The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 3 (Fall 2017)

The People’s Republic of Heaven: From the Protestant Reformation to the Russian Revolution, 1517–1917

Eugene McCarraher

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 3)

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Toppling the provisional government that had overthrown the Romanov dynasty in February, Lenin and the Bolsheviks did more than deal a coup de grâce to the old regime; they sparked a wave of revolutionary upheaval that eventually washed over almost every continent. (The Cold War, usually dated from 1945, arguably began with the seizure of the Winter Palace.) The fear of revolution among bourgeois elites in the North Atlantic world induced them either to support fascist movements or to compromise with the working classes. The fascist alternative culminated in tyranny, genocide, and global warfare; the compromise enabled the “golden age of capitalism,” when high wages and widespread access to disposable income—ensured by labor unions and welfare states—fueled rates of economic growth and underwrote a level of social equality never before (and not since) seen in the Western democracies. In the Soviet Union itself, “really existing socialism” ended a feckless and brutal monarchy; provided education, medical care, and other public services; and (despite the images of queues served up for propaganda in the capitalist nations) raised the standard of living for ordinary people through rapid industrialization—all at the price of a ferocious oligarchy and its apparatus of murder and repression. The “Soviet experiment” would seem to have been either the tragic miscarriage of a passion for justice or a barbarous attempt to bring heaven to earth that proves the folly of utopian ambition.1

Because the Russian Revolution and its consequences are still relatively fresh in historical memory, its centenary can easily overshadow the anniversary of another, perhaps even more consequential upheaval: the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation, which commenced in October 1517. When Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, “out of love for the truth and desire to elucidate it,” he set off a chain of events that ultimately demolished the unity of medieval Christendom. Luther and his fellow reformers triggered a radiating tremor that would shake not only the Roman Catholic Church but all subsequent Protestant denominations, as the “priesthood of all believers” sanctioned the centrifugal energy of Protestantism. (The protest in Protestant hides in plain sight.) If the most hallowed doctrines and even the Bible itself could now be arraigned before the bar of individual judgment, then Christianity could be endlessly transformed and perhaps even ultimately repudiated. While the Russian Revolution launched what E.J. Hobsbawm once dubbed “the short twentieth century,” the Protestant Reformation incited five centuries of turbulence: religious liberty, liberal democracy, capitalist economics, and the “disenchantment of the world” supposedly wrought by the erosion of belief in magic, sacrament, and the occult.2

Were the Reformation and the Revolution connected, despite the chasm of 400 years? The British-Pakistani writer and activist Tariq Ali sees a parallel, opening his new book on Lenin by citing Luther’s intransigent (and probably apocryphal) declaration to the Diet of Worms in 1521: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Shortly after the Bolshevik victory, the young German philosopher Ernst Bloch suggested an even longer historical lineage for Lenin. In The Spirit of Utopia (1920), Bloch sketched a genealogy of revolution that included the Jewish prophets, St. John of the Apocalypse, medieval heretics and millenarians such as Joachim of Fiore, and radical Protestants such as Thomas Müntzer and John of Leyden (John Bockelson). Speaking the language of theology, this pre-Marxist vanguard had imagined the kingdom of God as a communist paradise. Bloch linked the Protestant and Soviet moments even more pointedly in Thomas Müntzer as Theologian of the Revolution (1921), whose protagonist envisioned “a pure community of love, without judicial and state institutions”—in marked contrast to the conservative and submissive Luther, who by supporting the German nobles’ suppression of the peasants’ rebellion of 1524–25 had consecrated the “hard and impious materiality of the State.” If Müntzer’s political theology was mired in mythopoeic conceptions of time, Lenin’s scientific appraisal of history ensured the fulfillment of Christian hope. The Soviet state heralded “the time that is to come,” Bloch declared with eschatological flourish. “It is impossible for the time of the Kingdom not to come now,” he concluded; hope “will not be disappointed in any way.” (“Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem,” Bloch would later write in The Principle of Hope.)3

But hope was disappointed, paradise was postponed, and in 1991 the “pure community of love” was exiled to a neoliberal gulag of dreams. With the revolutionary jitters of the ruling class relieved, capital unilaterally abrogated its burdensome and disingenuous truce with labor, and Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” became the ukase of plutocrats and incremental reformers. Real wages flatlined, growth rates decelerated, and the welfare states deteriorated. The golden age passed into a fiber-optic era of high-tech toil, gig work, and working-class demoralization. Across the liberal and social democracies, the political imagination of the North Atlantic intelligentsia remains resolutely narrow, pecuniary, and technocratic, preempting or foreclosing any hopes or demands not approved by finance or digital capital. Yet the longing “to put an end to fear, to the State, and to all inhumane power,” as Bloch summarized the lineaments of desire, remains as urgent as ever. As the belle époque of neoliberalism yields to what looks to be a long interregnum of chaos—in which, as Antonio Gramsci put it, “a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear”—it’s an opportune moment to reclaim the theological ancestry of communism.4

Following Max Weber, historians generally have focused on the Reformation’s encouragement of “the spirit of capitalism.” The Protestant patronage of the spirit of communism is less appreciated, and even unacknowledged. As Brad S. Gregory maintains, the Protestant reformers “wanted not to liberate but to restrict the runaway greed and sinful selfishness”—not only of covetous clergy, but of money-grubbing merchants and bankers as well. But where magisterial reformers such as Luther and John Calvin recoiled from any suggestion that Christians should overturn the social hierarchy of estates, radical reformers—Müntzer, the Hutterites and other Anabaptists, Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers—insisted that salvation mandated the eradication of private property and its replacement with the community of goods described in the New Testament in the Acts of the Apostles. If Protestants concurred that, in Gregory’s words, “economic behavior…needed a massive overhaul through an infusion of biblical morality,” they differed enormously on what that infusion should entail.5

In Winstanley, Müntzer, and other radical Protestants, the Reformation witnessed a renewal of the communist desire at the heart of Christianity. “All things common”—omnia sunt communia—has long encapsulated the earthly ideal of the Gospel, a people’s republic of heaven. “The company of all those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but instead they had everything in common”—so Luke tells us in Acts, his chronicle of the first generation of Christians in the middle of the first century CE. However historical or mythical, this faith-based communism remained an indelible episode in the canonical literature of the church, lingering as a dangerous memory in the political unconscious of Christianity.6 Of course, to utter the C-word without disdain is, for conservatives, liberals, and social democrats, to violate the most fundamental taboo in contemporary political discourse—one must be naive, disingenuous, or indifferent to the blood-soaked historical record. But to call attention to the communist imagination of the Gospel is itself to respect the historical record, while also underlining the perverse and authoritarian character of its Soviet denouement. Although the persistence of original sin will ultimately frustrate righteous desire, bringing heaven to earth is the quintessence of Christianity, not an enterprise in moral derangement.

The two currents of communism that appeared in the Reformation align with two forms of eschatological expectation: one, represented by Müntzer, in which the “godly” or the “elect”—theological precursors to the secular “vanguard”—must clear a path for the impending beloved community by enlisting any means at their disposal, however coercive and cruel; and a second, exemplified by Winstanley, in which the love of the people’s republic to come must leaven its apostles and their actions. Müntzer’s belief that the ungodly have no rights augured Bertolt Brecht’s rueful principle that those who seek a world of kindness cannot themselves be kind. Winstanley’s conviction that the sword embodied “an abominable and unrighteous power” betokened a nonviolent revolutionary tradition.7 The yearning to see heaven on earth is at once an imperative and an impossible desire, and its political articulations stem from how the tensions of eschatological expectation are resolved. If Soviet communism was a secular parody of Müntzer’s millenarian hysteria, Winstanley’s “realized eschatology”—his insistence that the love on the other side of the eschaton can appear in the here and now—offers a more modest but also more generous and humane revolutionary vision.

Elective Affinities

Although the apostolic communism recounted in Scripture faded into historical oblivion, it haunted the imagination of subsequent Christians who accepted the necessity of private property. Monastic orders quarantined communal ownership in the otherworldly asceticism of their members, while Scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas sublimated the desire into “the universal destination of goods”: God’s creation belongs to all, in Aquinas’s formulation, but in postlapsarian conditions, private property oriented toward the common good will ensure that wealth is produced and distributed fairly. Defined by the medieval power elite of kings, lords, and ecclesiastics, the “common good” was not communism but rather a hierarchical order chaperoned in a spirit of pious and well-armed patriarchy. Other than in monasteries and the tomes of Scholastic philosophers, the only Christians who attempted to reproduce the original communism of the first believers were heretics. When they tried, they were swiftly and mercilessly reminded of God’s benediction upon the structures of property, however unjust and malevolent such structures appeared in the light of our final redemption. Still, the beatific specter of communism endured. As R.H. Tawney observed in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926)—an elegant and still invaluable study—“the ideal, if only man’s nature could rise to it, was communism.”8

If the medieval aspiration to communism is indisputable, the Christian provenance of modern communism has often been denied or lamented. Especially at the peak of the Cold War, Western intellectuals worked overtime obscuring the religious roots of the revolutionary left, attributing its origins to “secularization” or millenarian eagerness for the end times. In On Revolution (1963), Hannah Arendt brusquely dismissed the idea that “modern revolutions are essentially Christian in origin.” “No revolution was ever made in the name of Christianity prior to the modern age,” she asserted; “it is secularization, and not the contents of Christian teachings, which constitutes the origin of revolution.” Arendt relied on Eric Voeglin and Norman Cohn, both of whom condemned the revolutionary spirit as an insidious spawn of heresy. One of the more recondite sages of reaction, Voeglin contended in The New Science of Politics (1952) that all of modern political thought, whether liberal, Marxist, or fascist, represented a “fallacious immanentization of the Christian eschaton,” a hubristic attempt to lay hands on redemption and drag it prematurely into the present. In The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), Cohn identified the progenitors of modern revolutionaries among the mystical and often antinomian heretics of the late Middle Ages and the Reformation, from the Cathars, Albigensians, and Brethren of the Free Spirit, to Müntzer, Bockelson, and the Taborites, to the Ranters and other avatars of spiritual and political revolution in the England of the 1650s. Cohn discerned in Müntzer’s sanguinary sermons in particular an augury of the secular chiliasm that sanctioned the killing fields of the twentieth century. Like the Marxists who later claimed him as a forerunner, Müntzer, Cohn wrote, was “obsessed by eschatological phantasies” that he sought to realize by “exploiting social discontent.”9

Marxists have indeed considered the Reformation a harbinger of modern communism. Marxism itself originated not only in “left Hegelian” debates about religion as human alienation, but in conflicts with religious radicals about the nature of contemporary communism. In the mid-1840s, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sparred with Wilhelm Weitling, a journeyman tailor and autodidact, over the leadership and program of the League of the Just, a Christian revolutionary group composed of German émigrés residing in London. Where Marx and Engels advanced secular “critique” as the basis of revolutionary theory and practice, Weitling—in works such as The Poor Sinner’s Gospel (1843)—affirmed Christianity as a “religion of freedom” and “the most perfect form of communism.” Claiming Müntzer and Bockelson as forebears, Weitling advocated a violent revolution to overthrow the state and immediately institute a communist society modeled after that of the early Christians. Marx and Engels eventually triumphed, transforming the League of the Just into the Communist League, but Engels was so impressed by Weitling that he later honored him as “the father of German communism.”10

Weitling’s invocation of Müntzer and other millenarians may have prompted Engels to investigate the religious origins of communism. Not long after the imbroglio with Weitling—and in the wake of the unavailing revolutions of 1848—Engels read widely on the Reformation and the social and political turbulence it provoked. In The Peasant War in Germany (1850), his brief but seminal account of the largest popular uprising in European history before the French Revolution, he maintained that the revolt was an “anticipation of coming stages of historical development.” Peasants, laborers, merchants, and others caught up in the chaos of feudal senescence heard in Luther’s announcement of “Christian freedom” an evangelical reveille to insurrection. But Luther never intended this “freedom” to license liberation from sword and money; he and Calvin embodied, in Engels’s words, the “Philistine, middle-class character of the official Reformation,” the sanctimonious alliance of magisterial Protestantism—the doctrines of Luther and Calvin—with aristocratic and bourgeois power. Declaring, against Luther, that “all things should be common,” Müntzer became “a prophet of the revolution,” with the town of Mühlhausen his outpost of the eschaton. Alas, Engels brooded, “the time was not ripe” for the realization of Müntzer’s eschatological visions; Müntzer wound up defeated and beheaded, and the revolutionary spirit he kindled dissipated into the pacifist enclaves of Anabaptism. (Bockelson and his commune in Münster suffered an even more excruciating fate: Their flesh was torn off with hot tongs.) Still, because it ended the monopoly of the late medieval church on the interpretation of the Gospel, the magisterial Reformation, however compromised by power, broke the fetters on the revolutionary impulse, allowing Müntzer to prefigure, in millennial mythology, the triumph of the industrial proletariat.11

At the same time, Engels set the pattern for subsequent Marxist historians of religion and revolution. Because medieval Christianity put a blinding “aureole of sanctity” over feudal class relations, the persistence of faith meant that class interests “hid themselves behind a religious screen,” and ensured that all revolutionary ideas necessarily became “theological heresies.”12 But since theology, according to Marx and Engels, is a product of self-alienation and therefore a fanciful and erroneous antecedent to historical materialist theory, only secularization can release whatever revolutionary implications lie dormant in Christianity.

The Apostolic Community of Goods

Later Marxists amplified Engels’s portrayal of the Reformation, taking it as a point of departure to extend the historical ancestry of communism. In Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation (1897), Karl Kautsky, leading theoretician of the German Social Democrats, enlarged the scope of Engels’s original argument to include not only the Taborites inspired by the Czech theologian Jan Hus—the short-lived commune on Mount Tabor in Bohemia, Kautsky wrote, contained “the germs of republicanism and communism”—but also the “communism of primitive Christianity.” The apostolic community of goods described in the Acts of the Apostles was an “equalizing communism,” he explained, one that entailed “the division and distribution of the rich man’s superfluity among the poor.” Kautsky’s friend Rosa Luxemburg praised the early Christians in her pamphlet “Socialism and the Churches” (1905). Agreeing that the first believers were “fervent supporters of communism,” Luxemburg stressed that it was a communism of consumption, not of the means of production. Wealthy Christians donated goods produced by slave labor on private property. Far from eradicating property and class, Christian communism was a communal reception of alms “according to the good pleasure of the rich.”13

Thanks mainly to his homiletic brio, Müntzer is the leading protagonist in the Protestant prehistory of secular communism. (The left-wing publisher Verso recently issued a small collection of his writings as part of its “Revolutions” series.) A young priest galvanized by Luther in the 1520s, Müntzer was a flamboyant and popular preacher among poor artisan and mining villages in Saxony, inveighing against the powerful and the learned and upholding common people as God’s authentic interlocutors. His homilies grew steadily more violent as Luther’s social conservatism became apparent. Increasingly convinced that the Second Coming was nigh, Müntzer joined other Anabaptist leaders as clerical provocateurs of peasant rebellion. (Early Anabaptism was far from pacifistic.) In January 1525, he settled in Mühlhausen in Thuringia, where he and his supporters formed what amounted to a paragovernmental militia, the “Eternal League of God.” With a lurid imprimatur provided by Luther in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (1524), the nobles annihilated the rebels by May, and Müntzer and his followers were swiftly captured, tortured, and executed.14

Müntzer’s brief and impetuous history as a revolutionary firebrand foreshadowed much in Lenin’s lengthier and more successful career. Müntzer’s appeal lay in what social theorist Alberto Toscano describes as “the apocalyptic and mystic thrust” of his sermons, while the events of 1917 appeared to many Russians as what fantasy fiction author China Miéville has termed “quite properly millennial.” (Upon returning from Russia in 1920, Bertrand Russell wrote that Bolshevism “is to be reckoned as a religion, not an ordinary political movement.”) Although Lenin’s communism was “scientific” while Müntzer’s was Christian and millenarian, Müntzer was nonetheless a genuine communist. The “basic source of usury, theft, and robbery,” he once preached, was the princes’ desire for “private property,” and the only solution was that “all property should be held in common.” Both men regarded opposition with contempt: Lenin’s caustic indictments of comrades who contested his theoretical prescriptions—deviation from party orthodoxy was an “infantile disorder”—faintly echoed Müntzer’s even more venomous abuse of “scrotum-like doctors of divinity” such as Luther. Both men complained about the people: Where Lenin bemoaned the proletariat’s lack of ideological rectitude in What Is to Be Done? (1905)—“the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness,” i.e., a desire for better-compensated wage servitude—Müntzer berated believers for their theological mediocrity. They must be “sternly reprimanded on account of their disorderly desires,” he wrote, as their immersion in mundane affairs eroded “any steadfast interest in a rigorous consideration of the faith.” Both men insisted on the necessity of an intrepid and steadfast revolutionary elite. Müntzer and his associates set up the Eternal League of God after failing to win election to Mühlhausen’s town council, while Lenin believed that only a vanguard party could identify and direct the proper course of revolution. And both men had no scruples about wielding violence against opponents. Because the bourgeoisie posed a threat to the party’s trusteeship of proletarian dictatorship, Lenin insisted in “The State and Revolution” (1917) that “their resistance must be crushed by force,” an edict that echoed Müntzer’s dictum that “a godless person has no right to life when he hinders the pious.”15

Were the blueprints of the Gulag Archipelago first drawn in the homilies of Protestant millenarians? The affinities of Müntzer and Lenin would seem to confirm the judgment of Cohn, Voeglin, and other scourges of revolutionary modernity that any attempt to realize the eschaton—to bring heaven down to earth—will always end in butchery and despotism. If eschatological impatience incubates terror, then only eschatological quiescence can guarantee peace, freedom, and whatever degree of social and political reform is practical. Because efforts to achieve it seem to arouse the worst angels of our nature, the people’s republic of heaven will have to be postponed until the end of time.

The Theft of the Commons

But does politicized eschatological desire lead inexorably to coercion and homicide? Do Müntzer and Bockelson exhaust the possibilities of eschatological politics? If so, then what political theorist Mark Lilla has called “the Great Separation” is surely imperative. He writes that since the millenarian impulses at work in Judaism and Christianity, in both religious and secularized forms, have wrought so much confusion and calamity, we must sunder “Western political philosophy decisively from cosmology and theology.” The finest modern theologians have accepted this separation, Lilla claims, and conceded that “the task of modern political thought must be to understand human nature rather than parse the divine nexus.”16

But Müntzer was not the only “theologian of the revolution” to emerge from the Reformation. Writing, like Müntzer, in the middle of a maelstrom—the English Civil War and the subsequent Cromwellian interlude—Gerrard Winstanley produced a theology of revolution in reaction to enclosure, the fencing off of common land for the purposes of “improvement” by profit-seeking landlords and tenants. By dispossessing peasants and other agrarian producers, enclosure created a rural proletariat and inaugurated the history of capitalism. (Like Müntzer’s sermons, some of these essays by Winstanley have been included by Verso in its “Revolutions” collection.) The chief spokesman for the short-lived Diggers commune that occupied St. George’s Hill outside London in April 1649, he drew little serious scholarly attention until the Marxist historian Christopher Hill devoted a goodly portion of his masterpiece The World Turned Upside Down (1972) to explicating Winstanley’s tracts—and here serious interpretive problems arise.

Though clearly sympathetic to Winstanley (he even compared him favorably to Thomas Hobbes), Hill ultimately interpreted his religious vernacular as prescientific obfuscation. In Hill’s view, Winstanley was stumbling in the early modern dark for a secular lexicon of communism. Pouncing on Winstanley’s assertion that “the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury,” Hill observed that while “the poetic, mythopoeic style…came naturally to him,” Winstanley was nonetheless “struggling toward concepts which were more precisely if less poetically formulated by non-theological materialisms.” (This trope of “struggling toward” secular theory had been used earlier by Engels: Müntzer “had only begun to grope” in theology toward a historical materialist enlightenment.)17

A Sacramental View of Reality

Winstanley was certainly unorthodox, mystical, and anticlerical. The conventional notion of God “held [him] under darkness,” he confessed. He recounted ecstatic episodes of “Vision, Voyce, and Revelation,” “Vision in Dreams, and out of Dreams,” as well as “Prophecies, Visions, and Revelations of Scriptures, of Prophets, and Apostles.” He despised the Anglican clergy for their unctuous obeisance to Crown and property, and he scoffed at the divine inspiration of the Bible, freely engaging in allegorical interpretations. Yet Hill’s contention that Winstanley was “struggling toward” ideas better articulated by “non-theological materialisms” reflects all the unexamined assumptions that underlie the narrative of “secularization,” especially that poetical or mythopoeic forms of understanding and explanation stand in utterly intractable opposition to those cast in scientific, historical, and technological terms. While Hobbes’s “scientific” political ontology was thoroughly mechanistic and nominalist—reason being “nothing but reckoning (that is, adding and subtracting) of the consequences of general names”—Winstanley’s recalled the enchanted medieval “sacramental view of reality,” in which the divinity of reason allowed it to speak in a variety of dialects: nature, prophecy, revelation, and “the rising up of Christ in sons and daughters.”18 Winstanley’s radicalism stemmed from a heterodox but irreducibly Christian brand of theology, not from some putative, lyrical floundering toward a secular enlightenment.

Most important, Hill’s position that premodern revolutionary ideas must be somehow liberated from their confinement within religious language rests on the assumption that religion is incapable of generating a genuinely revolutionary imagination. But Winstanley did not need dialectics or class analysis to respond to the injustices he saw all around him. He denounced private property and the theft of the commons because they violated God’s original communist mandate for creation—and that was enough to impel him into action. A representative of plebeian Protestantism, Winstanley was not a protodeistic infidel but rather a political theologian of the radical wing of the English Reformation. He was not “struggling toward” anything other than a prophetic remonstrance against the Lucifer of enclosure.

That challenge to capitalism in the English countryside partook of a sacramental imagination in which property was an iniquity, not a human right. “The whole creation,” Winstanley exulted, is “the cloathing of God.” “The Living Earth is the very Garden of Eden, wherein that spirit of Love, did walke.” With the earth as his clothing and with men and women as his undefiled image and likeness, God had ordained common ownership of the planet as the original state of nature. Though man was created “a perfect Creature,” the Fall was an act of idolatry, committed when man began to “delight himself in the objects of the Creation, more than in the Spirit Reason and Righteousness”—a formulation of original sin with which St. Augustine would have had no problem. This corrupt “delight” led to private property, class conflict, and tyrannical government—“Civil Propriety,” as Winstanley called it, the system of dominion that held the vast majority in mesmerized servitude. The earth was “hedged in to Inclosures,” he rued, while men were subjected to the demon of money, “the great god that hedges in some, and hedges out others.”19 Enclosure was a token of perverted desire for the sacramental goods of the earth.

Like Müntzer, Winstanley believed that the end of this infernal tyranny was fast approaching, to be followed by the restoration of the original communist state of nature. “We see it to be the fulness of Time,” he wrote; the “New Jerusalem” was imminent, and “the glory of the Lord shall be seen and known within the Creation.” But unlike Müntzer, Winstanley rejected eschatological violence. The sword was, by his lights, “an abominable, and unrighteous power, a destroyer of the Creation.” “We shall not do this by force of Arms,” he declared, but through the “streaming out of Love in our hearts towards all.” Recalling Acts, he described the descent of the Spirit onto the brethren: “the Rich men sold their Possessions, and gave part to the Poor; and no man said, That ought that he possessed was his own, for they had all things Common.” In the communist democracy of a new English Eden, the “great cheat” of buying and selling would cease, as would class, clergy, monarchy, and enclosure. “Universall love” would tear down the insidious enclosures of the Devil, and men and women would enter “the state of simple plainheartedness or innocency,” a communist republic of heaven. The occupation of St. George’s Hill was a dress rehearsal for the coming beatitude. “They that are resolved to work and eat together, making the earth a common treasury, doth join hands with Christ to lift up creation from bondage, and restore all things from the curse.”20

Restoration of the Common Treasury

As the author of an earlier and admiring book on Lenin, Hill must have smiled incredulously at these passages, leavened as they are with an eschatological hope that Marxists could only consider infantile and even reactionary. Gentle and fearless in their refusal of bloodshed, they express what theologians have termed a “realized eschatology”: living in the present as we would live in the future, not postponing the beloved community, but fulfilling our desire for it in the here and now. Through “universall love”—living “in community with the globe and…the spirit of the globe”—Winstanley hoped to overturn the apparatus of the Devil not by seeking to destroy his enemies but by transforming them into friends.21 If the revolutionary restoration of the earth as a “Common Treasury” entailed a society of friends, then love, he reasoned, must suffuse the means as well as the ends of revolutionary politics.

Preposterous to “non-theological materialisms” from Hobbes to Lenin and beyond, this proleptic political imagination has animated an ecumenical communion of radicals. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers espoused a “utopian, Christian communism” to be achieved by patient, nonviolent action, since “all the way to heaven is heaven.” Thomas Merton, for whom eschatology was “not finis and punishment” but rather “the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving as actual,” also mused that “a man cannot be a perfect Christian”—that is, offer a foretaste of heaven—“unless he is also a communist.” Martin Buber adopted a “prophetic eschatology” in which a revolutionary’s “means are commensurate with his ends,” since a revolution is “the setting free and extension of a reality that has already grown to its true possibilities.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s oft-quoted remark that “the arc of the universe is long, and bends toward justice” is unfathomable unless it is understood as an eschatological claim. This politics in which means and ends must exhibit a moral and ontological integrity rests on the faith that, in the words of clergyman and labor activist A.J. Muste, “the divine is always about to break into history,” every moment is a kairos, a time when the future pays an unsettling, hazardous, and emancipatory visit to the present.22

If we remain imprisoned in the political ontology of secular, pedestrian, unilinear time—the “immanent frame,” as the philosopher Charles Taylor has labeled it in his eponymous blog23—then politics cannot (we will continue to believe) be a realm in which love can act, let alone triumph. Winstanley’s eschatological sensibility can then be easily dismissed as an “infantile disorder.” But his confidence that the power of redemption is available now—a mark of the endurance of the sacramental view of reality allegedly surpassed—is perhaps the most compelling and revolutionary legacy of the Protestant Reformation, because it widens the parameters of political imagination and therefore of political possibility. For all its beguiling “realism” of violence, the revolutionary legacy of Müntzer has issued in ashes, carnage, and futility. The way of Winstanley requires more patience, to be sure, as well as an extraordinary degree of discipline in the face of retaliation or disappointment. But it also witnesses to love as a power and not simply as an ideal in history, and its partisans may be the most indomitable revolutionary force the world has ever known.


  1. Among the many books on the Russian Revolution that have been republished or newly published this year, see Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (New York, NY: Oxford University Press: 2017 [2008]); Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New History (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2017); China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (New York, NY: Verso, 2017); Mark D. Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905–1921 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017); Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017). For two sharply contrasting assessments, see Ronald Suny, Red Flag Unfurled: Historians, the Russian Revolution, and the Soviet Experience (New York, NY: Verso, 2017), and Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (New York, NY: Penguin, 2017 [1996]).
  2. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York, NY: Vintage, 1994). Among the books on the Reformation that have appeared this year or recently, see Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2012); Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2017); Alec Ryrie, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World (New York, NY: Viking, 2017); Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York, NY: Random House, 2017).
  3. Tariq Ali, The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Love, Empire, Revolution (New York, NY: Verso, 2017), vii; Ernst Bloch, Thomas Müntzer als Theologen der Revolution, quoted in Michael Lowy, Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe (New York, NY: Verso, 2017), 143–44; Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Volume II (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995 [1959]), 610.
  4. Bloch, quoted in Lowy, Redemption and Utopia, 143; Antonio Gramsci, “‘Wave of Materialism’ and ‘Crisis of Authority,’” in Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, eds., Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York, NY: International Publishers Co., 1971), 276.
  5. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 262; see 262–79 for a fuller discussion.
  6. The scriptural quote is from Acts 4:32. “Dangerous memory” is an invocation of Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1980).
  7. Gerrard Winstanley, “A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England” (1649), in Thomas Corns, Ann Hughes, and David Loewenstein, eds., The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley, Volume 2 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 32.
  8. R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New Brunswick, NJ: Routledge, 1998 [1926]), 32.
  9. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York, NY: Viking, 1963), 25–27; Eric Voeglin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 121; Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1970 [1957]), esp. 148–86, 205–22, 234–80, 287–330, quote on 251.
  10. Wilhelm Weitling, The Poor Sinner’s Gospel, trans. Dinah Livingstone (London, England: Sheed and Ward, 1969 [1843]), 17; Friedrich Engels, “Progress of Social Reform on the Continent” (1843), quoted in Roland Boer, In the Vale of Tears: Marxism and Theology, V (Chicago, IL: Historical Materialism, 2014), 135. On the clash between Weitling and Marx and Engels, see Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2016), 213–16.
  11. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany (New York, NY: International Publishers Co., 1926 [1850]), 30, 32, 34.
  12. Ibid., 34.
  13. Karl Kautsky, Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation (New York, NY: Russell and Russell, 1959 [1897]), 59, 8–9; Rosa Luxemburg, “Socialism and the Churches” (1905), retrieved from Luxemburg Internet Archive,
  14. Wu Ming Presents Thomas Müntzer: Sermon to the Princes, trans. Michael G. Baylor (New York, NY: Verso, 2010). Once dismissed as an oddball, Müntzer is now seen as a major figure in the early years of the German Reformation. See, for instance, Tom Scott, Theology and Revolution in the German Reformation (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 1989), and Hans-Jurgen Goertz, Thomas Müntzer: Apocalyptic, Mystic, and Revolutionary (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1993). Baylor has collected some of Müntzer’s sermons and treatises in Revelation and Revolution: Basic Writings of Thomas Müntzer (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1993).
  15. Alberto Toscano, preface to Sermon to the Princes, xii; China Miéville, “Why Does the Russian Revolution Matter?,” Guardian online, May 6, 2017,; Bertrand Russell, The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism (London, England: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1921 [1920]); on the Bolshevik Revolution as a millenarian phenomenon, see Slezkine, The House of Government, 3–312; 113; Müntzer, “Sermon to the Princes,” in Revelation and Revolution: Basic Writings of Thomas Müntzer, ed. and trans. Michael G. Baylor, 111; “A Protest about the Condition of the Bohemians” (1521), ibid., 7; “Special Exposure of False Faith” (1524), ibid., 58; “An Exposition of the Second Chapter of Daniel” (1524), ibid., 31–32; Vladimir Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” (1920), in Robert Tucker, ed., The Lenin Anthology (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1975), 550–618; “What Is to Be Done?” (1902), ibid., 24; “The State and Revolution” (1917), ibid., 373.
  16. Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York, NY: Vintage, 2008), 58, 247.
  17. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (New York, NY: Penguin, 1991 [1972]), esp. 107–50 passim., 387–94, and “The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley,” in The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill, Volume II: Religion and Politics in Seventeenth-Century England (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 1986), 185–252, quote on 236; Winstanley, “The True Levellers Standard Advanced” (1649), in Complete Works, Volume 2, 4; Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, 34.
  18. Winstanley, “Truth Lifting Up Its Head above Scandals” (1648), in Complete Works, Volume 1, 414; “True Levellers Standard Advanced,” in Complete Works, Volume 2, 13–14; “The New Law of Righteousness” (1649), Complete Works, Volume 1, 485; Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (New York, NY: Penguin, 1985 [1651]), 111.
  19. Winstanley, “Truth Lifting Up Its Head,” 421; “Fire in the Bush” (1650), Complete Works, Volume 2, 176–77; “True Levellers Standard Advanced,” 4–5, 6, 11.
  20. Winstanley, “True Levellers Standard Advanced,” 10, 13, 14; “New Law of Righteousness,” 485; “A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and Armie” (1650), Complete Works, Volume 2, 144.
  21. Christopher Hill, Lenin and the Russian Revolution (London, England: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947).
  22. Dorothy Day, “All the Way to Heaven Is Heaven,” Catholic Worker (June 1948), 1, 2, 7; Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York, NY: New Directions, 1966), 75; New Seeds of Contemplation (New York, NY: New Directions, 1962), 178; Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996 [1949]), 10, 13; A.J. Muste, “Saints for This Age” (1962), in Nat Hentoff, ed., The Essays of A.J. Muste (New York, NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), 415.
  23. The Immanent Frame blog ( takes its name from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2007), and its use of this phrase on 542–57.

Eugene McCarraher is an associate professor of humanities at Villanova University. He is the author of Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought and the forthcoming The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.3 (Fall 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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