Professor Roland Boer
School of Humanities and Social Science
- Phone:(02) 4921 5370
Left of his field
Religion, radicalism and revolutionaries all fall under the critical gaze of theologian and writer Professor Roland Boer.
Roland Boer is not your average scholar, nor is he a typical theologian. The academic who enjoys stirring up debate with articles under such arresting titles as Lenin the Nudist, believes a measure of provocation is a good thing if it stimulates thought and discussion about religion.
The director of the Faculty of Education and Arts' Religion, Marxism and Secularism project describes himself, on his curiously titled but well-patronised blog Stalin's Moustache, as someone who likes "speaking my mind" and basks in one reviewer's assessment of his sentiments as "the oddest I have ever read in a scholarly work."
But for all this spirited subversion, Boer is a widely read and internationally recognised academic theologian whose prolific writing has broadened dialogue not only in his specialty research field, Marxist interaction with religion, but across the spectrum of religious and political debate.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Boer's theological path took an unorthodox turn during a course in political and liberation theology while studying for a Bachelor of Divinity degree at the University of Sydney in the 1980s. Rather than read theologians writing on Marxism, Boer decided to go back to the source and read Marx, which proved a revelatory experience.
"There is a tradition within Marxism of engagement with religion that is usually characterised as atheistic and disinterested, but I argue there is a continuous stream of major Marxist figures who have written on questions of religion and engaged specifically with the Bible or with theological debate,'' Boer said.
"Some people contend that Marxism borrowed its main ideas from Christianity and Judaism and reconstructed them as secular ideology, but I think that is extremely simplistic – the relationship is much more complex."
Boer maintains that Marx's famous quote about religion being the "opium of the people" has been largely misinterpreted, given that, when Marx used the phrase, opium was as valued for its medicinal qualities as it was denounced for its addictive potential.
"That ambivalence over religion is really what is embodied in Marx's metaphor, rather than the notion that it is just a drug that dulls the senses and makes you forget your suffering," he said.
Boer was recently awarded the prestigious Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize for In the Vale of Tears (Brill and Haymarket, 2014). It is the final book in a seminal five-volume series, The Criticism of Heaven and Earth, that offers critical commentary on the tradition of interactions between Marxism and theology. The prize also recognises the significant contribution of the series as a whole, which has found a wide audience among theologians, Marxist analysts, historians, sociologists, philosophers and others, and which were or are being translated into several languages. He has found ready engagement especially in China, where much of his work has been translated or has appeared first in Chinese. A frequent visitor and teacher in China, with close collaborative links, he is deeply interested in the way Marxism is still very much the dominant political ideology, but with a distinct and unique development in terms of "Chinese characteristics."
The Criticism of Heaven and Earth series is part of a wider program of Boer's academic work. In 2012, he was awarded a prestigious Discovery Projects grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC), his fifth grant from the national body, to pursue a novel line of research on Lenin's interactions with religion. In 2013, he was awarded his sixth ARC Discovery Project grant for The Sacred Economy, which undertakes a wholesale reconstruction of the Bible's ancient economic context. The project is framed theoretically by the Marxian Régulation School of economic theory, Soviet-era studies, and works of ancient-world economists. The Sacred Economy will be published in the authoritative Library of Ancient Israel series with Westminster John Knox Press in early 2015.
Boer still has a toehold in mainstream religion but prefers to "go incognito" on his visits to church these days.
"The Christian communist tradition is what really interests me and keeps me involved with religion," he said, "I am fascinated by the radical, revolutionary dimension of Christianity."
I currently direct a project called 'Socialism in Power' (see details below and a list of relevant publications).
Apart from a network at the University of Newcastle, it involves collaboration with a number of key institutions in China: the Academy of Marxism (within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences); Fudan University; Nanjing Normal University; and Renmin University of China. We are also developing wider collaboration, especially in light of the increasing number of visiting scholars and PhD students coming to the University of Newcastle, often for a year or more.
If you are a Chinese scholar or student of Marxism or Chinese socialism, you are welcome to inquire about visiting the university.
RESEARCH PROJECT: SOCIALISM IN POWER
This project seeks to provide the philosophical and historical framework for understanding the realities of socialism in power. Taking China, Cuba and the former Soviet Union as the principal case studies, it focuses on the crucial questions of the nature of the socialist state, socialist democracy, role of the communist party and socialist market economy. It also elaborates on the more abstract theoretical issues of contradiction, human rights and socialist values – issues that have significant practical implications. Since these topics remain relatively unexamined at a philosophical level, the task of this project is to take the first steps in a rigorous theoretical analysis.
The method is as follows: theoretical reflection on practice. The actual practice of socialism in power is rich in a century’s worth of primary material: from the 1917 October Revolution, through ‘Socialism for the 21st Century’ to ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. Much of this material arises from specific problems, which have resulted in policies and pronouncements, but this material also requires systematic philosophical and historical reflection.
This is very much an international project, with key Marxist critics in China, Europe and Australia engaged for the long term.
Part A: Political Realities
1. Socialist State
Despite a century of the reality of the socialist state in different parts of the world, relatively little attention has been given to philosophical and historical analysis of the nature of such a state. Indeed, while it easier to say what this state is not (federation, empire, colonising power, or bourgeois nation-state), the question remains as to what form of the state it might be. Analysis will move from the works of Marx and Engels, dealing with they thought would happen after a communist revolution, to the works of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others in relation to the actual practice of the state and its attendant theory. Major features of this analysis may include: the role of class in the state; the move from dictatorship of the proletariat to the people’s democratic dictatorship; the nature of socialist democracy; the role of the communist party in governance; the agency of a strong state; the relationship between power and apparatus, as well as the specific structures of governance; policies such as those relating to nationalities (or ‘preferential policies’, youhui zhengce), anti-colonial struggles, education, and so on.
2. Socialist Democracy
Crucial to a socialist state is socialist democracy, which should be understood in a very different way from other forms of democracy. It stands in contrast to Greek democracy, liberal (bourgeois or – as it sometimes called – ‘deliberative’) democracy, illiberal democracy, or indeed a version of bourgeois democracy championed by Social-Democrats. By contrast, socialist democracy includes the majority of the population – workers, peasants, intellectuals and even a socialist ‘middle class’ (although a new term is really needed). It is a constantly evolving process and may include, but is not restricted to, stages of new democracy, democratic dictatorship and democratic centralism. The history of socialism in power provides ample material for analysing these forms of socialist democracy, although the project also seeks to delineate the possibilities of yet other forms.
3. The Communist Party
Integral to the socialist state and indeed socialist democracy is the communist party, which historically has been in power in all socialist states for the purpose of constructing socialism. In some cases, the communist party has been the only political party, while in other cases (as in China), it is one of a number of parties. In the latter case, the other parties work to support the communist party. While distinct philosophical traditions – for example, in Western Europe, Russia and China – influence the shape of thought concerning political parties, a number of core issues require examination: the relations between party and people; the role of socialist consciousness and Marxist theory; the relations between the communist party and parliaments (such as the National People’s Congress); the constant need for reform in light of the long period of communist party leadership and the consequent need to maintain legitimacy; discipline and unity; intra-party democracy.
4. Socialist Market Economy
Instead of the assumption that a ‘market economy’ is inherently capitalist and thereby universal, this topic begins by examining the different forms of market economies. While its focus is a socialist market economy, it situates such an economy within the history of markets. This historical examination reveals that market economies throughout history have been of different types, often generated by states to solve specific logistical problems. In these cases, profit is at best a secondary phenomenon. Analysis of a socialist market economy itself focuses on the following areas: the differences with the ‘market socialism’ of Yugoslavia; the nature of a preliminary socialist market economy in the Soviet Union; the realities of working alongside capitalist market economies; developing the category of ‘enmeshment’ as a way to overcome the old bifurcation of ‘public’ and ‘private’ ownership and as a way to understand the detailed structures of a socialist market economy in China.
Part B: Philosophical Questions
The question here is how contradictions continue to exist under socialism. Pre-revolutionary Marxist theory at times held that the contradictions of capitalism would be overcome with communism. However, the actual experience of constructing socialism indicates otherwise. This situation became apparent in the Soviet Union, where the category of ‘non-antagonistic contradictions’ was first proposed – such as in relation to classes and the tensions between forces and relations of production during the period of socialism. Mao Zedong developed contradiction analysis much further, reshaping Chinese philosophical understandings in light of a Marxist framework. Stressing the ubiquity of contradictions, their complexity, the need for careful analysis to determine the most important contradiction in any situation, and the significance of non-antagonistic contradictions, this contradiction analysis has become a core feature of government policy, if not cultural consciousness. A further interest is in how a Marxist dialectical approach to contradiction enables a reshaping of mode of production theory, in which the contradictions of former modes of production are both abolished and transformed in a new mode of production. How all of this works out today is a major part of the project, seeking intersections between European, Chinese and Latin American approaches.
2. Core Socialist Values and Human Rights
Can one speak of socialist values? If so, what are they? We may speak of public, party and individual virtues, which entail an honest life devoted to the cause of the people. Or we may speak of the ‘Ruijin ethos’ (arising from the first Fujian-Jiangxi soviet in the early 1930s) with its focus on providing food, housing and clothing for people, before mentioning politics, let alone the party. Above, these matters relate to the pressing international question of human rights, especially the relative lack of international awareness of a (Chinese) Marxist approach to human rights. Key features of this analysis include the following points.
First, the origins of plural ‘rights’ in European thought with Hugo Grotius (sixteenth century), who first proposed plural ‘rights’ in contrast to the medieval singular of ‘Right’. Grotius saw such rights as commodities and private property.
Second, the tension between universal and particular, in which one may – with qualifications – agree to a universal category of human rights, being both wary of universalising from a particular situation and seeking genuine ‘rooted universals’. Further, the particular historical situations of different countries indicate specific emphases. For example, European and indeed North Atlantic history has led to an emphasis on political and civic rights at the expense of economic rights. By contrast, countries with different histories and Marxist influences have found that economic rights are paramount – the right to economic wellbeing.
Third, each particular situation offers a different approach to the complex relations between collective and individual. In a European context, the individual tends to be paramount, although the collective is by no means absent even if is mediated through the individual. In other situations, such as China, the relation is different and exceedingly complex. One may initially suggest that the individual (and indeed the issue of privacy) finds expression through the collective, but this is merely the first step in analysis.
Fourth, in our time human rights are inextricably connected with the question of justice. This topic includes but is not limited to the gap between rich and poor (in the context of unleashing the forces of production), access to education and medicine, and environmental factors. However, the approach draws not so much on European liberal traditions, but on Marxist thought and China’s specific historical experience – in which justice and equality are major concerns. As a result, such a theory of justice will seek to make a new contribution to China’s current situation and to international Marxist theory.
Part C: Comparison: Socialism with ‘National’ Characteristics
In order to make best use of the rich history of socialism in power, the project includes an important comparative dimension. This we call an examination of socialism with ‘national’ characteristics, which draws its inspiration from the Chinese characteristics of Marxism. Such comparison draws upon the theories and practices of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Obviously, it will require collaboration with specialists in these areas. This area of research raises two types of distinctions. The first concerns the differences between socialism seeking power, socialism in power, and socialism after power. Thus, some forms of socialism fall into only one category, such as in Western Europe and North America. Others have experienced socialism both seeking and in power, especially in Asia. And some have experienced all three, as we find in Eastern Europe. These differences will be able to produce distinct insights into the particular varieties of socialism. The second distinction concerns unity and diversity. Marxism may have core theoretical principles and topics, but the actual experiences of socialism in power have produced new developments.
To sum up, the concern of this long project is with the theoretical implications of socialism in power. This means the complexities, developments and changing conditions of socialism after it has achieved power in a revolution. As both Lenin and Chairman Mao pointed out repeatedly, it is one thing to win power through a revolution; it is a much more difficult and complex task to construct socialism in a global context. Today, we have a century full of rich examples of this process, so it is the task of philosophers, historians, political theorists and social scientists to develop theories by examining the realities and facts and perhaps point the way forward for Marxist theory in the context of socialism in power.
Monographs (24 in total)
2017 Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power. Singapore: Springer (262 pp.).
2017 (with Christina Petterson) Time of Troubles: A New Economic Framework for Early Christianity. Minn.: Fortress (252 pp.).
2015 The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox (328 pp.).
2014 Marxist Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. London: Bloomsbury (325 pp.).
2014 (with Christina Petterson) Idols of Nations: Biblical Myth at the Origins of Capitalism. Minneapolis: Fortress (207 pp.).
2013 Lenin, Religion and Theology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (360 pp.).
2007-14 The Criticism of Heaven and Earth: On Marxism and Theology. 5 vols. Leiden & Chicago: Brill & Haymarket.
Refereed Articles and Book Chapters (only a sample listed - 274 in total)
In press ‘Marx’s Ambivalence: State, Proletarian Dictatorship and Commune’. International Critical Thought.
In press ‘Xi Jinping’s China: Keeping the Imagination Alive Under Socialism in Power’. Socialist Imaginations. Eds. Stefan Arvidsson, Jakub Beneš, Anja Kirsch. London: Routledge.
2018 ‘Is a Socialist Civil Society Possible?’ Berlin Journal of Critical Theory 2.1: 61-82.
2018 ‘Civil Society or Bourgeois Society? An Alternative History from Hegel to Losurdo’. Berlin Journal of Critical Theory 2.4: 5-32.
2018 ‘Blochs “Ungleichzeitigkeit” und die Widersprüche des chinesischen Sozialismus’. Das Argument 325: 54-64.
2017 ‘Makesizhuyi “nuanliu” yu zhongguohua makesizhuyi (马克思主义“暖流”与中国化马克思主义)’. ‘Marxism’s “Warm Stream” Within Chinese Marxism’. Shehuikexue Jikan 2017.3: 22-31.
2017 ‘Interpreting Marx’s Capital in China’. Continental Thought and Theory 1.4: 177-206.
2017 ‘From Berne to Yan’an: The Theoretical Breakthroughs of Lenin and Mao’. Crisis and Critique 4.2: 60-84.
2017 ‘After October: Towards a Theory of the Socialist State’. International Critical Thought 7.3: 309-26.
2016 ‘Reconsidering Contradiction’. The International Horizon of Chinese Marxist Discourse: The Perspectives of Literature and Philosophy. Eds. Zang Fengyu and Roland Boer. Beijing: Renmin University of China, pp. 36-50.
2016 ‘Marxism, Religion and the Taiping Revolution’. Historical Materialism 24.2: 3-24.
2016 ‘Concerning the “Warm Stream” within Marxism’. International Critical Thought 6.1: 13-28.
2016 (with Chin Kenpa) ‘Chinese Christian Communism in the Early Twentieth Century’. Religion, State and Society 44: 96-110.
2015 (with Li Zhixiong) ‘Interpreting Socialism and Capitalism in China. Utopian Studies 26.2: 309-23.
2014 ‘Socialist Democracy with Chinese Characteristics’. Crisis and Critique 1.1: 47-65.
2014 ‘Marxism and Religion Reconsidered in a Chinese Context’. Proceedings of the Third Nishan Forum, 21-23 May, 2014. Jinan: Shandong University, pp. 66-79.
July 11, 2017
July 1, 2015
December 1, 2014
November 18, 2014