The New Demons. Chapter 6: Secular Religions, Political Religion
51 min read
51 min read
When Raymond Aron coined the expression “secular religion,” he was thinking essentially of political religion. We have seen that he needs a much more extensive field of view. Still, political religion remains a central, decisive, and typical form of the religious life of modern man. What we have been describing up to this point has reference to a general religious experience, more or less permanent, and in line with the course of history. It comes through in terms of all-embracing attitudes.
What we are now about to examine, to the contrary, arises specifically in the modern West, is erected on the Christian infrastructure, and can be denoted by traits derived from Christianity. It is also an aspect of post-Christendom. The religious legacy of Christianity is taken over by the great political currents and by politics. We actually encounter this, not only as expressed at different levels, from the most obvious to the most subtle, in the form of hidden religious tendencies, of a fixation of the religious on objects not intended for that, of unexpected religious burgeoning, all unintentional and unconscious, but also in the form of organized religions, clearly instituted as religion, with dogma, myth, rites, and churchlike establishments, communal gatherings and sacraments, complete irrationality, the dialectic of anguish and consolation, mystical expression and prayer, a global interpretation of man, of the world and of history, and the singling out of heretics. It is a question of political religions.
Politics, after having been dominated as a subordinate sphere by the religious phenomenon, gained its independence from organized religion, and has been making a triumphal entry into the religious for half a century. It is the supreme religion of this age. This development was brought about by the growth of the state, with its need for psychological and spiritual influence, on the one hand, and with the appearance of a new kind of ideology, on the other.
Ideology can be defined as “a more or less systematic interpretation of society and history, considered by the militants as the supreme truth.” Ideologies have multiplied with the growth of nations, modern states, and the democratic system. However, there appeared in due course a special type of ideology, with “Marxism-Leninism- Stalinism” and with Hitlerism. These entered into direct and explicit competition with Christianity. They claimed to be superior to the transcendent religions and to be replacements for them. This is correlative to the crisis and retreat of Christianity.
These ideologies, therefore, actually took on the functions and qualities of the religions, and of Christianity particularly. They became a sort of substitute for them. Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism has had an astonishing history. In the course of the nineteenth century, the philosophic and economic theories of Marx represented a complete system of explanation and interpretation of the world, coupled with a global view of the meaning of history and its trends, which assured man of a meaning for his life. But, although it bore an unconscious imprint of Judeo-Christianity from the outset, the thinking was accepted only by declared Marxists under its scientific aspect as a general analysis of the realities of the times, extending into the future by means of hypotheses and projecting actions to be carried out on the basis of the probable and the rational.
Nevertheless, as M. Garder has so well pointed out (“Une Theocratie materialiste,” Le Monde, April 1970), Engels had “endowed the system with a kind of divinity, by enunciating a veritable metaphysical postulate, according to which matter is uncreated. It evolves.” He ended by deifying, if not matter, at least the elan vital, that is, the mechanism of the dialectical evolution of matter. Moreover, this idea fitted perfectly with that of Marx, which, however, had never gone that far.
The dialectic of history also could strictly be considered as a sort of deus ex machina. Moreover, it should be emphasized that the entire work of Marx is steeped in a sort of religious atmosphere, a religious environment or climate, manifestly derived from the strong Judeo-Christian impregnation it had received from its youth and infancy, and which he himself recognized. He never managed to free himself fully from the prophetism of Israel. In fact, that is less easy to achieve than the overturning of a system of thought like Hegel’s.
But the religious quality suddenly appears when this thinking is associated with Russia. I do not say the Russian soul. The category of soul is at present rejected. There was produced a phenomenon identical with that of the transformation of Christianity from a nonreligion to a religion through its adoption by the Roman imperial circles. The power of the czar was religious. It implied a religious orientation and religious attitudes on the part of the people, and that is not as easily destroyed as a regime. Just as the rites and panegyrics directed toward the pagan emperor remained the same when directed toward the Christian emperor, so the religious faith toward the czar remained the same when directed toward the Marxist emperor. There was established a popular religion of the political power, which was all the more indispensable since that power had killed the czar, an inexpiable sacrilege which causes the sacred to redound to the murderer.
That transfer was to be the turning point in the creation of a materialistic religion, endowing with faith a system which was waiting to become religious. The outward works of Lenin, his establishment of a party on the model of the Jesuit Order and in the image of the Order of the Knights of the Sword (he said so himself), the accentuation of the role of the proletariat and the elevation of the writings of Marx; the outward works of Stalin, establishing a liturgy, dogmatics, an inquisition of heretics-all those things went to confirm this religion very rapidly. It was organized by the exact procedures followed by Christianity itself. It ended in the “materialistic replica, a striking morphological similitude, of Roman Catholicism.”
This phenomenon of the transformation of Marxism into a religion has been studied in a systematic way by Jules Monnerot, in the admirable Sociologie du Communisme, and by Raymond Aron. It has been the subject of numerous statements, from Nicolas Berdyaev to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. However, the most impressive statement on it has been given us by A. Robin, in Fausse Parole. His work required him to listen every day to all broadcasts in the Russian language from 1945 to 1955. He, though basically antireligious, was led to show the specifically religious mechanisms of relations with Stalin.
It is important to emphasize that in Robin’s works, as in others, we are in no sense dealing with a vague notion of religion, with a superficial use of the adjective “religious” (to pretend that Hitlerism, Leninism, and Stalinism were religions is too easy and journalistic). Nothing of the kind. We are dealing with extremely precise and rigorous analyses of those regimes, showing just about a complete identification of the political phenomenon thus incarnated with everything known as religion over the course of three thousand years of history.
The young fascists, like the young Stalinists, represented, from the phenomenological point of view, an indisputable religious prototype. Psychologically and intellectually they were the same as the young Catholic ultramontanists of 1900. The phenomenon of religion was accelerated in the communist world in proportion as it came into competition with Hitlerism. It is needless to repeat the demonstration of what is, above all, the mystical and religious character of this movement. That is to say that, before it was the expression of a phase of the class struggle, before it was a response to an economic situation, before it was an incarnation of the basic German mind, nazism was a gigantic religious drive, in its inspiration as well as in its forms. People of that period who were not Germans were not deceived. The most current saying from 1930 to 1936 was: “In the face of the nazi mystique, we have only one hope, namely, to have a mystique of our own for the young.” That was felt especially in communist circles. They found themselves confronted by an explosive and onrushing mystique, and obliged to fight fire with fire. Democracy was unable to operate at that level. It could not set itself up as a religion. In LeninistStalinist communism, on the other hand, the path had already been entered upon, and the nazi competition only hastened and hardened the transformation. Once that character was acquired, it was irreversible. After nazism had been conquered, the religion remained. It was a global communist religion which affected all the communist regimes.
The Chinese regime, in its turn, took exactly the same course. The new incarnation of political religion is currently Maoism.
There we see the same traits as in the predecessors : a mystique, irrationality, a party of the clergy, identification of the god, attributes of divinity, etc., together with a dogmatic closure on all discussion, a global interpretation of everything, a totalitarian control over all actions and feelings, to the exclusion of all other values (cultural values, for example; we are struck by the systematic destruction of works of art from the past during the cultural revolution), the appraisal of all modes of conduct (the accusation against the wife of Liu Shao Chi for her elegance, her politeness, her manner of eating), the setting up of a moral and spiritual hierarchy of values and, above all, the celebrated determination to create a new man of virtue. We shall come back to that.
During the time when certain regimes were becoming religious, the process of the sacralizing of the state was everywhere being carried out. It is the coming together of the two phenomena which leads to the present situation. Politics has become a religion, not only because the political religions of nazism and Marxism have little by little won over all the political forms, but also because the latter were capable of that development only to the extent to which the object of politics, the power of the state, had itself become sacred. Such is the ensemble of actions and reactions which result in secular religion.
To analyze political religion in its structures, comparable in allpoints to those of Christianity, it is necessary to observe it in its extreme forms, which it takes on in Stalinism, Hitlerism, and Maoism. It must be stressed, of course, that these are not deviant forms. To the contrary, they are typical. It is a mistake to suppose that Stalin was a neurotic imbecile, suffering from a mania for persecution and tyranny. It is a mistake to suppose that Hitler was an uncultured and ridiculous paranoid suffering from delusions of grandeur. They were the exact incarnation of what could be done at a given moment of time in the political life. These are not accidents, which one hopes are over and done with. We continue to live exactly in their impetus. Mutually, Stalin is the exact continuator of Lenin, and Mao substantiates the line.
The first religious fact which strikes us in that regime is the cult of personality. To start with, it is interesting to note the use of the word “cult,” which in this instance was not applied by Christians but by Marxists. This cult of personality was already powerful with Lenin, not that he sought it for himself, but he laid the groundwork for it by affirming the validity of the personal dictator. It must not be forgotten that it was he who sterilized the soviets, and who pressed the case against collegiate rule, as well as against self-rule. At the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party of Russia, in 1920, he declared: “Socialist soviet democracy is in no way incompatible with the personal power of the dictatorship … The will of a class is occasionally carried forward by a dictator, who sometimes does a better job by himself, and often is more necessary…” He never ceased to repeat that theme, asserting that collegiate control is by no means an expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
From that point on, the drift toward the cult of the person was inevitable. With the twofold factor of public spontaneity (all hopes concentrated on one, fervently adored man) and the dictator’s determination to be effective (a psychological factor indispensable for making the authority acceptable), one could list, trait for trait, what happened with respect to Lenin as corresponding to what happened with Octavian Augustus, which ended in the imperial political religion. In fact, the cult of the person results in the deification of the dictator. He is the supreme person, corresponding to the personal God of Christianity. God is much more than a charismatic chief, and so is the dictator. It is not a question of casting doubt on the analysis of R. Caillois, but once in power, the leader is deified through the collective worship, for he has not only the gifts but also the totality of the power.
Mao, like Stalin, is the universal procreator, the source of fertility, Providence itself. The person of Hitler, like that of Mao, is held by the faithful to be transcendent. It is important not to take the passages about them as being of no importance. To the contrary, they mean what they say. No one laughed when Hitler stated that he had been sent by the Almighty, and that he was establishing his reign for a thousand years. The young Hitlerites who died invoking aloud the name of the Fuhrer took him for a saving and transcendent divinity, for whom one must die, and who would help one to die well.
Neither did anyone laugh upon hearing that “Josef Vissarionovich Stalin was the most genial, the most beloved, the wisest man the world had ever known,” and again, “Thou art the only one to care for the poor and to protect the oppressed” (exact quotations).
No one laughed, not even his opponents. All that is now forgotten, yet it was a matter of declarations of love and faith, which were unshakable because religious.
Nor does one laugh when singing that Mao is the red sun that illumines all the earth, that he assures and makes possible a good harvest, that by applying the thought of Mao scientific research advances, or a difficult surgical operation can be carried out. “I bandaged him. Mao is healing him,” was literally stated by a great Chinese surgeon in May of 1970.
These gods are indeed gods, with all the attributes of divinity. That is why Lenin was embalmed and worshiped in the mausoleum. Napoleon would have been the object of similar adoration and veneration had Christianity not still been so dominant at that time as to forbid such deification. But with the void created by the retreat of Christianity, and now with the death of God, which was experienced before the theologians found out about it, there arises a substitutionary phenomenon as a replacement. Whatever has the right to ultimate power, really to the absolute power of life and death, is pictured as a god, because that is the image which asserts itself in the Christian West.
We have the extreme case of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. If he had not occurred in the general climate of secular religions, it could be said that he was simply a case of paranoid insanity, a “happenstance,” hence without interest. To the contrary, he is remarkably representative of the general trend, having merely carried political religion to its ultimate. He is the Messiah, the Redeemer (Osagyefo is his official title). He is normally put on a par with Buddha, Muhammad, and Jesus. He is Kasapeko (he who speaks once and for all), Oyeadieye (the restorer of all things)–a striking reproduction of soteriological titles. In school, one learns that Nkrumah is “the equal of God and God himself,” and it also goes without saying that he is immortal.
That was all combined with the most absolute, the most arbitrary, the most insolently personal, the most tyrannical power, from 1953 to 1966, that our times have ever known. When anything goes wrong, as it does in all the deified monarchies, it is not the god who made the mistake. It is his clergy. At the time of Nkrumah’s death, an opponent could say: “The Osagyefo was never guilty of any excess, but certain members of his entourage,” a classically religious statement. No control by anyone is ever tolerated in the completely autocratic decisions of the Messiah. All his death sentences are his own, and completely arbitrary. Yet Nkrumah was entirely respected by Europeans, and by the World Council of Churches. His formula (blasphemous for a Christian), “Seek first the political kingdom, and all these things shall be yours as well,” was enthusiastically applauded at the “Church and Society” conference of the World Council (1966). He is God incarnate, a perfect example of a political religion blessed by the religious authorities.
But the god does not reign alone. Political religion creates a pantheon of heroes, just as Christianity, contrary to its initial teaching, peopled the heavens with a host of personages close to God, who also were objects of veneration and served as examples of the life approved by God, the saints. This is undoubtedly linked to patriotism, but there is also unquestionably the need for moral examples to which to refer. Furthermore, revolutionary movements are always incarnated in heroes.
Yet it seems to me that our modem heroes, in spite of differences in theme, content, and motivation, closely approximate the legendary heroes, those of the pagan legend with its demigods, as well as those of the Christian legend, which tended, in fact, to equate hero and saint. How close the heroes of the Middle Ages are to saints. In the nineteenth century it looked as though the heroes were laicized, but now we are seeing the sacred hero emerge once again. The fact is that no culture, no society, can survive without a life model which is absolutized, unimpeachable, beyond criticism. There has to be a man who can be shown as such, and set forth as an unquestionable example. In this laicized age, attempts have been made to find such a model.
It has been necessary to find someone to worship. Movie stars and champions arouse a certain enthusiasm, but their lives are too empty, too meaningless. Most especially, they lack a relationship with a god. The modem hero, on the other hand, the hero of work, of revolution, of devotion to the god, is a complete model, because he is consecrated by the god. He is the life set forth by the god, and given over to him. The similarity of these heroes of all the secular religions is absolutely astonishing. They are all admired for the same qualities and the same inspiration. Nothing is more like Horst Wessel than Min Ho.
On this score Maoism, as is the case with all the others, has carried the Stalino-Hitlerite heritage to its ultimate. The Maoist heroes are typical of all the others. By reason of their origins, they are popular heroes on everybody’s level, but they are carried to life’s heights through their relations with the god. That is something exclusive with them (in spite of the official condemnation of the individual in Maoism, and the assertion that the masses are the only heroes). The hero is, above all, nurtured on the thought of Mao. He endures all in the name of the god. “Suffering is nothing. The really terrible thing is not to have the thought of Mao in one’s mind.” The life of the hero is scrupulously laid out in detail, so that he can serve as model and as intercessor. “The hero is the living application of Mao’s thought. It is that thought incarnate.” Most heroes die pronouncing his name and recalling his precepts.
Countless are the stories of healing, in which the first words, pronounced with difficulty, are “President Mao,” in which the first characters, written with difficulty, are the characters which go to make up his name, in which a paralyzed arm is extended toward his picture. Better yet, when someone is asked about his family, he says, “I have President Mao.”
How can we fail to liken to the saint of every religion the hero who is miraculously healed, who is entirely devoted, his personality given over to that of the god, yet who is an exemplary type, a model of the Chinese of tomorrow, perfect at all levels-at work, in the family, in patriotism, in honesty, in the struggle against egoism and selfishness-who is freed of all external preoccupations to concentrate on his revolutionary task, putting aside all problems of person and sentiment? “I think we should live in such a way that others can have a better life.” Who said that, Saint Vincent de Paul or Lei Feng? In the end, he is himself the object of a cult of worship, organized and directed by the god himself, and which serves exactly as a mediating worship.
As far as France is concerned, surely Gaullism is not, in itself, a religious phenomenon. It lacks the depth, and it is not global. It exhibits none of the characteristics of the religious, which implies a lasting quality, among other things.
On the other hand, the relationship with de Gaulle shows a certain religious attitude. He was the Father, as has often been said. But the fact of the religious element is even more true now than during his lifetime. Yet at that time, too, the effect of one of his speeches was astonishing, and is only to be explained by a religious attachment. That he should have succeeded in ending the riot of 1968 by a speech is surely significant, for there was nothing special about the speech itself. Someone else could have said the same things without any effect. The opposition were so taken by surprise that they tried to explain their deflation by circumstantial causes, which is inaccurate. The truth is that the god was speaking through the Father. That was the sole motive for the restoration of order, and it implies, in fact, a deep loyalty.
This is being confirmed today. It is not the visits to the tomb which strike me, nor the books about de Gaulle, nor the multiplicity of portraits. What impresses me, rather, is the dedication of votive offerings to him at the cemetery (a crutch, necklaces), and then the purchase of little packets of earth from his tomb, and even more, because spontaneous and not commercialized, the kissing of the tombstone and the collecting of pebbles from around it, which happens often.
Here we are exactly at the level of the veneration of relics, of the saint, of the sacred tomb. It is not a matter of the hero, of the “Great Man,” nor of mementos, nor of expressions of gratitude, but precisely of religious acts directed toward the man who incarnated the religion of the nation. It is not a result of propaganda (that means nothing without a respondent among the propagandized). It is, rather, an expression of the religious need of modern man, which focuses on all available objects.
But a place has to be made also for the less important hero-saints. We noted above that movie stars did not play a satisfactory role in filling the void of piety left by rationalism. Now, however, thanks to political religion, the stars are finding their place. They are at last having a part in serious worship. The moment an artist is “committed,” he becomes a hero. Joan Baez, Melina Mercouri, Yves Montand are beginning to acquire a dignity superior to Hollywood stars. They are having a part in man’s struggle for man. They are not yet model heroes, but they have already entered the religious sphere.
In the presence of the god and the saints, the only attitude possible is that of faith. That, in fact, is how we are obliged to describe the attitude of the militants. Jules Monnerot has studied the characteristics of this faith at some length (Psychologie des Religions seculieres). He says, “We are dealing with a concept which is zealous, capable of uniting, of unifying into a communal whole great numbers of people over and above their personal differences. These zealots constitute a society, a unity.” They live in a state of mutual influence. The faith takes possession of each person and of all his intellectual faculties. It sets the exact boundaries within which thought can develop and grow. It automatically rejects everything outside that scheme of things. It draws the line between what one can listen to and what one literally does not listen to. Within that defined area the individual enjoys great leeway. Since he cannot depart from the area, which is protected by the criteria of the faith, he considers himself perfectly free. The faith radically eliminates all spirit of criticism. The presuppositions are so imposed as matters of obvious fact that there is no way to question them by argument, either of fact or of reason. The “real motives” are sheltered from argument.
However, at this point we have to introduce a nuance. There is a complete absence of criticism for everything which concerns the object of faith, and, conversely, a hypercriticism of everything outside the select domain. Whatever is outside the faith is Evil. With that established, an excess of criticism of the latter makes up for an absence of criticism of the former. Psychoanalysts know the problem well. “Pathological blindness” is combined with “pathological clairvoyance.”
Religious faith is the same as political faith. We have lived that in our own experience. The faith is expressed, of course, in an interaction between exclusiveness and monomania. “The subject’s activity is concentrated and unified while combining with a great number of activities of the same nature and directed in the same sense.” That obviously leads to a denial of reality. It is the object of faith which is true.
We have seen this with Hitler and Stalin. The case ‘Of the communists was particularly flagrant. The Moscow trials, the GermanSoviet pact, the concentration camps, the purges, the betrayals, the repression of the Berlin revolts and the Hungarian revolt-all that was either denied, with accusations against the other side, or explained and embraced within the world of the faith. Judgment was completely obscured in the name of a faith which had to be kept intact if everything was not to collapse. It was obviously a case of all or nothing.
This is characteristic of religion. Communism, directed by the god, the genial chief, the little father of the people, must resolve all the problems of man, and bring us to a higher stage of humanity. It involves nothing subject to criticism. If it were merely relative, the whole would collapse. Ifit were subject to any alteration, any stain, one could not devote oneself to it. Faith makes possible a unity with the god and with the heroes, in complete innocence, in devotion perinde ac cadaver, with a system explanatory of all things. That is not a mere attitude of belief, for beliefs are numerous and often uncertain. It is indeed a question of faith, in the Christian sense of the word, with all the totalitarianism and absolutism which that represents. Political faith has exactly taken the place of, and assumed all the characteristics of, the Christian faith in the West. People, conditioned by centuries of Christianity, have found it impossible to live without this totalitarian organization of the Person.
The fact that the object of faith can change is explained by the indestructible character. The very best Hitlerites, in a difficult crisis, can become Stalinists, and now the best Stalinists are becoming Maoists, for the faith phenomenon today is found chiefly among the leftists. In its psychic structure and expression, it is the same as with the Hitlerites and the Stalinists.
Faith’s special privilege, intransigence, has been transferred from the Christian faith, now become soft, tolerant, and pluralistic, to political faith. Nothing is more formidable than these political believers. Like all believers, they have a monopoly on truth, but with the difference that the truth can never be dissociated from the political power. Here is where political faith seems to me incomparably more dangerous than any other. Buddhism in no way implies an association with the political power. The contrary is the case. Neither does Christianity. If Christianity remains faithful to its inspiration and object, the God of Love, it is incompatible with the exercise of political power. The combination of the two came about by accident.
On the other hand, political faith can be incarnate only in the political power, the modern state. In that respect it is the most atrocious of all the religions humanity has ever known. It is the religion of abstract power incarnated in the police, the army, and the administration, that is, in the only powers that are concrete and tangible. The sole defense against this had been the liberalism and laicity of the state. Those weak and reasonable dikes have given way. A spokesman for the left wrote me recently (when I was defending the laicity of the state, and the need to avoid disseminating a formal ideology through public instruction, and to fight against ideologies) that when a person knows the truth he cannot let it remain hidden. His truth was obviously leftist, and he explained to me that the mind of youth should be oriented toward the commune, etc. But the fact is that Stalin and Hitler had each placed the state in the service of the truth. There is no difference between a leftist believer and a Stalinist or Hitlerite believer. Their attitude toward the schools and the power are the same.
However, one also has to determine the object of faith, apart from and in addition to the faith in the god from whom all the rest flows. The content of the faith is given in a Holy Scripture, which is itself an object of faith. Indeed, it is worth noting that the secular religions are religions of a Book, like the three books which they follow: Das Kapital, Mein Kampf, and The Little Red Book. We are indeed dealing with sacred books, coming from the god and containing the revelation. They are holy because special, different from all other books, the point of departure for all thought, all of which must be holy, understood, and weighed. They are sacred because beyond criticism. There can be no argument concerning them. One can only enter that world and try better and better to understand. Every sentence in these sacred books is studied, analyzed, interpreted, and reinterpreted. No book since the Bible and the Koran has been the object of such knowledge, respect, and submissive obedience on the part of the reader. Holy Scripture should be known by all the faithful. The obligation rests on the people as a whole, and it constitutes the shared collective thinking.
There can be no error in it. The worst banalities and platitudes which it contains are piously treasured. It cannot be nonsense, because such a thing does not come from the god. Hence a profound meaning must be discovered. One digs endlessly deeper and deeper, to the point finally of coming up with an astounding meaning: “Power emanates from the barrel of a gun.”
This Holy Scripture has a revelatory power which illuminates, but in order to profit from it one must apply himself without letup. “We must study the works of President Mao each day. If we miss only one day the problems pile up. If we miss two days we fall back. If we miss three days we can no longer live,” so says the Maoist hero Min Ho, and Lei Feng adds, “Whenever we do not understand, we should say so.” Every difficulty can be resolved by this Holy Scripture, which contains the answer to all questions. Whenever one is brought up short by a difficulty, he should look for a solution in the works of Marx, or Lenin, or Mao. The mere reading of a passage produces an “illumination” (the word is employed constantly), and one understands how to surmount the obstacle. Mao’s thought saves, even in quite physical accidents, such as fire or shipwreck.
From then on, this Holy Scripture, like all the others, is characterized by an authoritarian method implemented in a body of quotations. A saying from the sacred book is all it takes for knowing what is the truth. Hence, the thing to do is to find the appropriate text for each problem. Reflection, analysis, and the drawing up of a problematic are useless, as is the scientific approach. Science is the knowledge and the application of the sacred book. All of science is contained in it. One quotation and you have the truth.
The authority of the author is sufficient to assure the weightiness of the thought derived from it. Of course, the argument from authority is valid only for the believer, but for him its validity is absolute. For others, who have not got into Holy Scripture, the argument is worthless, but that makes no difference because they are entirely outside the truth. Thus, to be certain of the truth and also of the effective procedure, it suffices to place the appropriate quotations physically alongside one another, together with the indispensable commentary. “Thought turns into the shortest path from one quotation to another,” as is seen beautifully with Lenin and Stalin. It is a renewal of scholasticism at its worst.
Holy Scripture designates a Messiah, he who will completely fulfill the will or the foreknowledge of the god. At the same time, he makes and fulfills history by opening a meaningful possibility. This figure of the Messiah, however, appears foreign to Maoism, unless it be the youth who are called upon to play that role. In truth, it seems to be such a profoundly Judeo-Christian concept, and so completely foreign to the spiritual past of the Chinese, that its absence is understandable. The Messiah is quite specific. He is the one who plunges into the abyss, who enters the depths of despair, suffering, and death, to emerge luminous, glorious, and victorious. He carries all humanity with him on the journey to hell, which opens a path for history and humanity. Unless there is a total debasement and humiliation of the bearer of God’s will, there is no Messiah.
Now this picture is given exactly by Marx, in terms of the proletariat, and by Hitler, in terms of the race. Marx’s great passage on the proletariat is well known :
… a sphere of society having a universal character because of its universal suffering and claiming no particular right because no particular wrong but unqualified wrong is perpetrated on it; a sphere that can invoke no traditional title but only a human title … , a sphere, finally, that cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all the other spheres of society, thereby emancipating them; a sphere, in short, that is the complete loss of humanity and can only redeem itself through the total redemption of humanity … . Heralding the dissolution of the existing order of things, the proletariat merely announces the secret of its own existence because it is the real dissolution of this order.Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, trans. and ed. Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (New York: Doubleday, 1967), pp. 262-263.
We have the same description with Hitler, of an Aryan race which is noble and holy. It has been debased and used by the business world, by money, by corruption, by democracy. It has been plunged into corruption by the Jews, by an infamous treaty which has emasculated it. It is surrounded by an entirely inimical world, its spiritual depths denied by science and rationalism. It is scattered among the exploiting nations, and is being undermined by an ongoing plot. The Aryan race is profoundly victimized and alienated. This aspect of Hitler’s thought has too often been Forgotten.
Likewise, he never ceased to speak of the resurrection of the race and of the Volk. This race is to be both the instrument for fulfilling destiny and an opening for history. Trait for trait, it is exactly the same model as Marx’s view of the proletariat.
But it is obvious, as with the Christ, that the “time” when the proletariat or the race assumes history and undertakes its ascent is a cut-off time for history. The entire past is absolute evil (except for a very distant past, the primitive commune of Engels, or the legendary, Wagnerian pre-Middle Ages). History can now, thanks to the Messiah, emerge into the stage of the future characterized by absolute good. The transition into the millennium, or into communism’s higher phase, is precisely the fulfillment of the work of the Messiah, and it entails a last judgment.
The Messiah is the bearer of the hope of salvation and of the fulfillment of history. The person loyal to Marxism, or nazism, or Maoism is both a saved person and a new person. He is purified from all former evil, either by belonging to the body of the Messiah or by accepting its law. Such is the member of the proletariat, or those after him who enter into this movement of history, and who will be similar to him-the Aryan, and the “Aryans by reason of Service.”
The believer is totally placated. He knows no more doubt, division, or dilemma. He is assured of being on the right side, which is guaranteed him by the loyalty of those who are with him. He has the feeling of being finally in possession of a total truth which is indestructible (and one knows that to have the truth is a guarantee of salvation). He is pardoned from all his past faults, for this system tends precisely to efface all social faults. He is guaranteed against all the faults to come, since from now on everything he does in the interest of the cause corresponds to the good. It is a situation eminently characteristic of the believer. The cathartic function of universal religions has been emphasized for some time. When the religions disappear, it is essential that the functions of catharsis continue to take place, for man cannot live without purification. Psychoanalysis proved inadequate for the role. It was substituted for, and surpassed by, the secular religions, which conveyed catharsis through testing and sacrifice. The purified person becomes truly a new person. L. Aragon has attempted to show this in his great passage on The Communists.
It is noteworthy that when one gets down to actualities one perceives that the new man doesn’t have much that is new. It is a question of industrious working habits, of devotion to the collectivity, of sacrifices for the Fuhrer, and of being hard on the enemy. All that is quite ordinary, but it doesn’t prevent the general assertion that the communists, or the nazis, are truly superior people. One absolutizes, and describes a black-and-white world. All the evil is on one side and all the good on the other, which is extraordinarily liberating.
There again is a similarity with religions, a similarity all the more extreme when one considers that this new person is only a person waiting for something. He is already new, yet not entirely, because all will be fulfilled only at the end of the revolution. Then one shall be in the completely developed (the higher phase) communist society, or in the millennium (a perfect likeness of the Christian tension between realized eschatology and subsequent eschatology). One awaits the time when not only the faithful will be new, but the whole world as well, the fulfillment of Marx’s celebrated prophecy, when man is reconciled with nature, with his fellow man, and with himself–<>r that of Hitler, in which man will carry to the heights every potentiality of man, and will finally bring in the superman who will reign over all things. In both, it is a case of society without the state and without bureaucracy. That will be the fullness of historic time.
This apocalyptic expectation is expressed either in utopianism or in millennialism, according to circumstance and moment. There is the Hitlerite millennialism, and that of the Chinese cultural revolution; or the soviet utopianism, and that of the dependent communist parties. In every case it is a matter of picturing a perfect state of affairs and of beings. One finds the same themes as in traditional apocalyptic: judgment, the passage through fire, the new stature achieved by man, the restoration of unity through the elimination of differences. Along with this is a return to the perfection of the first age, by integrating and assimilating into it the perfection resulting from historical development (the return to the primitive commune, but with all the achievements of science and technology; the return to the Germanic of the high Middle Ages, but, there also, with the inclusion of the most advanced technology}- in other words, the exact replica of the Judeo-Christian images, and in correlation with the oldest religious archetypes.
This faith is expressed and formulated in a theology. One cannot give any other name to the intellectual systematizing and the continued commentary on the sacred texts, for the purpose of answering objections, of enlightening the faithful in an absolute manner, and of establishing a body of untouchable verities, a dogma. The consideration of it as dogma and theology is not the act of a violently anti-communist or perverse mind. Here is a marvelous passage from Antonio Gramsci:
The determinist, fatalist element has been an immediate ideological “aroma” of the philosophy of praxis, a form of religion and a stimulant… . When one does not have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself is ultimately identified with a series of defeats, a mechanical determinism becomes a formidable power of moral resistance… . I am defeated for the moment but the nature of things is on my side in the long run, etc. Real will is disguised as an act of faith, a sure rationality of history, a primitive and empirical form of impassioned finalism which appears as a substitute for the predestination, providence, etc., of the confessional religions.In Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. B. R. Brewster (New York: Pantheon, 1970) that is indeed a work of theology.
We can note three elements. First is the passage to the absolute. To be sure, neither Marx nor Mao ever claimed to introduce an absolute truth. The systematizing of the worship is what effects the transition. Such systematizing is precisely the work of theology, beginning with the recorded experience of Israel, Jesus and Muhammad, from which one passes on to an absolute ideology. By radically defining the true and the false, this quickly puts a stop to the very question of true and false.
But the absolute also has a bearing on ends (an absolute good), and on the means to those ends (the party), on the effect of historical conflicts, and on the conflicts themselves. The sum total of this work, which can only be seen as the elaboration of a theology through a reference to the absolute, ends in establishing a dogmatics. This is a set of truths stated coherently so that they mutually prove one another. They cover the entire field of knowledge and of the revelation (for dogmatics is nothing if it is not a complete system). The mechanism for absolutizing the ideology is the same as that for creating the dogmatics. In either case, it consists in objectifying “ideas, which would not have been produced without the faith, and which, when they become dogma, acquire a sort of autonomous power” to exist of themselves.
In the vocabulary of the various modem Marxisms, this is known as theory. The theory is to the Marxist religion what dogmatics is to the Christian religion. In each case there is, in fact, a claim of being strictly scientific, but it is a science which can be developed only from the standpoint of the presuppositions, which constitute an untouchable given, that one must be content simply to lay out in detail on the basis of faith. On the other hand, this systematization makes possible the interpretation of all facts. It accounts for them, makes them logically consistent with one another, and transforms them into so many proofs of the system. But this interpretation, which in both cases is rational, can be accepted only in faith.
Finally, both the theory and the dogmatics claim to be guides to action. How act on the world and on man so as to transform them? And for that both theory and dogmatics have an answer. The crux common to both is revolution, or conversion. These amount to the same thing. Once the dogma is established, it is presented as a judgment implying a certain line of action. The believer, entrusted with a dogma, has the duty to apply it and carry it out. This necessarily comes through in terms of assignments, commands, and watchwords. From that point on intransigence occurs, and the formation of heretics. The moment the dogma is fixed, there can be only one truth and one way to explain things. It is a truth which not only distinguishes the true from the false but, in addition, equates that distinction with the one between good and evil.
It is an incredible error of the Marxists to treat the ‘religions of the past as instruments of conservatism, in view of the fact that no religion has ever pretended to put solutions off until paradise, but has always claimed to transform the world and man right now. By an unbelievably blind vanity, Marxists claim (on the basis of Marx’s famous quip) to be the first to want to transform the world. Having made that claim, they resume the way of all religions, with its dichotomy between partial actualization and the eschatological solution.
The latter can take place only through the elimination of obstacles and enemies (especially heretics). Perfect unity of thought is the condition for perfect unity of action. The enemies, the heretics, are not people who have made a mistake. They are absolute evil. According to Monnerot’s excellent observation, “One doesn’t dispute dogma. One can dispute only from dogma.” He rightly contrasts the scientific proposition, which protects itself from itself by its rationality, and dogma, which has to be armed, defended, and attested by a material victory over those who deny it. The existence of dogma prohibits research from zero. The current Marxist dogma (It surely is still current, despite Stalinism’s pretense of abandoning it, and the apparent revisionisms. Its continued currency is attested by the arguments to the death among the diverse leftist trends !) would have forbidden Marx to do what he did. One could repeat in connection with Marx the exact saying of the Grand Inquisitor in connection with Jesus.
So an inward inconsistency is a genuine characteristic of dogma and of the religious phenomenon. Set up as dogma, it forbids people to do the very thing done by the founder, and without which the dogma would not exist. The adversary, the heretic, must simply be eliminated. The irrefutable proof of the veracity of the dogma is that it guarantees the consummation of history, or the approximation of the kingdom of God. Since these dogmatic propositions are certain only for the believer, are established only in his eyes, they can become incontestable only through the elimination of the unbeliever. “Science knows only error. Dogma knows only crimes,” Monnerot rightly says.
Hence it is no accident that there are heretics in the secular religions. It is not Stalin’s fault that there were trials and purges. It is impossible that there not be heretics. They constitute part of the system. It does not represent a deviation from the norm (Stalinist or any other), nor a special concept of Marxism. The moment there is the combination of a theory claiming to be explanatory and scientific, and a faith implying absolute loyalty-the moment, that is, that there is that kind of religion, there are of necessity heretics. Whether the latter are put to death, or committed to insane asylums (you have to be crazy not to accept the truth of Marxism), or handed over to the people’s courts or to the vengeful fury of the Red Guard, it all amounts to the same thing. The heretic turns up for the same reasons, and with the same consequences, in Mao’s China, or in Czechoslovakia, or in Cuba. There is no difference Fundamentally.
To be sure, freedom is everywhere proclaimed, but it is only “freedom to tell the truth, ” as Herve reminds us. In other words, it is “freedom to tell the established and consecrated truth.” Historically, the inquisition never pretended otherwise.
Every religion implies a clergy, an intermediary with God, an expression of the messiah, an implementer of decisions, a staff for the masses of the faithful, an agency for organizing perseverance in the religion. In the secular religions, it is the party which is the actual clergy, fulfilling exactly, from every point of view, the role and function of the clergy of the traditional religions. This has to be stressed. It is not a facile, superficial comparison. All the functions of a traditional clergy are found again in the party. Conversely, all the functions of the party were found already in the clergy. The identity is perfect.
In charge of the clergy there is always an infallible chief, the head of a veritable materialistic theocracy, of which he is at the same time the living god, pope, and emperor. Reference is frequently made to the bureaucracy of the party. The fact is that the clergy play the twofold priestly (mediating or sacred) and administrative role, and what, to the contrary, becomes the real bureaucracy is the apparatus of the state. This is confirmed in the U.S.S.R., as well as in China and nazi Germany. It is especially interesting to emphasize that this duality exactly corresponds, along with the same problems and dilemmas, to the church/state duality of the Middle Ages. The church, like the party, possesses the truth which the state is to implement. It controls, directs, and verifies the ideology. It inspires and judges, but it does not lower itself to the carrying out, to the putting into operation of the politics. The secular arm is always needed.
The party cannot administer anything except the faithful. As far as the total body of the nation is concerned, that must be managed by another organization which, nevertheless, cannot escape the public dictating of the truth by a tribunal which is superior, not materially but spiritually (ideologically). The Hitlerite, Stalinist, and Maoist nations exactly reproduce the pattern of relationships of the authorities in Christendom. What is more, the party, like the church, must be considered a real organism, because the communal relations among all members produce a real psychological collective energy. This energy does not belong to any of the members composing the party. It is the result of the unified energies of all. The party derives from all the faithful the psychic energy which gives it reality and transforms it into an outwardly active power. That is an exact description of what also happens in the church.
This party/church concept, or rather, this inescapable similarity between the party and the former church (I am not the first, far from it, to point this out) almost completely explains the difficulties that lean-Paul Sartre, for example, can have in dealing with the oddness of communist party life. He is involved in an imbroglio over spontaneity and democracy within the party, etc., an imbroglio which he cannot escape because he refuses to accept the communal quality and this church setup. By contrast, in going ahead with that comparison, one accounts for almost the totality of the characteristics of the parties and their problems.? One will never arrive at a clarification of the question itself by rejecting the comparison.
Surely one of the functions of the clergy is to conduct worship according to precise liturgies. As in every religion, we find a hierarchy of worship ceremonies, from the most grandiose, involving thousands of people in a solemn liturgy, down to intimate family gatherings, which are no less serious and persuasive. Thus the nazi assemblies have often been likened to a religious ceremony. There were the great festivals of Munich and Nuremberg, with a program expertly organized to produce a gradual increase in religious fervor, culminating in a fervor which can only be satisfied by the very presence of the god. Elements in this were the length of the celebration, the precision of the liturgy, the hymns, the mutual pledges, the readings from the sacred texts, the succession of talented speakers, leading up to the final moment when the Fuhrer himself appeared. This was a crowning moment, an answer to prayer. Then there is the intensity of the message, and the length of the discourse falling on the ears of an ecstatic crowd. There follows, very briefly, the break after the peak (reproducing what has been called for the mass, to explain its psychological effect, its truncated tympanum structure). In its organization, that all reconstitutes for us the equivalent of a cult of worship.
Somewhat different, but retaining the same quality, are the Chinese assemblies of Tien Am Mem. Here the details are worked out differently. Occasionally, as in the case of the Red Guard, there was simply an appearance before a crowd worked up in advance, hence in no need of psychological preparation hic et nunc, and anticipating the presentation of the god. There are many passages to prove that the one thing a Chinese person wants is to behold the idol from afar. On other occasions there are festivals which are extremely well regulated, but in a way quite different from those of nazism. There would seem, in fact, to have been a very lengthy preparation of the participants, who worked hard to learn their roles precisely (for example, in the extraordinary living tableaux, and the human mosaics), and who perform their service of glorifying the god with mechanical precision.
Somewhere between these two falls the cultist phenomenon under Stalin: “glorifying the living god, commenting on the sacred scriptures, exhorting the faithful to new sacrifices, exalting the soviet paradise in contrast to the capitalist hell. All this was in a new liturgical language, composed basically of commonplaces set up as magic incantations. In practice, ritual had taken precedence over technology in the U.S.S.R.” (M. Garder).
In all these cases, hymns play a great part. They are most numerous in Maoist China. “The Red Orient,” “Sailing the High Seas Depends upon the Helmsman,” and even “The Warriors of President Mao are Those Who Best Grasp the Party Instructions” are the best known, but hymns and litanies are found in all the basic ceremonies.
Quite different from the great public acts of worship are those practiced in private, in small groups of fellow workers or friends, religious meetings which seem even more marked in Mao’s China than they ever were under Hitler or Stalin. I can do no better than to cite an actual experience, that of Maurice Ciantur. Although at the time of his departure for a three-year stay in China (from 1965 to 1968), Ciantur was wholly in favor of Mao’s regime and set out full of enthusiasm, he was most put off precisely by the religion of Mao. Like Robin, he is against all religion. His journal reads: “February 2 1 st, 1968. It was interesting to be present at the ceremony of worship and allegiance to Confucius II [Mao], as it has been practiced for about two months in Peking, and more or less elsewhere. Lao-Che [the professor] read the proclamation of the Great Covenant while turned toward the portrait of Mao Tse-tung. After that, he asked the audience to rise and salute the living god, which each one did, bending the head very low toward the ground. Then the half-mulatto idolater intoned the song of the pilot [Mao] before resuming his seat. This ritual takes place twice a day in the factories.”
Elsewhere Ciantur cites ceremonies of prayers addressed to Mao, prayers for rain or for the rice crop, and also occasionally the burning of sticks of incense before the portrait of Mao. It is indeed a case of the living god. The most striking aspect of this phenomenon is that it has to do with the Chinese people, of whom it has been said that they were the least religious people on earth, that they had “secularized” every religion with which they had come in contact. Now they have been transformed into a religious people. This time it is politics turned into a religion.
We have just been describing a series of phenomena. However, it is their combination which makes it possible to say that secular religion is a genuine religion, without any abuse of language or facile indulgence on my part. If there were ceremonies alone, or sacred books alone, or an organization alone, even if that one element could be likened to a religious factor, certainly no general conclusion could be drawn. It is the combination of these indices which is decisive. For what we find in the end is that, on the one hand everything which goes to make up the outward appearance of Christianity, for example, is reproduced in nazism or communism, with nothing left out, and conversely, everything which goes to make up the outward appearance of nazism or communism has existed already in Christianity. It is this perfect correspondence which obliges us to say we are dealing here with religions.
Gramsci, again, emphasizes: “In the current period, the communist party is the only institution that can seriously be compared with the religious communities of primitive Christianity. Within the limits in which the party already exists on an international scale, one can undertake the comparison, and can establish an order of relation between the militants of the City of God and the militants of the City of Man.”
Another favorite comparison is in the area of the messages: Christian providentialism and revolutionary prophetism, the journey from original sin to salvation and the journey from the exploitation of man to the classless society. Then there is the harsh necessity shared by both, the burnings at the stake by the inquisition and the concentration camps, the high-handedness of the spiritualist God and the rude necessity of historical materialism. Everything leads us to this comparison. In our situation, political man has become the perfect equivalent, the unalterable substitute for traditional, religious man.
Yet there is one question which is bound to be raised. We have spoken mostly of Stalinism and Hitlerism. After all, those forms have retreated. Germany is democratic, and Stalinism is a bad memory (even though we are still faced with a totalitarian state). Doubtless there is Maoism, but can we still speak of a secular religion? Isn’t that a phase, an attack of fever, whereas now we are returning to normal?
Before replying to that question, I would point out that these religions were not set up by chance or caprice. They answer to the convergence of two needs. The first is the need of the political power, which is only able (as always historically) to attain the limits of absolutism, of exigence, of totality, of effectiveness, to the degree in which it is loved and worshiped. The second is the need of the ordinary person, who feels a religious need to receive an absolute command and to give himself completely. Thus these religions are instituted because they are indispensable to the strength of the political power, to its completeness, to the comprehensiveness of its requirements, to the transcending of human strength for the grandiose task proposed by politics, to absolute consecration in order to overcome all difficulties. However, they succeed because they respond to a fundamental need of man, who cannot manage to live in the cold and rare atmosphere of reason, of reality. He can tolerate his life only on condition of having a direction in which to go, of receiving light from above, of sharing in a superhuman work.
Hence it is not a fundamental wickedness on the part of the dictators which brings them along a religious path. It is the need for an increase of power and for an answer to the need of man. Man is lost in an anomic society, and he finds his way again thanks to the public religion.
Therefore it can be said that these religions are both spontaneous and fabricated. They are spontaneous because man, of his own accord, will contribute his worship of the supreme head, the father, the saviour, the director. He has need of grandeur, of truth, of justice, of good, of pardon. He will find these there, and only there. They are fabricated because the power, in its role as technician, is precisely in need of love and adoration. The state no longer is willing to be “the coldest of all the cold monsters.” It needs to be warm, friendly, neighbourly, hence the paternal and benign visage of Stalin, and the joyous, open, and understanding visage of Mao. One can say that the more a power is organized, rationalized, and strict, the more it needs the irrational and mystical behavior of the people with respect to it. It has to be given a love and a warmth by Man.
It is a genuine law of sociological interpretation that “the more rational a system is, the more it secretes the religious.” If it were otherwise, the love and the religious sentiment of the individual would issue in nothing visible or tangible. Conversely, we must always remember one does not qualify religion artificially, nor by a series of tricks. No matter how clever the political power might be, it would be incapable of fabricating a new religion if the latter did not answer a deep desire, a passion, and an expectation on the part of all.
So back to our question of fact: are the secular religions over and done with? Michel Garder (L’Agonie du Régime en Russie soviétique, 1965) gives an elaborate analysis of such a decline for the U.S.S.R. There is no more god, no pope, no emperor. The holy inquisition has been dismantled. Concessions have been made to the capitalist adversary, who is no longer treated as an absolute enemy. The pontifical function has been desacralized (Stalin’s infallibility called in question). We are witnessing the liberation of science and technology from the religious iron collar. The role of scientists and engineers is being expanded. Khrushchev called in question some of the elements of dogma. Resumption of contact with the heretics (Yugoslavia) is acknowledged, and one is getting around to tolerating a plurality of doctrinal interpretations, as well as a variety of possible paths for revolution and for entering communism’s higher phase. Hence there is some freedom of choice. In addition, information is becoming fairly free, and there is a new possibility of circulating critical texts, which are supposed to be Secret.
The one thing still untouchable is the party, but that alone does not make a religion. Garder concludes that “what is now bankrupt in the U.S.S.R. is the Leninist-Marxist idolatry and the horrible system of oppression which incarnates it, but not socialism.”
I quite agree, in fact, that in the U.S.S.R. and the satellite countries there has been a recession of the religious phenomenon, but does that imply doubt concerning secular political religions? It must not be forgotten that throughout the entire history of any religion there are geographical displacements. Buddhism did not remain anchored to its birthplace. The explosive Christianity in Asia Minor and North Africa has totally disappeared, only to take root in an altogether different soil, that of western Europe. Now that it is declining here, and behold, it is sending up astonishing shoots in Indonesia and Latin America. In other words, even if it is true that the Marxist-Leninist secular religion is receding in the U.S.S.R. (of which I am not completely convinced; I see there rather a cooling off, an adjustment), that is in no way a mass action. It first moved to China. That is where we again find the phenomenon, with its excess, its grandeur, its absoluteness. Moreover, China makes no bones about its sympathy for the Stalinist Regime.
But over to one side, how can we fail to notice the leftists, who exhibit, exactly, all the traits of the religious politicians? Their present hatred and rancor toward the U.S.S.R. bears precisely on this point. The soviet regime is no longer religious. It has betrayed the cause by becoming bogged down in rationality, and by abandoning revolutionary radicalism. It no longer is carrying out the theory, but is going bureaucratic and compromising with heretics and antisocialists. It is no longer at the point of mystical Incandescence.
What the leftists are recreating is not so much “a further shift to the left” as a mystique. That is what has made them so attractive (and so seductive to Christians, who are back again in their good religious atmosphere). They are the die-hard prophets of a religion which is being phased out. Like all prophets, they are scattered and disorganized. For there to be a true secular religion, what is missing is the intervention of a directing and unifying power which gathers all the spiritual energies together into the combination analyzed above, of a basic zeal and a religious structure. Leftism lacks the latter. Hence it exhausts itself in disorganized effusiveness, in a mystique without result.
Having magnificently replaced the adoration of Stalin with that of Mao, here is China, in its turn, supposedly abandoning the religious attitude. A certain number of journalists and China specialists now tell us that the phase of the liquidation of the cult of personality has set in. It is a phase of rejection of the religious, of criticism of attitudes of servile obedience. It is almost a “de- Maoization.” “The cult of the personality of Mao is about to disappear. Still more remarkable is the fact that it is Mao himself who put an end to it. He denounced the cult as excessive and obtrusive. Today one can see factory halls without the portrait of Mao. The red and gold insignia bearing his effigy and pinned to blouses are disappearing. As far as The Little Red Book is concerned, which millions of Chinese were still leafing through last year, we saw only one Chinese getting ready to read it, and he was on a visit from overseas. The Little Red Book has come under criticism. There is no more Marxism in a nutshell …” (Guillain, Le Monde, August 1972).
Already in December of 1971 , A. Bouc noted the criticism expressed in Chine Nouvelle of heroes and personalities. “It is not the heroes, emperors and saints who make history. Individuals can play an active role in history only when they reflect the will of the mass of the people.” “Even the sun has its black spots.” “It is a question,” says Bouc, “of depersonalizing the power. The portraits of the President are withdrawn from public places, and he is less frequently quoted.”
The religious period is presumably over, and it is Mao who criticized it in his famous declarations to “his” journalist Edgar Snow (December 1970). The wicked person who wrongly oriented China in the direction of the cult of personality was Lin Piao. The fabricator of the horrible Little Red Book was Lin Piao. Religion is not a product of Maoism, which follows the straight Marxist line.
Even so, one is forced to ask the question raised by Etiemble : did Mao not know about all that tremendous religious promotion? “Was it at the cinema, or on television, that we saw those frightening pictures, in which the great helmsman applauded those who, by the hundreds of thousands, brandished the talisman under his nose?” The entire huge religious wave obviously was known to Mao, who lent himself to it perfectly. Moreover, he brought off the cultural revolution thanks only to the religious adoration of those zealots. That revolution, in sum, was a religious action, and Mao was in no way ignorant of that fact. He even willed it. From 1965 to 1970, all the specialists were stressing the fact that Mao was always in complete control of the machinery of propaganda. But now, at last, that’s all over, and one is returning to a lay and rational state.
In spite of these certainly sincere witnesses, I reserve the right to remain skeptical. In the first place, man cannot be treated as a lump of dough. You cannot cancel by a stroke of the pen something that you have built up and let loose. The Chinese have lived for years in the religious fervor of Mao. They cannot be told, “Now it’s all over. We no longer believe that.” This has been done several times in history (under Octavian Augustus, for example), but it has never worked. The god remained god, even when he didn’t want to. This argument amounts to very little.
We have some quite different witnesses on the other side. Claude Julien (Le Monde, February 1972), with his customary guilelessness, mirrors for us a China in which the Mao religion (which, of course, is not a religion in his eyes) is very much alive. He tells us of his visit to the workyards, where the workmen in their blue jeans keep The Little Red Book close to the heart. He tells a remarkable story of workmen working on high-tension lines without shutting off the current, “thanks to the thought of Mao.” “Thanks to the thought of Mao, the electric line has become a paper tiger.” During this dangerous operation, the chorus of workmen chants two of Mao’s thoughts, stressing every word. The “engineer” explains how Mao’s thought changes the nature of the electricity.
In rural work areas, M. Julien saw slogans in ideograms twenty meters high which reproduced thoughts of Mao. The foreman explains that one draws inspiration from this thought for reforestation, etc. Likewise, M. Margueritte (July 1971) still sees banners, slogans, and portraits everywhere. “More than one statue of Mao reminds one of the images of Buddha.” He encountered “miracles.” The blind, and deaf-mutes, had been healed in the course of the cultural revolution simply by the thought of Mao. Little children three years of age, too young to read, learn Mao’s thoughts by heart.
I would be happy to think that this all took place in July of 1971 , and that everything had changed by July of 1972. Unfortunately, that is not so clear. In June of 1972, Mao’s thought is still taken by the army newspaper as the absolute and indisputable criterion of truth. If Lin Piao was wrong, this is seen by a comparison with the thoughts of Mao. That’s all there is at that level of Magianism, but there is just as much dogmatism based on a religious kind of faith. The writings of Mao still are holy books containing the absolute Truth.
Another point needs to be emphasized, which is of no little importance, namely, that Mao is everything, all by himself. Since the year 1965, there have been in China neither parliament, nor constitution, nor president of the Republic, nor any clear and announced economic plan, nor organized government. Mao is everything, and that is an eminently religious situation. So the fact that the portraits have been removed, and that there are no more grandiloquent “ceremonies” for The Little Red Book, does not, in my view, allow us to speak of a religious decline.
Therefore I would like to present a hypothesis. Everyone points to the fact that it was from the time of his interview with Edgar Snow that Mao entered upon the struggle against the religious aspect of Maoism. Mao’s beautiful saying is quoted : “What would I have been?-nothing but a solitary monk going around on foot, under an umbrella full of holes.” He is the equivalent, we are told, of “the mendicant pilgrim of classical Chinese painting, the sage,” and editorials picture for us a human, hence a mortal, Mao. How Beautiful!
But after all, Mao, and he alone, is still in power, and what power-what absolute power! When Charles V was overcome by the vision of his own life, he abandoned everything and retired to a convent. Not so Mao. He reminds one of the millionaire contemplating the vanity of riches, and the saying, “You can’t take it with you,” but still, of course, hanging onto his millions. Mao is becoming human, which is the normal evolution of the religious Hero.
We have witnessed the same transmutation of movie stars. After having been “stars” in the strict sense (and they had to be inhumanly beautiful, the women in nickel and the men in bronze), they were transformed into the homely, the ungainly, the ordinary person, you and I, intimate, close, but still just as much the star, making just as much money and having just as many passionate admirers and fans. The same thing happens in advertising. It has to be human, good natured, with friendly smile and outstretched hand, close and intimate, etc. Yet it is still the liturgy of the cult of consumer goods. There is a similar metamorphosis of the mass. The pomp and exaltation are gone. Everything turns horizontal, direct and human, but no less religious.
The process is the same in China. After the grandiose, the monumental, the hyperbolic, after the exalting and the mystical, there comes a period in which the god draws near to people, declares himself a person like ourselves (while retaining his almightiness), and gets himself even more adored in his condescension, his nearness, his humility, than he was in the days of his thunder and lightning. The gigantesque smiling face, so genial, so human in its weaknesses, its wrinkles, its defects (the famous warts), inevitably makes me think of that other gigantesque face, just as fatherly, just as meek and smiling (but with big whiskers), the typical grandpa to whom little children can entrust their fate. It is a trait-for-trait replica. Only after his death is it discovered that he was an ogre, and that his humility was an instrument of more cult of personality. Mao is still the red sun, and religion is not dead in the Orient!
Raymond Aron, in his turn (Les Desillusions du Progres, 1969), faces the same problem. Doctrines of collective salvation, of a class or a race, would seem to be declining in recent years. “We find it hard to understand how dogmatic ideologies of such poor intellectual quality, and of even poorer spiritual quality, could have had, or could sometimes still have, such a hold on superior minds.” He offers a lengthy analysis of the causes and signs of this decline. He finds it due in part to the growth of a national spirit, the wear and tear of prolonged daily application, the spread of industrial civilization (an experience of the communist regime which cannot be entirely covered up by propaganda), advances in applied science, in political economy and in sociology, which imply a violation of the dogmas, the deterioration of the Marxist ideology, in accordance with the experience of all religious ideologies which are “honor-bound to be spiritual, universal and egalitarian, yet with a hierarchical and national order.” All becomes tinged with a certain skepticism and entails a renunciation of religious universalism. The great secular religions of the years 1925- 1955 take on the tameness of the habitual, and become routine and lukewarm.
Nevertheless, Raymond Aron reminds us that “we would be wrong to judge the present situation too hastily. Twenty years ago, Westerners tended to overestimate the historical significance of the secular religions. It could be that, today, we are inclined to underestimate it.” He outlines some aspects of the persistence of these religions. Especially does he stress the fact of transformation. After all, Christianity lost its fervor and absolutism after the first century, only to establish itself as a religion claiming to change the world, and to recover a new fervor in its syncretisms. Is that not what is tending to take place with the secular religions?
On the one hand, Marxism imposes a view of the world and of history. It sacralizes a mode of ownership and management. It changes what is never more than a problem of social organization and administration into a struggle to the death between good and evil. On the other hand, it cannot avoid the collision with reality. At that point, in the established regimes it can be said that communism loses its religious character. The triumphal goal recedes with every step of tangible progress. The doctrine serves to justify the established order. The exaltation and the dogmatic strictness begin to sag. The mystical unity obtained through the common belief is broken, and it can look as though secular religion is in retreat. The nazi regime was too short-lived to have known this recoil, and the latter is what Mao is desperately struggling to avoid, through undertakings like the cultural revolution.
What is really happening, however, is a new phase of religion. The doctrine, the practice, and the church are becoming guarantors of the established order. “Respect for order does not necessarily require the expectation of a radiant future.” The religion produces a morality which then becomes the major factor. At the same time this belief becomes the implicit but indispensable foundation of the regime, the legitimacy of power, the basis for social cohesion.
That is, indeed, another function of religion. Everyone becomes a believer in Marxism-Leninism without even trying, just as in the Middle Ages everyone was a baptized, believing Christian-withouta-problem. Hence there is no decline of the secular political religions in our time. There is merely a stasis, a passing through the classic period in the history of all religions.
This persistence of political secular religion, which is not accidental but basic to modernity, calls for an expansion of our observations. The mutation we are now witnessing is not a retreat of the religions thus far studied (Marxism, Leninism, nazism, Maoism), but the extension of the religious character into all forms of political activity. In other words, while there is a lowering of religious tension in socialism and communism (with the nuances indicated above), there is a sacralizing of all political activity elsewhere, in the liberal democratic, bourgeois, and capitalist countries, which, by that very fact, are ceasing to be liberal.
The bitter dispute which has so transformed the United States over the past ten years is the convulsed visage of this “religionizing.” A state which is less and less able to tolerate opposition, which employs increasingly totalitarian methods, cannot justify itself except on the basis of a political religion. The opposition is no longer willing to play the democratic game, but expresses itself in violence, turning political decision into an ultimate, and political action into the criterion of good and evil. Youth dedicates itself and execrates others, expressing extreme judgments in connection with every political action.
What we have here is not the rise of fascism, but the transformation of political relativity into a religious absolute. The same thing is happening in the new countries, especially in Africa. In other words, Leninism-Stalinism and nazism were precursors which have shown us the way. Widespread political religion is an expression of the sacralizing of the state.
The political behavior of the modern citizen makes manifest the sacred of the state, and the fact that the participating citizen is endowed with an exciting grandeur. Politics has become the place of final truth, of absolute seriousness, of radical divisions among men, of the separation of good from evil. The classic theological religious conflicts are being minimized (which facilitates our blithe ecumenical agreements), but this is part and parcel of the fact that the true ruptures are in the political domain. In the end, it is there, and there alone, that people experience the deepest conviction that everything is at stake. Political action demands all; finally, life itself at the national level and also at the party level (if the latter is ever to be serious).
If that is the way things are, it is because politics commits one more than does life. It is worth the sacrifice of everything. What better evidence could there be that it has entered the domain of the sacred? The death of a soldier in war, like the death of the militant, is not an accident. It is a sacrifice. It is the entrance into sacredness of the “dedicated.” If these “dedicated” ones finally accept the burden, that is because their belief is more basic than an opinion, or than their personal lives. The absolute gives meaning to their lives, color to their thinking, and communion to their being. It is the final play of all-or-nothing. If my cause triumphs, all is won; if not, all is lost.
However, this seriousness, this absolutizing, this implacable decision, is not a matter of reason, nor even of politics. It is not merely emotional, nor is it an agonizing search for truth. It is a matter of possession. On that foundation, then, everything makes its appearance which also, in fact, appears out of the sacred. On the one hand are values, which are vague and unnamed, yet are deeply experienced and felt. There are commands and prohibitions leading to judgments which could be called ethical, except that they are not, in truth, “moral.” They are a more profound distribution of beings, actions, and things, which are to be found either in a positive sacred or in a negative sacred.
So what we are witnessing here is the strange, transitional stage, characteristic of all religions, of a total faith which implies a total nihilism-an active nihilism of the elite and a passive nihilism of the masses. The key word of this nihilism is “commitment,” which is the equivalent of conversion in traditional religious language. Individual commitment is the counterpart, the visible face, of the nihilism of the intellectuals. Since nothing is any longer worthwhile, since the most unbearable uncertainty reigns, one takes the leap into the truth by clinging to something which exists, a victory in actual operation, an effective action, “something strong which avoids the implied negative judgment the newly committed apply to themselves.” National Socialism was proclaimed, we recall, by waves of commitments in all directions, but essentially the political directions. It was a religious substitute.
Whenever one talks with these politically committed, on some burning problem of the hour, one notices immediately both the impossibility of communicating anything else one might want to talk about, and also that one is, himself, drawn into an all-powerful, irrational sphere through imperious necessity.
After the elimination of the king, political importance was transferred, we said, to the institutions. But that didn’t last. Man, who felt his politics keenly, very quickly found it necessary to have proposed to him an incarnation mediating between this world and the other world. What was characteristic of the regimes known as totalitarian is now becoming characteristic of almost all political regimes. There is no more relativity. There are no more “good natured” elections and reasonable discussions. The whole person is at stake every time.
Everything is political. Politics is the only serious activity. The fate of humanity depends on politics, and classic philosophical or religious truth takes on meaning only as it is incarnated in political action. Christians are typical in this connection. They rush to the defense of political religion, and assert that Christianity is meaningful only in terms of political commitment. In truth, it is their religious mentality which plays this trick on them. As Christianity collapses as a religion, they look about them in bewilderment, unconsciously of course, hoping to discover where the religious is to be incarnated in their time. Since they are religious, they are drawn automatically into the political sphere like iron filings to a magnet. Of course they do not believe in the crude, explicit dogmas. Like Helmut” Gollwitzer (Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion, 1970), they can be clairvoyant about the religious nature of communism, but they think they are cleared of the religious simply because they have denounced the cult of personality or the mystique of its practice. The fact is, however, that all they have criticized is the now defunct (except in China) religious phase of communism. They fail to see that we are now in a new phase of political religion extended into political action itself. Gollwitzer, an active partisan of political involvement, is a good example of this Christian attachment to the neo religious. Politics has become the principal justification. Christianity no longer means much, but it is restored like new, and reinvigorated if Christians get into politics. Now it is Christianity which is justified by being legitimized in this way. Everything which carries the political message, everything expressed in terms of political commitment, is now justified and Legitimized.
That is the new soteriology. Think of the books, the works of art, the thought. No matter how inconsistent, redundant, banal, and infantile the “thought,” it makes its mark whenever it carries a political “message.” Any work of art, stage play, or painting is legitimized thanks to the political message. It is obvious that twenty years hence one will burst out laughing at plays and films which are our daily fare today. We take nothing seriously unless it contains some political exaltation, such as an appeal to resist the war in Vietnam, or a revolutionary exhortation in the name of Che.
All this rubbish is on the level of the most grotesque pieces of the epoch of the French revolution ( 1793-1797), of the sculpture of Arno Breker and the poetry of Deroulede. But the absurdity doesn’t touch us, because these films and plays are in our context of the politically religious. The moment there is a political message, the work is automatically given consideration.1o
Faced with this new qualification of politics as religious, one can search for a fundamental explanation, over and above the descriptions of phenomena and the historical explanations, which I have attempted. That of Simondon seems to me perhaps the most enlightening, and I gladly subscribe to it … He considers that man had at first a global (not to say communal) relationship with the world of nature. He calls this the period of the primitive, magical world, in which man operated through a network of magic. But this primitive unity was broken by the discovery and application of techniques for the elaboration of the natural world.
Man could not bring himself down to this role as a mere operator of techniques. He had to retain a global view of the world. That is the moment at which religions are formed, giving meaning to the world and supplying a thinking about man’s destiny. Consequently, a pairing of two elements is set up, which takes the place of the prior magical unity, the pair being religion and Technique.
These two activities, these two thoughts, cannot be separated. They are indispensable to man, the one as much as the other, and each in its own sector. It is a question of sectioning off, and is a result of “the ability to diverge contained in the autonomous development of the techniques and of the religions.” By reason of that fact, “religion is no more magic than is technique. It is the subjective phase of the result of the sectioning, while technique is the objective phase of that same sectioning. Technique and religion are contemporaries of one another.” Neither the one nor the other is a degraded form, nor a survival, of magic.
Then there is a second stage in this evolution. Techniques had acted only on the material, concrete world. Now, however, technical thinking is turned to the world of the human as well, to man and his social organization. It proceeds toward him as it had toward the natural environment, that is, by analysis and by a breakdown into data or elemental processes. As Simondon says, “It reconstructs him afterward according to working diagrams, preserving the structural configurations and leaving to one side the basic qualities and forces” Just like the material techniques). An excellent example of this procedure is economic technique, and this, as a matter of fact, marks the point of departure for these techniques of the world of the human.
But then one is faced with the same situation as at the time of the splitting apart of the unitary world. Man cannot be satisfied with this fragmented situation, so he also develops types of thinking as well, to bear upon the human world, this time taken in its wholeness. This is political thinking. But the latter is in the same relationship with the new techniques that religion had been in with the original techniques. Such is the real and inevitable synonymy between politics and religion for the modem period. Politics fulfills the same role in relation to techniques that religion had fulfilled Formerly.
“The moment the techniques about man broke that network of connections (concerning the human world) and treated man as a technical object, there was a new rupture of the configuration-base relationship. From this there arose, in correlation with one another, one thought which grasped human beings below the level of unity (techniques for human manipulation, for example) and another thought which grasped them above the level of unity (political and social thought).” In this breakdown, politics acts toward man as religion formerly had acted toward the natural world. It classifies and judges man by placing him in categories comparable to the earlier ones, of pure and impure, etc.
To be sure, this thought is not known by the name of religion, simply because tradition reserves that name for “contemporary modes of thinking of the techniques for expounding the world. Nevertheless, modes of thought which assume the function of totality, which are the great political movements, are indeed the functional analogues of religion, in contrast to techniques applied to the human world.”
On the basis of this remarkable analysis, Simondon shows how national socialism, Marxist communism, and the American democratic system, in fact play the same roles, exhibit the same characteristics and, as politics-religion, are mutually alike, granted there are forms of application and points of entry specific to each.
I cannot claim that this interpretation of Simondon is the only one possible. It does seem to me to correspond both to the state of politics in this age and to the technical identification of this category of phenomena. Therefore, in my judgment, it is the best working hypothesis.