Revolution and Religion

Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith

by James H. Billington
Basic Books, 677 pp., $25.00

We all know the parallels, popularized in The God That Failed and so many other places, between Marxism and religion. Primitive communism represents the lost Eden, capitalism the present vale of tears, Marx is the prophet and his writings the sacred texts, while communism, of course, is heaven on earth.

James Billington’s book attempts to spread this metaphor across the entire “revolutionary faith” from “the Incarnation of 1789” to the “Second Coming of 1917.” Modern revolutionaries are, Billington says on the first page of Fire in the Minds of Men, believers as committed as any religious fanaties. What is new about them is that they seek perfection on earth rather than in heaven, and they see the forcible overthrow of traditional authority as the path to it. This revolutionary faith did not, as is commonly believed, grow out of the rational tendencies of the French Enlightenment. It has its roots in German “occultism and proto-romanticism,” and from there it was taken up by literary intellectuals “fascinated by secret societies” who found in ideology “a secular surrogate for religious belief.”

This is not a portrait to which revolutionaries or their sympathizers will take kindly. Marx, Bakunin, Lenin, and many lesser revolutionaries were bitter opponents of religion. Marxists in particular have always contrasted their materialist and scientific approach to the idealistic illusions of religion, which serve only to distract human beings from the real struggle for a better world. Religion has so often been a bulwark of conservatism that revolutionaries often regard religion as their polar opposite. So when we read Billington’s statement of his theme on the opening page of a text of more than five hundred pages, backed by another hundred and fifty pages of scholarly notes, we expect that solid evidence and hard argument will follow. Our expectations are heightened by Billington’s impeccable scholarly credentials: currently director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a past Chairman of the Board of Foreign Scholarship, Billington taught history at Harvard and Princeton and is the author of Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism and The Icon and the Axe, a widely acclaimed interpretation of Russian culture.

Readers of The Icon and the Axe will not be surprised to find that Fire in the Minds of Men contains highly readable snippets about many revolutionary figures. There is Nicholas Bonneville, a pioneer of revolutionary journalism who, a year after the fall of the Bastille, addressed the king of France by the plebeian tu instead of the more formal vous, thus starting a revolutionary tradition still followed by socialists who speak languages in which this distinction exists. The clash between Marx and the anarchists Proudhon and Bakunin is a more familiar story, but one good enough to stand Billington’s retelling. And then of course there is Russia, where Billington’s touch is most sure, for instance in his convincing portrait of Stepan Radchenko, “the first truly professional apparatchik” and in Billington’s view the most neglected of all the founding …

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