Letters from the Road: An Outline of Lenin and Theology


Since I am in St. Petersburg, preparing to give a talk on ‘Lenin and Theology: Miracles Can Happen’, perhaps it is worth providing an outline of the whole book, Lenin and Theology.


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 (55 volumes in the Russian collected works and 45 in the English translation). 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. I have chosen to begin 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. I begin 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 position of God-builders such as Lunacharsky, as well as the growing theoretical and political influence of Bogdanov. But the story is not complete, for it has two further, 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 a couple of elements in Lenin’s engagement with that text: one was a recasting of the relation between subjective and objective approaches that would lead to a renewed sense of subjective revolutionary intervention; the other was a direct encounter with the core of Hegel’s idealism, an encounter had 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 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 after truly encountering Hegel for the first time, he finally appreciated the depth and ruptural complexity of that dialectic. The other narrative holds that throughout his life Lenin fully appreciated that depth and deployed it in varying ways. 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.

All of which has profound ramifications for Lenin’s response to Lunacharsky’s continued God-building after the revolution. In a detailed treatment that brings to a close the discussion of Lunacharsky begun in the preceding chapter, I analyse the apparently contradictory approaches to Lunacharsky’s God-building and religion itself, especially after the October Revolution. Lenin both sanctioned attacks on the privileges of the mainstream church and yet tacitly and actively supported alternative forms of religion, including Lunacharsky’s revamped God-building.

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 – or ‘cult’ as it is disparagingly called at times – is the topic of this chapter. 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 the effort of constructing a new social and economic system.

Roland Boer, on the road in St. Petersburg.

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