Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Thematic: Hope Itself

Gnosticism in Modernity, or Why History Refuses to End

Can liberal-democratic commitments survive the modern loss of significance?

Isaac Ariail Reed and Michael Weinman

Detail from an illustration by Aude Van Ryn.

With each new apocalyptic wave, a new syntax is created, and the breakdown of meaning in language makes people from the old age appear deranged to those of the new, and vice versa…. The old man is a dead body to the new man, a has-been, as the Russians call the émigrés, while the new man is deranged in the eyes of the old.

—Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology

If history ever indeed ended, it certainly became clear by 2016 that the end was over. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president were only the most emphatic instances of increasingly standard deviations from the conduct of establishment politics in the liberal democracies after the end of the Cold War. Formulating responses to this seismic shift, scholars and assorted members of the commentariat offered various interpretations—some appearing in these pages—of how and why the center could not hold, the unraveling of the Enlightenment project, the emergence of postsecularism and re-enchantment, and the insecurity of the liberal international order in the face of localism and particularist resistance. These accounts all shared the intuition that the exercise of basic rights, the commitment to free and fair elections, and the maintenance of vibrant civic cultures were politically precarious.

A touchstone for these analyses was, and still is, Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay “The End of History?” Published in The National Interest in 1989 and expanded into his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man (with the question mark conspicuously dropped and a reference to Nietzsche added), this statement on the triumph of the liberal-democratic-capitalist West is now widely viewed as representative of a certain improvidence in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Although Fukuyama expressed “the most ambivalent feelings” about the “centuries of boredom” that would come with the end of history—an intuition that received fuller exploration in the book’s concluding chapter on the “last man”—the essay displayed a clear enthusiasm for liberal-democratic modernity and capitalism.11xFrancis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, NY: Penguin, 1992), 18. That affirmation came through in Fukuyama’s careful attack on materialist determinism (refusing to reduce mankind to selfish impulses) and his manifest satisfaction at the demise of fascist and communist ideals worldwide.

The attack on materialist determinism made easy fodder for Marx-inflected critics who were unsurprised that Fukuyama underestimated the potential for human destruction bound up with the profit motive. Of more interest, though, was the emergent tendency to mark this essay as overconfident, and perhaps embarrassingly so. What does this adjective mean? And how should we think about this negative judgment of Fukuyama’s essay (and its influence) today?

If there is overconfidence in the essay itself, it can be found in the author’s brief consideration and relatively casual dismissal of the threats to liberal internationalism posed by religion and nationalism. Positing an ideological vacuum opened up by the end of history, Fukuyama asked if attachments to God and nations could fill it. Could these attachments serve as extensive and intensive orienting devices for political and military conflict? His answer was negative: Fukuyama rejected religion and nationalism as world-historical forces no longer relevant to our own age.

That this dismissal has not been vindicated is clear enough. The more difficult question is why. Can we come to terms, intellectually, with the human tendencies to communal identification, desire for recognition, and manifestations of pride that apparently sustain the continuing relevance of religious commitments, national narratives, and the intermixing of the two? Terms like recognition and pride may indeed refer to human universals, but their psychological interpretation is insufficient to an understanding of how they move history. What is the deeper cultural story—a story about recognition, dignity, and the striving in human life for significance as well as well-being—that makes Fukuyama’s claims in his famous essay overconfident? Here, it is useful to look a bit more closely at Fukuyama’s Hegelianism.

A crucial part of “The End of History?” is its defense of “Hegel’s radical idealist perspective.” Fukuyama writes that Hegel persuasively exposes “the problematic nature of many materialist explanations we often take for granted.”22xIbid., 8. However succinctly Fukuyama demonstrates the insufficiency of historical-materialist explanations, his engagement with Hegel (and particularly with Hegel’s twentieth-century acolyte, the somewhat gnomic Russo-Gallic philosopher Alexandre Kojève) only lightly touches on another crucial axis of the connection between Hegel and Marx, namely, the embeddedness of their philosophies of human action in arguments about the historical trajectory of Christian Europe. And it is precisely Fukuyama’s neglect of this angle that leads him to underestimate the persistence of forces such as religion and nationalism in his account of the end of history. For, in the trajectory of the Occident, certain cultural formations emerged to meet thymotic needs—the human needs to be recognized as worthy, consequential, and significant—and then became sources of energy and motivation, movers of history with lives of their own.

Downplaying these deep cultural formations prevented Fukuyama from recognizing, much less reckoning with, a deeper current or impulse running through political culture, one that was consequential for the emergence of fascism and communism as alternatives to liberal democracy in the short twentieth century, and which confronts us again today, manifested in ethnonationalism, end-of-the-world thinking, wild utopias, sanctifications of political violence, and the increasing political relevance of conspiracy theories. Precisely insofar as the very conditions for politics are being set by what several commentators have identified as battles over myth and the struggle over the ultimate significance of or “ground” for political action, we can trace the failure of history to end, in part, to the persistence of Gnosticism.

Apocalypticism and Gnosis

Gnosticism, or “the Gnostic impulse,” is a central feature of what the controversial but brilliant sociologist of religion Jacob Taubes (1923–87) called “occidental eschatology,” and if one wants to follow a Hegelian radical idealism to its deepest reaches, one has to give Gnosticism consideration. Taubes, in fact, identified modern “dialectics” as a manifestation of “apocalypticism and Gnosis,” which, he claimed, connected Marx’s texts to ancient “Iranian and Jewish apocalypticism,” and which also appeared in the young Hegel’s The Positivity of the Christian Religion and The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate, and thence in his Logic and The Phenomenology of Spirit.33xJacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 37. First published 1947. Fukuyama’s adroit use of Hegel to correct Marx, then, raises an issue that is not preeminent for him: How should one interpret this Gnostic legacy? Is it even possible that Hegel and Marx should be interpreted as—to a certain degree—embodying it?

What do we mean by Gnosticism? Scholars concerned with Gnosticism as both a textual tradition in early Christianity (the second and third centuries) and a paradigm for political action in the modern world have identified what cultural historian Yotam Hotam called “the structure of Gnostic thought.” This structure may be summarized in terms of five core principles:

  1. A radical dualism between “a good transcendent God and an evil world,” which is to say, a dualism of transcendence and immanence as the fundamental binary for making sense of experience.
  2. The estrangement of the transcendent God from the world, a God crucially understood not only as “hidden and concealed” but also “not the creator of this world.” This world is the creation of a lesser and evil Godlike power that is “always at odds with the one true transcendental Godly power”—the result being an immanent world of materiality and embodiment, with earthly systems of moral judgment and status attainment that are inherently corrupt, profane, and unredeemable.
  3. Human existence understood as “torn between worldly existence and divine and hidden inner essence,” the latter being not just alienated from the social structures and physical laws of the given world, but radically alienated from them, to the point that even felt moral sentiments and obligations are understood as deriving from the immanent, profane world as well.
  4. The conviction that Gnosis, the secret knowledge possessed by the select few who have seen the evil-made world for what it is, enables them to connect with the true, the good, and the transcendent by means of a radical rejection and violent overthrow of what is in front of them.
  5. That as a spur to action and thought in this (demonic) world, Gnosis provides guidance for bringing about the end of this world and the beginning of the new—or as the German émigré intellectual and political philosopher Eric Voegelin put it (at least in the wording popularized by his followers), for immanentizing the eschaton.44xYotam Hotam, “Gnosis and Modernity—a Postwar German Intellectual Debate on Secularization, Religion, and ‘Overcoming’ the Past,” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 8, no. 3: 591–608, 596. On “immanentizing the eschaton,” see Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago. IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987). First published 1951. The Gnosticism discussed here draws on a variety of thinkers who debated Gnosticism and modernity in the middle of the twentieth century, especially Hans Jonas, Gershom Scholem, and Hans Blumenberg, as well as Voegelin. For an extended discussion, see Willem Styfhals, No Spiritual Investment in the World: Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019).

When it comes to Gnosticism and the forces of religion and nationalism in the modern world, Fukuyama was not idealist enough. His intense focus on ideological systems easily identifiable as politico-economic, and thus on the ideational basis of regimes, led him to miss—at least explicitly—a wider and deeper set of cultural sources of political energy, and, in particular, to miss the Gnostic impulse as an animating spirit of politics and (counter)morality.

There is, however, a symptomatic sense in which Fukuyama recognized that a large and growing segment of the liberal-democratic world would continue to harbor eschatological hopes and apocalyptic yearnings in the post–Cold War era. It is evident in his careful engagement with, and appreciation of, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s prescience about the dissatisfactions induced by a civilization focused on material well-being and driven by happiness research, his analysis of the failure of nineteenth-century science and religious discourse to replace the felt commitments of an earlier era, and his frustrations with the stunning mediocrities produced by a supposedly advanced Europe are all echoed by Fukuyama in his “end of history” thesis.

Enthusiasts of liberal democracy who detect the Nietzschean undertones of Fukuyama’s essay and book are bound to feel uncomfortable. In addition to notifying the reader that the end of history will be a “very sad time,” Fukuyama ominously suggests that consumerism will drain significance from politics, and perhaps from life itself. When he explains that “we might summarize the content of the universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic,” he is gesturing toward the “last men who invented happiness,”55xFukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 8. and we realize that Fukuyama is signaling an affinity with the self-ironizing Nietzsche of Ecce Homo, wherein the purpose of the (anti)philosopher’s life is both unabashedly asserted and undermined. Even while embracing liberal-democratic and capitalist triumphalism, Fukuyama subtly undermines it with hints of a cultural pessimism that is more fully developed in the final chapter of The End of History and the Last Man. There he invokes Nietzsche’s call for a “transvaluation of all values” and his thoroughgoing critique of Enlightenment progress narratives—most notably, his denunciation of the pursuit of happiness as leading to a form of a pseudoscientific utilitarianism that doomed modern philosophy and culture.

In neither his article nor his book, however, does Fukuyama come to full terms with the way in which “Nietzsche’s entire productive life occurred under the aegis of the so-called Pessimismusstreit—the public argument, which began in earnest with Arthur Schopenhauer, about whether life was worth living.”66xTom Stern, “Nietzsche’s Schopenhauer,” in The Oxford Handbook of Schopenhauer, ed. Robert L. Wicks (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 2020), 479–80. Across all the contradictions that (happily) pepper his works, Nietzsche seeks to vindicate life—but which life, and at what costs? And to what countertendencies to modern utilitarian culture does Nietzsche’s philosophy sensitize us?

In announcing the end of history and naming liberal-democratic-capitalist society as the only society, Fukuyama raises a specter that plagued Nietzsche’s work and has yet to be put to rest. Can liberal-democratic commitments survive the modern loss of significance? Can liberal democracies maintain, for their populations, a sense of recognition and dignity, an understanding of oneself as understood by others as being significant and free? In raising these questions, we hear the echo of the conclusion of philosopher Sebastian Gardner: “If no clear redefinition of philosophy emerges from Nietzsche’s own writings, this may be regarded, in his own terms, as a proper consequence of the fact that, as he puts it, ‘a few centuries will be needed’ before Schopenhauer’s great question, ‘Does existence have any meaning at all?,’ can even be ‘heard completely and in its full depth.’”77xSebastian Gardner, “Post-Schopenhauerian Metaphysics: Hartmann, Mainländer, Bahnsen, and Nietzsche,” The Oxford Handbook of Schopenhauer, 470.

If we fear a negative answer to the question of whether liberal democracies can meet thymotic needs—that is, the needs for recognition and significance—we would do well to investigate the promises and fantasies of the Gnostic impulse, whose tendency to guarantee significance makes it not only an appealing alternative to an Enlightenment utilitarianism but even the expected response, in politics and culture, to the tyranny of meritocracy. Understanding Gnosticism, in other words, helps us to reframe our interpretation of the unraveling of the Enlightenment project and the fragility of liberal internationalism. In Gnosticism, we find the inner logic of the redemptive revolt that rejects the liberal-democratic-capitalist order as both false and radically evil, a revolt fueled, at least in part, by dissatisfaction, loss of meaning, and the failure of this order to provide people with a sense of their place in the cosmos and their significance within it.

The Appeal of Gnostic Expressions

Two years anchor Fukuyama’s account of the rise and realization of the liberal-democratic-capitalist order: 1806 and 1989. The first represents Hegel’s interpretation of Napoleon’s triumph at the Battle of Jena as the philosopher heard soldiers marching beneath his window: It is a way to imagine the eruption of history into thought. For Fukuyama, this is the moment when philosophy realized that the “vanguard of humanity” was bringing into the actual world the “principles of the French Revolution.” The year 1989, in turn, marked the end of challenges to liberalism’s own vanguards, that is, the end of “ideological pretentions of representing different and higher forms of human society.” In particular, in Fukuyama’s interpretation, it marked the end of the earnest commitment of Chinese and Soviet elites to represent Marxism-Leninism as the pathway to a new, better, and more advanced modernity. Between 1806 and 1989, Fukuyama pictures the catastrophe of the twentieth century as the descent of “the developed world” into a “paroxysm of ideological violence” in which “liberalism contended first with the remnants of absolutism, then bolshevism and fascism, and finally an updated Marxism that threatened to lead to the ultimate apocalypse of nuclear war.”88xFukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 5, 13, 1.

This account resonates with scholars of international relations in particular, and with social scientists in general, because it frames the triumph of liberal-democratic forms of state-society relations as conditioned on the failure of Bolshevism, fascism, and Marxism-Leninism as ideological systems with practical political implementations (“actually existing socialism”). Yet for all its insights, Fukuyama’s philosophy of history and his account of the twentieth-century European catastrophe essentially misapprehends—or at least underinterprets—the collective warrant for fascism and Bolshevism. These were not only ideological systems but also Gnostic expressions. It is no accident of history, or weaponry, that the Bolshevik program for politics, the Nazi revolution, and the Stalinist purges embraced vanguard politics and favored “total war.” What Hannah Arendt called totalitarianism and what Eric Voegelin called the “political religions” were, in fact, attempts to immanentize the eschaton, find a new agent of God to worship, guarantee that political action would have significance through its connection to party and movement, and consummate heaven on earth through the creation of the new Reich, the new era, the new man.99xThis observation runs together Arendt’s understanding of totalitarianism and Voegelin’s account of the “political religions.” It is true that the two thinkers had well-known differences, which are perhaps best documented by Sylvie Courtine-Denamy in her discussion of the intellectual and historical background of their 1952 debate around Arendt’s publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism and Voegelin’s publication of both his review of Arendt’s book and his own New Science of Politics about the same time. Sylvie Courtine-Denamy, “The Revival of Religion: A Device Against Totalitarianism? A Philosophical Debate Between Eric Voegelin and Hannah Arendt,” Voegeliniana 88 (2011): 7–33. Notwithstanding those differences, this shared insight motivates their work as responses to what we are here calling Gnosticism.

In these movements, the very relationship among violence, politics, and necessity was given a new understanding. Arendt explores this at length in Eichmann in Jerusalem when she considers the specific way in which mass annihilation became possible through a stunning moral inversion. Inside the Nazi machine, killing became necessary and one’s basic human instinct for sympathy and capacity for judgment had to be repressed or suspended, because the intensity of the renunciation of sympathy and judgment corresponded to the intensity of one’s belief in the radical newness of the world to come. The secret knowledge (Gnosis) of the coming world guaranteed that what seemed immoral now was, in reality, the only moral thing to do—one had to pierce the veil and create, for future generations, an entirely new humanity with a new history.

In the years since 1989, the rise of illiberal politics has often occurred in a Gnostic register, one in which the long arc of history is imagined as a demon-created obscenity resisted only by those who secretly sense the possibility of immanentizing the eschaton, and who thus favor violent revolt whose significance is apocalyptically guaranteed. Even before the publication of Fukuyama’s essay, Slobodan Milošević used the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo (fought on June 15, 1389) to announce his commitment to a religiously and ethnically circumscribed future for the Serbian people in the post-Yugoslavian space, suggesting that the modern nationalism of Serbia was driven by medieval and apocalyptic ambitions. In the mid-2010s, researchers found that belief in conspiracy theories predicted support for a vote for Brexit “above and beyond political orientation.”1010xDaniel Jolley et al., “Examining the Links Between Conspiracy Beliefs and the EU ‘Brexit’ Referendum Vote in the UK: Evidence From a Two-Wave Survey,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 52, no.1 (January 2022), 30. Sociologist Philip Gorski shares another pertinent example: Donald Trump’s “uncanny resemblance to the stranger-king archetype,” as recognized by his “most devoted Christian followers and most trusted spiritual advisers who first used monarchical language, comparing him to biblical rulers such as King David and King Cyrus,” and who, “invoking the Israelite kings…spoke of him as the ‘anointed one.’”1111xPhilip S. Gorski, “The Return of the King: The Politics of Immanence and the Disenchantments of Liberalism,” The Hedgehog Review 24, no. 1 (Spring 2022), 51. Finally, in his justification for the war in Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin used several phrases from the Gnostic repertoire, claiming that the idea that Ukraine was an independent democracy with mechanisms for choosing its leaders was part of the “lies of the West”—a fake and evil veil pulled over the eyes of the unsuspecting—and thus that the war was part of an effort to “denazify” Ukraine.1212xMax Fisher, “Putin’s Case for War, Annotated,” The New York Times, February 24, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/world/europe/putin-ukraine-speech.html.

One unifying feature of these recent heterogeneous expressions of the Gnostic impulse is the conviction that the world as currently constituted by liberal commitments—to pluralism, to compromise, to reasonableness, to the formal procedure of law—is “the creation of a lesser and evil Godly power, always at odds with the one true transcendental Godly power.”1313xHotam, “Gnosis and Modernity,” 596. In this light, we can see most sharply what Fukuyama cannot possibly express in his avowedly partial defense of Hegel against Marx.

Manifestations of Gnosticism

It would be convenient for analysis if such Gnostic tendencies could be located uniquely in the explosion of illiberalism after the Cold War or in the twentieth-century European bloodlands. However, the insistence that the radical restructuring of society must begin with a destruction of the world as we know it runs far deeper than the past thirty, one hundred, or even two hundred years. Indeed, the Gnostic return (or its threat) has been a constant companion to Western political culture since antiquity.

This is the insight brought out in Jacob Taubes’s Occidental Eschatology. There, the Gnostic fusion of revolution and revelation reaches from the creation of the corpus of Jewish prophets to “Hegel on the one hand, and Marx and Kierkegaard on the other.”1414xTaubes, Occidental Eschatology, 191. As David Ratmoko, the book’s translator, remarks, the title (and thus the analysis it labels) “denotes not only ‘the Western hemisphere or culture of the West’…but more specifically, the ‘cultural union of Europe as formed through antiquity and Christianity.’”1515xDavid Ratmoko, preface to Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, xiii. It is this cultural union, and not an uncontested ideological formation, that, unrecognized by Fukuyama, underwrites the continuation of history in the post–Cold War era in the contest between liberal democracy and its Gnostic discontents. Once we see fascism, Bolshevism, and Marxism-Leninism in the twentieth century as themselves drawing upon the Gnostic impulse, it becomes much more likely that we will not see history at its end. Instead, we will be able to trace the multiple and changing manifestations of Gnosticism in politics and religion, and certain connections drawn between the two, as an essential feature of history itself.

We can begin that history with the revolutionary struggle of the Jewish Zealots against the Roman legions (broadly, between 66 and 135 AD). These events are easy enough to narrate as an instance of a futile provincial uprising against an overwhelming imperial power, but their significance lies in how they represent a formative break in the philosophy of history, a break that would then have consequences for political culture. The Zealots’ political project acquired significance precisely through their fusion of political theology with the philosophy of history. In their challenge to the Roman Empire’s dominion as a world power, the Zealots made an actionable promise about the near future: the fulfillment of Aramaic messianism. The Zealots knew with certainty (Gnosis) that the Lord God was to rule on earth as in heaven, and on that day, “he shall be one and his name shall be one” (Zechariah 14:9). This was no metaphor, and no promise of a distant world-to-come (as it has been since understood in most forms of Judaism), but a concrete and necessary teleology of historical events that were expected to transpire in the Judean foothills and, in a short time, in Jerusalem. This was the entry of Gnosis—secure and secret knowledge of imminent and immanent redemption (often through violent action)—onto the world stage.

It was a compelling hermeneutic. The Romanized Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who recognized Roman military victory as inevitable, nonetheless claimed that the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the ensuing defeat of the Zealots, would spur the spiritual transformation of Rome itself, bringing Roman political culture in line with the monotheistic interpretation of law. This would be the first of many inversions of interpretation common to the Gnostic impulse—in this case, it was the interpretation of destruction as construction. As Taubes explains, “[Josephus] was convinced that…the divine law of the Jews will bring world dominion and that the theocracy of the Jewish state will extend to a world theocracy.”1616xTaubes, Occidental Eschatology, 60. Here is the kernel of the Gnostic aspect of occidental political culture, consequential for war and politics up to the present day: a fusion of apocalypticism and eschatology.

There were, of course, cultural understandings distinct from Gnosticism that operated in opposition to it. Augustine of Hippo sought to keep the Gnostic impulse at bay with his conceptualization of the “City of God,” which, as Taubes elaborates, is “neither an ancient polis nor a modern state,” because both of those forms “have as their center of gravity a particular geographical location in the here and now,” while Augustine’s City is not in a fixed location or tied to a people or particular area. If anything, “it can best be compared to the Islamic Umma.”1717xIbid., 79. What Taubes has in mind here is that just as the Umma is meant to be the site of the reconciliation of the eternal and unplaced atemporality of the divine and the historically and geographically situated community of the members of the true faith, so too does Augustine represent resistance to the Gnostic concretization of the Kingdom of God in the here and now on earth. This resistance was made sturdy, and often imbued with great power, through links between theological interpretation and political organization. In a certain sense, the Augustinian interpretation of history held sway in Christian Europe for nearly a millennium as a regulative set of ideas. But it, too, eventually met its match in a new Gnosticism.

Joachim of Fiore’s theology of history formulated in the late twelfth century, shattered “Augustine’s dual image of history” and introduced “a third, antithetical factor to the religion of the Old and New Testaments,” namely, the Church of the Spirit (ecclesia spiritualis), and a new age, the Age of the Spirit, scheduled to begin in 1260. The first church corresponded to the Age of the Father and the Old Law; the second Church corresponded to the Son, and the third church to the Holy Spirit, which was identified as “the essence of the modern age, which [Fiore] christens as the Millennium of Revolution.” New man, new spirit, new society—all guaranteed by Fiore’s obscure prophecy.1818xIbid., 82.

Fiore’s theology of history would find political and violent expression in the peasant rebellions of the early sixteenth century in the German-speaking principalities. The animating commitments of these rebellions, Taubes attests, are identifiable in the writings and public life of Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489–1525) and the Anabaptists, who sought to “bring about [Fiore’s] ecclesia spiritualis on earth.” It was in Müntzer that the violent consequences of Fiore’s prophesy leapt onto the stage as a world-moving force. Müntzer justified violence with reference to the theological eschatology of Europe. (Taubes notes that “the theology of revolution is the theology of violence.”) The rebellions, then, manifested the radical alienation of both human and God from the created world, whose construction is taken to be both false and evil. As Taubes explains, “Müntzer’s theology is ultimately an eye-to-eye confrontation with Luther. This is a match not only between them, but through them, a decision between two principles: the Reformation and revolution.”1919xIbid., 86, 86, 107.

Müntzer’s writings have a stunning relevance to those familiar with the collapse of bourgeois Europe at the end of the long nineteenth century and the rise of the interwar Gnosticisms, and indeed to the news today.2020xOn this point, see especially the discussion in Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, Diary of a Man in Despair, afterword by Richard J. Evans, trans. Paul Rubens (New York, NY: NYRB Classics, 2013), 12–21. Writing to the miners in Frankenhausen, Müntzer insisted on attacking Christendom in both its material and spiritual manifestations. “With the advent of faith,” he wrote, “we all, earthly people made of flesh, must become gods…so that our earthly life soars into heaven.”2121xQuoted in Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, 118. The Anabaptist revolt is the origin of European revolutionary socialism, however explicitly “Christian” or “secular” it would thereafter become. Müntzer’s chiliastic revolution contains, embryonically, both Kierkegaard’s criticism of bourgeois Christianity and Marx’s criticism of bourgeois capitalism. It also contains the expectation that the vanguard, possessed of secret knowledge, will become gods on Earth.

Müntzer’s Gnostic revolt vindicates Fukuyama’s defense of “Hegel’s radical idealist perspective” against Marx, while also showing the specific way in which Fukuyama’s idealism remains beholden to the theoretical logic of political economy. Are we not still fighting over the immanentization of the eschaton? In a footnote, Fukuyama mocks modern historians for their incredulity about those in the past who were prone to “kill each other over the nature of the Trinity.”2222xFukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 8, n.10. He disputes historians’ anachronistic imposition of economic man onto the past. Yet in his own debunking of Marxist-Leninist “ideology,” he misses Marx’s debt to Müntzer, and thereby forecloses the possibility that twentieth- and twenty-first-century humans have not escaped the contradictions of modernity as ongoing manifestations of occidental eschatology.

Fukuyama understood Marxism-Leninism as an unscientific ideology and source of propaganda that, in its picture of human advancement, structured a failed system of government. But what Fukuyama evaded in taking this stance is the degree to which not only Marx, but Hegel himself, was motivated by a Gnostic commitment to the historicization of apocalyptic and eschatological thinking.2323xThe debate over Hegel’s Gnosticism began with Ferdinand Christian Baur’s 1835 text Die christlische Gnosis oder die christlische Religions-philosophie in Ihrer Geschichtlichen Entwiklung (Christian Gnosis: Christian religious philosophy in its historical development), and has continued ever since. As Taubes explains, “Hegel’s philosophy of history is taken to its logical conclusions by the philosophy of revolution in Marxism. The Hegelians of the left want to realize the Kingdom of God, the Hegelian ‘Kingdom of the mind,’ on earth. Marx aims to revolutionize the world along the lines of Hegelian reason.”2424xTaubes, Occidental Eschatology, 86–87. The implication of this distinction is not merely that what we typically understand as the modern revolutionary tradition (or revolutionary myth2525xOn the notion of the myth of revolution as structuring the modern age, see Saïd Amir Arjomand, Revolution: Structure and Meaning in World History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2019). ) inherits a quite particular Gnostic impulse from the tensions of occidental eschatology. More than this, what comes into focus is a Gnostic logic that animates certain formats of extreme politics (Leninist, Maoist, Trumpist), wherein viciousness toward one’s enemies, party discipline, vanguard thinking, and the expulsion of dissidents (e.g., RINO hunting) from the body of believers or the body politic is the animating “spirit” of the political movement. In modern Gnosticism, Gnosis reappears as the wisdom of the vanguard—inaccessible to those taught by fake teachers in fake schools—a vanguard that speaks for the people and in place of the people, to bring about the new world and the new man.

Was Marx, in a mediated and partial way, a Gnostic as well as a brilliant founder of modern social science? Consideration of the romantic and prophetic elements of Marx’s writings is a clear and frequent touchstone of social theory and intellectual history today. But the Gnostic possibility looms. This, at least, appears to be the implication of Hannah Arendt’s critique of Marx in The Human Condition. For Arendt, Marx absorbs modern scientism, and its reductionist ambitions, into a granting of ultimate significance to political action if and only if that action goes through the universal human being conceived as laborer. Marx then connects this account of political action, Arendt writes, to the synthesis of eschatology and apocalypticism. The prospects and misery of the industrial proletariat thus become those of the Jewish Zealots, because the Gospel is good news for the poor, and even more so when the poor are acutely aware of their place within a wealthy society whose wealth is distributed in an extremely unequal fashion. (It is especially welcome news, as Taubes notes, when the eschaton lies just on the other side of the revolution.2626xTaubes, Occidental Eschatology, 51: “The message of the Kingdom of God is particularly good news for the poor.” ) The theory of the trap of the embodied world in the modern reduction of humans to their bodily functions and bodily needs—which for Marx is the source of man’s alienation—is, among many things, a refiguration of the Gnostic understanding of worldly embodiment as the source of God’s alienation from creation. In Marx, the alienation of the followers of the divine from the world in its evil creation becomes the alienation of “man from man,” and of humans from their “species being,” via the opposition between the laborer and the capitalist. Marx does not “secularize” occidental eschatology as an interpretive move, as an interpretive choice; rather, he performs a brilliant inversion within the space of the Gnostic impulse. Instead of announcing the arrival of the Age of Spirit, he goes as far as possible in the other direction, reducing the human to animal laborans and thereby arriving at the expectation that labor, and labor alone, can lead to the liberation of the human being. It might be said that Marx sought to put Fiore on his feet again. As a result, for Marx the only significant politics—the only politics that can save the attribution of significance from being ideology—is a politics of the laborer and the exploitation of the muscles and nerves.

Crucially for the world we confront today—in which columnists can gain insight into Steve Bannon’s media strategies from the history of Leninism—not only Marxism-Leninism, but also the revanchist reaction to revolutionary socialism, was itself articulated in Gnostic terms with Gnostic motivations. At the outset of the Weimar Republic, this becomes painfully clear in the distinct gap between the text of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918) and the reception, uptake, and celebration of the text on the authoritarian right, which ignored Spengler’s argument and instead fell in love with the idea that the West in decline was “decadent” and “corrupt.” While Spengler’s text gave nuanced, scholarly, and historical shape to Nietzsche’s deeply intuitive rejection of the Enlightenment’s putatively materialist forms of self-satisfaction—that, with the advent of a certain individualized rationality, the efficient pursuit of happiness was the only goal—the reception of the text as an account of “Western decadence” took on a distinctly Gnostic shape.2727x“The ‘controversy over Spengler,’ which largely referred to his thesis in The Decline of the West, overshadowed his deep insight into the apocalyptic, Gnostic world. As important a scholar as Hans Jonas said, quite rightly, that Spengler’s essay on the apocalyptic, Gnostic world is ‘the best and most conclusive ever written on the subject.’ [For Spengler] rightly perceived that the center of the apocalyptic Gnostic principle lay in the eschatological myth of the ‘redeemed redeemer.’” Ibid., 22–23.

If we were to follow Spengler himself, one would study Nietzsche in order to better grasp the conditions of modernity that make a descent into Gnosticism all the more likely in the face of the inadequacy of the liberal discourse of inevitable progress (which would become, in Fukuyama’s view, the end of history). Spengler analyzes apocalypticism’s variations, and its variable appeal. For many supposed “Spenglerians,” however, the Gnostic revolt is the implied and approved response to the declension Spengler traces. Ignoring Spengler’s own care in examining the emergence of world-alienation as a trope of political culture in the Occident,2828xTaubes summarizes Jonas’s view of the contribution to the study of ancient Gnosis made by Spengler as follows: “The fact that God and the world are estranged from each other, that the substance of mankind is torn into the ego and the non-ego, and that the ego languishes in the prison of the world—all of this only makes sense when it is assumed that history is identical with the aeon of sin, which is embedded between creation and redemption. Therefore, the structure of apocalypticism and Gnosis is essentially historical” (Occidental Eschatology, 36). For Jonas on Spengler, see Hans Jonas, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist. I: Die Mythologische Gnosis (1934), 260–61, 211, 164. It should be noted that the book was never published in English as such; there is the article “Gnosticism and Modern Nihilism” (Social Research 19 [1952)], 430–452; in 1958, he published The Gnostic Religion, which is something akin to a new version of Gnosis I (1934) and II (1954) as published in German. his false disciples cast The Decline of the West as a book about the imposition of Zivilisation on Kultur, demanding the violent overthrow of the liberal world in all of its false promises and evil creations. The political thinker and Catholic-turned-Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s Gnostic polemic against liberal democracy in the 1920s was (and is) paradigmatic is this regard. In reducing politics to the violent opposition between friend and enemy, Schmitt’s “world-cleaving ‘decisionism’”2929xStephen K. White, “A Democratic Mythic?,” The Hedgehog Review 24, no. 1 (Spring 2022), 65. promised to end the liberal draining of significance from politics as a result of its focus on procedure, economic policy, efficiency, and deliberation, and to replace it with the ultimate meaning of “You are with us or against us,” with the “us” defined in a distinctly ethnonationalist fashion.

As the political theorist Stephen White explains, Schmitt’s decisionism has “found disciples,” especially in our own age of the Gnostic return, “through its promise to simplify and reinvigorate our political life in sweeping fashion.”3030xIbid. In doing so, it denies that liberal-democratic deliberation and, indeed, social change through democratic process, can ever be anything except chatter. This, rather than the rise of any particular leader, is what links the crisis of liberal democracy today to Weimar politics: The efflorescence of Gnosticism brings the liberal world in for indictment on terms that demand vigilance and vanguard thinking as the key to the imminent achievement of eschatological promise.

Ideal Imperfect Black Pearls

Gnosticism cannot be countered by technocratic expertise. Rather, democratic politics finds space for differences in belief and practice, careful judgment, and fair procedure when stories of significance allow the creation of a world in common, thereby reducing the experience of radical alienation. But when, if ever, has there actually been such a world in common, and what stories of significance have been told to make its co-constitution by and with citizens who both differ from and are different from one another? Political philosopher Danielle Allen’s call for “political practices oriented toward making a democratic people whole, though not one, through techniques for generating trust even in contexts where agreement cannot be achieved,” provides an alternative to perspectives on deliberation that offer the ideal of full agreement as a regulative ideal and, thereby, an orienting norm.3131xDanielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 85. As Allen argues through a reconstruction of the place of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) in the “collective autobiography” of America as a society of equals, it is both possible (though very difficult) and necessary for an adequately functioning democracy that citizens can come to trust one another to share a world in common, even as they profoundly disagree about how they are being governed.

In Allen’s careful reconstruction, Brown appears as a court decision and a cultural moment that was once as divisive an event in American political life as any in the past century (at least), but is now just about universally accepted as a matter of principle. This is so, despite the fact—which Allen makes clear she appreciates—that white Americans often go to great lengths to find ways to send their children to schools that are nearly as exclusively white as those to which their predecessors sent their children before the Brown decision. This paradoxical afterlife in the career of the Brown decision offers an instructive lesson for Americans who bemoan the putatively new or recently exacerbated polarization of our politics. In seeking “common ground,” we must approach with utmost rigor the connotations of this phrase, and the metaphors we associate with this trope. Allen makes a crucial distinction that is distinctly anti-Gnostic in its rejection of messianic perfectionism. She insists on a distinction between ideals for perfect and imperfect things because it is only when we “find ways to accommodate imperfections as they are, not render them to uniformity,” that we are able “to govern democracy’s imperfections” through a “satisfactory pragmatics of citizenship.”3232xIbid., 86.

Naturally enough, one presses here for an example of what such a pragmatics of citizenship might look like. When has American democracy worked this way? What does the successful governance of democracy’s imperfections look like practically? The challenge, as Allen pointed out in her commentary on the violent clashes that took place over the proposed removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, is that to meet such demands, even imperfectly, requires projection into the future. As she elaborates, “The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality, and economies that empower all have been achieved.… Our goal lies not behind us, but before us. Having never been achieved in the world, it is not something that can be achieved ‘again.’”3333xDanielle Allen, “Charlottesville Is Not the Continuation of an Old Fight. It Is Something New,” Washington Post, August 13, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charlottesville-is-not-the-continuation-of-an-old-fight-it-is-something-new/2017/08/13/971812f6-8029-11e7-b359-15a3617c767b_story.html. This argument poses a crucial challenge to those who would defend the liberal-democratic order against the Gnostic revolt. How can we conceptualize the role of the history of flawed, incomplete, domination-laden liberal democracy in the construction of such a world, such that this construction is also, in some sense, a project of salvage and preservation? How can we recover the past as an imperfect ideal, and thus build an as yet unseen, more perfect but imperfect democracy?

Allen introduces “two kinds of black pearls,” one perfect and the other imperfect, as indicative of the world-preserving activity she, and we, have in mind. While perfect pearls are “perfectly spherical” and imperfect pearls “have hills and valleys on their surfaces,” and while the surface of imperfect pearls does not “shine quite as bright as for the perfect,” it is the imperfect pearl that is more valuable, “for the other is synthetic.” Furthermore, she continues, “although the imperfect pearls all have blemishes, some are thought to be better than others, and there are ideals about what counts as the best imperfect pearl3434xAllen, Talking to Strangers, 86. (emphasis added). This phrasing, which articulates precisely the spirit of democratic modernity that can counter the Gnostic revolt, is how she renders the meaning and purpose of her reconstruction of the Brown decision. She allows us to see just how ugly was the America in which the case was argued, and how imperfect it remains, even when we recognize the truth contained in a heroic rendering of that case. Brown, in short, is an ideal imperfect black pearl, dented and warped unlike a perfect pearl, but, crucially, authentic where the perfect pearl is synthetic. Retelling the story of its significance is precisely the sort of gesture that might help us to understand what it means to share a common world and to experience something of such a common world as American citizens.

To counter Gnosticism, then, the project of democratic salvage must somehow also be a project of innovation. But the lesson from the history of occidental eschatology is that all such projects of salvage operate within a soteriological frame, offering one or another form of salvation and/or redemption for a corrupt society, or even for the corruption of a created world in its entirety. For this reason, the robust defense of liberal democracy means defending liberal-democratic culture, and thereby taking the risk of articulating a “democratic mythic” as a counterpoint to the Gnostic impulse. In a democratic future, which articulations of the deep differences that have and still do divide, yet potentially unite, us will lend significance to political action, and recognition to each member of a given community? The variety of engagements in a pluralistic democratic society—from union democracy to church socials to the now defunct op-ed pages of thousands of local newspapers—relies upon the articulation of a wide range of value commitments and policy proposals, from the best way to administer schools and design and implement their curricula to the best way to address a public health crisis. To generate significance and recognition, such discourses must be articulated with reference to the interdependence of those who find themselves in opposition to each other within a common world.

The essential destructiveness of the Gnostic revolt is that as a result of the radical distrust of the created world, what once was understood as a difference of opinion shared in the space of public appearance comes to signal ideological commitment (at best) or to serve as an invocation to violence (at worst). Neither ideology, as a scheme the adherence to which lifts the self-esteem of the enunciator, nor violence, as a means to certain desired ends, is, in fact, democratic politics in the sense of praxis. Rather than demand the public articulation of judgment, each of these stances demands judgment’s suspension. Democratic politics, in which one can have an opinion, make an independent judgment, and collectively bind oneself and one’s fellow citizens to live together in a different way, requires, then, both sense making and significance. A world in common, in other words, involves not only the objectivity of facts that can serve as reference points of debate but also a culture of recognition, such that thymotic needs are met, desires curbed, and, thereby, reason enabled.

Thymotic needs are hard to meet, especially in a world in which the gig economy is increasingly entrenched and an ever greater relative deprivation resulting from stagnant wages and rising costs is normalized. As the world in common evaporates, the search for significance quickly attaches itself to stories unrelated to the world as it actually is. The Gnostic impulse, feeding on alienation and disrespect, generates conspiracy theories, messianic expectations, and new certainties available to those who “do the research” in the strange loops of QAnon. Gnosticism flourishes because, in the absence of a world in common, significance is sought and secured without evidence or reason. This political culture stands in the strongest possible contrast with an Arendtian conception of “the public” as a space of appearance in which citizens exhibit the inherent plurality of the human condition, in regard both to what we might call their primary identity markers and to their political commitments, and in which citizens come together to bring about something in the world that could not be achieved privately. It is surely possible for American political life to resemble such a public. Not so long ago, a conservative Republican governor crafted and joined the state legislature in passing a universal health care bill in Massachusetts; more recently, progressive Democratic mayoral administrations in cities like Chicago and New York have worked with teachers’ unions to meet parental demands for greater accountability from educators and more direct input into student learning.

When we recall surprising developments such as these, we are reminded that the possibility of significance granted by a world in common can salve the anxieties that always attend action—on one hand, its irrevocability, and, on the other, uncertainty about its effects—and that significance can arrive not only from eschatons immanentized but from the messy and partial recognitions of democratic politics. If we are to build a democratic future together, it will be the actual and endlessly reiterative exercise of judgment by, with, and for our fellow citizens that will have to provide both authoritative knowledge and public stories. If we succeed, it will be because the apocalyptic horizon of political significance since the rise of what Arendt calls “the revolutionary tradition,” whose treasure may have been lost but whose promise is nevertheless available, will have become the basis for careful judgment rather than an impossible promise.3535xHannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1965 [1963]), 217–85.