The Secret Truth About Karl Marx and His DisciplesEconomics / Economic Theory Oct 26, 2009 - 05:38 PM GMT
The key to the intricate and massive system of thought created by Karl Marx is at bottom a simple one: Karl Marx was a communist.
A seemingly trite and banal statement set alongside Marxism's myriad of jargon-ridden concepts in philosophy, economics, and culture, yet Marx's devotion to communism was his crucial focus, far more central than the class struggle, the dialectic, the theory of surplus value, and all the rest.
Communism was the great goal, the vision, the desideratum, the ultimate end that would make the sufferings of mankind throughout history worthwhile. History was the history of suffering, of class struggle, of the exploitation of man by man. In the same way as the return of the Messiah, in Christian theology, will put an end to history and establish a new heaven and a new earth, so the establishment of communism would put an end to human history.
And just as for postmillennial Christians, man, led by God's prophets and saints, will establish a Kingdom of God on Earth (for premillennials, Jesus will have many human assistants in setting up such a kingdom), so, for Marx and other schools of communists, mankind, led by a vanguard of secular saints, will establish a secularized Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
In messianic religious movements, the millennium is invariably established by a mighty, violent upheaval, an Armageddon, a great apocalyptic war between good and evil. After this titanic conflict, a millennium, a new age of peace and harmony, of the reign of justice, will be installed upon the earth.
Marx emphatically rejected those utopian socialists who sought to arrive at communism through a gradual and evolutionary process, through a steady advancement of the good. Instead, Marx harked back to the apocalyptics, the postmillennial coercive German and Dutch Anabaptists of the 16th century, to the millennial sects during the English Civil War, and to the various groups of premillennial Christians who foresaw a bloody Armageddon at the Last Days, before the millennium could be established.
Indeed, since the apocalyptic post-mils refused to wait for a gradual goodness and sainthood to permeate mankind, they joined the pre-mils in believing that only a violent, apocalyptic, final struggle between good and evil, between saints and sinners, could usher in the millennium. Violent, worldwide revolution, in Marx's version to be made by the oppressed proletariat, would be the inevitable instrument for the advent of his millennium, communism.
In fact, Marx, like the pre-mils (or "millenarians"), went further to hold that the reign of evil on earth would reach a peak just before the apocalypse ("the darkness before the dawn"). For Marx as for the millenarians, writes Ernest Tuveson,
The evil of the world must proceed to its height before, in one great complete root-and-branch upheaval, it would be swept away.…
Millenarian pessimism about the perfectibility of the existing world is crossed by a supreme optimism. History, the millenarian believes, so operates that, when evil has reached its height, the hopeless situation will be reversed. The original, the true harmonious state of society, in some kind of egalitarian order, will be re-established.
In contrast to the various groups of utopian socialists, and in common with religious messianists, Karl Marx did not sketch the features of his future communism in any detail. It was not for Marx, for example, to spell out the number of people in his utopia, the shape and location of their houses, or the pattern of their cities. In the first place, there is a quintessentially crackpotty air to utopias that are mapped by their creators in precise detail. But of equal importance, spelling out the details of one's ideal society removes the crucial element of awe and mystery from the allegedly inevitable world of the future.
But certain features are broadly alike in all visions of communism. Private property is eliminated, individualism goes by the board, individuality is flattened, all property is owned and controlled communally, and the individual units of the new collective organism are in some way made "equal" to one another.
Marxists and scholars of Marxism have tended to overlook the centrality of communism to the entire Marxian system. In the "official" Marxism of the 1930s and 1940s, communism was slighted in favor of an allegedly "scientific" stress on the labor theory of value, the class struggle, or the materialist interpretation of history. And the Soviet Union, even before Gorbachev, grappling with the practical problems of socialism, treated the goal of communism as more of an embarrassment than anything else.
Similarly, Stalinists such as Louis Althusser dismissed the pre-1848 Marx's stress on "humanism," philosophy, and "alienation," as unscientific and pre-Marxist. On the other hand, in the 1960s it became fashionable for New Left Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse to dismiss the later "scientific economist" Marx as a rationalistic prelude to despotism and a betrayal of the earlier Marx's stress on humanism and human "freedom."
In contrast, I hold with the growing consensus in Marxist studies that, at least since 1844 and possibly earlier, there was only one Marx, and that Marx, the "humanist," established the goal that he would seek for the remainder of his life: the apocalyptic triumph of revolutionary communism. In this view, Marx's exploration later into the economics of capitalism was merely a quest for the mechanism, the "law of history," that allegedly makes such a triumph inevitable.
But in that case, it becomes vital to investigate the nature of this allegedly humanistic goal of communism, what the meaning of this "freedom" might be, and whether or not the grisly record of Marxist-Leninist regimes in the 20th century was implicit in the basic Marxian conception of freedom.
Marxism is a religious creed. This statement has been common among critics of Marx, and since Marxism is an explicit enemy of religion, such a seeming paradox would offend many Marxists, since it clearly challenged the allegedly hard-headed scientific materialism on which Marxism rested. In the present day, oddly enough, an age of liberation theology and other flirtations between Marxism and the Church, Marxists themselves are often quick to make this same proclamation.
Certainly, one obvious way in which Marxism functions as a religion is the lengths to which Marxists will go to preserve their system against obvious errors or fallacies. Thus, when Marxian predictions fail even though they are allegedly derived from scientific laws of history, Marxists go to great lengths to change the terms of the original prediction.
A notorious example is Marx's law of the impoverishment of the working class under capitalism. When it became all too clear that the standard of living of the workers under industrial capitalism was rising instead of falling, Marxists fell back on the view that what Marx "really" meant by impoverishment was not immiseration but relative deprivation. One of the problems with this fallback defense is that impoverishment is supposed to be the motor of the proletarian revolution, and it is difficult to envision the workers resorting to bloody revolution because they only enjoy one yacht apiece while capitalists enjoy five or six.
Another notorious example was the response of many Marxists to Böhm-Bawerk's conclusive demonstration that the labor theory of value could not account for the pricing of goods under capitalism. Again, the fallback response was that what Marx "really meant" was not to explain market pricing at all, but merely to assert that labor hours embed some sort of mystically inherent "values" into goods that are, however, irrelevant to the workings of the capitalist market. If this were true, then it is difficult to see why Marx labored for a great part of his life in an unsuccessful attempt to complete Capital and to solve the value-price problem.
Perhaps the most appropriate commentary on the frantic defenders of Marx's value theory is that of the ever witty and delightful Alexander Gray, who also touches on another aspect of Marx as religious prophet:
To witness Böhm-Bawerk or Mr. [H. W. B.] Joseph carving up Marx is but a pedestrian pleasure; for these are but pedestrian writers, who are so pedestrian as to clutch at the plain meaning of words, not realising that what Marx really meant has no necessary connection with what Marx undeniably said. To witness Marx surrounded by his friends is, however, a joy of an entirely different order. For it is fairly clear that none of them really knows what Marx really meant; they are even in considerable doubt as to what he was talking about; there are hints that Marx himself did not know what he was doing.
In particular, there is no one to tell us what Marx thought he meant by "value." Capital is, in one sense, a three-volume treatise, expounding a theory of value and its manifold applications. Yet Marx never condescends to say what he means by "value," which accordingly is what anyone cares to make it as he follows the unfolding scroll from 1867 to 1894.…
Are we concerned with Wissenschaft, slogans, myths, or incantations? 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.
But the nature of Marxism as religion cuts deeper than the follies and evasions of Marxists or the cryptic and often unintelligible nature of Marxian writings. For it is the contention of this article that the crucial goal – communism – is an atheized version of a certain type of religious eschatology; that the alleged inevitable process of getting there – the dialectic – is an atheistic form of the same religious laws of history; and that the supposedly central problem of capitalism as perceived by "humanist" Marxists, the problem of "alienation," is an atheistic version of the selfsame religion's metaphysical grievance at the entire created universe.
As far as I know, there is no commonly-agreed-upon name to designate this fatefully influential religion. One name is "process theology," but I shall rather call it "reabsorption theology," for the word "reabsorption" highlights the allegedly inevitable end point of human history as well as its supposed starting point in a precreation union with God.
As Leszek Kolakowski points out in his monumental work on Marxism, reabsorption theology begins with the 3rd-century Greek philosopher Plotinus, and moves from Plotinus to some of the Christian Platonists, where it takes its place as a Christian heresy. That heresy tends to bubble up repeatedly from beneath the surface in the works of such Christian mystics as the 19th-century philosopher John Scotus Erigena and the 14th-century Meister Johannes Eckhart.
The nature and profound implications of reabsorption theology may best be grasped by contrasting this heresy to Christian orthodoxy. We begin at the beginning – with creatology, the science or discipline of the first days. Why did God create the universe? The orthodox Christian answer is that God created the universe out of a benevolent and overflowing love for his creatures. Creation was therefore good and wondrous.
The fly in the ointment was introduced by man's disobedience to God's laws, for which sin he was cast out of Eden. Out of this Fall he can be redeemed by the Incarnation of God in human flesh and the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Note that the Fall was a moral one, and that creation itself remains metaphysically good. Note, too, that in orthodox Christianity, each human individual, made in the image of God, is of supreme importance, and each individual's salvation becomes of critical concern.
Reabsorption theology, however, originates in a very different creatology. One of its crucial tenets is that, before creation, man – obviously the collective-species man and not each individual – existed in happy union, in some sort of mighty cosmic blob, united with God and even with nature. In the Christian view, God, unlike man, is perfect, and therefore does not, like man, perform actions in order to improve his lot. But for the reabsorptionists, God acts analogously with humans: God acts out of what Mises called "felt uneasiness," out of dissatisfaction with his current lot. God, in other words, creates the universe out of loneliness, dissatisfaction, or, generally, in order to develop his undeveloped faculties. God creates the universe out of felt need.
In the reabsorptionist view, creation, instead of being wondrous and good, is essentially and metaphysically evil. For it generates diversity, individuality, and separateness, and thereby cuts off man from his beloved cosmic union with God. Man is now permanently "alienated" from God, the fundamental alienation; and also from other men, and from nature.
It is this cosmic metaphysical separateness that lies at the heart of the Marxian concept of "alienation," and not, as we might now think, personal griping about not controlling the operation of one's factory, or about lack of access to wealth or political power. Alienation is a cosmic condition and not a psychological complaint. For the reabsorptionists, the crucial problems of the world come not from moral failure but from the essential nature of creation itself.
Buddhism and various pantheistic religions, as well as many mystics, offer one partial way out for this cosmic alienation. To such pantheists, God-Man-and-Nature are and continue to be one, and individual men can recapture that desired unity by various forms of training until Nirvana (nothingness) has been achieved and the individual ego has been – at least temporarily – obliterated.
But the way out offered by the reabsorptionists is different. First, it is a way offered only to man-as-species and not to any particular individual; and second, the way is a religiously determined and inevitable law of history. For there is one good aspect of creation for the reabsorptionists: that God and man each get to fulfill their faculties and expand their respective potentials through history. In fact, history is a process by which these potentials are fulfilled, in which God and man both perfect themselves.
Then, finally – and here we come to eschatology, the science of the Last Days – there will eventually be a mighty reunion, a reabsorption, in which man and God are at last not only reunited, but reunited on a higher, on a perfected level. The two cosmic blobs – God and man (and presumably nature too) – now meet and merge on a more exalted level. The painful state of creation is now over, alienation is at last ended, and man returns Home to be on a higher, postcreation level. History, and the world, have come to an end.
A crucial feature of reabsorption is that all this "perfecting" and "reuniting" obviously takes place only on a species-collectivist level. The individual man is nothing, a mere cell in the great, collective-organism man; only in that way can we say that "man" progresses or fulfills "himself" over the centuries, suffers alienation from "his" precreation state, and finally "returns" to unity with God on a higher level. The relation to the Marxian goal of communism is already becoming clear; the "alienation" eliminated by the inevitable communist end of history is that of the collective-species man, each man being finally united with other men and with nature (which, for Marx, was "created" by the collective-species man, who thereby replaces God as the creator).
I shall deal later with communism as the goal of history. Here we focus on the process by which all these events must take place, and necessarily take place. First, there is the precreation cosmic blob. Out of this blob there then arises a very different state of affairs: a created universe, with God, individual men, and nature each existing.
Here are the origins of the magical Hegelian-Marxian "dialectic": one state of affairs somehow gives rise to a contrasting state. In the German language, Hegel, the master of the concept of the dialectic, used the crucial term aufhebung, a "lifting up," which is ambiguous enough to encompass this sudden shift into a very different state, this lifting up which is at one and the same time a preserving, a transcending, and a creating a stark contrast to, the original condition. The standard English translation for this process in Hegel and Marx is "negating," but such translation makes the theory even more absurd than it really is – probably "transcending" would be a better term.
Thus, as usual, the dialectic consists of three stages. Stage One is the original state of the precreation cosmic blob, with man and God in happy and harmonious unity, but each rather undeveloped. Then, the magic dialectic does its work, Stage Two occurs, and God creates man and the universe. But then, finally, when the development of man and God is completed, Stage Two creates its own aufhebung, its transcendence into its opposite or negation: in short, Stage Three, the reunion of God and man in an "ecstasy of union," and the end of history.
The dialectical process by which one state of affairs gives rise to a very different state, if not its opposite, is, for the reabsorptionists, a mystical though inevitable development. There was no need for them to explain the mechanism. Indeed, particularly influential for Hegel and later reabsorptionist thinkers was one of the later Christian mystics in this tradition: the early 17th-century German cobbler Jakob Böhme. Pantheizing the dialectic, Böhme declared that it was not God's will but some primal force that launched the cosmic dialectic of creation and history.
How, Böhme asked, did the world of precreation transcend itself into creation? Before creation, he answered, there was a primal source, an eternal unity, an undifferentiated, indistinct, literal Nothing [Ungrund]. Oddly enough, this Nothing possessed within itself an inner striving, a nisus, a drive for self-realization. That drive, Böhme asserted, gave rise to its opposite, the Will, the interaction of which with nisus transformed the Nothing into the Something of the created universe.
Heavily influenced by Jakob Böhme was the mystical English communist, Gerrard Winstanley, founder of the Digger sect during the English Civil War. Son of a textile merchant who had failed in the cloth business and then had sunk to the status of agricultural laborer, Winstanley, in early 1649, had a mystical vision of the ideal communist world of the future. Originally, according to this vision, a version of God had created the universe; but the spirit of "selfishness," the Devil itself, had entered into man and brought about private property and a market economy.
The curse of the self, opined Winstanley, was "the beginner of particular interest," or private property, with men buying and selling and saying, "This is mine." The end of original communism and its breakup into private property meant that universal liberty was gone, and creation brought "under the curse of bondage, sorrow, and tears." In England, Winstanley absurdly held, property had been communist until the Norman Conquest of 1066, which created the institution of private property.
But soon, declared Winstanley, universal "love" would eliminate private property, and would thus restore the earth to "a common property as it was in the beginning … making the earth one storehouse, and every man and woman to live … as members of one household." This communism and absolute equality of possessions would thus bring to the world the millennium, "a new heaven, and a new earth."
At first, Winstanley believed that little or no coercion would be necessary for establishing and maintaining his communist society. Soon, however, he realized, in the completed draft of his utopia, that all wage labor and all commerce would have to be prohibited on the penalty of death. Winstanley was quite willing to go this far with his program. Everyone was to contribute to, and take from, the common storehouse, and the death penalty was to be levied on all use of money, and on any buying or selling. The "sin" of idleness would of course be combated by forced labor for the benefit of the communist community.
This all-encompassing stress on the executioner makes particularly grisly the declaration of Winstanley that "all punishments that are to be inflicted … are only such as to make the offender … to live in the community of the righteous law of love one with another." Education in "love" was to be insured by free and compulsory schooling conducted by the state, mainly in useful crafts rather than in liberal arts, as well as by "ministers" elected by the public to preach secular sermons upholding the new system.
Hegel as Pantheist Reabsorptionist
Everyone knows that Marx was essentially a Hegelian in philosophy, but the precise scope of Hegel's influence on Marx is less well understood. Hegel's dubious accomplishment was to completely pantheize reabsorption theology. It is little realized that Hegel was only one, although the most elaborate and hypertrophic, of a host of writers who constituted the highly influential Romantic movement in Germany and England at the end of the 18th and during the first half of the 19th centuries.
Hegel was a theology student at the University of Tübingen, and many of his fellow Romantics, friends and colleagues, such as Schelling, Schiller, Holderlin, and Fichte, began as theology students, many of them at Tübingen.
The Romantic twist to the reabsorption story was to proclaim that God is in reality man. Man, or rather the Man-God, created the universe. But man's imperfection, his flaw, lay in his failure to realize that he is God. The Man-God begins his life in history unconscious of the vital fact that he is God. He is alienated, cut off from the crucial knowledge that he and God are one, that he created, and continues to empower, the universe.
History, then, is the inevitable process by which the Man-God develops his faculties, fulfills his potential, and advances his knowledge, until that blissful day when man acquires Absolute Knowledge, that is, the full knowledge and realization that he is God. At that point, the Man-God finally reaches his potential, becomes an infinite being without bounds, and thereby puts an end to history. The dialectic of history occurs, again, in three fundamental stages: the precreation stage; the postcreation stage of development with alienation; and the final reabsorption into the state of infinity and absolute self-knowledge, which culminates, and puts an end to, the historical process.
Why, then, did Hegel's Man-God (also termed by Hegel the "world-self" or "world-spirit" [Weltgeist]) create the universe? Not out of benevolence, but out of a felt need to become conscious of itself as a world-self. This process of growing consciousness is achieved through the creative activity by which the world-self externalizes itself. First, this externalization occurs by the Man-God creating nature, and next, by a continuing self-externalization through human history.
By building civilization, man increases the knowledge of his own divinity; in that way, through history man gradually puts an end to his own "self-alienation," which for Hegel was ipso facto the alienation of man from God. Crucial to Hegelian doctrine is that man is alienated, and he perceives the world as hostile, because it is not himself. All these conflicts are finally resolved when man realizes at long last that the world really is himself.
But why is Hegel's man so odd and neurotic that he regards everything that is not himself as alien and hostile? The answer is central to the Hegelian mystique. It is because Hegel, or Hegel's man, cannot stand the idea of himself not being God, and therefore not being of infinite space and without boundary or limit. Seeing any other being or any other object exist would imply that he himself is not infinite or divine. In short, Hegel's philosophy constitutes solipsistic megalomania on a grand and cosmic scale. Professor Robert C. Tucker describes the situation with characteristic acuity:
For Hegel alienation is finitude, and finitude in turn is bondage. The experience of self-estrangement in the presence of an apparent objective world is an experience of enslavement.… Spirit, when confronted with an object or "other," is ipso facto aware of itself as merely finite being … as extending only so far and no farther. The object is, therefore, a "limit" (Grenze). And a limit, since it contradicts spirit's notion of itself as absolute being, i.e., being-without-limit, is necessarily apprehended as a "barrier" or "fetter" (Schranke).… In its confrontation with an apparent object, spirit feels imprisoned in limitation. It experiences what Hegel calls the "sorrow of finitude." …
In Hegel's quite unique conception of it, freedom means the consciousness of self as unbounded; it is the absence of a limiting object or non-self.…
Accordingly, the growth of spirit's self-knowledge in history is alternatively describable as a progress of the consciousness of freedom.
Hegel's dialectic of history did not simply have three stages; history moved forward in a series of stages, each one of which was moved forward dramatically by a process of aufhebung. It is evident that the "man" who creates the world, who advances his "self"-knowledge, and who finally "returns" "Home" in an ecstasy of self-knowledge is not puny individual man, but man as collective species. But, for Hegel, each stage of advance is propelled by great individuals, "world-historical" men, who embody the attributes of the Absolute more than others, and act as significant agents of the next aufhebung, the lifting up of the Man-God or "world-soul's" next great advance into "self-knowledge."
Thus, at a time when most patriotic Prussians were reacting violently against Napoleon's imperial conquests, and mobilizing their forces against him, Hegel wrote to a friend in ecstasy about having seen Napoleon, "the Emperor – this world-soul," riding down the street; for Napoleon, even if unconsciously, was pursuing the world-historical mission of bringing a strong Prussian State into being.
It is interesting that Hegel got his idea of the "cunning of Reason," of great individuals acting as unconscious agents of the world-soul through history, by perusing the works of the Rev. Adam Ferguson, whose phrase about events being "the product of human action but not of human design," has been so influential in the thought of F. A. Hayek and his disciples. In the economic realm, as well, Hegel learned of the alleged misery of alienation in separation – that is, specialization and the division of labor – from Ferguson himself through Friedrich Schiller and from Ferguson's good friend, Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations.
It is easy to see how the reabsorptionist-Hegelian doctrine of unity-good, separation-bad helped form the Marxian goal of communism, the end state of history in which the individual is totally absorbed into the collective, thus attaining the state of true collective-man "freedom." But there are also more particular influences. Thus, the Marxian idea of early or primitive communism, happy and integrated though undeveloped, and then burst apart by rapacious, alienating if developing capitalism, was prefigured by Hegel's historical outlook.
Following his friend and mentor the Romantic writer Friedrich Schiller, Hegel, in an article written in 1795, lauded the alleged homogeneity, harmony, and unity of ancient Greece, supposedly free of the alienating division of labor. The consequent aufhebung, though leading to the growth of commerce, living standards, and individualism, also destroyed the wonderful unity of Greece, and radically fragmented man. To Hegel, the next inevitable stage of history would reintegrate man and the State.
The State was critical for Hegel. Again foreshadowing Marx, it is now particularly important for man – the collective organism – to surmount unconscious, blind fate, and "consciously" take control of it by means of the State.
Hegel was quite insistent that, in order for the State to fulfill its vital function it must be guided by a comprehensive philosophy, and indeed by a Great Philosopher, to give its mighty rule the necessary coherence. Otherwise, as Professor Plant explains, "such a state, devoid of philosophical comprehension, would appear as a merely arbitrary and oppressive imposition of the freedom of individuals." But, on the contrary, if armed with Hegelian philosophy and with Hegel himself as its great leader, "this alien aspect of the progressive modern state would disappear and would be seen not as an imposition but a development of self-consciousness."
Armed, then, with such a philosophy and such a philosopher, the modern, especially the modern Prussian, State could take its divinely appointed stand at the apex of human history and civilization, as God on earth. Thus, "The modern State … when comprehended philosophically, could therefore be seen as the highest articulation of Spirit, or God in the contemporary world." The State, then, is "a supreme manifestation of the activity of God in the world"; "The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth"; "The State is the march of God through the world"; "The State is the actually existing, realized moral life"; the "State is the reality of the kingdom of heaven." And finally, "The State is God's Will."
For Hegel, of all the various forms of State, monarchy – as in contemporary Prussia – is best, since it permits all its subjects to be "free" (in the Hegelian sense) by submerging their being into the divine substance, which is the authoritarian, monarchial State. The people are only "free" as insignificant particles of this divine substance. As Tucker writes,
Hegel's conception of freedom is totalitarian in a literal sense of the word. The world-self must experience itself as the totality of being, or in Hegel's own words must elevate itself to a "self-comprehending totality," in order to achieve the consciousness of freedom.
Every determinist creed thoughtfully provides an escape hatch for the determinist himself, so that he can rise above the determining factors, expound his philosophy and convince his fellowmen. Hegel was no exception, but his was unquestionably the most grandiose of all escape hatches. For of all the world-historical figures, those embodiments of the Man-God, who are called on to bring on the next stage of the dialectic, who can be greater, more in tune with the divinity, than the Great Philosopher himself, who has brought us the knowledge of this entire process, and thereby was able to himself complete man's final comprehension of the Absolute and of man's all-encompassing divinity?
And isn't the great creator of the crucial philosophy about man and the universe in a deep sense greater than the philosophy itself? And therefore, if the species man is God, isn't he, the great Hegel, in a profound sense God of Gods?
Finally, as luck and the dialectic would have it, Hegel was just in time to take his place as the Great Philosopher in the greatest, the noblest, and most developed authoritarian State in the history of the world: the existing Prussian monarchy of King Friedrich Wilhelm III. If the king would only accept his world-historical mission, Hegel, arm in arm with the king, would then usher in the final culminating self-knowledge of the Absolute Man-God. Together, Hegel, aided by the king, would bring an end to human history.
For his part, King Friedrich Wilhelm III was all too ready to play his divinely appointed role. When the reactionary powers took over Prussia in 1815, they needed an official philosopher to call on Prussian subjects to worship the State, and thereby to combat the French Revolutionary ideals of individualism, liberty, reason, and natural rights. Hegel was brought to the great new University of Berlin in 1818 to become the official philosopher of that academic monument to the authoritarian Prussian State.
While highly influential in Prussia and the Protestant sectors of Germany, Hegelianism was also akin to, and influential upon, the Romantic writers in England. Virtually all of Wordsworth's poetic output was designed to set forth what he called a "high Romantic argument," designed to transcend and counteract Milton's "heroic" or "great" argument expounding the orthodox Christian eschatology, in which man, as individual men, will either return to Paradise or be consigned to Hell upon the Second Advent of Jesus Christ. To this "argument," Wordsworth counterposed his own pantheist vision of the upward spiral of history in which man, as species, inevitably returns home from his cosmic alienation.
Also dedicated to the Wordsworthian vision were Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. It is instructive that all of these men were Christian heretics, converts from explicitly Christian theology: Wordsworth had been trained to be an Anglican priest; Coleridge had been a lay preacher, and was steeped in neo-Platonism and the mystical works of Jakob Böhme; and Shelley had been absorbed in the study of the Bible.
Finally, the tempestuous, conservative, statist British writer, Thomas Carlyle, paid tribute to Hegel's mentor Friedrich Schiller by writing a biography of Schiller in 1825. From then on, Carlyle's influential writings were to be steeped in the Hegelian vision. Unity is good, diversity and separateness is evil and diseased; science as well as individualism constitutes division and dismemberment.
Selfhood, Carlyle ranted, is alienation from nature, from others, and from oneself. But one day, Carlyle prophesied, the breakthrough, the world's spiritual rebirth, will arrive, led by world-historical figures ("great men"), through which man will return home to a friendly world by means of the utter "annihilation of self" (Selbst-todtung).
Finally, in Past and Present (1843), Carlyle applied his profoundly anti-individualist vision to economic affairs. He denounced egoism, material greed, and laissez-faire, which, by fostering man's severance from others, had led to a world "which has become a lifeless other, and in severance also from other human beings within a social order in which 'cash payment is … the sole nexus of man with man.'" In opposition to this evil "cash nexus" lay the familial relation with nature and fellowmen, the relation of "love." The stage was set for Karl Marx.
Communism as the Kingdom of God on Earth: From Joachim to Müntzer
So far we have dealt with reabsorption theology as a crucial forerunner of Marx's religious, eschatological communism. But there is another important strand sometimes woven in with the first, fused into his eschatological vision: messianic millennialism, or chiliasm, the establishing of a communist Kingdom of God on Earth.
Throughout its history, Christianity has had to confront the question of the millennium: the thousand-year reign of God on earth. Particularly in such murky parts of the Bible as the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation, there are suggestions of such a millennial Kingdom of God on Earth before the final Day of Judgment and the end of human history.
The orthodox Christian line was set by the great Saint Augustine in the early 5th century, and has been accepted ever since by the mainstream Christian churches: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and arguably by Calvin and at least by the Dutch wing of the Calvinist church. That orthodox line holds that the millennial Kingdom of God on Earth [KGE] is strictly a metaphor for the Christian Church, which reigns on earth only in the spiritual sense. The material realization of the Kingdom of God will only arrive upon the Day of Judgment and is therefore to be confined to heaven alone.
Orthodox Christians have always warned that taking the KGE literally, what the late orthodox-Christian theorist Eric Voegelin called "immanentizing the eschaton" – bringing the eschaton down to earth – is bound to create grave social problems.
For one thing, most versions of how the KGE will come into being are apocalyptic. The KGE is to be preceded by a mighty Armageddon, a titanic war of good against evil, in which the good will finally, though inevitably, triumph.
One reason for the apocalypse is a fundamental problem faced by all KGE theorists. The KGE, by definition, will consist of a society of saints, of perfect people. But if this is true, what has become of the host of human sinners, of whom alas there are legion? In order to establish the KGE there must first be some sort of mighty apocalyptic purge of the sinners to clear the ground for the society of saints.
"Premillennial" and "postmillennial" variants of apocalyptics accomplish this task in different ways. The pre-mils, who believe that Jesus's Second Advent will precede the KGE, and that Jesus will run the Kingdom with the cadre of saints at his right hand, achieve the purge by a divinely determined Armageddon between God's forces and the forces of the Beast and the Antichrist. The post-mils, who believe that man must establish the KGE as a precondition of Jesus's Second Coming, have to take matters more directly in their own hands and accomplish the great purge on their own.
Thus, one disturbing aspect of the KGE is the preparatory purgation of the host of human sinners. A second problem is what the KGE is going to look like. As we might imagine, KGE theorists have been extremely cloudy about the nature of their perfect society, but one troublesome feature is that, to the extent that we know its operations at all, the KGE is almost always depicted as a communist society, lacking work, private property, or the division of labor. In short, something like the Marxian communist utopia, except run by a cadre, not of the vanguard of the proletariat, but of theocratic saints.
Any communist system faces the problem of production: who would have the incentive to produce for the communal storehouse, and how would this work and its products be allocated? The first, and most highly influential, communist Christian heretic was the late 12th-century Calabrian abbot and hermit, Joachim of Fiore.
Joachim, who almost managed to convert three popes to his heresy, adopted the thesis that there are destined to be in history, not just two Ages (pre- and post-Christian) as orthodox Christians believe, but a Third Age aborning, of which he was the prophet. The pre-Christian era was the age of the Father, of the Old Testament; the Christian era the age of the Son, the New Testament. And now arrives the third apocalyptic age of the Holy Spirit, to be ushered in during the next half-century, an age of pure love and freedom, in which history was to come to an end. The Church, the Bible, and the State would be swept away, and man would live in a free, communist community without work or property.
Joachim dispensed with the problem of production and allocation under communism very neatly and effectively, more so than any communist successor. In the Third Age, he declared, man's material body will disappear, and man will be pure spirit, free to spend all of his days in mystical ecstasy chanting praises to God for a thousand years until the Day of Judgment. Without physical bodies, there is of course precious little need for production.
For Joachim, the path to this kingdom of pure spirit would be blazed by a new order of highly spiritual monks, from whom would come 12 patriarchs headed by a supreme teacher, who would convert the Jews to Christianity as foretold in the book of Revelation. For a blazing three and a half years a secular king, the Antichrist, would crush and destroy the corrupt Christian Church, after which the Antichrist would be overthrown by the new monastic order, who would promptly establish the millennial age of the Spirit. It is no wonder that a rigorist wing of the Franciscan order, which was to emerge during the first half of the 13th century, and be dedicated to material poverty, should see themselves as the coming Joachimite cadre.
At the same period, the Amaurians, led by a group of theology students of Amalric at the University of Paris, carried on the Joachimite doctrine of the three Ages, and added an interesting twist: each age, they declared, has enjoyed its own Incarnation. In the age of the Old Testament, the divine Incarnation settled in Abraham and perhaps some other patriarchs; for the New Testament age, the Incarnation was of course Jesus; and now, for the dawning Age of the Holy Spirit, the Incarnation would emerge among the various human beings themselves.
As might be expected, the Amaurian cadre proclaimed themselves to be living gods, the Incarnation of the Holy Spirit. Not that they would always remain a divine elite, among men; on the contrary, they were destined to be the vanguard, leading mankind to its universal Incarnation.
During the following century, a congeries of groups throughout northern Europe known as the Brethren of the Free Spirit added another important ingredient to this brew: the mystical dialectic of the "reabsorption into God." But the brethren added their own elitist twist: while the reabsorption of all men must await the end of history, and the mass of the "crude in spirit" must meanwhile meet their individual deaths, there was a glorious minority, the "subtle in spirit," who could and did become reabsorbed and therefore living gods during their lifetime.
This minority, of course, was the cadre of the Brethren themselves, who, by virtue of years of training, self-torture, and visions had become perfect gods, more perfect and more godlike than even Christ himself. Furthermore, once this stage of mystical union was reached, it was to be permanent and eternal. These new gods, in fact, often proclaimed themselves greater than God himself.
Being living gods on earth brought a lot of good things in its wake. In the first place, it led directly to an extreme form of the antinomian heresy; that is, if people are gods, then it is impossible for them to sin. Whatever they did is necessarily moral and perfect. This means that any act ordinarily considered to be sin, from adultery to murder, became perfectly legitimate when performed by the living gods. Indeed, the Free Spirits, like other antinomians, were tempted to demonstrate and flaunt their freedom from sin by performing all manner of sins imaginable.
But there was also a catch. Among the Free Spirit cultists, only a minority of leading adepts were "living gods." For the rank-and-file cultists, striving to become gods, there was one sin and one alone which they must not commit: disobedience to their master.
Each disciple was bound by an oath of absolute obedience to a particular living god. Take, for example, Nicholas of Basle, a leading Free Spirit, whose cult stretched most of the length of the Rhine. Claiming to be the new Christ, Nicholas held that everyone's sole path to salvation consisted of making an act of absolute and total submission to Nicholas himself. In return for this total fealty, Nicholas granted his followers freedom from all sin.
As for the rest of mankind outside the cults, they were simply unredeemed and unregenerate beings who existed only to be used and exploited by the Elect. This gospel of total rule went hand in hand with the social doctrine of many of the 14th-century cults of the Free Spirit: a communistic assault on the institution of private property. In a sense, however, this philosophic communism was merely a thinly camouflaged cover for the Free Spirits' self-proclaimed right to commit theft at will. The Free Spirit adept, in short, regarded all property of the non-Elect as rightfully his own.
The Bishop of Strasbourg summed up this creed in 1817: "They believe that all things are common, whence they conclude that theft is lawful for them." Or as the Free Spirit adept from Erfurt, Johann Hartmann, put it, "The truly free man is king and lord of all creatures. All things belong to him, and he has the right to use whatever pleases him. If anyone tries to prevent him, the free man may kill him and take his goods." As one of the favorite sayings of the Brethren of the Free Spirit phrased it, "Whatever the eye sees and covets, let the hand grasp it."
The following century, the 14th, brought the first attempt to initiate the KGE, the first brief experiment in totalitarian theocratic communism. This attempt originated in the left, or extreme, wing, of the Taborites, which in turn constituted the radical wing of the revolutionary Hussite movement in Czech Bohemia of the early 15th century.
The Hussite movement, led by Jan Hus, was a pre-Protestant revolutionary formation that blended struggles of religion (Hussite vs. Catholic), nationality (popular Czech vs. upper-class and upper-clergy German), and class (artisans cartelized in urban guilds trying to take political power from patricians). Building on the previous communist KGE movements, and especially on the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the ultra-Taborites added, with considerable enthusiasm, one extra ingredient: the duty to exterminate. For the Last Days are coming, and the Elect must go forth and stamp out sin by exterminating all sinners, which means, at the very least, all non-ultra-Taborites.
For all sinners are enemies of Christ, and "accursed be the man who withholds his sword from shedding the blood of the enemies of Christ. Every believer must wash his hands in that blood." This destruction was of course not to stop short of intellectual eradication. When sacking churches and monasteries, the Taborites took particular delight in destroying libraries and burning books.
For "all belongings must be taken away from God's enemies and burned or otherwise destroyed." Besides, the Elect have no need of books. When the Kingdom of God on Earth arrived, there would no longer be "need for anyone to teach another. There would be no need for books or scriptures, and all worldly wisdom will perish." And all people too, one suspects.
The ultra-Taborites also wove into the reabsorption theme a return to the alleged early condition of Czech communism: a society lacking the sin of private property. In order to return to this classless society, determined the Taborites, the cities, those notorious centers of luxury and avarice, must be exterminated. And once the communist KGE had been established in Bohemia, the Elect must forge out from that base and impose such communism on the rest of the world.
The Taborites also added another ingredient to make their communist ideal consistent. In addition to the communism of property, women would also be communized. The Taborite preachers taught that "Everything will be common, including wives; there will be free sons and daughters of God and there will be no marriage as union of two – husband and wife."
The Hussite revolution broke out in 1419, and in that same year, the Taborites gathered at the town of Usti, in northern Bohemia near the German border. They renamed Usti "Tabor," i.e., the Mount of Olives where Jesus had foretold his Second Coming, was ascended to heaven, and where he was expected to reappear. The radical Taborites engaged in a communist experiment at Tabor, owning everything in common, and being dedicated to the proposition that "whoever owns private property commits a mortal sin." True to their doctrines, all women were owned in common, and if husband and wife were ever seen together, they were beaten to death or otherwise executed.
Characteristically, the Taborites were so caught up in their unlimited right to consume from the common store that they felt themselves exempt from the need to work. The common store soon disappeared, and then what? Then, of course, the radical Taborites claimed that their need entitled them to claim the property of the non-Elect, and they proceeded to rob others at will.
A synod of the moderate Taborites complained: "many communities never think of earning their own living by the work of their hands but are only willing to live on other people's property and to undertake unjust campaigns for the sake of robbing." Moreover, the Taborite peasantry who had rejoiced in the abolition of feudal dues paid to the Catholic patricians found the radical regime reimposing the same feudal dues and bonds only six months later.
Discredited among their moderate allies and among their peasantry, the radical communist regime at Usti/Tabor soon collapsed. But their torch was quickly picked up by a sect known as the Bohemian Adamites. Like the Free Spirits of the previous century, the Adamites held themselves to be living gods, superior to Christ, since Christ had died while they still lived (impeccable logic, if a bit shortsighted).
For the Adamites, led by a peasant leader they dubbed "Adam-Moses," all goods were owned strictly in common, and marriage was considered a heinous sin. In short, promiscuity was compulsory, since the chaste were unworthy to enter the messianic Kingdom. Any man could choose any woman at will, and that will would have to be obeyed. On the other hand, promiscuity was at one and the same time compulsory and severely restricted; since sex could only take place with the permission of the leader, Adam-Moses. The Adamites added a special twist: they went around naked most of the time, imitating the original state of Adam and Eve.
Like the other radical Taborites, the Adamites regarded it as their sacred mission to exterminate all the unbelievers in the world, wielding the sword, in one of their favorite images, until blood floods the world up to the height of a horse's bridle. The Adamites were God's scythe, sent to cut down and eradicate the unrighteous.
Pursued by the Hussite military commander Jan Zizka, the Adamites took refuge on an island in the river Nezarka, from which they went forth in commando raids to try their best, despite their relatively small number, to fulfill their twin pledge of compulsory communism and extermination of the non-Elect. At night, they raided the mainland – in forays they called a "Holy War" – to rob everything they could lay their hands on and to exterminate their victims. True to their creed, they murdered every man, woman, and child they could find.
Finally, in October 1421, Zizka sent a force of 400 trained soldiers to besiege the Adamite island, soon overwhelming the commune and massacring every last Adamite. One more hellish Kingdom of God on Earth had been put to the sword.
The moderate Taborite army was, in turn, crushed by the Hussites at the Battle of Lipan in 1434, and from then on, Taborism declined and went underground. But Taborite and millennialist ideas continued to pop up, not only among the Czechs, but also in Bavaria and in other German lands bordering Bohemia.
Sometimes Martin Luther must have felt that he had loosed the whirlwind, even opened the Gates of Hell. Shortly after Luther launched the Reformation, Anabaptist sects appeared and spread throughout Germany. Anabaptists believed that they were the Elect, and that the sign of that election was an emotional, mystical conversion experience, the process of being "born again," or baptized in the Holy Spirit.
For groups of the Anabaptist Elect finding themselves within a corrupt and sinful society, there were two routes to take. One, the voluntary Anabaptists, such as the Amish or Mennonites, became virtual anarchists, striving to separate themselves as much as possible from a sinful State and society. The other wing, the theocratic Anabaptists, sought to seize power in the State and to shape up society by extreme coercion.
As Monsignor Knox has pointed out, this ultratheocratic approach must be distinguished from the sort of theocracy (what has recently been called theonomy – the rule of God's Law) imposed by Calvin in Geneva or by the Calvinistic Puritans in 17th-century North America. Luther and Calvin, in Knox's terminology, did not pretend to be "prophets" enjoying continuing personal divine revelation; they were only "pundits," scholarly experts in interpreting the Bible, and in applying Biblical law to man. But the coercive Anabaptists were led by men claiming mystical illumination and revelation and deserving therefore of absolute power.
The wave of theocratic Anabaptism that swept over Germany and Holland with hurricane force may be called the "Müntzer-Münster era," since it was launched by Thomas Müntzer in 1520, and ended in a holocaust at the city of Münster 15 years later. A learned young theologian and graduate of the Universities of Leipzig and Frankfurt, Müntzer was selected by Luther to become a Lutheran pastor in the city of Zwickau.
Zwickau, however, was near the Bohemian border, and there Müntzer was converted by the weaver and adept Niklas Storch, who had lived in Bohemia, to the old Taborite creed: in particular, continuing personal divine revelation to the prophet of the cult, and the necessity for the Elect to seize power and impose a society of theocratic communism by brutal force of arms. In addition, there was to be communism of women: marriage was to be prohibited, and each man was to be able to have any woman at will.
Thomas Müntzer now claimed to be the divinely chosen prophet, destined to wage a war of blood and extermination by the Elect against the sinners. Müntzer claimed that the "living Christ" had permanently entered his own soul. Endowed thereby with perfect insight into the divine will, he asserted himself to be uniquely qualified to fulfill the divine mission. He even spoke of himself as "becoming God." Having graduated from the world of learning, Müntzer was now ready for the world of action.
Müntzer wandered around central Germany for several years, gaining adepts and inspiring uprisings that were quickly suppressed. Gaining a ministerial post in the small Thuringian town of Allstedt, Müntzer gained a wide popular following by preaching in the vernacular, attracting a large number of uneducated miners, whom he formed into a revolutionary organization called "The League of the Elect."
A turning point in Müntzer's career came in 1524, when Duke John, brother of the Elector of Saxony and a Lutheran, came to town and asked Müntzer to preach him a sermon. Seizing his opportunity, Müntzer laid it on the line: the Saxon princes must take their stand as either servants of God or of the Devil. If they would do the former, they must "lay on with the sword" to "exterminate" all the "godless" and "evil-doers," especially including priests, monks, and godless rulers. If the Saxon princes failed in this task, Müntzer warned, "the sword shall be taken from them. If they [the princes] resist, let them be slaughtered without mercy. Such extermination, performed by the princes and guided by Müntzer, would usher in a thousand-year rule by the Elect.
Duke John's reaction to this fiery ultimatum was surprisingly blasé. But, warned repeatedly by Luther that Müntzer was becoming dangerous, the Duke finally ordered Müntzer to refrain from any provocative preaching until his case was decided by the Elector.
This reaction by the Saxon princes, however mild, was enough to set Thomas Müntzer onto his final revolutionary road. The princes had proved themselves untrustworthy: it was now up to the mass of the poor to make the revolution. The poor, the Elect, would establish a rule of compulsory egalitarian communism, where all things would be owned in common by all, where everyone would be equal in all things, and each person would receive according to his need.
But not yet. For even the poor must first be broken of worldly desires and frivolous enjoyments, and they must recognize the leadership of a new "servant of God" who "must stand forth in the spirit of Elijah … and set things in motion." It was not difficult to guess who that Leader was supposed to be.
Seeing Allstedt as inhospitable, Müntzer moved to the Thuringian city of Muhlhausen, where he found a friendly home in a land in political turmoil. Under Müntzer's inspiration, a revolutionary group took over Muhlhausen in February 1525, and Müntzer and his allies proceeded to impose a communist regime upon that city.
The monasteries of Muhlhausen were seized, and all property was declared to be in common; as a consequence, a contemporary observer noted, the regime "so affected the folk that no one wanted to work." As under the Taborites, the regime of communism and love soon became, in practice, a systemic excuse for theft:
when anyone needed food or clothing he went to a rich man and demanded it of him in Christ's name, for Christ had commanded that all should share with the needy. And what was not given freely was taken by force. Many acted thus.… Thomas [Müntzer] instituted this brigandage and multiplied it every day.
At that point, the great Peasants' War erupted throughout Germany, a rebellion by the peasantry in favor of their local autonomy, and opposing the new, centralizing, high-tax rule of the German princes. In the process of crushing the feebly armed peasantry, the princes came to Muhlhausen on May 15, and offered amnesty to the peasants if they would hand over Müntzer and his immediate followers. The peasants were tempted, but Müntzer, holding aloft his naked sword, gave his last flaming speech, declaring that God had personally promised him victory, that he would catch all the enemy cannonballs in the sleeves of his cloak, and that God would protect them all.
At a climactic moment in Müntzer's speech, a rainbow appeared in the heavens. Since Müntzer had adopted the rainbow as the symbol of his movement, the credulous peasantry naturally interpreted this event as a veritable Sign from heaven. Unfortunately, the Sign failed to work, and the princes' army crushed the peasantry, killing 5,000 while losing only half a dozen men. Müntzer himself fled and hid, but was captured soon after, tortured into confession, and duly executed.
Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School. He was an economist, economic historian, and libertarian political philosopher. See Murray N. Rothbard's article archives. Comment on the blog.
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