Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Archive for November 2017

Writing in the Hedgehog, from, it seems (but perhaps that’s just me), a hard left perspective, Eugene McCarraher takes a look at the millenarian aspects of Bolshevism, and, more specifically its connection with the Reformation:

Shortly after the Bolshevik victory, the young German philosopher Ernst Bloch suggested an even longer historical lineage for Lenin. In The Spirit of Utopia (1920), Bloch sketched a genealogy of revolution that included the Jewish prophets, St. John of the Apocalypse, medieval heretics and millenarians such as Joachim of Fiore, and radical Protestants such as Thomas Müntzer and John of Leyden (John Bockelson). Speaking the language of theology, this pre-Marxist vanguard had imagined the kingdom of God as a communist paradise. Bloch linked the Protestant and Soviet moments even more pointedly in Thomas Müntzer as Theologian of the Revolution (1921), whose protagonist envisioned “a pure community of love, without judicial and state institutions”—in marked contrast to the conservative and submissive Luther, who by supporting the German nobles’ suppression of the peasants’ rebellion of 1524–25 had consecrated the “hard and impious materiality of the State.”

Two cheers for the hard and impious materiality of the State, I reckon, but I interrupt.

 If Müntzer’s political theology was mired in mythopoeic conceptions of time, Lenin’s scientific appraisal of history ensured the fulfillment of Christian hope. The Soviet state heralded “the time that is to come,” Bloch declared with eschatological flourish. “It is impossible for the time of the Kingdom not to come now,” he concluded; hope “will not be disappointed in any way.” (“Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem,” Bloch would later write in The Principle of Hope.)

Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem.

Elsewhere in The Principle of Hope,  Bloch was to claim that “the Bolshevist fulfillment of Communism [is part of] the age-old fight for God, ” even if, as the Christian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev observed (as I noted in a post yesterday) they did not know it themselves.

Müntzer (1489-1525) was to become something of a hero in that ‘pure community of love’ better known as East Germany.  The regime even made a film about him.

Then again, as McCarraher makes clear, however pretty its label, Müntzer’s ‘community of love’ had its rough edges too:

[Lenin and Müntzer] both insisted on the necessity of an intrepid and steadfast revolutionary elite. Müntzer and his associates set up the Eternal League of God after failing to win election to Mühlhausen’s town council, while Lenin believed that only a vanguard party could identify and direct the proper course of revolution. And both men had no scruples about wielding violence against opponents. Because the bourgeoisie posed a threat to the party’s trusteeship of proletarian dictatorship, Lenin insisted in “The State and Revolution” (1917) that “their resistance must be crushed by force,” an edict that echoed Müntzer’s dictum that “a godless person has no right to life when he hinders the pious.”

Müntzer’s rejection of election results is something else he and Lenin had in common.

McCarraher:

The two currents of communism that appeared in the Reformation align with two forms of eschatological expectation: one, represented by Müntzer, in which the “godly” or the “elect”—theological precursors to the secular “vanguard”—must clear a path for the impending beloved community by enlisting any means at their disposal, however coercive and cruel; and a second, exemplified by Winstanley, in which the love of the people’s republic to come must leaven its apostles and their actions. Müntzer’s belief that the ungodly have no rights augured Bertolt Brecht’s rueful principle that those who seek a world of kindness cannot themselves be kind. Winstanley’s conviction that the sword embodied “an abominable and unrighteous power” betokened a nonviolent revolutionary tradition. The yearning to see heaven on earth is at once an imperative and an impossible desire, and its political articulations stem from how the tensions of eschatological expectation are resolved. If Soviet communism was a secular parody of Müntzer’s millenarian hysteria, Winstanley’s “realized eschatology”—his insistence that the love on the other side of the eschaton can appear in the here and now—offers a more modest but also more generous and humane revolutionary vision.

Needless to say, Winstanley (Gerrard Winstanley, one of the founders of England’s mid-17th Century ‘Diggers’, someone who McCarraher discusses at length, and admiringly) got nowhere. Nor will his successors. Communism is impossible without collective psychosis, coercion, or both, and, as a millenarian creed, it (as, according to the story, did Jesus) insists on a reckoning, which will be anything other than peaceful—something that has undeniably always added to its appeal.

Ubi communismi, ibi infernum.

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Nov/17

11

Bolsheviks and other Millenarians

If I had to choose one book to read about the Bolsheviks this year it would be The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine.

Writing in the New York Review of Books Benjamin Nathans focuses on the most important theme that runs through this monumental study, Slezkine’s view that Bolshevism was not an assertion of the new, but a reformulation of the old:

[Slezkine] places the Bolsheviks among ancient Zoroastrians and Israelites, early Christians and Muslims, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Puritans, Old Believers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rastafarians, and other millenarian sects. As sworn enemies of religion, the Bolsheviks would have hated this casting decision and demanded to be put in a different play, preferably with Jacobins, Saint-Simonians, Marxists, and Communards in supporting roles. Slezkine, however, has claimed these groups for his story as well, insisting that underneath their secular costumes they too dreamed of hastening the apocalypse and building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Bolsheviks, it seems, were condemned to repeat history—a history driven not by class struggle, as they thought, but by theology.

Slezkine is, of course, by no means the first to detect the religious impulse lurking within Bolshevism. As early as 1920, Bertrand Russell wrote that Bolshevism “is to be reckoned as a religion, not an ordinary political movement.” Nathan notes comments made by the Christian philosopher (a description that doesn’t do justice to the breadth of his writing) Nikolai Berdyaev in July 1917 months before the Bolshevik putsch (my emphasis added):

 “Bolsheviks, as often happens, do not know the ultimate truth about themselves, do not grasp what spirit governs them.” By laying claim to “the entire person” and seeking to provide answers to “all of a person’s needs, all of humanity’s sufferings,” Bolshevism drew on “religious energies—if by religious energy we understand not just what is directed to God.”

Remarkably Berdyaev survived imprisonment by the new communist regime and, with many other leading Russian philosophers, was exiled abroad in 1922.

Nathans is not entirely convinced by Slezkine’s arguments, which he clearly finds overly reductionist, not least for this reason:

Wouldn’t one have to posit an epidemic of false consciousness to account for so much religiosity on the part of the militantly antireligious Bolsheviks? Why do some analogies refer to quintessentially Catholic practices and others to quintessentially Protestant or Russian Orthodox ones? How can any of them account for the motives of the many Jewish party members?

But then, as Nathans concedes, Slezkine doesn’t link millenarianism to any one religious tradition, and he’s right not to.  In many ways, that’s the point.

By rhetorically collapsing the distinction between Bolsheviks and their biblical predecessors, The House of Government signals its ultimate aim: to grasp the meaning of the Russian Revolution sub specie aeternitatis, to suggest an abiding element in human history, something very old of which we have not freed and may never free ourselves, precisely because we are human.

And if Slezkine is right about this (I think he is) the only conclusion to be drawn is that, rather than being some sort of aberration, communism was merely another expression of ancient millenarian beliefs, beliefs that clearly have appealed to enough people over the generations for us to be confident that they are not going away any time soon.

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Nov/17

1

“Natural Rights” and Other Myths

Writing in the American Conservative, Will Collins reviews  Against the Grain,  “James C. Scott’s new history of humanity’s transition (devolution may be the more appropriate term) from hunting and gathering to sedentary farming challenges the very foundations of this narrative. After finishing the book, one can’t help but wonder if our nomadic ancestors would have been better off slinking back to the hills and forests and giving up on the idea of ever settling down.”

In Collins’ view,  Against the Grain “may not include much in the way of original research, but it presents a comprehensive and convincing case that the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to permanent, agriculturally dependent settlements was a complete disaster for humankind.”

I haven’t read the book, which does indeed sound interesting, but it appears that (judging by the review) Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ has cast a long shadow over its contents:

[W]hat if Rousseau was right? Scott persuasively argues that sedentary agriculture is a critical prerequisite for state formation and all its attendant miseries, from slaving to war-making to the spread of pestilence and disease. For hundreds of thousands of years, a period that encompasses the vast majority of our existence on Planet Earth, man was born free, into groups of mobile hunter-gatherers who, if the fossil record is to be believed, lived longer and healthier lives than their civilized successors. It was not until comparatively recently that we were chained by the plow, the ox, and the overseer. The historical record of our earliest ancestors is the most compelling evidence yet that there is something deeply unnatural about being socialized into a rules-based, hierarchical society.

To banish that shadow, read of Lawrence Keeley’s excellent War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage. 

Here’s what the Oxford University Press had to say about it:

For the last fifty years, most popular and scholarly works have agreed that prehistoric warfare was rare, harmless, and unimportant. According to this view, it was little more than a ritualized game, where casualties were limited and the effects of aggression relatively mild. Lawrence Keeley’s groundbreaking War Before Civilization offers a devastating rebuttal to such comfortable myths and debunks the notion that warfare was introduced to primitive societies through contact with civilization.

Building on much fascinating archeological and historical research and offering an astute comparison of warfare in civilized and prehistoric societies, from modern European states to the Plains Indians of North America, Keeley convincingly demonstrates that prehistoric warfare was in fact more deadly, more frequent, and more ruthless than modern war. He cites evidence of ancient massacres in many areas of the world, and surveys the prevalence of looting, destruction, and trophy-taking in all kinds of warfare, again finding little moral distinction between ancient warriors and civilized armies. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, he examines the evidence of cannibalism among some preliterate peoples.

But Keeley goes beyond grisly facts to address the larger moral and philosophical issues raised by his work. What are the causes of war? Are human beings inherently violent? How can we ensure peace in our own time? Challenging some of our most dearly held beliefs, Keeley’s conclusions are bound to stir controversy.

Indeed. They did.

Bottom line: we’re not a nice lot.

Just before the paragraph that I quoted above, Collins wrote this, words that should be carved in stone in some suitably disconcerting venue, opposite a  church perhaps, or across from the Jefferson Memorial:

Take natural rights, a venerable political tradition that has largely been banished from our public discourse. Rights are socially constructed, a product of contingent historical circumstances, a tarnished artifact of Western culture. Only the truly gauche—hardcore libertarians, say, or Christian conservatives—believe that we are endowed with certain inalienable and unalterable rights. Rousseau’s famous dictum, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” sounds like something you might hear from a particularly obnoxious teenage Objectivist.

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