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“The Abusive Exploitation of the Human Religious Sentiment”: Michael Burleigh as Historian of “Political Religion” - The Totalitarian Political Religions
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Article Index
“The Abusive Exploitation of the Human Religious Sentiment”: Michael Burleigh as Historian of “Political Religion”
The Church and the New Barbarism
The Theory and Practice of Political Religion
Burleigh’s Project
The Totalitarian Political Religions
The Church Between Liberalism and Totalitarianism
Today’s World: Islam and Secular Europe
Paying Tribute to Those Who Understood
Aron’s Faith Without Illusions
All Pages

The Totalitarian Political Religions

The most important chapter in Sacred Causes is the synthetic second chapter on “The Totalitarian Political Religions.” It brilliantly surveys historical facts and moral perspectives that have largely been forgotten, displaced by the dominant “antifascist” narrative of the twentieth century. That narrative gives communism a free pass by locating evil in the twentieth century in an ill-defined “fascism,” a word that is sometimes used so indiscriminately as to include both National Socialism and the civilization it set out to destroy. In the antifascist narrative, the central drama of the twentieth century was not the struggle between “liberal and Christian civilization” and a new ideological barbarism but rather the never-ending struggle between “progress”—whose ultimate victory is guaranteed—and the forces of “reaction.” In a more moderate form, this faith in progress is the common faith—or common illusion—of modern democratic societies. Burleigh’s work is blessedly free of such facile progressivism.

The chapter on “The Totalitarian Political Religions” shows exactly what was at stake in the instantiation of the “secular messianism” that first came to the forefront in the nineteenth century. Early on, Burleigh quotes the Russian religious philosopher Semyon Frank—a Jewish convert to Orthodox Christianity and one of the contributors to the remarkable collection Vehki (Landmarks). That 1909 manifesto powerfully challenged the Russian intelligentsia’s addiction to “progressive” ideals that eschewed the spiritual life, renounced any ethical affirmation of limits, and that demonstrated limitless indulgence toward the revolutionary Left. In his contribution to Vehki Frank took sure aim at the “nihilistic moralism” of the prerevolutionary Russian intelligentsia:

Sacrificing himself for the sake of this idea, he does not hesitate to sacrifice other people for it. Among his contemporaries he sees either merely the victims of the world’s evil he dreams of eradicating or the perpetrators of that evil. . . . This feeling of hatred for the enemies of the people forms the concrete and active psychological foundation of his life. Thus the great love of mankind of the future gives birth to a great hatred for people; the passion for organizing an earthly paradise becomes a passion for destruction. (SC, 39)

This “passion for destruction” is coextensive with the “ideological” dream to create another world, another reality. The best philosophical critics of the ideological project have shown how the aspiration to “change the world,” to alter the structure of reality, gives rise to a “surreality,” an imaginary present and future that is at odds with the nature of men and societies and even the ontological structure of the real world. In their own way, the ideologists are aware of this. The auspicious gap between reality and ideological surreality can only be bridged by what Solzhenitsyn in his Nobel Lecture has called the twin pillars of the ideological project: violence and lies. However, the revolutionary enterprise necessarily becomes routinized, stale, and sclerotic (witness the final decades of the Soviet regime—the “years of stagnation,” as they came to be called). Still, the never wholly extinguished impulse of the ideological project is a deep-seated nihilistic Manicheanism. The Bolshevik outlook remained to the end “essentially Manichean, dividing the world into good and evil, light and darkness, old and new, a view which led to the demonization of their enemies” (SC, 75).

These enemies famously ended up including “heretics” within their own ranks. The demonized included not merely “class enemies” (the bourgeoisie, aristocrats, independent peasants), not only “heretical” communists, but especially those intellectuals and ordinary believers who embodied a more traditional understanding of the world. In particular, the Bolsheviks “resolved to eradicate Christianity as such.”
They unleashed several waves of savage persecution against the Orthodox Church that are chronicled in detail by Burleigh. In the first wave, bishops and priests were brutally murdered or subjected to show trials. In a second wave of persecution that coincided with the collectivization of agriculture, churches were closed and bells removed from churches that had been at the center of Russian village life for centuries. And from 1937 to 1941, tens of thousands of priests and nuns were killed, while others were sent to labor camps to perish on the tundra. Eventually, the leadership of the Orthodox Church was infiltrated and even controlled by the atheistic authorities.

When reflecting on this scandalous fact, it must be remembered that Orthodox Christians experienced the worst persecution of the Christian religion in human history; untold numbers of believers conducted themselves in a spirit of fidelity and suffered martyrdom.

Burleigh also considers the other manifestations of ideological Manicheanism in the interwar period. He describes the intense decades-long struggle between Italian fascism and the Catholic Church to shape the lives and loyalties of young people. He also traces the myriad ways the Nazis dehumanized their enemies. The evocation of “blood”—of bloodlust and sacrifice and destruction as ends in themselves—was central to the Nazi view of man and nature. And the crude and incoherent assault on Judaism as the source of all the evils in the contemporary world (Jews being blamed simultaneously for “plutocratic” liberalism and rapacious Bolshevism) was at the core of the Nazis’ fevered redefinition of reality.

The Bolsheviks earlier had created a secular “theocracy” that aped the hierarchies of traditional religion without any of its moral wisdom or restraints. In one respect at least the Nazis went a step further. Their secular religion promoted an emotional and aesthetic intoxication, symbolized by the Nuremburg rallies, that made “everyone” a participant in these deluded collective rituals. The SS, Burleigh suggests, was the nihilist avant-garde of a hypermodern pagan religion that bowed to nothing except its own willfulness.

The men of the SS were “insanely fertile in destructiveness” and “their subscription to the codes of their own bureaucracy was never incompatible with the most irrational, pathological fanaticism.” This combination of bureaucracy and “moral autism,” so eloquently described by Burleigh, would reveal its demonic face in the murderous rage of the Einsatzgruppen on the eastern front, who killed millions even before the systematic unfolding of the Final Solution, and in the sadistic and cold “industrial rationality” of the Nazi death camps.

Last Updated on Friday, 09 October 2009 13:00