Messianism

John Dunn

  • The Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution by J.L. Talmon
    Secker, 632 pp, £15.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 436 51399 4

In The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy in 1952 the late Jacob Talmon offered an influential diagnosis of ‘the most vital issue of our time ... the headlong collision between empirical and liberal democracy on the one hand, and totalitarian democracy on the other, in which the world crisis of today consists’. Empirical and liberal democracy was to be read as including social democracy but totalitarian democracy, at the time, as excluding totalitarianism of the right. In due course he promised two further volumes, one devoted to the vicissitudes of the totalitarian-democratic trend in 19th-century Western Europe, and the second to the history of totalitarian democracy in Eastern Europe. The first of these, Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase, appeared in 1960. The second, The Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution, is now published posthumously. Although it is considerably the largest of the three, it fails in several respects to discharge the initial promise, passing very lightly indeed over both Russia and Eastern Europe since 1918, offering scarcely a glimpse of events further east and petering out in understandable exhaustion early in the 1920s. Less prudently, it also extends the formidable scope of Talmon’s original undertaking, altering the focus of his inquiry towards the role of nationalist sentiment in 19th and early 20th-century history and stressing the extent to which Nazi and Fascist movements also offered ‘a form of democratic participation’.

The Myth of the Nation is in many ways a remarkable work. It confirms once more the immense range of Talmon’s historical knowledge and interests and the passion and energy with which he wrote. In some ways, too, it shows a more historically convincing judgment than its predecessors. The broader perspective takes in much more of the refractory practical realities of European societies over the last two centuries. But by doing so it also lessens the plausibility of Talmon’s original approach: the attempt, made with heroic single-mindedness, to see ‘the most vital issue of our time’ as the product of the ineluctable unfolding of the intrinsic implications of a particular way of imagining politics and human life. In the context of the Cold War – and The Origins was pre-eminently a Cold War text – this view had the attraction of assigning responsibility for the evidently disastrous state of international relations firmly to the other side, whose beliefs were seen as inherently imprudent, self-deceiving and obscurantist and whose odious political practices were seen as linked, logically if somewhat disingenuously, to these same beliefs. The most striking historical claim advanced in The Origins concerned, not the European tradition of professional revolutionary practice (which indisputably begins with the French Revolution), but the intellectual source of this tradition. For Talmon the Jacobin dictatorship of Robespierre and St Just, the programme of Gracchus Babeuf and the Conjuration des Egaux, and their self-identified heirs from Buonarroti to Blanqui and Karl Marx, were all logical outcomes of the cultural and political reform programme of the Philosophes, of the politics of the later stages of the French Enlightenment. Totalitarian democracy, or its alter ego, political messianism, promised comprehensive social transformation, from institutions and practices which Talmon himself readily conceded to have been dramatically unequal and irrational, to a realm of equality, welfare and human concord in which political power would no longer be necessary. It was the political and social rationalism of the Philosophes which led them so recklessly to overestimate the prospects for combining such contradictory values as liberty, equality and fraternity, and led them to suppose that social utility was the sole valid criterion for social arrangements and to make ‘man the absolute point of reference’. Totalitarian democracy is a secular religion, in that it offers to impose a single ethically authoritative shape upon human life as a whole. It is the exclusiveness of its claims and their existential insistence which make it such a powerful force for the creation of regimes as tyrannical spiritually as they are brutally coercive in practice.

The initial stimulus to Talmon’s conception came to him during the Moscow trials of 1937-38, while he was studying the hectic political atmosphere of the Jacobin dictatorship of the Year II. Both in the Moscow of the 1930s and in the Paris of the 1790s he noted an exclusive claim on the part of the political authorities to interpret the demands of the Revolution and a common denunciation of all who disputed their entitlement to do so. The weird symmetry between these two cases, in other respects so different, suggested to him ‘some unfathomable and inescapable law which causes revolutionary salvationist schemes to evolve into regimes of terror’. His three volumes represent an attempt to fathom that law. Totalitarian democrats want social progress, welfare and equality. But they want these too insistently and far too rapidly and they effortlessly deceive themselves into conflating these wholly respectable desires with the need to take and retain control over as many of their fellows as possible. What especially fascinated Talmon himself was what he saw as a distinctive pattern of political feeling. It was this pattern of sentiment which convinced him that his totalitarian democrats were in essence believers in a secular religion, and not merely holders of political views which he found unattractive. A secular religion can warm the hearts of no one but sociologists and must offend acutely anyone seriously committed either to a religious or to a secular world view. It is hard to imagine anyone today identifying their own deepest commitments as those of a secular religion. But although this furnishes a serviceable insult, it scarcely does much to explain why the history of the world happens as it does.

In this posthumous volume Talmon continues to stand by his insults. (The last 30 years of totalitarian democracy can have given him little incentive to retract them.) He pursues once more his interest in the interplay between individual temperament and historical opportunity in shaping the imaginative and practical forms assumed by totalitarian democracy. And he discusses with freshness and insight many other aspects of modern European history, notably the conflict between national and class allegiances in Western socialist movements. But he does little or nothing to confirm the value of his initial diagnosis. Neither totalitarian democracy nor political messianism has worn very well as an analytical concept. The former does at least identify a distinctive attribute of Communist rulers: their unflinching claim to a monopoly of political understanding and moral authority within the societies which they control. But the latter, with its stress on sentiment – ‘the thrill of fulfilment experienced by believers in a modern messianic movement, which makes them experience submission as deliverance’ – scarcely illuminates the routine cynicism, careerism and hypocrisy at the centre of these societies. It is hard to believe that terms like ‘political messianism’ pick out at all delicately whatever threats we face from Andropov and his aging colleagues. It is less the thrill of fulfilment in the Kremlin or on the bridge of an aircraft-carrier which puts our survival at risk than the relentless routine of both the Russian and the American military-industrial complexes: not momentary psychic aberration but the stolid – and lethal – habits of decades. The real menace represented by the Soviet Union is that it is an overarmed autocracy increasingly short of effective strategies for improving the lot of its own subjects; and the one factor most likely to accentuate this menace would be a world recession deep enough to render the (similarly overarmed) major powers of the capitalist world equivalently detested by the bulk of their citizenry.

If it illuminates any political process at all, the idea of political messianism illuminates the internal political dynamics of revolution. Revolutions have made much of modern history since 1917. But they have made very little of it in a messianic mode. As a struggle for power, modern revolution has proved a highly instrumental and rational political practice. The Leninist conception of the party may mark a gross caricature of Marx’s political vision and by now a sharp distortion even of Lenin’s own views: but it has certainly furnished an extremely helpful ideological and practical formula in the struggle for state power and an even more attractive ideological rubric under which to rule. To understand the confrontation between the major capitalist powers and the post-revolutionary regimes of the Communist world it is less helpful to concentrate on the historical settings in which Jacobin or Marxist politics first became credible and enticing than it is to understand why exactly their genealogical descendants take the form that they do. For this purpose, to speak loosely, a more Marxist and less Hegelian approach than Talmon’s is likely to be more serviceable. Such an approach would see Communist regimes as more brazen and less credulously self-deceptive than Talmon implicitly presents them. It would leave a certain messianic tinge to some of the major revolutionary crises. But it would see the stolid politics of post-revolutionary state power which bulk so large in our world more as a sustained exercise in contextually rational Machiavellianism than as a venture into misplaced eschatology. More important perhaps, it might also help us to understand the alarming political irrationality of the societies which threaten us in terms that are nearer to those in which we struggle to make sense of the political irrationality of the societies in which we live.