Roland Boer is interviewed by Nikos Vassilopoulos
Roland Boer breaks all the stereotypes of the “average” theologian and for sure he is not the typical Western Marxist either, if there really exist typical roles and identities such as these anyway. Born in Australia by Dutch immigrant parents -his father was a Presbyterian minister- Roland Boer is someone you cannot just ignore. After 24 monographs, various articles -some of them with really provocative subjects- and a very frequent posting of articles on his blog Stalin’s moustache, he has become rather widely known in the academic circles of his field. Alas, he is almost unknown to the greek public and his books have yet to be translated, so we thought it would be a great idea to ask him about his thoughts on political theology and similar issues and, of course, about his forthcoming book, Red Theology: On the Christian Communist Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2018)
Gratefully, in a short interval between his work in University of Newcastle (Australia) and his work in Renmin University (China), and on the eve of a lecture tour to the south and southwest of China (Guangdong and Yunnan), he managed to find some time in order to answer our questions; the answers we got are very interesting indeed.
A strong correlation between Marxist-revolutionary militancy and opposition to organized religion has become a sort of cliché. And yet, your work so far suggests that the relationship between Marxism and theology is of a more complex kind. How would you summarize the interaction between these two traditions?
It is indeed complex, to the extent that it may be seen as a dialectical interaction. Or we may speak of a process of translation. The two traditions have a series of translatable terms, but such translation is a continuing and negotiated process. One ‘carrying across’ – as the basic meaning of translation would have it – is never complete or satisfying, so one must try again.
This approach counters two other tendencies, the one historical and the other ontological. Historically, of course, Christian (and indeed Jewish) theology preceded Marxism in European and Russian contexts, infiltrating cultures and philosophies. So one would expect that Marxism would have to negotiate these traditions. But we must be wary indeed of assuming a determining role for theology on Marxism – which is the point at which the hypothesis becomes ontological. Theology – it is proposed – is the source and origin for Marxism, even down to its supposed ‘salvation history’: a state of ‘sin’ (oppression) needs a ‘saviour’ (the proletariat) that ‘saves’ (revolution) history and opens out to a ‘new heaven and earth’ (communism). Although this suggestion has been repeated countless times, taking on the apparent truth of a thousand repetitions, it distorts and misrepresents the relationship between Marxism and theology.
I prefer to see them as distinct approaches, with their insights and limitations, and certainly not all-encompassing and determinative of all other approaches.
Let me add that it was precisely early Marxists – Engels and especially Kautsky – who identified a tradition of what the latter called ‘Christian communism’. I will talk more about this tradition later in reply to your question concerning the book, Red Theology, save to point out here that the identification of this tradition touches on a profound political ambivalence at the heart of Christian theology. On the one hand, it can very easily slip into the seat beside power, offering support for sundry despots and oppressive political systems – without twisting theology at all. At the same time, theology has provided again and again the inspiration for revolutionary action to overthrow the very same tyrants. Christian communism is obviously the name for the latter.
To what extend do you consider the so called “return of Religion” in the wake of the 21st century as a symptom of the failure of the secular revolutionary movements in the 20th century West?
We have not yet assessed fully the deep impact of 1989 on European, if not global, thought and practice. I think of the erasure of the ‘Second World’, in terms of its fostering of anti-colonial struggles that led to one of the most significant global shifts; the curious discovery and adoption after 1989 by many on the Left of the deeply conservative Carl Schmitt; the emergence of ‘colour revolutions’, funded and supported by neo-colonial powers (the first moment – a failure – was Tiananmen Square); the demonization by the Left as well of actually existing socialism, which lines up all too closely with conservative and liberal condemnations; the neglect of what is now a century of the complex efforts to construct socialism … the list could go on and on.
One feature that arose in the ‘dark age’ of the European Left of the 1990s was what may be called a ‘spiritual vacuum’. There seemed to be a sense that all the old models had ‘failed’, that the party, the revolutionary vanguard, the promise of a better future – all these had run into the mud. At this point, some turned to an older Marxist tradition, first identified by Engels and elaborated at length by Kautsky, of Christian communism. Here was an old and distinctly European revolutionary and communist tradition that had been neglected by the overwhelmingly secular drive of ‘modern socialism’.
The promise is obvious, not least of which is the pre-capitalist residue already identified by Ernst Bloch, but there are also dangers. Christian communist groups – which continue to exist today – are typically small and do not make the transition to larger, state-wide structures easily, if at all. When such communities have become revolutionary (and not all have done), they inevitably have been crushed. You also find the problem of how to distinguish the longer tradition of Christian communism and modern ‘secular’ communism. Is the latter merely a continuation? If not, what distinguishes it from its forebears? And I cannot help wondering that this rediscovery of part if the Marxist tradition is a very European project, attempting to identify what marks Europe – with its complex Christian heritage – off from the rest of the world.
You are a person who lives and acts between Australia and China and with a vivid interest in North Korea. Can you sum up any similarities and differences about the role of politics and theology in these regions?
In short, I have had to break down nearly all of the categories I had laboriously developed over the last couple of decades. Why? The complex histories of Europe and Russia are entwined with theology and the church. Think of the standard narratives: theology itself arises with the ‘delay of the Parousia (Christ’s return)’, enabling intersections between Greek philosophy and biblical material; the very possibility of a separation of church and state entails a history of their intersections; so also with the ongoing debates concerning secularization and ‘post-secularism’, which cannot be understood without struggles over religion. The list could go on.
The historical context of China is quite different. To be sure, religion in various ways has been part of Chinese history and culture. Daoism – if one can call it a ‘religion’ – has informed the cultural and philosophical framework (and dialectical theory), while Buddhism is the only foreign religion that has really become Chinese. But how it did so is instructive. The occasional support of emperors (Tang, Song and other dynasties) played a huge role, but the effect of integrating Buddhism was to lead to a revival of Confucian thought. As for Islam, Christianity and (intermittently) Judaism, despite their centuries-long presence, they are still seen by many as ‘foreign’. All of this means the historical narratives that shaped the rise of Marxism in Europe and Russia are simply not present in China.
Crucially, Marxism did not need to undergo a complex interaction and struggle with religion. It took root in a context where Chinese culture, predicated on an ‘optimistic humanism’ in all its many parts, played the major role. Already with Mao Zedong, we find the need to reassess the conditions of ‘Chinese characteristics’ (his term), which would produce a concrete Marxism relevant to the specific situation.
This experience has also made me realise more strongly that Marxism is a living tradition and that the construction of socialism is a work in progress. It is certainly not an exercise in fixing on some abstract formulae and seeking to apply them in idealist fashion wherever one might be.
The DPRK (North Korea): my interest here has begun only relatively recently, especially after a visit in 2015. I am planning another this year and am organizing an academic visit with a group in 2019. However, from my initial studies, I am intrigued by the way a relatively small country is now the longest-lived socialist state, which that has survived and flourished – I use the word deliberately – against all odds. I am also very interested in the way Kim Il Sung especially engaged with theology in light of his Presbyterian upbringing. This Reformed Protestant background he shares with none other than Friedrich Engels (and at a much lesser level, myself). His writings contain sustained reflections on Protestantism, ministers who shaped him deeply, and Chondoism, a distinct Korean religion that is supported by the government. Despite their closeness, the Marxisms of China and the DPRK obviously have their differences.
In your blog one could find a coherent criticism of the euro centrist conception of the world. As above, can you highlight any certain “myth” in political theology that comes from that conception? (e.g. to make the question clearer: the notion of Revolution as something totally made up in the West or the progressive West against East etc.)
I have always been struck by an observation of Igor Diakonoff, the Soviet-era Russian specialist on the Ancient Near East. He points out that in many respects the path of western European development has been idiosyncratic and not like many others places on the globe. The catch is that the European narrative has become normalized through the era of European colonialism, forgetting in the process its specific history and context.
Part of this history is claiming the mantle of progressiveness, let alone revolution. The way this arose is instructive. For many centuries, European peoples were intensely conscious of their backwardness. They looked to ‘the East’ – China and India, but also Egypt – for wisdom, history, culture and indeed wealth. The Portuguese in the 15th century set out to find their way to the East, as did Columbus by another route. By the late 18th century and early 19th century, a fundamental shift took place. Western Europe had – very late in the piece – begun to emerge with global pretensions. The various countries saw themselves as progressive, dynamic, innovative. At the same time, ‘the East’ became old, ‘frozen’ and unmodern peoples who required European intervention in order to progress into modernity.
In this light, the idea that revolution is a ‘Western’ invention can be understood. I restrict myself to two observations. First, apart from Cuba, all of the successful communist revolutions have taken place in more eastern parts. By successful I mean the ability to see off the counter-revolution and begin the infinitely complex process of constructing socialism. By contrast, western Europe has been plagued by failure. This experience has fundamentally shaped the nature of ‘Western’ Marxism. Second, a well-known comment from Zhou Enlai is instructive here. When asked about the influence of the French Revolution (with the implication that China had also been influenced), he said: ‘It is too early to tell’.
When saying such things, I always keep in mind that my parents are Dutch, having emigrated to Australia in the late 1950s.
What are your thoughts about neo-liberal atheism or Neo-liberalism as ideology that uses theological terms?
Let me shift the question slightly. I am less interested in the ‘new atheism’, which seems to be a rehash of 19th century positions and debates. But I am more interested in what may be called the ‘capitalism as religion’ argument.
Since I have recently written on this topic in a booklet for the ‘Culture Matters’ people in the UK (a project of the Communist Party of Britain), I draw on that material here. The nub of this position is that capitalism has replaced traditional religion as the dominant faith in many parts of the globe. For example, capitalism expects us to believe in an all-powerful being, whether money as the power of life and death, or Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of the market, which is an omnipotent and omniscient entity that works best without human interference. And if left to its own devices, it will lead us all to a paradise of plenty for all – the ‘fecundity of freedom’ as Milton Friedman called it. A further feature is the role of economic gurus, who have become – according to this argument – the theologians and priests of the new religion. Not only do they debate the core doctrines of capitalism, and not only do they develop new ‘schools’ or ‘churches’, but they also advise governments in much the same way that priests, ministers and theologians used to advise European governments of the past. And where you have doctrines and theologians, you also have sacred places for worship. These places may vary – stock markets and banks come to mind – but one must show due reverence to them and engage in the appropriate acts of worship. Individual life too has its rituals of this new religion, focused on spending and saving, on buying and selling.
The problem with all of this is that it deploys an argument from analogy: the fact that capitalism is analogous to or like a religion in some respects leads some to suggest that it is a religion. But the step from analogy or likeness to being the same is not obvious. Further, it assumes the priority of religion. It begins with the historical reality that religion is much older than capitalism – true in itself – to the problematic suggestion that religion causes and shapes what follows it. Finally, it leaves out the possibility that capitalism and religion may appear to be like one another in some respects since they share features common to large-scale organisations, movements and systems. Let me use another example: one could argue that political movements and religion are analogous to one another, but this does not mean that a political movement is a religion in and of itself. We might be able to ‘translate’ (see earlier) some terms from one side into the language of the other side. But this does not mean that they speak the same language.
Any comment on politics of the sacred texts and rituals on the modern world?
Let me pick up my previous comment on translation. Any tradition that had founding texts engages in a process of what may be called a ‘scriptural dynamic’ – where ‘scripture’ means a textual tradition. Again, the example of ‘sacred’ texts in religions is analogous to, or translates into, approaches to texts in other traditions. Marxism is a good example, which has its founding texts by Marx and Engels, and then subsequent texts in the tradition, from Lenin, Stalin (although he is often cut out of the tradition), Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, and others. Any serious development in theory and practice must be undertaken through the process of reinterpreting the founding texts.
A good recent example is ‘community of common destiny for humankind’ (renlei mingyun gongtongti), a signature phrase promoted by Xi Jinping for a Chinese approach to multinational relations, not least being the underlying framework for the Belt and Road Initiative. Notably, the phrase can also be translated as ‘community with shared future’ or ‘community of human future’, expressing a very old Chinese idea. However, the term overlaps closely with the communist tradition. To this end, Chinese researchers have begun to examine the Marxist tradition to locate key dimensions of the new form of international relations. In other words, one delves into the classics of both traditions, analysing the ways they intersect and overlap to become part of one tradition.
But does this mean that Marxism engages in a type of religious or even ‘biblical’ interpretation. Not at all. Instead, one finds this approach in any tradition with founding texts, religious or otherwise. Further, we often find a tension between what may be called the spirit and the letter. One seeks to reinterpret the tradition in light of the founding texts, but one does so in terms of the spirit and not by adhering to the letter of the tradition. For Marxism, this means that it is not a dogma, but a guide to action – as Lenin and others were fond of pointing out. But there is a dialectical twist to all of this: one interprets the tradition by identifying its spirit, in light of changing circumstances, but one does so by adhering to the letter of the text.
Your forthcoming book “Red Theology: On the Christian Communist Tradition”, somehow sums up a lot of things that you have published the previous years. Does it contain new insights and/or re-evaluations of old ones?
The book began as a collection of previously published essays, but I soon found that many of my positions had developed and changed, so I needed to rewrite substantial sections. And I had developed new interests that required completely new chapters.
Let me give a few examples. I had written earlier on Karl Kautsky but realized that the earlier work inadequate. One aspect was a clear mistake. I had assumed that Kautsky took up the mantle given to him by Engels – to examine the history of religious revolutions in more detail. Engels had written on Thomas Müntzer and the Peasant War of 1525, and he published a late essay on early Christianity that suggested it was a revolutionary movement. However, through a careful rereading of the material, I realized that Kautsky and his collaborators published Forerunners of Modern Socialism in 1895 without Engels’s knowledge. Upon publication, Engels sent Kautsky a sharp letter, indicating in no uncertain terms that he was hurt by the fact that Kautsky had not consulted him. A clear mistake on my part that needed to be corrected. Further, this massive work by Kautsky et al has only partially been translated into English. It was originally published in German in 2 volumes in 1895, with the subsequent 4-volume work containing a number of revisions. Kautsky wrote most of the earlier material, from Plato, through early Christianity and the Reformation era in Europe, to Thomas More. Others wrote material on Thomas Campanella, the 17th century English revolution, France and the Americas. I reread the entire work in German before writing a completely new chapter. It was Kautsky who coined the phrase ‘Christian communism’ and distinguished between its two facets: communal organisation and revolutionary action.
The work also revealed my interest in delving into unexamined corners and features of this very full and diverse tradition. These included its role in the Russian Revolution, always at the margins but never completely blocked out. This chapter drew on material from my study of Lenin but highlighted it as never before. I also found an Australian angle, through someone who is really off the radar: Farnham Maynard. And I had by this time delved into the Taiping Revolution in China, which was the world’s largest revolutionary movement in the 19th century and regarded by many as the prototype of anti-colonial struggles. Perhaps the chapter I most enjoyed is the final one, on ‘Religion and Revolution in Korea’. Not only did it entail careful study of Kim Il Sung’s works on Chondoism and Protestantism in the context of the Korean Revolution, but I also discovered some extraordinary studies that present a very different understanding of the history of religion in North Korea today.
What is the public of your publications? What impact you want to achieve with your publications? Also, tell us more about “Stalin’s moustache”, your blog, and the impact in the general discussion?
Good question. I must admit that I write primarily for self-clarification. I do not write with an explicit public in mind. This may sound somewhat self-serving, but it is nothing of the sort. I do not seek to be a public commentator, and I refuse any requests for media engagement. The self-clarification I mentioned earlier is primarily an effort to understand different contexts.
This is predicated on a search for socialism, if not communism, and an effort to understand how it has existed in the past and continues to exist today. These may be small religious (and Christian) communist communities that one can find in different parts of the world. They may be socialist states (and I do assume the distinction Lenin first articulated between socialism and communism). Initially, I was intrigued by the traces of socialism in eastern Europe and Russia, in the period that is really post-communism and has not yet been fully understood. I still love being in East Germany, east of the Elbe, where the feel even now is very different and the effort to understand the recent past is ongoing.
Above all, in the last decade or so I have been drawn into the Chinese situation, with associated interests in the DPRK, Vietnam, Laos and even Cambodia. It has taken some time to break down assumed categories and begin again. Disconcerting, disorienting, but extraordinarily creative. The Chinese are serious indeed about the ‘sinification of Marxism’ or ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, if not socialist democracy, a socialist rule or law and a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights. It is certainly not word-play or a cynical deployment of formulae. All of this has led to my current project on ‘Socialism in Power’.
But I have not answered the question about the blog. It began more than a decade ago as way to let off steam, to express early thoughts or thoughts in progress. But it has evolved into a process where I note quirky and intriguing aspects of the texts I study. I began this exercise with Marx and Engels, moved to Lenin and then Stalin, and am now immersed in various dimensions of the socialist state, with an eye on developments in the DPRK. Early ideas that eventually make their way into books often appear here, but so also do perspectives on developments – especially in Asia – that are somewhat different from the ‘mainstream’. It also functions as the primary site for recent information.
I should also say that blog has been given clearance in China, so that it can be read freely here (I am Beijing as I write). I guess that comes from being officially recognised as a ‘friend of China’.
Finally, can politics or political language be non-theological?
A short answer: of course, it can. We really need to divest ourselves of the suggestions by Schmitt and Agamben, among others. In China, political language is consistently non-theological.