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Thursday, April 18, 2013

The roots of messianic communism

Anabaptist communism did not spring out of thin air at the advent of the Reformation. Its roots can be traced back to an extraordinarily influential late twelfth century Italian mystic, Joachim of Fiore (1145–1202). Joachim was an abbot and hermit in Calabria, in southern Italy. It was Joachim who launched the idea that hidden in the Bible for those who had the wit to see were prophecies foretelling world history. Concentrating on the murky Book of Revelation, Joachim decreed that history was destined to move through three successive ages, each of them ruled by one of the members of the Holy Trinity. The first age, the age of the Old Testament, was the era of the Father or the Law, the age of fear and servitude; the second age, the era of the Son, was the age of the New Testament, the era of faith and submission. Mystics generally think in threes; and Joachim was moved to herald the coming of the third and final age, the age of the Holy Spirit, the era of perfect joy, love and freedom, and the end of human history. It would be the age of the end of property, because everyone would live in voluntary poverty; and everyone could easily do so, because there would be no work, since people would be totally liberated from their physical bodies. Possessing only spiritual bodies, there would be no need to eat food or do much else either. The world would be, in the paraphrase of Norman Cohn, ‘one vast monastery, in which all men would be contemplative monks rapt continuously in mystical ecstasy until the day of the Last Judgment’. Joachim's vision already resonates with the later Marxian dialectic of the three allegedly inevitable stages of history: primitive communism, class society, and then finally the realm of perfect freedom, total communism and the withering away of the division of labour, and the end of human history.
As with so many chiliasts, Joachim was sure of the date of the advent of the final age and, typically, it was coming soon – in his view, sometime in the first half of the next, the thirteenth century.
The Joachite bizarreries quickly exerted enormous influence, particularly in Italy, in Germany, and in the rigourist wing of the new Franciscan Order.
A new ingredient to this witches’ brew was added a little later by a learned professor of theology at the great University of Paris at the end of the twelfth century. Once a great favourite of the French royal court, Amalric's odd doctrines were condemned by the pope and, after a forced public recantation, Amalric died shortly thereafter, in 1206 or 1207. His doctrines were then picked up by a small, secret group of erudite clerical disciples, the Amaurians, most of whom had been students in theology at Paris. Centred at the important commercial cloth-making town of Troyes, in Champagne, the Amaurian missionaries influenced many people and distributed popular works of theology in the vernacular. Their leader was the priest William Aurifex, who was either a goldsmith or an alchemist attempting to transform base metals into gold. Subjected to espionage by the bishop of Paris, the 14 Amaurians were all rounded up and either imprisoned for life or burnt at the stake, depending on whether they recanted their heresies. Most of them refused to recant.
The Amaurians, like Joachim, propounded the three ages of human history, but they added some spice to it; each age apparently enjoyed its own incarnation. For the Old Testament, it was Abraham and perhaps some other patriarchs; for the New Testament, the incarnation was of course Jesus; and now, for the dawning age of the Holy Spirit, the incarnation would now emerge in human beings themselves. As might be expected, the Amaurians considered themselves the new incarnation; in other words, they proclaimed themselves as living gods, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit. Not that they would always remain a divine elite among men; on the contrary, they were destined to lead mankind to its universal incarnation.
The congeries of groups throughout northern Europe in the fourteenth century known as the Brethren of the Free Spirit added another important ingredient to the stew; the dialectic of ‘reabsorption into God’ derived from the third century Platonist philosopher, Plotinus. Plotinus had had his own three stages: the original unity with God, the human-history stage of degradation and separation or alienation from God, and the final ‘return’ or ‘reabsorption’ as all human beings are submerged into the One and history is finished. The Brethren of the Free Spirit added a new elitist twist: while the reabsorption of every man must await the end of history, and the ‘crude in spirit’ must meanwhile meet their individual deaths, there was a glorious minority, the ‘subtle in spirit’, who could and did become reabsorbed and therefore living gods during their lifetime. This minority, of course, were the Brethren themselves who, by virtue of years of training, self-torture and visions had become perfect gods, more perfect and more godlike than even Christ himself. Once this stage of mystical union was reached, furthermore, it was permanent and eternal. These new gods often proclaimed themselves greater than God himself. Thus a group of female Free Spirits at Schweidnitz claimed to be able to dominate the Holy Trinity such that they could ‘ride it as in a saddle’; and one of these women declared that ‘when God created all things I created all things with him... I am more than God’. Man himself, therefore, or at least a gifted minority of men, could lift themselves up to divine status by their own efforts far earlier than their fellows.
Being living gods on earth brought many good things in its wake. In the first place, it led directly to an extreme form of the antinomian heresy: if people are gods, then it is impossible for them to sin. Whatever they do is necessarily moral and perfect. That means that any act ordinarily considered as sin, from adultery to murder, becomes perfectly legitimate when performed by the living gods. Indeed, the Free Spirits, like other antinomians, were tempted to demonstrate and flaunt their freedom from sin by performing all manner of sins imaginable.
But there was also a catch. Among the Free Spirit cultists, only a minority of leading adepts were ‘living gods’; for the rank-and-file cultists, striving to become gods, there was one sin alone which they must not commit: disobedience to their master. Each disciple was bound by an oath of absolute obedience to a particular living god. Take for example Nicholas of Basle, a leading Free Spirit guru whose cult stretched most of the length of the Rhine. Claiming to be the new Christ, Nicholas held that everyone's sole path to salvation is making an act of absolute and total submission to Nicholas himself. In return for this total fealty, Nicholas granted his followers freedom from all sin.
As for the rest of mankind outside the cults, they were simply unredeemed and unregenerate beings who existed only to be used and exploited by the elect. This attitude of total rule went hand in hand with the social doctrine many Free Spirit cults adopted in the fourteenth century: a communistic assault on the institution of private property. In essence, however, that philosophic communism was a thinly camouflaged cover for their – the Free Spirits’ – self-proclaimed right to commit theft at will. The Free Spirit adept, in short, regarded all property of the non-elect as rightfully his own. As the bishop of Strasbourg summed it up in 1317: ‘They believe that all things are common, whence they conclude that theft is lawful for them’. Or as the Free Spirit adept from Erfurt, Johann Hartmann, put it: ‘The truly free man is king and lord of all creatures. All things belong to him, and he has the right to use whatever pleases him. If anyone tries to prevent him, the free man may kill him and take his goods’. As one of the favourite sayings of the Brethren of the Free Spirit put it: ‘Whatever the eye sees and covets, let the hand grasp it’.
The final ingredient for the revolutionary communist Müntzer–Münster stew came with the extreme Taborites of the early fifteenth century. All Taborites constituted the radical wing of the Hussite movement, a pre-Protestant revolutionary movement that blended struggles of religion (anti-Catholic), nationality (Czech vs upper-class and upper-clergy German), and class (artisans cartellized in guilds trying to take political power from the patricians).
The new ingredient added by the extreme wing of the Taborites was the duty to exterminate. For the Last Days are coming, and the elect must go out and stamp out sin by exterminating all sinners, which means – at the very least – all non-Taborites. For all sinners are enemies of Christ, and ‘accursed be the man who withholds his sword from shedding the blood of the enemies of Christ. Every believer must wash his hands in that blood’. Having that mind-set, the extreme Taborites were not going to stop at intellectual destruction. When sacking churches and monasteries, the Taborites took particular delight in destroying libraries and burning books. For ‘all belongings must be taken away from God's enemies and burned or otherwise destroyed’. Besides, the elect have no need for books. When the Kingdom of God on earth arrived, there would no longer be ‘need for anyone to teach another. There would be no need for books or scriptures, and all worldly wisdom will perish’. And all people too, one suspects.
Moreover, elaborating anew the theme of a ‘return’ to a lost golden age, the ultra-Taborites proposed to return to the allegedly early Czech condition of communism: a society with no private property. In order to achieve this classless society, the cities in particular, those centres of luxury and avarice, and especially the merchants and the landlords, must be exterminated. After the elect have established their communist Kingdom of God in Bohemia by revolutionary violence, their task would be to forge and impose such communism on the rest of the world.
In addition to material property, the bodies of the faithful would have to be communized as well. The Taborite ultras were nothing if not logical. Their preachers taught: ‘Everything will be common, including wives; there will be free sons and daughters of God and there will be no marriage as union of two – husband and wife’.
The Hussite revolution broke out in 1419, and in that same year, the Taborites gathered in the town of Usti, in northern Bohemia near the German border. They renamed Usti, Tabor, i.e. the Mount of Olives where Jesus had foretold his Second Coming, had ascended to heaven, and where he was expected to reappear. The Taborites engaged in a communist experiment at Tabor, owning everything in common, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘whoever owns private property commits a mortal sin’. True to their doctrines, all women were owned in common, while if husband and wife were ever seen together, they were beaten to death or otherwise executed. Unfortunately but characteristically, the Taborites were so caught up in their unlimited right to consume from the common store that they felt themselves exempt from the need to work. The common store soon disappeared, and then what? Then, of course, the radical Taborites claimed that their need entitled them to claim the property of the non-elect, and they proceeded to rob others at will. As a synod of the moderate Taborites complained, ‘many communities never think of earning their own living by the work of their hands but are only willing to live on other people's property and to undertake unjust campaigns for the sole purpose of robbing’. And the Taborite peasantry who did not join the communes found the radical regime reimposing feudal dues and bonds only six months after they had abolished them.
Discredited among themselves, their more moderate allies, and their own peasantry, the communist regime of the radicals at Usti/Tabor soon collapsed. The torch of frenetic mystical communism was soon picked up, however, by a sect known as Bohemian Adamites. Like the Free Spirits of the previous century, the Adamites held themselves to be living gods, superior to Christ, since Christ had died whereas they still lived. (Impeccable logic, if a bit short-sighted.) Yet, in a curious contradiction, the founder of the Adamites, the former priest Peter Kanisch, had already been captured and burnt by the Hussite military commander, John Zizka. The Adamites dubbed the dead Kanisch Jesus, and then selected as their leader a peasant whom they called Adam–Moses.
For the Adamites, not only were all goods strictly owned in common, but marriage was considered a heinous sin. In short, promiscuity was compulsory, since the chaste were unworthy to enter the messianic kingdom. Any man could choose any woman at will, and that will would have to be obeyed. The Adamites also went around naked most of the time, imitating the original state of Adam and Eve. On the other hand, promiscuity was at one and the same time compulsory and restricted, because sex could only take place with the permission of the leader Adam–Moses.
Like the other radical Taborites, the Adamites regarded it as their sacred mission to exterminate all the unbelievers in the world, wielding the sword until blood floods the world to the height of a horse's bridle. They were God's scythe, sent to cut down and eradicate the unrighteous.
The Adamites took refuge from the Zizka forces on an island in the River Nezarka, from which they went forth in commando raids to try their best, despite their small number, to fulfil their twin pledge of compulsory communism and extermination of the non-elect. At night, they sallied forth in raids, which they called a ‘holy war’, to steal everything they could lay their hands on and then to exterminate their victims. True to their creed, they murdered every man, woman and child they could discover.

Finally, Zizka sent a force of 400 trained soldiers who besieged the Adamites’ island, and finally, in October 1421, overwhelmed the commune and massacred every single person. One more hellish kingdom of God on earth had been put to the sword.
The Taborite army was crushed by the moderate Hussites at the Battle of Lipan, in 1434, and from then on, Taborism declined and went underground. But it continued to emerge here and there, not only among the Czechs, but in Bavaria and other German lands bordering Bohemia. The stage was set for the Müntzer–Münster phenomenon of the following century.

Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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