The Art of the Possible

Over at The New Yorker, Louis Menand is reviewing Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 and reflecting on the history of totalitarianism.

In Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union, the agent of this transformation was not the state. It was the party. The state, especially the judiciary, was simply the party’s bureaucratic dummy. This was because the purpose of totalitarian transformation was not mere efficiency—“making the trains run on time,” as people used to say of Fascist Italy. Nor was it the enjoyment of power for power’s sake, as many representations of totalitarian regimes, such as George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-four,” suggested. The purpose was the realization of a law of historical development, the correct understanding of which was a monopoly of the party. In Hitler’s Germany, life was transformed in the name of a single goal: racial purity. (“The state is only a vessel,” Hitler wrote, in “Mein Kampf,” “and the race is what it contains.”) In the Soviet Union, it was done in the name of the classless society and the workers’ state.

The authority of these chiliastic ideologies is what made totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia different from traditional dictatorships, and what made them terrifying. They were not just static systems of hyper-control. They were dynamic and dangerously unstable. They regarded the present as a temporary stage in history’s unfolding, and the fantastic unrealizability of what was to be—pure Germanness, or the classless society—made what merely was something only to be destroyed or overcome. Everything was expendable.

Menand uses the word “chiliastic,” which means the same thing as “millennial”: a belief in an end times with Christ’s 1,000 year reign. It’s a religious phrase that has become secularised, because the sort of devout utopianism that it represents has spread to the secular sphere.

As Tillich pointed out in Dynamics of Faith, the totalitarian mindset can be considered a faith. It offers a single theory that promises a utopia in the future in return for everybody’s absolute dedication right now. Looked at it that way and Lenin and Hitler become two more participants in the long-running attempt to bring on the millennium. They viewed the goal as a racially pure Germany or a classless society rather than the Kingdom of Heaven, but their thinking ran along the same lines.

As atheists, we take a lot of crap about the fact that Marxism and the totalitarian governments that it inspired were explicitly atheist. To our detractors, the loss of God removes the moral center from life and the loss of religion and church removes the institution that reveals that morality.

But that misses the core of the problem. By their own understandings, the actions of Hitler’s Nazis and Lenin’s Bolsheviks were moral, necessary or both. Their party had became their church. The problem is not that they abandoned religion for politics, it’s that their politics became a religion.

There’s an old saying that politics is the art of the possible and religion is the art of the impossible. The need for that divide seems to me to be one of the most important lessons we can learn from the last century.

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