No Mass, but lots of martyrs for the masses

Earthly Powers
April 7, 2006

Should religion and politics be kept separate? Nineteenth-century Europeans thought not, finds Christopher Clark

On August 10, 1793, crowds gathered in Paris to celebrate the festival of the Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic. At the head of a long procession, representatives of the political clubs held a banner emblazoned with the omniscient eye of revolutionary surveillance. Behind them walked members of the Paris Convention with a cedarwood ark, in which was enclosed a scroll bearing the new constitution. Water splashing from the breasts of a statue representing Nature was gathered into a chalice and passed from mouth to mouth, amid fervent expressions of patriotic sentiment. Was the procession an act of religious blasphemy, or one of political piety? Alexis de Tocqueville observed that it was precisely at those moments when the Revolution sought to usurp the place of religion in the lives of the people that it became most cult-like, until the point where "it itself became a new kind of religion". As Michael Burleigh argues in this enthralling, often brilliant book, the fusion of politics and religion has been one of the most insidious themes in modern European history.

It has never been entirely clear what we mean by "secularisation" and how it relates to what we call modernity. Is it a process of rupture, in which religious commitments, beliefs or values are dissolved and superseded by "modern" secular attachments? Or are there underlying continuities between traditional religion and supposedly secular modern ideologies? Does modernity denote an authentically new system of values, or is it inescapably rooted in traditional, essentially religious, habits of thought?

Burleigh explores both options. On the one hand, he has something to say about the waning power of religious institutions over the behaviour and beliefs of Europeans. This story takes him from the cultural relativism of the Enlightenment via the expropriations of church land and wealth in revolutionary France and Napoleonic Europe to the city missions of Victorian Britain and the godless slums of late 19th-century Berlin.

Secularisation in this sense, as Burleigh shows, was anything but a linear process, for periods of decline were interspersed with phases of religious revival, in which institutional religions - especially the Roman Catholic Church - fought back with considerable success against the secularising initiatives of nation-states and their liberal elites.

But Burleigh is ultimately less interested in the phenomenon of secularisation as such, which receives only intermittent treatment in this volume, than he is in the "political religions" that emerged in its wake. Here he borrows from the conceptual arsenal of Eric Voegelin, an Austrian refugee from the Nazis whose theoretical writings have recently begun to attract renewed interest. In The Political Religions , published in Vienna in 1938, Voegelin argued that totalitarian states secured power by supplanting roles traditionally played by religion in providing values, a sense of identity and psychological cohesion. The result was a potent fusion of the apocalyptic logic of religion with the instruments of political coercion.

This is the theme at the heart of Burleigh's book, and he explores it with great verve and intelligence. The two great modern ideologies of mass allegiance, nationalism and socialism, both usurped the attributes of religion. The French Revolution mourned its martyrs and cherished their relics: Marat's heart was packed into an urn and slung from the roof of the Cordelier club; Jacques-Louis David's famous painting of the slain demagogue slumped in his bath invited comparison with the crucified Christ. The Revolution even devised its own catechisms, in which the question-and-answer format of the traditional primer was adapted to new purposes. In one Jacobin version, the question "What is baptism?" received the answer: "It is the regeneration of the entire French people begun on July 14, 1789 and soon supported by the entire French nation."

Nationalism, too, had its catechisms, prophets and mystics. After the battle of Aspromonte, Garibaldi's followers kept his blood-spattered socks as quasi-sacred relics. The Garibaldini even composed a version of the Ten Commandments that included such edifying items as: "Thou shalt not fornicate, unless it be to harm the enemies of Italy." In the patriotic verse of the Polish nationalist Adam Mickiewicz, the calling of the patriot and the sufferings of his nation are one with the incarnation and passion of Christ.

In Marxism, Burleigh discerns numerous parallels with the tropes of traditional religion: "consciousness" replaces the soul; "comrades" stand in for the faithful; the "capitalist" supplants the sinner; and "classless society" is substituted for paradise. Consciously or unconsciously, the late 19th-century mass meetings of the German socialists took on the trappings of church services, at which the faithful, dressed in their Sunday best, observed a solemn liturgy, sang secular hymns and venerated portraits of their leaders framed in greenery.

All this sounds harmless enough, but the fusion of politics with the utopian pretensions of religion carried a destructive potential, Burleigh argues, that would be realised only in the totalitarian ultra-nationalist and communist regimes of the 20th century.

Burleigh unfolds his narrative with great elegance, weaving the central theme into a panoramic view of modern Europe underpinned by deep learning. This is not a desiccated overview, but a journey peopled with a remarkable gallery of rulers, demagogues and sages. There are endless telling vignettes and hilarious pen portraits. We visit the "amiably crackbrained" ideologue Saint-Simon maundering away in his garret "surrounded by books, papers, crusts of bread, dirty linen and a cranky entourage". We glimpse the infirm Pope Pius VII staggering about his chambers attached to the walls by a cord because vertigo and bouts of paralysis would otherwise have deposited him on the floor. Among the activities prohibited in the Papal States during his Bourbon Restoration-era pontificate were archaeological excavations, gas lighting and vaccination. And there is a highly original account of the Breton clergyman Félicité Robert de Lamennais, founder of the first Catholic daily paper in Europe and the brightest star of Catholic liberalism. Condemned by Rome in 1834, after which he left the church to live in obscurity, de Lamennais generally figures as one of the victims of the "Romanisation" that transformed the fabric of mid-19th century Catholicism. In this book, however, he appears as the advocate of a Catholic "civil religion", whose willingness to harness revolution for the goals of Christian renovation anticipated the quasi-religious populism of the nationalist movements.

Inevitably in a book of this scope, the argument is less persuasive on some points than on others. The chapter on 19th-century Russia draws on a narrower range of sources and examples than the rest of the book and the affinities between politics and religion that carry the central argument elsewhere are less effectively explored. This is a pity, because it was surely in Russia that the type of the revolutionary martyr prepared to sacrifice everything for the struggle took uniquely radical form. The portraits of Europe's left-wing celebrities are extremely entertaining and well written, but Burleigh's emphasis on eccentricity and crackpottery leaves the reader wondering why, for example, Saint-Simonianism or Comtean theory left such an enduring mark on Western European thought.

Last, there is the problem of what exactly the religion in "political religion" amounts to. Is it merely a metaphor, as in "snooker is Charlie's religion"? Or does it refer to the usurpation of social functions associated with the churches, or to a repertoire of ritual performances, or to the absorption of specific elements of Christian doctrinal substance? Are all forms of political fanaticism "religious"? Burleigh has written authoritatively on this question elsewhere, and he will presumably return to it in the sequel to this volume, which follows his story into the 20th century.

Readers will be struck by the trenchancy with which Burleigh expresses his allegiances and antipathies. The highest accolades go to the "inclusively subtle civil religion" of the US, which he sees as an immensely sophisticated instrument for the integration of a society constantly replenished by immigration. Those clear-eyed sages Burke and de Tocqueville are ushered in as expert witnesses, and the great European movements of faith are always treated with sympathy and imagination. On the other hand, Burleigh cannot resist the temptation to let off shots en passant at a motley array of targets - these include "film-makers from the BBC", "municipal commissars" who dream up "grim public housing projects named after Nelson Mandela", "modern liberals" who refuse to understand the virtue of capital punishment and the heroism of the executioner, the contemporary enthusiasts of "global governance, world parliaments and world peace", and modern Cardiff, "a city synonymous with drunken violence".

Burleigh saves his most splenetic strictures for his former colleagues at the British universities. In these run-down state-subsidised institutions, he finds a "secular-minded" "Marxist establishment" simmering in a soup of half-digested leftism, paralysed by "indolence and inertia" and the "herd-like mentality of academics everywhere". Pitiable rather than dangerous, the "modern dons" can be observed in Britain's university towns "dream(ing) of a Jaguar as they pootle about in their sputtering third-hand Volvos".

Burleigh's peppery eruptions may put some readers off; most, I hope, will enjoy such high-spirited larks, which are rare in - dare I say it? - academic writing. If Earthly Powers is in some respects a partisan account, it is nevertheless richly textured and capacious, connecting people, things and issues in fresh ways. It is also beguilingly written and alive with sharply observed scenes. Others may have recognised the importance of his theme, but Burleigh is the first to integrate the multiple histories of secularisation, religious revival and the rise of the great secular political ideologies into one gripping and original epic narrative. The second volume is to be keenly awaited.

Christopher Clark is a fellow of St Catharine's College, Cambridge.

Earthly Powers: The Conflict Between Religion and Politics from the French Revolution to the Great War

Author - Michael Burleigh
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 530
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 00 719572 9

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