The End of the End of History?   /   Fall 2017   /    Essays

The People’s Republic of Heaven: From the Protestant Reformation to the Russian Revolution, 1517–1917

Eugene McCarraher

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Toppling the provisional government that had overthrown the Romanov dynasty in February, Lenin and the Bolsheviks did more than deal a coup de grâce to the old regime; they sparked a wave of revolutionary upheaval that eventually washed over almost every continent. (The Cold War, usually dated from 1945, arguably began with the seizure of the Winter Palace.) The fear of revolution among bourgeois elites in the North Atlantic world induced them either to support fascist movements or to compromise with the working classes. The fascist alternative culminated in tyranny, genocide, and global warfare; the compromise enabled the “golden age of capitalism,” when high wages and widespread access to disposable income—ensured by labor unions and welfare states—fueled rates of economic growth and underwrote a level of social equality never before (and not since) seen in the Western democracies. In the Soviet Union itself, “really existing socialism” ended a feckless and brutal monarchy; provided education, medical care, and other public services; and (despite the images of queues served up for propaganda in the capitalist nations) raised the standard of living for ordinary people through rapid industrialization—all at the price of a ferocious oligarchy and its apparatus of murder and repression. The “Soviet experiment” would seem to have been either the tragic miscarriage of a passion for justice or a barbarous attempt to bring heaven to earth that proves the folly of utopian ambition.1

Because the Russian Revolution and its consequences are still relatively fresh in historical memory, its centenary can easily overshadow the anniversary of another, perhaps even more consequential upheaval: the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation, which commenced in October 1517. When Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, “out of love for the truth and desire to elucidate it,” he set off a chain of events that ultimately demolished the unity of medieval Christendom. Luther and his fellow reformers triggered a radiating tremor that would shake not only the Roman Catholic Church but all subsequent Protestant denominations, as the “priesthood of all believers” sanctioned the centrifugal energy of Protestantism. (The protest in Protestant hides in plain sight.) If the most hallowed doctrines and even the Bible itself could now be arraigned before the bar of individual judgment, then Christianity could be endlessly transformed and perhaps even ultimately repudiated. While the Russian Revolution launched what E.J. Hobsbawm once dubbed “the short twentieth century,” the Protestant Reformation incited five centuries of turbulence: religious liberty, liberal democracy, capitalist economics, and the “disenchantment of the world” supposedly wrought by the erosion of belief in magic, sacrament, and the occult.2

Were the Reformation and the Revolution connected, despite the chasm of 400 years? The British-Pakistani writer and activist Tariq Ali sees a parallel, opening his new book on Lenin by citing Luther’s intransigent (and probably apocryphal) declaration to the Diet of Worms in 1521: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Shortly after the Bolshevik victory, the young German philosopher Ernst Bloch suggested an even longer historical lineage for Lenin. In The Spirit of Utopia (1920), Bloch sketched a genealogy of revolution that included the Jewish prophets, St. John of the Apocalypse, medieval heretics and millenarians such as Joachim of Fiore, and radical Protestants such as Thomas Müntzer and John of Leyden (John Bockelson). Speaking the language of theology, this pre-Marxist vanguard had imagined the kingdom of God as a communist paradise. Bloch linked the Protestant and Soviet moments even more pointedly in Thomas Müntzer as Theologian of the Revolution (1921), whose protagonist envisioned “a pure community of love, without judicial and state institutions”—in marked contrast to the conservative and submissive Luther, who by supporting the German nobles’ suppression of the peasants’ rebellion of 1524–25 had consecrated the “hard and impious materiality of the State.” If Müntzer’s political theology was mired in mythopoeic conceptions of time, Lenin’s scientific appraisal of history ensured the fulfillment of Christian hope. The Soviet state heralded “the time that is to come,” Bloch declared with eschatological flourish. “It is impossible for the time of the Kingdom not to come now,” he concluded; hope “will not be disappointed in any way.” (“Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem,” Bloch would later write in The Principle of Hope.)3

But hope was disappointed, paradise was postponed, and in 1991 the “pure community of love” was exiled to a neoliberal gulag of dreams. With the revolutionary jitters of the ruling class relieved, capital unilaterally abrogated its burdensome and disingenuous truce with labor, and Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” became the ukase of plutocrats and incremental reformers. Real wages flatlined, growth rates decelerated, and the welfare states deteriorated. The golden age passed into a fiber-optic era of high-tech toil, gig work, and working-class demoralization. Across the liberal and social democracies, the political imagination of the North Atlantic intelligentsia remains resolutely narrow, pecuniary, and technocratic, preempting or foreclosing any hopes or demands not approved by finance or digital capital. Yet the longing “to put an end to fear, to the State, and to all inhumane power,” as Bloch summarized the lineaments of desire, remains as urgent as ever. As the belle époque of neoliberalism yields to what looks to be a long interregnum of chaos—in which, as Antonio Gramsci put it, “a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear”—it’s an opportune moment to reclaim the theological ancestry of communism.4

Following Max Weber, historians generally have focused on the Reformation’s encouragement of “the spirit of capitalism.” The Protestant patronage of the spirit of communism is less appreciated, and even unacknowledged. As Brad S. Gregory maintains, the Protestant reformers “wanted not to liberate but to restrict the runaway greed and sinful selfishness”—not only of covetous clergy, but of money-grubbing merchants and bankers as well. But where magisterial reformers such as Luther and John Calvin recoiled from any suggestion that Christians should overturn the social hierarchy of estates, radical reformers—Müntzer, the Hutterites and other Anabaptists, Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers—insisted that salvation mandated the eradication of private property and its replacement with the community of goods described in the New Testament in the Acts of the Apostles. If Protestants concurred that, in Gregory’s words, “economic behavior…needed a massive overhaul through an infusion of biblical morality,” they differed enormously on what that infusion should entail.5

In Winstanley, Müntzer, and other radical Protestants, the Reformation witnessed a renewal of the communist desire at the heart of Christianity. “All things common”—omnia sunt communia—has long encapsulated the earthly ideal of the Gospel, a people’s republic of heaven. “The company of all those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but instead they had everything in common”—so Luke tells us in Acts, his chronicle of the first generation of Christians in the middle of the first century CE. However historical or mythical, this faith-based communism remained an indelible episode in the canonical literature of the church, lingering as a dangerous memory in the political unconscious of Christianity.6 Of course, to utter the C-word without disdain is, for conservatives, liberals, and social democrats, to violate the most fundamental taboo in contemporary political discourse—one must be naive, disingenuous, or indifferent to the blood-soaked historical record. But to call attention to the communist imagination of the Gospel is itself to respect the historical record, while also underlining the perverse and authoritarian character of its Soviet denouement. Although the persistence of original sin will ultimately frustrate righteous desire, bringing heaven to earth is the quintessence of Christianity, not an enterprise in moral derangement.

The two currents of communism that appeared in the Reformation align with two forms of eschatological expectation: one, represented by Müntzer, in which the “godly” or the “elect”—theological precursors to the secular “vanguard”—must clear a path for the impending beloved community by enlisting any means at their disposal, however coercive and cruel; and a second, exemplified by Winstanley, in which the love of the people’s republic to come must leaven its apostles and their actions. Müntzer’s belief that the ungodly have no rights augured Bertolt Brecht’s rueful principle that those who seek a world of kindness cannot themselves be kind. Winstanley’s conviction that the sword embodied “an abominable and unrighteous power” betokened a nonviolent revolutionary tradition.7 The yearning to see heaven on earth is at once an imperative and an impossible desire, and its political articulations stem from how the tensions of eschatological expectation are resolved. If Soviet communism was a secular parody of Müntzer’s millenarian hysteria, Winstanley’s “realized eschatology”—his insistence that the love on the other side of the eschaton can appear in the here and now—offers a more modest but also more generous and humane revolutionary vision.


  1. Among the many books on the Russian Revolution that have been republished or newly published this year, see Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (New York, NY: Oxford University Press: 2017 [2008]); Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New History (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2017); China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (New York, NY: Verso, 2017); Mark D. Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905–1921 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017); Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017). For two sharply contrasting assessments, see Ronald Suny, Red Flag Unfurled: Historians, the Russian Revolution, and the Soviet Experience (New York, NY: Verso, 2017), and Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (New York, NY: Penguin, 2017 [1996]).
  2. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York, NY: Vintage, 1994). Among the books on the Reformation that have appeared this year or recently, see Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2012); Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2017); Alec Ryrie, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World (New York, NY: Viking, 2017); Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York, NY: Random House, 2017).
  3. Tariq Ali, The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Love, Empire, Revolution (New York, NY: Verso, 2017), vii; Ernst Bloch, Thomas Müntzer als Theologen der Revolution, quoted in Michael Lowy, Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe (New York, NY: Verso, 2017), 143–44; Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Volume II (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995 [1959]), 610.
  4. Bloch, quoted in Lowy, Redemption and Utopia, 143; Antonio Gramsci, “‘Wave of Materialism’ and ‘Crisis of Authority,’” in Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, eds., Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York, NY: International Publishers Co., 1971), 276.
  5. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 262; see 262–79 for a fuller discussion.
  6. The scriptural quote is from Acts 4:32. “Dangerous memory” is an invocation of Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1980).
  7. Gerrard Winstanley, “A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England” (1649), in Thomas Corns, Ann Hughes, and David Loewenstein, eds., The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley, Volume 2 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 32.
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