When the likes of Noam Chomsky set the agenda, anyone who imagines the ‘progressive’ Left of today’s intellectual class is morally worthier or intellectually loftier than the lunatic prophets of medieval Europe needs to think again
And if we are going to take a moral position on this—and I think we should—we have to ask both what the consequences were of using terror and not using terror. If it were true that the consequences of not using terror would be that the peasantry in Vietnam would continue to live in the state of the peasantry of the Philippines, then I think the use of terror would be justified.
—Noam Chomsky, discussing the slaughter of landlords in Vietnam, Forum on Vietnam War, New York, December 1967
A reader asked if Quadrant was going to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the radical student movement of the Sixties that culminated in the mass demonstrations in Paris of May 1968. Believing that, like the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution in October 2017, there was nothing to celebrate, I didn’t give the suggestion much thought at the time. Rather than anything positive, the political and cultural legacies of May 1968 are almost all negative: anti-Americanism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism, anti-humanism, anti-religion, anti-male feminism. In their place, the best the era could advocate was adolescent hedonism: sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. At its worst were the views of radicals like Noam Chomsky above, who could conjure up a “moral position” to support the killing of all the landlords in Vietnam. Most of the influences that have so diminished Western culture in the last fifty years derive from the 1960s.
On reflection, however, I recalled that, even as I and most of my generation of 1960s undergraduates eagerly absorbed the fashionable mind-sets of the day, some of us also read a small number of books that warned us there was little new under the Sixties sun, and most of its social experiments had been tried many times before and always ended in disaster.
This column appears in the May edition of Quadrant, now on sale.
One of these books was The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn. This was a history of revolutionary millenarianism in medieval Europe, an apparently arcane work that became not only a best-seller but one of the truly influential works of its time. Originally published in 1957, it was revised and expanded twice in the 1960s, translated into a dozen languages, with new updated editions in 1993 and 2004, and remains in print today.
Cohn’s book was partly a specialist contribution to medieval history, but his deeper concerns were more than academic. He was driven to the subject in order to answer why Europe, at the grandest heights of civilisation in the early twentieth century, could have so quickly produced the terrifying collapses into barbarism of Germany under the Nazis and Russia under the communists. Cohn studied the madness of the distant past to try to understand the madness of his own time.
“My main concern,” he writes, “was to show how again and again, from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, some freelance prophet would claim that, in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, the Jews, the clergy or else all the property owners, must be exterminated.”
The apocalyptic content of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, Cohn writes, convinced many early Christians that Christ would soon return to establish a kingdom on earth that would last a thousand years. To accomplish the millennium of this perfect society, Christ would become a warrior leader whose followers dutifully slayed his enemies and sent them to Hell.
Cohn’s intention was not to disparage Christianity or its established churches. In fact, he shows how, once Christianity was established as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church had no wish to see Christians clinging to apocalyptic dreams of an earthly paradise. According to Augustine in The City of God, the Book of Revelation was to be understood only as a spiritual allegory. He said the millennium had already begun with the birth of Christianity and was fully realised in the church. This, Cohn emphasises, became orthodox doctrine.
Nonetheless, he observes, the apocalyptic tradition persisted in the obscure underworld of popular religion. The Book of Revelation still encouraged many Christians to see themselves as the chosen people who would rule the millennium’s kingdom on Earth. “The idea had such a powerful attraction that no official condemnation could prevent it from recurring again and again in the minds of the underprivileged, the oppressed, the disoriented and the unbalanced,” Cohn writes. Time and again, in situations of mass disorientation and anxiety, traditional beliefs about a future golden age or messianic kingdom came to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities.
Societies as unequal as medieval feudalism were always bound to generate some unrest among peasants and artisans, especially in years of harvest failures and famine. But the poor did not create their own millenarian faiths. They received them from would-be prophets or would-be messiahs—“intellectuals or half-intellectuals; the former priest turned freelance preacher was the commonest type”. They became charismatic figures who could infuse the usual desire of the poor to better their material conditions with fantasies of a world reborn into innocence and purity.
The prophets constructed their apocalyptic lore out of the most varied materials. As well as the Book of Revelation, there was the Book of Daniel, the Sibylline Oracles, the speculations of Joachim of Fiore, the doctrine of the Egalitarian State of Nature. Elaborated and reinterpreted, they purveyed to the poor a revolutionary movement and an outburst of quasi-religious salvationism.
Cohn observes that it is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims soon became boundless. In the hands of some prophets, a social struggle became not one with specific, limited objectives, but an event of unique importance, different in kind from all other struggles known to history, a cataclysm from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed. Moreover, the transformed world was only possible once the category of people identified as the oppressors of the poor were exterminated in a final, apocalyptic massacre. In short, the prophets were driven less by desire for riches, fame and power, and far more by the prospect of infinite moral virtue and unlimited homicide.
Many of the prophets were also obsessed by sex and sought to turn sexual relations just as upside down as the political realm. When the Anabaptists took over the German city of Münster in 1534-35 they declared it the New Jerusalem and imposed a dictatorial sexual regime. Adultery, fornication and marriage to non-Anabaptists became capital offences. Polygamy was not only permitted but became compulsory. The ruling elder, Jan Bockelson (John of Leydon) gave himself fifteen wives. Refusal to comply was a capital offence for which some women paid the ultimate price. But lenient divorce laws later generated a regime of free love. “It seems certain that norms of sexual behaviour in the Kingdom of the Saints,” Cohn writes of Münster, “traversed the whole arc from a rigorous puritanism to near-promiscuity.”
Cohn argues that the prophets who transformed oppression and disorientation into a murderous quest against one whole category of people were the true precursors of the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century. Communists no less than Nazis, he observed, have been obsessed by the vision of a prodigious “final, decisive struggle” in which a “chosen people” will destroy a world tyranny and thereby inaugurate a new epoch in world history. “As in the Nazi apocalypse the Aryan race was to purify the earth by annihilating the Jewish race, so in the Communist apocalypse the bourgeoisie was to be exterminated by the proletariat … a secularised version of a phantasy that is many centuries old.” Cohn finds little difficulty in tracing a disconcerting resemblance between the sermons of the medieval prophets and the speeches of their twentieth-century successors:
Onward to the last decisive fight! … The kulak harbours a fierce hatred for the Soviet government and is prepared to strangle and massacre hundreds of thousands of workers … Ruthless war must be waged on the kulaks! Death to them! [Lenin]
Let the priests of all religious confessions tell of a paradise in the world beyond—we say we will create a true paradise for men on this earth. [Trotsky]
[The Jew] goes his baleful way until the day when another power comes to oppose him and in a mighty struggle casts him, the stormer of the heavens, back to Lucifer. [Hitler]
I began this column with a quotation from one of the great heroes of today’s Left, Noam Chomsky, a man who in 1967 could publicly rationalise the murder of one whole class of people for political ends. Since then, Chomsky has had such an influence on Western politics and culture that in 2011 the University of Sydney attracted 2000 people to witness the presentation to him of the Sydney Peace Prize, awarded by the university’s Sydney Peace Foundation. Anyone who imagines that the “progressive” Left of today’s intellectual class is morally worthier or intellectually loftier than the mad prophets of the apocalypse of medieval Europe should read The Pursuit of the Millennium, and think again.