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I have studied collective movements in a systematic way all my life, and have elaborated a general theory about them.
Leaders and the Masses
In history books and popular legends, all political and religious collective movements, as well as revolts and revolutions, are inevitably associated with the name of the charismatic leader who roused the masses into following him. Figures like Napoleon, Garibaldi, Marx, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Fidel Castro come to mind here, together with their immense sea of followers, i.e. the masses. While the picture they afford us of those times may be based on historical fact, it is also superficial. We need something more in order to understand the workings of the collective processes that shape human history. Any sort of deeper analysis means taking a look at the collective movements that at some point always crystallize around a leader and the masses. What I am offering to you, my readers, in this short book, is a trip through time, in search of secrets and things that are usually kept buried or hidden. I am confident that there are a number of surprising discoveries waiting for us if only we take a careful and patient look at the facts and then ask ourselves the right questions.
The Unforeseeable Element in History
Our question has to be: what are these collective movements, with
their leaders and their masses, which we know occur from time to time? Well, the first
answer I want to give you is that these movements constitute the unforeseeable element in history.
They appear out of the blue, when people are least expecting it. No one was able to foresee the French Revolution, nor
the one in Russia, nor the rise of Nazism, nor the student revolts in the 1960s in Europe, nor, for that matter, the
Feminist movement. The same goes for Solidarnos in Poland, the fundamentalist’ revolution led by Khomeini in Iran,
the rise of the Talebans in Afghanistan, and arrival on the scene of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda. The same goes
likewise for all the movements in the past from the rise of Christianity to the start of Islam to the unfolding of the
Let’s stop briefly first and reflect on the definition just given. It really seems odd that no other sociologist or political scientist up till now has ever defined collective movements in this (or in a some similar) way. They have all been seemingly hypnotized by the violent emotions that collective movements unleash, and by their incredible diversity. This has caused them to give up any attempt at a systematic analysis of what collective movements share in common—i.e. their underlying dynamics, the rules for daily life, the fact that they create a new community founded on their values, and the establishment on the scene of their leaders and new institutions.
The Charismatic Leader
In every collective movement there emerges a set of leaders who are quickly recognized by all others as the only ones capable of guiding the movement insofar as they possess certain exceptional qualities (forms of charisma). During the initial phase, the ultimate leader is just one of many; with the passing of time, then, he becomes the first among equals; in a successive phase, he assumes the role of commander-in-chief and infallible guide. He is admired, loved, even adored, and everyone looks to him for guidance and reassurance. In religious collective movements, the leader feels both inspired by God and gifted with certain graces (sources of charisma), whereas in secular movements the feeling that the leader experiences is rather that of having an exceptional talent or capability (sources of charisma all the same).
It was Max Weber who first determined that charismatic power was one of the three forms of legitimate power (the other two being traditional power and bureaucratic power). Weber did not take into consideration or analyze collective movements, however, and hence he did not view the charismatic leader as an element—of fundamental importance—in such a movement (see Max Weber, Economics and Society, Italian ed., Economia e Società, vol II, Comunità, Milano,1961, p. 431 onwards). Nevertheless, it was thanks to his influence that sociologists ended up identifying the charismatic leader with collective movements.
Despite this now consolidated tendency to mention charismatic leader and collective movement in the same breath, it is actually an error to think that it is always thanks to the efforts of some charismatic leader that a collective movement takes on life. Under certain conditions, tension flares in many parts of a social system, and there are isolated explosions here and there; each of these mini-movement nuclei is headed by its own charismatic leader; over time, these nuclei then merge—or fail to merge—into a single movement with one sole leader. In his study of Al-Qaeda, Jason Burke observes that “among the thousands of radical militants hardened by the military victory in Afghanistan were to be found hundreds of core groups and many potential leaders. In 1989 dozens of men possessed the same things Bin Laden had—experience, charisma, motivation, and access to funds…in the period from 1996 to 2001. It’s a mistake to imagine—as we often tend to do—that there is an international network of active groups that are obedient to Bin Laden or that were in any case created by him.” (J. Burke, Italian ed., Al Queda, Feltrinelli, Milano, 2004, pp. 29-30.) It was only after the successful attack on the Twin Towers in New York that Bin Laden became a point of reference for Islamic groups all over the world, many of which offered to serve him. The same sorts of things can be said about all the other great collective movements. There is always a teeming number of mini-movement nuclei that crop up all at the same time, offering many potential charismatic leaders. Since they share similar experiences stemming from the fact of their being leader figures at such a time of ferment, they tend—in those cases where they have analogous goals and programs, to recognize each other’s group and either to help each other or to join forces. In almost all cases they form a coalition in order to fight their common enemy. Who the top leader is going to be usually emerges during these coalition efforts. The man or woman who ends up prevailing over all the other contenders usually has some winning idea or else demonstrates outstandingly superior strategic and organization skills. At times, however, there might be an actual fight for supremacy. If on the one hand, there is the prevailing feeling of fraternity, happiness, and elation at standing united and ready for self-sacrifice in the assault on the common enemy, there is at the same time the reality that certain individuals harbour ambitions, or are simply better in public or at commanding than others. Conversely, there are others who much prefer being those in the flock walking behind the shepherd. These differences and natural dispositions are hidden from sight so to speak; they are submerged by the general atmosphere of enthusiasm, feverish activity and the fight for the common cause. This means that there is no display of personal jealousy or resentment. Whatever clashes there are appear to be clashes between personality figures or between differing political stands. These in turn can generate group splinterings, accusations and punishments, expulsions, and even at times bloody in-fighting, as happened during the French Revolution, the Soviet Revolution, and in the Algerian liberation movements.
There are also charismatic leaders who do not actually found movements but rather join one that is already gathering momentum, just in time to rise to the top and leave their personal mark on things. This was precisely the case with Saint Paul, who was not one of Christ’s chosen apostles and yet was able to give so much to Christianity. Another great charismatic leader who didn’t start a movement but distinguished himself as its guiding head, was Pope Gregory VII. A third example is provided us by Oliver Cromwell, who did not found the Puritan movement yet organized its new model army, which he triumphantly led, at the same time as he went about the job of reshaping the English political system. The same principle could also said to apply to the case of Napoleon, who did not give rise to any real collective movement but rather transformed his army into a movement and then went on to become the charismatic head of the French people. All that we have said thus far concerns the relationship between a collective movement and one leader. There are, however, movements that are started up by more than one such charismatic figure. Here we might include the great monastic reform movement in Cluny as well as the cultural-religious movements that were behind the building of the magnificent Christian cathedrals in Medieval Europe. Idem for the American and European student protest movements of the 1960s and 70s, and for Feminism. There are even examples we can find that relate to contemporary Islam. While the most important is surely the radical movement of the “Society of the Muslim Brothers”, founded and led by Hassan al-Banna, there have also been prominent movements without any clear leader, such as the student-fuelled Jama’at islamiyya, which spread across Egyptian university campuses during the 1970s and 80s, transforming them into fortresses of radical Islam.
A final observation. While Max Weber spoke of charisma in the nascent state and meant this to apply to the leader, we have applied the term ‘nascent state’ not just to the leader but to all the other members of the group as well…and therefore the concept becomes that of a group nascent state. From this we can deduce an important corollary: all group members during the nascent state of the movement are potential charismatic leaders. The special emotional ambiance, that sense of participating in a great liberating event, and the actual experience itself all tend to lend a special air even to those individuals who are by nature followers, and hence they display a charisma that is evident when they interact with outsiders. In this outside world, in fact they tend to behave like charismatic leaders, inspiring others to join with them as well as creating still other groups and igniting still other nascent states.
Myth and reality in the charismatic leader
Ma quando un capo si è affermato,quando ha sconfitto tutti i suoi avversari e messo in modo un grandioso processo di trasformazione, quando ha preso e consolidato il suo potere, chiunque egli sia stato, qualsiasi cosa abbia fatto, viene divinizzato. È successo a Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tze Tung. Mao, nella seconda parte della sua vita ha compiuto errori catastrofici. Nella campagna dei cento fiori ha rischiato di mandare in pezzi il partito, nel grande “balzo in avanti“ in cui ha bloccato la produzione agricola per fer costrtuire ai contadini degli altoforni rudimentali ha provocato o la morte per fame di quaranta milioni di cinesi. Ne la “rivoluzione culturale” scatenata per riprendere i potere che gli sta sfuggendo ha messo in moto una vera e propria folli collettiva, prodotto la distruzione di metà del patrimonio artistico cinese, compiuto e fatto compiere ignobili nefandezze morali. Eppure ancora oggi molti lo adorano. Rampini (Federico Rampini, L’ombra di Mao, Milano, Mondadori 2006) racconta il caso del villaggio di Wugong dovela gente è stata derubata, angariata, rovinata, uccisa, torturata, saccheggiato da un apparato comunista corrotto e nepootisti, a distanza di trent’anni continua ad adorare Mao Tze tung come un santo. E a Samarcanda, dopo cinque secoli, non vene ancora venerato come un santo uno dei più spaventosi conquistatori e massacratori della storia: Timur Leng, Timur lo zoppo, che gli italiani chiamavano Tamerlano?
Any leader who has gained control and consolidated his power over a group or organization, and at the same time has managed to prevail over all his enemies and set into motion the radical transformation process that he has in mind, will inevitably come to be treated like a god by his followers—no matter what he has in reality accomplished or who he in truth is. Last century, this happened to Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung. To take the case of the latter, in the second part of his life Mao made a series of catastrophic mistakes. With the Hundred Flowers Movement he almost destroyed the Communist party, while his Great Leap Forward, in which he blocked agricultural production in order to have the peasants construct rudimentary blast furnaces, resulted in 40 million Chinese starving to death. In the “Cultural Revolution,” which served as a pretext for his ploy to regain power, he encouraged and sanctioned acts of mass madness, which resulted in the destruction of half the nation’s artistic treasures, and committed—as well as ordered—countless morally despicable actions. That said, there are still many Chinese today who worship his memory. The Italian journalist Federico Rampini (in his book Mao’s Long Shadow, Italian ed. L’ombra di Mao, Mondadori, Milano, 2006) describes how in the village of Wugong, where people were deprived of their possessions or had their homes sacked, and where they were oppressed, ruined, tortured, and murdered by a corrupt and nepotistic Communist nomenclature, there are still people who thirty years later continue to worship Mao like a saint. An even more impressive case is to be found in Samarcanda, where after five centuries, one of the bloodiest and ruthless conquerors of all time, Timur (or Timur the Lame), known in the West as Timburlaine, is still idolized.
When considering collective movements in general, one can’t help noticing that many of them are not headed by charismatic leaders of exceptional talent or makeup. Some of them are particularly able agitators, others are great speakers, still others are impressively violent or effectively menacing, but there are also the quacks and even madmen to be reckoned with. History is full of collective movements led by leaders who first proclaim that the world is going to be set right and then plunge with their followers into the most foolish and maddest of schemes and enterprises. History is likewise full of leaders who, once they have gained power, change overnight into despots and are abandoned by their followers. Others of these leaders put together a court, and some even set up a sort of a harem with the women in the movement, hence becoming de facto tribal chiefs or rulers.
Even in cases with less extreme manifestations over time than these, there have been many inadequate leaders—numerous men too small for the task at hand. While Martin Luther was hard at work trying to set up alliances with royalty and organizing a new reformed Church, the Anabaptists were sacking and destroying churches and the peasants were rebelling; in such a tumultuous context, Jan Matthys soon took control of the city of Munster and made it a law that all goods and women were to be communally shared. After his death, John of Leidan, having seized power and control over all forms of wealth, subsequently instituted the practice of polygamy and thus led the movement to disaster. Over in China, the years immediately after the Opium Wars saw the rise of the Chinese Tai Ping movement, which was headed by a Christian convert named Hung, who claimed to be the son of God and brother of Jesus Christ. It was a naïve attempt of Chinese-fy Christianity, and yet it quickly caught on in over half of China. Unfortunately, Hung was not able to govern this Chinese state nor to negotiate successfully with the West, and his ephemeral empire soon fell. Some centuries later and in another part of Asia, there came the rise of Pol Pot, the head of Khmer Rouge, since known to history for his literally madman actions designed to rid Cambodia of all “contaminating” capitalistic and modern traces. He sent all the city-dwellers to work as farmers in the country, where they died of hunger and hardship.
On the flip side of the coin, however, there are also a significant number
of great charismatic leaders who have succeeded in transforming unruly mobs into brotherhoods, political parties, or organized
armies, if not into governing bodies with institutions and laws. They have followed in the footsteps of mythical leaders
like Moses, who led his people through the desert for forty years and left them with a law which kept them united for
thousands of years; or like Mohammed, who during his earlier years had very few followers and met with much hardship,
only to then, after his move to Medina, succeed in gaining power and in deciding what form the new religion and state were to
take. The equivalent guiding leaders in the Catholic world, who in the past were able to transform their movements into solid
and lasting institutions were Saint Benedict, Saint Bernand of Chiaravalle, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Dominick
, and Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
Il movimento ha bisogno di una guida, di un capo. Questo capo emerge dal calore bianco dell’entusiasmo dalla speranza di un rinnovamento radicale. Talvolta è lui stesso che mette in moto il processo, di solito si fa strada nel fuoco delle agitazioni. All’inizio comunque egli non si proclama capo, soprattutto nello stato nascente egli è solo il primus inter pares. Col successo del movimento e trionfando sui suoi avversari a poco a poco viene riconosciuto da tutti e, poichè il movimento promette qualcosa di straordinario, egli stesso diventa straordinario: un capo carismatico. Sul capo carismatico vengono proiettate tutte le qualità e tutte le virtù il “culto della personalità“ avviene spontaneamente, sono i seguaci stessi che innalzano il loro capo e lo adorano.
A movement needs a leader, someone to be its guiding force. This leader emerges during the early white-heat phase of enthusiasm and hope in radical change. Sometimes he himself launches the movement and sometimes the movement springs from street protests and agitation. In any case, he does not declare himself the leader at the start—especially in the ignition or “nascent” phase when he appears to be no more than the primus inter pares (the first among equals). Gradually, as the movement begins to be successful and as he is able to prevail over his adversaries, he becomes recognized as the leader by one and all. Seeing, furthermore, that the movement promises to deliver on something extraordinary, he himself begins to acquire a vestige of the extraordinary—i.e. he becomes a charismatic leader. All the finest qualities and virtues are now attributed to him by his followers. There is a spontaneous rise of a “personality cult” regarding his figure. On their own initiative, his followers raise him on high and worship him.
As Max Weber reminds us, however, charisma is an ephemeral, unstable commodity. It is only re-enforced by success and can vanish with defeat. It is in any case destined to vanish on its own over time insofar as no leader is capable of realizing the golden dreams generated and talked about during the movement’s initial “nascent state.” There are critical attacks to be dealt with, manifestations of jealousy and envy, and competitors ready to launch a challenge. This is why a charismatic leader in political control of things tends to stabilize this power by declaring that all the movement’s objectives will be fulfilled and in the meantime taking care to liquidate all his real and/or potential enemies. Sometimes he does that in a peaceful, civil way, while other times he may achieve his end with bloody means, following in the footsteps of Stalin and Trotsky, or Hitler and Rohm. This is how complete institutional control starts. The charismatic leader declares himself infallible. (In Italy under Fascism, we all were supposed to write on the outer walls of our houses, “Mussolini is always right.”) From that moment onwards, all evil is attributed to someone else, to some enemy insider or outsider, and to his/her/their dark conspiracies. This infernal logic led the leaders of the French Revolution to kill each other off; the same thing also happened in the Soviet Revolution and, as regards the Chinese Revolution, the trail of blood led in the end to the killing off of the members of the “Band of Four.”
The divine adoration of a charismatic leader is always accompanied by the paranoiac elaboration of a super enemy. Institutionalized idealization is not possible without institutionalized demonization. A divine leader must have a demon for an opponent. Stalin was able to hide all his atrocious misdeeds and the bloody acts of repression against his own people and closest comrades because he was heading the fight against the great demon called capitalism. Hitler justified his crimes by accusing the Jews of all the evil in the world. Khomeini and Bin Laden have conducted the Islamic holy war against the Great Satan, or Western civilization. The way in which a charismatic leader consolidates his absolute power is through a process of moral subjection. This moral subjection allows him to put an unequivocal end to the personal freedom and critical faculties of the members of the movement. And just how does he manage to bring that off? He makes a point of asking each individual to sacrifice precisely that thing or person that means the most to him and so commit some monstrous act, like killing his wife, friend, father, or son, or in any case reporting them to the police. The fact of actually doing such a thing means that this individual has effectively lost the ability to morally judge right from wrong.
Things don’t work any differently when in place of a charismatic leader there is a group, an assembly, or a ‘committee of public safety’ in charge, imposing brotherhood (fraternité) on a people with the use of terror, as in the French Revolution.
This moral subjection leads to the creation of fanaticism. A fanatic is not simply an individual with a strong, even overpowering belief. Rather, a fanatic is someone who has been morally subjected or enslaved—in other words, a person who has agreed to commit actions which are completely contrary to his convictions, against everything he loves and against what he knows to be the truth. A fanatic is someone who has in essence betrayed the experience of liberation, brotherhood and truth which is so strongly felt in the nascent state of a collective movement. For this, he has lost his soul. And now he can only obey and kill.
In the initial phase of any collective movement, individuals have the clear awareness of possessing fundamental, inalienable human rights. The early Christians knew this, as did the Patarines and monks of Cluny who carried out the great eleventh-century reform of Catholicism; the same goes for the first Protestants fighting for religious freedom, and idem for the Levellers, those American revolutionaries that drew up their declaration of independence from England. And on and on go the examples till finally we get to the night of August 3, 1789 in Paris when, in a moving, enthusiastic display of collective action, a unanimous vote put the end of the existence of feudal orders. And this feverish and exhilarating atmosphere continued on till the night of August 26 when once again by unanimous vote there was proclaimed the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”
And yet, just a few years after the proclamation of the rights of man in France the reign of terror started, during which none of these rights were respected. Having deposed of a despotic sovereign, the revolutionary forces had installed a collective sovereign—the Revolutionary Convention—which was even more despotic and bloodier than the first. Why? How was this possible? The explanation lies in the fact that once they had written their Constitution, the pressure exerted by the Revolutionary mobs, radical party leaders, and the possibility of foreign attack were such as to cause them to abandon the political line which had guided them in drafting it and to take up instead the political philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, especially as concerned his notion of the General Will. This mistake was not repeated by the American revolutionaries of the time, schooled as they were in the political theories of John Locke.
Locke explains that a constitution consists of two parts, each of which represents a set agreement (“a pact”) between the political state and the citizen. The first part consists of the pactum civitatis, in which civil rights are established, while the second regards pactum subjectionis, or a pact of subjection, wherein individuals yield their political agency to a ruler within certain limits and given certain provisions. The latter implies the ruler’s recognition of the fundamental and inalienable rights for citizens already set forth in the pactum civitatis. The importance of a constitution, therefore, does not lie only in the enthusiastic declaration of rights (and certainly does not lie in the diffusion of a mystical General Will) but rather in the identification of a ruler who specifically cannot violate these pacts (set agreements). These rights, furthermore, are declared not only as valid against the proceeding ruler but also against the revolutionary movement in act, which tends to become itself a despotic collective ruler.
To ward off the beginnings of a new and even more terrible despotism in a fermenting revolutionary situation,
the revolutionaries must control their own spontaneous push and pressure for complete unanimity, for this sort of
forced consensus tends to generate assemblies or the investiture of an omnipotent charismatic leader who is sure
to violate the civil rights that have just been proclaimed. This is in short what we mean by institutionalized
The road that leads away from democracy
We have said that the political theories of Rousseau are primarily to blame for the failure of the French Revolution to generate democratic institutions. To understand more in this regard, let’s take a look at how Rousseau defines the social contract. He terms it “that formation where each individual, in uniting together with all the others, obeys only himself and so remains as free as before.”
In reality, the only social formation whose members experience such a thing is the group—the collective movement—during its ignition phase or nascent state. It is ironic that many people have taken Rousseau’s definition of the social contract as something abstract, whereas the truth is that it is a totally concrete experience, which, however, exists only in the initial phase of a movement and then disappears. It is a brief experience, not an institutionalized aspect of civil society. Rousseau’s error was in founding the State on something that was not an institution. In his imagination, this “social contract” was simply a perpetual, unending nascent state, for only this can explain how each individual unites or merges with others and at the same time remains as free as he was before. In the institutionalized society or state, on the other hand, this never happens. (See F. Alberoni, Genesis, Ital. ed. Genesi, section on ‘The myth of the General Will,’ p. 250 onwards; also see the essay on Rousseau by Rosa Alberoni in Time Explorers, Italian ed. Gli esploratori del tempo, Rizzoli, Milan, 1994; in addition to The Banishment of Christ, Italian ed. La cacciata di Cristo, Rizzoli, Milan, 2006.)
Rousseau describes the experience of freedom, equality, brotherhood, unanimous truth, and justice, which men and women live in the nascent state of a collective movement, without knowing (Rousseau) that it is precisely that, a nascent state or ignition phase, and believing instead that it is or can become permanent…that it can be institutionalized. How does he make it all work? He simply borrows the idea of a contract from the English political theorists and applies it to a totally different reality. The result is a monstrous concoction, juridically and sociologically speaking, wherein human beings come together to make a “social contract” which is instantly imbued with mystical brotherhood and permeated by an infallible and omnipotent General Will. In this social contract, he goes on to say, the individual transfers or pours all himself into the General Will and cannot rescind or go back on this; if he attempts to do so, he must be killed. Thus the group becomes a totalitarian system in the sense that it can impose whatever it wants on its members. It is, in essence, the fraternity-terror theorized by Jean-Paul Sartre (JP Sartre, Italian ed., Critica della ragione dialettica, Il Saggiatore, Milan, 1976).
On the basis on this theory, Rousseau can be considered the father both of revolutionary terror and
of modern totalitarianism. Over the centuries he has found a following among the Jacobins, anarchists, Marx,
and Marxists of every shape and size. The erroneous starting point is always the same: the conviction that it is
possible to create or found an institution which perpetuates and embodies all the experiences, dreams,
and hopes of the nascent state.
The road that leads to democracy
At the opposite extreme with respect to the sort of French political theorizing inspired by Rousseau (with its postulated social contract that in turn generates a General Will without conditions or limits) stands the English school of political theory, according to the tenets of which the State and its Constitution are to be drawn up exclusively in keeping with reason and logic. John Hobbes is the first of these English theorists in time; he lived through the revolutionary era in England and was horrified by it. He describes it in his work as “a state of Nature” in which every man acts for himself and exclusively for himself. Each individual spontaneously tries to get or steal what he can from others and to subjugate them. The result is an all-out fight of everyone against everyone. The only way out of this blind ally of general hostility, anguish, and danger is for humankind to use its powers of reason. What bonds human beings together is not enthusiasm or faith or a collective movement but rather, on the contrary, logical reflection and the calculation of what is in one’s best interest. Since they are intelligent, they understand that they can conceivably surrender their power to someone in return for life and safety. And once they have given their power to a Sovereign, it will be this Sovereign’s duty to oblige them to live together in peace and according to the law.
By the time John Locke came on the scene, the revolutionary phase in England was definitively over and had left no despot on the throne to contend with. Accordingly, Locke did not have such a dark view of humanity and society. Social unrest could be attributed at most to uncertainties and fears. The English had had enough of authoritarian kings and tyrannical charismatic leaders on the order of Oliver Cromwell. They wanted laws, impartial judges, a parliament with real powers, and, last but not least, their rights respected. For Locke, those who govern are administrators, who are to there to serve the community and to guarantee the prosperity and well-being of all citizens. A Sovereign must never never infringe the natural and inalienable rights of his or her subjects. If the Sovereign takes away property or liberty from people, the citizenry has the right to rebel. With this extraordinarily clear and simple model, Locke created the foundation of the modern constitutional state. He is in truth the father of democracy.
And so this then is how modern democracy came into being: it all started with the declaration of rights and of the limits imposed on the Sovereign, whoever that may be. The very first right that needs to be respected is that of political freedom. The French Revolution , followed by those in the Soviet Union and in China, destroyed the democratic process because it considered dissent as treason, and it used the justice system to crush all opposition. In order to prevent this from happening, the Constitution must clearly guarantee impunity to all elected representatives (see Elias Canetti, Italian ed., Masse e potere, Adelphi, Milan, 1974) and also guarantee their right, even after an electoral defeat, to continue to compete in the political arena. Without these three elementary guarantees, there is no democracy. It is there for all the world to see that the political doctrines which stress the initial collective phase of merger and assembly and egalitarian representation are the same ones that deny these guarantees and that, despite all the promises to the contrary, lead to institutionalized political totalitarianism.
Movements and Institutions
According to the German philosopher Spengler, a given civilization is always characterized by such interconnected elements as its art, literature, mathematics, philosophy, architecture, and ways of thinking and feeling. Each part is the expression of the civilization’s mode of living. For Spengler, a civilization does not come out of a collective movement. If we stop and think a moment about the civilizations in India and China, as well as in Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome, none of those civilizations sprang out of a movement. If anything, they tended to exclude collective movements or to adopt measures to prevent them from forming. Their very way of thinking or feeling, together with their conception of the world and of space, kept the formation or growth of collective movements at bay. In Ancient Greek civilization, for instance, there was no positive conception of the future, nor of progress or the act of becoming. If anything, history as it advanced led to degeneration; first there was the golden age, then the bronze age and then the iron age. Perfection—the height of all that humanity could attain—was to be had at the start, at the source. And it was a gift from the gods, not a product or achievement of man. To Spengler’s mind, in Ancient Greece there was no sense in the least of historical time. An individual back then had no past and expected no future. This would make it very difficult for a movement (expanding as it does over time) to arise. The only scenario possible would be a movement that looked forward to a new golden age, to a cyclical return in time. Nevertheless, this precludes the imagining of anything new, anything superior to what existed at the start, at the source. For this reason when a nascent state, like that of the Dionysian cult, arose, it was necessarily framed in this context and there was consequently no expectation among its followers of a new world or way of living. At most, an individual of those times would have believed that it was possible to rationally construct a better society, on the order of the one proposed by Plato in The Republic. In Indian civilization the very idea of historical time is missing. There cannot, therefore, be any viewing of things in historical perspective. An extraordinary experience is set in an absolutely undetermined past. That past may have taken place yesterday or a million years ago, indifferently. At the same time, the solution to our existence—salvation or bliss—may be obtained as of right now, this minute. The state of Nirvana, to which Buddhists in India aspire, is not some individual or collective state to be reached sometime in the future. Rather, it exists for you or it doesn’t exist, now and immediately. You reach it via a process of illumination. Certainly, it cannot be a collective happening; it cannot be a profound transformation of society. By definition it is individual and personal. There are no social effects. It is inexpressible. Hence, it cannot lead to any sort of project. The repeated instances in Indian civilization of collective movements and nascent states—which one presumes to be lurking under the guise of the many salvation cults that have appeared there—are a manifestation of the experience of revelation and illumination, without going beyond that. Revelation and illumination are ends in themselves; contemplation is completion. Granted, even followers of Mahavira or Budda come together to form communities or communal religious orders. They think and believe the same things and feel camaraderie and a mutual sense of identification. Together they put together a life style and daily regime that allow them to pursue their beliefs. And yet, they do not feel any mission, any need to change or better the world; nor do they feel any need to build things in that world. Should they experience this at one time or another, they don’t give it any importance; it is soon forgotten, because what matters is ultimately the personal nature of the Illumination experience.
This analysis has helped us establish this fundamental point: that the collective movement as we know it, which is to say one that has at its start a nascent phase and ends up taking on some institutionalized form, is a product of history. Its origins lay in ancient religion, as practiced by the Jews, Zoroastrians, and Chaldeans, followed in time by the early Christians and agnostic sects. It is a fruit of those monotheistic religions that contained rather marked dual contrasts between good and evil, light and darkness, and God and Satan. In these religions, time is perceived as having a metaphysical and moral direction. In all these religions, furthermore, there is the concept of an original state of perfection. In the Zoroastrian religion, this state precedes the separation between good and evil; in Judaism and Christianity, it corresponds to the Garden of Paradise. A fall inevitably follows; there is some process of degradation that spawns the actual world. In Iranian religions this fall stems from the mixing of light and darkness; in Judaism and Christianity, it deprives from Adam’s original sin. Here, however, there is then the promise of future redemption; there will be a final battle, and the Last Judgment, when Evil will be defeated for all time and the dead will return to life. Above all it will be the dawning of the new Jerusalem. The Celestial City. This scenario—which is present in all religions arising in the Middle East during the first millennium before Christ—stems from a perception of the moral imperfection of the world and from a desire for its eschatological redemption. It was precisely this scheme of things, which progressively spread to the extreme outposts of Islam in Asia and to the extreme outposts of Christianity in the West, to supply the basic conceptual framework for the ‘nascent state’ in the form we have come to know it and for the collective movements typical of the Western world.
A question comes spontaneously to mind at this point: wasn’t there ever awareness of the experience of the nascent state in Ancient Greece? And were there ever any collective movements? I am convinced that the nascent state is a universal experience—a property, if you will, of the human nervous system—and therefore, yes, they must have existed even in Ancient Greece. That discovery of eureka by Archimedes was a nascent state. And in Ancient Greece, furthermore, a collective sort of nascent state led to the formation of communities. The discoveries made by Pythagoras, for instance, generated a political community. Likewise in Ancient Greece there were movements, like the one centred on the worship of Dionysus, which in turn gave rise to the cult’s sacred mysteries.
But the majority of political and religious formations did not arise from a collective nascent state. Rome did not come to exist for any such a reason, for example. Rome was created on the basis of an agreement, as a consequence of a rational decision. All those who adhered to and obeyed Roman laws became Romans. The furrows traced by Romulus to mark the location of the future walls of his town were a symbol of the inviolability of this pact. The community of believers began to form under the influence of Eastern religions. The Dionysian cult itself has similar origins. There is, furthermore, a probable Eastern influence behind the creation of Virgil’s Aeneid. The destruction of Troy is a loss, a fall from grace. The story revolves around Aeneas’ s hard climb to the top, as he prepares the way for the glorious future, i.e. the world empire of Rome. The events are not set in some apocalyptical time but rather in one that the poet was familiar with. Despite this semblance of realism, however, the tension of the story resembles that found in accounts taken from religions promising salvation. It is for this reason that in the Middle Ages Virgil was considered as a forerunner of Christianity. These considerations help us understand how it is that a society which gives central importance to collective movements and derives inspiration and energy from them owes its own creation to: the combination of this religious conception of time with the concept of subjectivity (i.e. the individualism first postulated in Ancient Greece by Socrates, and also with the rational planning skills of the ancient Romans. Western civilization springs from these three elements. The experience of a new beginning, the waiting for renewal and the anticipation of a marvellous future—the cardinal points of Christianity—began over time to be associated less with Heaven and more with life on earth, with a consequent impact on the shaping of ecclesiastical and political institutions. Saint Augustine, for instance, urged Christians to take up the legacy of the Roman Empire. Justinian dreamed of a re-launch of the latter, only with better, eternal-lasting laws. The monastic orders began to go through a transformatory renewal process with the objective of making the world more Christian-like. The Franciscans and Dominicans undertook the challenge of rendering society more religious and moral. Dante in his poetry called for a new Caesar capable of restoring order and justice. Calvin made an attempt to set up a Republic of Saints. Taken together, these movements and institutions, which constitute a coherent historical whole, provided the building blocks for a culturally-Christian civilization. What we have in front of us is a network of institutions, which arose in the past from collective movements and now provides other, budding movements with the concepts to use in their challenge to that very network. By encompassing and absorbing these movements, institutionalized society is enhanced and grows. There are five principle cultural civilizations, which have sprung from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Protestantism, and Marxism. All of them owe their origins to the same sources: the Zoroastrian (Mazdean) cult and Judaism. If Christianity was a heresy arising subsequently from Judaism, Islam was a prophetic extension of both the former and the latter. Protestantism came out of the split of the Christian world into Catholicism and the Protestant sects, the latter advocating a return to—or rediscovery of—the original Christian message. And although Marxism embraces atheism, it too proclaims that out of the struggle between good and evil (between the proletariat working class and the bourgeoisie) there will emerge a new state of paradise—that of true communism. (And since we are tracing origins and interconnections here, let us not forget that Karl Marx was a Jew.) It is wrong, however, to think that the phenomena of collective movements and nascent states are inherently linked to Western ideology. There have been numerous movements throughout history which have had nothing to do with the cultural civilizations cited above. Examples include the religion instituted by Egyptian Pharaoh Amenofis III, the revolt against the Romans by the Gallic chief Vercingetorige, and the rebellion against the Romans by the Brythonic Celtic Queen Boadicea. There were furthermore numerous salvation sects in India, although a large number of these were later reabsorbed into orthodox Buddhism and Hinduism. Then there have been the Cargo cult in Melanesia in the South-western Pacific Ocean, the dance of the spirits and the Indian wars, the Ming liberation movement, and, in Mexico, the popular cult prophesizing the return of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca. The nascent state is a universal property of the human mind, just as the experience of falling in love is a human universal. That said, it is only in the West that it has become such a strong determining force, giving rise to and shaping permanent communities and institutions, the end result of which has been the formation of cultural civilizations.
Excerpt taken from The Sources of All Dreams: my theories and my life, Italian ed. Il mio pensiero e la mia vita, Rizzoli, Milan, 2000