Category Archives: millennial

Alt-Mid to Alt-Lib: The far right’s new fascination with the Middle Ages

The Economist recently published a piece on the renewed interest in the Middle Ages. Like “fakenews” and “anti-semitism” these are issues that have been alive and well for over two decades without the WMSNM paying much attention. Now that they can be attributed to the “far-right,” they’re back in vogue as “new.” The piece is intellectually as disturbing as its claims about the “right’s” fascination with the MA: it offers a flattened MA, tailored as a refutation of the tribal emotions so common among people back then.

The far right’s new fascination with the Middle Ages

Jan 2nd 2017, 12:05 BY S.N. | CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA

UNTIL fairly recently, it was rare to find Americans who were passionate about both medieval history and contemporary politics.

Guess that makes me, who am writing a book subtitled A Medievalist’s Guide to the 21st Century, rare.

Barring the odd Christian conservative, medievalists tended to lean left: a Marxist grad student, say, mucking around in land ownership patterns to show how past inequalities gave birth to present ones,

NB: not to show how much past inequalities have been overcome, even though none of these Marxists would choose to live in the inequities of the Middle Ages.

or an environmentalist activist, perhaps, fascinated with vegetable-dyed handspun clothing.

I certainly don’t fit either “type,” despite having been accused of being “marxicisant” by Dominique Barthelemy because I thought peasants thought (demotic religiosity) and their actions, based on that thought, especially at the advent of apocalyptic dates, like 1000, was consequential.

My regret is that we have not seen more medievalists work on the rural and urban commune movement of the new millennium (11-13th centuries)… lay textual communities, laboratories of civil society, adumbrations of democracies to come.

But when Americans invoked historical events in politics, they tended to be more recent—the founding of the republic; the struggle against slavery and segregation; victory over Nazi Germany.

This has changed. Since the September 11th attacks, the American far right has developed a fascination with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—in particular, with the idea of the West as a united civilisation that was fending off a challenge from the East.

Had the “mainstream” of the public sphere, alerted by honest information professionals, developed an interest in medieval apocalyptic beliefs and “holy war,” which might have made Al Qaeda and Hamas more understandable as apocalyptic global imperialists, radicals might have been embarrassed to be associated with the folly of seeing them as “resistance warriors” just like us.

We are Hamas London 2009

Anti-Israel Rally, London, January 2009

Review of James Palmer, Apocalyptic in the Early Middle Ages


The Medieval Review 16.10.19

Palmer, James T. The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. 274. $29.99 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-107-44909-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Richard Landes

CIC, Bar Ilan University

[email protected]

I once asked a great medievalist, who had written on Raoul Glaber and the heresies and paradigmatic cognitive shifts that emerged suddenly in the early new century/millennium, why he never looked at the issue of the apocalyptic year 1000. “You know, as a graduate student I wanted to, but my advisor told me, don’t open that can of worms.” He might better have said, that hornet’s nest, because if one pokes around in there, one meets, as Michelet did from Ferdinand Lot, and I did from Sylvain Gouguenheim and Dominique Barthélemy, with vigorous, indignant, hard-hitting denial, roundly applauded by colleagues. [1]

Apparently, it violates some hard-wired medievalist conviction to suggest that the denizens of an entire generation of Western culture acted as if they were participants in the End-Time drama–whether they believed that this apocalyptic transformation would lead to the millennial kingdom on earth, or the End of the world entirely. No, it seems, leaders of the past (clerical and secular) kept their sangfroid in the face of (what to those of future, hindsight-endowed generations appeared to be) ludicrous prophecy. Augustine, historians have assured us, was the “true conscience of Christianity,” who guided his generation through “the dangerous thinking” at the time of the fall of Rome, and established the dominant orthodoxy in which neither apocalyptic beliefs nor millennial ones had a significant place. Up until a generation ago, most historians thought there was no millennialism between Augustine and Joachim of Fiore, and up until two generations ago, most medievalists thought Joachim was an insignificant thinker who would harm the reputation of any scholar foolish enough to consecrate her time to his study.

So when James Palmer set out to write a book on The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages, which would cover the period from the fall of Rome up to Y1K as he calls it, he was, at the very least, opening several cans of worms, in particular the two other “millennial” dates that preceded 1000 in Christian traditions of dating the apocalyptic advent of the messianic kingdom of the saints–das tausandjähriger Reich–to the end of the sixth millennium since creation. According to chronologies that variously calculated the number of years from creation, the year 6000 came twice within this book’s purview, in 500 (Y6K I), and in 801(Y6K II). While a few historians have made much of this tradition of millennial calculation, [2] no medievalist has yet to give a book-length treatment to the range of these dates, and no historian of either the “Fall” of Rome or the Carolingian imperial experiment has integrated this into their analyses.

Palmer does his best to strengthen the anti-apocalyptic (Augustinian) reading of history. For him the changes in calculation of the age of the world derive not from a desire to avoid facing an apocalyptic year 6000, but rather from “scholarly concerns.”

But…the roots of changes in chronological systems lay not in an aversion or attachment to their apocalyptic implications, but rather in debates about computistical orthodoxy… The results, I will argue, muddied the water for understanding the passing of the world’s 6,000th year considerably, which makes it harder to determine if the silence of the sources is quite as deliberate as it might at first sight seem [italics mine]. (141)

Unpacked, this question mal posée–as if the scholarly drive and apocalyptic agenda were mutually exclusive [3] –sufficiently muddies the waters so that if historians wish to continue writing the biographies of men like Theodosius and Clovis, or Charlemagne and Alcuin, or Otto III, Aethelred, and Robert, with no reference to the possibility that they lived in an apocalyptic generation, they can do so comfortably.

Ironically, but consistently, experts in computus and chronology tend to promote the most non-apocalyptic/a-millennial versions of their subject. [4] Hence if one might consider Palmer’s knowledge of both chronology and computus as one of his great strengths, his understanding of apocalyptic dynamics, including their relationship to chronological discussions, constitutes one of his weaknesses. He discusses Augustinian eschatology as a regnant norm: commentaries on Revelation produced a perception of eschatology in which “it did not matter if the end was imminent or not.” The expanded role of this de-apocalypticized spirituality (apocalypse here meaning sense of imminence), produced a “politicized apocalyptic discourse in the direction of reform and combatting heresy.” (105)

Alternatively, Palmer emphasizes the predominance of a sense of “‘psychological imminence’ rather than ‘chronological imminence'” [italics mine], that favors penitential attitudes, and institutionally acceptable forms of apocalyptic reform. He ends up with so spiritualized a notion of apocalyptic, however, that he can lump personal sense of Judgment together with collective forms. “The difference,” he notes, “between what would happen to an individual if they [sic] died the very next day, and what would happen to them if the world ended in a non-millenarian scenario, is quite minimal: they would be judged.” (14-15)

On this abstract and solipsistic plane, perhaps there is no difference; but the magic of apocalyptic moments is the collective anticipation of simultaneous public Judgment for all mankind–the quick and the dead! The final reckoning takes place “before the eyes of all living creatures.” Apocalyptic moments, in this context, differ drastically from individual, solitary experiences of imminent Judgment. Indeed, far more unites apocalyptic believers whether they are part of a “purely” millennial movement (messianic era to begin now), or “purely” eschatological one (Last Judgment at End of the World). All those swept up in apocalyptic time, share the sense that history hangs on the hinge of salvation, and “we” are the generation chosen to live at that cosmic culmination and turning point.

What About Jewish Triumphalism: Response to Harvey Blume and Gitlin’s Maps

In response to my post on why I am a member of Peace When, one commenter, the blogger Harvey Blume, posed the following challenge in an exchange with me: I had written that he seemed to be arguing that “Israel should hold everything ready for when the Palestinians are ready, including, presumably, stopping any construction (including natural growth) so that the Palestinians have the space they want.”

No stipulation about when the Jews/Israelis are ready? Not a one? Which they are increasingly, as per their increasingly right-wing governments indicate, they’re not?

Good example of mistaking the response for the cause. Israelis were enthusiastic about peace in the 90s and elected leftist governments. Over the last fifteen years, they have come to recognize the depths of the hostility and elected governments that reflected (rather than denied) that realization. Get Palestinians to show they can behave like neighbors rather than murderous enemies, and you’ll get 80% in favor of the most painful concessions.

For those committed to the cult of the occupation, however, the fault is Israel’s. All previous expressions of willingness to compromise made by Israel do not count. We demand more evidence, otherwise we peg you as an extremist.

I get you.

You’re the kind of polemicist who can cast Islamicism, dreadful, as it is, as innately triumphal and not think of Israelis claiming “Judea and Samaria” as Messianic writ, in the same way.

BBC program “What is IS?” with interview with me

What is IS?

Richard Landes, “Antisemitism’s Fatal Attraction: The Global Progressive Left, the Jihadi Right And Israel” March 30, 2015

Richard Landes,“Antisemitism’s Fatal Attraction: The Global Progressive Left, the Jihadi Right And Israel…” from ISGAP on Vimeo.

Seminar Series:
Antisemitism in Comparative Perspective

“Antisemitism’s Fatal Attraction: The Global Progressive Left, the Jihadi Right And Israel as the 21st Century Antichrist”

Richard Landes
Department of History,
Boston University

Monday, March 30, 2015, 5:30PM
ISGAP Center, 3rd Floor

Four Dimensional Jews, Two Dimensional Muslims: Fisking Rabbi Daniel Landes

I do the following fisking with some reluctance. Daniel Landes is a cousin and friend, whom I love and deeply admire. But this piece illustrates too many of the fundamental errors of a “liberal” Judaism attempting to solve problems that are clearly beyond its ken. So, alas, the following.

End the conflict – a Jewish imperative

We must not allow the messianisms of the religious right to cloud the call from our greatest religious authorities to return the territories, for the sake of saving life.

By Rabbi Daniel Landes | 17:52 07.04.14 |  1

For the religious Zionist Jew who wishes to grasp Israel’s present situation in a rational way, the hardest act is to shake off the messianisms that envelop his society – ranging from overt and imminent “end-time” scenarios, to the hazy metaphor of the “beginning of the dawn of our salvation.”

Of course, it also behooves anyone trying to grasp Israel’s present situation in a rational [sic] way, to become aware of the messianisms that envelop Israel’s enemies. Anyone who has not read at least one of the following, has no business discussing the conflict between Israel and its “neighbors” in terms of messianic tendencies.

Timothy Furnish, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden (New York: Praeger, 2005)

Laurent Murawiec, The Mind of Jihad (New York: Oxford, 2006);

David Cook, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008);

Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (NY: Oxford University Press), chap. 14;

Jean Pierre Filiu, Apocalypse in Islam (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011).

This of course doesn’t even begin to get at the literature on groups like Hamas, who are “near” enemies, and whose apocalyptic delirium places them at the heart of the most dangerous form of apocalyptic belief: active cataclysmic (i.e., we are the agents of the catastrophic destruction that must cleanse the world of evil). That form of apocalyptic belief has, in the past, caused mega-deaths on the scale of tens of millions (Heaven on Earth, chaps 7 (Taiping, ca. 35 million), chap. 11 (Bolshevik, ca. 50 million), chap. 12 (Nazism, ca. 40 million), not to mention Maoism (ca. 70 million).

I think that any comparison of Jewish and Islamic messianism (I prefer the term millennialism), makes it clear that Jews have a far more extensive fire-wall against apocalyptic outbreaks, especially violent ones, than do the current generation of Muslims. It’s almost grotesque to blame our current impasse on Jewish messianists. Like so many people motivated by a belief that the solution to this conflict is somehow “in our hands,” Rabbi Landes is willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for peace (or even just to save lives). The tragedy here is that the only thing standing between the awful situation of “occupation” and the vastly more horrible situation of Jihadi civil war (à la Syria), is Israel’s continued control of the the West Bank. Painful sacrifices for peace is one thing, painful sacrifices that empower the worst kind of war, is quite another.

What they share and engender is an optimistic feeling of ultimate victory and security. We are assured that the Jews’ political failure and physical catastrophe is as finished as the Galut (Exile). But in the actual psyche of the religious Zionist, the persistently suppressed horror of that past repeating itself propels us further – into a delusional messianism that needs to be coupled to a secular rightwing ideology promising salvation by standing ‘strong’ and ‘proud’, that is confirmed by our increasing isolation.

Of course, we have left-wing variants of this misplaced messianic hope and confidence, expressed, for example, in J-Street and everything to its left (Olive Tree Initiative, Jewish Voice for Peace, etc.), who think that the genocidal threat against Jews is over, and all we have to do to appease the Arab/Muslim hatred of Jews is to give back the “territories” and then we’ll have Peace. This vision of a post-modern world in which we’ve all left behind the madness and superstition of the pre-modern world propels us further – into a delusional messianism that needs to be coupled with a secular left-wing ideology promising salvation by being ‘generous’ and ‘peace-loving’ and ‘accommodating’. You know, “tikkun olam” in support of BDS.

Hell on Earth: Review of Heaven on Earth by Wendell Krossa

Hell on Earth

Heaven on Earth, by Richard Allen Landes
A Book Review by Wendell Krossa

‘Heaven on Earth’ covers The Varieties of Millennial Experience, as another great study of apocalyptic thought and history.  Landes says historians often resist seeing the influence of apocalyptic myth on modern secular movements.  But, Landes insists, apocalyptic is there working on allegedly modern, enlightened minds.  He sees apocalyptic notably in contemporary Islamic radicalism.

Landes approach looks quite intriguing as he tries to understand the dynamics of this mythology on past peoples and on the present… ”The most striking and horrifying of these movements respond badly to disappointment.  They deny, they rage, they grow paranoid, they lash out, they turn the passion of their followers into rivers of blood and mountains of skulls, they go down in flames”.  He notes that post-moderns have declared the end of all grand narratives, but he says, grand narratives are still here and “Indeed, millennial world histories are the mother of all grand narratives (and I would argue, mother to many of the West’s grand narratives)”.

This book is one of those volumes that satisfy on many levels. The sense of getting to the root of what is wrong in public consciousness and corrective alternatives (he doesn’t deal so much with alternative narratives, as he spends all his effort on critique of the millennial one), but his work opens up the vista with ideas for alternatives that avoid the violence of the millennial narrative.

Review of Heaven on Earth by Martin Marty

Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (review)
Martin E. Marty
From: Journal of Interdisciplinary History Volume 43, Number 3, Winter 2013 p. 462 |

Landes contends that “secular” historians have often failed to account for millennial prophecies and millennialist movements, mainly because they are ill at ease with religious movements. That is, they have often walked away from such movements or failed to understand them, thus undervaluing the drama of their ordinarily turbulent, if not catastrophic, consequences.

Methodologically he supports his thesis with a conventional narrative history comprising ten movements or episodes. He is at heart a storyteller who cannot resist breaking up his larger narrative with brief asides that are usually humorous or satirical. Yet he cannot be content merely to rely on narratives, since he has a grand interpretive scheme in mind that involves many different kinds of evidence. He has to be at home with “intellectual” history, because the millennial prophets on whom he focuses are given to extravagant—many would say “weird”— ideas that he must probe and then connect to form a coherent plot. Call what he does “cultural” history, because he deals with assemblages of behavior used with ideas, the proper subject of cultural studies. He also needs and favors the methods of “theological” history, which resemble the “philosophical” ones, except in subject matter.

To be precise, one would have to say this book is a multi-methodological history, or, in exasperated moments of reading, that it is a study devoid of method, just a set of engrossing ideas culled from Landes’ reading in idiosyncratic stories. Landes leaps from one subject to another with a style that a cynical reviewer might expect from someone with attention deficit disorder. Nonetheless, it would not be fair to damn the book with faint praise, because the research is vast and deep, discovering meanings that one might have overlooked, had one not the impulse to upset convention.

Review of Heaven on Earth by Jon Butler

The Journal of Religion, Vol. 93, No. 3 (July 2013), pp. 384-386

Reviewed work: Landes, Richard. Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xix+499 pp. $35.00 (cloth).
Jon Butler, Yale University (Emeritus).

Richard Landes’s thick Heaven on Earth is more and less than the sum of its complex parts. Obviously, scholars interested in millennialism should read it. But political historians are Landes’s most urgent audience, followed by scholars concerned about religion and politics anywhere in any century. Its ultimate value and frustration lie in Landes’s persistent argument about the importance of millennial dynamics that drive many political movements, including movements like the French Revolution that ostensibly denied any religiosity, or Marxism and Communism, which formally rejected religion altogether. If religion and politics lie at the heart of frustrations with Heaven on Earth, they also give the book the intellectual thrust that makes it the persistently challenging read it promises to be.

Heaven on Earth argues straightforwardly that a “near universality of millennialism” (xi) shapes many revolutionary political movements from the times of Akhenaten (1360–1347 BCE) to the present, and it deliberately focuses on ten case studies of “non-Christian and non-Jewish movements” (xi) to give the argument an aggressively non-Western, seemingly secular edge. Landes frequently references Christian and Jewish millennialists and millennial prophets from Joachim of Fiore and Sabbatai Zevi to Jim Jones and millennial Zionists. But Heaven on Earth advances its universalist argument by examining what Landes sees as millennial dynamics at the heart of nineteenth-century Xhosa cattle slaying, Papuan cargo cults, the French Revolution, Marx, the Bolsheviks, Hitler and the Nazis, UFO cults, and the Islamic Jihad.

Heaven on Earth’s most powerful insights derive from its emphasis on millennialism’s cultural malleability. Landes argues that the search for a perfect time, an end to tribulations, and in some cases the destruction of enemies occurs in widespread cultures and settings and with many different consequences, though most are disastrous.

War, the Sport of Kings, the bane of Democracies and Obama’s Dilemma in Syria

The New Yorker has a great cartoon that is at once funny, sad, true (especially to people like medievalists who study pre-modern cultures), and paralyzingly foolish. (HT: The Fosters)

we right they wrong

It is, alas, true that most wars are fought on something approximating this principle. A pre-Islamic poem expresses the fearful symmetry of the phenomenon poignantly:

Then we, no doubt, are meat for the sword
And, doubtless, sometimes
we feed it meat.
By foe bent on vengeance, we are attacked,
Our fall his cure; or we, vengeance-bent,
Attack the foe.
Thus have we divided time in two,
Between us and our foe,
Till not a day goes by but we’re
In one half or the other.

Al-Marzuqi, Hamasah 2: 825-27, cited in Steykevych, Mute Stones Speak, p. 63.

“The Other’s Antichrist, is my Antichrist”: The Millennial Encounter Between Post-Modernism and Global Jihad

I was recently asked to write a preface to a volume of essays on Millennialism. After discussing the enormous resistance of “conventional” historians to allowing millennial topics any more than marginal status within the larger narrative of Western history, and arguing on the contrary that we need to define millennialism in a way that includes stealth secular forms (e.g., communism), I concluded with a discussion of the stakes involved, in part inspired by my encounter with Judith Butler’s work over the past weeks

Here is the concluding section.

Real-World Stakes in Millennial Scholarship: Post-Modern “Others” vs. Islamic Apocalyptic “Others”

The stakes involved here are not insignificant, nor merely “academic,” although they are most specifically academic. Right now, and since the 60s, much of the academic world involved with human subjects (Arts, Humanities, Social “Sciences”) has become absorbed by an interlocking series of theoretical paradigms and exegetical techniques (deconstruction, critical, gender, queer, theory, post-modernism, post-colonialism) that have millennial premises embedded in the core of their theory.[1] And as every effective millennial discourse must provide, Post-modern theory has identified the “source of our suffering,” namely boundaries. And since those “us-them” boundaries – between self and “Other,” “male and female,” one culture/religion/ethnicity/nationality and another – have been constructed, we can ‘free’ ourselves (or at least, resist), by deconstructing.

Thus, the Post-modern theories in their various avatars systematically transgress conventional boundaries, subvert “hegemonic” discourses (including meta-narratives), that must always-already inscribe an invidious dichotomy between “us-them”.[2] Instead, liberation comes from the embrace of the “Other,” in post-colonialism, the subaltern “Others,” to whose narratives we are obliged to grant epistemological equality if not priority.[3] Redemptive performativity is, among other things, a way to speak of messianic behavior, of tikkun olam, of “realized eschatology.”[4] And it all takes place in the (relatively) non-apocalyptic framework of a progressive effort to fundamentally transform a cultural sensibility.[5]

Like many of their predecessors, including Marx, these latest secular millennialists tend to deny their chiliastic genealogy.[6] Indeed, the whole post-modern principle of “incredulity towards Grand or Meta-Narratives,” is a repudiation among other things, of the greatest of them all – apocalyptic narratives about eschatological End of History.[7] So in principle, post-modernists and their offspring (the various “theorists”), have liberated themselves from apocalyptic and millennial narratives. Of course post-modernists are far to sophisticated to fall into complete denial.[8]

A Judith Butler, for example, openly embraces her utopian longings – e.g., for Buber and Magnes’ “binational state”- despite their impossibility – as driving forces of her performativity.[9] But, she would on the one hand, deny any relationship to earlier apocalyptic movements that veered rapidly from transformative to cataclysmic, from demotic to hierarchical, and even when confronted with the disastrous implications of her millennial reasoning, declares herself proud of her courage to think so daringly.[10] Indeed, her work deserves a thoroughly millennial analysis, not the least because she has chosen to perform her theories in the “real world,” of other people, and when she does so, it has results that should alarm anyone familiar with apocalyptic dynamics.[11]

More broadly, I think only a millennial analysis of the post-60s (post apocalyptic) Zeitgeist of the academy, especially where studies of humankind are concerned, can explain the current direction of consensus politics when dealing with Islamism. Take for example, the following conundrum: In the entire history of Christianity, no nation that called itself Christian adopted a foreign policy based on the Sermon on the Mount; on the contrary. Now, however, post-Christians, people who by and large have contempt for religion, even view it as a virus,[12] urge a “turn the other cheek” policy of self-criticism and self-abasement vis-à-vis a profoundly hostile “Other.”[13] As a colleague commented at a conference on apocalypticism, “If the USA were attacked by nuclear weapons, I hope we’d have the maturity not to strike back.”[14]

Deadheads for Israel: What’s Your Problem?

The Times of Israel just ran a piece by Shaul Magid in which he berates the former counter-culture hippies of the 60s/70s who came to Israel and defend their adopted land without feeling guilty about the “Occupation” of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), of having betryaed their universalistic commitment to equality and justice into a mystical, romantic nationalism. He asks how anyone could justify such a thing?

Being one of those “60s” counter-culture types who has made Aliyah and do not feel that the “Occupation” represents an indelible moral stain on the character of Israel and its Jews, I welcome an opportunity to respond to such a challenge.

It’s the ‘spirituality,’ stupid

Shaul Magid, Times of Israel, July 2.

Some years ago I happened to notice on the “Political Views” of a Facebook “friend” living in Israel the following line: “Right on Israel, left on everything else.” The woman is a long-time ba’alat teshuva and an unreconstructed hippie from the ’60s. Her description stayed with me in part because I too was a baal teshuva and a hippie from the early ’70s who very much identified with her return to Judaism, her romantic ties to Israel, and her spiritual path, which was for the most part non-political. (I also happen to know her well and have great respect for her as a person.)

You can add me to the group. Spent over a year in the Pyrenees mountains in an abandoned farmhouse with no electricity or running water, guiding myself with Buba Rumcake’s Cookbook for a Sacred Life in the early 70s. And the Grateful Dead have always been my favorite group. (Indeed I’d say, my understanding of millennialism comes precisely from having participated in a [demotic] millennial movement, and dealt with the disappointment.)

A few weeks ago I was having a Facebook “chat” with an ex-student of mine who graduated from an American university and moved to Tel Aviv. Michelle (not her real name) is, as far as I know, a non-Orthodox but “spiritual” Jew and a devoted Deadhead. She is also quite “right-wing” on Israel and, I would assume “left on everything else.” She is of another generation from my Facebook “friend,” one of the “post-Garcia” Deadheads, and I felt I had the opportunity to ask her what has been bothering me for years: “How do you square your commitment to the values of the counter-culture with your right-leaning Israeli political views?”

Maybe because right and left are not — especially as they’re now used — useful terms for understanding what’s going on?

And maybe because the “counter-culture” is not a sacred cow whose beliefs and aspirations were so perfect that they can not/may not be subjected to a critique. At Woodstock, some thought they saw the bomber-jet planes turning into butterflies across our nation. It took less than a year for Altamont to come along and bring us back to reality.

As for the Dead, weren’t they the guys who thought it would be neat to have Hell’s Angels be the security guards at Altamont, where one of them stabbed a man high on meth amphetamines to death to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ Under my Thumb (one of the more regressive lyrics of the 60s)?

In other words, how did she understand the counter-culture’s commitment to freedom, justice, civil rights, pacifism, and equality with Israel’s continued occupation that includes systematic discrimination against the Palestinian population?

So we have your definition of “left” as counter-culture commitment to “freedom, justice, civil rights, pacifism, and equality,” and we have your definition of “right” as occupation and discrimination against Palestinians. Just for the record, anyone who takes any of these values – FJC-RPE – as absolutes, and forges forward towards accomplishing them in this world, now, is, in my book, a millennialist, someone who strives for a level of perfection that is genuinely messianic. Anyone interested in an excellent analysis of the 60s as a millennial movement, with all its contradictions, see Arthur Mendel’s chapter in his Vision and Violence.

On the other hand, understanding that there’s a dialectical tension between freedom and rights, between justice and equality, between pacifism and freedom, is part of a process of maturing. To assume that commitments to all these values always takes the same “counter-cultural” form, to consider anyone who doesn’t share that attitude has somehow abandoning moral commitments… that, to my mind, represents not progress but arrested development.

Churchill allegedly commented that “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” To which I’d add, “if your sixty and still haven’t figured out how to get your heart and head to communicate, then you’re lazy.”

Her answer was short, unapologetic, and not at all defensive. “I think the connection to liking the Dead and being right wing,” she wrote, “is spirituality…. just a divine connection to the land, I guess, like Rav Kook.” (I assume she meant Kook the father , but I did not ask.) I liked her answer because it was not justificatory; it did not dwell in “hasbara” rhetoric, and it was not political. In short, she was saying, “Its the spiritualty, stupid.”

She is not alone. Radio Free Nachlaot is a counter-cultural internet radio station transmitting “somewhere deep in Nahlaot” that is devoted to American and Israeli counter-cultural music that includes Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his affiliates. They have a very popular annual “Nine Days of Jerry,” celebrating The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garica, who was born on August 1 and died on August 9, by playing live Dead shows and discussing them in impressive detail for nine full days. (They do a similar “Nine Weeks of Shlomo” between the yahrzeit of “the dancing rabbi” and his birthday.) The station’s programming includes classes in Hasidism and Jewish spirituality, taught mostly by American-born baalei teshuva. Here’s a video preview for the station’s broadcasts on “the second annual International Temple Mount Awareness Day:”

The station’s founders sport long hair and long beards, colorful head scarves, flowing dresses, and tye-dye T-shirts. Many of the announcers and guests reminisce about the good old days of the student protests, peace marches, and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Some even talk about the Civil Rights movement. But when they talk about Israel they are almost exclusively right wing, defending the settlements and Israel’s right to the land, and repeating the rhetoric heard among many settlers. When they’re playing music, they sound like WBAI from 1970 (the famous radical leftist radio station in New York); when they’re talking politics, they sound like Arutz Sheva (the settler news network in Israel). All this is done seamlessly, as if playing Bob Dylan’s 1963 protest song “Masters of War” and defending Greater Israel are somehow congruous.

Wow. Masters of War was Dylan protesting American adventurism abroad and what Eisenhower denounced as the “military-industrial complex,” a wave of anger based on an article he read in England. Do you think that the same applies to Israel? Are all armies run by the military-industrial complex “masters of war”? How many “Masters of War” do you think there are on the Arab side?

Although my integration of counter-cultural values may differ from theirs — and I was once very much a part of their sub-culture in Israel — I only use them here as an example to ask a larger question: How does a progressive ideology devoted to fairness, equality, and justice became an ideology that defends what appears to me to be its opposite?

The key here might be “what appears…” If you come at a problem like the Arab-Israeli conflict with unreconstructed, simplistic notions acquired in the millennial wave of the 60s (and from the hard-left anti-Zionist camp of political radicals to boot), then it may well “appear” to be the opposite. 

Stuttaford reviews Heaven on Earth for NRO


Omega men

by Andrew Stuttaford

A review of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experienceby Richard Landes

Burke was right!

It may be that, despite wars, revolutions, genocides, and jihad, there are still a few trusting souls who believe that modernity, technological progress, and reason move forward together in bright, benign convoy. If so, they cannot have read Heaven on Earth, an ideal tough love gift for any Candides of your acquaintance. In it, Richard Landes describes the past, present, and probable future of millennialism, the umbrella term for a collection of beliefs in a world overturned and remade that has resonated, seductive and destructive, through the ages. It is a bracing and instructive read, if not always an easy one. Landes is an associate professor of history at Boston University, one of today’s academic priesthood. Like most clerics he has a weakness for the mumbo-jumbo that empowers his caste. “Semiotic arousal”? No thanks.

But it’s worth hacking your way through the jargon. The insight and impressive breadth of this book (among its characters are the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, UFO cultists, cargo cultists, and those nutty Bolsheviks) make it a valuable addition to the study of a way of thinking that extends far beyond street corner, pulpit, and psychiatric ward. Millennialism has shaped religion, politics, and the overlap between the two and yet, it remains, Landes argues, curiously underexamined.

Under-examined, not unexamined: as he clearly accepts, Landes owes a debt to the historian Norman Cohn (1915–2007), and, more specifically, his masterpiece, The Pursuit of the Millennium. In that book, Cohn explored the link between Marxist eschatology, the peasant risings of medieval Germany, and Hitler’s reverie of a literally millennial “thousand year” Reich. A little earlier, the German-born political philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901–85), had witnessed ecstatic Nazi rallies in which party became Pentecost, and recognized the flowering of a new “political religion.”

The millennial nature and malign consequences of these political religions are topics to which the contemporary historian Michael Burleigh has repeatedly turned his attention. To read Burleigh’s interpretation of twentieth-century totalitarianism is to be convinced that its origins lie not in the Enlightenment’s retreat from the divine, but in something more ancient. Landes would largely agree. Such beliefs not only matter, but they will always be with us. In the absence of the apocalypse that technology makes possible, the road from Akhenaten will not end with al-Qaeda.

And, as Heaven on Earth proves, its twists and turns can occasion some fascinating copy, making it all the more surprising that this is a story that historians have neglected, if not by quite so much as Landes maintains. (His claim is likely influenced by his own tendency to find millennial thinking in places, such as the Oslo Peace Process, where there was little of it about.) His broader explanations for the gap in the historical record make sense, however. Those looking to establish a lasting creed won’t want to run the philosophical and, probably, political risks that come with expectations of imminent End Times. They and their successors will do what they can to such suppress such heresies, the movements they spawn, and, indeed, the evidence that they ever existed.

Even where the record is good, secular historians may have their reasons to ignore the crazy millennialist in the past’s attic. The underlying belief in mankind’s emergence from superstition that many of them share will almost always lead them to downplay the importance of religious esoterica of a ludicrously mistaken kind. But, as Landes points out, error does not equal irrelevance. Disappointment over the failure of the millennium to appear on schedule can be profoundly dangerous as the faithful look “to force the solution [and] to carve the millennial kingdom” out of the stubbornly unchanging society in which they find themselves. The ways in which China’s Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) anticipated Mao included a death toll that ran into tens of millions.

There is, I suspect, something else behind one of the greatest of all these gaps, the widespread unwillingness, despite the efforts of Burleigh, Cohn, and a growing number of other writers, to credit (if that’s the word) a timeless apocalyptic impulse for its role in the birth of supposedly “scientific” communism. Depicting Marxism as “progressive” suits the purposes of many on both left and right, albeit for very different reasons. Recognizing that lethal creed’s primitive magic for what it was doesn’t fit with the spin. Michael Burleigh still has much work to do: Richard Landes is the man to help out.

When it comes to describing his strange millennialist world, Landes often adopts the enthusiastic, if dodgy, precision of a Victorian naturalist. Thus there are “roosters”—a Jesus or a Mohammed—proclaiming the new dawn, and ranged against them “owls” like Augustine soothing that the last trump is still some way off. These two dueling species are just part of an elaborate taxonomy that includes “restorative” millennialism or “innovative,” “demotic, egalitarian, iconoclastic” millennialism or the “top-down, hierarchical, imperial and iconic” variety. And there are plenty more to choose from.

But Landes’s categories shove an infinitely protean phenomenon into boxes too tidy and too small for the job. It’s better to concentrate on his tales of different millennial explosions, take as much you want of his perceptive and original, if highly ornamented analysis, and ask yourself this: Were they occasional aberrations or the eruptions of something forever bubbling below the surface? Landes himself makes an effective argument for the latter, underlining millennialism’s universality with case studies (such as the Xhosa of mid-nineteenth century southern Africa who thought that slaughtering their cattle would end British rule) that have little or no connection with better-known Judeo-Christian millennialist traditions. Landes believes that the trigger for these eruptions is what he calls the “apocalyptic” sense that a moment has come, something that may be set in motion by catastrophe, cultural upheaval, a charismatic leader, or mythopoeic date: 2012, anyone?

As to what draws people to such fantasies, Landes offers numerous suggestions including the excitement of anticipation; the allure of secrets decoded; the satisfaction of being amongst the saved-to-be; the “elating coherence” of apocalyptic grand narrative; the jubilation that comes from breathing the “clean, clear air of apocalyptic righteousness”; the urge to punish; and the craving to see the richer and more powerful brought low. There is also, I reckon, the thrilling masochism of purification (appropriately, global warming makes an appearance within the pages of this volume) and vanity, too: Ours is the time. And then, lest we forget, there is the perennial attraction of bloody destruction (of bad people in a good cause, naturally). It’s not only disappointment that brings out the knives.

No book on millennialism would be complete without prophesies of gloom. Landes delivers, focusing on the way that the internet has accelerated the spread of conspiracy theories (a means, as he sees it, for preserving apocalyptic intoxication in the absence of an actual apocalypse) and other poisonous nonsense once generally safely confined to a few cranks. That recent years have also seen an alarming growth in Islamic millennialism, frequently with tropes borrowed from Christian end-timers, is no coincidence, and has been well-documented by Landes both in this book and elsewhere. As he charmingly concedes, his warnings of peril ahead may make him a rooster, too. Possibly, but with nuclear capability likely to spread further within the Middle East, he’s a rooster to whom we ought to pay attention.

Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor at National Review Online.



This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 January 2012, on page 84

Copyright © 2012 The New Criterion |

New Review of my Book by John Reilly

This is a review by John Reilly, one of the smartest and most astute (as well as unconventional) non-academic, metahistorical thinkers I know, an active and early member of the CMS. His website (one of the earlier of the phenomenon) is here, and the review here.

Heaven on Earth
The Varieties of the Millennial Experience
By Richard Landes
Oxford University Press, 2011
499 Pages, $35.00
ISBN 978-0-19-975359-8

For more than 1500 years, a conspiracy of clerics and historiographers has worked, with great success, to hide one of the principal features of cultural and political evolution. Now in these latter days it is more important than ever that the truth be revealed, since the failure to take this hidden factor into consideration threatens the survival of civilization, and maybe of the human race itself.

Perhaps this summary slightly overstates the thesis of this book by Richard Landes, professor of medieval history at Boston University. (He was also the principal organizer just before the year 2000 of the Center for Millennial Studies, of which your reviewer was a member.) The book attempts a typology of millennial movements and apocalyptic thinking, illuminated by often fascinating cross-cultural and historical case studies. At the same time, the book argues that historiography and anthropology often do not categorize these things correctly when they appear, and even tend to expunge the millennial elements from the textual record. Unlike most conspiracy theories, this one has the advantage of being true in large part. Neither is the evidence far to seek: the book’s subtitle is a play on the title of the famous study by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, a work which somehow manages not to treat endtime excitement, though that is very often a conspicuous feature of religious revivals and personal conversions.

“Millennialism” may be taken to be the image of a future state of the world in which there will be peace and prosperity and societal justice, with the sorrowful aspects of the human condition overcome. The term comes from the “millennium,” the thousand-year reign of the saints mentioned in the Book of Revelation, though similar notions occur in other religious traditions. In fact, any model of history that forecasts a happy ending can usefully be treated as “millennial,” at least for some purposes. “Apocalyptic” can mean the sudden transition from ordinary history to the millennial condition. In some models, this transition can be effected solely through divine intervention, in which case the human role is likely to be rather passive. To the extent that “history” is a deep cause for the change, the human role is more active. The extreme case in the activist direction is pure social revolution.

All these possibilities are eschatological, in the sense that they treat of the eschaton (“end”), but they are not the only possible eschatologies. Indeed, as we are repeatedly reminded in this book, the orthodox eschatology for most of Latin Christendom has almost invariably some variation on that of St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 – 430). Augustine discouraged, to put it mildly, the unique identification of any historical period or political regime with the fulfillment of eschatological hope. The end, the Second Coming, would not be the product of historical evolution, and it would end history rather than inaugurate a new historical era, however blissful.

Augustine, we may note, had a hard job: he spent a large part of his career arguing that “Now is not the time to panic” during an era when a reasonable man might respond, “If not now, when?” Be that as it may, in the typology of this book, he is an “owl,” indeed the Great Horned Owl of Western historiography. Owls are a perennial class of commentators who argue, not always persuasively, that current disasters do not mean the world is about to end. They do not argue that an end will not come, or even necessarily that there will be no millennium; they are at their most owlish when they quibble about the date of the endtime. Most annoyingly, from the author’s point of view, owls in the aftermath of a millennial moment will retrospectively conclude that there was nothing much to it (the world did not end, did it?) and insist that they themselves were not taken in, not at all. Confusing documents suggesting otherwise tend to go missing.

The opposite perennial figure is the “rooster,” who crows that the night is nearly over, the time is now, and everyone must cast aside caution in the impending dawn. Roosters often get a hearing. Even casual students of history will have run across episodes like the Great Disappointment of the 1840s, or Savonarola’s Florence. On rarer occasions, they take over the barnyard, for a while. Among the case studies in this book are the Taiping Rebellion in China (the biggest war in the 19th century, remember) and the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions. (The author leans toward the view that the Nazis were working from a largely theosophical model of history.) Millennial movements can follow more than one pattern, but the one that interests the author shares the morphology of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

In this view, the millennial moment starts with the appearance of roosters who announce that some marvelous change is about to occur. They gain so large a following that the skeptical owls are drowned out or silenced, or even converted. Then more and more resources are invested in the change occurring; people who see no evidence of this are forced to silence by social pressure. Finally, some event or counter-propaganda makes it obvious that the roosters were wrong and that it is safe to say so.

The author expresses surprise that this pattern repeats again and again, often in the same region, despite the fact that every millennial movement ends in the disappointment of the little boy pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. To that might say that it is not at all clear that disappointment is always absolute. As the books notes in passing, the Eastern Zhou period of Chinese history was characterized by what in effect was an elite millennial movement directed at imperial unification; when unification occurred in 221 BC, the relevant story for the imperial ideologues may have been not so much “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as “The Monkey’s Paw.”

Less speculatively, we may note that the author suggests that a millennial moment happens when “private transcripts,” views that are often common knowledge but rejected by the elite, became “public transcripts” that can be openly discussed. The more oppressive the public regime is, the more vengeful the private transcripts are likely to be. (Fans of Dune may recall Lady Jessica’s horror when she learns the particular version of the messiah archetype common on Arrakis: “They have that story here? This must be a terrible place!”) At least in the Latin West, however, what may sometimes happen is that perfectly acceptable ideas just shift from type to prophecy. Augustine, after all, did not really dispense with prophecy, but rather turned it into a system of types. These are actually quite useful. Even the most hootfully skeptical owl can still call an oppressive emperor “an antichrist” if not “the Antichrist,” for instance, and there are always slacking congregations that can be tarred with the same brush as Revelation’s Church of Laodicea. Such uses keep millennial ideas in circulation, no matter how many times they are misused.

In any case, the author is particularly interested in two aspects of the Emperor’s New Clothes scenario.

The first is the tendency of millennial proponents to bet more resources on a prophecy being true as evidence of its disconfirmation accumulates. The point is made with sad clarity in the study of the Xhosa Cattle-Slayings of the 1850s. A prophetess in southern Africa (millennialism is a notably girly phenomenon the world over) predicted that the English would disappear and the Xhosa ancestors would return if the Xhosa slew all their cattle. Not all did, but enough did to cause distress. As the situation worsened, the failure of the ancestors to return was answered by the prophetic insistence that not enough cattle had been slain. This created a famine that resulted in the collapse of Xhosa society.

The phenomenon of millennial improvidence is not unfamiliar; the Millerites in America in the 1840s were equally willing to bet their livelihoods on the Parousia, even if they not quite so wholesale about mere destruction. The author argues, however, that a similar pattern characterizes millennial tyrannies when it becomes clear that their political ambitions may have limits. Certainly the famous Anabaptist Munster Commune of the 1530s and the Taiping rebellion became most radical and paranoid as their strategic situation deteriorated. (We may also note that it was only in the closing weeks of the Third Reich that Joseph Goebbels felt liberated enough to implement the Leftist economic policy that has always been dear to his heart.) The issue fades into the book’s other principal interest in the evolution of millennial movements: how do societies handle millennial disappointment.

Not all of them do this badly. Tom Holland’s popular history of the origins of Western civilization, The Forge of Christendom, is based largely on Professor Landes’s assessment of the state of millennial enthusiasm around the year 1000. That book concludes that the major political institutions of Christendom arose in large part as preparation for the impending final struggle against Antichrist. The solid institution-building survived the millennial excitement (much of the direct evidence for which, to Professor Landes’s continuing frustration, has been lost or glossed by pestilential owls). [NB: nicely put, but I call them “bats” – RL.] On the other hand, it is also possible for a millennial regime, if it survives, to simply refuse to acknowledge that it is not Heaven on Earth, and to use extreme measures to ensure that all of its subjects not just say so but think so; this is totalitarian option, which we are given to understand is a system that tries to replace all private transcripts with the Party Line. There is also the possibility of mere nihilism, of a regime that, like Denethor, will have naught if it cannot get what it wants. In this the Taiping and the Nazis may not have been of dissimilar mind.

In some ways, the most interesting and problematical part of the book is the case study of Akhenaton (1353 – 1336 BC) and the Amarna Period, which the author interprets as a brief and unsuccessful exercise in “iconic millennialism.” Millennialism is usually demotic; it is the contemplation by those below of the humbling of those above, whether to replace them or to create a regime of equality (of which more later). It is not unknown, however, for those who are already high and mighty to embrace the view that their situation is not just a happy accident, but an ontological necessity. Thus, it is not out of place to characterize the founding of the Han Dynasty as the establishment of a “millennial empire.” Some church historians made an at least analogous argument about the Roman Empire after Constantine. (Augustine agreed that the empire was providential, but he said it was not the City of God; he wrote a book about it.) Heaven on Earth would have it that Akhenaton’s solar monotheism was similarly an attempt to bring the divine order permanently to earth, based on a theology too exalted to acknowledge death.

Now it is notoriously the case that Egyptian elites after Akhenaton’s death did their considerable best to expunge his deeds and name from the historical record. They almost succeeded; it was not until Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt that it became possible for archeology to recover Akhenaton, who had been known previously only in an abbreviated and garbled form. If ever there were a golden age of owls, it would have been during the attempted erasure of Akhenaton. Still, that probably is not enough to make the millennialism model fit here. The millennium is a kind of narrative closure. If the Egyptians ever had a story about history that needed such a thing, it has not come to our attention. Not even the largest flock of reactionary owls could have expunged it.

What has come to our attention are the hints that Akhenaton, or rather the garbled popular recollection of him, may have had some influence on the Greek-language Hermetic literature of the first few centuries AD. After a fashion, Akhenaton may be Hermes Trismegistus.

That is a name to conjure with. As the author points out, there is a direct connection between Hermeticism and the Renaissance, and to the more uppity kinds of monarchical absolutism that followed immediately. (“Sun King”? Versailles?! See, it’s all connected!!!) It also, obviously, affected the would-be Hermetic revolutionaries of the stamp of Giordano Bruno of the 16th and 17th centuries. This book does not seem to mention Dame Francis Yates’s The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, which deals with that period, but it does discuss her work about the origins of the idea of technological progress. Unlike Egypt, the West does have a story that invites millennial closure, and into that story the Hermetic material, it seems to this reviewer, fit like a key in a lock. Heaven on Earth suggests that the greatest and chiefest of millennial movements is modernity itself.

How is modernity different from other millennial movements? For one thing, it promotes a species of demotic millennialism that seeks to dissolve what the author calls the “prime divider” between commons and elites. Modern societies tend to favor equality before the law, universal literacy, respect for manual labor, and personal autonomy. The author traces this insistence back to the casteless law codes of the Torah. That is fair enough. We may also note, though, that authors from Tom Holland to Francis Fukuyama say that what really made civil society possible in the West is that the pope and the emperor started arguing in the 11th century about who had the right to appoint the bishops in southern Germany. They are still at it, and so the space between principle and power is still open. That does not mean it will always be, though.

The author notes that there are two important apocalyptic movements in the early 21st century. One is the Global Jihad; the book’s explanation of why 1979 AD (1400 AH) was an important apocalyptic date is as good an explanation as you are likely to find for why millennial studies should play a larger role in political science. The other is Anthropogenic Global Warming, which seems to serve some of its adherents as consolation for the collapse of eschatological Marxism. Many people in the West are very interested in  one or the other, but whoever is interested in one is almost invariably dismissive of the other. In both contexts, postmodernism and its condescension to objective truth (note the lack of “scare quotes”) may be to blame, but it is particularly inapposite with regard to the Jihad, since the jihadis are not at all reticent about truth claims.

In any case, the millennial structure persists. It’s not just a mistake, and it’s not something that just applies to other people.



Talk on Mass Pilgrimage at the IKGF’s Conference on Pilgrimage

Talk delivered at On the Road in the Name of Religion. Pilgrimage as a Means of Coping with Contingency and Fixing the Future in the World’s Major Religions, Erlangen, November 11, 2011

Mass Pilgrimages:

Voluntary and Prescribed, Yearly and Apocalyptic-Messianic

Richard Landes


I’d like to contribute a problem to the issues raised by this conference on the role of contingency, future, and freedom in pilgrimages by discussing the question of mass pilgrimages. I define a mass pilgrimage in terms of two phenomena: first, that the pilgrimage has already become a massive group on the way. As opposed to more routinized forms of pilgrimage – the overwhelming majority of the cases we find in our documentation – mass pilgrimages have an infectious quality, picking up pilgrims almost spontaneously, gathering steam as they go. Second, that upon arrival at the pilgrimage’s goal, the holy site, there are again massive numbers of participants. All of this is of course relative. Certain pilgrimage sites like the Maha Kumbh Mela at the Ganges and the Hajj at Mecca draw millions of pilgrims over a specific period of days and weeks, either annually or in some regular yearly cycle.

There are, broadly speaking, three major sources for mass pilgrimage: 1) prescribed annual pilgrimages, and 2) apocalyptic pilgrimages, and 3) closely related to apocalyptic matters, “political” pilgrimages – really messianic or what I call millennial pilgrimages. Here the two most obvious traditions are monotheistic. The earliest recorded mass pilgrimages were the Israelite ones to Jerusalem, three times a year, starting, allegedly, in the 10th century BCE. Obviously not all of the three were equally observed (Passover more than Tabernacles and Pentecost), and more by those close than those far away. But this seems to be the earliest example of a religiously prescribed, mass pilgrimage. The still current form of this is the Meccan Hajj about which we have already heard, and to which I will return in my concluding remarks.

What I’d like to do here is explore the second type of mass pilgrimage, what we might call the “spontaneous mass pilgrimage.” Such a pilgrimage is not prescribed – indeed, we will see in one case that it was vigorously disapproved of by the religious authorities – but rather something much closer to a mass religious movement. And accordingly, let me begin with what Carl Erdmann called “die erste religiöse Massenbewegung im Mittelalter,” the Peace of God.

The peace assemblies were clearly – by my definition – mass pilgrimages. Monks and clerics from may sites took relics from their crypts and paraded them – delationes – through the countryside to gather with others at a given open-air site where, before hundreds and thousands of participants, the peace assembly, replete with public vows from the milites not to attack unarmed people – took place. The relics were magnets, drawing huge crowds along the way – peasants, dropping their plows and rushing to the unwonted sight of so powerful a reliquary out of the crypt where, by Carolingian statute, they were jealously kept by their guardians. When these relics and their attendant crowds arrived at the peace assembly, they were so numerous that one hagiographer, writing a generation later, described the scene as if “you were viewing the children of Israel, leaving Egypt and preparing the enter the Promised Land.” In virtually every account of the peace assemblies held from the late 10th to the early 11th centuries, these crowds play a particularly powerful role.

On the Tenth Anniversary of 9-11: Roland, Suicide Martyr

[NB: I wrote this shortly after 9-11. Here it is again, lightly revised, primarily for clarity.]

I reread the Song of Roland with my medieval history class last week, for maybe the tenth time.  After 9-11, it had a new resonance.  From my first reading in graduate school I had noted the simplistic religiosity it expressed, but had not realized how much a close reading can help us understand the world of religious terrorists.

The Song, one of the earliest poems composed in (Old) French sometime around 1100, recounts the tale [non-fictions in italic] of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew whom 400,000 Muslims (a band of Basques) attacked through the treacherous machinations of his step-father, Ganelon, in the passes of the Pyrenees while he commanded the rear guard (baggage train) of Charlemagne’s withdrawing army.  Instead of blowing his horn to warn Charlemagne and the main body of the army to come help him, he preferred to take on the enemy with his band of 20,000 men, among whom were the “twelve peers”, the greatest fighting men in the kingdom.  Although he succeeded in routing the enemy, his entire band of lusty Frankish warriors, including the noble archbishop Turpio, all died in the process.

Roland, too great to fall even to a massive barrage of spears and arrows, died from bursting his veins in blowing the horn too loud when he finally realized all was lost.  Charlemagne, upon learning of this terrible loss, returned and, with the help of God who stops the sun to enable his pursuit, wiped out the enemy, taking their main city and converting the surviving population to Christianity.

Roland and his men, and the story tellers and their audiences show no interest in their enemies (except perhaps as valiant warriors whose greatness serves to enhance the glory of the Christian victory) and know virtually nothing about them.  Muslims worship Apollo and Mohammed and idols. (This, of course, stands in striking contrast with the reality that the Christians faced a culture that was considerably more monotheistic and aniconic than the dominant religiosity in Latin Christendom, with its trinitarian and dualist debates, and its relic-stuffed statues to which both masses and elites bowed down.)  The Muslims of Spain, in the composer’s view, had the same primitive political structures as the West, a rural monarchy whose army derived from a system of mini-kings (lords) and their vassals exercising direct control over commoner populations (peasantry).  These Franks, apparently had neither knowledge of, nor interest in Muslims: for them this cultural “other” was pure and crude projection, a shadow self – everything bad, degraded, abominable. As a child might put it, they are “stupid and bad.”

But such simple vision works well with a world in which those who fight evil are, by definition good. Roland’s Christianity in the song is prominent and simple. “The pagans are wrong, the Christians are right,” he shouts as they enter battle with Muslims (1015).  The archbishop, who kills as lustily as the rest, assures the warriors, “One thing I can act as guarantor: Holy paradise is open to you; you will take your seat amongst the Innocents (1521-3).”  When the enemy dies “His soul is carried off by Satan (1268).”  Roland and his band die “martyrs” surrounded by the hundreds of corpses of his slain enemies.  “Since the apostles had there was never such a prophet [as Roland] for maintaining the faith and winning men over (2255-6).”

How aware is the composer of the irony he presents?  Does he show any awareness of the incongruity of Jesus and his disciples, martyred without resistance because they turned the other cheek, alongside this zealot, dead from excess pride and love of glory, surrounded by a final body count that puts Sylvester Stallone to shame? Almost none.

We may see a glimmer of it in the victory scene, when Charlemagne gives the conquered population its choice between conversion or death, and many die and still more convert, “true Christians all.”  To this scene of crude power-politics, the composer adds that the major babe of the story, the wife of the conquered king, will be brought to Aachen so that she can convert “out of love.”  (Women so often do bring out the anomalies.) One might read this as a highly sarcastic discourse about Christianity, one that despises the crude barbarity of these thick-skulled warriors (they wear helmets) with their ludicrous idea that true Christianity spreads by such violence; that martyrs die drenched in the blood of their victims, dead because they are not “the last man standing.”

But whatever the ironic layers a literate composer might fold into this tale, the audience for this blockbuster action-flick overwhelming saw no problem here. The aristocracy of the 12th century relished this tale, the first full epic text in French. They resonated effortlessly with the world of plundering elites, who annually go to war for booty and dominion, a world where the unquestioned rule of interaction is the dominating imperative: “rule or be ruled.”  In their world, might makes right: “Strike barons, do not delay. Charles is in the right against these men… God has allowed us to administer His judgment” (3366-8).  Even Ganelon, the evil traitor, can escape if he can prevail in trial by combat.

Nor should we see this belief in God as “mere ornament.” God’s role, so prominent in both their angel-inspired and divinely-assisted battle, is to chose sides. The Christian invocations in the text are passionate. These men really believe that God is Christian and on our side – “Gott mit uns.”  Indeed, the epic makes most sense as the crusader tale told countless times on the way to Jerusalem between 1096-99, a paroxysm of sacred violence, murderous suicide martyrdoms, and religious massacres. Through the Crusade, whose cry was “God wants it!”, a religion of peace had sanctified violence, making crusading at once an act of salvific destruction and love – Destroying the world to save it.

No matter how powerful, if grossly crude, the religion of the text, something else moves these warriors and their audience far more pervasively than even this violent piety – honor.  For honor Roland will not blow his horn: “God forbid that any man alive should say that pagans made me blow the horn (1073-5)”  And this honor shows the same egotistical orientation as the religion.  Oliver speaks of the honor that feels obliged to others – it is not honorable but foolish to fail one’s lord – but he cannot sway Roland whose overwhelming concern is his name.

And behind such narcissistic honor lies an equally powerful fear of shame. Facing impossible odds with reckless abandon Roland cries “My desire becomes all the greater [to enter the fray without calling for help].  May it never please the Lord God and his angels that France should ever lose its fame because of me.  I prefer to die than to suffer such shame (1088-91).”  As we listen to the conversations these action-heroes have with each other, we listen in on a world where all is shame and honor, where passionate “loves” vie with equally powerful hatreds, where anger and ferocity serve the [divine] cause of vengeance. Wounded fatally, Oliver realizes that “never will he have his fill of vengeance now (1966).”  For these warriors, the greatest act – one that will bring you straight to heaven – is taking people down to the grave with you… the more, the better.

As for more “reasoned,” positive-sum sentiments, they carry no weight in the calculus of action. The possibility that Roland will bring calamity on his own men by his pride, carries no weight with him. Everyone and everything exists to bring him and his fellow warriors greater glory. Even in his final death scene, Roland thinks only of glory. He does not for a moment say even a word about his fiancée. She, in turn, dies at the news of his death, claiming “May it not please God or his saints or his angels that I live on after Roland’s death (3718-9).”

This utterly narcissistic obsession with honor, with its accompanying patriarchal beliefs in which women should die for the honor of their men, illuminates the accompanying religiosity.  These men live in a world of violent dominion, revenge, and overweening pride; they have hijacked Christianity, whose basic spirituality they cannot even begin to glimpse. As Clovis allegedly said, when hearing of the crucifixion of Jesus: “If me and my men had been there, we’d have avenged his death.”

The obvious parallels to Bin-Laden’s warriors are painful and suggestive:

  • The notion that in killing as many enemies as possible before dying one is guaranteed a place in heaven, while the enemies go straight to hell.
  • The incapacity to see the cultural “other” in any but the crudest projections of one’s own shadow.
  • The accompanying absence of self criticism.
  • The utter self-centeredness of the “hero” for whom the lives of his own, much less his enemies, mean little.
  • The idea that violence can best serve to spread one’s “true” religion, that an orgy of violence can be salvific.
  • The terrible importance of honor, the unbearable nature of shame.
  • The total subordination of women to the demands of men’s honor.

PomoMarx: Eagelton tries to make Marx and 21st century progressive

In my book on millennialism I have a chapter devoted to Marx in which, among other less than flattering remarks, I note the following about his “dialectical” thinking:

The totalizing discourse operates as a kind of scientistic magic, making millennial promises about total liberation—“complete” control over the instruments of production and universal intercourse. But Marx offered this promise not to the intellectuals of his age, but specifically to those then suffering the most from the throes of industrialization.

. . . Marxist revolutionaries adopt Hegel’s dialectic to prove that each step downward into deeper misery simultaneously and inevitably hastened the coming of paradise. “Imperialist” wars and “capitalist” depressions became, for the apocalyptic Marxists, what the “fortunate fall” and the “signs of the End” are for Christians, the same gratifying dialectic that Bakùnin had in mind when he announced that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion.”[1]

With such a promise comes a fury to console and soothe the agony of one’s current condition—the very crushing pains the laborer now experiences will be transformed into the opposite, the very totality of their alienation will make it possible for all to achievecomplete self-activity.

And behind the apocalyptic historical analysis lay an enticing millennial premise and promise: a “new man” would emerge on the other side of this wrenching process of alienation. Just as the French Revolution had promised a new citizen, so the Marxists promised a “new comrade”—an interesting shift, given the sad fact that “fraternity” was the first of the promises to vanish from the millennial formula of liberté, égalité, fraternité.[2] Here, over the course of the nineteenth century, revolutionaries availed themselves of John Locke’s theories about man as a blank slate who had no “innate ideas,” that is, no innate character, that rather sensory perceptions and experiences mold man. Whatever Locke believed he meant, both Enlightenment thinkers and subsequent radicals seized eagerly on this nurture versus nature perspective to believe anything possible.[3]

As in the case of many millennial texts, this one seems far less compelling with hindsight; indeed, these expectations were and still are completely unrealistic.[4] But, “[o]ne may poke holes in the theories . . . mock any number of embarrassing contradictions. None of that matters. It is the myth, as Sorel saw, and its inspirational powers that count. And apocalyptic Marxism is the perfect myth.”[5] One of the reasons that Marx succeeded in winning so many fervent disciples was not despite the bizarre reasoning here displayed, but because of it.[6]

[1]. Mendel, Vision and Violence, 153.

[2]. By the time of the Directory (1794–99), it appears in the variant: “Liberté, égalité, propriété.” See, for example, a print of the three directors (Barras, La Révellière, and Reubell), after the coup-d’état of the 18 of Fructidor (4 September 1797) entitled La trinité républicaine, BNP, Estampes, reproduced in François Furet and Denis Richet, La Révolution du 9-Thermidor au 18-Brumaire (Paris: Hachette, 1966), 123. See also Mona Ozouf, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” in Lieux de Mémoire, ed. Pierre Nora, 3 vol. (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 3:4353–89.

[3]. Richard Pipes discusses the link between Locke and the Communists in Russian Revolution, 1899–1919 (London: Harvill Press, 1997), 125–36; see above on the French revolutionaries’ use of this notion, chapter 9 n. 87.

[4]. For an attempt at a sympathetic but realistic review of the completely impracticable assumptions that underlie so much of Marx’s thought about the Communist state to come, see Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 521–27. He repeatedly refers to the elements of Marx’s assumptions and allusions that are “extremely” (522) and “irredeemably Utopian” (526), of coming from “Cloud-cuckoo-land” (524). See also Axel Van den Berg’s characterization of Marx’s salvific vision as an “absurdly bucolic . . . utterly cloudy millennium.” The Immanent Utopia: From Marxism on the State to the State of Marxism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988) 56-7,

[5]. Mendel, Vision and Violence, 152.

[6]. “Such utopian images of the future command society, however scattered and fragmentary in the writings of Marx and Engels, form an essential component of Marxist theory—and one that is essential for understanding the appeals of Marxism in the modern world.” Maurice Meisner, “Marxism and Utopianisn” in Marxism, Maosim and Utopianism, Eight Essays (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982); see also Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, “Marx and Engels in the Landscape of Utopia” in Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1979), 697–716.

I also, in a subsequent chapter on the Russian revolution, note the way Western intellectuals dealt with the cognitive dissonance of the failed communist millennium:

Fellow Travelers and the Cognitive Dissonance of Failed Revolutions

The reaction of Western Marxists to the Soviet debacle, namely, the length and depth of their denial that the dream had turned into a nightmare, has astounded and puzzled most intellectuals not in thrall to Communist ideology. This is particular true since some of these people, like George Bernard Shaw and Jean-Paul Sartre, were both brilliant and otherwise known for their mordant observations on people’s “bad faith.” And yet, just like believers incapable of allowing the evidence of apocalyptic prophecy’s failure to enter their consciousness, these people could not admit to themselves or anyone else that the millennial experiment in which they had invested so much (intellectual) energy could have failed.[1]

… these pilgrims proved capable of the most extraordinary ability to ignore whatever anomalies they observed in their terrestrial paradise. George Bernard Shaw’s visit to Moscow in 1931 illustrates some of the psychology involved. A devastating critic of Western capitalism, he checked his skepticism at the border, along with the numerous tins of canned meat that his friends had given him to bring to their starving Russian friends, and arrived oblivious to all that surrounded him, including the dismay of the Russians when he told them about the jettisoned cans of meat since he “knew” there was no famine in the socialist paradise.[5] Russia served not as a case of the “real world,” subject to his penetrating criticism, but the foil for his own dislike of the world he inhabited, no matter how it welcomed the products of his socialist genius. Despite the horror that surrounded him in Russia, he came back with glowing reports. As Russell noted, Shaw “fell victim to adulation of the Soviet government and suddenly lost the power of criticism and of seeing though humbug if it came from Moscow.”[6]

[1]. One of the significant exceptions was Bertrand Russell, who, among other things coined the expression the “fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed,” in his 1937 essay “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed,”Unpopular Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1950). For the broader phenomenon, see  David Caute, The Fellow Travelers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment (New York: Macmillan, 1973); Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1998).

[5]. Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937), 428–35.

[6]. Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956), 59; cited in Hollander, Political Pilgrims, 139.

Now, too late to add to the footnotes, Terry Eagelton, one of the major figures in the abuse of post-modernism for political purposes, comes up with a book entitled Why Marx was Right. I fisk his article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he summarizes his argument and tries to rehabilitate Marx for a modern progressive audience. I put Eagelton’s article in bold to distinguish from other quotes I add to this post.

For other excellent critiques, see Ron Radosh, Marx and the American Academy: When Will the High Priests ever Learn? and John Gray, The Return of an Illusion.

April 10, 2011
In Praise of Marx

By Terry Eagleton

Praising Karl Marx might seem as perverse as putting in a good word for the Boston Strangler. Were not Marx’s ideas responsible for despotism, mass murder, labor camps, economic catastrophe, and the loss of liberty for millions of men and women? Was not one of his devoted disciples a paranoid Georgian peasant by the name of Stalin, and another a brutal Chinese dictator who may well have had the blood of some 30 million of his people on his hands?

That’s much more likely 70 million. See Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (2010) on the “great leap forward” alone which brought on over 45 million untimely deaths. One of the comments Dikötter highlights is the determination of Mao to downplay the number of deaths, something that, even as he pretends to admit the truth, Eagelton continues to do.

Spielberg, Super-8 and the ET “Other” since 9-11: Reflections on a Millennial Discourse

[NB: This is a longer version of a blogpost that is now up at the Oxford University Press blog. It extends a discussion that appears in Chapter 13 of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, entitled, “UFOs: The Narcissistic Millennium” where I discuss Steven Spielberg’s contribution to a millennial mentality in our current generation.]

A warm summer night, sitting at the grand opening of the Jerusalem film festival in the Sultan’s Pool just below Saladin’s walls, about to see Super-8 projected onto a giant screen. More than a decade after the second Intifada, it seemed a fitting place to see the latest contribution of one of the greatest storytellers of our age, to his work on Extra-Terrestrials. After all, Stephen Spielberg was one of the great heretics who had challenged the paranoid assumptions pervading all cataclysmic UFO fantasies – they’re coming to get us! As one commentator put it: “No one since Reagan has so demonstrated a belief in the redemptive nature of Hollywood entertainment.”

Indeed, Spielberg was the premier master of the film school of peaceful transformation via UFOs, and gave voice to a generation of transformative millennialists (who date back to the 60s) with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfus (Neery) recalled the film’s spiritual message:

We all felt that this particular project had a noble agenda. This was a big idea that Steven was talking about. It wasn’t just a sci-fi movie, it wasn’t about monsters from the id. It was that we are not only not alone, but that we have relatively little to fear. People don’t realize, or it’s hard for people to remember, that Close Encounters was truly the first cultural iconic moment that said, “Calm down we’re okay. They can be our friends.” That really was a huge statement that I and lots of other people wanted to participate in (Interview in Special Features of 2001 DVD edition).

Russel, Marx, Envy, Democracy and Communism

In a previous post Sergio quoted Bertrand Russel saying “that envy is the basis of democracy?” I asked for the source, and he responded:


The quote is from his book “The conquest of happiness” (1930).

Wikipedia´s comment on “envy” is also interesting, as it says Russell also thought that envy is the basis of human unhappiness. Also they mentioned two kinds of envy, a malign and a benign one. I quote:

“Bertrand Russell said envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness.[4] It is a universal and most unfortunate aspect of human nature because not only is the envious person rendered unhappy by his envy, but also wishes to inflict misfortune on others. Although envy is generally seen as something negative, Russell also believed that envy was a driving force behind the movement towards democracy and must be endured to achieve a more just social system.[5] However, psychologists have recently suggested that there may be two types of envy: malicious envy and benign envy – benign envy being proposed as a type of positive motivational force.[6][7]“

RL: Precisely the distinction that Schoeck makes. Cultures in which anyone else’s gain is “my” loss, are ones in which there is a high price for success, where magic offers the envious means to strike back, where people fear the “evil eye.” Which is why Schadenfreude is so destructive.

Now no one can be “free of envy” (save the rare saint). But you can be careful. Some people are scrupulous on this. I got a call from a friend on a train which was whizzing by the cars stuck in traffic on Route 1 going to Tel Aviv. “Is it okay to feel a little Schadenfreude when I see those stuck motorists?”

I say this about envy in my chapter on Marx in Heaven on Earth:

In an early meditation on “raw” or “crude” Communism (der rohe Communismus), by which he meant the Communism of Babeuf and Buonnaroti, Marx explained its appeal as a universalization of envy. By implication, he distanced himself from it:

Universal envy establishing itself as a power is only the disguised form in which greed re-establishes and satisfies itself in another way. The thought of every piece of private property as such is at the very least turned against richer private property as envy, and the desire to level, so that envy and the desire to level in fact constitute the essence [of the hatred of the results] of competition. Crude communism is only the fulfillment of this envy and leveling on the basis of a preconceived minimum.

This is a highly sophisticated moral discourse that cuts to the quick of the mechanisms of ressentiment parading as idealism. But for all such insight, Marx ended up stoking the very fires he here critiqued. Helmut Schoeck notes: “It is only in Marxism, the abstract and glorified concept of the proletariat, the disinherited and exploited, that a position of implacable envy is fully legitimized.”

Update: Heaven on Earth, the Beginning is Near

According to my publisher, the hardcopy of my book is off the press and on its way to me.

Please (if you are so inclined)

a) order the book here;

b) go to facebook and “like” the book here (so far I only have nine “friends” and I need twenty for it to achieve some kind of status);

c) spread the word.

Thank you.

Richard Landes