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A review of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience by Richard Landes
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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.
Underexamined, 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.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 January 2012, on page 84
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