Eric Voegelin, a lesser known political philosopher from the 20th century, developed a theory of there being modern forms of Gnosticism, the ancient middle-eastern religion. He mostly ignores modern groups that go by the same name, though. Instead, he gives the title to certain radical political movements including Fascism and Marxism. I will be focusing on his use of the word “Gnostic” and how he attributes it to Marxists.
Gnosticism is founded on possession of hidden knowledge. This knowledge is a revelation based how the world ought to be rather than how it is. Gnosticism, however, is different from any type of morality. Its aim is to reconstruct a world, not individual people. He calls the Gnostic’s vision of the world a dream reality as the mechanics and design of the vision is not based on something found in the real world. Even for Gnostics critical of Utopic structures of society, as Marx was, the framework for the society that they wish to build can be found nowhere. It is by this dream reality that morals are formed rather than the other way around. This is a major part of what separates Gnosticism from other political philosophies. The vision is its own first principal. It is simple and cannot be questioned.
Voegelin gives the example of Gnosticism in a radical group of Puritans from the seventeenth century. Their vision was based on Judeo-Christian apocalyptic literature such as Isaiah 65:17-19 which prophesied: “For behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come to mind. But be you glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall no more be heard in her, nor the voice of crying.” From this image of New Jerusalem, the Puritans aimed to create their own Kingdom of God. This passage is generally accepted to be referring to an afterlife or new creation. These radical Puritans, though, took it to be a real city that would exist here on earth. It was for this city that they were preparing themselves for in their own communities. The passage from Isaiah reveals a Jerusalem that can only be described as other-worldly. In trying to create this in the world, these Puritans fell into the trap of Gnosticism.
An opposing method for creating a just city can be found in The Republic. Socrates assumes that certain parts of society are necessary based on the experience. It is out of the necessity for food that there are farmers, and the necessity of metal working that there are blacksmiths. By looking at the world, Socrates finds justice as something reflected in the world. Even if The Republic is arguably Utopic, it is not Gnostic.
Instead, the Gnostic has a glimpse of God’s true Kingdom, except it is here on Earth rather than in any world to come. The glimpse is gone as quickly as it came. This vision drives them to then create it so they may not just see it, but live in it also. They see it in a mirror, darkly, and wish to bring it about all at once. Before this comes, the realm of the devil must be overthrown to make way for that which was not, is not, but is to come. The foundation of Gnosticism is belief in this dualism and, between the two, their inevitable duel.
I use Christian imagery, as Voegelin does, to describe the Gnostic, but I’d like to be clear that it is not strictly, nor even primarily, a religious movement. In fact, the three examples that Voegelin gives of Gnosticism are Puritanism, Fascism, and Marxism. Two of the three are either non-Christian or even anti-Christian.
The purpose for this essay, though, is to demonstrate why Voegelin is right in categorizing Marxism as political Gnosticism. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx writes that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This view of history, in the context of his beliefs, is how Marx reveals the Gnosticism of his ideology. If all of human history is characterized by class struggle, Marx is not just fighting against the bourgeoisie, but also human nature. The class system is one of few parts of society, if there are any others, that has prevailed throughout all history.
What sort of man is supposed to populate Marx’s city? Every kind of man before Marx had created division. What is this new nature that the citizens would need? Division by class is inevitable if we are to accept Marx’s historical account. To make the future different from the past, there must be some kind of change in between.
The tendency towards class structures in society, in the context of Marx’s account, must be fundamental to humans. How else can it be the overarching theme of history? Feudalism was replaced by republicanism and democracy; religion went from being the center of communities to now being pushed to the sidelines; even cannibalism has had its time in the sun. There is huge variance between what was socially the norm in different times and places. Despite this, humans divide themselves by class. One generation passes away and another generation comes: but class struggle abides forever.
Some political philosophies try to use these aspects of human nature as their foundation. In fact, Adam Smith’s model of economics bases itself on the individual’s desire to compete with their neighbors. From this desire, competition is created. This can be seen in the great irony of the Cold War. In the Nuclear Arms Race, the Soviet Union, with the interest of outperforming their neighbor, the United States, was forced to compete in terms of military strength. The result was lightning fast progress in nuclear weaponry. The competition between states is fuelled by same human tendency that drives economic markets within a country. The principle of competitiveness of humans existed even in the most prominent Socialist country in world history.
To make a society classless, as Marx sets out to do, this part of human nature has to either be suppressed or eradicated. If there is any hope of removing the bourgeoisie, citizens have to stop desiring to be bourgeoisie. In order to achieve the goal of a classless society, something this desire has to change and the change has to be within human nature, itself.
This necessity of the transformation of nature can be summed up by Che Guevara, who said “To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman… Each and every one of us readily pays his or her quota of sacrifice, conscious of being rewarded with the satisfaction of fulfilling a duty, conscious of advancing with everyone toward the new man and woman glimpsed on the horizon.” To Guevara, even after almost one hundred years, the communist vision of the Kingdom of Heaven was still a glimpse on the horizon. The new man and new woman had not been created. The Gnostic is destined to chase after mirages and phantoms. They receive only glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven. Being without the knowledge to setup the reality they dream of, they are therefore left only with the ability to tear down the current system in preparation. It is from this that “permanent revolution” becomes inevitable. There is no end in sight. All they can do is destroy the realm of the devil in hope that the vision becomes clearer revealing to them the new land flowing with milk and honey. Fifty years after Guevara there has still not been success and there is nothing new under the sun.