Millennial Communism


This article is excerpted from volume 2, chapter 10 of An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (1995). An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.

The key to the intricate and massive system of thought created by Karl Marx (1818–83) is at bottom a simple one: Karl Marx was a communist. A seemingly banal or trite statement set alongside Marxism’s myriad of jargon-ridden concepts in philosophy, economics, history, culture, etc. Yet Marx’s devotion to communism was his crucial point, far more central than the dialectic, the class struggle, the theory of surplus value, and all the rest. Communism was the goal, the great end, the desideratum, the ultimate end that would make the sufferings of mankind throughout history worthwhile. History is the history of suffering, of class struggle, of the exploitation of man by man. In the same way as the return of the Messiah, in Christian theology, would put an end to history and establish a new heaven and a new earth, so the establishment of communism would put an end to human history. And just as for postmillennial Christians, man, led by God’s prophets and saints, would establish a Kingdom of God on earth (and, for premillennials, Jesus would have many human assistants in establishing such a Kingdom), so for Marx and other schools of communists, mankind, led by a vanguard of secular saints, would establish a secularized kingdom of heaven on earth.

In messianic religious movements, the millennium is invariably established by a mighty, violent upheaval, an Armageddon, a great apocalyptic war between good and evil. After this titanic conflict, a millennium, a new age, of peace and harmony, a reign of justice, would be established upon the earth.

Marx emphatically rejected those utopians who aimed to arrive at communism through a gradual and evolutionary process, through a steady advancement of the good. No, Marx harked back to the apocalyptics, the postmillennial coercive German and Dutch Anabaptists of the 16th century, to the millennial sects during the English Civil War, and to the various groups of premillennial Christians who foresaw a bloody Armageddon at the Last Days, before the millennium could be established. Indeed, since the immediatist postmils refused to wait for gradual goodness and sainthood to permeate among men, they joined the premils in believing that only a violent apocalyptic final struggle between good and evil, between saints and sinners, could establish the millennium. Violent, worldwide revolution, in Marx’s version made by the oppressed proletariat, would be the instrument of the advent of his millennium, communism.

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In fact, Marx, like the premils (or "millenarians") went further to hold that the reign of evil on earth would reach a peak just before the apocalypse. For Marx as for the millenarians, writes Ernest Tuveson,

The evil of the world must proceed to its height before, in one great complete root-and-branch upheaval, it would be swept away….

Millenarian pessimism about the perfectibility of the existing world is crossed by a supreme optimism. History, the millenarian believes, so operates that, when evil has reached its height, the hopeless situation will be reversed. The original, the true harmonious state of society, in some kind of egalitarian order, will be reestablished.[1]

In contrast to the various groups of utopian socialists, and in common with religious messianists, Karl Marx did not sketch the features of his future communism in any detail. Not for Marx, for example, to spell out the number of people in his utopia, and the shape and location of their houses, the pattern of their cities. In the first place, there is a quintessentially crazy air to utopias that are mapped by their creators in precise detail. But more importantly, spelling out the details of one’s ideal society removes the crucial element of awe and mystery from the allegedly inevitable world of the future. In the same way, science fiction movies lose their glamour and excitement when, in the second half of the film, the mysterious, powerful, and previously invisible monsters become concretized into slow-moving green blob-like creatures that have lost their mysterious aura and have become almost commonplace.

But certain features are broadly alike in all visions of communism. Private property is eliminated, individualism goes by the board, individuality is flattened, all property is owned and controlled communally, and the individual units of the new collective organism are in some vague way equal to one another.

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This millennialist emphasis on the collective is a long way from the orthodox Christian, Augustinian stress on the individual soul and his salvation. In orthodox, amillennial Christianity, the individual does or does not achieve salvation, until Jesus returns and puts an end to history, and ushers in the Day of Judgment. There is no millennium on earth; the Kingdom of God remains safely, and appropriately, in heaven. But millennialism’s emphasis on achieving a Kingdom of God on earth inevitably stressed – especially in the required human agency of the postmillennialists – the inevitable collective march toward the Kingdom in and through history. In what we may call the "immediatist" version of postmil doctrine, as we have seen in Volume 1 in the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the coercive Anabaptists of the Reformation, in Christian communists and in a secularized version in Marxism, the object is to seize immediate power in a violent revolution, and to purge the world of sinners and heretics, i.e., all who are not followers of the sect in question, so as to establish the millennium, the precondition of Jesus’s Second Advent. In contrast, the gradualist postmils, in less violent and precipitate fashion, who would seize control of most of the Protestant churches in the northern United States during the 19th century, wanted to use state power to coerce morality and virtue and then establish the Kingdom of God, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. As one historian penetratingly concludes about one of the most prominent postmil economists and social scientists of the late 19th century – a passage that could apply to the entire movement:

In [Richard T.] Ely’s eyes, government was the God-given instrument through which we had to work. Its preeminence as a divine instrument was based on the post-Reformation abolition of the division between the sacred and the secular and on the State’s power to implement ethical solutions to public problems. The same identification of sacred and secular … enabled Ely to both divinize the state and socialize Christianity: he thought of government as God’s major instrument of redemption … [2]

Gradualists or immediatists, all millennialists have caused grave social and political trouble by "immanentizing the eschaton" – in the political philosopher Eric Voegelin’s infelicitously worded but highly perceptive phrase. As an orthodox Christian, Voegelin believed that "the eschaton" – the Final Days, the Kingdom of God – must be kept strictly out of earthly matters and be confined to the other-worldly realms of heaven and hell. But to take the "eschaton" out of heaven and bring it down into the processes of human history, is to create grave problems and consequences: consequences which Voegelin saw embodied in such immanent and messianic movements as Marxism and Nazism.

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In common with other utopian socialists and communists, Marx sought in communism the apotheosis of the collective species – mankind as one new super-being, in which the only meaning possessed by the individual is as a negligible particle of that collective organism. One incisive portrayal of Marxian collective organicism – what amounts to a celebration of the New Socialist Man to be created during the communizing process – was that of a top Bolshevik theoretician of the early 20th century, Alexander Alexandravich Bogdanov (1873–1928). Bogdanov, like Joachim of Fiore, spoke of "three ages" of human history: first was a religious, authoritarian society and a self-sufficient economy. Next came the "second age," an exchange economy, marked by diversity and the emergence of "autonomy" of the "individual human personality." But this individualism, at first progressive, later becomes an obstacle to progress as it hampers and "contradicts the unifying tendencies of the machine age." But then there will arise the third age, the final stage of history, communism, though not as with Joachim, an age of the Holy Spirit. This last stage will be marked by a collective self-sufficient economy, and by

the fusion of personal lives into one colossal whole, harmonious in the relations of its parts, systematically grouping all elements for one common struggle – struggle against the endless spontaneity of nature … An enormous mass of creative activity … is necessary in order to solve this task. It demands the forces not of man but of mankind – and only in working at this task does mankind as such emerge.[3]

The acme of messianic communism appears in the frenzied three-volume phantasmagoria by the notable German blend of Christian messianist and Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist, Ernst Bloch (1885–1977). Bloch held that the "inner truth" of things could only be discovered after "a complete transformation of the universe, a grand apocalypse, the descent of the Messiah, a new heaven, and a new earth." As J.P. Stern writes in his review of Bloch’s three-volume Principle of Hope, the book contains such remarkable declamations as Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem (“Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem”), and that "the Bolshevist fulfillment of Communism" is part and parcel of "the age-old fight for God." There is also more than a hint, in Bloch, that disease, nay even death itself, will be abolished upon the advent of communism.[4]

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In contrast, there is no more eloquent championing of orthodox Christian individualism and revulsion against collectivism, than G.K. Chesterton’s critique of the views of a leading Fabian socialist, Mrs. Annie Besant – in which Chesterton swats Mrs. Besant’s pantheistic Buddhism:

According to Mrs Besant the universal Church is simply the universal Self. It is the doctrine that we are really all one person; that there are no real walls of individuality between man and man…. She does not tell us to love our neighbor; she tells us to be our neighbors … the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity is that, for the Buddhist or theosophist, personality is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God, the whole point of his cosmic idea.[5]

Let us turn to some of the main features of communism. In the typical communal millennial future, an epoch of bliss and harmony, work, the necessity to labor, becomes deemphasized or disappears altogether. Labor, at least labor in order to maintain and advance one’s living standards, does not ring true with very many people as a feature of utopia. Thus, in the vision of Joachim of Fiore, perhaps the first medieval millennialist, no work would be required to disturb the endless round of celebration and prayer, because mankind would have achieved the status of immaterial objects. If man were pure spirit, it is true that the economic problem – the problem of production and living standards – would necessarily disappear. Unfortunately, however, Marx, being an atheist and materialist, could not exactly fall back on a Fiore-like communism of pure spirit. How could solidly material human beings solve the problem of production and of maintaining and expanding their living standards?

There was method in Marx’s refusal to treat the communist stage in any detail. His utopia was shadowy. On the one hand, Marx assumed and asserted that goods in the future communist society would be superabundant. If so, there would of course be no need to refer to the universal economic problem of scarcity of means and resources as applied to ends. But by assuming away the problem, Marx bequeathed the puzzle to future generations, and Marxists have been split on the question: Will communism itself bring about this magical state of superabundance, or should we wait until capitalism brings superabundance before we establish communism? Generally, Marxist groups have solved this problem, not in theory but in practice (or "praxis"), by cleaving to whatever path would allow them either to conquer or to maintain their power. Thus Marxist vanguards or parties, on seeing an opportunity to seize power, have been invariably willing to skip the "stages of history" preordained by their Master and exercise their revolutionary will. On the other hand, Marxist elites already entrenched in power have prudentially put off the ultimate goal of communism ever further into a receding future. And so the Soviets were quick to stress hard work and gradualism in persevering toward the ultimate goal.[6]

There are several other probable reasons for Marx’s failure to detail the features of ultimate communism, or, indeed, of the necessary stages to achieve it. First is that Marx had no interest in the economic features of his utopia; a simple question-begging assumption of unlimited abundance was enough. His main interest, as we shall see, was in the philosophic, indeed religious, aspects of communism. Second, communism for Marx was an inverted form of Hegel and his philosophy of history; it was the revolutionary end to Marx’s neo-Hegelian version of "alienation" and of the "dialectic" process by which the aufhebung (transcendence) and negation of one historical stage is replaced by another and opposing one. In this case: the negation of the evil condition of private property and the division of labor, and the establishment of communism, in which man’s unity with man and nature is achieved. To Marx, as to Hegel, history necessarily proceeds by this magical dialectic, in which one stage gives rise inevitably to a later and opposing stage. Except that to Marx, the "dialectic" is material rather than spiritual.[7] Marx never published his neo-Hegelian Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in which the philosophic basis of Marxism was set forth, and one essay of which, "Private Property and Communism," contained Marx’s fullest exposition of the communist society. One reason for his refusal to publish was that, in later decades, Hegelian philosophy had gone out of fashion, even in Germany, and Marx’s followers were interested more in the economic and revolutionary aspects of Marxism.