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Our Millenarian Moment

Russian Bolsheviks march during a rally in Moscow, Russia May 1, 2012. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Writing in Unherd, John Gray, interesting as ever, this time on the current woke moment. While he may downplay (to an extent) the millenarianism of the Bolsheviks, fellow millenarians to whom the woke are sometimes compared, these paragraphs are, in particular, worth considering:

Woke activists, in contrast, have no vision of the future. In Leninist terms they are infantile leftists, acting out a revolutionary performance with no strategy or plan for what they would do in power. Yet their difference from Lenin goes deeper. Rather than aiming for a better future, woke militants seek a cathartic present. Cleansing themselves and others of sin is their goal. Amidst vast inequalities of power and wealth, the woke generation bask in the eternal sunshine of their spotless virtue.

The key scenes in the woke uprising that followed the killing of George Floyd are rituals of purification in which public officials have washed the feet of insurgents, and acts of iconoclasm in which public monuments have been destroyed or defaced. These are symbolic actions aiming to sever the present from the past, not policies designed to fashion a different future.

However, beautifully written, I do not think that is quite right. Lenin’s view of the ‘radiant future’ was often hazy, as all millenarian futures — forever just out of reach must be — while some of his associates, not least Trotsky, dreamt dreams that were not so far removed from science fiction. What was interesting about the leading Bolsheviks, however, was the way that they combined genuine belief in their new world with a cynical understanding of the manner in which power worked, the uses to which it could be put, and the way that other believers could be manipulated in the name of the cause.

The same is true of the woke. At one level, it can be seen as a cathartic explosion, but at another it is, quite clearly, a power play, sometimes spontaneous, sometimes not (FWIW, I wrote a bit about this here), but an explosion in which a permanent inquisition is both method and goal: That is the future.

As, inevitably, he must, Gray turns to Norman Cohn’s great work on some earlier millenarian upheavals:

The history of the medieval millenarians illustrates this process. They were antinomians, heretical believers who anathematised the Church and considered themselves released by divine grace from any moral restraints. While asserting their superior virtue, their signature practice was self-flagellation. Forgiveness — whether of themselves other others — was notably absent.

As Norman Cohn writes in his seminal study The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957), “in Germany and southern Europe alike flagellant groups continued to exist for more than two centuries.” Probably originating in Italy in the mid-thirteenth century, the flagellant movement reached a peak in Germany in 1348-9 when it was inflamed by the Black Death. There, as in other parts of Europe, the flagellants turned on sections of the population they accused of conjuring up the pestilence, particularly Jews, many of whose communities were wiped out.

Two hundred years later, the Anabaptist prophet Jan Bockelson seized control of the city of Munster, turning it briefly into a communist theocracy in which forcible baptisms and public executions became daily spectacles. Bockelson’s rule ended when, after a long siege, the city fell to armies acting for the Church. He was tortured to death in the town square.

For Cohn, the study of medieval millenarians was an essential part of understanding modern totalitarianism. It is also useful in understanding the woke movement. Medieval flagellants and woke militants combine a sense of their own moral infallibility with a passion for masochistic self-abasement. Medieval millenarians believed the world would be remade by God when Jesus returned after a millennium of injustice (millenarians are also known as chiliasts, chiliad being a thousand years), while the woke faithful believe divine intervention is no longer necessary: their own virtue will be sufficient. In both cases, nothing needs to be done to bring about a new world apart from destroying the old one.

There are some differences between the two movements. Mediaeval millenarians attracted much of their support from illiterate peasants and poor urban workers. The woke movement, on the other hand, is mostly composed of the offspring of middle class families schooled in institutions of higher learning. Like their medieval predecessors, woke activists believe themselves to be emancipated from established values. But, possibly uniquely in history, their antinomian rebellion emanates from an antinomian establishment.

The rise of the woke movement has not occurred as a result of a takeover of American institutions by a dictatorial government. Key American institutions have overthrown themselves, while Trump’s attempts to assert dictatorial power have so far been ineffectual.

Yes, Gray lost me in the second half of that last sentence. Dictatorial power? I don’t think so, and much of the rest of the piece is both fascinating, but to me, unconvincing, not least his belief in a “singular American faith in national redemption” as a driver of the current insurgency. Whether such faith exists now seems to me unlikely, and the extent to which it ever existed is probably exaggerated, but it is central to Gray’s vision of what is now going on:

The self-imposed inquisitorial regime in universities and newspapers — where editors and journalists, professors and students are encouraged to sniff out and report heresy so it can be exposed and exorcised — smacks of Salem more than Leningrad.

I don’t know: To me, Salem and Leningrad are both examples of a psychosis that transcends nationality and, for the most part, cultural tradition. It’s been with us for a long time, and, while it may go quiet at times, it’s not going away.

And if you think that’s gloomy, try reading the rest of the piece . . .


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