Art for For Heaven’s Sake.
Detail from Saint Paul Shipwrecked on Malta by Laurent de La Hyre (1603). | Birmingham Museum of Art
Adam Willems,  December 7, 2020

For Heaven’s Sake

On the tangled history of Christian communism

Detail from Saint Paul Shipwrecked on Malta by Laurent de La Hyre (1603). | Birmingham Museum of Art
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Red Theology: On the Christian Communist Tradition by Roland Boer. Haymarket Books, 294 pages.

To many, Marx’s famous one-liner about religion as an “opiate of the masses” places communism forever in opposition to all forms of religion. But to take that comment at face value is to sweep away a rich religious history within communism, as well as the substantive contributions of radical religious groups to both communist theory and practice. Roland Boer, a “happily retired” (his words) Australian Marxist professor who identifies as a Christian communist, has dedicated his academic career to highlighting more nuanced and historicized understandings of Marxism’s engagement with religion, especially Christianity. Red Theology: On the Christian Communist Tradition is the latest of a litany of books by Boer; he previously authored a five-volume series on religion and Marxism, and is the proud administrator of Stalin’s Moustache, a cheeky blog.

Boer’s new history of Christian communism shuns a singular chronology in favor of a case-study structure. The periods and figures featured in these separate essays span the length of Christian history, and they are certainly varied. Boer mentions early Christians such as the Apostle Paul as casually as he does relatively recent communist leaders like Kim Il Sung. In between, Red Theology visits John Calvin’s theological views on tyranny, discusses radical strands of the Protestant Reformation, and reveals the range of religious groups that existed during the Russian Revolution. Boer’s argument is most frequently delivered by showing—with sudden jumps between time periods—rather than telling. But a key lesson to these seemingly disjointed episodes is that Christianity lacks an authentic political core. “The same sacred texts and the same doctrinal positions can easily support the status quo or they can inspire profound criticism, if not revolutionary action,” Boer writes. “We see this dynamic time and again through the history of Christianity.” Christian communism cannot claim a singular origin as a result.

Central to Red Theology is an effort to resurrect Karl Kautsky, a Czech-Austrian Marxist theorist from the late nineteenth century and once the heir to the Marx-Engels legacy before the labor movement divided into social-democratic and Leninist camps. Kautsky outlined a Christian tradition of communist organization across millennia, constituting the longest form of communism in the world—long predating Marx. He believed that Christianity survived the death of the movement’s messiah because of early Christianity’s habit of “communistic mutual aid organization.” Christian communist movements across the world then took that lesson and ran with it. Kautsky’s contributions are what most directly suture Red Theology’s disparate chapters together, and he achieves a Francis Bacon-esque status with frequent appearances across the realm of Christian communist theory.

A key lesson to these seemingly disjointed episodes is that Christianity lacks an authentic political core.

In his own work, Kautsky classified Christian communist movements according to certain characteristics. Earlier groups tended to be communisms of consumption; they shared things in common, but relied unsustainably upon larger normative economic structures to procure everyday goods for their survival. Later groups practiced communisms of production, embodying the kinds of economic characteristics and control over the means of production that we associate with Marx. His taxonomy also determines whether Christian communist groups were reactionary or revolutionary, proselytizing or separatist. In Red Theology, Boer repurposes Kautsky to argue that these movements can embody both of these supposedly binary categories. Just as Christianity is politically ambivalent, Christian communist movements can be at odds with themselves.

Though largely forgotten in contemporary political and religious discussions, Kautsky’s texts deeply influenced Christian communist expressions in Europe as well as China, where his translated work, read by mid-century Chinese theologians like Zhu Weizhi, added an internationalist and religious impetus to Chinese communism. According to Boer, Zhu’s book Jesus the Proletarian used Kautsky to prove that Christianity was not an inherent product of European imperialism, and to argue that “Christianity was an international movement, of the same type as the international proletarian movement, which would achieve its goal of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.”


One node that stands out along Kautsky’s timeline is the Dulcinians of Italy, a Christian sect from the fourteenth century. The group believed in gender equality, mutual aid, property in common, and the destruction of a hierarchical church system. Their efforts lasted between 1300 and 1307; Dulcinian leaders were ultimately burned at the stake or otherwise captured and executed after Pope Clement V launched a crusade against the group. The Dulcinians represented to Kautsky the first armed communist uprising in human history. But while armed, revolutionary, and opposed to the Catholic Church, the movement survived as a separatist and egalitarian Christian communist community nestled upon the fortified Monte Rubello in the Piedmont. Both their internecine and communal tendencies were justified by citing scripture. “Clearly, the two sides Kautsky has identified—communal life and revolution—come together with the Dulcinians,” Boer writes in Red Theology.

From their demise, Kautsky connected the dots to other revolutionary Christian communist movements and influential figures in proceeding centuries—people like Thomas Müntzer. Müntzer was a radical thinker of the early Reformation who led the German Peasants’ War, a mass revolt that ended with the slaughter of more than 100,000 people, the majority of whom were peasants, as well as Müntzer’s own torture and execution, in 1525. These movements obviously tended to meet brutal and sometimes rapid ends. But Christian communist history has nonetheless profoundly shaped Marxist thinking, Boer argues. Their endeavors inspired Marxist theorist Ernst Bloch and Russian revolutionary Anatoly Lunacharsky to advocate for an emotivist praxis that “appeals to the heart [and] fosters enthusiasm and commitment” rather than exclusive deference to rigid theory. Meanwhile, contemporary Christian communist groups are refining their strategies by looking at their forebears and questioning which factors could contribute to more robust and long-lasting political projects moving forward.

It’s with this dialectical lens that Boer turns to questions of state communism. Citing Stalin’s agreement with the Russian Orthodox Church in 1943, which reopened churches and released a number of incarcerated clergy in exchange for Church support in the war effort against Nazi Germany, he concludes that state structures—though painfully slow to react to popular political demands—are useful as vehicles to secure change once communists take control. Church hierarchies can contribute to this project as well. “Once [revolutionaries] have seized power, they become interested not merely in carrying through the promises of the revolution, but also in preserving what they have gained,” Boer notes. “And if the church can play such a role, then so much the better.”

Christian communist history has profoundly shaped Marxist thinking, Boer argues.

The final chapter of Red Theology concerns Kim Il-Sung, the deceased founder and “eternal president” of North Korea. To Boer, Kim’s biography and political strategies are exemplary of how Christianity and communism can together sustain revolutionary political projects. Kim grew up attending a Presbyterian church, and he described Methodist minister Son Jong Do as something of a father figure in his memoirs. Son played a central role (according to Kim) in shaping his revolutionary ambitions. Upon Son’s death during the Japanese occupation, Kim recited “a revolutionary’s prayer: it included a vow to liberate the country, take vengeance on the enemy, break the people’s shackles, repay his benefactor’s kindness, relieve the people of their suffering and ‘safeguard their souls.’” But institutionalized (and state-supported) religion, namely Christianity, only returned to the country in the 1980s. Kim attributed the lull to the mass death and destruction of U.S. bombing campaigns during the Korean war. Christianity’s resurgence proved especially useful after the fall of the USSR and a series of natural disasters; the country’s Korean Christian Federation secured aid through South Korean Christian organizations and the World Council of Churches. Given its political utility, Boer speculates that Christianity may merge with North Korea’s worship of the “unrivalled leadership of the Kims,” which “would certainly be a new chapter in the story of Christian communism.”

Ultimately, Red Theology proves its point: Christian communism takes shape in a range of historical, institutional, and geographic contexts. But after fourteen case studies, the reader is still left to determine what Christian communism actually means, a problem that the book shares with other recent surveys of the “religious left.” Boer contends that Christian communism believes in shared property, mutual aid, and respect, that it often emerges from “a sense of radical divine transcendence,” and that Christian communist groups tend to find scriptural inspiration and authority in Biblical verses describing communities where believers “had all things in common.” Yet he evades pointedly defining what projects do or do not fall under the purview of his analysis, beyond an “I know it when I see it” rubric. This hole alludes to the ways that Marxism and Christianity can be used for a range of political projects; it is also the text’s most nagging question.


Red Theology’s anti-thematic sequencing is thought-provoking, and Boer’s Chinese and North Korean case studies prove that Christian communism is far from monolithic. But it’s hard not to interpret the order of his essays as a ranking of histories according to personal tastes, with China and North Korea last. At best, Boer seems to save these histories to the end of the text as a way to ramp up to the statist arguments of his conclusion, ones that lack support from his analyses in other chapters.

“‘Failure’ is a harsh term beloved of right-wing critics,” Boer writes of attempts to dismiss leftist projects that falter in their post-revolutionary politics or longevity. “We need to resist such a verdict, insisting that any liberating project which achieves power and which is able to begin the process of construction is a success, especially if it is able to overcome the counter revolution.” And though Boer contends that the role of the Christian communist is to engage in critique within a socialist state, the bounds and harms of state power remain largely unqualified. Among many questions unanswered on the relationship between Christianity and state power—to put only his Chinese case studies into focus—is the extent to which mass surveillance and incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang is an oppressive state practice that borrows heavily from Christian supremacist (and colonial and capitalist) ideas of a Muslim other.

Boer has to ignore other large swaths of Christian communist history to get to his statist conclusion, particularly its expression in Latin America. Explicitly espousing Marxist critiques of economy, Latin American liberation theologians have since the 1960s mobilized for more decentralized and less hierarchical church communities and rallied around a “preferential option for the poor,” a theological argument that God historically prioritized the needs of marginalized people. They have also framed poverty caused by state violence and wealth accumulation as a structural sin, appreciating the popular struggle of the poor against these political and economic forces as a form of grace.

Interfacing with grassroots lay communities, liberation theologians engaged in bottom-up praxis that sought improved material, spiritual, and political conditions. The enduring presence of this Christian communist strand outside the statist form forces us to consider both the power and shortfalls of a coalitional, grassroots politics. Foretelling a critique of this lacuna, Boer admits to his selective historiography, but deflects by dressing his admission as a moment of humility. “I also do not offer an assessment of Latin American Liberation theology, which for many is the most well-known recent manifestation of the tradition,” he writes. “Since this subject has been tackled competently by many others, I have nothing to add.”

Boer has to ignore large swaths of Christian communist history to get to his statist conclusion.

Boer is similarly dismissive about suspicions of state power in general, which he calls “a relatively comfortable position to take.” But—egregiously—he ignores how racism and sexism affect experiences of state and military power. Few Christian communist groups highlight those questions more forcefully than Jim Jones and Peoples Temple and the mass murder of 918 people at Jonestown and associated sites in 1978, another notable omission from Red Theology.

As Black feminist author Sikivu Hutchinson notes, Jim Jones dressed his ambition in Christian communist and racially egalitarian rhetoric, espousing a liberation theology ethos that he called “apostolic socialism.” The majority of the group’s members, she remarks, were Black women, a fact “seldom discussed and less widely known” about Peoples Temple history. Hutchinson continues:

But this veneer of equality hid a pernicious race and gender hierarchy in which the Temple’s vaunted inner circle was comprised of white women who were fatally loyal to Jones and his perverse will . . . if any Peoples Temple constituency had the power to stop the Jonestown massacre, these women did. But in eschewing the bourgeois trappings of “proper” white femininity they wound up reinforcing a white supremacist social order that some African-American members likened to that of the plantation . . .

What are we to make of a Christian communism that doesn’t claim Peoples Temple as part of its history? Of course, as feminist theorist Sarah Ahmed discusses in her essay on declarations of whiteness, admissions of “bad practice,” namely racism, may be interpreted as “good practice” in and of themselves, without substantive redressal of the practices at hand. A cursory acknowledgment of Jonestown within Christian communism’s past could thus serve as an attempt to transcend the issue of racism, a way to once more be proud of the tradition’s history. But whiteness has clearly played a violent and dehumanizing role in many Christian communist projects. It has shaped Red Theology’s scope and analysis, too.

Boer’s white theology, as well as the voyeuristic, whitewashed popular history of Peoples Temple, speaks to the specter haunting Christian communism and other religious movements. The chimera-like offspring of inherently conservative projects, “religion” as a secularized category mediated by the state punishes collectives that stray beyond the orbit laid out for acceptable beliefs and practices. Scholar of American minority religions Megan Goodwin posits that religious groups too transgressive in the eyes of the state—due to their economics, demographics, or some other axis of difference—are labeled “cults.” They are then marked for their general otherness, which effectively dismisses and obfuscates their economic, political, and theological claims. In the eyes of the government, they merit surveillance, if not elimination. Peoples Temple is granted a place in common parlance in the form of death tolls and (false) “Kool-Aid” neologisms. This is a symptom of longstanding Christian efforts to maintain a religious landscape in its image.

Given the turmoil that birthed its contemporary interpretation—namely, the Protestant Reformation and colonialism—perhaps the conceptual limits of “religion” function like the levers of state power do in Boer’s eyes: resistant to change, yet an effective security mechanism after a revolution. Red Theology’s overtures are then more like cries of whiteness out in the wilderness, attempts to remain within a sufficiently respectable space of critique to be heard and protected by the state. Any possibility of Christian communism’s ascendance and longevity would necessitate a reckoning with state power as well as white and Christian supremacies, in addition to a wholesale resurrection of religion’s conceptual braiding and overt presence within other pockets of human experience. Sounds like an undertaking of biblical proportions.

Adam Willems is a Seattle-based freelance writer and reporter. They write Divine Innovation, a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology.
 

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