- Opiate of the Intellectuals? Pilgrims, Partisans, and Political Tourists
Only … a revolutionary regime, because it accepts the permanent use of violence, seems capable of attaining the goal of perfection… . Violence itself attracts and fascinates more than it repels.—Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals1
The interpretation of Bolshevism as a political or secular religion has a complicated and fragmented genealogy. Long before the Russian Revolution, Russian philosophers were already interpreting politics as a form of religion. Vladimir Solov´ev, in his 1878 Lectures on Godmanhood, wrote that socialism and positivism were substitutes for “rejected gods”; in emigration, Nikolai Berdiaev applied a similar equation to communism, famously comparing the Third Rome to the Third International in his 1937 book, The Origin [End Page 721] of Russian Communism.2 As the Soviet new regime established itself in the 1920s, prominent European intellectual observers and visitors such as Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, and René Fülöp-Miller wrote about communism as a new faith.3 Over the last decade, political religion has witnessed a scholarly revival among a group dominated by comparatively minded students of Nazism and Fascism pushing to revive the concept of totalitarianism—reconfigured to account for the popular appeal and violent fervor not just of Nazism and Stalinism, but, following the works of Emilio Gentile, Italian Fascism as well. The flagship journal of this trend, founded in 2000 by Michael Burleigh, is Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions. These scholars draw on a complex legacy of earlier political theorists, historians of ideas and religion, and students of National Socialism, frequently drawing genealogies back to the 1938 work by the refugee political philosopher Eric Voegelin, Die politischen Religionen (The Political Religions).4
The Russian and Soviet field stands at a curious crossroads on the problem of political religion. On the one hand, the historiographical transformation of the last 20 years in the study of early Soviet and Stalin-era culture, politics, and ideology—much of it dealing with relevant issues of belief, ritual, doctrine, and legitimacy—has hardly at all participated in the largely British and German-led political religion revival inspired by Gentile. This is so apparent that one recent observer has been struck by the “utter neglect” of the political religion concept in the dynamic literature on the interwar Soviet [End Page 722] Union.5 However, in addition to both the Russian philosophical tradition from Solov´ev to Berdiaev and the early Western intellectual observers of communism, there is in fact a deep vein of work in recent scholarship investigating the relationship between revolutionaries and religion as well as Orthodoxy and secular thought in revolutionary Russia.6 Political religion has thus appeared in the field in many of its scholarly outposts.
For example, in the context of Marxism and Bolshevism, Andrzej Walicki discussed how “totalitarian ideology is not merely a secularized religion; it is a secularized form of chiliastic religiosity.”7 In his many works Robert C. Tucker variously called attention to Marxism’s total regeneration of man as a secular version of Christian salvation, to Bolshevism as a millenarian movement, to Stalin’s use of religious terminology, and the growing resemblance of the party-state to a “church-state.”8 The many works of discourse analysis from Igal Halfin prominently feature religious concepts (eschatology, messianism) and extensive deployment of religious terminology (inquisition, heresy, good and evil, faith, etc.).9 In terms of the institutional structures of the Soviet [End Page 723] new regime, Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain contained a sustained discussion of party-state dualism as a form of theocracy.10
At the same time, largely unconnected to debates over the nature of communism as religion, there exists a long-standing interpretation of Western intellectual sympathizers of Stalinism as blinded by a quasi-religious or irrational faith. This view has a long...