The Catastrophist

Malcolm Bull

  • Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia by John Gray
    Allen Lane, 243 pp, £18.99, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9915 0

‘It is not too fanciful to suppose that “posterity”, in the year 2032, will be celebrating the events of November 1917 as a happy turning point in the history of human freedom, much as we celebrate the events of July 1789.’ Not too fanciful, in 1932, for Carl Becker, the American historian who first cast a quizzical eye over the utopian designs of the Enlightenment in The Heavenly City of the 18th-Century Philosophers. But surely too fanciful now, even for a reconstructed Leninist.

The cycle of pre-industrial revolutions that swept away the old order is over, if only because, with the possible exception of Nepal and Bhutan, there is nowhere left for one to happen. What a post-industrial revolution might be like, and whether such a thing will ever occur, is something we do not know. It is clear that, if only temporarily, the tide of history has ebbed away from the revolutionary tradition. Why this should be so is a complex and intriguing historical question.

Sometimes, however, there are simple explanations for complex events, and John Gray has one to offer: ‘Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion.’ This might appear a sweeping generalisation, but, for Gray, seemingly diverse historical phenomena are manifestations of a single, heavily disguised and hydra-headed evil. Its current manifestations may be Islamic fundamentalism and the Republican administration in the United States, but we should not be deceived by appearances: ‘Radical Islam may be best described as Islamo-Jacobinism’; ‘neoconservatism originated on the left’; ‘neo-liberalism . . . has a close affinity with Marxism.’

Go back a little further and another layer of disguise is unveiled: Bolshevism itself was merely ‘a radical version of Enlightenment thinking’ and ‘Russia’s misfortune was not in failing to absorb the Enlightenment but in being exposed to the Enlightenment in one of its most virulent forms.’ Indeed, ‘the Cold War was a competition between two ideologies, Marxism and liberalism, that had a great deal in common . . . Both were Enlightenment ideologies’; so too was Nazism, in which ‘the Enlightenment played an indispensable role,’ given that ‘racism is a product of the Enlightenment.’

All this might superficially appear to undermine rather than substantiate the book’s central thesis. Not so: the philosophers of the Enlightenment aimed to supplant Christianity, and, as Becker – seemingly Gray’s only source on the topic – noted, their best hope of displacing it ‘lay in recasting it, and bringing it up to date’. So contemporary politics is rooted in Jacobinism, Jacobinism in the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment in Christianity.

The aspect of Christianity with which Gray is concerned is apocalypticism, within which he includes both ‘the belief that the world is about to end and belief in gradual progress’. This is the thread that links the failed political projects of modernity. From the Münster Anabaptists onwards, the leading protagonists all imagined they knew the plot:

John of Leyden believed God had called him to rule over the New Jerusalem. Lenin was sure he was expediting the laws of history. Hitler was certain the corrupt world of liberal democracy was doomed. True believers in the free market interpreted the collapse of Communism as a sign of an inexorable trend, and neoconservatives greeted the few years of American supremacy that seemed to follow as a new epoch in history.

In fact, all are ‘actors in a theatre of the absurd whose lines are given by chance’. Anyone who thinks that they can change the world for the better is deluded – a delusion for which apocalyptic religion is ultimately responsible.

There are two distinct claims here: that the idea of progress originated within the apocalyptic tradition, and that all theories of progress are necessarily ill-founded. In Black Mass, the persistent implication is that the former must make the latter true as well. However, there is no argument to this effect, and it would be absurd to suggest that concepts with a religious derivation were ipso facto unusable. Secular thought being of fairly recent origin, many working concepts in the humanities and social sciences have readily discernible religious precursors – canon, sovereignty, creation, pluralism, to name only a few.

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