

Lenin’s own context was infused with Orthodox theology and it is precisely that tradition which exploits the distinction between the two terms. Thus, while Adam and Eve may have been created in the image of God, being thereby able to participate in the divine life – when they were fully human – sin has blurred and fractured the union of divine and human, resulting in a situation that is less than human, with the unnatural result of death. However, in Orthodox theology after St. Maximus, what went ‘missing’ after enjoying the fruit of the tree was not so much the ‘image’, but the ‘likeness’. Christ’s central task in salvation is thereby not merely a process of restoring the pre-lapsarian state, but rather a new state achieved uniquely in Christ, which was not there with Adam and Eve. That is, beyond the image, one becomes a likeness of God – theosis, or deification. Indeed, theosis actually designates a closer fellowship with God than even the first human beings experienced. Christ may be the second Adam, but he is also more than that, enabling a far greater communion that was initially the case – so much that Christ may well have been incarnated simply for that reason, even without the first stumble.

Is it possible that Lenin, without necessarily evoking the whole economy of salvation, alludes to his 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 Orthodoxy, but especially the restoration to the likeness of God through Christ.

At the same time, Lenin turns this theological heritage of the image and likeness on its head. Rather than staying within the theological framework and asking why it is that human beings are sinful, he accuses the framework itself with creating the problem in the first place. The issue is neither human culpability nor even the deception at the hands of third party, but rather religion itself. Let me put it this way: Lenin unwittingly parleys one tradition of interpretation against another, for the narrative of Genesis 1-3 opens up a third, rarely travelled path of interpretation, in which the one responsible for the Garden of Eden with its two trees – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life – is also thereby responsible for the act that sends the likeness into exile. If God had not created the flawed crystal of the Garden in the first place, the Fall would not have happened, despite its narrative necessity for the rest of the Bible (it would have been a drab story indeed if the first humans had remained in the state of paradisal bliss for page after page). It is a charge that the deity refuses to answer, so keen is he to lay the blame with the human beings and serpent, who are punished as he sees fit. By contrast, Lenin does lay the blame precisely here. Only when that has been addressed may a worthy human life – now a very human ‘likeness’ – be attained.

But what about that famous spiritual booze? Might that not also be a richer metaphor? To begin with, in 1925 the Moscow Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church, Alexander Vvedensky, pointed out that ‘booze’ is a good translation of ‘opium’, which opens Lenin’s phrase up to more ambiguity. But we also need to combine that fact with a greater appreciation 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. Even after this legislation, not much has changed in Russia’s beer-drinking culture except that Medvedev’s ‘police’ increasingly fine youngsters for drinking in public. Two-liter bottles are still available in most shops. And the famed vodka may be bought in bottles that fit comfortably in one’s hand, a necessary feature due to that 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, Krushchev and Breshnev 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 dreadful famines (or rather, during the period of a lack of means to transport grain to areas where it was desperately needed) during the foreign intervention after the Revolution. 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.

In other words, alcohol is as complex a metaphor 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-grog thereby opens up a far greater complexity concerning religion in Lenin’s thought than one may at first have thought.


Roland Boer, on the road in Transylvania

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