In the twentieth century, the idea of communism came to be identified with the development of a bureaucratic and totalitarian social order in the Soviet Union and its client states. Thus the name of communism came to be associated, at least in the West, with an opposition to democracy, human rights and, of course, Christianity in particular and religion in general. After Lenin, who had earlier argued that the Party should be an advocate for repressed religious minorities in Russia, the Soviet Union adopted a policy of strict control and even repression of religious expression, including the availability of Bibles (even though biblical phrases would appear in political discourse in the form of popular aphorisms). The emergence of the Christian-Marxist dialog in the 1960s in Warsaw Pact countries, especially in Czechoslovakia, opened the way for a reconsideration of the relevance of biblical perspectives for “socialism with a human face.” The collapse of the Soviet Union, despite the attempts to turn it in a more humanistic and democratic direction by Mikhail Gorbachev, had come to suggest that the idea of communism was dead and had no future. Indeed, somewhat nervously, pundits trumpeted the end of communism and the final victory of liberal or even neo liberal capitalism as the ruling force of a history that was coming to an end in the final victory of market economy and formal democracy (Derrida, 1994, pp. 59–64).

Even Latin American Liberation theology, which had been inspired by a Marxist critique of the capitalist order as well as by Christian commitment to the plight of those violated by that system, seemed to become less vibrant at the end of the twentieth century.

However, with the dawn of the twenty-first century and in the wake of the horrors of neoliberal capitalism—including a growing wealth gap between rich and poor and continuing exploitation of workers—a new consideration of communism seems to be arising. For our purposes, two features of this rebirth of the idea of communism are of particular importance. The first is that it is associated with the development of radical post-Marxist political thinking and projects; the other is that it often takes up again the theme of the significance of early Christianity, especially Paul, for the new thinking about alternatives to the global empire of capital.

Contemporary radical political thought may be described as post-Marxist. In Derrida’s terms, it deliberately and selectively inherits crucial elements of the heritage of Marx while critically adapting them to an altered global reality (Derrida, 1994, pp. 49–54.). Many thinkers (Badiou, Nancy, Rancière, Negri, Žižek, etc.) were strongly impacted by the events that occurred in 1968 with an uprising of students and workers against the social and political order in France, in the United States, and indeed in many nations around the globe. Associated with these uprisings were also events in the Warsaw pact, most especially in Czechoslovakia’s experiment in “Socialism with a Human Face” (a precursor to Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost). This attempt at the reform of “actually existing socialism” was met by brute force as Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring. In consequence the leftist uprisings in capitalist (whether democratic or authoritarian) countries could not look to the Soviet Union for inspiration. A new form of Marxist understanding and activism would have to be forged. Without renouncing what Badiou and others would call “the idea of communism” (Douzinas and Žižek) it was necessary to think Marxism otherwise than that promulgated as orthodoxy by most communist parties in Europe as well as in the “Third World.” While some turned to Mao’s China for inspiration, it became evident that it would be necessary to completely rethink the Marxist heritage in order to confront the reality of capitalist global domination.

One of the most crucial modifications of the Marxist legacy is that these thinkers largely renounce the goal of a control of the coercive forces of the state. Already in 1918, Rosa Luxemburg had warned against the dead end of an attempt to substitute the party for the people and the vanguard of the party for the party itself in Lenin’s direction of the revolution and its aftermath in Russia. In Luxemburg’s view, the only cure for the limitations of democratic process was more democracy (Luxemburg, 2004, pp. 299–302).

Contemporary post-Marxist thinkers have gone further down the road initiated by Luxemburg in suggesting that the state with its monopoly of the forces of legitimate violence cannot be an effective instrument toward the “withering away of the state” dreamed of by Marx and Lenin. Instead they turn toward views more in keeping with the anarchist impulses of many early communist thinkers. They do not embrace the violence that often characterized anarchist politics, however, but instead embrace a refusal of state power, of collaboration with (and so cooptation by) its institutions. The locus of the political, then, is instead found in the development of grass roots communities of resistance, of protest, and of creation of new forms of sociality that are also productive of what Hardt and Negri (2000) have called “the common.”

This means that the idea of communism and the idea of real democracy are welded together in ways that are consistent with many (though by no means all) of the themes of the early Marx. In an interview on the purported death of communism, Badiou identified the idea of communism with “Egalitarian passion, the Idea of justice, the will to break with the compromises of the service of goods. The deposing of egotism, the intolerance of oppression, the vow of an end of the State.…[this] provides the ontological concept of democracy, or of communism, it’s the same thing” (Badiou, 2003a, p. 130). Derrida could call for a new international of those agreed to cooperate in the work of protesting global injustice while promoting cosmopolitan justice (Derrida, 1994, pp. 77–86) and also write of the vision of a new social reality as a democracy to come. Jean Luc Nancy offers an ontological underpinning for the ideas of democracy and communism in works such as Being Singular Plural (2000).

These transformations in the ways of appropriating Marxist thought open the way for a reconsideration early Christianity. Hardt and Negri in the introduction to their Empire write:

"Allow us, in conclusion, one final analogy that refers to the birth of Christianity in Europe and its expansion during the decline of the Roman Empire. In this process an enormous potential of subjectivity was constructed and consolidated in terms of the prophecy of a world to come, a chiliastic project. This new subjectivity offered an absolute alternative to the spirit of imperial right—a new ontological basis.…In the same way today, given that the limits and unresolvable problems of the new imperial right are fixed, theory and practice can go beyond them, finding once again an ontological basis of antagonism—within Empire, but also against and beyond Empire, at the same level of totality (p. 21)."

What Hardt and Negri are pointing to is the sense that the whole earth has been covered by a system of interlocking political, social, and economic institutions that seem to render an alternative future for humanity unthinkable. In invoking the model of early Christianity, they are repeating a diagnosis made by Engels more than a century earlier, a diagnosis Engels ironically shared with Nietzsche. It was that Christianity emerged in a world in which there seemed to be no real future, only the extension and perfection of a system that seemed irresistible. It is perhaps for this reason that many post-Marxist (or neo-Marxist—it amounts to pretty much the same thing) intellectuals seem to be turning not just to early Christianity but most especially to Paul.

The Marxist invocation of early Christianity follows the lead of Friedrich Engels, who had cowritten the Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx. At the end of the nineteenth century, Engels undertook a number of studies of early Christianity, which he regarded as precursors to the movement that he and Marx had spearheaded together through much of the century. Although all may be familiar with the judgment in the Manifesto that religion is the opiate of the people—an attempt to ameliorate the pain induced by capitalist system on the bodies of the poor but without changing the system itself—few seem aware of the close connection between early Christianity and the idea of communism.

In 1894, Engels wrote as follows:

"The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people.…Both Christianity and the workers’ socialism preach salvation from bondage and misery.…Both are persecuted and baited, their adherents are despised and made the objects of exclusive laws, the former as enemies of the human race, the latter as enemies of the state, enemies of religion, the family, social order. And in spite of persecution, nay even spurred on by it, they forge victoriously, irresistibly ahead (On the History of Early Christianity, p. 316)."

In dealing with the connection between early Christianity and the idea of communism, some of the most obvious texts are the passages in Acts that indicate the radical ethic of sharing of resources in which “no one claimed anything as his own” but distributed to all as any had need (Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–37). The consequences of failure to practice radical sharing of resources is underlined in the drastic and dramatic punishment of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). Indeed the imperative to distribute one’s resources to the poor may go back to Jesus’s injunction to one that Luke calls the “rich ruler” in Luke 18:22: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Indeed Paul recalls that the only condition for his mission to the nations is that you “remember the poor” (Gal 2:10). Although these texts are often interpreted as having a very restricted application, it is less commonly recognized that this ethic of sharing (koinōnia) of all resources for the benefit of the poor was a steady feature of early Christianity in the pre-Constantinian period. Indeed so resilient was this practice that the emperor Julian, “the apostate” who sought to reverse the acceptance of Christianity launched by his predecessor Constantine, found it impossible to break the hold of a Christianity in which the sharing of resources had made it popular among the masses of the poor. Gregory of Nyssa who had been a classmate of Julian’s at the Academy in Athens maintained that the sin of Adam had been private property. And Basil, who together with Gregory was responsible for the Trinitarian formulations that would forever shape Christianity, maintained that all property was theft (González, 1990, pp. 173–186).

However, the connection between the historical movement known as communism and early Christianity increasingly focuses on the work and the writings of Saint Paul. Paul was clearly not aiming either at taking power in the Roman Empire or at the reform of its basic institutions. So long as these are the sorts of things that constitute the political, then Paul (and early Christianity) does not appear as a potent political resource. But when the features of a radical democratic or communist politics have been altered in ways I have suggested, then the way is open to a consideration of the radical political project of Paul.

Of course, for the intellectual whom we have been considering this does not mean an acceptance of Christianity or even of some sort of “theism.” These intellectuals are more rightly regarded (as Derrida said of himself) as atheist. Even if that were not so they would be more comfortable at certain points with Jacob Taubes’s declaration that “I am a Paulinist but not a Christian” (2004, p. 16). Rather, the point is that in the project of rethinking a possible post-Marxist and even communist politics, indispensable insight may be gained from close attention to Paul who is thereby liberated from being the “private property” of a religious institution and tradition.

One of the most important thinkers of the idea of communism is Alain Badiou, whose work has included the development of an ontology or metaphysics based in part on mathematical set theory as well as many works on ethics and politics. In pursuit of the clarification of some of these elements of the idea of communism, Badiou turns to an exposition of the work and writing of Saint Paul. He notes “there is currently a widespread search for a new militant figure…called upon to succeed the one installed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the beginning of the [twentieth] century” (2003a, p. 2). And to fill this need he offers Paul: “We will not allow the rights of true thought to have as their only instance monetarist free exchange and its mediocre political appendage, capitalist-parliamentarianism. That is why Paul, himself the contemporary of a monumental figure of the destruction of all politics (the beginnings of that military despotism known as the ‘Roman Empire’), interests us to the highest degree” (p. 7). Among the elements of a Pauline contribution to the thinking of a new militancy is Paul’s assertion in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal 3:28). It is here that Badiou sees the essential component of a new universalism and egalitarianism corresponding to the idea of communism. To this Badiou adds the fundamental critique of the law from Galatians and Romans, the idea that all are now filiated as “sons” [p. 59] thereby abolishing the discourse of mastery.

For post-Marxist thinkers who seek to revive the “idea of communism” or what Badiou has also called “the Communist hypothesis,” the abolition (or surpassing) of the law in Paul (Rom 13:8–10; Gal 5:14) is analogous to the deep suspicion of the state. Thinkers like Rancière and Badiou are persuaded that political action that aims at the actualization of democratic communism must always occur “at a distance from the State” and indeed in opposition to the state form which is regarded by Rancière as simply “the police” (2010, p. 36).

Žižek maintains, in a formulation reminiscent of Ernst Bloch (and Moltmann), “[the subversive kernel of Christianity] is accessible only to a materialist approach—and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience” (Žižek, 2003, p. 6). Of particular concern to Žižek in reading Paul are two major points. The first is that for Paul the notion of the love of neighbor can be seen to break the deadlock noticed in the psychoanalytic thought of Jacques Lacan between prohibition and incitement to transgression (pp. 92–121).

The other is that for Paul there seems to be a connection between the emphasis upon love beyond law and the breaking with all merely given social statuses and conditions. Of critical importance therefore for post-Marxist thinkers of “communism” is 1 Corinthians 7:29–31, in which Paul urges his readers to live in the statuses of the world in which they find themselves “as if not.” The repeated hōs mē (“as if / though not”) of this passage, which regards these statuses as part of the world that is in the process of passing away, distances the adherent of the messianic message from all such statuses and classes so as to anticipate the liberated social reality of a truly classless society (Žižek, 2003, pp. 122–143; Agamben, 2005, pp. 19–43). But this may be even less radical than the Jesus tradition that insists upon leaving of “house or wife, or brothers or children for the sake of the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:29).

One of the most telling critiques of the communist ideal has been the insistence that it has an unrealistic view of human nature. Human beings are by nature, the argument goes, selfish and violent, irredeemably antisocial. This is why the state, with its monopoly on legitimate violence, is necessary and the most it can do is to limit or regulate the violent selfishness of human being. Thus the idea that humans can learn to share, to seek only the good that is common to all, to care as much about others as oneself, to renounce every form of violence and violation, is regarded as hopelessly and perhaps dangerously naive. Theological justification for this view is often found in notions of original or universal sin attributed to Paul.

To this, those who pursue what may be termed the hope of communism counterpose a different Paul. It is the Paul of 1 Corinthians 13:4–7: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” or the Paul of Galatians, who supposed that “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” And this is again linked by Paul to what he had maintained about love as the abolition/consummation of the law: “there is no law against such things” (Gal 5:22–23). Antonio Negri suggests that it is the poverty or lack common to humanity that impels love, which in turn unites people in a praxis that is precisely the production of the common (2003, pp. 194–261).

Paul himself seems not to be unaware of the difficulty of developing an ethos that would result in true koinōnia. Thus he can speak of the necessity to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24), that is, of the sort of revolutionary discipline involved in separating ourselves from social orders that promote greed and enmity and in training ourselves in the virtues that make true koinōnia possible.

It may also be that there is importance in the eschatological urgency that characterized both early Christianity and early Marxism. The sense that the old order is passing away, that the social, political, economic order of the world as we know it is under sentence of death, is doomed to perishing, the sense that the new is about to come into being, that the time has grown short. Giorgio Agamben has insisted that it is precisely the urgency of what Paul refers to as the now time (ho nun kairos) in which it is necessary and possible to enact the coming justice that characterizes messianic politics, then and now (2005, pp. 59–78). For those who suppose that there is no such time compression, that things never really change, the dream or hope of communism will always seem to be foolish, something that Paul also said with respect to his proclamation of the cross (1 Cor 1:18).



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  • Badiou, Alain. Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism. Translated by Ray Brassier. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003b.
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  • González, Justo. Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.
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  • Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Translated by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.
  • Negri, Antonio. Time for Revolution. Translated by Matteo Mandarini. New York: Continuum, 2003.
  • Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. New York: Continuum, 2010.
  • Taubes, Jacob. The Political Theology of Paul. Translated by Dana Hollander. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Theodore Jennings