Marx famously said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” The implied analysis has become commonplace. Ordinary people suffer under a system of exploitation, and their hearts cry out for justice. Religion provides a symbolic satisfaction: God hears the cry of the oppressed and will give each due reward in the end (a convenient delay for those presently in positions of power). The people desire revolution, and in the agony of their impotence they project that desire onto a remote, divine figure powerful enough to break the chains of oppression. Like a narcotic, this pious belief in a just God dulls the pain of an unjust world.
The 1930s was a decade when many intellectuals were convinced that revolution, either fascist or communist, was the only answer to the social crisis of the times. It was during this era of political fervor that Simone Weil penned a rebuttal: “It is not religion but revolution which is the opium of the masses.” Like so much of what Weil wrote, it’s an arresting thought. And it’s also one that is true on many levels.
We should never discount the appeal of revolution as a holiday from the tedium of everyday life. I’m sure the students who occupied university administration buildings in the 1960s sincerely wanted to make the world a better place; but the way in which the events seemed to suspend ordinary time must have been intoxicating, even temptingly so. The same is probably true for some of our present-day Islamic revolutionaries, or at least their fellow travelers. Revolutions bring danger, but, like blizzards and hurricanes, they also lead to school cancellations.
The festival atmosphere of radicalism is one reason why the readers of Dickens’ great novel of revolution, A Tale of Two Cities , find the first line so memorable: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” If you weren’t knit into the memory of Madame DeFarge, then the parades of prisoners, the swirls of rumor, soldiers marching, patriots singing, and the excitement of being alive in a moment of historical drama must have had an obvious appeal.
Revolution also promises the perfect combination that I remember coveting when I was eighteen: high moral purpose and a chance to break the rules. As a late baby boomer, I’ve always been resentful. By the time I came of age, the sixties had pretty much relaxed into supine hedonism. I was denied the most delicious of possibilities: to take LSD, sleep with my girlfriend, and chalk it all up as a great blow for freedom.
Of course, revolutions are not all fun and games. They bring danger as well. Marching soldiers have real guns, and the street theater of protest can turn deadly. But here again we find something alluring. Lenin in his boxcar. Che out in the jungle in his dashing guerrilla outfit. Osama restoring true faith. Adventure appeals to the young, and the cries of revolution ring with it. Some folks want to be where the action is, which is why people monitor police radio, follow fire trucks, and go the city square when the revolutionaries are in the streets. It’s an important fact about human nature that the smell of tear gas attracts as much as it repels.
The appeals of holidays, transgressions, and adventures are not insignificant. In The Princess Casamassima , a novel set in the revolutionary atmosphere of the late nineteenth century, Henry James evokes these and other attractions of radical politics. In the title character, James depicts the way in which the ennui of the rich and powerful finds temporary distraction in the high moral purpose and existential danger of revolutionary conspiracy. But, to my mind, Weil wishes to convey a deeper insight, one quite relevant to our own day.
Human societies have seen riots, palace coups, conspiracies, and civil wars for centuries. I’m not concerned to dispute the magnificence of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but it was really on old-fashioned conspiracy for control of the levers of power. In contrast, the civil war that put the ax to the neck of King Charles a few decades earlier was the first modern revolution. The Roundheads wanted power so as to perfect society. Their project was to redeem rather than reform, and that ambition expresses the essence of modern revolution. It is not simply the desire to control or even reform society but rather to remake it from the ground up, and to do so on principles that will guarantee purity. We often use this dream, Weil suggests, to dull the pains of our existence.
How does the narcotic work? Weil was an austere Augustinian. She saw the human person as animated by a deep need for the spiritual. We are hardwired for worship, but this impulse toward the divine is blunted, redirected, and frustrated by our loyalty to finite goods that we falsely imagine will make us happy. We feel the lure of the divine, but it comes to us as a threat, for we must untangle ourselves from our love of the world in order to love God. We are torn: God calls us to ourselves, but we don’t want to hear. As much as our restless hearts desire God, we want as much or more to remain loyal to our present perverted selves.
By and large, modern men and women do not think of themselves in theological terms. Instead, we tend to moralize our existential anguish. The voice of conscience calls us to moral truth, but our investment in self-satisfaction stands in the way. We want to do the right thing, but we also want to satisfy our desires. We know ourselves called to serve moral truth, but we also nurture an inner rebellion that wishes to maintain the dominion of other, more self-serving loyalties. Thus the painful reality of human life, for when we rebel against conscience, we wage war against ourselves, as St. Paul points out in Romans 7:14“20.
The signature fantasy of modernity involves transferring the struggle for righteousness from the spiritual and moral to the material and political realm. We want to believe that the spiritual sickness that afflicts us is a function of some sort of social injustice: a lack of economic opportunity, racial or ethnic or gender discrimination, inequalities of status or education or income. We think that the glamour of evil rests in its current manifestations. If capitalism permits unjust exploitation, then away with the marketplace! Rousseau was the great theorist of this impulse. Since he thought that our pride and greed and self-accusing guilt stem from a social system built on hierarchical relations, he urged us to remake our social world so that all citizens are of equal standing. That this cultural revolution would require the destruction of all existing social institutions other than the state gave him little pause.
Faced with the painful inner struggle for righteousness, the dream of revolution can be irresistible. In fact, revolution symbolizes the deep psychological appeal of all leftist ideologies: to redirect the demands of conscience away from oneself and turn them into an aggressive, activist political agenda. An ersatz virtue¯having the politically correct opinions¯takes the place of real virtue. A grand political act, more often dreamt than performed, provides a rush of pseudo-moral rectitude. This is why socialism, so discredited by history, continues to exercise charm over the West. The drug of moral purpose made external and collective is hard to resist.
I don’t doubt that many wish to change society for all sorts of good and well-considered reasons. We all have a duty to serve the common good, and God knows that we have less than perfect legal, political, economic, and educational systems. The list of things needing improvement is long, and in some instances basic principles of human decency require deep resistance to the status quo. That was true for Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, more than fifty years ago, and it’s true today for those who pray their rosaries in front of abortion clinics. There is nothing about either religious faith or moral conscience that requires acquiescence to evil¯quite the contrary.
Nonetheless, just as many progressive rightly worry that conservatives mask their self-interest with ideology or support socially conservative causes out of an anxiety about living in a pluralistic liberal society, we should understand and guard against the allure of revolutionary politics. It is very, very appealing to turn moral imperatives into political ideologies. This allows us to fashion ourselves righteous by way of political commitments that are radical with respect to social change but conveniently discharge moral responsibility at a remove from our inner lives. We’re committed to changing the world rather than ourselves.
Marx wanted to get rid of the religion. “To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions,” he wrote. “The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” Doubtless religion can become a pie-in-the-sky faith that distracts us from our real moral obligations here and now. I feel the same way about revolution and radical politics. As an existential stance, one all too pervasive among those who fancy themselves progressive and engaged, grand schemes of social change fuel the illusion that we can solve the problems of human pain and suffering by redesigning the social and political order. So let us see revolution for what it so often is¯a halo around the dream that we can do justice to our moral vocations solely and simply by way of political action.
R.R. Reno is features editor for First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.