OLD TIME RELIGION

The Marxist left, most of whom are enamoured of Lenin and the founding principles of the Soviet Union, are as deeply cultish as were the Bolsheviks:

Yuri Slezkine’s guiding argument in this remarkable, many-layered account of the men (rarely women) who shaped the October Revolution [The House of Government, Princeton University Press] is that the Bolsheviks were not a party but an apocalyptic sect. In an extended essay on comparative religion that constitutes just one of his thirty-three chapters, he puts Russia’s victorious revolutionaries in a long line of millenarians extending back to the ancient Israelites; in their “totalitarian” demands on the individual believer, he suggests, the Bolsheviks are cut from the same cloth as the sixteenth-century Münster Anabaptists and the original “radical fundamentalist”, Jesus Christ.

Slezkine is by no means the first person to draw the analogy between the Bolsheviks and sectarians (Lenin himself is reported to have taken an interest in the Münster Anabaptists and Cromwell’s Puritans as he pondered Russia’s revolutionary potential in the early twentieth century), but no one before him has extracted such analytical mileage from it. This intellectual framework allows him to explain the Bolsheviks’ striving to bring self and society, individual and history, into perfect alignment; their relentless study and exegesis of their own version of scripture (Marx and Engels, later Lenin); their jealous guarding of their purity and integrity; and their embrace of violence, which was a welcome sign of the apocalyptic confrontation that would herald the “Real Day”. Like other sects, the Bolsheviks had an intense, even incestuous, small-group cohesion born of initial persecution: they bonded fiercely and permanently in the prisons, places of exile and underground discussion circles where they first encountered one another. Like other millenarians, many of them seemed to relish the heat of battle more than the fruits of victory. Combat and violence provided a more immediate purpose than the future utopia, the outlines of which remained hazy and contested. Here, Slezkine suggests, the Bolsheviks had something in common with their founding fathers: Marx and Engels were more eloquent and informative on the irreconcilable contradictions and coming crisis of capitalism than on the future shape of communism.

The main then and now difference: contemporary leftists bonded not in prisons but in universities.

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