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.

  • kessy_athena

    Why is there an extra bar on the hammer part of the hammer and sickle?

  • vasaroti

    I’ve seen “religious thinking” in my atheist friends, too – ideologies held without a shred of solid evidence. For example, an atheist I know was claiming before the election that the White people who were voting for Obama were “self-loathing liberals” who felt they owed Black people something because of some inherited guilt for slavery. I challenged him to name a single person who espoused such a view, and he couldn’t, but maintained that there must be thousands of ‘em out there. It did me no good to point out that we liberals are anything but self-loathing, and I’ve yet to meet one who felt that the offspring of people who did bad things shared in any way with their parent’s guilt. We (atheist liberals) leave that “sins of the father” nonsense to the faithful. I’m left wondering how a person develops such an improbable world view. Increasingly, I suspect that early religious indoctrination damages one’s ability to evaluate data.

    • Nox

      Or they are getting bad data (or both).

      Your description of that person’s opinion on liberals doesn’t sound that different from Rush Limbaugh’s description of liberals.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Interesting. Christians have their 1000 years of Christ fantasy. Germans had their 1000 year Reich. Soviets had their indeterminate time when Communism will rule the world. I’ve said it for years that Communism was nothing more than a Christian religion with slightly different gods and devils, though I lived there we didn’t call it that. In fact, they carefully didn’t teach anything about religion because they didn’t want people to start comparing notes.

  • Bob Jase

    Europe, including Russia, had totalitarian control imposed by various versions of Christian churches for centuries. The Nazis & Communists were just following the trend.