Bahai News - Millennial Dreams #3
the spirit of things
with Rachael Kohn
on Sunday 16/01/00
Millennial Dreams #3
You don't have to be Christian, or even religious, to generate a
full-blown apocalyptic movement that looks forward to a heaven-on-earth
existence. Both Islam and the secular faith of Socialism can claim
A full web transcript is now available.
Details or Transcript:
According to Abbas Amanat of Yale University, Islam is the
quintessential apocalyptic tradition. David Cook, of the
University of Chicago, counts upwards of 5000 messiahs, or mahdis, in
The messiah is a Jewish concept, but the emergence of Christianity with
its insistence on Jesus as the one true messiah, made messianic movements
somewhat unpopular among Jews. But there were exceptions, as Moshe
Idel of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem points out.
And with the advent of science and socialism, millennial hopes turned to
the secular realm. David Nash of Oxford Brookes University explains
Readings include excerpts from the Koran, Surahs 18 & 25, and
from William Lane's 1892 novel, The Workingman's Paradise.
They are read by Arthur Dignam.
The box set of the series is available on four audio cassettes for
$80(individual programs are $25). Contact ABC Radio Tape Sales in your
A full transcript of the program follows
Hello, and welcome to Alternative Apocalypses, Part III of
Millennial Dreams on The Spirit of Things. I'm Rachael Kohn.
You don't have to be Christian or even religious to generate a full-blown
apocalyptic movement that looks forward to a heaven on earth existence.
The quintessential apocalyptic tradition, according to Abbas
Amanat of Yale University, is Islam. Not only did it inherit it from
the Bible, but also from the more ancient Zoroastrianism. In fact, when
it comes to messiahs, or mahdis, David Cook of the University of
Chicago, counts upwards of 5,000 of them in Muslim history.
Now the Messiah is a Jewish concept, but the emergence of Christianity,
with its insistence on Jesus as the one true Messiah, would make
messianic movements somewhat unpopular among Jews. But there were
exceptions. Moshe Idel of Hebrew University looks at some of the
more popular ones.
With the advent of science and technology, the world looked like it was
on the brink of social perfection, without the need of religion. David
Nash of Oxford Brookes University looks at secular millennial dreams
later in the program.
On that Day We will have Gog and Magog trampling in waves upon each
other. The trumpet will be sounded, and We will gather them in one
throng. And on that Day We will set Jahannam in place in full view for
the unbelievers - those whose eyes were veiled from any remembrance of
my Lord and who were incapable of hearing. Do those who do not believe
reckon that they can take servants of Mine as protectors - Me apart?
Jahannam have we made ready for the reception of the unbelievers.
Surah 18: 102
Rachael Kohn: Now you might have thought that was from the
Book of Revelation or perhaps Daniel, but that was just
one of the many apocalyptic visions in the Koran, that one from Surah
Muhammad, who was born in the year 570, came into contact with the Bible
in the busy town of Mecca, where Jews and Christians passed through en
route to the East. But apocalyptic notions of renewal and salvation
would depend on the messianic figure, called the Mahdi.
Abbas Amanat is Professor of History and Chair of the Council on Middle
East Studies at Yale University, where he holds a weekly Millennial
Abbas Amanat: As a matter of
fact one should consider Islam perhaps as the quintessential tradition,
religious tradition in terms of millennialism and of course its other
components, that is messianism or apocalypticism, mainly because it
inherited not only part of the Judo-Christian tradition but also the
Zoroastrian, ancient religion of Persia which also is extremely fertile
with apocalyptic notions and messianic notions. Some people would
actually suggest that that was the original ground for the development
of these ideas. And Islam incorporated and absorbed many of these
elements into it in its classical period, in its formative age. And
particularly in Shi'i Islam we would see a greater abundance of such
ideas as opposed to Sunni mainstream religion.
Kohn: But Muhammad for example, is always called a prophet. Is he
ever regarded as a messianic figure, as a Messiah?
Amanat: Very interesting question. As a matter of fact, if you look
back at the origins of Islam at least as far as the Scripture of Islam,
the Koran would tell us, some of the early verses of the Koran, those
that were revealed to the prophet and Mecca, known as the Meccan or
early Meccan Surahs are permeated with apocalyptic notions. The end of
time, the earthquake, the concepts that the heavens would fall, and
notions that are very familiar of course to Judeo-Christian students of
apocalyptism. Muhammad himself never considered his mission at least
explicitly, as being one of messianic, though ever element of it did
exist there. He considered himself as a matter of fact, as the seal of
the prophets, which later on came to mean that it's the end of the
prophecy altogether and there would be no other prophets after him.
That's at least the orthodox view, and that indeed became one of the
major obstacles or stumbling blocks for the emergence of a Messiah in
In Shi'i Islam that remained a doctrinal obstacle; in
Sunni Islam therefore, we would have a Mahdi, which is the term for the
Messiah, or the guided one, to be very precise, which tend to become
more of a figure that comes at a certain regularity usually, at the end
of the century, as a kind of centennial figure, that comes to renovate
and reaffirm the orthodox religion. That's the Sunni view of the
Rachael Kohn: Well the idea of a centennial figure
for example reoccurring, is almost a cyclical notion. Are we talking
about a cyclical view of time versus a linear view?
Amanat: Wonderful. I think so. Cyclical ideas, cyclical notions of
time were known to the Muslims ever since the very inception of Islam,
most of it coming through presumably the Zoroastrian influence which was
deeply immersed into this notion of the cycles of time, cosmological
cycles, might have had some Greek origins as well. Whatever it was,
within the body of Shi'i Islam these ideas received tremendous
attention, particularly in what is
Rachael Kohn: Well in the Christian world, and
occasionally in the Jewish world, apocalyptic hopes have resulted in
disaster or attempts at revolution, a kind of forcing of the end, a
radical cataclysm. Have there been those sorts of movements associated
with Shi'ism, particularly in connection with an apocalyptic
Abbas Amanat: Again, a very interesting question.
One should bear it in mind that that very concrete notion of apocalyptic
as being the end of the time, and the annihilation of the material world
as it appears in the Biblical, or at least interpretations of the
Biblical apocalypse, does not occur in Islam with the same force or with
the same concreteness. Indeed there is no concrete body of literature
known as apocalyptic in Islam, but it's all kinds of traditions,
sayings, attributed to the prophet.
Rachael Kohn: The
Abbas Amanat: The hadith, yes. Some of the hadith
is considered as apocalyptic. And verses from the Koran or some other
literature that generally were considered as apocalyptic. This material,
although it speaks about the end of the time and also speaks about this
final battle between the good and the evil, and ultimately the triumph
of the evil, the day after judgement and the coming of the paradise, and
the assignment of the good to the heavens and the evildoers to hell, all
of that does exist and indeed Islam, even in the Koran provides some
passages that gives that image. But it never really provided that kind
of a scenario for annihilation of the material world. What appeared
mostly is that the cyclical notion, that resurrection which is indeed
the moment of the apocalypse, comes about as the end of one cycle, and
indeed it initiates the world, it renovates the world. Perhaps the best
example of that one might say, is the Babi movement, the origins of what
later on came to be Baha'i religion.
Initially as a messianic
millennial movement, that interprets as a matter of fact this
apocalyptic tradition in Islam, that there will be a prophetic figure
that re-initiates a new revelation, and therefore the theory of
progressive revelation becomes a very important part of Babi and then
later on, Baha'i doctrine, that religions would move forward with the
movement of time, with the passage of time.
Kohn: In contrast to the evolution of the faith in Baha'i, a
sectarian offshoot of Islam, some contemporary Islamic movements have
their eyes trained sharply on the past to re-create the
Abbas Amanat: The movements that have been
referred to as 'fundamentalist' or this resurgence of Islam, tends to
ignore at least consciously, the time of the apocalypse, notions of
resurrection at the end basically pushed to the background. For a very
basic reason, that what matters now is this world and the making of
Islam in this world for us, and the great reward for the future comes if
we would be able to make our Islamic life or religious life in this
world, put it into order.
Rachael Kohn: Are they linked
Abbas Amanat: Yes, a very good example of that of
course are the Muslim
Brothersand their offshoots in all other
countries of the Arab world and non-Arab world, and in the writings of
Hasan al-Banna the founder in the 1920s. You would see this
disengagement from the other world, hereafter, in order to establish a
apocalyptic if you like community in this world. The term that he uses
for that regard is one of denunciation, meaning the denunciation of this
And departure, or immigration, the Hijrah, the term which in
Islam has a particular connotation. And in a sense departure from the
world of ignorance, as they would call it, the Age of Ignorance, which
is usually referred to as the pre-Islamic period, before the time of the
prophet. So in a sense, they are going back to that old image, as I
pointed out, this Hijrah in order to be able to create this. This is a
very powerful image.
If you look at the example of the offshoot
of the Muslim Brothers who were
responsible for the assassination of
President Sadat in 1981, the term that they used in order to define
their own offshoot movement, was also exactly the same term,
denunciation and departure.
So one can see that this notion is
so much embedded into the very idea of fundamentalism.
Kohn: Professor Amanat's view that Islam is the quintessential
millennial tradition finds support in the research of David Cook, of the
University of Chicago. Predicting and imagining the apocalyptic end time
scenario would preoccupy many ardent Muslims, and would also reflect
Islam's incorporation of some Christian beliefs.
Cook: There was an attempt to, numerous attempts I should say, to
constantly predict the end, to try and find out the signs that were
attached to the appearance of either Jesus or the Messiah, and there
were also attempts to give exact dates to these
Rachael Kohn: Were those activities prohibited or
welcomed by the religious leaders of the time?
It depends on whether you're talking about before the events or after
them. According to the Koranic text, calculations of this nature are
forbidden. In several different verses, as a matter of fact. However it
is a fact that all the calculations that we have, the Muslim
calculations, are all from religious leaders. So they were actually both
aware of the Koranic prohibition and at the same time going against
Rachael Kohn: And what was their explanation for
engaging in this kind of calculation?
David Cook: First of
all, they did not see it as going against actually the prohibition, they
were merely interpreting events that were unfolding before them. It was
simply that they felt that they were in such an apocalyptically charged
atmosphere that the events were simply unfolding naturally, and that the
end was so close that it was possible to calculate it.
Kohn: Were there ever any reflections on this practice and its
effect on the people at large?
David Cook: Yes. There were
attempts to try and of course justify it in face of the obvious chronic
difficulties. There were also more private attempts to explain the
methodology behind it, trying to create a sense of hope among the
Rachael Kohn: Now with all these calculations,
numbers seem to have some importance. What was the first or the most
important year that was fixed upon by Muslim leaders?
Cook: The first major year that we talk about as being
apocalyptically charged was probably the year 100 in the Hijrah
calendar, which corresponds to the Christian year, 718. Their god simply
had no need of anyone who was going to come after that, that the
generation which was living during the year 100 would be the one who
would actually would see the end of the world. There was a tremendous
conquest pushed during those years, the self-same years that Muslims in
fact made the push into France and towards Constantinople. And to a
number of other different areas. They were probably trying to conquer
the entire world before the year 100.
Rachael Kohn: Is it
the attraction of the two zeroes that this is a sort of complete number,
a full number?
David Cook: Yes, it's a complete number, a
full number; there are numerous numbers that attract the imagination of
an apocalyptist; the number of 7, the number 4 and it's variants, the
number 100, the numbers derived from 12, for example, 12, 24, and 120,
all these numbers crop up incessantly, inside this sort of literature,
in addition to 70 and 40, and 400 and so forth.
Kohn: David, do we have any knowledge of how mystical movements
within Islam approached this question of the end? Did Sufis, for
example, incorporate any of this visionary tradition into their
David Cook: Yes. The basic Sufi vision of
what's known as the perfect man, is essentially a type of the Messiah,
and definitely Sufis used both the apocalyptic, the messianic imagery of
early Christianity. Of course Sufi is a development which happened a
good deal later than the beginning of the apocalyptic heritage of Islam,
so it was able to incorporate these themes into its beliefs. And in
later Islam, definitely during the middle ages, you find that many
apocalyptic movements, messianic movements, are led by Sufis, and using
these sort of imageries and proclaiming themselves to be the
or a guide to other things.
Rachael Kohn: That's
interesting. I would have thought that the Sufis were more quietistic
but when you say they led movements, where they activist movements?
David Cook: Yes, although it's true that within the Sufi
heritage there is a quietistic element, it's certainly not true that all
Sufis are like that. There's definitely been very violent, very radical
Sufi sects, and many Sufi sects have started out as being extremely
dedicated brotherhoods which have involved themselves involved
themselves in Jihad, which have messianically
Rachael Kohn: Has Islam then experienced false
messiahs proclaiming themselves as the Mahdi?
Yes. No-one knows to what degrees, or how many Mahdis there have been.
My own calculations would indicate that there have probably been upwards
of 4,000, 5,000 Mahdis. Of those, probably nor more than maybe 50% have
actually entered into the historical material, but there is no lack of
false Mahdis, there is really no lack of them. For myself, I've managed
to collect at least 800 of them. I'm sure that that's just a drop in the
Rachael Kohn: Now finally David, is Islam looking
forward to a date at this time?
David Cook: There have
been definite calculations that would lead to some sort of tribulations
happening before the year 1500 which would correspond to the Christian
date of 2076. This is definitely the paradigm under which modern Muslim
apocalyptists are working, in which case certain tribulations should be
occurring, even as we speak. There have been definite calculations that
the Anti-Christ was supposed to appear during the past decades, and
there will probably be much more.
On that day, the heaven with
the clouds will be sundered, and the angels will be sent down in
splendid array and to the all-merciful, the sovereignty, the true
sovereignty will belong that day. It will be a grim day for the
unbelievers, the day when the wrongdoer will gnaw his hands and say,
'Would I had taken the way with the apostle, woe is me, would I had not
taken such and such for a friend; he led me astray and from the
remembrance of God after it had come to me, Satan, the inveterate
traitor to man.
Rachael Kohn: From the Koran, Sura 25,
and before that, David Cook, Islamic scholar from the University of
Now the Sufi tradition which he was talking about, is
thought by some historians to be one of the influences on a certain
Messianic pretender in Jewish history of the 17th century, Sabbatai
Zevi, who was born in Salonica, and ended his messianic saga by
converting to Islam. Here's an account by his prophet, Nathan of
Scripture says concerning him, 'And the spirit of God
moved upon the waters', and the rabbis explained 'This is the spirit of
the Messiah. The numerical value of "God moved" is equal to that of his
name, Sabbatai Zevi, for his soul was in the depth of the great abyss.
Darkness, clouds and thick darkness were round about him, and when he
issued as if out of the womb, thick darkness was a swaddling band for
him. And if you inquire why the abyss exists in this world, the reason
is that every time God works a great miracle, he extracts the precious
elements from the mystery. The Messiah too, has extracted from it many
sparks of holiness, so that Scripture shall be
Rachael Kohn: That, from Gershom Scholem's
study of Sabbatai Zevi, is just one of the messianic incidents in Jewish
history. Today's leading expert in this field is Moshe Idel of Hebrew
University, who has just been awarded the prestigious Israel
He spoke to me from Jerusalem, beginning with the
persistence of messianic hopes and the equally persistent suspicion of
them by the rabbis.
Moshe Idel: That's true that all the
messiahs, medieval messiahs and even later, even today, encounter always
a clash between present Messiah and any Jewish establishment. However we
may speak about what I call a secondary elite: people having a certain
education and attempting to impose their personality, aspirations on
larger Jewish life. For example, in the second part of the 13th century,
a cabbalist named Abraham who died apparently around 1291 was an
ecstatic mystic and proclaimed himself to be a mystical Messiah, which
means that he believed that he could impart to Jews and non-Jews some
recipes or techniques for self-redemption. For him, messianists for
example was not exactly a movement from one place to another, from Spain
or Italy to the land of Israel, but a certain spiritual salvation and he
was able to convince some few people, not the movement, a school, who
believed in his messianic claims.
There was a personality around
whom expectations were gravitating, and that is in my opinion the
pattern. They are not great movements like in Christian millennialism
where thousands or even tens of thousands of followers who were living
and moving, growing, that's the movement, in a certain
In the case of the Jews, at least since the 13th
century on, the idea of movement, meaning people who break with their
past and their ordinary life, under the impact of their messianic
beliefs this form of movement is very, very rare. That should be
Rachael Kohn: But of course when Sabbatai Zevi
arose in the 17th century, those individual messianic claimants would
pale by comparison. He clearly had a much broader impact. How did this
man from Salonika have such an impact on the Jews throughout
Moshe Idel: There is no doubt that in the case of
the Sabbatai Zevi, active in the middle and second part of the 17th
century, we can speak about a much more widespread influence where
people were much more ready to realise their mission is on the
historical or political plane, there is no doubt. But even here, the
structure is much more a matter of belief that he is the Messiah, that
we are already living in the time of the Messiah, and people were ready
to sell their assets in Amsterdam, but didn't leave Amsterdam. And here
I'd like to make a distinction. Sure, it's much more intense, much more
widespread, with more consequences than earlier. However we are not
aware of hundreds of thousands of peoples moving from one place to
another, but for sure, there was an upheaval in Jewish life overall,
there's no doubt.
Rachael Kohn: Well let's look at the
sources of this messianic thinking. We have the Book of Daniel,
but in the medieval period, the Kabbala playsquite an important role.
Can you describe what kind of messianic ideas exist in cabbalistic
writings? What are the main themes?
Moshe Idel: The
cabbalistic writings adopt almost all the range of messianic aspirations
found in late Biblical literature and the Rabbinic late antiquity
literature. The cabbala is conservative to a great extent, and among
them, they believe that certain personality, a man, will come at the end
of time, and change the political, the religious, even the economic
situation, by the restoration of the old commonwealth, the Jewish State
in modern parlance, and create again a temple and restore perfect way of
religious behaviour, at least for the Jews. So that is what can be
called the apocalyptic Messiah, a person having extraordinary powers,
able as a warrior, as a politician, as a religious leader, to inflame
people and to conquer and bring back the Jews to their
However, what happened in the middle ages is that in
addition to this apocalyptic Messiah, cabbalists cultivated also other
forms of messianists, which are more personal. Meaning that according to
the cabbalists, in order to become a Messiah you must redeem yourself,
be able to become a perfect religious being, and only then you can
become also a leader that will redeem the others on the historical
plane. So here I see what is new in cabbalistic literature. To explain
how someone becomes a Messiah. What happens in his inner life that
prepares him to become a Messiah.
Rachael Kohn: Now in
terms of calculating the end, the Rabbis warned against doing so, but
clearly cabbalists or mystics were much more inclined to actually
pinpoint a date. Can you talk about some of those dates, and what
happened when the Messiah didn't come, say in 1290, for
Moshe Idel: In Rabbinic literature, there is very
clear opposition to any form of calculating the end. Nevertheless in
early middle ages, we have many examples of Jewish masters, including
Rabbis, who attempted to find out when the Messiah will come. Among them
we can speak about very learned Rabbis.
Meaning that we have a
reticence on one side, and nevertheless this attraction to see the
historical scheme on the other. As we know, all the dates failed to
materialise and there was a process of adjustment, causing them to claim
that the calculation was mistaken or it was not exactly the right verse
that was used, or the calculation was right but the generation, meaning
the spiritual status of the Jews, didn't allow
Rachael Kohn: Just back on Sabbatai Zevi for a
moment: one of the dates associated with him is 1666. Now did that have
any resonance in the Christian world with the term
Moshe Idel: Sure. There is no doubt in my opinion
that there is a certain affinity between the Christian expectations,
which were very, very high in this period, especially among the
Protestant Christians, and the Jewish effervescence. So this movement,
and Sabbatai Zevi's biography, is well documented in part because
Christian missionaries were fascinated by this messianic phenomenon
which fitted their own interests, so they started to write down details,
and it shows that there was a certain resonance, if not consonance
between happened in the Christian camp and among the Jews in
On the following Monday, there was great rejoicing as
the Scroll of the Law was taken from the Ark, and he sang all kinds of
songs. Also Christian songs in the vernacular, saying that there was a
cabbalistic mystery hidden in these impure songs. He also declared 'This
day is my Sabbath day.' At night he held a banquet, and the people went
to kiss his feet. To all of them, he distributed money and candies, and
he forced all, Jews and Gentiles alike, to utter the ineffable name.
One Gentile admitted to me that at Sabbatai's importunate
demand, he had three times uttered the ineffable name. Even the Turks
were talking about the affair, though no miracle was ever seen, not even
a natural sign. But many unlettered men and women experienced all manner
of convulsion and prophesied, (though not one of their prophecies ever
came true) and exclaimed, 'Sabbatai Zevi is the King of Israel' and the
Rachael Kohn: Well certainly as that example of
Sabbatai Zevi has shown, and previous ones perhaps not in such a great
proportion, messianism has been a fairly disastrous path for Judaism.
And Gershorn Scholmes, your predecessor in these studies, squarely saw
it as a dangerous path. In fact he compared a contemporary religious
political movement in Israel to the followers of Sabbatai Zevi. Would
you be inclined to make any such contemporary
Moshe Idel: We can divide between two major
dimensions of the messianic phenomenon. One is the belief that
miraculously, history is going to change. Or we can induce radical break
in history by religious magical acts. If we are speaking about such a
vision of history, my opinion is that Gershorn
Scholmes was right.
From this point of view, some political factions in Israel are
cultivating a certain form of political aspiration which are dangerous.
However, if we understand that part of messianists is also a certain
search for inner perfection. We can speak about self-education,
individual perfection, even the vision of helping others to become
better. And in the long-range, a better society will occur. The
messianic ideas can have also some more positive
Rachael Kohn: Moshe Idel is Professor of
Jewish History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and author of
Messianic Mystics, published 1998.
'Science has promised
us truth ... it has never promised us peace and happiness.' So said
Gustav Le Bon. But in the 19th century a great many people thought it
did, and they were ready to move heaven and earth, if you will, to prove
it. Like the British-born socialist reformer, William Lane, who came to
Australia, became a staunch unionist, and then went on to establish
communist settlements in Paraguay in 1893. This is from his
The Workingman's Paradise.
Socialists and real Socialists, just as there is Socialism and real
Socialism. The ones babble of what they do not feel because it's
becoming the thing to babble. The others have a religion, and that
religion is real Socialism. How does one know a religion? When one is
ready to sacrifice everything for it. When one only desires that the
callers may triumph; when one has no care for self and does not fear
anything that man can do, and has a faith which nothing can shake, not
even one's own weakness.
'Isn't it a pity that we can't
co-operate right through in the same way?'
the easiest way to bring socialism about', answered Geisener. 'Many have
thought of it, some have tried, but the great difficulty seems to be to
get the right conditions, absolute isolation, while the new conditions
are being established. Colonists who are rough and ready and accustomed
to such work, and at the same time, are thoroughly saturated with
socialism. Men accustomed to discuss and argue and at the same time,
drilled to obey when necessary, by a majority decision. These are very
hard to get. Besides, the attempts at being on small scales, and though
some have been fairly successful as far as they went, have not pointed
the great lesson: one great success would give men more faith than a
whole century of talking and preaching. And it will come, when men are
ready for it, when the times are right.'
From William Lane's novel, A Workingman's Paradise.
utopian experiments of the 19th century are of particular interest to
David Nash, of Oxford Brookes University, who regards them as secular
David Nash: Rather than sitting
there if you like, waiting for things to happen, it's a way of telling
themselves and their adherents to get up and help to make the great
change. So in a sense, the great change is not cataclysmic, it can be
gradual, it can obviously involve the participation of all humanists and
secularists. But there are also some secular traditions where they
believe that there are ages that man and humankind go
For example, the positivist movement of Comte believed
that man was developing through three stages. They called it the
theological, the metaphysical and finally the positivist, and the
positivist; and the positivist was an age in which science, scientific
endeavour, rationality and the whole material approach to life and
civilisation would triumph. And what they said was, and this is very
millennialist and millenarian, they said that this was not to sweep away
religions, but to be the ultimate fulfilment of them.
Kohn: Ah, they always say that.
David Nash: Well I
suppose they do, yes.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, well what are
some other examples of secular attempts to recreate, or recreate on
earth the fulfilment of mankind?
David Nash: Well some of
these go back to medieval traditions. I mean I think of some forms of
heresy in medieval England. There was, for example, groups such as the
Grindletonians, or the Family of Love for example, who actually believed
that heaven was when you were happy and hell was when you were sad, and
that was all it really amounted to. And whether it was because they were
oppressed by the communities they lived in, or wanted to practice this
actively, but what they did was they formed their own communities away
from the rest of civilisation.
But coming up to date, there are
groups such as the rationalists who were encouraged by the ideas of
Robert Owen in the early years of the 19th century. And Owen basically
said that if you could shape the environment and he meant all types of
environment, physical, educational, moral, then you could improve the
moral welfare of man. And he attempted to do this through a whole host
of different schemes. He tried co-operative dealing, he tried forms of
trade unionism. But I suppose the ultimate fulfilment of this was when
he established communities in parts of Britain. I think there were four
in Britain, there was one in Ireland, and a significant number in
America, in which people lived communally, held properly communal worked
But the trouble with this, and in a sense I suppose
this is the trouble with a lot of these secular utopias, is that they
still have to deal with the world outside, and the problem with Owen in
particular, was that his schemes always ran out of money and had to deal
with what he called the 'dreadful old immoral world'.
Kohn: Yes, well in a secular utopian experiment, there isn't that
sense of finality that something is going to happen, it just keeps on
So is that actually a more difficult challenge for the
David Nash: I think so. I mean in a sense when
you say that there is no finality, I'm not sure that's true, because as
I said, they generally do have no reference point outside of themselves
or their movements. I mean in many respects who created these movements
are responsible for all the texts and ideas that they generate. So when
they don't work, they very, very clearly do not work, and they run out
But I suppose there's also a great deal of independence
of though amongst the adherents, which leads them to move on to other
ideas which are often related or in some respects, descendants of the
original idea. So in a sense I say there is both, there is that
finality, but yes, you're right, there is this emphasis in moving on.
And it's interesting to see that some Owenites and people who were
associated with the Owenite movement in Britain, move on and become
interested in the ideas of William Morris and the arts and crafts
movement, and what you might describe as the more cultural, spiritual
end of socialism.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, and that image is
very much a friendly one, it's a passive one it seems. Or perhaps not
passive, but not dangerous. However there are other sort of secular
experiments that have been quite disastrous. One thinks of the Third
Reich for example. I'm wondering whether one of the difficulties of
secular millennarianism is that there are no limits. I mean one can keep
pushing on without any kind of moral tradition coming in and
David Nash: Right. I think first of all
I'd actually disagree with you on two points. First of all, when it's
possible to say things like Morrisite arts and crafts socialism wasn't
dangerous, I don't think that's true at all. Morris' great utopian work
News from Nowhere, actually is a picture of idyllic Home Counties
English life, but it's idyllic Home Counties English life after the
revolution. The revolution has happened; the parliamentary government
has been swept away, and he says in a very throwaway sentence that the
Houses of Parliament are now kept as a storehouse for manure.
writing this at a period where there are, don't forget, a number of
ocialist demonstrations in Britain, in which the police handled them
badly and people are killed and injured. For him to say things like
that, it contains still a whiff of gunpowder.
Kohn: I see, yes.
David Nash: But I think also when
you describe Nazi Germany in a sense, as possibly a secular millennium,
I wouldn't say that at all, because when you look at Nazi Germany, it is
a society based not on rationality but irrationality. The rejection of
forms of knowledge in favour of the belief in the spirit, the belief in
the heart, and you know, in fact you do actually have significant
numbers of rationalists, people like Karl Popper, who actually have to
flee Austria from the Nazis, because their ideology is diametrically
opposed to the sorts of beliefs that the Nazis are putting
Rachael Kohn: So are you saying then that a true
secular millennarian movement is a rational movement, and that
rationality in itself is not dangerous, that it has no dangerous
David Nash: I wouldn't say it has no
Rachael Kohn: Indeed I mean we had
the Eugenics movement for example.
David Nash: Well,
indeed. But I think rationalists - there are still rationalists about in
Britain who believe that science and scientific explanations are the
important ones, and the ones that make sense. And these rationalists
tend to argue that any other approach is potentially
Rachael Kohn: I'm wondering how would you
compare Christian apocalyptic movements to secular movements in terms of
this rationality? Because it would seem to me that we often look at
apocalyptic movements in the Christian world as having very obvious
irrational dimensions. Whereas what you seem to be saying is that
secular millenarian movements are more rational and don't actually give
in to these rather absurd tradeoffs.
David Nash: Yes, I
think that's true. I'd certainly think that one of the things they're
concerned about is if they embraced true rationality, then this is a way
of actually avoiding the apocalypse, this is the way of not having one.
I think the ideas of Popper's rationalism were quite interesting,
because what he suggested was that you don't actually get to a point in
society where you've achieved everything and solved everything. The task
is not to get there, it's to travel hopefully, and to continue
travelling hopefully. And I think this is what Karl Popper is saying,
continually look around your society for problems, and see what you can
do to solve them. If you carry on solving them, then you will get closer
and closer to a secular millennial utopia, you won't ever get there, he
never says you'll get there. You'll get closer and closer, but you must
keep addressing these problems.
Rachael Kohn: Yes indeed.
I mean science accommodates to the world that works within it, but once
you have a utopian movement, you have something altogether different,
you have someone positing a world on its own that is able to, in a
self-sufficient way, achieve perfection. Isn't this
David Nash: Yes indeed, that is
irrationality, and in a sense this is one of the paradoxes, that you may
be told that you've got to travel hopefully rather than arrive, but you
still perhaps have to ask which road you're taking, and whether that's
the right one. And I think someone like Popper saw this, that utopia
itself is irrational, that it's also authoritarian in all sorts of ways
he wouldn't have liked. So I think that is very much a tension that
rationalists have to live with, and it makes life very difficult for
Rachael Kohn: Oxford Brookes University Professor
David Nash on secular millennialism, which brings to a close Alternative
Next week on Millennial Dreams, Part IV, 'When
The Spirit of Things is produced by me and
Geoff Wood, with Technical
Production this week by Marsail
So long from me, Rachael Kohn.
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