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The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat

August 16, 2017

How Stalin and Lenin used the Bible to justify communism

The Soviet Union was officially atheist, based on Lenin’s agreement with Marx’s ambivalent metaphor of religion as the opiate of the people – often used to exploit and sedate workers, but also an expression of protest against suffering. But as Roland Boer shows in a paper recently published in the Journal of the Bible and its Reception, this most militant atheistic political philosophy was also significantly influenced by Christian theology. The paper’s title is “Stalin’s Biblical Hermeneutics from 2nd Thessalonians to Acts 4”, and is available to read for free here.

Lenin used the phrase, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” from 2nd Thessalonians in 1918 while addressing a group of workers in Petrograd during a grain shortage caused by the aftermath of the October Revolution. He said, “‘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 labor, is in agreement with this.”

The passage Lenin refers to was written in a time of turmoil for the early church. The early Christians believed they were living in the end times, but also knew that this period might stretch out longer than they expected. The question for early Christians was: how to live a just life during this time of tribulation? The traditional interpretation of this passage is that it might be about people who are able to work, like beggars, or people generally who do not work hard. Lenin’s interpretation turns this on its head by claiming that the people who are not working are not the “parasites”, but rather the people who are rich enough to pay others to work for them.

For Lenin, this was something of a rhetorical device, but for Stalin, it was a fundamental way of thinking. He was the only important communist figure of the time to be theologically trained and his education focused on biblical interpretation. He used 2 Thessalonians and another passage from Acts 4 (“For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need”) to explain the difference between the imperfect (but better than capitalist) socialist society he was creating and the utopia of communism which lay in the future.

Stalin wrote that socialism and communism are distinct phases (following Lenin). Socialism means that the state owned property and the means of production, that workers were free from the exploiting classes, and that there would be no more gap between rich and poor. Everyone would have a job and an education, but that they must work. For Stalin, communism meant all of that, but additionally, he envisioned a global dominance of communism, which may still have contradictions, although they would be non-antagonistic, when the habits of communism would be second nature to human beings, when a new human nature would emerge, and when economic, social and cultural forces would be unleashed, entailing art and technological progress and more individual freedom. Everyone would have what they needed based on the Marxist idea of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Simplified, Stalin’s attitude is that in capitalism those who work feed those who don’t, in socialism those who work get fed, and in communism those who work also feed those who cannot work.

“Stalin developed a unique interpretation of the distinction between socialism and communism, based on 2 Thessalonians and Acts 2 and 4. Thus, socialism is signaled by the slogan, ‘from each according to ability, to each according to work’, while communism means ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’. This distinction was embodied in the 1936 constitution of the Soviet Union. Stalin was its architect.”

Although Roland Boer does in no way seek to take sides in Stalin’s legacy, he provides an interesting insight into how biblical interpretation influenced Stalin’s thought on this particular matter.

De Gruyter
Eric Merkel-Sobotta
Director, Communications
Tel: +49 30 260 05 304