on 5 July 2007
Burleigh's main thesis is that the human desire to create a utopia here on earth, often religiously-tinged knowingly or otherwise, can unleash ferocious violence and suffering. This argument is not terribly original. In the 1950s, both Czeslaw Milosz (in 'The Captive Mind') and Albert Camus (in 'The Rebel') drew attention to the religious trappings of Communism. Nevertheless, Burleigh brings the empiricism of the historian to bear on the topic, and does so admirably. The main exemplar of secular religion explored in the book is that of French Revolution. Only two of the book's ten chapters deal with the Revolution, but ideas born in the cauldron of this seminal event, especially the secular utopian impulse, reoccurred throughout the following century and more, and therefore inform Burleigh's discussion of the period up to the Great War.
Burleigh does not provide a detailed history of the revolution. Rather, he traces the relationship between the French Catholic Church and the ever more radical revolutionaries in the period from the Estates General to the Reign of Terror. Seeing religion as an obstacle to the enlightenment of man, the revolutionaries aimed at its eradication in the long term and it's domestication in the short term. This, however, did not stop the new establishment using religiously-tinged vocabulary, motifs, art and public spectacles in an attempt to inculcate loyalty to the regime amongst the ordinary French populace. `What is Baptism?' enquired the imaginary interlocutor in a handbook aimed at fostering revolutionary enthusiasm in the young. `It is the regeneration of the French begun on 14 July 1789, and soon supported by the entire French nation,' came the reply. `What is Communion?' `It is the association proposed of all peoples by the French Republic henceforth to form on earth only one family of brothers who no longer recognize or worship any idol or tyrant' (p. 82). Robespierre's wish list of the moral principles that should inform the new Republic, with its unstated belief in the malleability of human nature, anticipates the `New Man' of Soviet propaganda: `In our country we want to substitute ethics for egotism, integrity for honour, principles for habits, duties for protocol, the empire of reason for the tyranny of changing taste...'(p. 91). Yet, when, in 1793 the Catholic inhabitants of the Vendée region, eschewing the revolution's secular religion of liberty, equality and fraternity, rose in rebellion against the increasingly heavy exactions of Paris, the revolutionary forces descended on the region to wage a virtual holy war on the heretics. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed by guillotine, cannon fire and mass drowning, in what Burleigh refers to as a `holocaust'. It was a `difficult' mission, in the words of one commander, one that demanded the ordinary soldier renounce `all the affections which nature and gentle habits have made dear to his heart' (p. 99). But somebody had to do it.
Burleigh's sympathy for organized religion is obvious. He sees it as a repository of wisdom that helped people to cope with the complexity of life. He adopts a fairly indulgent attitude towards the autocratic nature of the Church and its actions, while being quite censorious of those `liberals' (that great bogey!) who laboured for the separation of Church and State. The total laicization of elementary teaching in 1880s France, he writes, `signified the end of a venerable tradition based on the unity of religion, knowledge and moral instruction, with the attendant danger that `God', `nation', `society', `morality' and so forth would be taught as mutually exclusive entities with no sense in which they might be used to blunt one another's harder edges' (p. 346). Contrary to simple-minded rationalists who equate religion with superstition, Burleigh writes that `Christian monotheism...separated God from the world and hence encouraged man to make it intelligible' (p. 326). He also draws attention to the `palaeo-liberal religious origins of many essential limitations on secular power that the modern world has inherited from much earlier clashes of Church and state' (p. 326).
Other topics covered in the book include the secular religions of nationalism and socialism, the alliance of throne and alter in Restoration Europe, the attempts of religiously motivated people to soften the malign effects of industrial capitalism, deracinated intellectuals and purifying terrorism in late 19th century Russia, and the attitude of various religious towards the outbreak of war in 1914. Burleigh is amusing on the utopian fantasies of such intellectuals as Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte and Charles Fourier (seas of lemonade, anyone?), although the totalitarian tinges to their Positivist fantasies are quite frightening. The book does get a little tedious as Burleigh flits between Britain, France and Germany and back again, detailing the ebb and flow of Church-State relations in the mid- to late- 19th century. Nevertheless, it's a good book. As a personification of the totalitarian mindset Burleigh quotes Shigalov from Dostoyevsky's 'The Possessed': `I am perplexed by my own date and my conclusion is a direct contradiction of the original idea with which I start,' observes Shigalov. `Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that there can be no solution of the social problem but mine' (p. 295).