He Who Does Not Read In Context, Neither Shall He Complain
Clarifying Lenin’s position vis-à-vis “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” by appraising contemporary revolutionary history and the slogan’s Biblical roots
Every little difference may become a big one if it is insisted on.
Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904)
Many people, upon studying the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s State and Revolution in particular, often come across the (in)famous slogan:
“He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”
Many, even communists (mostly of the anarchist type), are often very surprised — or rather, disappointed — when discovering this part of Lenin. A lot of accusations are flung around, usually revolving around coercive labor, workerism, etc. However, this is usually a case of shallow analysis and ahistorical blabber. There can be — and will be in our article — warranted critiques of this motto, but they have to be made in a contextual terrain.
We will make the interesting and often-neglected connection to Lenin’s stance and the Bible, more in depth than just borrowing phrases from it. I once again ask the readers to complete the article before drawing conclusions from it. The emphases in the quotes are mine unless otherwise specified.
Intentionally or otherwise, Lenin’s idea of labor under socialism is an odd amalgam of the Bible and the Critique of the Gotha Program. The primary and direct inspiration of the said slogan can be traced back to the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, commonly known as II Thessalonians. To understand Lenin’s position, we must first understand Paul the Apostle’s position put forth in a specific part of the canonical book of the New Testament, II Thessalonians 3:6–15:
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.
Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.
There are a few points to be noted immediately after going through this section of the epistle. First and foremost, the obvious source of the revolutionary saying is evident:
For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
However, what’s even more interesting, and what gives us the reason to speculate on a deeper Biblical connection between Lenin and his sloganeering is the following:
“For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it.”
The narrative of setting an example and being a guide by undertaking the fulfilment of this task yourself before anyone else can be noticed in Lenin’s speeches precisely when he speaks about the “socialist principle” of securing living through labor. Just like the regular workers, neither are the Party members to be idle or secure a substantially better living than most others can procure. For example, this is what Lenin had to say in 1920:
“We said that we made no secret of coercion, because we realised that we could not emerge from the old society without resorting to compulsion as far as the backward section of the proletariat was concerned. That is the way unity of will was expressed, and it was maintained in practice by punishing every deserter; in every battle and every campaign it was maintained by the Communists marching in the forefront and setting an example. The present task is to try to apply this unity of will to industry and agriculture. We have a territory stretching thousands of versts and huge numbers of factories. You must realise, therefore, that we cannot achieve our purpose by force alone; you must realise what a colossal task confronts us and what unity of will means today. It is not only a slogan. It must be given thought, careful thought. It is a slogan that entails prolonged, day-to-day effort. Take 1918, when there were no such disputes; even then I pointed to the necessity for individual authority, to the need to recognise the dictatorial authority of individuals in order to carry out the Soviet idea.” 
Not only does this speech explain the reasoning of the slogan, but it also shows a connection between the Biblical passage and the revolutionary usage. Let us discuss these two points.
Many in opposition to this slogan fail to see its nature. They consider it to be willful, or wanted by any party or group. Of course, this is simply not the case (and I’ve written more about the so-called “coercive labor” here). As Lenin explained in the first ever work mentioning this slogan in a communistic sense, the State and Revolution:
“And so, in the first phase of communist society (usually called socialism) “bourgeois law” is not abolished in its entirety, but only in part, only in proportion to the economic revolution so far attained, i.e., only in respect of the means of production. […] The socialist principle, “He who does not work shall not eat,” is already realized; the other socialist principle, “An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labor,” is also already realized. But this is not yet communism, and it does not yet abolish “bourgeois law,” which gives unequal individuals, in return for unequal (really unequal) amounts of labor, equal amounts of products.
This is a “defect,” says Marx, but it is unavoidable in the first phase of communism; for if we are not to indulge in utopianism, we must not think that having overthrown capitalism people will at once learn to work for society without any rules of law. Besides, the abolition of capitalism does not immediately create the economic prerequisites for such a change.” 
Many people see this as a revision of Marxism, but besides the radical and off-putting rhetoric, we can notice no such thing. Let’s see which specific part of Marxist literature Lenin is paraphrasing and compare:
“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. […] He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.” 
This seems to be perfectly clear — whatever labor the individual performs, only that he receives back from society. This sort of equal exchange (not in a Lassallean sense of course, equal in an unequal way) gives the laborer the ability to, after deductions for the common fund have been made, compensate his work by “trading” his labor vouchers for products (not commodities). Thus, those who do the socially necessary labor in a direct fashion (those who work), are able to secure a living for themselves (eat). This is all the catchy slogan means, which only sounds “scary” and “authoritarian” because it was said by Lenin. Would anyone accuse Paul the Apostle of authoritarianism? Hardly!
Therefore, it is not really a problem people have with the slogan directly, but with the man and the way they interpret it through this man. We can conclude that Lenin is consistent with Marx in this regard, and therefore, anyone who wishes to call Lenin a workerist, authoritarian, et al., must necessarily do so with Marx for consistency’s sake. Many anarchists have regarded the slogan “from each according to ability, to each according to work” as a perversion of Marxism or a Stalinist sin. But it simply describes the lower phase of communism and its principle, not the upper, where from ability to need is realized. It isn’t a revision, but a paraphrase of Marx.
This rewording also had its utility. And when it was misused, some Marxists, most notably Leon Trotsky, hurried to their pens to criticise it:
“The sole means of self-defense in these conditions is the hunger strike. The GPU answers this with forcible feeding or with an offer of freedom to die. During these years hundreds of Oppositionists, both Russian and foreign, have been shot, or have died of hunger strikes, or have resorted to suicide. Within the last twelve years, the authorities have scores of times announced to the world the final rooting out of the opposition. But during the “purgations” in the last month of 1935 and the first half of 1936, hundreds of thousands of members of the party were again expelled, among them several tens of thousands of “Trotskyists.” The most active were immediately arrested and thrown into prisons and concentration camps. As to the rest, Stalin, through Pravda, openly advised the local organs not to give them work. In a country where the sole employer is the state, this means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat. Exactly how many Bolsheviks have been expelled, arrested, exiled, exterminated, since 1923, when the era of Bonapartism opened, we shall find out when we go through the archives of Stalin’s political police. How many of them remain in the underground will become known when the shipwreck of the bureaucracy begins.” 
The historical accuracy or the political nature of this claim aside, Marxists have criticised such usage, but only when its meaning was distorted, not paying mind to the phraseology, especially because this was how it was enshrined in the 1918 RSFSR constitution as well.
Let us get back to our point, the nature of the slogan. Lenin explains:
“We realised that we could not emerge from the old society without resorting to compulsion as far as the backward section of the proletariat was concerned. […] In every battle and every campaign it was maintained by the Communists marching in the forefront and setting an example.” 
Thus Lenin opines, that first, the communists have to set an example behavior before it can be demanded from the people to be followed. The main mistake of the slogan’s critics lies in the fact that they lambaste the slogan itself, but rarely the actual contents. They take it at face value, screaming about the threat of starvation. But during a revolutionary period, this held true in the 1910s — no one could afford idleness when the counterrevolution of Denikin and Kolchak were looming around every Soviet and commune. To labor was a necessity, more so because it wasn’t even a socialist state of affairs but a turbulent and chaotic revolutionary period where the proletarian dictatorship was trying to usher in its own epoch.
Lenin also takes note of individualism and the authority of the person, saying:
“Even then I pointed to the necessity for individual authority, to the need to recognise the dictatorial authority of individuals in order to carry out the Soviet idea.” 
Therefore, the entire issue is much more complex than “coercive labor” and “authoritarian Lenin” who “has no regard for the individual.” Let us proceed to our second point — the Biblical connection. This is very evident in the following verses:
“For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” 
The parallel between Lenin insisting communists set an example to be followed and Saint Paul saying the same of Christians is too striking to be left unnoticed. Even II Thessalonians 3:15 — “Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer” — was “replicated” during the Russian Revolution, as in Alexandra Kollontai’s report, we read:
“The interdepartmental commission opposed the suggestion that prostitutes be punished for prostituting, i.e. for buying and selling. They confined themselves to suggesting that all people convicted of work desertion be directed to the social security network and from there either to the section of the Commissariat that deals with the deployment of the labour force or to sanatoria and hospitals.” 
Those who were deserters, i.e. refused to work (generally, this was more to apply to the ex-bourgeoisie that refused to be proletarized, but we can see in practice how it affected regular workers as well), were seen as enemies in the general Soviet opinion. Even Kollontai suggested right after:
“A prostitute is not a special case; as with other categories of deserter, she is only sent to do forced labour if she repeatedly avoids work. Prostitutes are not treated any differently from other labour deserters. This is an important and courageous step, worthy of the world’s first labour republic.” 
However, we see that there was opposition, in this case from the interdepartmental commission, which suggested the rehabilitation of these deserters through social security networks that would distribute them in sanatoria (an establishment for the treatment of people and a place of rest and relaxation) or hospitals. Kollontai’s stance, which can be criticised for its harshness, also has its historical justification — the speech was made during a raging civil war, and Bolsheviks simply couldn’t afford to lose, as all of them, as well as the workers, would’ve been butchered by White Terror. It says nothing about the measures during socialism and a truly liberated society on its way to complete and further liberation, as the proletarian dictatorship was still fighting for its survival, making any talk of even beginning the transition to socialism very early. Thus, such radical measures, however abhorrent and ugly, can be considered in the historical terrain.
Naturally, this would not be the case today, and neither Lenin’s slogan would have to be deployed in the literal sense, as our productive capacity and human development are at a much higher stage and we would most likely be able to procure a very basic living for all in some cases. But nota bene that the slogan was never meant to be in the literal sense! We can recall his own words: “It is not only a slogan. It must be given thought, careful thought.” So, such a simplistic view of history will inevitably distort any attempt at a serious analysis.
A Biblical Coincidence?
There is also one more, but a more implicit connection between I-II Thessalonians and Lenin’s slogan. This has to do with the idea of eschatology and how eschatological communism is. American Theologian and culture critic, Adam Kotsko explains:
“The occasion for the first letter to the Thessalonians arose when one of the leather workers apparently died. The remaining members were concerned that this person would miss out on the Second Coming because he had died slightly too soon — but Paul clarifies in the letter that actually the dead will be raised first, and then “we” will be taken up to join them. Obviously the situation envisioned here is that the End will be coming sooner rather than later, certainly within the readers’ lifetime. This letter is one of Paul’s most deeply felt writings — it is palpable that he really loves these guys and doesn’t want them worrying. Shifting the scene to 2 Thessalonians, the tone has shifted dramatically. Instead of the tender consoler, Paul here is playing the role of the taskmaster. […] Apparently some of the laborers have decided to quit their jobs in anticipation of the End, and the author clarifies that the End is not coming quite that soon — in the meantime, everyone should continue contributing to the community. Two points stand out to me. First, this letter is almost certainly addressing a community of able-bodied men with a set profession. Second, it is responding to a scenario where people are voluntarily refraining from work out of what the author (whether Paul or someone else) believes to be a misguided apocalyptic enthusiasm.” 
What a beautiful coincidence! Or is it? The idea that because communism is “coming” (the End, the Apocalypse, the éschatos) for our salvation doesn’t at all mean that we can be idle, stop working and succumb to sloth. That was the idea put forth by Paul, especially in the first epistle, as well as the general idea Lenin had in mind. Just because the RSFSR was building, or more accurately, trying to start building socialism, didn’t mean that everything would be sugar and spice from the get-go. There was much to do! Thus, Paul criticises the misguided apocalyptic enthusiasm of idle but able works, and Lenin criticises the betrayal and desertion of likewise able workers, who should contribute to the revolution so that the revolution can give back (we’re once again staying in the context of an early 20th century semi-feudal, dying empire).
Metropolitan of Moscow, the schismatic Aleksandr Vvedensky, also observed:
“When you say you are for the principle of work, I remind you of the slogan, ‘he who does not work shall not eat.’ I have seen this in a number of different cities on revolutionary posters. I am just upset that there was no reference to the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Thessalonians, from where the slogan is taken.” 
It was clear even in the revolutionary period, that there was a connection to the Bible more deeper than just sloganeering. This “principle of work” also seems to be very misunderstood in its own right, usually because no thought is given beyond the said slogan and all investigation is halted and replaced by accusation. Actually, right after the revolution begun, in December of 1917, Lenin wrote:
“The Paris Commune gave a great example of how to combine initiative, independence, freedom of action and vigour from below with voluntary centralism free from stereotyped forms. Our Soviets are following the same road. But they are still “timid”; they have not yet got into their stride, have not yet “bitten into” their new, great, creative task of building the socialist system. The Soviets must set to work more boldly and display greater initiative. All “communes” — factories, villages, consumers’ societies, and committees of supplies — must compete with each other as practical organisers of accounting and control of labour and distribution of products. The programme of this accounting and control is simple, clear and intelligible to all — everyone to have bread; everyone to have sound footwear and good clothing; everyone to have warm dwellings; everyone to work conscientiously; not a single rogue (including those who shirk their work) to be allowed to be at liberty, but kept in prison, or serve his sentence of compulsory labour of the hardest kind; not a single rich man who violates the laws and regulations of socialism to be allowed to escape the fate of the rogue, which should, in justice, be the fate of the rich man. “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” — this is the practical commandment of socialism. This is how things should be organised practically.” 
From this, we get two vital points: first, the work shirkers and the rogues were labels to be applied more to the “rich man who violates the laws and regulations of socialism” instead of the already toiling workers. Second, the goal clearly was for “everyone to have bread; everyone to have sound footwear and good clothing; everyone to have warm dwellings.” This was the wish, the want that had to be realized, but due to the circumstances, wasn’t just yet. Therefore, when one complains of this policy, it seems like they complain about how the conditions naturally aligned during the revolutionary times instead of complaining about any party or leader. Because the critics do try to fault Lenin and others for this, but it becomes clear that it was neither their intention nor wish for things to be such a way, but the reality that was forced upon them by hard conditions. Let us recall what Luxemburg had to say about these efforts:
“[Socialist democracy] is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class — that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.
Doubtless the Bolsheviks would have proceeded in this very way were it not that they suffered under the frightful compulsion of the world war, the German occupation and all the abnormal difficulties connected therewith, things which were inevitably bound to distort any socialist policy, however imbued it might be with the best intentions and the finest principles.” 
Surely, no matter how immaculate the policy of the Bolsheviks was on paper (far from it in this regard as well), even if they were guided by the brightest stars of truth and wisdom, the imperfect reality which inevitably had to clash with the perfect world of theoretical musings would cause distortion and ruin of all kinds, independent of the will of the party. This does not absolve the Bolsheviks from any conscious mistakes and political errors they made, but not to see the entire picture, the revolutionary engine as a perfect guide against imperfect reality, would be to turn a blind eye to history.
The very same is true for “he who does not work, neither shall he eat.” A simple rhetorical tool, very misunderstood and further distorted in less than 20 years from its initial utterance, should be seen for its contents and not for its “demeanor.”
We’re not apologizing on behalf of Lenin, nor are we excusing his careless phraseology (a frequent problem with his writings, although they can easily be solved by looking at the historical context). Rather, we aim to clarify the common and sometimes willful misunderstanding of his words and actions.
Amusingly enough, Peter Kropotkin — the famous Anarchist, also gave a somewhat similar suggestion to Lenin’s:
“Twelve or fifteen hundred hours of work a year, in a group producing food, clothes, or houses, or employed in public health, transport, etc., is all we ask of you. For this work we guarantee to you all that these groups produce or will produce. But if not one, of the thousands of groups of our federation, will receive you, whatever be their motive; if you are absolutely incapable of producing anything useful, or if you refuse to do it, then live like an isolated man or like an invalid. If we are rich enough to give you the necessaries of life we shall be delighted to give them to you. You are a man, and you have the right to live. But as you wish to live under special conditions, and leave the ranks, it is more than probable that you will suffer for it in your daily relations with other citizens. You will be looked upon as a ghost of bourgeois society, unless some friends of yours, discovering you to be a talent, kindly free you from all moral obligation towards society by doing necessary work for you. “And lastly, if it does not please you, go and look for other conditions elsewhere in the wide world, or else seek adherents and organize with them on novel principles. We prefer our own.”
That is what could be done in a communal society in order to turn away sluggards if they became too numerous.” 
Even though Kropotkin says later that this may not be a frequent case in a free society, we still cannot but notice the similarity between his insistence of “if you are absolutely incapable of producing anything useful, or if you refuse to do it, then live like an isolated man or like an invalid” and Lenin’s “he who does not work, neither shall he eat.” For the former, i.e. inability to work, Marxists make sure to have the common funds Marx speaks of in the Gothacritique to ensure full and comfortable livelihood for any such person. In the latter case, i.e. refusing to work even if you are able to do so, take Kropotkin’s warning, if Lenin is too scary — “live like an isolated man or like an invalid. […] be looked upon as a ghost of bourgeois society.” Kropotkin does say that if it’s possible, your livelihood will also be procured, but that’s the issue — ability! Marxists don’t refuse to give you food, clothing, etc., if they’re able to even if you don’t work. Just that when these polemics and slogans appeared, such a thing was simply not possible.
Let us not erect artificial barriers and faux walls. Just from this we can conclude that we are similar in some ways — both in tactics and aims. Not identical, not mutual, but somewhat tangentially on a similar axis. Very many obvious differences can be and have been pointed out by various Marxists and Anarchists, but also there are some similarities that are purposefully obscured or ignored. What is even more ironic, is that some of these similarities — one example given above — are attacked as a purely Marxist, or more appropriately, Leninist phenomena that was born from authoritarianism, counter-revolutionary politics, etc. We may easily notice, after out lengthy investigation that this is not the case at all. Avoiding detailed historical context doesn’t alter the truth.
Let’s not be dishonest; let’s not lie to ourselves.
 Speech Delivered by Vladimir Lenin at the Third All-Russia Trade Union Congress April 7, 1920
 Vladimir Lenin — State and Revolution, Chapter III
 Karl Marx — Critique of the Gotha Program, Section I
 Leon Trotsky — The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter XI
 Speech Delivered by Vladimir Lenin at the Third All-Russia Trade Union Congress April 7, 1920
 II Thessalonians 3:7–10
 Speech by Alexandra Kollontai to the third all-Russian conference of heads of the Regional Women’s Departments, 1921
 Adam Kotsko — He who will not work shall not eat: An explanation
 Александр Иванович Введенский — Луначарский, Религия и просвещение
 Vladimir Lenin — How to Organise Competition?
 Rosa Luxemburg — The Russian Revolution, Chapter VI
 Peter Kropotkin — The Conquest of Bread, Chapter XII