Bourgeois Right and the Limits of First Phase Communism in the Rhetoric of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15

Joseph M. Bartlett


Second Thessalonians 3:10b offers the teaching that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Both conservative and socialist readers have cited this teaching as an encapsulation of their mutually incommensurable worldviews. I conduct a historical-critical investigation of the situation in which this passage was written; I argue against recent historical reconstructions that posit that 2 Thessalonians is authentically Pauline, and articulate a Sitz im Leben for the text in line with the principles of historical materialism. Specifically, I contend that the Thessalonian community was a tenement church composed entirely of marginalized people who were particularly vulnerable to economic crises in the late first century Roman Empire; this community fit the criteria for what Marx and Lenin would later call first-phase communism. A lack of sufficient employment opportunities led many members to rely too heavily on the community’s agape feast, thus threatening the community’s viability. The situation at Thessalonica can thus be characterized as what Habermas calls a rationality crisis, whereby the community was forced to abandon the core principles of its agapaic communalism and revert to a regressive policy that Marx calls “bourgeois right.” I conclude that modern conservative uses of the text serve different class interests from its author’s and that, while socialist uses of the text share its author’s class interests, those uses starkly illustrate the precariousness of first-phase communism. This precariousness, then, demonstrates that Permanent Revolution is necessary to secure the viability of communist societies against the structural vulnerabilities to which they are especially susceptible in the context of hegemonic capitalism, and thus that Socialism in One Country is a fatally flawed doctrine.


1 Corinthians 3:10b; Marxism; bourgeois right; Thessalonica

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Bible and Critical Theory: ISSN 1832-3391