The Ecology of Freedom : Chapter 8 - From Saints to Sellers
(1921 - 2006) ~ Father of Social Ecology and Anarcho-Communalism : Growing up in the era of traditional proletarian socialism, with its working-class insurrections and struggles against classical fascism, as an adult he helped start the ecology movement, embraced the feminist movement as antihierarchical, and developed his own democratic, communalist politics. (From : Anarchy Archives.)
• "Or will ecology groups and the Greens turn the entire ecology movement into a starry-eyed religion decorated by gods, goddesses, woodsprites, and organized around sedating rituals that reduce militant activist groups to self-indulgent encounter groups?" (From : "The Crisis in the Ecology Movement," by Murray Bo....)
• "...Proudhon here appears as a supporter of direct democracy and assembly self- management on a clearly civic level, a form of social organization well worth fighting for in an era of centralization and oligarchy." (From : "The Ghost of Anarcho-Syndicalism," by Murray Book....)
• "The social view of humanity, namely that of social ecology, focuses primarily on the historic emergence of hierarchy and the need to eliminate hierarchical relationships." (From : "The Crisis in the Ecology Movement," by Murray Bo....)
Chapter 8 - From Saints to Sellers
But what of the social movements that these expanding notions of freedom were meant to influence? What of the ancient tribes who crossed the threshold into "civilization," the plebes and slaves to whom Christianity appealed, the discontented congregations of the "elect" and the unruly conventicles of the radical "Saints," the mystics and realists, the ascetics and hedonists, the pacifists and warriors of Christ who were to "turn the world upside down"? Up to now, I have explored the legacy of freedom in terms of its development as a theory. But how did the legacy function as a social movement, and how did the social movement react back upon the legacy, raising problems not only of faith and "Sainthood" but in our own time problems of economics, technics, and the impact of a marketplace of sellers? To understand the legacy of freedom as it was lived, not only thought, we must immerse our ideas in the rich flux of reality and sort out their authenticity in the earthy experiences of the oppressed.
Historically, the earliest expression of freedom within the realm of unfreedom consists of popular attempts to restore the irreducible minimum and the circulation of wealth frozen in the temples, manors, and palaces of the ruling elites. The "big men" — initially, the tribal warrior-chieftains, later the nobles and monarchs of the secular realm and their priestly counterparts — were the custodians of society's use-values. They collected them in storehouses (an action partly justified by the Biblical story of Joseph) and redistributed them according to a hierarchy of values that increasingly reinforced their authority. The early history of "civilization" is largely an account of the custodians' expanding grip on the productive process: their deployment and rationalization of labor, their control over its fruits, and their personal appropriation of an increasingly larger fraction of the labor process and its social product.
But this history is also an account of the mystification of the social wealth they siphoned off to reinforce their power. Treasure — in the form of large ornate structures, costly furnishings and attire, jewels, art works, storehouses of products, even intangibles such as writing and knowledge — looms over the "masses" as the materialization of an all-pervasive malevolent force. The shamans and priests did their work well by transforming mundane things into transmundane things, objects into symbols; they thereby restructured the very process of generalization — which must itself be emancipated from hierarchy — into the supernatural imagery of transubstantiation. The ancient mysteries invaded the mental processes of humanity and changed them epistemologically from gnosis into the warped form of a sacrament: real bread was turned into the "body" of Christ and real wine into his "blood." Even in the distant, pre-Christian era of antiquity, the real things that the primordial world generously recycled within the community to satisfy real needs were turned into sacramental things consecrating power and hierarchy. The "fetishization" of use-values long preceded the "fetishization" of exchange-values and market-generated "needs."
Consolidated as mystified power and authority, the treasure of the ruling elites had to be exorcized. It had to be removed from the hands of the hierarchical strata who guarded it. It also had to be stripped of its mystified traits by a two-fold process of dissolution: firstly, by restoring this treasure to the natural, comprehensible forms of mundane use-values in order to render authority itself mundane and controllable; secondly, by recirculating wealth within the community in order to restore the principle of usufruct. Accordingly, by plundering, redistributing, or even "purifying" property with the torch of the incendiary, the "masses" were not merely oriented toward a consumerist disposition of wealth, but were also demystifying its institutional function as a force for domination — as well as restoring the primordial principles of the irreducible minimum and the equality of unequals. In this tradition-laden version of the "black redistribution," we find a rational attempt to subvert the hold of objects as the incarnation of hierarchy and domination over the lives of human beings. These expropriative explosions of the people, which so often are dismissed as the "plundering" expeditions of "primitive rebels" (to use Eric Hobsbawn's fatuous characterization), were surprisingly sophisticated in their intentions. They recur throughout history. Even the most unadorned consumerist visions of freedom have a broader social dimension than we normally suppose; they are concerned not only with the satisfaction of human needs but with the desymbolization of power and property.
But two epistemologies are in conflict here. The ruling classes react to the "black redistribution" not only with personal fear and a savage lust for vengeance, but with horror toward the desecration of their hierarchical vision of "order." The "black redistribution" affronts not only their own proprietary claim to the social product but also their view of the social product as a kosmos of proprietary claims. Perhaps the earliest record we have of these reactions is a lamentation by a member of the privileged classes, recounting a peasant rebellion that apparently swept over the Nile Valley at the beginning of ancient Egypt's "feudal" period (c. 2500 B.C.):
Behold the palaces thereof, their walls are dismantled . . . . Behold, all the craftsmen, they do no work; the enemies of the land impoverish its crafts. [Behold, he who reaped] the harvest knows naught of it; he who has not plowed [fills his granaries] . . . . Civil war pays no taxes . . . . For what is a treasure without its revenues? . . . Behold, he who has no yoke of oxen is [now] possessor of a herd; and he who found no plow-oxen for himself is [now] owner of a herd. Behold, he who had no grain is [now] owner of granaries; and he who used to fetch grain for himself [now] has it issued [from his own granary].
Not only had the kosmos fallen apart, but with it the State: "[The] laws of the judgment-hall are cast forth, men walk upon [them] in the public places, the poor break them open in the midst of the streets." James Breasted, from whom this account is drawn, astutely observes that this despoilation of the records, archives, and written laws was "particularly heinous from the orderly Egyptian's point of view; the withdrawing of writings and records from the public offices for purposes of evidence or consultation was carefully regulated." In this sacrilegious act of destruction, the blood oath took its revenge on written legal ties; parity, on status sanctified by codes; usufruct, on the titles that confer ownership of property; and the irreducible minimum, on the accounts of taxes and grain deliveries to the State, nobility, and priesthood.
Thereafter, almost every peasant war was marked not only by the redistribution of property but also by the burning of archives. The impulse for such actions came from the revolutionary impulse, not from the memory of previous revolts, whose history had been largely suppressed. In that distant period related by the Egyptian scribe, the memory of tribal life may still have permeated the reality of "civilization," and the Word, with its moral, legal, and mystical nuances, had not completely replaced the deed. Contract and moral precept still floated on a primordial quicksand that required many centuries of "civilization" before it could fully harden into class rule and become solidly internalized as guilt, renunciation, and a fear of the "chaotic" impulses that raged in the unconscious of the oppressed.
The memory of later uprisings (which are probably very similar in nature to the one we already have explored) was so completely appropriated by the ruling classes that the historical record is sketchy at best and venal in the accounts it does contain. We know that about the same time the ancient Egyptian peasantry rose against the entrenched class system of the Old Kingdom or possibly the nobility of the Middle Kingdom, a similar uprising occurred in the Sumerian city of Lagash (for which Kramer, puzzled by the literal meaning of the word amargi, provides a fairly complete account). Judging from Athenian references, Sparta's serf-like helots revolted with disconcerting frequency. So troubling was this history of underclass unrest that even the fairly benign Athenian polis lived in uncertainty about its own slave population. Rome, particularly toward the end of its republican era, was apparently destabilized by a series of slave and gladiatorial revolts, among which Spartakus's historic rebellion (73 B.C.) was apparently the most far-reaching and dramatic. This army of slaves and gladiators, later joined by impoverished free people, engaged in a series of major looting expeditions that swept over the Campania and southern Italy until it was crushed by Crassus and Pompey.
However, Greece and Rome's class conflicts were largely confined to disputes between commoners and nobles over demands for a fair redistribution of the land, the cancellation of mortgages, and greater juridical equality Within the prevailing system of ownership and political authority. Quasinationalist uprisings afflicted both city-states after they were drawn into the pursuit of imperial ends. But these conflicts rarely involved deep-seated internal social changes either at home or abroad.
Only with the advent of Christianity did the libidinal, instinctive movement for freedom resurge — not only as gnosticism but also as a radical interpretation of canonical ideals. Even seemingly "orthodox" Christian communities exhibited these communistic and fervently millenarian qualities, which were to unsettle western society for centuries. Apostolic deeds were used against the ecclesiastical Word — the one as bluntly secular, the other as cunningly divine. The covenant of justice — Old Testament law — was transmuted into the covenant of freedom as practiced by the early Christian congregations that apparently existed in ancient Judea before the fall of Jerusalem.
Christianity's mixed message can be grouped into two broad and highly conflicting systems of belief. On one side there was a radical, activistic, communistic, and libertarian vision of the Christian life largely drawn from the Jamesian Church in Jerusalem; on the other side there was a conservative, quietistic, materially unworldly, and hierarchical vision that seems to derive from the Pauline Church in Rome. The radical interpretation of a devout life and Christian eschatology may have had even more canonical support than the conservative, despite the Roman Church's apparent purging of the New Testament to remove the radical ideals of its Jamesian progenitors. Apostolic Christianity advances a vision of the earliest community of believers that stands sharply at odds with the surrounding Roman world. Communal sharing — communism — is one of its most outstanding features. According to Acts, "all that believed were together, and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them all, according as every man had need." As if to reinforce this view of the Christian life, the gospel intones: "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul, not one of them said that all of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common." If we take this description of the early Christian community literally (and there is no reason why we shouldn't), the first believers practiced not merely communism but usufruct.
The Pauline Church in Rome reinforced this apostolic account. Barnabas (c. 130), in his "Epistle to the Christians," made the gospel message a practical injunction: the true believer should "communicate in all things with thy neighbor" and "shall not call things thine own." Justin the Martyr (c. 100-165) urged that the redeemed "who loveth the path to riches and possessions above any other now produce what we have in common and give to everyone who needs." Tertullian (c. 160-230), already faced with radical "heresies" that were to rend the Church of his day, nevertheless emphasized that "We acknowledge one all-embracing commonwealth — the world." Having cited the Christian doctrine of a universal humanitas, as distinguished from a parochial folk or a selected elite (a distinction he apparently found it still necessary to make), Tertullian then declared that Christians were "one in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share all our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives." Although the Church dealt with such descriptions, possibly such admonitions, very warily, these it probably could not expunge. Apparently, the Acts and the writings of the Church fathers cited here were too well-known to be suppressed or reduced to apocryphal writings. The Church encountered similar problems in dealing with the gospel of Matthew, in ritual and language the most Judaic of the New Testament writings, and with the gospels of Mark and Luke, both of which reveal strong biases against wealth and proprietary proclivities.
No less important are the apocalyptic visions advanced in Matthew and particularly in Revelation. These visions of the Last Days, together with similar prophecies in the Old Testament, attained immense popularity among the early Christian congregations and surged up as an explosive program for "heretical" tendencies and movements during the Reformation. Matthew's gospel is wrenched by anger. Jesus comes not to "abolish the Law or the Prophets . . . but to complete them." Pacific though Jesus may be, he warns the disciples: "Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. It is not peace I have to bring, but the sword." "Vipers," the "wrath" of the "Kingdom to come," "vengeance" — all these terms rise up angrily in the text, as much from the mouth of Jesus as from that of John the Baptizer (a figure apparently modeled on Amos whose god is a "barn burner," to use Bloch's expression). Revelation or Apocalypse (the original Greek title) is chiliastic to the core; its fiery symbolism aside, it predicts the Last Days in terms of the total annihilation of the Roman Empire, to be followed by the Second Coming of Jesus, the raising of the devout from the dead, and a utopian heaven on earth in the form of a New Jerusalem.
To the early Christians, the Apocalypse and the Second Coming, with its ensuing "millenium, were not spiritual metaphors or remote events. They were earthly and imminent. The all-encompassing renunciation that Jesus demands of his disciples would be meaningless if the "throne of glory," with its promise of repayment "a hundred times over" and its reward of "eternal life," were not close at hand. The huge stakes advanced by both parties in this cosmic bargain — on one side, the heart-wrenching humiliation and crucifixion; on the other, the loss of "houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or land" — could hardly be expected to end in a paltry and remote dispensation.
Nor could the early Christian congregations be asked to look forward to less. Norman Cohn has pieced together the various apocalyptic fantasies of the Christian congregations during the first few centuries of persecution into a "paradigm" that was to haunt the Church and guide the revolutionary eschatological movements of the oppressed for centuries to come. According to this vision:
The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness — a power moreover which is imagined not as simply human but as demonic. The tyranny of that power will become more and more outrageous, the suffering of its victims more and more intolerable — until suddenly the hour will strike when the Saints of God are able to rise up and overthrow it. Then the Saints themselves, the chosen, holy people, who hitherto have groaned under the oppressor's heel, shall in their turn inherit dominion over the whole earth. This will be the culmination of history; the Kingdom of the Saints will not only surpass in glory all previous kingdoms, but it will have no successors.
To this "paradigm" must be added a number of vital eschatological visions that are essentially utopian. The "Saints of God" are a devout, earthly people, not necessarily divine otherworldly personages, and they will be led by a holy messiah with miraculous powers. The earthly "Kingdom of God" will be a world of plenty in which, according to the vision of Lactanius (a Christian proselytizer of the fourth century):
The earth shall bear all fruits without man's labor. Honey in abundance shall drip from the rocks, fountains of milk and wine shall burst forth. The beasts of the forests shall put away their wildness and become tame . . . no longer shall any animal live by bloodshed. For God shall supply all with abundant and guiltless food.
Thus Christianity, during many of its wayward pagan accretions, was to acquire not only a large calendar of saints and miraculous achievements but also, in terms of folk appeal, the ancient land of Cokaygne.
Yet by no means does this "paradigm" yield more than an ascetic social quietism — one that initially recruits martyrs for the Church rather than warriors. The oppressed who joined the early Christian congregations shaped their fantasies in the form of miracles, not muscular. conflicts. The mentality of the ancient slave and of impoverished country and city folk left an indelible mark of resignation on the new religion. Unsettling as the early Christian imagery of a vengeful Second Coming may have been to the masters of the Roman world, these Christians lived in a world of portents and omens. Tertullian, for example, tells us of a wondrous vision that had been reported: every morning for forty days a walled city was seen in the sky of Judea, clearly signifying that the heavenly Jerusalem would shortly descend to the earth. Patently, the Second Coming was clearly at hand — indeed, imminent.
After two centuries of passive waiting, however, such miraculous notions of the Apocalypse had been worn to shreds. A new note began to appear in the chiliastic literature. The Latin poet Commodianus advanced a more militant, activistic concept of the Apocalypse based upon violence and crusading zealotry. To Commodianus, the "Saints" were warriors, not mere penitents; they were free, with the Deity's consent, to loot and devastate wantonly. After much battling back and forth between the heavenly hosts and the forces of Antichrist, the holy folk would win over the evil ones and enjoy the rewards of immortality in their New Jerusalem. These consolingly material rewards included not only eternal life but also freedom from the burdens of age, inclement weather, and the ascetic life. The "Saints" could marry and have children; the earth would be rejuvenated, and the "Holy Ones" would enjoy its rich material bounty.
The "double meaning" of these chiliastic visions did not escape the eyes of the Church fathers. Augustinian Christianity ruthlessly purged the now-established religion of its millenarian fantasies by turning them into spiritual allegories — the device par excellence that the Church was to use repeatedly against any undesirable literal interpretations of the Bible. To Augustine, the Second Coming had essentially arrived with the establishment of the Church. Official Christianity elevated the vision of an earthly paradise to heaven and suppressed as "heresies" any departure from its otherworldly focus. Not that the earthly world could be left to its own ways — Christ, as well as the Church, would intercede to transform it — but the Second Coming was off in the distant future, when the Church's custody of the earth and its task of sorting out the holy from the irredeemable ones had been completed.
The chiliastic visions of a New Jerusalem, however, did not disappear. They were driven underground, only to surface again with the changing social conditions that layered the Middle Ages, often acquiring increasingly radical traits. During their long history, these visions branched off into two types of social movements — the ascetic and the hedonistic — that later intersected very visibly during the Reformation. After this era, they entered into the more worldly revolutionary movements of the capitalist era.
The ascetic movements were austere and messianic, like the early Christian sects; but they were far from quietistic. Their methods were almost maniacally violent and their hatred was directed principally against the clergy. The New Jerusalem they sought to bring to earth has been called "anarcho-communistic" by several scholars, a term not always used very felicitously here, but one with a truthful core to it. By far the largest of the medieval "heresies" were polarized around these Spartan apocalyptic ideals, which found their ideological roots in apostolic descriptions of the early Christian community.
The hedonistic movements veered sharply toward worldly interests. Even their chiliasm tended to lapse into an amoral worldliness that probably scandalized the more austere messianic "heresies" of the time. It seems unlikely that medieval hedonistic tendencies were directly influenced by ancient gnostic ideologies, however close the Brethren of the Free Spirit seem to the Ophites of an earlier era. But the reasoning by which the former arrived at their involuted notion of Christian virtue and unfettered sexuality is more pantheistic than dualistic. The mystical distinction made by Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1328) between a lofty, unreachable, and unknowable "Godhead" and a God who is overflowing, omnipresent, and close to humanity approximates a gnostic dualism that allows for a transcendental "alien" deity on the one hand and an immanent deity on the other. But Eckhart's immanent deity is a warm, highly Christianized God who appears in each human soul as a "divine spark." Although Eckhart and his disciples surely did not regard themselves as departing from the Church, his mystical theology does seem to encourage an autonomy of action that could have served the ideological needs of hedonistic conventicles well.
The earliest example of a large-scale ascetic "heresy" is the Crusade of the Shepherds (or Pastoureaux), which emerged in the middle of the thirteenth century, when crusades were still largely movements of the oppressed rather than of errant military adventurers and the ruling classes. The Pastoureaux, composed mainly of zealous young people, began to march through the towns of France, at first attacking Jews and then the clergy, whom they accused of being "false shepherds" of their flocks. The movement enjoyed immense popular support and turned into a chronic, century-long assault upon the established institutions of the Church. Cities were taken by force, churches and monasteries were sacked, the homes of wealthy burghers were plundered, and even the Papal residence at Avignon was menaced by one of the Pastoureaux columns. They finally were excommunicated by Pope John XXII (who also later condemned Eckhart) and ruthlessly hunted down by the territorial lords. Few popular movements in the medieval world seem to have inspired greater fear among the ruling classes of this era or more seriously challenged the very basis of the social order than this "shepherds' crusade."
The Pastoureaux had their German parallel in the Flagellants — the large bands of self-afflicting penitents who scourged themselves and one another with whips and branches. Here, asceticism was carried to the point of ecstatic self-torture; in its own way, it was perhaps more a doctrine of the flesh than a denial of it. Like the Pastoureaux, their focus became increasingly worldly; starting as a spiritually redemptive movement, they soon became a social movement and launched violent attacks upon the clergy — and, implicitly, upon the ruling classes as a whole. Their repudiation of institutional Christianity extended not only to the clergy's claims to divine authority but even to the validity of the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is questionable whether they accepted any need for priestly intervention between humanity and the deity; they patently anticipated the Reformation by claiming that they were directly instructed and guided by the Holy Spirit, a notion that lies at the core of virtually all radical Reformation ideologies. Accordingly, they did not hesitate to violently disrupt Church services and angrily orate against the sovereignty of the Papacy.
To confine the anticlerical features of the Pastoureaux, Flagellants, and the later Reformation movements merely to doctrinal disputes or attempts by underclass elements to plunder Church properties would be to gravely misread a deeper constellation of radical motives that often guided such movements. The Church was more than a large property-owner in the Middle Ages, and its wealth was not simply an affront to the Christian commitment to poverty. The Church was also a massive hierarchical structure — the reality and symbol of overbearing authority. To the shepherds and penitents of the thirteenth century — indeed, to the intellectuals in the new universities, the burghers in the new towns, and even the newly emerging proletariat of the Lowlands and northern Italy — the Church's claim that it would bridge the chasm it had opened between the ordinary individual and the Deity was an affront to Christianity's gospel of inwardness, selfhood, and its implicit recognition of the accessibility of each soul to God. Christian clerics, no less than the pagan priests before them, viewed themselves as brokers between humanity and the Deity — the surrogates for the congregation's contact with God.
However spiritual the anticlerical rebellions of the time may seem to the modern mind, the fact remains that anticlericalism had a grossly underrated anarchic dimension. In trying to remove the clergy from its function as humanity's delegate to the spiritual kingdom, all the anticlerical movements of the time were striking a blow against the notion of representation itself and its denial of the individual's competence to manage his or her spiritual affairs. That the Church's wealth was an extraordinarily magnetic lodestone and its moral hypocrisy a source of popular fury are indubitable social facts that surfaced repeatedly. But the Church was also a political challenge. Its hierarchy was offensive to the preindustrial mind because it challenged — indeed, obstructed — the individual's freedom to participate directly in the spiritual kingdom, to relate to the Deity without mediation, to participate in a direct democracy concerning matters of faith (a free "nation of prophets" as Christopher Hill was to call the radical communities of the English Revolution).
The Church, in effect, gave no recognition to the congregation's claims to competence; it had a kingdom, not a community; a State, not a polis. Both clerical and temporal lords sensed that anticlerical movements could easily turn into civil insurrections — and such insurrections often followed religious unrest. The Pastoureaux movement was shortly followed by the repeated insurrections of Flemish workers against the commercial aristocracies of the Lowland cities. The Lollard "heresy" in England and the Lutheran "heresy" in Germany preceded peasant revolts in both countries. Until fairly recent times, religious unrest was often the prelude to social unrest. Widespread religious dissidence fed directly into the English Revolution of the 1640s and the "Great Awakening" influenced the American Revolution of the 1770s.
Accordingly, both the Pastoureaux and the Flagellants were continental precursors of the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the exhortations of John Ball, one of its leaders (albeit a rather minor one). Economically, the revolt itself had limited goals: the peasants were resisting enserfment and the rigid ceilings that had been imposed on their earnings. But socially, people of the fourteenth century had ceased to think of equality and freedom as the distant practice of a golden age, buried irretrievably in the past. Instead, they began to perceive these ideals as preordained rights that humanity could hope to achieve in the near future.
The fortunes of the English Peasants' Revolt — its temporary successes and its defeat at the treacherous hands of the monarchy — are matters of historical detail. What counts, here, is the tenor of the sermons that Ball and possibly many of his compatriots delivered to the peasants before and during the uprising. According to Froissart, who chronicled the revolt from an aristocratic viewpoint, Ball staked out the right of all people to social equality and to the means of life. If everyone is "descended from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve, how can the lords say or prove that they are more lords than we — save that they make us dig and till the ground so that they can squander what we produce?" This was a fiery question that must have permeated the entire land, as well as the spirit (if not the goals), of the English Peasants' Revolt and the continental rebellions that would later follow. Ball's attack upon the injustices inflicted on the English peasantry was not limited to an appeal for the already ritualized looting expedition that marked many earlier movements. He demanded a more radical and far-reaching "black redistribution": a state of affairs in which "all things are in common and there is neither villein nor noble, but all of us are of one condition."
These social ideals were to find their culmination in the Taborites of Bohemia, a movement that appeared a century or so after the defeat of the English Peasants' Revolt. The Taborites were an offshoot of the quasi-Protestant Hussites who, in 1419, rebelled in Prague against German and Papal sovereignty. For nearly two decades, the Hussites successfully resisted the Catholic armies of the Emperor Sigismund and the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire.
But the more extreme Taborites were avowedly communistic in their social ideals. Sending forth their appeals and their armies from their newly founded city of Tabor (named after the mountain of Christ's transfiguration), they demanded the abolition not only of taxes, dues, rent, and imposts, but also of all private property. Kenneth Rexroth, in his perceptive account of the communal movements of the past, describes them as
extreme millenarians, the most militant so far in the history of dissent. They believed that Christ's Second Coming (disguised as a brigand) and the universal destruction of the evil world would occur almost immediately, at first in 1420; and when that date passed, it was never postponed more than a few years.
The new dispensation was to be very bloody: "In preparation for the coming of the kingdom it was the duty of the brotherhood of saints to drench their swords in the blood of evildoers, indeed to wash their hands in it." Following upon this macabre baptism (an imagery that was not entirely alien to John Ball and other millenarians), "Christ would appear on a mountain top and celebrate the coming of the kingdom with a great messianic banquet of all the faithful."
Despite their orgiastic commitment to blood and public festivals, the Taborites were largely ascetics. But like many Reformation radicals, they were ecumenically intermixed with hedonistic millenarians. The hedonists were later to be expelled from Tabor and formed the notorious Adamite sect, which actually reflected a very different chiliastic disposition. Both tendencies, in fact, were almost avowedly anarchic: laws were to be abolished, the elect would enjoy immortality, and the Second Coming would create a world of material abundance free from toil and pain, even in childbirth. All human authority would be replaced by a community of free people in which "none shall be subject to another."
In appraising the Taborite commune, Rexroth astutely notes:
If socialism in one country is doomed to become deformed and crippled, communism in one city is impossible for any length of time. Sooner or later the garrison society will weaken but the outside world does not. It is always there waiting, strongest perhaps in times of peace. Tabor was never able to balance its popular communism of consumption with an organized and planned communism of production, nor the exchange of goods between city communes and peasant communes.
As it turned out, when Tabor and the entire Bohemian national movement were crushed by Sigismund, "it was the peasant communism of the Hutterites and Brethren which survived." They linger on with us as parochial colonies that still preserved their Reformation traditions and language as the archaeological remains of a long-lost world.
But the Christian communal movement did not disappear with the Reformation. It surfaced again in the English Revolution of the late 1640s and early 1650s, particularly in the north and west of England — the "dark corners of the land," according to the Parliamentary party. A modern breed of "masterless men" like Archilochus millenia earlier, they lived largely uprooted and wayfaring lives. With their emphasis on private interpretations of Scripture, their hatred of civil and ecclesiastical authority, and their social "democracy of prophets," they fostered a strong sense of spiritual community in regions that the Parliamentarians had virtually abandoned. Here we find the early Quakers, The Familialists, the Seekers, and the Fifth Monarchy men, some of whom actually rose in armed revolt against Cromwell's conservative custodianship of a revolution he had never started. Only when the world, "turned upside down" by the revolution, had been restored to its normal philistine concerns, did eschatological movements disappear completely or take the form of tractable sects and societies. The wide-ranging definitions of freedom raised by the Marcionite gnostics and practiced by ascetic communists such as the Taborites were thoroughly transmuted (often with considerable attrition) into rationally disciplined and highly secular ideologies. Today, we fervently debate their tenets under very different names, hardly mindful of their pedigree or the extent to which they anticipated our theories and practices. The most well-known of these radical movements reached their apogee in the English Revolution, then drastically narrowed their millenarian scope. They became amiable service organizations, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers), with very little awareness of their own fiery, often violent, chiliastic origins.
By the Reformation, most ascetic millenarian movements were grouped under the broad rubric of " Anabaptism," a simple doctrine that rejected infant baptism for adult baptism on the rather sound basis that only mature people could understand the subtleties of the Christian calling. But to the ruling classes of the time, including many staid Protestants, the word Anabaptism, like the word anarchist today, was used more as a pejorative symbol of public opprobrium than as an authentic body of ideas. The term was used promiscuously to include such widely disparate social and religious movements as the Bohemian nationalists in Prague, the manic Taborite millenarians, and even their frenzied off-shoots such as the Adamite sects or the pacifist Hutterites. It is fair to say that hardly any founders or early acolytes of Anabaptism were spared the beautitudes of martyrdom. Insofar as they were real millenarians, all the Anabaptists, real and imaginary, are utterly separated from our own time by the ideological chasm of religion: the "Second Coming," the miraculous powers of Christ, and the theocratic proclivities that often substituted a "messianic" hierarchy for an ecclesiastical one. Actually, many of these millenarians were not communists at all; at best their communism was marginal.
But from this highly mixed welter of independent, often conflicting or intersecting beliefs, there emerges one figure who bridges the chasm from religious to secular communism. Gerrard Winstanley is perhaps best known as the leader and theorist of the Diggers, a minuscule group of agrarian communists who in 1649 tried to cultivate the "free" or waste lands on St. George's Hill near London. Actually, these experiments, which were conceived as an "exemplary" effort to promote communal ideals, were ignored in their day. What really swept the Digger movement into historical accounts of radical movements was Winstanley's own pamphlets, and these received most recognition long after Winstanley himself had passed into history.
As Rexroth accurately emphasizes, "All the tendencies of the radical Reformation" — and, we may add, the most important millenarian movements of earlier times — "seem to flow together in Winstanley, to be blended and secularized, and become an ideology rather than a theology. "Winstanley was not a military communist like the Taborites; he was a committed pacifist, and so far as we know, he remained one throughout his life. Nor was he a hedonist like the Adamites; he adhered to a strictly ascetic concept of the righteous life. But his views became markedly pantheistic, even hostile to any notion of an anthropomorphic deity. His naturalism brings him very close to Enlightenment social theory: "To know the secrets of nature is to know the works of God." His denial of a supernatural heaven and hell as a "strange conceit" would have brought him to the stake a few centuries earlier. He emphasizes the need not only for "communal property" but perhaps even for usufruct. "The earth with all her fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like was made to be a common Store-House of Livelihood," he declares, "to all mankind friend and foe, without exception." These words are not merely brave but also deeply felt. Reason is the "great creator" that "made the earth a common treasury" and anarchy (in the literal sense of "no-rule") was its earliest disposition — for "not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another."
In time, these libertarian and communistic ideals suffered from Winstanley's bitter encounters with the counter-revolutionary moods following the collapse of the Leveler movement in 1649 and the Cromwell reaction that succeeded it. His Law of Freedom in a Platform or, True Magistracy Restored, written in 1652, reveals a disenchantment with the outcome of the revolution. The failure of the Digger experiments — more precisely, the popular indifference the Diggers encountered — had altered Winstanley's high expectations. His "True Magistracy" is a representative democracy, not a direct one; it is more punitive than loving, and more centralized and perhaps needlessly structured than libertarian. Perhaps this vision had been with him from the beginning, but it stands at odds with some of his earlier, more general views. Nor does his work end in hope. Few lines are more memorable and touching than the poem that concludes the pamphlet:
Truth appears in Light, Falsehood rules in Power; To see these things to be, is cause of grief each hour. Knowledge, why didst thou come, to wound, and not to cure? I sent not for thee, thou didst me inlure. Where knowledge does increase, there sorrows multiply, To see the great deceit which in the World doth lie . . . . O death where art thou? wilt thou not tidings send? I fear thee not, thou art my loving friend. Come take this body, and scatter it in the Four, That I may dwell in One, and rest in peace once more.
Thereafter, Winstanley faded into the oblivion that ultimately devoured the revolution itself. But more than many proponents of like views, he has received from posterity "the roses of rebels failed."
The hedonistic trend in medieval chiliasm, like the gnostic Ophites, is redolent with aspirations for personal autonomy. Medieval hedonistic conventicles were compellingly individualistic and almost completely free of patricentric values. Christianity's powerful message of the individual's sanctity in the eyes of God, its high valuation of personality and the soul, and its emphasis on a universal humanity bred a sense of individuality and freedom that could easily turn against clerical hierarchy and dogma. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a variety of highly radical sects surfaced from the depths of Christianity's fascinating cauldron of ideas. Some, like the Free Spirit, were quite explicitly radical; others, like the Beghards and Beguines, were less so. Crystallized into conventicular networks and secular orders, these sects produced ideas that severely vexed the Church and brought it into sharp conflict with its own doctrinal offspring.
Perhaps the most important theological issue the Church had to face was the rise of a broadly philosophical pantheistic movement. A thousand years earlier gnosticism had raised the question of how a truly "good" God could have created a woefully sinful world. Its theorists answered this puzzling problem not by anchoring their reply in "original sin" and a fallen humanity but by creating two deities: a "good," transcendental, "alien" God whose son Jesus had come to redeem the world, and a faulty, "just," petty deity who had created the material world from which the spiritually pure "pneumatics" enjoyed immunity. If sin and anything "fallen" existed in the gnostic orbit of ideas, it was imputed primarily to the Creator, not to humanity. And the genius of gnosticism was to locate this concept of the defective within the petty realm of "justice," where the rule of equivalence and the lex talionis prevailed, rather than within the realm of ethics, where "goodness" was the norm.
Medieval pantheism, by contrast, tried to raise a dualistic vision of virtue into a unified outlook by seeking to achieve a mystical personal union with the supreme "One," the embodiment of goodness. This outlook stands in marked contrast to both gnostic and Christian dualism and, in fact, leads to Spinoza's later, more Judaic concept of a unifying, "godly" substance. By the thirteenth century, mystics such as David of Dinant and Amaury claimed that matter and mind were identical with God — indeed, that everything could be unified as God. The spread of these pantheistic ideas to the ordinary people of Paris and Strasbourg produced a number of sects such as the New Spirit, the sisterhood of the Beguines and the brotherhood of the Beghards, and most notoriously, the Brethren of the Free Spirit. To these sects, humanity was composed of the same divine substance as God, hence it could enter into direct communion with the deity. Such a view not only challenged the need for ecclesiastical intervention between humanity and God, but also gave its acolytes an exhilarating sense of personal freedom that could easily justify the removal of all worldly restrictions on human behavior and open the way to unrestrained moral license.
The secular "convents" and "monasteries" that now began to proliferate throughout the Lowlands, France, Germany, and northern Italy quickly staked out coexisting claims to the duties of their ecclesiastical counterparts. Perhaps the earliest of these new lay institutions, the sisterhood of the Beguines and the brotherhood of the Beghards, presented the most serious threat to the Church's authority. Wars and plagues had created a very large number of "masterless" people, most of whom were forced into lives of beggary and crime. Whether as a charitable act or from a desire to enlist them in the performance of "good works," a little-known ecclesiastic named Lambert began to collect the women into lay, nunlike groups — the Beguines — who were expected to dedicate themselves to charitable activities. They were soon emulated by many displaced and footloose men — the Beghards — who formed a corresponding male network that collaborated with the women. The accounts of the two lay orders, largely derived from hostile clerics, are harshly derogatory. Church and lay groups were rivals for the same charitable sources of income, and inevitably they entered into sharp conflict with each other. Finally, the Church began to take action against the orders. In 1311, the lay orders were condemned by the Council of Vienne and were later partly scattered by the ecclesiastical and territorial lords, although some Beguine hostels lingered on as charitable almshouses.
But many Beguines and Beghards were absorbed into a new "heresy" — the Brethren of the Free Spirit. In their account of western mysticism, Thomas Katsaros and Nathaniel Kaplan discuss how this "heresy" grew at a "tremendous rate" and was primarily responsible for the convening of the Council of Vienne. To the Church, the acolytes of the Free Spirit may have seemed like the ultimate of "heresies," if not the very incarnation of Satanism. In any case, the Free Spirit stood at irredeemable odds with Christian orthodoxy.
According to Jeffrey B. Russell's definitive summary, the Brethren of the Free Spirit "formed a loosely constructed group of sects during the thirteenth and fourteenth century, especially in the Rhineland and central Germany." Russell places the "heresy" primarily in the towns "in which bourgeois patricians had gained control and in which the artisans were in the process of asserting their rights against the patricians." The period in which the "heresy" flourished was one of widespread class conflict between the merchant princes and the artisan class, particularly in Flanders. But Russell rightly notes that "It is not possible to generalize about the social class of the Brethren." According to one chronicler, "they include monks, priests, and married people; another describes them as laborers, charcoal burners, blacksmiths, and swineherds; and yet another indicates that they were rough and illiterate men." However, Russell warns us that Marxist historians may tend to exaggerate the elements of class warfare here, but the doctrines of the Brethren do clearly indicate that social protest was involved. For instance, they believed that a handmaiden or serf could take and sell his master's goods without his permission. That tithes need not be paid to the Church is also a doctrine indicative of more than strictly theological discontent.
But a radical ethical doctrine — or an "amoral" one in the gnostic sense — there surely was. It was based on the "belief that the individual Christian is justified by the Holy Spirit dwelling within him and that it is from within, rather than from the institutional Church, that all grace proceeds." Accordingly, acolytes of the Free Spirit are in a state of grace, very much like the gnostic "pneumatics," irrespective of their behavior. "A man [and certainly a woman] can perform a sinful act without being in sin, and as long as he acts with the intention of following the will of the Spirit, his action is good."
Norman Cohn was to impart an almost legendary quality to the Free Spirit among young countercultural radicals of the 1960s by linking it with the mystical anarchism of Heinrich Suso. This Dominican follower of Eckhart, like the master himself, was a highly educated ascetic, and he wrote vigorous denunciations of the more plebian hedonistic sects of the period. Cohn describes a sketch written about 1330 in the chief stronghold of the heresey, Cologne, [in which] the Catholic mystic Suso evokes with admirable terseness those qualities in the Free Spirit which made it essentially anarchic. He describes how on a bright Sunday, as we were sitting lost in meditation, an incorporeal image appeared to his spirit. Suso addresses the image.
"Whence have you come?"
The image answers: "I come from nowhere."
"Tell me, what are you?"
"I am not."
"What do you wish?"
"I do not wish."
"This is a miracle! Tell me, what is your name?"
"I am called Nameless Wildness."
"Where does your insight lead to?"
"Into untrammeled freedom."
"Tell me, what do you call untrammeled freedom?"
"When a man lives according to all his caprices without distinguishing between God and himself, and without before or after."
Suso's dialogue would be tantalizingly incomplete if we did not have other pronouncements by the Brethren of the Free Spirit that clarify its meaning. The dialogue is definitely libertine in its implications and involves the divine in human motivation. Thus, according to some of these pronouncements: "He who recognizes that God does all things in him, he shall not sin. For he must not attribute to himself, but to God, all that he does." A man with a conscience, then, "is himself a Devil, and hell and purgatory, tormenting himself," for "Nothing is sin except what is thought of as sin." As Cohn notes,
Every act performed by a member of this elite was felt to be performed "not in time but in eternity"; it possessed a vast mystical significance and its value was infinite. This was the secret wisdom which one adept revealed to a somewhat perplexed inquisitor with the assurance that it was "drawn from the innermost depths of the Divine Abyss" and worth far more than all the gold in the municipal treasure of Erfurt. "It would be better," he added, "that the whole world should be destroyed and perish utterly than that a 'free man' should refrain from one act to which his nature moves him."
Accordingly, adepts of the Free Spirit gave up all penitential and ascetic behavior for a life of pure pleasure, not merely one of happiness. More than "red," or fiery, their outlook on life was "purple," or sensuous. We have no vocabulary within the framework of ordinary life to describe this remarkable epistemology. It sought more than the physically orgiastic but rather the conversion of reality into a surreality of experience and a divination of the nature of things. The halo later discerned by Andre Breton's Nada in the world around her, even in the most commonplace objects, was here made into a metaphysical principle. But it was a practical principle, not merely an ideological one. Vigils, fasting, and all sensuous denial were brought to an end; the body was to be indulged with the choicest wines and meats and clothed in the most sensuous garments. At times, the adepts would even dress as nobles which, as Cohn notes, was "a social affront and source of confusion in the Middle Ages, when differences in dress denoted differences in status."
But the acolytes of this extraordinary movement did not stop with such pleasures as food and dress; they proceeded to practice a promiscuous "mystically colored eroticism." Sexual promiscuity was seen not as an act of defilement but rather as one of purification. A woman was all the more "chaste" for partaking of uninhibited sexual intercourse, as, of course, was a man. Indeed, "one of the surest marks of the 'subtle in spirit' was, precisely, the ability to indulge in promiscuity without fear of God or qualms of conscience," observes Cohn.
Some adepts attributed a transcendental, quasimystical value to the sexual act itself, when it was performed by such as they. The Homines intelligentiae called the act "the delight of Paradise" and "the acclivity" (which was the term used for the ascent to mystical ecstacy); and the Thuringian "Blood Friends" of 1550 regarded it as a sacrament, which they called "Christerie." For all alike, adultery possessed a symbolic value as an affirmation of emancipation.
Hence, freedom to the Free Spirit meant even more than the right to orgiastic pleasure, an ecstasy of the senses; it meant total spontaneity of behavior and a cosmic reattunement to nature, the embodiment of God. Perhaps unknown to its acolytes, the Free Spirit restored Supernature to nature, and nature, in turn, to an almost enchanted mythopeic status in the spiritual balance of things. Such ideas or intuitions were not to die easily; they spoke too deeply to the inner, libidinal recesses of human desire. Hence the Free Spirit, or its doctrines, remained a persistent "heresy" for centuries — one that has recurred right up to the present day as independent rediscoveries by the Symbolists in the late nineteenth century, the Surrealists in the 1920s, and in the counterculture of the 1960s. It constituted an indispensable dimension of freedom as a release from the internal regimentation of feeling and bodily movements — the subjective aspect of the existentially liberated individual. Without this aspect the notion of freedom remains an externalized social abstraction that has no space for its "heretics," its creative artists, and its intellectual innovators.
During the Hussite upheaval, the doctrines of the Free Spirit appeared among the Adamites — the most anarchistic wing of the normally ascetic Taborites. Subjected to harsh persecution within Tabor itself, this group was driven from the city and chased down by the Hussite military commander, Jan Ziska. Those who escaped Ziska's troops fortified themselves on an island in the River Nezarka and established a free, quasimilitary community that combined the hedonistic lifeways of the Free Spirit with the most radical communistic practices of the Taborites. The Adamites were not a quiescent enclave of devoutly religious adepts like the Anabaptists: small as they were in numbers, they were a harsh, demanding social movement that developed its own "amoral" morality and a crusading zealousness that often degenerated into sheer rapine. Their bloodthirsty expeditions into the surrounding countryside and the butchery they practiced makes it difficult to unravel the problems inherent in "military" or "warrior" communism — problems that I will examine shortly.
The Free Spirit acquired its most idiosyncratic expression during the English Revolution, when a new, albeit harmless, sect — the Ranters — scandalized the Puritan revolutionaries with their own brand of hedonism. A. L. Morton, who has written one of the most comprehensive accounts of their activities and beliefs, emphasizes that both theologically and politically, the Ranters constituted the "extreme left wing of the sects" that abounded at the time. The Ranters pushed all the radical implications of Puritanism and its offshoot sects "to their furthest logical conclusions" and "even a little beyond." This trend soon culminated in open conflict with the law. As Morton observes,
The conviction that God existed in, and only in, material objects and men led them at once to a pantheistic mysticism and a crudely plebian materialism, often incongruously combined in the same person. Their rejection of scripture literalism led sometimes to an entirely symbolic interpretation of the Bible and at others to a blunt and contemptuous rejection. Their belief that the moral law no longer had authority for the people of a new age enjoying the liberty of the sons of God led to a conviction that for them no act was sinful, a conviction that some hastened to put into practice.
To speak of the Ranters as an organized movement or even as a sect in any organized sense is to understate the highly individualistic focus of their ideas. It could be easily argued that there were almost as many Ranter ideologies as there were Ranters. What stands out clearly amid the medley of their ideas is not only their hedonistic proclivities, which were often expressed with wild abandon, but also their scorn for all authority, both civil and religious. Not even the Bible was immune to denigration. The Ranters Last Sermon depicts the Scriptures, perhaps the most sacred single document of the English Revolution, as but meer Romance, and contradictory to itself; only invented by the Witts of Former Ages, to keep People in subjection, and in Egyptian slavery; likewise, That there was as much truth in the History of Tom Thumb, or The Knights of the Sun, as there was in that Book.
Unlike earlier "heretics," the writer makes no appeal to authority; authority itself is completely dissolved in mockery and sarcasm.
Nor could the Ranters claim a monopoly on outwardly sensuous behavior during the revolutionary period. Nudity and probably a mystical belief in the power of uninhibited sexuality to achieve a communion with God filtered through many sectarian movements of the time. Quite respectable Quakers, Christopher Hill tells us, made forays beyond the boundaries of asceticism and went "'naked for a sign,' with only a loin cloth around their middles." Indeed, the
Quaker doctrine of perfectibility continued to testify against the hatred of the body. . . . [They] thought lace-making an unsuitable occupation for members of their Society, but they had no objection to brewing or keeping an ale-house.
Other sectarians were probably prepared to go much further along the road of hedonism or the respect for the flesh than moderate Ranters, but the ecumenical use of the word "Ranter" subsumed their doctrines and practices.
Even more than early antiquity's "black redistribution," the medieval folk utopias, Christianity's apocalyptic doctrines, gnosticism's concept of a "good" God who is alien to a petty "just" Creator, and finally the long line of sectaries that culminated in the overtly secular Ranters — all increasingly distinguished freedom from justice, the equality of unequals from the inequality of equals. All their doctrines or practices were based on compensation and complementarity. The more hedonistic of these sects and movements ventured even further: the concept of freedom was expanded from a limited ideal of happiness based on the constraints of shared needs into an ideal of pleasure based on the satisfaction of desire.
But the realization of any of these ideals clearly presupposed the transformation of the individual and of humanity from a condition of sin to one of "grace," which, in turn, had presuppositions of its own. Grace could be achieved only by an internal — indeed, a psychological or spiritual — transformation of one's very sense of being. As conceived by the Christian world, this change had to be so far-reaching in its depth and scope that it led into the very notion of transubstantiation itself — a radical change in the very substance of selfhood. Christianity, in i ts official form, imposed the overt discipline of the law, of the Deuteronomic Code, on the faithful; humanity, after all, was unruly and predisposed to evil by original sin. Freedom was to be reserved for heaven — if, indeed, freedom it could be truly called, beyond the moral plentitude voiced by the Sermon on the Mount. On earth, humanity was expected to live by conventional codes of justice, both ecclesiastical and temporal. Luther made heavenly freedom an affair of the inner life, of a deeply subjective faith that had relatively little to do with the earthly world's works; Calvin, by placing a stronger emphasis on works, provided the doctrinal basis for the social activism so congenial to the emerging bourgeoisie and the revolutionary English Puritans. But whether Catholic or Protestant, official Christianity quickly lost its power as a transcendental force. It had always been predisposed to adaptation. Initially, it accommodated itself to Cesar; later (although grudgingly), to feudalism's territorial lords; and finally, to capitalism (for which it provided an image of an entrepreneurial Jesus, who trades in souls and markets the gospel).
The gnostics, by contrast, appealed to the mind and to the power of knowledge in bringing humanity into their unique conception of grace. This lofty endeavor could hardly hope to succeed on doctrinal grounds alone — hence the socially withdrawn nature of gnosticism during late antiquity. "Civilization" had created a new character-structure, a new internal discipline for containing the spirit: a "reality principle" that denied the integrity of the passions, spontaneity, and desire. Society's fear of the Hobbesian "natural man" has antedated by centuries Freud's commitment to "civilization" and its inherently repressive strategies. If gnosis, or knowledge, was to guide human behavior and bring heaven to earth, it had to be reinforced by a psychic "battering ram" that could demolish the individual's "civilized" (that is, carefully policed) character structure. A hallucinogenic strategy had to be devised to derange the Statist, later economistic, epistemology that class society had instilled in the human personality.
One heretical Christian tendency was to choose asceticism as its hallucinogen, thereby totally inverting pleasure, even happiness, in an ecstatic denial of the senses and elementary bodily needs. This "poor man's" pleasure, so to speak, fully recognized the powers of the flesh and acceded to them more by mistreating the body and its urges than by denying them. Ironically, Heinrich Suso is one of the most extraordinary exemplars of this doctrine. The psychotic self-torture he inflicted on his body to achieve a hallucinogenic and ecstatic communion with his gnostic-type deity goes far beyond the outermost limits of asceticism. It reveals a masochistic involvement with the flesh that beggars the martyrdom of the saints.
The hedonistic Ophites, the Free Spirit, Adamites, and Ranters, on the other hand, evoked the rich man's pleasures as a battering ram for deranging "civilization's" "reality principle" and character structure. Their hallucinogenic strategy for producing a personality (not merely a mind) that was receptive to gnosis centered around the uninhibited, spontaneous claims of the body — a "discipline" of indiscipline that deployed the "pleasure principle" to dissolve the "reality principle." Choice foods and garments, sexual promiscuity, the right to steal and even kill were all combined into a program for redemption that had lost all its otherworldly status. What could conceivably be more ecstatic than the orgiastic delirium of uninhibited sexuality that the "good" God surely mandated for the acolyte in his or her rejection of the "just" Creator — the fount of sinful world? Indeed, crime made one an "outlaw" in the literal, almost holy sense of the term: it pitted the acolyte against the Creator's mean-spirited realm of justice and opened the way to a duel between the "divine spark" in the individual and the mundane integument that concealed it. With a few changes in words this gospel can be suddenly transformed into Bakunin's hypostatization of the bandit and folk attitudes toward banditry.
Moreover, a new world constructed around the rich man's pleasures was a desideratum in itself. It actualized the promise of the folk utopias like Cokaygne, and gave them contemporaneity and an identifiable place, notably in the conventicle of the hedonistic heretics. But here, the hedonistic heretics encountered a dilemma: unrestrained and undiscriminating desire presupposes a plenitude of goods to satisfy the holy community. However, neither nature nor the technological armamentarium of the time could possibly be so all-providing. Asceticism encountered a dilemma of its own: it not only demanded immense material sacrifices for very tenuous ethical rewards, but it also abandoned the very hope of attaining them in a future utopia. The ascetic radicals stood at odds with the time-honored "black redistribution" that insurgent peoples have always invoked; indeed, pleasure itself had ceased to be a desideratum. Neither of the two disciplines could be expected to enlist humanity as a whole (although asceticism — as we shall see — held much greater promise as a popular morality than hedonism).
Hence the hedonists and many of the ascetics turned to an elitist, neo-Platonist doctrine of souls. Only the elect — a small group of "pneumatics" or "Saints" — could hope to achieve grace; their retainers, the "psychics," might aspire to elevate their status to "sainthood" by making contact with the elect, servicing their needs, and heeding their wisdom. The rest of humanity, whether rich or poor, was simply doomed. These unfortunates were the irredeemable minions of the "just" Creator, and they lived in a hopelessly fallen state. They could be plundered and killed; indeed, it became a discipline among the elect to use them for its own ends.
From a theoretical viewpoint, freedom had acquired a scope and — particularly in its gnostic and late medieval forms — a degree of sophistication unprecedented in the history of ideas. The distinction between justice and freedom has yet to make its way through the maze of present-day radical ideologies; apart from a few individual theorists, the two ideals are still victims of considerable confusion. The dual functions of pleasure and asceticism — indeed, of desire and need — have yet to be clarified in contemporary radical thought. So, too, do the notions of scarcity and post-scarcity. The distinction between "freedom from" and "freedom for" — that is, between negative and positive freedom — has been carefully analyzed in categories and juridical tenets; but we still await a full discussion of a reconstructive utopianism that can clarify in practice the broader distinctions between authority and an informed spontaneity.
But what is the historical subject that will create a free society? What is the context within which that subject is formed? The Christian and gnostic radicals faced both these questions more resolutely than they faced the logic of their own premises. They wavered and divided on such issues as the full logic of ascetism and pleasure — a logic which only the ascetic Cathari and the hedonistic Adamites followed to the end — but they were generally clear about which agents would achieve a holy estate. In both cases, the answers were elitist, reflecting a Manichean image of the world composed of "Saints" and "sinners." Christians were expected to accept a divine disposition that favored the "Saints" over the "sinners"; indeed, in the case of the hedonists, they were to accept the exploitation of the "sinners" by the "Saints."
But even in the late Middle Ages such elitist conclusions were hardly the inevitable consequences of Christian or gnostic radicalism. Marcion had never accepted them at the beginnings of the gnostic "heresy," nor had Winstanley at the end of the Christian Reformation. Significantly, both men were ascetic in their outlook. An ascetic social disposition could have enjoyed considerable popular appeal if it was suitably moderated by ethical arguments for a balanced restriction of needs, as opposed to Cathari fasts to the death or Suso's orgy of self-torture. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries may well have marked a unique watershed for western humanity. History seemed to be poised at a juncture: society could still choose to follow a course that yielded a modest satisfaction of needs based on complementarity and the equality of unequals. Or it could catapult into capitalism with its rule of equivalence and the inequality of equals, both reinforced by commodity exchange and a canon of "unlimited needs" that confront "scarce resources."
Many concrete factors favored the choice of the latter over the former. Perhaps, as orthodox Marxists seem to believe, capitalism was the "inevitable" outcome of European feudalism. Perhaps — but Christianity and its various "heresies" had opened a transcendental level of discourse that embraced not only the intellectuals, ecclesiastics, and educated nobles of medieval society, but also reached out to multitudes of the oppressed, particularly its town dwellers. For all its shortcomings, medieval society was not only preindustrial but also ethically oriented. It lived not only on a mundane level of self-interest and material gain but also on an idealistic level of personal redemption and grace. One cannot explain the early crusades of the poor, on the one hand, and the extent to which many nobles converted to radical Anabaptist sects, on the other, without recognizing the enormous importance of the ethical sphere for people of the Middle Ages.
Hence, the ascetic Christian radicals had a transclass constituency at their disposal: a historical subject who was neither plebian nor patrician but Christian (in a mutilated but deeply sensitive meaning of the term). This Christian could be motivated by ethical ideals to an extent that would puzzle modern individuals. Plunder, exploitation, and the pleasures of the flesh certainly never lost their hold on the Christian's Janus-faced outlook. Hierarchy, class rule, and "civilization" had left their deep-seated wounds on Christian society from the days of its inception. But the medieval outlook was more schizophrenic and sometimes more apocalyptic, in an ethical sense; than contemporary individuals can ever understand.
This ethical world, to be sure, did not hang freely suspended in the ethereal air of idealism, nor did it arise from high-minded inspiration alone. It emerged from a richly textured social context of human-scaled towns, vibrant and highly variegated neighborhoods, and closely-knit villages. The "masterless" men and women who provided the leavening for the emancipatory intuitions that abounded were rootless outsiders or footloose wanderers whose functional lineage goes back to archetypal figures such as Archilochus. But this also was true of the Biblical prophets, of Jesus and his disciples, and of the Church's great missionaries. The ideal of a universal humanity included both the isolated village and the worldwide Christian congregation. The sole passport of the Middle Ages was evidence of baptism and a testament of common faith.
Accordingly, the congregation's view of society was more integrated and expansive than it is today, despite our rhetoric of "one world" and the "global village." Important as material interests were in the past, even the most oppressed strata in Christian society would have found it difficult to reduce social problems to economic ones. So richly textured and articulated a society assumed as a matter of course that material need could not be separated from ethical precept. To attain a "Christian" society, however broadly such words were interpreted, not only did systems of ownership and the distribution of goods have to be changed, but even as late as Reformation times, "matters of the soul" — the accepted mores, beliefs, institutions, and, in a more personal vein, one's character and sexual life — required alteration. These broader needs — indeed; this view of need itself — cannot be reduced to mere "superstructural" ideologies without forcing the mentality of a market society on a largely manorial one, high technology on artisanship, an industrial world on a domestic one, an atomized labor force on a highly communal system of production based on guilds and an atomized society on a richly associative body of human relations.
Was capitalism a more "sophisticated" substitute for medieval society? To say "yes" would be arrogant presumption and an insult to the highly complex civilizations, both past and present, that have resisted "modernization." To emphasize the preeminence of contemporary society in history is, subtly, to elevate a deadening, homogenizing mass media over the spiritual yearning elicited by religious ceremonies, a mechanistic scientism over a colorful mythopeic sensibility, and an icy indifference to the fate of one's immediate neighbors over a richly intertwined system of mutual aid. Now that torture has returned to the modern world as a rationalized technique for interrogation and punishment, the medieval rack has become picayune by comparison. And while modern society no longer drags its heretics to the stake, it incinerates millions of utterly innocent people in gas chambers and nuclear infernos.
Much that we would call the ideological, moral, cultural, and institutional "superstructure" of medieval society was deeply intertwined with its economic and technical "base." Both "superstructure" and "base" were enriched and broadened by the wealth each brought to the other. Economic life and technical development existed within a wide-ranging orbit of cultural restraints as well as cultural creativity. Freedom could be defined not merely in material terms but in ethical terms as well. That capitalism was to distort this wide-ranging orbit and virtually destroy it has already been emphasized but can bear some repetition. The era that separates the Middle Ages from the Industrial Revolution was to be marked by a terrifying deterioration of community life, by a reduction of highly cherished popular ideals to brazen economic interests, and by a disintegration of individuality into egotism. Freedom and the revolutionary subject who had upheld its ideals suffered the denaturing, rationalization, and economization that have become the fate of the human community and the individual. Indeed, capitalism has redefined the terms by which to discuss the nature and prospects of freedom, and in some respects it has expanded the concept of freedom itself. But its economistic focus is very real. Capitalism reflects the authentic economization of society, and of the "social question" itself, by an economy that has absorbed every cultural, ethical, and psychological issue into a material system of needs and technics.
Such economistic interpretations of present-day society are not mere ideological distortions; they accurately depict the dominant reality of our time. What is so troubling about this image is that it makes no attempt to transcend the very level of life it describes. Almost every critique of the "bourgeois traits" of modern society, technics, and individuality is itself tainted by the very substance it criticizes. By emphasizing economics, class interest, and the "material substrate" of society as such, such critiques are the bearers of the very "bourgeois traits" they purport to oppose. They are in perilous default of their commitment to transcend the economic conditions of capitalist society and to recover the ethical level of discourse and ideals capitalism so savagely degraded. In the parlance of many radical theorists, a "rational society" often means little more than a highly rationalized society, and "freedom" often means little more than the effective coordination of humanity in the achievement of economic ends.
By "economizing" the totality of life, capitalism "economized" the "social question," the structures of freedom, and the revolutionary subject. The communal context for this subject has been largely dissolved. The English Revolution imposed a new imperative on the legacy of freedom: to discuss human emancipation meaningfully, one now had to exorcize the demons of material denial, a new system of "scarcity" largely created by the market system, and the nature of technological development. Freedom is now completely entangled with economics, a liberated life with the notion of "scarce resources," utopia with technics, and the ethical revolutionary subject with the proletariat.
But has the "economization" of freedom been a total regression in our level of discourse? Actually, economics, too, has an ecological dimension. I refer not to "Buddhist," "convivial," "steady-state" or "Third Wave" economics but to the character of work, technics, and needs that a free society must confront. Having uprooted community and dissolved the traditional revolutionary subject of European society, capitalism has forced us to define the relationship of the ethical life to the material. It matters very little, now, whether or not this development is "desirable"; the fact is that it has happened, and we are obliged to deal with its reality. Whether as wound or scar tissue, the "social question" now includes the question of our technical interaction with nature — what Marx called humanity's "metabolism" with nature — not just our attitude toward nature and our ethical interaction with each other.
I do not mean that technical issues can henceforth be substitutes for ethical discourse and relations. But placed in their proper context, they can actually help to reverse the "economization" of social life. Every appeal of human consciousness, be it "class consciousness" or "personal consciousness," is an appeal to the creativity of mind and an expression of belief in human virtue. Marx the "materialist," Hegel "the idealist," Kropotkin the "ecologist," and Fourier the "utopian" have all embarked on the same voyage of hope: a belief in the powers of human reason to attain a free society. None has had a court of appeal more supreme than the sovereignty of thought and insight. The material dispensation that capitalism has created for the future is itself a "freedom" — one that has arisen, ironically, from the very context of bourgeois social relations. It is a freedom not merely to choose the kinds of goods society should produce (the freedom of a productivist utopia), but to choose from among the extravagant, often irrational array of needs that capitalism has created (the freedom of a consumerist utopia). When these two freedoms are melded into a still higher one, the utopian dream that lies ahead can be neither strictly productivist nor consumerist. In light of the freedom to choose products and needs, both as producer and consumer, one can envision a higher ideal of freedom — one that removes the taint of economism and restores the ethical basis of past times, and that is infused with the options opened by technical achievement. Potentially, at least, we are faced with the broadest conception of freedom known thus far: the autonomous individual's freedom to shape material life in a form that is neither ascetic nor hedonistic, but a blend of the best in both — one that is ecological, national, and artistic.
The emergence of a possibility, to be sure, is not a guarantee that it will become an actuality. To draw upon Pottier's lines in his inspired revolutionary hymn, "The Internationale," how will a new society "rise on new foundations"? Under what "banner" can humanity "be all" again? In view of the stark alternatives that faced the Adamites and "military" or "war" communism in modern, authoritarian contexts, how can human society now produce a sufficiency of goods for everyone (rather than an elite) and provide the individual the freedom to choose among needs as well as products? Within the material realm of life, this is the most complete form of human autonomy that we can ever hope to achieve — both as an expression of rational criteria for making choices and of the rational competence of the individual to do so. Indeed, if we can believe in the competence of free individuals to determine policy in the civil realm, we can also believe in the competence of free individuals to determine their needs in the material realm as well.
In any case, the backward look toward a golden age has itself been absorbed by the very past into which it tried to peer. Once capitalism came into the world and tainted it with a "sense of scarcity," one now had to look forward — not only upward toward the heavens but also downward toward the earth — to the material world of technology and production.
From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org
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