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The One Thing that Two Big Anniversaries This Month Have in Common

Image on Right:  The Bible translated into vernacular by Martin Luther. (Wikipedia)

By one of those fortuitous coincidences of historical circumstance, which perhaps are only useful to the think-piece author in search of a lede, this month sees both the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther’s supposed nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church door, as well as the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution with the Bolshevik capture of the Winter Palace in Petrograd, and which ultimately saw the formation of the Soviet Union. When considering both the Reformation and the Russian Revolution, it might be simpler to adhere to the apocryphal sentiment attributed to Zhou Enlai when asked about what the significance of the French Revolution was – that it was still too early to tell.

Even if that is the case, I feel confident in stating that both the October Revolution and the Reformation inaugurated epochs which would fundamentally alter the political and cultural orders of their respective worlds, that they were both arguably based on certain millennial expectations, and that both ultimately initiated a sequence of violent confrontations which arguably belied the utopian promise that was at their core. A utopian promise was often wed to the expectation of perfection and that expectation’s associated illiberal intolerance. There’s Luther, who is often erroneously conflated with freedom of conscience, yet who once wrote “Whoever teaches differently from what I have taught, or whoever condemns me therein, he condemns God and must remain a child of hell.” And there’s Lenin, who said, “No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people!” Whether condemned to hell or the gulag condemnation remained the common thread.

I am aware that I tread on dangerous ground here. I am not making the case of any sort of direct causal relationship between the Reformation and the October Revolution; I am not arguing that the anti-clerical positions of both reformers and revolutionaries are linked through a chain of influence. But I do heed the arguments of the late British scholar Norman Cohn, one of the great historians of the twentieth-century, and though a figure held in reverence one who is too often name-checked rather than fully considered.

As a thinker, Cohn can be classified with those other great mid-century historians who analyzed similar terrain, people like Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson. Yet as invaluable as the work of the latter two is, their own Marxism sometimes blinds them to the theological elements which bolstered their own politics, preferring to sometimes interpret past millennial movements not as religion but rather as class politics by other means. But for Cohn, a scholar of medieval and early modern religious movements, Marxism was a “prophetic system,” which is to say that it is a fundamentally theological and totalizing model for understanding reality, one that like all fervently millennial faiths was capable of boundless optimism for remaking the world and also tremendous violence in that remaking.

Cohn’s 1957 classic The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages analyzed the rhetoric and activities of radical religious groups with names like the Joachimites, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and the Taborites. Written in the aftermath of what was arguably the closest to an actual apocalyptic war humanity has ever fought, Cohn was interested in tracing the connections between irrational religious enthusiasms in the pre-modern era and contemporary totalitarianism. Cohn was a classical conservative in the Burkean mode, with an allegiance to skepticism of utopianism one of his defining intellectual features (more so than any adherence to a positive prescription for political action). In Cohn’s estimation, the defining feature of a cognoscente political analysis wasn’t whether an ideology was of the left or right, but rather in what manner did subsumed religious enthusiasms manifest themselves within that position?

Cohn traced the presence of disruptive apocalyptic sects within medieval Catholicism, and then the ultimate migration of millennialism (or chiliasm as he also calls it) to various revolutionary Protestant denominations, such as the Anabaptists. Not for nothing, the Anabaptist leader of the early sixteenth-century Peasants’ Rebellion, Thomas Müntzer, would find himself printed on East German Deutschmarks. The similarities aren’t absurd; after all, Lenin wrote: “We want to achieve a new and better order of society: in this new and better society there must be neither rich nor poor; all will have to work.” And Müntzer wrote: “ ‘All property should be held in common’ and should be distributed to each according to his needs, as the occasion required.”

While Marxist theorists wanted to claim Müntzer as a type of proto-communist who simply used scriptural language to appeal to an ignorant peasantry in need or proletarian revolution, Cohn cannily argued that they actually had it backwards. Apocalyptic religion, which fully came into fruition in part because of the Reformation, was not working class politics disguised as religion; rather Marxism and Bolshevism are religions disguised as politics, indeed as all totalizing political systems (of either the left or right) are as well. In examining a group like the radical, apocalyptic Franciscans associated with the twelfth-century Italian mystic and self-proclaimed prophet Joachim of Fiore, Cohn explained that the now obscure group were actually the most influential prophetic system “known to Europe until the appearance of Marxism,” which of course requires assuming that Marxism is itself a religion.

But not just Marxism. Cohn examined the ideological similarities between that sect and other ostensibly secular modern systems, including fascism. Joachim conceived of history as being organized on a tripartite structure based on the Trinity, with there being an Age of the Father associated with the covenant of law and the Old Testament, an Age of the Son associated with the covenant of grace and the New Testament, and a coming Age of the Spirit which would see all laws erased in a spirit of antinomian, anarchic possibility. Joachim’s anarchism is wide ranging, and Cohn understood that such a relativist assault on the idea of law, truth, reason and so on might contain liberatory potential, but more often than not also contained the latent possibility of modern totalitarianism. And as exotic as the Joachimites may seem, there are shades of it in not just the more radical reformers like Müntzer, but indeed at the core of the mainstream, magisterial Reformation as well, with Luther once intoning “The Law continues to exist and to function. But it no longer exists for me.” Cohn sees connections between this type of antinomianism to the “Marxian dialectic of the three stages of primitive communism, class society and a final communism which is to be the realm of freedom.” But he also sees traces of Joachiam of Fiore in “the phrase ‘the Third Reich’… the phantasy of a third and most glorious dispensation.”

One of the great strengths of Cohn, whose political conservatism it should be said I do not share, is that his methodological analysis can apply equally well to totalitarianism of the right or left. Cohn’s conservatism was of that admirable British variety associated with Burke or Oakeshott, more of a humbled skepticism about humanity’s ability to transform the world and a wariness of those who claim they can. This type of conservatism – regardless of what “conservatives” themselves might claim – has never really vibrantly existed within the United States, a consummately revolutionary and millennial culture. And it certainly doesn’t exist today, where the Republican Party has seemingly been transformed into a type of millennial death cult, the exact sort of nihilistic, chiliastic movement which Cohn would have warned about. But where Cohn’s analysis can fall short is precisely in his caution, in his conservatism. Not just in being hesitant to making certain conclusions about just how wide-reaching subconscious religious sentiment is in contemporary politics, but denying that his (and in fact all) positions must at their core also be theological.

That’s because not just Marxism and fascism, but all secular politics is basically a type of sublimated theological belief. No ideology, even “secularism,” is wholly devoid of its origins in some sort of transcendent, ineffable, theological conception. Scholars often speak of the concept of “political theology,” but that is a redundancy; at their center all politics is theological. It might be easy to think of neo-liberalism, the dominant ideology of our rapidly ending current era, with its adherence to free markets, technocratic rationality, and gauzy social liberalism as being defined exactly by not being theological, not being extreme or millennial, but that’s all the more evidence that it’s simply the dominant (yet dying) faith of our moment. Medieval Catholicism was a dominant faith challenged by the fiery hotness of Protestantism, just as the dying embers of aristocratic feudalism were challenged by the Russian revolutionaries. Dominant faiths never think that they’re faiths, it’s only in the ruptures and challenges of the passionate upstarts with their terrible intensity that we’re able to identify all of these systems for precisely what they are – religions.

Scholar Adam Kotsko explains that as concerns neo-liberalism, to “its advocates, it is not a particular ideology, it’s just common-sense policy making,” and yet he argues that the system is “the most coherent and self-reinforcing political theology ever devised” so that it “paradoxically becomes difficult to recognize it as a form of political theology.” Much in the same way that people in the medieval Church simply thought their way or organizing society was simply how it is, or the Russian boyars viewed their system as how it is, the neo-liberal consensus views our current system as how it always shall be. Think of Francis Fukuyama’s risible statement upon the fall of the Soviet Union, that the West had reached the “end of history.” What could be more millennial than that?

But just as Rome became dimly aware of chaos on the horizon back in 1517, and the Romanovs saw a similar darkening in 1917, so too must we admit in 2017 that neoliberalism as the faith of our world seems at an end. Theology abhors a vacuum, and new religions are slouching towards Washington to be born. What Yeats wrote a century ago, that the “worst are full of passionate intensity,” echoes forward, as it always does, as both prophecy and warning.

What makes Cohn so important and useful to us is in being able to identify, classify, categorize, and properly analyze these faiths for precisely what they are – faiths. But we must also be careful not to fall into the positivist hubris which identifies ourselves as belonging to no church; no, rather we must admit that everyone has to worship something, and pray that we find that which is worthy of our worship. In facing the new, terrifying, dizzyingly totalitarian faiths emerging on the right, we must confront them with our own new faiths, emancipatory and liberatory ones. Some on the left have begun this necessary task, but we will make no progress if we don’t admit that our political work is also precisely theological work. If we fail we stand to lose even more than just our souls.