Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics




By A. James Gregor


The Montréal Review, April 2012


 "Totalitarianism and Political Religion: An Intellectual History" by A. James Gregor (Stanford University Press, 2012)


"A. James Gregor is indisputably the foremost authority on totalitarian philosophy and practice in the English-speaking world (at least). This magisterial book will add to that reputation: there are few scholars, if any, who could produce a work of such panoramic sweep. Further, Gregor makes the most imaginative linkages between ideas and phenomena that previously might have seemed unrelated. His provocative insights will attract much attention."

-Anthony James Joes, Saint Joseph's University

"In this impressive work of scholarship, A. James Gregor shows that the totalitarian twins, communism and fascism, are not at all what they claim to be--secular and atheistic ideologies--but thinly disguised 'political religions' arising from their common source in the militant intellectual milieu that Marxism engendered."

- Carl Linden, Emeritus, The George Washington


In his Essays Moral, Literary, and Political, David Hume argued that it is not possible for a competitive political party to "support itself without a philosophical or speculative system of principles annexed to its political or practical one." What that seems to imply is that if a political party has "political or practical" intent, it requires the collateral or anticipatory support of a "nonpolitical" or "categorical" set of moral imperatives if it seeks to deploy legitimate force in any given contested environment. Moral principles supply the authority for imperatives and the persuasiveness of recommendations.

Political societies, ranging from those preliterate to those technologically sophisticated, have identified their leaders with divinity in the effort to supply that authority and persuasiveness. Divine beings are generally conceived possessed of the binding power to issue commands. Thus, the meanest, prehistoric tribal chiefs together with the emperors of modernizing Japan have been identified with, or are fancied as, descendants of gods and goddesses. So conceived, they were understood to have the legitimate right to command obedience and dutiful sacrifice.

As the Age of Reason undermined politicized religions as the basis of authoritative rule in the West, political thinkers sought to provide its alternative. By the time of the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke of a civil religion as a substitute that could provide the warrant for rule--for the issuance of binding commands.

In modern political systems, civil religions generally share a clutch of properties: they distinguish themselves from the prophetic religions by not proselytizing, by making no claim to infallibility, and refusing to define punishable heterodoxy. As a consequence, they tend to be tolerant of alternative beliefs. Their ultimate claim to moral authority is not predicated on revelation, but on presumptive fairness and equity-the moral grounds of secular governance.

A challenge to the role and character of civil religions arose with the emergence of an alternative foundation for political rule. In parts of Europe political philosophers put together an argument that identified, rather than distinguished, political and religious authority. G. W. F. Hegel maintained that the rationale for the political state required its identity with religion-for, in the last analysis, religion provided "stability" for the "practice of righteousness" and the basis for the discharge of duty. It was a summary statement of the deontological rationale for what was to become political religion in the twentieth century.

As a student of Hegel, the young Karl Marx fully understood the implications. In a letter to his father in November 1837, the young Karl Marx spoke of his intention to deliver a "dialectical account of divinity, as it manifests itself in the idea in itself, as religion, as nature, and as history"-an account that, in effect, would supply the necessary warrant for political authority. It was Ludwig Feuerbach, and a host of thinkers who followed him, who explicitly sought to make of all that a theanthropism, a political "Religion of Man."

In 1842, in a long essay on "Shelling and Revelation," Friedrich Engels spoke of "the self-consciousness of humankind" as it works itself out in history as "the true religion." He spoke of it as supplying the "eternal truth" of "every genuine philosopher"-for which one would "give up all else," sacrificing "body and soul," to "follow where it leads, even to death." What he described was the grounds for a secularized political religion that would serve as the normative base for his revolutionary convictions.

The realization of human self-consciousness in history would constitute the unproblematic normative ground for revolution and political rule. It would be the "eternal truth" for which one labors and sacrifices unto death; it would mean redemption for a cursed humanity; it would become an intolerant political philosophy that would suffer neither objection nor resistance.

For a variety of reasons, these notions became increasingly influential during the nineteenth century. Revolutionaries of both the "right" and "left" found them persuasive. They animate Marxism in all its expressions-from Lenin to Mao Zedong. Through Feuerbach, they influenced the political thought of Richard Wagner, and through him, Hitler's National Socialism. By the beginning of the new century, they shaped the political philosophy of the neo-Hegelian Giovanni Gentile.

Once committed, each sought an appropriate vehicle for the temporal redemption of humankind. For the left, it was an economic class, exploited and demeaned; for the right it is either biological race, corrupted and abused-or the state itself, guarantor of status and fulfillment.

Although the pretense was that these judgments were each products of secular "science"--economic, biologic, or philosophic-they were treated not as the corrigible results of fallible inquiry, but impeccable truths, tolerating nothing that might qualify as counterevidence. In all cases, the rationale was treated as an orthodoxy that refused to countenance opposition. It was an orthodoxy characteristically supplied by venerated texts, authored by those who deliver themselves of truths that take on the character of revelation.

Once these orthodoxies take on the full form of political regimes, they typically generate rituals, a political liturgy, and identify their leader or leaders as "charismatic" bearers of grace, and architects of salvation. Such leaders are gifts of Providence, productive of "New Men" and a "New World." They demand sacrifice and labor, obedience and belief. Each person is conceived a functional part of an indivisible whole-an economic class, a primordial race, or a component of the Total State. That identity--in the service of the self-realization of consciousness in history--is the source of the moral authority for absolute political rule.

In order to sustain, protect and foster the integrity of that moral authority, the entire fabric of identities on which it rests must be reinforced. Significant differences must be resolved-through education and reeducation, isolation, exile, or purging. The ideal is seamless unity of the political whole--through effortless compliance, selfless sacrifice, and impeccable conviction.

In the course of the twentieth century such systems matured into the ill-defined class of totalitarianisms. Some were obscenities like the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia--that arose and quickly passed away. Most self-destructed, leaving behind irrelevancies like Castro's Cuba--or the stone age immobility of North Korea. Virtually all were guilty of enormities rarely experienced in the political history of humanity. Within those systems, millions perished in political purges, murder factories, labor camps, and/or in attempting impossible tasks imposed upon them by their leaders. Few of those systems survived long enough to test their viability over time. The few that remain, like post-Maoist China, provide a confused image of societies in transition, unsteady in their course, and uncertain in their purpose.


A. JAMES GREGOR is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and has served as H. L. Oppenheimer Professor at the Marine Corps University at Quantico, Virginia. For his work on the history of the Italian peninsula, he was awarded a knighthood in the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy. He is the author of thirty books, most recently "Marxism, Fascism, and Totalitarianism: Chapters in the Intellectual History of Radicalism" (Stanford University Press, 2008).


Copyright © The Montreal Review. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911

about us | contact us