Ben Jones. Apocalypse without God: Apocalyptic Thought, Ideal Politics, and the Limits of Utopian Hope. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022.
In his famous work, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), Norman Cohn declared, “revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still.” Cohn’s assertion followed the preceding decade of scholarship on the so-called secular apocalypse found in Karl Löwith and Eric Voegelin. The contention of this thesis is simple enough: totalitarian utopianism, be it fascist or Marxist-communist, has an apocalyptic and eschatological basis to it—even without God. More recently Leszek Kołakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism sought to revive and present anew (with additional updates) the mystic appeal and origin of Marxism. Ben Jones, in his new book Apocalypse without God, follows in these footsteps.
The argument about secular apocalypse is not without controversy, though it shouldn’t be as neglected as it sometimes is. Though I was exposed to Cohn and Löwith as an undergraduate in philosophy and history, the notion of a secularized eschatology informing fascism, Marxism, and other twentieth century utopian and revolutionary movements seems to be the domain of a niche educated elite. Social media utopians, especially of the TikTok and Twitter species, seem oblivious to this fact and will often ramble incomprehensibly how their ideology is the paragon of reason and science, revealing their embarrassing lack of reading education concerning the well-established and respected contention that scientific progressivism and rationalism are themselves secularized manifestations of Christian and Jewish theologies.
In addressing the apocalyptic from secular and utopian perspectives, Jones necessarily provides definitional pillars to keep the conversation on track. Apocalyptic simply means catastrophic. Prophet, someone and something that is indissoluble to the apocalyptic tradition, is “someone who receives a message from ‘God’ and then communicates it a particular people of group.” Utopia entails “the best and most just society.” Secular utopianism seeks to achieve “the best and most just society” through purely “human forces” which leads to a mentality of “earthly over heavenly ends.” Returning to the prophet, then, the secular apocalyptic prophet is a person who has a vision of a better and more just society emerging from human hands after a catastrophe.
With this basis, it is easy to see how Marx and Engels fit the bill, as virtually every serious scholar of Marxism already knows even if some reject the connection. Jones’s treatment of Engels, especially his adoration of Thomas Müntzer, doesn’t really break no ground though it highlights the reimagination of eschatological idealism in a secular Marxist form, wherein Engels “find[s] value in Christian apocalyptic thought – specifically, in its power to inspire challenges to those in power.”
What makes the apocalyptic appealing? It is one thing for religious individuals to have an appetite for the apocalyptic (even if, in Christianity, the apocalyptic has been downplayed and tempered since the time of Saint Augustine). It seems altogether baffling for the indoctrinated children of the so-called Enlightenment to have a hunger for what they claim they have moved beyond. This demands a question concerning the metaphysical impulse in human nature, but that is neither here nor there (or addressed by Jones).
Part of the appeal of the apocalyptic in politics is easy enough to understand: the imperfection of the world or current age leads to discontentment. With or without God, the desire for justice and transcendence is still with us. It is the belief in “present corruption” and an “impending crisis” that the secular apocalypse finds its strength in. Through the impending crisis which will purge present corruption, the ideal of a “heavenly kingdom” will be made manifest—on earth, rather than the afterlife.
While realists and skeptics may scoff at this mentality, the greater plausibility of offering a perfect politics through a looming crisis and new creation out of the crisis is what fuels the appeal of the apocalyptic according to Jones. When faced with a torrential scrutiny of facts, data, or the evidence of human history to counter utopian fantasies, the apocalyptic utopian can brush off these criticisms by speaking of the greatest catastrophe yet seen which will permit the complete restructuring and reorganization of society to their ideal vision. The apocalypse is the barrier to prevent de-conversion or lapsing from the utopian dream. The apocalypse is the escape from having to join the other side, the one thing the utopian can always fall back on for their security and confirmation bias. As Jones writes, “Cataclysmic apocalyptic thought provides an explanation for how its utopian ideal could be feasible.”
Although a work concerning itself with the wealth of scholarship on the secular apocalyptic political tradition, Jones’s work is perhaps most illuminating and insightful for Machiavellian studies. It also shines in revealing how Machiavelli and Hobbes, along with their disciples, make use of apocalyptic fervor and hope to advance their own agendas. This is true of Engels as well but, as mentioned, that doesn’t really tread new ground. What Jones does best is remind us of the similarities between secular utopian schemes and their eschatological parallels, even atheistic political theorists readily embrace theological fervor to advance their earthly political causes. Let us turn, more specifically, to Machiavelli—a man to whom I acknowledge a deep debt on various matters.
Jones contends that Machiavelli falls within a certain spirit of the apocalyptic utopian tradition, notwithstanding his conflict with Florentine rabble-rousing preacher Girolamo Savonarola, because Machiavelli’s hope for a perfect and perpetual republic would be ushered in through the conflict of apocalyptic clash. In this conflagration, corruption and imperfection would be destroyed and the ideal republic and its virtues and values manifested. This is consonant with Machiavelli’s reading of Livy.
In the Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli goes to great lengths showing that the best aspects of the Roman republic were the product of class conflict and the republic’s wars with its enemies. These crises, these cataclysms, produced a more perfect republic and republican values that made Rome powerful. There is, rather explicitly in Machiavelli, a dialectic of conflict leading to a more ideal condition and state within the pages of Machiavelli’s Discourses.
Jones’s reevaluation of Machiavelli’s relationship with Savonarola does a commendable job in highlighting the debt of Machiavelli’s influence to Savonarola as a great man of political importance despite his ultimate failure. Far from holding Savonarola in contempt and scorn, as is the common reading of Machiavelli, Jones highlights how Machiavelli actually held Savonarola if high regard, even if “Machiavelli’s praise of Savonarola often comes with caveats.”
To the extent that Machiavelli is an apocalyptic utopian, however, remains harder to assess—something that Jones also admits. It seems far more likely that Machiavelli shared with Savonarola various political goals and aims and saw the Florentine rebel-rousing preacher as a means to further his own political agenda. Machiavelli wanted Florence to become the warm center of a new Italian republicanism, something that Savonarola was also preaching in his eschatological ecstasy, “Savonarola details the earthly greatness that God has in store for Florence. In his vision for republican rule and a renewed spiritual life, Florence has the opportunity to greatly expand its earthly power.” The Machiavellian allure to the apocalyptic is pure realpolitik more than it is a direct secularized descendent of eschatological-utopian thinking.
Nevertheless, this utilization of apocalyptic political opportunity for secular ends is part of the enduring allure of the apocalyptic even to nominally secular and humanist thinkers like Machiavelli and his heirs. Co-opting what can be politically useful for earthly ends sans the heavenly faith, is an element of why apocalyptic thought must be studied in its secularized iterations. Machiavelli doesn’t so much temper the apocalyptic hope as much as he co-opts for earthly ends precisely because the apocalyptic has mass appeal.
Hobbes and Engels follow Machiavelli, with Jones reassessing how these thinkers can also be read as part of the apocalyptic utopian tradition. Hobbes takes apocalyptic concepts of perfect justice and authority, obedience and unity, and applies them to the mortal god of the Leviathan. Engels and the broader Marxist tradition reimagine the heavenly kingdom emerging through cataclysmic struggle in solely materialist terms though the Marxist doctrines retain similarities with apocalyptic imminence and, alongside Müntzer, has an analogous outlook in which “society [i]s plagued by deep and entrenched corruption” that will be purged through a cataclysmic crisis (the proletariat revolution).
While one can concede the strong connection between the apocalyptic and secular utopianism, it seems to me that there is a big part of the puzzle missing that this book doesn’t explore and only vaguely dances around when discussing Engels and the contemporary “ideal theory” proponents of utopian futurism. The emergence of secular utopian thought may very well have carried certain theological and eschatological inheritances into its own often monstrous end-times vision, but the modern utopian eschatological hopes, even in “ideal theory,” are driven by technological expectations. This seems especially true of Marxism and contemporary “End of History” liberalism and progressivism in the twenty-first century.
The rationalist appeal to technical possibility holds far more sway to a post-Industrial society than the eschatological imagination of apocalyptic theology which appealed to agrarian societies of a deeply religious mindset. The power to remake nature, improve our earthly lives, and offer such high degrees of material comfort and security heretofore not possible has already conditioned human consciousness to accept pragmatic utopianism as imminently feasible; it is not, then, far-fetched to make the leap to idealistic utopianism as we have seen—despite bloody and horrendous results—in the past century and continuing onward today by strongly asserting the technically possible by pointing to science, medicine, and technology as evidence for the “what can be achieved.” The language of contemporary utopians is marked by a technical materialism that does seem wholly foreign of the eschatological imagination whatever comparative similarities are found. Insofar that this affirms the secular apocalypse thesis, it is only tentatively so due to axiomatic definitions that necessarily ensure the plausibility of the secular apocalyptic thesis.
If one accepts the grounding of human nature and the soul as having transcendent proclivities, as I do, then it necessarily follows that the transcendental yearning of the soul will find its manifestation in various ways. I find this to be the plausible bridge to explain the overlap between the secular apocalypse with its utopian fervor and the eschatological apocalypse and its utopian fervor: both are manifestations of transcendental desires innate to human nature. But the “Apocalypse without God” isn’t so much because it has secularized a previously theological inheritance as much as the advancements of science, technology, and global economics has made God irrelevant to many, yet if that transcendental flame remains it is even more frightening that people do move toward secular utopian transcendence because they have also lost the ancient wisdom of human imperfection and waiting on God with the pursuit of perfection on earth which has caused greater mass casualties and genocides than all previous fanatical religious uprisings have (much to the embarrassment of rationalist and scientific moderns). Science and technology have a more palatable hope for transformation because we see it daily in our lives but this becomes a very dangerous precipice to run on.
Apocalypse without God stands in a long line of scholarly works that attempt to see the theological, eschatological, and millenarian hope in secular and generally atheistic doctrines of philosophy and politics. There is much truth in these scholarly assessments, one that I generally share in the soft sense, and Jones’s book certainly sits alongside Meaning in History and The Pursuit of the Millennium as exemplary works in this scholarly field. But I am also a soft critic of this line of thinking too; for, as mentioned, there also seems to be significant differences between pre- and post-modern (i.e. modernity) utopianisms and to the extent that economistic and scientific eschatological fantasies are pale versions of theological apocalypticism seems far more tenuous than sometimes let on. The economism of modernist utopianism is clearly a derivation of the economistic mentality of the Enlightenment in its functional materialism given greater credence over the centuries of techno-scientific advancement and not so much a smuggling and diluting of theologies of eschatological apocalypse.
Still, I find two significantly noteworthy contributions coming from this book. First, the spirited reevaluation of the relationship between Machiavelli and Savonarola deserves more attention and the chapter dealing with this relationship will hopefully merit a renewed discussion in Machiavellian studies. Second, Jones’s attempt to articulate the problems of “ideal theory” and the harm that it can cause is also something we must take to heart. “Idealism” has unarguably killed far more than ancient prejudices and realist politics of national interest than idealistic utopians like to acknowledge. We should remain weary, as Jones is and rightly exhorts us to be, of those who claim an ideal politics is just on the horizon especially when articulating so with apocalyptic rhetoric and imagery. The graves of the twentieth century bear the horror of ideal theory gone too far.
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