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 fathers of Bolshevism.

It is not only in its cast of characters that Fire in the Minds of Men goes beyond what the reader of other histories of revolution might expect to find; in the book’s sections on French revolutionary café life, and on the part played by music, especially opera, in the revolutionary tradition, Billington also traverses ground which, if not exactly virgin, has until now been tilled mainly by specialists. (Billington finds a revolutionary musical crescendo paralleling the revolutionary terror of 1792, a parallel appropriately marked by the manufacture of the first guillotine by a Strasbourg piano maker, just as Rouget de Lisle was finishing La Marseillaise.)

Somewhat less interestingly, Billington marks for us an extraordinary number of revolutionary “firsts”: the first appearances in print of the words “socialist” and “communist”; the first “fulltime revolutionary in the modern sense”; the first to suggest that socialism was to be realized by the workers rather than the intellectuals; the first workers’ group to call itself communist; the first use of the term “proletarian party”; the first Jewish military unit of modern times; the first example of mass defiance of the new military-industrial state in modern Europe; the first political group to call its members terrorists…and so on, to the point of irritation. 1 But where is the evidence linking revolution and religion?

For the specific claim that the revolutionary tradition developed from German occultism rather than French rationalism, Billington does offer evidence. His case rests largely on the influence of the secret Order of Illuminists, founded in Bavaria in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, with the aim of leading humanity to a new moral perfection freed from religious and political authority. Membership grew to around 2,500 by 1785, when the order was broken up by the Bavarian police; but its influence continued and can be traced in the ideas of Mirabeau, the aristocratic leader of the Third Estate at the beginning of the French Revolution; of Nicholas Bonneville, the neglected revolutionary journalist; and of Filippo Buonarroti, the author of History of the Babeuf Conspiracy and the man Billington describes as “the first truly to become a full-time revolutionary in the modern sense of having total dedication to the creation by force of a new secular order.”


If Billington is to invoke the Order of Illuminists in support of his claim that the modern revolutionary tradition stems from occultism rather than rational secular thought, he has to show, first, that the Order was truly an occult organization; second, that it was precisely its occult features that influenced later revolutionaries; and third, that this influence persisted and became part of the revolutionary tradition. On the second and third counts, Billington’s evidence is extremely thin.

The Order of Illuminists was a sect with its own peculiar initiation rites and hierarchical order of admission to ever more secret inner circles of the Order. In the techniques it used to ensure total commitment in its members, it reminds us that the psychological methods of contemporary sects are nothing new. But unlike religious sects, the Order of Illuminists had a secular and explicitly anti-religious aim. On Billington’s own showing, Mirabeau was impressed by the rationalistic elements of Illuminism, and deliberately set out to distinguish the “great aim” of the Illuminists—“the improvement of the present system of governments and legislation”—from its mystical tendencies. If this aim is what Mirabeau took over from Illuminism, it seems that in his thought, at least, the French Enlightenment prevailed over German occultism.

Bonneville may have had more time for secret societies and mystical symbols than Mirabeau, but he too had some very straightforward progressive ideas. His Universal Confederation of the Friends of Truth advocated progressive taxation and the extension of civil equality to women and blacks. It is not clear that his interest in German occultism made much difference to his views on revolution.

Buonarroti is a better example of a revolutionary for whom the quest for perfection on earth took on a religious spirit, and whose secret revolutionary organizations—which seem to have existed largely in his own imagination—were modeled on those of the Freemasons and Illuminists. Yet even here, Billington does not establish that occultism was more important than rationalist critiques of privilege and inequality. No comparative assessment is attempted and the details we are given of Buonarroti’s thought are too scanty to provide any perspective on the importance of his organizational fantasies.

Suppose we were to grant, despite the paucity of evidence, that Bonneville and Buonarroti—though surely not Mirabeau—were inspired by German occultism and proto-romanticism. We would only be entitled to ascribe these origins to the modern revolutionary tradition if this tradition itself can be traced back to Bonneville and Buonarroti.

Billington makes the attempt:

The starting point for a distinct and continuous social revolutionary tradition was the publication in 1828—at the nadir of revolutionary hopes—of Buonarroti’s massive memorial to Babeuf: The Conspiracy for Equality. It provided at last both an ancestry and a model for egalitarian revolution by publicizing the all-but-forgotten Babeuvists.

Billington then goes on to summarize Buonarroti’s idea of revolution, emphasizing his endorsement of an elite revolutionary dictatorship which will lead the people back to a condition like Rousseau’s picture of natural liberty in which the “general will” is to govern. “The Buonarrotian legacy,” Billington tells us, particularly affected Belgium, for Buonarroti had moved to Brussels in 1824. “And Brussels,” Billington pointedly adds, “became the residence of Karl Marx during 1845-1847, when he was formulating the ideas for his Communist Manifesto….” After a brief description of the career of the prominent French revolutionary, Auguste Blanqui, Billington continues:

One decade after Buonarroti’s death in 1837 and eight years after Blanqui’s eclipse, the social revolutionary tradition gave birth to the Communist League.

Thus Billington would lead us from Illuminism to Buonarroti to communism and Marx. But the links are tenuous. Buonarroti and Marx both sought a revolution to bring about a more egalitarian society: there the resemblance ends. Marx always scorned those who thought that secret conspiracies—or indeed any kind of minority seizure of power—could bring about a genuine revolution. For Marx a successful revolution could occur only when the economic basis existed for it, and when this occurred the entire proletariat—the vast majority of society—would be conscious of the need for revolution and the role it was to play in it.

Billington suggests that Marx’s idea of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” is a transformation of Buonarroti’s idea of a transitional elite dictatorship; but Billington distorts Marx’s meaning in order to bring the two ideas closer together. According to Billington Marx saw a need for “a revolutionary dictatorship to act on behalf of the proletariat.” The phrase Marx actually used, of course, was simply “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and although it is tempting to assume that he intended a small group of revolutionaries to assume dictatorial powers “on behalf of the proletariat”—as the Bolsheviks later did—he undoubtedly had in mind a rule by the proletariat which was dictatorial vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie, but not vis-à-vis proletarians. This can be seen by the way in which Marx explained the need for this dictatorship: it would be needed as long as society was divided into classes with opposed interests and it was to exist only until the economic basis of society had been changed and classes had been done away with. Thereafter there would be no need for dictatorship of any kind, and the state would cease to exercise a political, as distinct from an administrative, function.2


In addition to misrepresenting what Marx meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat, Billington gives the whole idea a misplaced importance in Marx’s thought. He selects for analysis two factors which, he says, distinguished Marx’s position from that of other revolutionaries in 1848: “the destiny of the proletariat and the necessity of dictatorship.” This is an astonishing choice, for no discussion of the necessity of dictatorship can be found in any of the major works published in Marx’s lifetime, and only the briefest references to it can be found in any of his voluminous writings. Moreover Billington omits what Marx invariably insisted was truly distinctive of his position, his claim to have discovered the decisive historical influence of economic forces.

The origins of Marx’s thought are German all right, but the Belgian Connection notwithstanding, they lie in German philosophy rather than German occultism. In so far as Marx was influenced by French radical ideas, those of Saint-Simon are generally considered to have been the most important, although other sources, like Fourier and Owen, are also possible. Which of these early socialists most influenced Marx is unclear, and also probably not very important, since so much of what is distinctive about Marx came from Hegel and Left Hegelians like Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Moses Hess.

So Billington’s attempt to use Illuminism to give a religious tinge to the entire revolutionary tradition breaks down at the crucial point at which he seeks to bring in Marx; in the absence of a firm link between Marx and Buonarroti, we may regard Illuminism and other occult movements as having ceased to influence the revolutionary tradition by the 1840s.

If the argument from the origin of the revolutionary tradition does not suffice to show that revolutionary hopes can properly be described as a “faith,” in what other ways does Billington propound his work’s stated theme? Considering the weight of the book, both literally and in terms of its scholarly apparatus, it is surprisingly hard to find further support for its main thesis.

Unless, that is, the use of religion as a metaphor is supposed to show something about the real nature of the people and events metaphorically described. For Billington does make heavy use of religious terms to describe revolutionaries and their actions. Buonarroti is “the first apostle”; Napoleon’s reappearance from Elba is “messianic”; liberty, fraternity, and equality are “the revolutionary Trinity”; revolutionary groups await a “Second Coming”; when Garibaldi and his followers gather nightly for patriotic songs it suggests “Christian vespers and pagan incantation”; radical Hegelians who criticized their rulers were like Christian prophets who identified oppressive rules with the Antichrist in order to heighten expectations of deliverance (Billington seems oblivious to the satirical intent of the title of “The Trumpet Call of the Last Judgment,” an article by the anti-religious Hegelian Bruno Bauer); the 1840s are the period of “The Early Church” of the revolutionary tradition, and the short-lived Communist League of that period “should play” for later communists the role that the Incarnation, or Pentecost, plays for Christians…and so on, and on.

Is this laboring of the religious metaphor supposed to carry the burden of proving that belief in revolution really is a form of religious belief? So woefully inadequate is it for this purpose that one can scarcely attribute such an intention to Billington. On the other hand, apart from the attempt to trace the revolutionary tradition back to German occultism, there is very little else that advances Billington’s theme. Further support is limited to a few paragraphs here and there arguing, for instance, that one of the reasons for the absence of a revolutionary tradition in England, America, and Switzerland was that in those countries ideological opposition to medieval Catholicism had been legitimized, and Protestantism therefore served as an alternative to the revolutionary faith. Elsewhere Billington alleges that religious themes played a more important role in the revolutionary ferment of 1848-1851 in Germany than is generally realized, and communism would probably not have attracted such instant attention had it not initially been mixed with Christian ideas. These points are only sketched, not argued as they would need to be argued to convince a moderately skeptical reader.

What would have to be done to show that the modern belief in revolution is a form of religion? The question is illuminating because it reveals what Billington has left undone. For a start, it would be necessary to state what one means by describing something as a religion. The term usually suggests belief in a divine being or power; since militant atheism was a prominent part of the thought of many revolutionaries, this is obviously not what Billington has in mind. Is there something else that in the mind of the revolutionary plays the role that God plays in the mind of the religious believer?

In The Essence of Christianity, Ludwig Feuerbach argued that religion is a kind of misconceived anthropology. Religious believers take all the best and noblest human qualities—love, knowledge, compassion, and power—and project them into a being of their own imagining, who exists outside the human world. As a result human beings are alienated from their own true essence, which they see as belonging to another being, infinitely more powerful and more perfect than they are. If only we could come to see that God is our creation, instead of regarding ourselves as his, we could end this state of alienation and usher in a new era in which the powers and qualities of the human species would replace God as the highest of all values and the pinnacle of the universe.

Feuerbach inverted the religious idea; but one might say that what he proposed was still a kind of religion, a humanist religion in which the supreme object of worship was no longer God, but Humanity. Since Feuerbach had a major influence on the Left Hegelians, including Marx, one might treat his view as merely an unusually explicit statement of a general tendency among revolutionary thinkers from Rousseau onward to deify our own species. To this deification of Humanity one could (as Billington does not) then trace the revolutionary belief that a perfect human society is possible, and indeed that to usher in this glorious state of affairs, all we have to do is get rid of existing conditions which enslave human beings and repress the potential for harmonious living which lies within us all.

The quest for a perfect society and its basis in a belief in a latently perfect human nature would seem to be the element in revolutionary thought that comes closest to being a religious belief. The perfectibility of mankind was, for some, an article of faith, held, as religious beliefs usually are, with an intensity of conviction that is related inversely to the evidence for it. One can, without gross unfairness, attribute this article of faith to revolutionary thinkers like Rousseau, Babeuf, Godwin, Owen, Proudhon, Bakunin, and the youthful Marx who wrote the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. But it is not at all clear that the mature Marx believed in the possibility of a perfect society. Certainly he thought that communism would do away with capitalism and with its crippling effect on human nature as well as the physical suffering it causes. He thought that under communism human beings would for the first time be truly free. But he also ridiculed Fourier’s idea that labor would become merely an amusement or a joke; really free labor, Marx said, would continue to be “damned serious” and demand the greatest effort, as the composing of music, for example, is a serious, demanding activity. Engels was even more explicit: “a perfect society, a perfect ‘state,’ ” he wrote, “are things which can only exist in imagination.”3

If it is unfair to say that the coming of a perfect society was an article of faith for Marx and Engels, could one at least say that the coming of a society incomparably better than our own was an article of faith for them? Possibly; except that of course Marx and Engels would have strenuously objected that their belief in the coming of communism was based on a scientific understanding of the objective historical situation of their time. We could accurately reply that their “scientific understanding” was tailored to suit their aspirations. Yet this reply does not touch the fact that from their own point of view, the way they held their beliefs was utterly different from the way religious believers hold their beliefs. Are we entitled to say that, whatever their subjective perceptions, Marx and Engels really had a religious attitude to the coming of communism? To get to the bottom of this question we would need what Billington does not supply: an account of how a religious attitude differs from a scientific one. Only then could we decide into which category Marx and Engels fitted. To attempt to brand Marxism as a religion without inquiring into the distinction between religion and science is to discuss the issue on an unreflective intuitive level that falls short of the level of discussion established more than thirty years ago by Karl Popper in The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper, whatever his other faults may be, was at least aware of the need to offer a criterion for distinguishing scientific from other forms of belief before arguing that Marxism was not a science.

I have devoted a disproportionate amount of this review to what Billington says about Marx. Marx is only one figure among hundreds of revolutionaries, though obviously a crucial one. To assess the claim that the revolutionary tradition is a modern religion, one would need to take into account all the other thinkers and activists who might be included in this tradition. But to do this one would need to have some way of deciding who is to be included in, and who excluded from, “the revolutionary tradition.” The absence of any suggestion as to how this might be done is an even more remarkable omission from Billington’s book than the absence of a definition of religion. Indeed Billington never even defends the assumption which underlies his entire enterprise: that there is a single revolutionary tradition. As Billington’s narrative moves from revolutionary nationalists like Mazzini to Marx and Bakunin and then through the organization men of the Social Democrat Party of Imperial Germany to the Russian bomb-throwing regicides of the People’s Will, we begin to wonder whether these disparate groups form a tradition at all. If they don’t, Fire in the Minds of Men has no theme at all; it becomes a series of disjointed episodes.

So far as the argument about revolution as religion is concerned, an independent criterion of what constitutes the revolutionary tradition is crucial. Without it, the whole thesis threatens to become circular, as only those who seek perfection on earth through the forcible overthrow of traditional authority are accepted as genuine revolutionaries, and then this common feature of all revolutionaries is used to point the parallel between the revolutionary and the religious faiths. Those who make revolution with more limited and realistic aims—like the constitutionalists of 1830 and 1848, or even of March, 1917—are simply read out of the revolutionary tradition so that they do not detract from its religious nature.

If Billington does not make his thesis circular in this way, it is because his defense of it is so loose that the question of who is a genuine revolutionary scarcely arises. Several chapters consist largely of descriptive and narrative history which, apart from the frequent religious metaphors I have already mentioned, seem unrelated to the book’s theme.

Perhaps because of a belated realization that the text he had written did not fit the theme he had proclaimed at its outset, Billington’s introduction has a final paragraph which begins: “But the story of revolutionaries in the nineteenth century is worth telling for its own sake…” and goes on to say that “this heroic and innovative record of revolutionaries without power is an awesome chapter in the history of human aspiration.”

The story of revolutionaries in the nineteenth century no doubt is worth telling for its own sake, and perhaps Billington’s book can profitably be read for his portraits of revolutionary thinkers and their milieus. It is curious, though, that those whose record is here described as “heroic,” “innovative,” and “awesome” would have thought the account given of that record in the next five hundred pages to be misleading and consistently unsympathetic. And they would have been right.

This Issue

November 6, 1980