As a historian—not a scholar of religion—specialized in Hungarian, Italian, and German history, I cannot say much about Yuri Slezkine’s interpretations of Russian and Soviet history. I am very impressed by The House of Government. It is extremely rich and very inspiring, and written in a fantastic prose. It has deservedly received much acclaim. However, following from my writing on the concept of “political religion,” I do not think that his approach to understanding Bolshevism as a “millenarian sect” is very helpful for the study of modern history.
Slezkine does not discuss the most common theories of “political religion.” He neither mentions Carl Schmitt nor Erich (Eric) Voegelin who have popularized these ideas since the 1920s, although his reading of a political party as a “millenarian sect” is closely related to their ideas.1 Most recently, Roland Clark has analyzed the relationship between political-religious ideologies, youth movements, and extreme violence, focusing on Romanian Fascism. However, Clark does not understand his work as a contribution to studies of “political religion,” but rather as a historical study that investigates also the religious elements of an extremely violent political movement.
It was Schmitt who claimed that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” This claim is based on an idea that the papacy was an absolute monarchy that rested in the transfer of God’s absolute power to his representative on earth. Yet, this claim is so abstract that it cannot describe the messy reality of history. Even in medieval Europe, the idea of a “Christian Civilization” was most probably only a concept shared by a few elites. The attempt to explain radical totalitarian movements such as German National Socialism or Italian Fascism as “political religion” have highlighted some interesting aspects, like a fanatical belief system, the use of religious language or rituals, et cetera. However, “political religion,” which enjoyed some interest among political scientists in the early 2000s, has not gained many followers since then. The Institut für Religionspolitologie at the University of Duisburg in Germany, founded 1996, has ceased to exist. The journal Totalitarian Movements and Political Religion, founded in 2000, changed its name in 2011 to the more general title Politics, Religion and Ideology. The reason why attempts to establish an academic sub-discipline in “political religion” were not very successful while religious studies has thrived might have to do with how theories of political religion offer monocausal explanations for complex historical phenomena like fascism. Such theories focus on the religious beliefs and practices of the elite while often excluding other political, social, and economic factors that contribute to the rise of fascism and other extreme movements.
Slezkine’s book has extraordinary literary qualities and it explains much about a very specific group of leading Bolsheviks—the first two generations who inhabited the “House of Government” in Moscow. Slezkine describes Bolshevism as an “apocalyptic, millenarian sect” that formed before the Revolution in a climate of extreme chiliastic excitement among many Russians, mostly educated, Marxists, and Christians. Citing countless letters and diaries and analyzing the books these young men (only a few women among them) read, he provides a very dense, impressive image of this group of young fanatics. The book also accounts for why the next generation of Bolsheviks did not share the same beliefs as their predecessors. According to Slezkine, the original Bolsheviks did not “brainwash” the younger comrades, and therefore failed to create a new system of values and new family structures. Instead of reading Marx and Lenin, the children read Tolstoy and other classics that contained values that would not transform them into the next generation of socialists.
In Chapter 3 of the book, Slezkine gives a historical overview of millenarian sects, beginning with the first millennium BCE. This chapter, like the rest of the book, is very well written and insightful, but his understanding of the pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks as a somehow religious sect leaves out the historical context and the content of the various beliefs of all these millenarian movements, distilling instead a few characteristics they shared: their fanatical belief in holy texts; their conviction of an immediate catastrophic end to the society they lived in; their exclusive, elitist character; as well as their conflicts with their families and society, including the experience of being persecuted. Interestingly, the Jacobins of the French Revolution with whom the Bolsheviks mostly identified are only mentioned in passing. Had he taken the religious beliefs of these sects seriously, Slezkine would have had to engage in a much deeper understanding of the specific political, social, and cultural environment of the French and Soviet contexts and he would have found that the similarities are rather superficial.
Slezkine’s approach explains well how a group of young male Russians became fanatical Bolsheviks at the beginning of the twentieth century. It also explains their use of extreme violence and how violence turned against them in the 1930s (although the analysis would have benefitted from the most recent theories of collective violence). As Sven Reichhardt or the aforementioned Roland Clark have shown, extreme violence is an essential part of totalitarian movements. The extreme violence exerted by political movements such as the Fascists and the Bolsheviks was an essential part of their political identity, as Jörg Baberowski has argued. Very often, these movements only subsequently offered an “ideological” or “religious” justification for their violent acts.
What Slezkine does not explain, however, is why the Russian Empire fell into the Bolsheviks’ hands. We learn a lot about how the Bolsheviks interpreted their success (inevitably, of course!), how they saw Russian society, as well as how and why many Russians “converted” to the Bolshevik sect yet it would have been illuminating if he would also have written about those millions of Russians who did not become Bolsheviks but somehow tolerated the sectarians. The book is a fascinating collective biography and a detailed “histoire totale” of the Bolshevik elite that inhabited the House of Government, but it would be a stretch to understand it as an exhaustive explanation of such a complex event as the Russian Revolution.
For a hundred years, scholars have tried to better understand radical political movements and their extreme violence as “religious.” I think it is important to analyze and describe “religious” aspects of these movements, and Slezkine gives us much to think about with regard to the Bolsheviks, as scholars of fascism have done before, describing them as a fanatical, exclusive sect of believers. But our understanding of these radical movements has little to gain if we consider them exclusively as “religious sects” because too much gets lost, including political, social, economic, (secular) cultural aspects. As Michael David-Fox has argued, scholars should consider the full complexity of historical phenomena, not engage in monocausal explanations that exclude or marginalize other theories.
For a good, brief overview, cf: http://www.iwm.at/publications/5-junior-visiting-fellows-conferences/vol-xxxiii/schmitts-political-theology/. Schmitt’s essay is available in English here.↩