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TAG | Millennial Cults

Nov/17

12

Bolsheviks, Millenarians and the Reformation

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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Oct/17

17

1789 and All That

It’s not hard to draw a line between messianic Judaism and (obviously) Christianity and from that on to later millenarian variants such as Marxism, but this review in the New Statesman by the British philosopher John Gray of Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia by Francis O’Gorman adds this twist:

The end result of a systematic devaluation of the past, however, is a condition of confusion not unlike that experienced by those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. As O’Gorman puts it, “We may be terrified of dementia because it is widespread and its effects catastrophic. But the fear arises also because we are half-conscious, as dutiful forward-facing citizens of modernity, that we figuratively have it already.” Rather than enabling human beings to fashion new identities, a willed collective amnesia leaves them with no identity at all.

Many forces have combined to create this condition. Acutely, O’Gorman identifies one of the sources of the modern narrative in early Christianity. Announcing itself as the bearer of “good news”, Christianity “splintered the conception of human life based on sustaining a localisable past… The new faith, which must have seemed first of all a new Middle Eastern cult of the son of Joseph the Carpenter, not only discouraged acts of devotion to what had happened long ago… but also explicitly reorientated its followers’ minds to the future.”

Here, O’Gorman elides the original teaching of Jesus, which continued the traditions of charismatic Judaism, with the universal religion invented by Paul and Augustine. Yet the point remains valid. Christianity has always included “instructive rites for rejecting history”, acts of confession and penitence that are supposed to erase yesterday’s sins.

A Christian narrative of redemption in which past evils and crimes could be nullified by a dramatic act of moral renovation has inspired many modern revolutionary movements. “Christianity began the process of moving us toward the future,” writes O’Gorman. “The French Revolution from 1789 to 1815 (which was, ironically enough, violently antagonistic to Christianity as belonging to the past) clinched secular expectations about the relative values of tomorrow and yesterday.” When they sacked churches and defaced graveyards, the Jacobins were re-enacting a Christian rite in which history could be stopped and purified of sin, then begun anew.

And the Bolsheviks?

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Feb/15

19

ISIS: Looking to the North

ISISCross-posted on the Corner:

Over in the Financial Times, there’s an interesting piece on Putin’s friends abroad, but this passage in particular caught my eye:

The current Egyptian government believes that the Obama administration’s failure to support former President Hosni Mubarak, during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, revealed the US to be both duplicitous and naive.

Hold that thought, now read this (from the Daily Telegraph) (my emphasis added):

Islamic State militants are planning a takeover of Libya as a “gateway” to wage war across the whole of southern Europe, letters written by the group’s supporters have revealed. The jihadists hope to flood the north African state with militiamen from Syria and Iraq, who will then sail across the Mediterranean posing as migrants on people trafficking vessels, according to plans seen by Quilliam, the British anti-extremist group. The fighters would then run amok in southern European cities and also try to attack maritime shipping.

The document is written by an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) propagandist who is believed to be an important online recruiter for the terror in Libya, where security has collapsed in the wake of the revolution that unseated Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 . . .

[British] security officials also share Isil’s view about the possibility of using people trafficking boats to smuggle fighters into Europe. Thanks to its vast, porous desert borders with Sub-Saharan Africa, Libya has long been a key operating hub for trafficking boats heading into Europe, but numbers have escalated dramatically since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. Italy’s interior ministry estimates that at least 200,000 refugees and immigrants are poised to make the crossing from Libya to Sicily or the tiny island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost territory. Last year more than 170,000 arrived in Italy by boat, including tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the civil war in their home country. . . .

Nasser Kamel, Egypt’s ambassador to London, warned Britain brace itself for ‘boats full of terrorists’ unless action was taken in Libya. He spoke after 2,164 migrants were rescued at sea in a 24-hour period over the weekend in what has been described as an ‘exodus without precedent’.

“Those boat people who go for immigration purposes and try to cross the Mediterranean … in the next few weeks, if we do not act together, they will be boats full of terrorists also,” he said. . . .

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Isil’s leader, has since laid claim to Libya as part of his “Caliphate”. Whilst on the whole that remains more rhetoric than reality, support for the group in this war ravaged state is growing. In September, Abu Nabil, an Iraqi and key leader within Isil, travelled to the country to build support for the group. His men took control of much of Derna, a traditionally conservative city in the east of the country, that is now being run according to the extremist group’s strict Shariah law. Hundreds of Libyans who had travelled to fight alongside Isil in Syria have started to return to fight for the group on home turf, residents say. They have expanded the group’s influence into the east of the country, taking controlling of parts of Sirte, a former Gaddafi stronghold.

Barack Obama (January 7, 2014) on ISIS:

I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

And since then there has been the claim that ISIS is somehow “not Islamic.”

The term “out of his depth” comes to mind.

In this context, this lengthy, intriguing piece by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic on ISIS is very well worth your time. Its implications are terrifying.

Some extracts:

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

The millennialist temptation takes many forms, is perennial and, at its worst, very, very dangerous, but it is not something that a president wrapped up in the soft certainties of the end of history can be expected to understand.

Wood:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it….

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute . . .

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State.

The incredulity and denial are true enough, and, ironically, Wood’s history (at this point) in a sense reflects very similar thinking. Contrary to his assertion, wars of religion (even if largely unacknowledged as such) did very nicely for themselves in Europe during the last century. Both communism and Nazism were, in many respects, millennialist cults (think of that “thousand year” Reich), and, as such cults can do, they killed millions.

ISIS may well try the same.

As for ISIS attacks on southern Europe (and in the end it would not just be southern Europe), it’s important to remember that the writings of one propagandist do not necessarily translate into deeds, but . . .

As the atrocities in France and Denmark remind us, Europe’s intertwined immigration and Islamist crises are already bad enough. They may well be about to get much worse.

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Nov/14

1

“Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder”

Socorro, NM, May 95 (photo AS)Cross-posted on the Corner

Just when you think that the misery that climate change is bringing in its wake can get no worse, there is this.

Grist reports:

…From depression to substance abuse to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, growing bodies of research in the relatively new field of psychology of global warming suggest that climate change will take a pretty heavy toll on the human psyche as storms become more destructive and droughts more prolonged. For your everyday environmentalist, the emotional stress suffered by a rapidly changing Earth can result in some pretty substantial anxieties….

Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C. — and co-author of the National Wildlife Federation’s report — calls this emotional reaction “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” a term she coined to describe the mental anguish that results from preparing for the worst, before it actually happens.

There is, in my view, a perfectly reasonable case to be made that man may be contributing to the way that our ever-changing climate changes. That’s one thing, but how some choose to express their belief in that proposition can be something altogether, well let’s just say, less reasonable.

Millennialist hysteria is not, of course, a new phenomenon. But, to be fair, it’s not all that hellish for those that embrace it. I suspect that with that, um, “pre-traumatic stress disorder” comes a certain excitement too, of a girding up for the End Times, of a preparation for that definitive battle to save the planet, stave off Satan or whatever the particular apocalypse may be.

And the unbelievers just will not listen:

Grist:

What’s even more deflating for a climate scientist is when sounding the alarm on climatic catastrophes seems to fall on deaf ears.

But that too all is not all bad. The willful ignorance of those who will not pay attention to that alarm reinforces the sense of moral superiority felt by those who do. Sinners make it so much easier to be a saint.

And that sense of mission, how it burns.

Grist:

For activists like Mike Tidwell — founder of the nonprofit Chesapeake Climate Action Network and author of The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Race to Save America’s Coastal Cities — part of being on the front lines means being outspoken and passionate about the cause. But while activism may be a more forgiving platform to express emotional stresses than within the scientific community, the personal toll of the work goes largely undiscussed.

“You don’t just start talking about unbelievably fast sea-level rise at a cocktail party at a friend’s house,” Tidwell says. “So having to deny the emotional need to talk about what’s on your mind all the time … those are some of the burdens that climate aware scientists and activists have to endure….”

….Perhaps it’s time for those deeply involved in climate science to come forward about the emotional struggle, or at the very least, for those in mental health research and support to start exploring climate change psychology with more fervor. And reaching out to scientists in particular could be a huge opportunity to better explore the world of climate psych, says psychosocial researcher and consultant Renee Lertzman.

“There’s a taboo talking about it,” Lertzman says, adding that the tight-lipped culture of the scientific community can be difficult to bridge. “We’re just starting to piece that together. The field of the psychology of climate change is still very, very young … I believe there are profound and not well-recognized or understood psychological implications of what I would call being a frontliner. There needs to be a lot more attention given to frontliners and where they’re given support.”

“The field of the psychology of climate change” is “very, very young”? I don’t think so.

The chosen, the elect, the saved, the righteous, the “frontliners”.

It’s a very, very old story, but with a new script.

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Aug/14

31

Marx and the Millennium

VDNKh, Moscow, Feb 91 (AS)Over at Mises, they have posted a long (very long) examination by the late (and, in my view, often profoundly misguided) Murray Rothbard demonstrating how Marxism fits into a much older millennialist tradition. The piece is something of a struggle to work through, but it yielded a good number of gems (including the quote from Alexander Gray that I posted yesterday) as well as some highly perceptive insights into what remains an important and (at least in the popular understanding of what Marxism is) overlooked topic.

A part of what attracts people to the apocalyptic is the whole drama of it—the exciting thought that they are living in the End Times—and the egotism too: they are a key part of it.

Rothbard:

In this allegedly inevitable process of arriving at the proletarian communist utopia after the proletarian class becomes conscious of its true nature, what is supposed to be Karl Marx’s own role? In Hegelian theory, Hegel himself is the final and greatest world-historical figure, the Man-God of man-gods. Similarly, Marx in his own view stands at a focal point of history as the man who brought to the world the crucial knowledge of man’s true nature and of the laws of history, thereby serving as the “midwife” of the process that would put an end to history. Thus Molnar wrote,

“Like other utopian and gnostic writers, Marx is much less interested in the stages of history up to the present (the egotistic now of all utopian writers) than the final stages when the stuff of time becomes more concentrated, when the drama approaches its denouement. In fact, the utopian writer conceives of history as a process leading to himself since he, the ultimate comprehensor, stands in the center of history. It is natural that things accelerate during his own lifetime and come to a watershed: he looms large between the Before and the After.”

Towards the end, Rothbard introduces us (or me anyway) to the remarkable figure of Ernst Bloch:

A blend of Christian messianist and devoted Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist, the 20th-century German Marxist Ernst Bloch set forth his vision in his recently translated three-volume phantasmagoria The Principle of Hope (Daz Prinzip Hoffung).

Early in his career, Bloch wrote a laudatory study of the views and life of the coercive, Anabaptist communist, Thomas Müntzer, whom he hailed as magical, or “theurgic.” The inner “truth” of things, wrote Bloch, will only be discovered after “a complete transformation of the universe, a grand apocalypse, the descent of the Messiah, a new heaven and a new earth.”

There is more than a hint in Bloch that disease, nay death itself, will be abolished upon the advent of communism. God is developing; “God himself is part of the Utopia, a finality that is still unrealized.” For Bloch, mystical ecstasies and the worship of Lenin and Stalin went hand in hand. As J. P. Stern writes, Bloch’s Principle of Hope contains such remarkable declarations as “Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem” [Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem], and that “the Bolshevist fulfillment of Communism” is part of “the age-old fight for God.”

I note that this truest of believers eventually left East Germany to settle in the West. Socialism was evidently too much to take.

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Aug/14

30

Marx as Prophet

Sverdlov Sq, Moscow, Feb 91 (AS)From Alexander Gray’s The Socialist Tradition (1946):

“Marx, it has been said, was a prophet … and perhaps this suggestion provides the best approach. One does not apply to Jeremiah or Ezekiel the tests to which less-inspired men are subjected. Perhaps the mistake the world and most of the critics have made is just that they have not sufficiently regarded Marx as a prophet — a man above logic, uttering cryptic and incomprehensible words, which every man may interpret as he chooses.”

H/t: Mises.org

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Nov/09

27

The Church of Climate Change?

Heather, in the course of your (fine) post on Syncopation and Thanksgiving, you reject the notion “that global warming theory represents some atavistic religious impulse.” In one sense, of course, you are quite right to do so. The idea that we might be seeing evidence (the current rather tricky pause notwithstanding) of anthropogenic global warming is a not unreasonable scientific hypothesis. And it deserves to be taken seriously.

The theory is one thing, but the creed is another. Many proponents of the premise that AGW is real have chosen to pitch their ideas, and many of their followers have chosen to believe them, in ways that rely on faith more than reason, and which do indeed look very much like a religion, complete with notions of sinners and the righteous, elaborate displays of self-abasement and moral preening, and, of course, the thrill of the End Times. Needless to say, it’s yet another reminder of how widespread a human characteristic religious belief really is.

Of course the Warmergate scandal-with its intriguing suggestions of sharp practice within AGW’s ‘priesthood’-only underlines the similarities of this new cult with the more established religions so indulgently cheering it on.

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Nov/09

14

The Bells, The Bells

Given the extraordinary record of success that Christianity’s various sects have shown in predicting the arrival of the apocalypse, this story made me laugh:

GENEVA — The World Council of Churches on Thursday called on churches around the world to ring their bells 350 times during the Copenhagen climate change summit on December 13 as a call to action on global warming.The leading council of Christian and Orthodox churches also invited places of worship for other faiths to join a symbolic “chain of chimes and prayers” stretching around the world from the international date line in the South Pacific.
“On that Sunday, midway through the UN summit, the WCC invites churches around the world to use their bells, drums, gongs or whatever their tradition offers to call people to prayer and action in the face of climate change,” the council said in a statement.
“By sounding their bells or other instruments 350 times, participating churches will symbolise the 350 parts per million that mark the safe upper limit for CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere according to many scientists,” it added.
The chimes are meant to start at 3.00 pm local time in each location. The WCC brings together 348 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican churches representing about 560 million Christians in 110 countries. The Council of European Bishops Conferences, which gathers Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops, is also supporting the campaign, according to a letter released by the WCC.

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Well, the practical effects of this judgment may be absurd but it does, at least, have the virtue of honesty:

When Rupert Dickinson, the chief executive of one of Britain’s biggest property firms, left his BlackBerry behind in London while on a business trip to Ireland, he simply ordered one of his staff to get on a plane and deliver the device to him. For Dickinson’s then head of sustainability, Tim Nicholson, the errand was much more than an executive indulgence: it embodied the contempt with which his boss treated his deep philosophical beliefs about climate change. In a significant decision today , a judge found Nicholson’s views on the environment were so deeply held that they were entitled to the same protection as religious convictions, and ruled that an employment tribunal should hear his claim that he was sacked because of his beliefs.

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