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.
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.
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.