Opening his chapter on “The Faith” of Bolshevism (chapter 3), Yuri Slezkine writes that “The most obvious question about [the] luminous faith is whether it is a religion.” The most “sensible” answer, he proposes, “is that it does not matter.” This proposition—that whether or not Bolshevism is a religion does not matter—is perhaps the most provocative claim in the book.
One of the reasons this claim is contentious is that, historically, the answer has mattered a great deal, especially to those parties who spoke for religion—and especially after the group professing the faith came to power in Russia in 1917. It mattered to the Russian Orthodox Church—so much so that in January of 1918 Patriarch Tikhon anathematized Soviet power, calling on the church’s “faithful children” not to enter into “any communion with such outcasts of the human race.” It also mattered to the Catholic Church, which had, since the middle of the nineteenth century, condemned Communism as “a doctrine most opposed to the very natural law” that, if accepted, would lead to “the complete destruction of everyone’s laws, government, property, and even of human society itself.” Once the nightmare of Communism in power had come to pass with the Russian Revolution, the Vatican issued numerous allocutions and encyclicals condemning “the fatal plague which insinuates itself into the very marrow of human society only to bring about its ruin.” In 1930, Pope Pius XI launched a “crusade of prayer” against religious persecution in the USSR, and in 1937 issued an encyclical on “atheistic communism,” presenting it as a “false messianic idea” that “exceeds in amplitude and violence anything yet experienced in the preceding persecutions against the Church.” On the eve of the Second World War, the Vatican saw Communism as a more serious threat than Nazism.
Whether Communism was a religion also mattered to contemporaries trying to make sense of modern European politics. The philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev (1874-1948), a Russian emigre who fled the Bolshevik Revolution, commented on the “religious” nature of Russian Communism—a characterization that shaped how Soviet power was understood for the rest of its political existence, especially by conservative critics. Indeed, once the USSR was conclusively accepted as a political fact after the Second World War, the battle against “godless Communism” mobilized what the historian Jonathan Herzog calls the “spiritual-industrial complex,” fueling the subsequent Cold War.
But it is the German philosopher Eric Voegelin’s (1901-1985) study of “political religions”—first published in Vienna in 1938 (and focused primarily on Nazism)—that revealed the stakes of the analogy and gave the concept its long intellectual afterlife. Indeed, that “political religion” continues to be invoked in both public and academic debates speaks to its capturing something about regimes that are, in the words of the great conservative theorist Edmund Burke (1729-1797), not “merely political.” Writing in the politically radical but religiously “lukewarm” (to borrow Slezkine’s term) context of interwar Europe, Voegelin proposed that the rise of the new “political religions” was the consequence of widespread secularization. He noted that interpreting these movements “not only as political, but above all as religious ones” was “far from self-evident,” but argued that their distinct and dangerous qualities made both new terminology and new approaches necessary. “A Satanic force cannot be combated with morality and humanism alone,” Voegelin warned in his book Political Religions. “It does not have to do with the accuracy of a definition. It has to do with life and death.”
For the Bolsheviks (at least for Slezkine’s protagonists, the first generation of Bolsheviks who made the revolution), the Marxist “faith” was most certainly a matter of life and death. In showing this, Slezkine settles one of the big questions of Soviet history: whether the Bolsheviks actually believed in their own prophecy (it is hard, after reading Slezkine’s nearly thousand pages analyzing Bolshevik lives and life-writings, to come away with doubt on that front). But does this make Bolshevism a “religion” (or a “political religion,” a term that Slezkine himself eschews)? Slezkine’s strategy is to question the question itself. Our answer, he argues, depends on whether we can agree on a definition of “religion” (which we cannot). Slezkine therefore makes no distinction between religious (Tolstoyans, Dukhobors), political (Social Democrats, Anarchists), and even cultural (Decadents, Symbolists) movements that, according to Slezkine, all had something in common on the eve of the Russian Revolution. All of them “seemed to believe that the world was sick and would not last much longer,” and all were millenarian sects, albeit with varying degrees of fervency.
What made the Bolshevik sect distinct is that, like a minority of Christians, they expected the Last Judgement and the arrival of the Real Day in their lifetime, and worked actively toward “a violent revolution followed by a reign of social justice.” They also refused to compromise or to wait. Indeed, Slezkine writes that the Bolsheviks “defined themselves in opposition to appeasement,” marking as an appeaser “anyone who compromised with Babylon.” Politically, this fundamentalism gave them an advantage; their total unwillingness to “appease” helped them seize, and hold on to, power. This was no small feat since, as Slezkine observes, “Never before had an apocalyptic sect succeeded in taking control of an existing heathen empire.” What made the Bolsheviks truly distinct, then, is that they were a millenarian sect in power, and had unprecedented means to bring about the Real Day.
Of course—as Berdiaev, Voegelin, and many others since have noted—there are also more obvious affinities between Bolshevism and “religion.” There is the Bolsheviks’ transformation of Lenin’s dead body into “an icon in the flesh,” or the religious undertone of Stalin’s famous oath following Lenin’s death, which, in the party’s most precarious moment, furnished it with a set of “commandments,” creating the appearance of political continuity and positioning Stalin as Lenin’s true heir. In fact, Lenin’s “commandments” were supposed to be engraved on the entry columns of the Palace of Soviets, a monumental structure envisioned as the symbolic center of Soviet power that was ultimately never built. Finally, as Slezkine observes, the Bolshevik faith echoed the narratives of the old faiths, offering an “utterly familiar” prophecy: tribal salvation from degradation, “translat[ed] . . . into a language of universalism.”
But more revealing than such external similarities was the Bolshevik Party’s claim to a monopoly not just on power but on truth—and, flowing from this, its intolerance of dissent. “For lifelong Bolsheviks,” Slezkine writes, “there was no truth or meaning outside the Party . . . The Party was the ontological foundation of the true believer’s universe.” This, of course, made Communism incompatible with religion; the rejection of religion was written into the Bolshevik Party charter as a matter of policy. In fact, for many Bolsheviks, “the loss of ‘religious’ faith was a prerequisite for spiritual awakening.” In the words of the Bolshevik Feliks Kon, “It was a change of faith, of cult. . . . A dead, ossified faith had been replaced by a living, vibrant one.”
Like Communism, Christianity, if taken seriously, also makes total claims on the believer. As Slezkine writes, “Christianity is inherently ‘totalitarian’ in the sense of demanding unconditional moral submission (the coincidence of God’s will and human desires) and emphasizing thought crimes over formal legality.” But the Bolsheviks did not take Christianity very seriously—and certainly never as seriously as many other threats to Soviet power. They considered (traditional) religion, much like (bourgeois) politics, to be a “decaying, stinking, putrefied” remnant of the old world relegated to an inevitable death. Indeed, the Bolsheviks were more tolerant of religious heresies than political ones: A Bolshevik who baptized a child could earn an official reprimand; a Bolshevik who tied to an oppositional “faction” (like Trotskyism) could be excommunicated, even put to death. For the Bolsheviks, then, the difference between religion and politics mattered far less than whether a movement—religious or political—posed an existential threat. And the party’s “intensity of enforcement” depended more on the level of “eschatological impatience” than on whether the threat was religious or political.
Slezkine’s book offers a window into the world of the true believer—a world in which salvation depends on belief and actions can bring about the end of history. If we embody this world, then we cannot be neutral, indifferent, or tolerant to any threat posed by a competing faith—not if we take our faith seriously and if believe the threat to be real. In this way, Slezkine blurs the distinction between religion and politics, forcing us to consider what, if anything, constitutes their fundamental difference. In making this argument, Slezkine is most effective when he takes on the “neutrality” (or secularity) of the liberal state, which, to borrow Nikolai Bukharin’s words (cited in Slezkine’s book), purports to be “generous” and “tolerant.” As Slezkine puts it, “There is no such thing as a disenchanted world or a profane polity. No state, however routinized, is fully divorced from its sacred origins, and no claim to legitimacy is purely ‘rational-instrumental.’” In this framework, the toleration of the liberal state speaks to the “un-self-conscious strength of the official faith” vis-à-vis other claimants to the sacred; they become “religions,” whereas the liberal state’s monopoly on the sacred can remain unnamed. However, even the most “tolerant” political regimes do not tolerate threats to their sacred legitimacy. Toleration, then, “is reserved for the vanquished and the irrelevant.”
Slezkine’s rejection of the distinction between religion and politics is a bold move, and one he makes throughout the book. Indeed, his concluding claim is that the Bolshevik Revolution was Russia’s Reformation—“an attempt to transform peasants into Soviets, and Soviets into self-monitoring, morally vigilant modern subjects”—albeit an ultimately unsuccessful one. “Revolution and Reformation are reflections of the same thing in different mirrors,” Slezkine writes. “The first refers to political reform that affects the cosmology; the second refers to cosmological reform that affects politics.” Bolshevism, in Slezkine’s rendering, is not politics, religion, and certainly not “political religion” because, according to conventional definitions, all religion is in some way political, and all politics is to some degree religious. In this, Slezkine’s approach is not so different than that of the Bolsheviks themselves, since they too insisted that their doctrine was not “religion,” and their politics was not “politics.” As far as they were concerned, their movement transcended “religion” and “politics” because, unlike the false old faiths, they had the true prophecy and could bring about the Real Day. In this way, Slezkine writes “political religion” out of existence.
What we are left with, then, is the moral valence of “political religion,” clear in the term’s origins, as well as in the fact that it is often invoked alongside terms like “quasi-religion,” “pseudo-religion,” or “ersatz religion.” This framing suggests that unlike real religion (which is true, authentic, and good), “political religion” is false, inauthentic, and evil. But if we put this moral judgement aside, Slezkine’s story of Bolshevism as a faith, and of the Bolshevik Party as a millenarian sect, offers religious studies an opportunity to expand its purview beyond its traditional disciplinary boundaries by challenging the conventional distinctions between politics and religion. We can agree with Voegelin and Berdiaev that to approach these movements as “merely political” is inadequate. What scholars of religion can do is bring the tools of their discipline to think through phenomena that—whether transcendent or immanent, true or false, good or bad—are for their followers a matter of life and death.