When he described Bolshevism as a religion rather than ‘an ordinary political movement’, Bertrand Russell hit on a larger truth. Because they shared some of the myths of monotheism, the great modern political experiments have been religious in nature. This can be seen by considering the millenarian movements of early modern times.
At the end of his study, Cohn writes:
It is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims and premises are boundless. A social struggle is seen not as a struggle for limited, specific objectives, but as 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. This is the essence of the recurrent phenomenon – or, if one will, the persistent tradition – that we have called ‘revolutionary millenarianism’.
The links between this millenarian tradition and modern revolutionary movements become clearer when one considers the early modern Anabaptist prophet Jan Bockelson. In the autumn of 1534, Bockelson – also known as John of Leyden, where he had been a leader of the Anabaptist movement, a radical Christian insurgency that rejected the authority of the Church – declared himself king of the German city of Münster. He ruled over a communist theocracy that lasted until June 1535, when after a long siege the city was taken by forces loyal to the Church and he was tortured to death in the town square.
Bockelson did not use religion to deceive and exploit others. Like many secular prophets who came after him, he was possessed by the visions he preached. Nor was the faith of his followers instilled only by fear. For a time, they were gripped by an authentic apocalyptic frenzy. When Bockelson first arrived in Münster in the spring of 1533 it was already a theocratic-communist city-state. Under the leadership of Jan Matthys, who became Bockelson’s mentor, the Anabaptists sacked the cathedral and burnt the books in its library. Announcing that true Christians held money in common, Matthys ordered all gold and silver coins to be handed over to the public authorities. From then on, money was to be used only for purposes such as buying supplies, distributing propaganda and hiring mercenaries. Communal dining halls were set up where people could eat together while listening to Bible readings. Food hidden in private houses was requisitioned. Later private life itself was condemned, and it was decreed that doors and windows be open at all times day and night. Matthys’s rule ended when, acting on what he believed was a divine command, he left the city on Easter Sunday in 1534 with a small band of followers to confront the army that was besieging the city, only to be captured and killed. His dismembered body and private parts were nailed to the city’s gate.
Seizing power after Matthys’s death, Bockelson took the communist city-state to a new level. Labourers became the property of the city; any artisan who was not conscripted into the army became a public employee. After a period of heavily policed puritanism, a radical form of polygamy was enforced. All women over a certain age were compelled to marry. Any who refused to take additional husbands were threatened with – and in some cases suffered – execution. A type of sexual communism was enforced in which everyone – but women in particular – was considered the sexual property of everyone else. Denying anyone their marital rights became a capital offence. As we will see in Chapter 5, a similar regime of sexual common ownership was advocated over two centuries later by the Marquis de Sade.
When Bockelson proclaimed himself king he had a role in mind that went beyond ordinary monarchy. He would be the messiah of the last days, and rule throughout the world. This came to him as a divine revelation. In May 1534, he ran naked through the city streets seemingly unable to speak. After three days he revealed God’s guidance: the old ways of the city were to be replaced by a new dispensation. In September, he declared himself the messiah foretold in the Old Testament prophecies – the king of the New Jerusalem. More than a city ruled by an inspired prophet, Münster was to be the beginning of a new world.
Bockelson changed life in the city beyond recognition. Streets and gates were renamed, Sundays and feast days abolished. Lutherans and Catholics were expelled, leaving their money, food and spare clothes behind them. Those who remained were rebaptized in lengthy ceremonies in the market-place. Failing to undergo the ceremony was punishable by death. Along with enforcing a new calendar, Bockelson installed a system whereby he decided the names of newborn children. Replacing the feast days of the past, public banquets were instituted. A throne was erected in the market-place, where the king would distribute small loaves of bread to the people.
While he staged these feasts, Bockelson ruled the city by terror. Unauthorized meetings were forbidden on pain of death. Anyone who now attempted to leave the city, or helped others to do so, was at risk of being beheaded. One of the purposes served by the terror was the protection of the state from subversion by agents of the Church. But soon the executions became a kind of popular theatre. The king presided over the performance and often performed the beheading, after which the cadavers were quartered and the pieces exhibited at spots around the city. By June of 1535, when Bockelson was killed, these public spectacles had become daily events.
Following Bockelson’s death, radical Anabaptism went into decline. Another messianic leader emerged to found another New Jerusalem in Westphalia. Like Bockelson’s, it practised communism in goods and women (the leader had twenty-one wives). Lasting over a decade, the commune degenerated into a robber band and subsisted on the proceeds of theft until the new messiah was captured and executed along with many of his disciples. Communities descended from the Anabaptists continued to be founded, some – such as the Mennonites – surviving to the present day. But the attempt to take the heavens by storm died out among Christian believers by the end of the sixteenth century. Thereafter apocalyptic myths renewed themselves in explicitly political forms, most of them militantly secular.
GRAY, John, Seven Types of Atheism. London: Penguin Ramdom House, 2018.