«Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion» | (dot)philosophy
(dot)philosophy | A space by GIACOMO MARIA ARRIGO
John Gray (1948) is an English political philosopher and author with interests in analytic philosophy and the history of ideas. He retired in 2008 as School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Gray contributes regularly to The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman.
In Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia published in 2007, Gray detects in Christian millenarianism the core of all Western revolutionary experiences. Believing that “modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion” and that “modern revolutionary movements are a continuation of religion by other means,” Gray denounces the early Christian hope in an imminent apocalypse to have become much too militant over centuries. Recalling St. Augustine’s distinction between the City of Man and the City of God and the further philosophy of history elaborated by Joachim of Flora, Gray is sure that the movement of secularization has hit the same idea of end-time, so that “in secular version of the Apocalypse the new age comes about through human action.”
Some quotations from the book:
p. 1: Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion. The greatest of the revolutionary upheavals that have shaped so much of the history of the past two centuries were episodes in the history of faith – moments in the long dissolution of Christianity and the rise of modern political religion.
pp. 2-3: The Bolshevik and Nazi seizures of power were faith-based upheavals just as much as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic insurrection in Iran. The very idea of revolution as a transforming event in history is owed to religion. Modern revolutionary movements are a continuation of religion by other means.
p. 5: At its height twentieth-century communism replicated many of the features of the millenarian movements that rocked Europe in late medieval times. Soviet communism was a modern millenarian revolution, and so – though the vision of the future that animated many Nazis was in some ways more negative – was Nazism.
p. 13: In secular versions of the Apocalypse the new age comes about through human action.
p. 25: Lenin’s readiness to use terror to bring about a new world was in no sense new. The use of inhumane methods to achieve impossible ends is the essence of revolutionary utopianism. The Bolshevik Revolution was the culmination of a European revolutionary tradition, beginning with the Jacobins and to which Marx belonged, that accepted systematic terror as a legitimate means of transforming society.
p. 29. For the utopian mind the defects of every known society are not signs of flaws in human nature. They are marks of universal repression – which, however, will soon be ended.
p. 35: Modern political religions may reject Christianity, but they cannot do without demonology. The Jacobins, the Bolsheviks and the Nazis all believed vast conspiracies were mounted against them, as do radical Islamists today. It is never the flaws of human nature that stand in the way of Utopia. It is the workings of evil forces. Ultimately these dark forces will fail, but only after they have tried to block human advance by every kind of nefarious device.