Religion and revolution: Robespierre’s cult of the Supreme Being

A response to
Harrison Fluss

Originally published by the
Communist League Tampa

In a recent article written for Jacobin, Harrison Fluss revisits the civic religion of the Supreme Being enshrined by Maximilien Robespierre 18 Floréal Year II of the Republic (7 May 1794). Tracing its conceptual origins back to the philosophical discourses of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, somewhat less plausibly, the metaphysical system of Baruch Spinoza, the author argues this bygone historical moment still has much to teach the present. He suggests that Spinoza, Rousseau, and Robespierre “provide a solution for the kind of relationship between church and state needed not only for an emancipatory movement, but for the emancipated society of the future.”

Several things are already implied by this statement. First, religious institutions — i.e., the church — will by no means be done away with in the future society Fluss envisions. No less scandalously, at least from a Marxist perspective, secular institutions — i.e., the state — will also continue to exist. Both conclusions flow from the assertion that a relationship between church and state will always be necessary, since both must still be around in order for them to relate. Even after the material conditions which necessitate spiritual and temporal power have been superseded, in other words, Fluss seems to believe they will persist in every time and in every clime. Religio perennis lurks behind all the superficial changes in mythology over the centuries, expressing an immutable desire. Likewise the need for a repressive apparatus, the administrative machinery of government, never fully fades.

Whether or not this is actually the case, others have often held quite the opposite view of humanity’s prospects moving forward through history. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for example, scolded their Hegelian colleague, Georg Daumer, for promoting a new pantheistic creed. “It is clear that with every great historical upheaval of social conditions the outlooks and ideas of men, and consequently their religious ideas, are revolutionized,” they wrote in their joint review of Daumer’s 1850 book Die Religion des Neuen Weltalters. “The difference between the present upheaval and all previous ones consists in the fact that man has at last figured out the secret of this process of historical upheaval and hence, instead of once again exalting this [process] in the rapturous form of a new religion, divests himself of all religion.” Decades later, Engels famously maintained that the proletariat, in the course of its transition to socialism, eventually “abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes the state as state.” After a certain point, the state simply dies off or withers away [stirbt ab].

For Marx and Engels, then, a society in which the state endures — much less the church — cannot be called emancipated.

религия-яд береги ребят

Perhaps this is too literal, though, reading too much into too little. Here is not the place for biblical exegesis, at any rate, searching for answers in “sacred” texts. Besides, by focusing on abstruse theoretical matters like the withering away [Absterben] of church and state, one avoids the eminently practical issue Fluss was trying to address. Over and above such heady speculations, then, the historical analogy he offers in his article may be scrutinized to see if it is apt. Can Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being truly serve as a model for resolving the antinomy of church and state today? Continue reading

Adam Smith, revolutionary

Spencer A. Leonard
Platypus Review 61

By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole.

— Theodor W. Adorno[1]

Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau or even Friedrich Nietzsche, Adam Smith is a thinker few on the contemporary Left will have much time for. This tells us more about the impoverishment of the currently prevailing intellectual environment than about the persistent, if ever more obscure, influence of bourgeois radicalism on the Left. Today, of course, it is fashionable to have “a critique of the enlightenment” or, alternatively, to defend it against an array of enemies, including postmodernism, religious conservatism, and academic obscurantism. Those currents of the contemporary Left that still seek to lay claim to the Enlightenment must fend off Smith, because, like Rousseau, his is an Enlightenment that cannot be upheld simply as an affirmation of “reason” or the demand for “human rights.” Smith’s Enlightenment demands to be advanced. His 1776 treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, is not a product of the Scottish Enlightenment but of the cosmopolitan radical Enlightenment, stretching from the coffeehouses of Rotterdam to the meeting rooms of Calcutta. If that cosmopolitan Enlightenment project remains “unfinished,” it is because the course of history since the publication of Smith’s magnum opus failed to fulfill and indeed undermined the radical potentials of the eighteenth century.

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers sang the British Revolutionary song “The World Turned Upside Down”

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers
sang the British Revolutionary song “World Turned Upside Down”

Smith’s powerful influence upon French revolutionaries such as the Abbé Sieyes and the Marquis de Condorcet, and through them upon Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Constant, and G.W.F. Hegel, are not as well known as they should be, but that need not detain us from coming to terms with the profound radicalism of his thought. Less well known still is the respect that Smith and his close friend, David Hume, held for Rousseau’s works. Hume, refusing to allow his famous public quarrel with Rousseau to cloud his judgment, contended in a letter to Smith that the Genevan’s writings were “efforts of genius.”[2] This was an estimate Hume doubtless knew would find favor with his friend, since as early as 1756 Smith had written an article that is perhaps the earliest discussion in English of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, singling that work out as the act whereby the Francophone world re-established its supremacy in philosophy for the first time since Descartes, displacing the preeminence of English political and social thought that had lasted for almost a century with the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Mandeville, Shaftesbury, and others.[3] Continue reading

Nietzsche’s untimeliness

Sunit Singh

The following article first appeared in the Platypus Review. It covers some of the same terrain that I explored around a year ago in my reflections on the recent “anti-Nietzschean turn” that has taken place on the Left. Sunit’s piece ranges a bit more widely than my own, and incorporates important insights from the early Marxist Franz Mehring and the later critical theorists of the Frankfurt School elucidating Nietzsche’s fraught relationship to his own time, bourgeois liberal democracy, and the rise of the socialist workers’ movement.

I’d also recommend Mazzino Montinari’s excellent overview, Reading Nietzsche. Montinari was an Italian Marxist dissident who left the PCI during the early 1970s, and helped edit the collected works of Nietzsche in German.


Eros and Civilization: the title expressed an optimistic, euphemistic, even positive thought, namely, that the achievements of advanced industrial society would enable man to reverse the direction of progress, to break the fatal union of productivity and destruction, liberty and repression — in other words to learn [Nietzsche’s] gay science.

— Herbert Marcuse

In [ancient] philosophy the duties of human life were treated as subservient to the happiness and perfection of human life. But when moral, as well as natural philosophy, came to be taught only as subservient to theology, the duties of human life were treated of as chiefly subservient to the happiness of a life to come…[But even] in [what came to be called] the modern philosophy [perfecting virtue] was frequently represented as generally, or rather as almost always inconsistent with any degree of happiness in this life; and heaven was to be earned only by penance and mortification, by austerities and abasement of a monk; not by the liberal, generous, and spirited conduct of man.

— Adam Smith

Nietzsche believed that gaining even a modicum of reason and freedom had to be a hard won, blood-soaked, and world-historical affair, but was nevertheless inclined to be as uncharitable in the extreme toward Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “the seducer” behind the idealist and rabble in the French Revolution, as toward the socialists who claimed to be the inheritors of the Jacobin tradition. He identified Of the Social Contract — a meditation on the conditions of possibility for the radical self-determination of modern civilization — as putting forward the first image of modern man to inspire mortals to a “transfiguration” of their own circumstances. However, modern man turned out to be a creature afflicted with a fevered historical self-consciousness that periodically flared up in revolutions, “like Typhon under Etna.”[1] It was a symptom of this curious sickness, Nietzsche held, that had led the philosophizing son of a watchmaker to characterize man as a creature full of pity or empathy and as capable of perfectibility, while positing an unwarranted faith in nature as an idyll of freedom. Nietzsche saw modern civilization as a chimera, characterized by what Kant had referred to as “glittering misery” and by the creation invidious interdependencies, but had reached the opposite conclusion as the “Citizen of Geneva.” For Nietzsche, plunging further into the civilization that the latter abhorred “is precisely that which speaks in favor of civilization.”[2] For moderns, who were proving themselves unable to squarely take on the task of Enlightenment, it was as “reasonable” to consider a return to nature as it was for them to revive Greek tragedy; we moderns had no chance of ever going back to the state of nature — the state of nature was itself a myth that the dialectic of Enlightenment had necessitated.

Photograph of Nietzsche, Paul Rée, and Lou Salome, circa 1882.

Photograph of Nietzsche, Paul Rée,
and Lou Salome, circa 1882.

Despite identifying “the labor question” as an intractable issue of the industrial age, Nietzsche never offered a clear resolution to the “the physiological self-contradiction” that defines capitalism. One can admit as much without either attempting to shape Nietzsche on a Marxist lathe — the accusation once leveled at Adorno — or giving in to the idea that Nietzsche was an elitist, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal conservative.[3] The efforts to “let workers be themselves” had failed, Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, as a result of “the most irresponsible negligence.” Nietzsche was apportioning fault for this “negligence” directly on the socialists, who were confounded as to why, in spite of the fact that workers had made enormous strides toward sociopolitical equality since the industrial revolution, and justifiably wanted more and felt “their existence to be desperate… an injustice,” their demands for “a social democracy” could not be met by the vote and contractual rights. Europe had to answer the workers, while the workers tried to articulate their own demands and to answer, “What do they will?”[4] But the socialists — those “superficial, envious, and three-quarter actors” infected with “nihilism” — had turned freedom into an ethic and so crab-walked backward into “a will to negate life.”[5] Further, their values were little more than refashioned Christian ideals rather than peculiarly modern aspirations; their certitude that a socialist revolution was inevitable was motivated by the same animalistic instincts that had led Christians to see the Last Judgment as “the sweet consolation of revenge.”[6] Such vituperations also masked the actual task of emancipation and left the socialists with the muddle-headed belief that, “[as] time marches forward…Everything that is in it also marches forward — that the development is one that moves forward.” Although, even “the most level-headed are led astray by this illusion,” Nietzsche claimed, “the nineteenth century does not represent progress per the sixteenth…’Mankind’ does not advance, it does not even exist…Man represents no progress over the animal: the civilized tenderfoot is an abortion.”[7] Despite the touted “progress” of the nineteenth over the eighteenth century, the socialists had overlooked or were unable to recover what earlier revolutionaries, inspired by the notion of the infallible sovereignty of the General Will, had understood — that rather than “dance in our ‘chains’” we had to break them.[8]

The case of anti-Nietzsche

The aristocratic antipathy in which Nietzsche held the Left is presumably one reason behind the leftist “anti-Nietzsche” stance. Others chafe at the fact that Nietzsche was a staunch individualist who clubbed the Marxist social-democrats together with the anarchists as well as with the Christian socialists; Nietzsche was satisfied to say that anarchism held “the same ideal [as socialism], but in a more brutal fashion,” while the dogmatic social-democrat who hypostatized class relations was in as bad faith as the Protestant minister who reconciled men to their wretched fate.[9] Malcolm Bull is the latest leftist to argue for an anti-Nietzsche stance. But with the critical difference that Bull’s criticism of Nietzsche is rooted in a conservatism that obfuscates the established tradition of left criticism of Nietzsche, which dates back to the revisionist debate. Bull compares Nietzsche to Durkheim, as both were diagnosticians who theorized that the incompleteness of our transition to modernity had manifested itself pathologically in what Nietzsche referred to as “decadence” or “nihilism,” and in what Durkheim called “anomie.” Continue reading