Hans Barth
The Religion of Totalitarianism

The upheaval in France had at least this in common with the accepted meaning of a political revolution, that it entailed what Jean Mallet du Pan called 'le deplacement du pouvoir.' When power in a State changes hands, that is revolution, which results in a change in the form of government; and it always occurs, inevitably, 'when the existing authority no longer possesses the power to protect the community against attack or lacks the courage to defend itself.' It occurs when the constitutional structure, which is the competent authority for the distribution of power, is no longer suited to the social and economic conditions of the time. A revolution in that case means the adaptation of the constitution to the true distribution of power in the community.

The French revolution differs from a political revolution, a straight-forward alteration of the constitution, in two ways. In the first place, it was not the same as all the other revolutions that preceded it—an event, that is, which occurred in one particular country and was confined to one single people—but was of its nature an occurrence that might well lay claim to universal application. It was, as contemporaries were wont to say of it, cosmopolitical. If it lays claim to universality of application, it must then follow that it believed itself to be based upon principles of universal application, principles that were supra-national or—and this means the same thing—applicable to mankind as a whole. Secondly, it possesses an unmistakable likeness to the religious reformations which have taken place in the western world. To the contemporaries of the revolution, its revolutionary ideas, which were to determine the realities of life, and the revolution itself, appeared to be a new religion. And we find that a number of observers and critics, of widely divergent outlook and quite independently of one another, found themselves constrained, in giving their views on the essence of the revolution, to employ terms that belonged solely and exclusively to the domain of religion and the Church. It is worth noting that Catholics and Protestants alike arrived at the same conclusion. When a member of the nobility declared that the aim of the revolutionaries was nothing less than 'la reconstruction du tout par la revolte contre tout,' and that they had torn down the pillars of the world, it might easily appear to be the exaggerations of a judgement prejudiced by the outlook of his social position. But a closer examination of what is meant by 'the pillars of the world' leads readily enough to a realisation that even thinkers who were convinced of the need for a radical change in the political structure of France were not thinking merely in terms of the constitution and the monarchy, the privileges of the nobility and the Catholic Church. For these contemporaries, the revolution was a new cult and a new religion, but a cult and a religion in which the object of veneration had been transformed into something quite different to that which it had formerly been. As early as 1791, in his 'Thoughts on French Affairs,' Edmund Burke wrote that the French revolution was not concerned merely with the removal of local anomalies or the adaptation of the political system to changed conditions. The present revolution, he maintained, seemed to be different in character and bore little resemblance to any revolution in Europe which had preceded it and which had taken place for purely political reasons. Rather, it was a revolution of doctrine and theoretic dogma. It bore greater resemblance, he said, to one of those changes that had come about as the result of religious convictions. Mallet du Pan comes to the same conclusion. To its adherents, the revolutionary doctrine, he wrote, was a genuine religion, and he compares them to a sect which makes common cause with all the adherents of modern philosophy throughout Europe. When he turns to describing the methods used by the revolutionaries to exert ideological influence, he, too, finds himself constrained to use expressions borrowed from the domain of religious and ecclesiastical life. The revolution seeks disciples, he says, it propagates its gospel, it disseminates a catechism, it indulges in missionary activities. The revolutionary system, says Mallet du Pan, is applicable to all nations. As a foundation it has maxims, to which adherence is possible in any atmosphere. We have seen, he continues, how the emissaries of the revolution catechise neutrals and combatants alike. 'Le fanatisme d'irreligion, d'egalite, de propagandisme est aussi exalt et mille fois plus atroce que ne le fut jamais le fanatisme religieux.' Burke and Mallet du Pan compare the revolutionary ideology to Islam, and to them the wars of the revolution appear to be holy wars. The revolution, says Mallet du Pan, unfolds and propagates in the same way as Islam—with weapons and with ideas. In one hand it grasps a sword, in the other the rights of man. One of the main reasons why those in power in Paris decided to make war on the States of Eutope was the hope of thus accelerating the progress of the revolutionary religion by conquest and by corruption of the people and the armed forces. The Jacobite convention, he says, has set up, at home and abroad, missionary stations for the propagation of its gospel, as before them the Jesuits did in America and China. And the attitude of the revolutionaries themselves towards their own doctrines cannot be mote aptly described than through the medium of the language of religion. As early as 1789 Mallet du Pan declared: At a time when all malpractices are under attack, we must single out one abuse which, above all others, constitutes a threat to freedom and personal security. For some time, he continues, a certain class of writers have been regarding all their opinions as dogma, their conclusions as verdicts and their declarations as legal judgements. If anyone expresses different ideas, ventures to cast a doubt or suggests a modification, the savage voice of despotism is at once raised, maligning everything that dares to rise in opposition to it. The slightest demur is regarded as a crime against the natural laws. Those who escape censure or the sword fall victims to the murderous machinations of intolerance. With sword and hangman's noose in its hand, public opinion today dictates its proclamations.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.