“Apocalyptic Politics” – John GRAY

The religious roots of modern revolutionary movements were first systematically uncovered in Norman Cohn’s seminal study The Pursuit of the Millennium. It has often been noted that for its followers communism had many of the functions of a religion – a fact reflected in the title of a famous collection of essays by disillusioned ex-communists, The God that Failed, which was published not long after the start of the Cold War. Cohn showed the similarities went much further than had been realized. At its height twentieth-century communism replicated many of the features of the millenarian movements that rocked Europe in late medieval times. Soviet communism was a modern millenarian revolution, and so – though the vision of the future that animated many Nazis was in some ways more negative – was Nazism.

It may be worth clarifying some key terms. Sometimes called chiliasts – a chiliad is anything containing a thousand parts, and Christian millenarians believe Jesus will return to the Earth and rule over it in a new kingdom for a thousand years – millenarians hold to an apocalyptic view of history. In common speech ‘apocalyptic’ denotes a catastrophic event, but in biblical terms it derives from the Greek word for unveiling – an apocalypse is a revelation in which mysteries that are written in heaven are revealed at the end of time, and for the Elect this means not catastrophe but salvation. Eschatology is the doctrine of last things and the end of the world (in Greek eschatos means ‘last’, or ‘farthest’). As I have already indicated, early Christianity was an eschatological cult: Jesus and his first disciples believed that the world was destined for imminent destruction so that a new and perfect one could come into being. Eschatology does not always have this positive character – in some pagan traditions the end of the world is seen as meaning the death of the gods and final disaster. Despite the fact that the Nazis adopted a Christian demonology, negative eschatology of this kind was a strand in their ideology. However, it was a positive version of apocalyptic belief that fuelled medieval and secular millenarian movements, which expected an End-Time when the evils of the world would disappear for ever. (Millenarianism is sometimes distinguished from millennialism, with the former believing in the literal return of Christ and the latter looking forward to the arrival of some kind of holy kingdom. But there is no consistent pattern in the use of these terms, and except where otherwise indicated I will use them interchangeably.)

In the forms in which it has affected western societies millenarianism is a Christian inheritance. Most religions lack any conception of history as a story with a beginning and an end. Hindus and Buddhists view human life as a moment in a cosmic cycle; salvation means release from this unending round. Plato and his disciples in pre-Christian Europe viewed human life in much the same way. Ancient Judaism contained nothing resembling the idea that the world was about to come to an end. Christianity injected the belief that human history is a teleological process. The Greek word telos means ‘end’, a word that in English means both the terminus of a process and the goal or purpose that a process can serve. In thinking of history in teleological terms, Christians believed it had an end in both senses: history had a pre-determined purpose, and when that was achieved it would come to a close. Secular thinkers such as Marx and Fukuyama inherited this teleology, which underpins their talk of ‘the end of history’. In that they view history as a movement, not necessarily inevitable but in the direction of a universal goal, theories of progress also rely on a teleological view. Standing behind all these conceptions is the belief that history must be understood not in terms of the causes of events but in terms of its purpose, which is the salvation of humanity. This idea entered western thought only with Christianity, and has shaped it ever since.

Millenarian movements may not be confined to the Christian West. In 1853 Hong Xiuquan, the leader of a movement called the Taiping Heavenly Army who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus, founded a utopian community in Nanjing that lasted until it was destroyed eleven years later after a conflict in which over twenty million people died. The Taiping Rebellion is one of a number of Chinese uprisings moved by millenarian ideas, and while Christian missionaries may have brought these ideas to China, it may be the case that ideas of a similar kind were already present. Beliefs concerning an age of destruction followed by an era of peace guided by a celestial saviour may have existed in the country from the third century onwards.

Whether or not they are uniquely western in origin, beliefs of this kind have had a formative influence on western life. Medieval chiliasm reflected beliefs that can be traced back to the beginnings of Christianity. Modern political religions such as Jacobinism, Bolshevism and Nazism reproduced millenarian beliefs in the terms of science. If a simple definition of western civilization could be formulated it would have to be framed in terms of the central role of millenarian thinking.

Millenarian beliefs are one thing, millenarian movements another, and millenarian regimes something else again. Millenarian movements develop only in definite historical circumstances. Sometimes these are conditions of large-scale social dislocation, as in Tsarist Russia and Weimar Germany after the First World War; sometimes a single traumatic event, as happened in the US with 9/11. Movements of this kind are often linked with disasters. Millenarian beliefs are symptoms of a type of cognitive dissonance in which normal links between perception and reality have broken down.6 In Russia and Germany, war and economic collapse produced full-fledged millen-arian regimes, while in America an unprecedented terrorist attack produced a millenarian outbreak that included an unnecessary war and a shift in the constitution. When and how millenarian beliefs become deciding forces in politics depends on the accidents of history.

Apocalyptic beliefs go back to the origins of Christianity and beyond. The recurrent appearance of these beliefs throughout the history of Christianity is not an incursion from outside the faith: it is a sign of something that was present from the start. The teaching of Jesus was grounded in the belief that humanity was in its final days. Eschatology was central to the movement he inspired. In this respect Jesus belonged in a Jewish apocalyptic tradition, but the radically dualistic view of the world that goes with apocalyptic beliefs is nowhere found in biblical Judaism. The central role of eschatology in the teaching of Jesus reflects the influence of other traditions.

Contemporary historical scholarship has shown beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus belonged in a heterodox current of charismatic Judaism. The term ‘Christian’ that came to be applied to Jesus’ followers comes from the Greek word christos, or ‘the anointed one’, which is also the meaning of ‘messiah’ in Hebrew and Aramaic. The term ‘messiah’ is rarely found in the Hebrew Bible and when it appears it is a title given to the king or a high priest. With the development of Christianity as a universal religion from the time of Paul onwards, ‘the messiah’ came to mean a divine figure sent by God to redeem all of humanity.

Originally a message directed only to other Jews, the teaching of Jesus was that the old world was about to come to an end and a new kingdom established. There would be unlimited abundance in the fruits of the earth. Those who dwell in the new kingdom – including the righteous dead, who will be raised back to life – would be rid of physical and mental ills. Living in a new world that is without corruption, they will be immortal. Jesus was sent to announce this new kingdom and rule over it. There is much that is original and striking in Jesus’ ethical teaching. He not only defended the weak and powerless as other Jewish prophets had done, but he also opened his arms to the outcasts of the world. Yet the belief that a new kingdom was at hand was the heart of his message and was accepted as such by his disciples. The new kingdom did not arrive, and Jesus was arrested and executed by the Romans. The history of Christianity is a series of attempts to cope with this founding experience of eschatological disappointment.

Albert Schweitzer captured this predicament when he wrote:

In the knowledge that he is the coming son of man, Jesus lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution that is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn and he throws himself upon it. When it does turn it crushes him, instead of bringing the eschatological condition, that is, the condition of perfect faithfulness and the absence of guilt, he has destroyed these conditions.

In fact, eschatological hope was not destroyed. Among his followers in the early Church the belief sprang up that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. It was not long before an attempt was made to interpret Jesus’ teaching of the end of the world as a metaphor for an inner change.

Already in St Paul there is the hint that the kingdom of heaven is an allegory of a spiritual change. It was Paul – a Hellenized Jew also called Saul of Tarsus – who more than anyone else turned the Jesus movement from a dissident Jewish sect into a universal religion. Paul shared the expectation of Jesus’ original disciples that the world was about to come to an end, but he opened the way for a view of the End that applied to all humankind. A more systematic attempt to defuse the eschatological hopes that animated Jesus and his disciples was made by St Augustine (AD 354–430). Augustine began as a follower of the Manichean religion, which viewed evil as a permanent feature of the world, and his theology shows marked traces of this view. Whereas Mani believed the war between light and dark would go on for ever, the followers of Jesus looked forward to an End-Time in which evil would be permanently destroyed. Augustine believed that human beings were ineradicably flawed, and this doctrine of original sin became the cardinal tenet of Christian orthodoxy. Yet it may owe more to Mani than to Jesus.

Another major influence on Augustine’s reformulation of Christian belief was Platonism. Much impressed by Plato’s idea that spiritual things belong in an eternal realm, Augustine suggested that the end of time should be understood in spiritual terms – not as an event that will happen at some point in the future but as an inner transformation that can happen at any time. At the same time Augustine introduced into Christianity a categorical distinction between the City of Man and the City of God. Because human life is marked by original sin, the two cities can never be one. Evil has been at work in every human heart since the Fall of Man; it cannot be defeated in this world. This doctrine gave Christianity an anti-utopian bent it never completely lost, and Christians were spared the disillusionment that comes to all who expect any basic change in human affairs. In Augustinian terms, the belief that evil can be destroyed, which inspired medieval millenarians and resurfaced in the Bush administration, is highly unorthodox. Yet some such belief was a central feature of the apocalyptic cult to which the followers of Jesus belonged. The outbursts of chiliasm that recur throughout western history are heretical reversions to Christian origins.

By de-literalizing the hope of the End, Augustine preserved eschatology while reducing its risks. The kingdom of God existed in a realm out of time, and the inner transformation it symbolized could be realized at any point in history. With the denunciation of millennialism by the Council of Ephesus in 431 the Church adopted this Augustinian view, but that did not stop the eruption of chiliastic movements that harked back to the beliefs that inspired Jesus. Nor did it end the role of chiliasm in the Church itself. In the twelfth century Joachim of Flora (1132–1202) reversed Augustine’s theology. Believing that he had gleaned an esoteric meaning from the scriptures, Joachim – a Cistercian abbot who had travelled in the Holy Land where he experienced some kind of spiritual illumination – turned the Christian doctrine of the Trinity into a philosophy of history in which humanity ascended through three stages. From the Age of the Father via the Age of the Son it would move to the Age of the Spirit – a time of universal brotherhood that would continue until the Last Judgement. Each of these ages had a leader, with Abraham at the head of the First and Jesus the Second. A new and final leader who embodied the third person of the divine trinity would inaugurate the Third Age, which Joachim expected to arrive in 1260. Joachim’s trinitarian philosophy of history re-infused medieval Christianity with eschatological fervour, and versions of his three-phase scheme reappear in many later Christian thinkers. Taken up by a radical wing of the Franciscan order, Joachite prophecy inspired millenarian movements in southern Europe. In Germany it helped create a messianic cult around Emperor Frederick II, who after conquering the city in a crusade crowned himself king of Jerusalem and was denounced by Pope Gregory IX as the Antichrist.

The division of human history into three ages had a profound impact on secular thought. Hegel’s view of the evolution of human freedom in three dialectical stages, Marx’s theory of the movement from primitive communism through class society to global communism, Auguste Comte’s Positivist vision of humankind’s evolution from religious to metaphysical and scientific stages of development all reproduce the three-part scheme. The common division of history into three phases – ancient, medieval and modern – echoes the Joachite scheme. Even more strikingly, as will be seen in the next chapter, it was Joachim’s prophecy of a third age that gave the Nazi state the name of the Third Reich. (Concepts such as ancient and modern have become indispensable terms of art, and I will use them even as I criticize the scheme of thought they express.)

In secular versions of the Apocalypse the new age comes about through human action. For Jesus and his disciples the new kingdom could come about only through the will of God; but God’s will was resisted by the power of evil, which they personified as Belial, or Satan. In this view of things the world is divided into good and evil forces; there is even a suggestion that humanity may be ruled by a diabolical power. Nothing like this can be found in the Hebrew Bible. Satan appears in the book of Job, but as an emissary of Yahweh, not as a personification of evil. A view of the world as a battleground between good and evil forces developed only in later Jewish apocalyptic traditions.

There are many similarities between the Zoroastrian religion of Zurvanism and Jewish apocalyptic beliefs of the kind recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Jewish apocalyptic thought most likely reflects the influence of Zoroastrianism. It seems to have been Zoroaster –an Iranian prophet also known as Zarathustra who lived some time between 1500 and 1200 BC – who first conceived of human life as a battle between light and darkness that could end in a victory for light. Zoroastrianism is one of the most peaceful religions in history. Nevertheless, through his formative influence on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Zoroaster may be the ultimate source of the faith-based violence that has broken out again and again throughout western history.

Many traditions have seen human life as a war between good and evil, but they have taken for granted that the conflict will go on for ever. An unending alternation of light and dark is found in Egyptian myth. Some have expected the struggle to end in darkness – the eighth-century BC Greek poet Hesiod pictured human history as a process of decline from a primordial Golden Age to an age of iron in which humanity would be destroyed. If there is anything resembling a perfect society it is located in the past – it was never envisioned that the cosmic struggle could end in victory for light. Even Zoroaster may not have believed its triumph was preordained. Rather than announcing the end of the world, Zoroastrian texts call followers of the prophet to a struggle whose outcome remains in doubt. Even so, the belief that good could triumph was a new development in human thought, and as far as we can tell it came from Zoroaster.

This dualistic view of the world was inherited by the religion of Mani – the later Iranian prophet born around AD 216 in Babylonia and martyred as a heretic by the Zoroastrian authorities in 277, whose teaching had such a deep influence on Augustine. Mani differed from Zoroaster in believing that a duality of light and dark is a permanent feature of the world. Manicheism spread as far as China, adopting some of the imagery and symbolism of Buddhism in the process. Throughout these transformations the Manichees retained their belief that evil could never be eradicated. On this point the religion of Mani differs radically from Zoroastrianism and from the teaching of Jesus.

Manichean dualism entered into Gnosticism, which despite being persecuted by Christianity reappeared in many different guises right up to modern times. Gnosticism is a tradition of forbidding complexity, but its central vision of a dark world governed by demonic forces had a profound impact on the history of religion. In the first two or three centuries after the death of Jesus there was a Gnostic current within Christianity, distinguished from others by its assertion that only those who shared in the secret teachings passed on by Jesus could be saved. The term Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means ‘knowledge’, and in the turbulent world of early Christianity, when nearly every aspect of Christian belief was intensely contested, Gnostics embodied the belief that salvation comes to those – perhaps only a few – who possess a type of esoteric spiritual insight and consists not in physical immortality in this world but in liberation from the human body and the material world. Though this set of beliefs had little in common with those of Jesus and was condemned by the early Church, it remained a strand in Christianity. Too little remains of their texts to be certain, but a type of Gnosticism seems to have resurfaced among the Cathars, who flourished in twelfth-century France until Pope Innocent III launched a crusade against them and (after a forty-year war in which around half a million people were killed) nearly erased them from history. However, Gnosticism was not destroyed. It survived and reinvented itself, appearing in many unexpected guises, including – according to Hans Jonas, author of a masterly study of Gnostic traditions – the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

Yet it was not Gnosticism that re-emerged in the repeated outbreaks of millenarianism that occurred throughout the history of Christianity. It was the belief in a cosmic war between good and evil, a belief that had animated Jesus and his disciples, and which echoed the dualistic world-view of Zoroaster. Through its formative influence on western monotheism – of which Islam and modern political religions are integral parts – Zoroaster’s view of the world shaped much of western thought and politics. When Nietzsche declared that good and evil are an invention of Zarathustra he may have been exaggerating, but he was not entirely wrong.

Christianity injected eschatology into the heart of western civilization, and despite Augustine it has reappeared time and again. Between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, movements inspired by millenarian beliefs developed in England and Bohemia, France and Italy, Germany and Spain and many other parts of Europe. Whether the people they attracted were affected by war, plague or economic hardship, these movements thrived among groups who found themselves in a society they could no longer recognize or identify with. The most extraordinary was the Brethren of the Free Spirit, a network of adepts and disciples that extended across large areas of Europe for several centuries.11 The Free Spirit may not have been only a Christian heresy. The Beghards, or holy beggars, as followers of the Free Spirit were sometimes known, wore robes similar to those of Sufis, who preached similar heterodox beliefs in twelfth-century Spain and elsewhere, and the Free Spirit may also have imbibed inspiration from surviving Gnostic traditions, which were never only Christian. In any event, before they were anything else – Christian or Muslim – the Brethren of the Free Spirit were mystics who believed they had access to a type of experience beyond ordinary understanding. This illumination was not, as the Church believed, a rare episode in the life of the believer granted by God as an act of grace. Those who had known this state became incapable of sin and could no longer be distinguished – in their own eyes – from God. Released from the moral ties that restrain ordinary humanity they could do as they willed. This sense of being divinely privileged was expressed in a condemnation of all established institutions – not only the Church but also the family and private property – as fetters on spiritual liberty.

It might be thought that mystical beliefs of this sort could not have much practical impact. In fact, interacting with millenarian beliefs about a coming End-Time, they helped fuel peasant revolts in several parts of late medieval Europe. In the town of Münster in north-west Germany this volatile mix gave birth to an experiment in communism. By the early part of the sixteenth century the Reformation that unseated the Catholic Church in parts of Europe was producing sects more radical than anything envisaged by Luther, whose theology pointed towards obedience to the emerging modern state, or by Calvin, who insisted on strict institutions of church governance. Chief among these sects were the Anabaptists, a movement aiming to recover the teachings of early Christianity. The sects who made up this movement encouraged the practice of rebaptism as a symbol of the believer’s rejection of the Church and the prevailing social order. In early 1534, after converting large numbers of preachers, nuns and laypeople, the Anabaptists carried out their first armed uprising and seized control of Münster’s town hall and marketplace. The city became an Anabaptist stronghold, with Lutherans fleeing while Anabaptists from nearby towns flocked in. It was announced that the rest of the Earth would be destroyed before Easter, but Münster would be saved to become the New Jerusalem.

Catholics and Lutherans were expelled while those who remained were rebaptised in the town square. The cathedral was sacked and its books burnt. Later, all books apart from the Bible were banned. The first steps to common ownership were taken. All money, gold and silver had to be handed over. The doors of houses had to be left open at all times. Under the leadership of a former apprentice tailor Jan Bockelson (otherwise known as John of Leyden) these measures were taken further. Private ownership was forbidden and direction of labour introduced along with capital punishment for a wide range of offences. Wives who refused to obey their husbands could be put to death – as could adulterers, who included anyone who married outside the Anabaptist community. This puritanical regime did not last. A form of polygamy was introduced under which it became a capital offence for a woman to remain unmarried. This did not last either –some women refused to comply and were executed. After that, easy divorce was allowed, leading to a version of free love.

In the autumn of 1534 Bockelson proclaimed himself king of Münster. He saw himself not as a worldly ruler but as a Messiah presiding over the world’s last days. In an innovation that would be followed by the Jacobins he gave new names to streets and buildings and instituted a new calendar. Within days of the new order executions began, with women being prominent among those put to death. By now the town was under heavy siege from forces loyal to the Church, and the population was starving. Bockelson ordered spectacular celebrations for the distraction of his famished subjects –races, dances and theatrical performances. At the same time he banned unauthorized meetings. The famine continued, and in June 1535 the town’s defences were penetrated. Bockelson was captured. After months of public humiliation he was tortured to death with red-hot irons in the town square.

The theocratic-communist regime John of Leyden installed in Münster bears all the marks of millenarianism. Norman Cohn identifies millenarian sects and movements as holding to an idea of salvation that has five distinctive features: it is collective, in that it is enjoyed by the community of the faithful; terrestrial, in that it is realized on earth rather than in heaven or in an after-life; imminent, in that it is bound to come soon and suddenly; total, in that it will not just improve life on earth but transform and perfect it; and miraculous, in that its coming is achieved or assisted by divine agency.12

Modern revolutionaries from the Jacobins onwards share these beliefs, but whereas the millenarians believed that only God could remake the world, modern revolutionaries imagined it could be reshaped by humanity alone. This is a notion as far-fetched as anything believed in medieval times. Perhaps for that reason it has always been presented as having the authority of science. Modern politics has been driven by the belief that humanity can be delivered from immemorial evils by the power of knowledge. In its most radical forms this belief underpinned the experiments in revolutionary utopianism that defined the last two centuries.


GRAY, John, “Apocalyptical Politics”, Black Mass: How Religion Led The World Into Crisis. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2008.

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