Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium

Norman Cohn's purpose in writing The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary messianism in medieval and Reformation Europe and its bearing on modern totalitarian movements, which was originally published in 1957 and then re-printed in 1961 in an expanded edition, was two-fold. First, Cohn intended to add to the exisiting literature on the "heresy" of the Free Spirit. "There exist only two comprehensive studies of the heresy of the Free Spirit," Cohn writes in a footnote. Neither of these studies -- Mosheim's De Beghardis et Beguinabus commentarius, which was published in 1790, and Jundt's Histoire du pantheisme populaire au Moyen Age et au 16e siecle, published in 1875 -- have been translated into English. And so Cohn's book was intended to be the very first comprehensive study of the Free Spirit in English.

One of the reasons for this dearth of historical research, Cohn notes, is that, "unlike the Cathars and the Waldensians," about whom a great deal has been published, "the adepts of the Free Spirit did not form a single church but rather a number of likeminded groups, each with its own messiah and each with its own particular practices, rites and articles of belief." Cohn's very ambitious book -- he reports in the first edition that it took him 10 years to write it -- attempts to gather together and present in chronological order translations of rare or previously unknown texts by and about many of these likeminded groups. A measure of the success of The Pursuit of the Millennium is the fact that it is cited as a reliable authority by people who otherwise disagree strongly with the conclusions its author makes on the basis of his research.

Let's take as our example a member of the Situationist International, a modern Marxist -- but anti-Nazi and anti-Communist -- revolutionary organization that was, not without some irony, strongly inspired by some of the groups described in Cohn's book. As Greil Marcus notes in >Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, the 11th (October 1967) issue of Internationale Situationniste includes a page in which a photograph that has been intentionally miscaptioned "ALLEGED MEETING PLACE OF THE INTERNATIONAL SITUATIONISTS IN PARIS" has been juxtaposed with the following unattributed quote from Cohn's book:

It is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims and premises are boundless . . . Whatever their individual histories, collectively these people formed a recognizable social stratum -- a frustrated and rather low-grade intelligentsia . . . And what followed then was the formation of a group of a peculiar kind,

-- as Marcus notes, the situationists here dropped out the phrase "a true prototype of a modern totalitarian party" --

a restlessly dynamic and utterly ruthless group which, obsessed by the apocalyptic phantasy and filled with the conviction of its own infallibility, set itself above the rest of humanity and recognized no claims save that of its own supposed mission . . . A boundless, millenial promise made with boundless, prophet-like conviction to a number of rootless and desperate men in the midst of a society where traditional norms and relationships are disintegrating -- here, it would seem, lay the source of that peculiar subterranean fanaticism.

The situationist Raoul Vaneigem, who knew the book in its French translation (which was published in the early 1960s under the title Fanatiques du l'apocalypse), cites Cohn as an indisputable authority in his free-spirited book The Revolution of Everyday Life.

The facts themselves will soon come to the aid of the mass of men in their struggle to enter at long last that state of freedom aspired to -- though they lacked the means of attaining it -- by those Swabian heretics of 1270 mentioned by Norman Cohn in his Pursuit of the Millennium, who "said that they had mounted up above God and, reaching the very pinnacle of Divinity, abandoned God. Often the adept would affirm that he or she had no longer 'any need of God.'"

This reference to Cohn's book was made in 1967. Some twenty years later, in his Movement of the Free Spirit, Vaneigem again cites Cohn as a reliable authority. "It is necessary to mention here a legend, substantiated by Norman Cohn and Romana Guarnieri, which originates not in any historical fact but in a novel by Georges Eekhoud. . . ." Such glancing references to The Pursuit of the Millennium may strike one as peculiar, because it is not a neutral book: it is in fact a relentless and spirited polemic. Cohn wrote it in part to expose and neutralize Marxist interpretations of the significance and nature of the movement of the Free Spirit.

Cohn notes that "the extent to which medieval heresy as such was a social protest by the unprivileged has been much debated." According to him, "the Marxist view maintained by Kautsky [in the book translated in 1897 as Communism in Central Europe in the time of the Reformation] and Beer [in the 1924 translation of Social struggles in the Middle Ages] and, with more scholarship, by de Stefano [in Riformatori ed eretici del medioevo] and Volpe [in Movimenti religiosi e sette ereticali nella societa medioevale italiana, secoli XI-XIV], is certainly an over-simplification." Elsewhere Cohn claims that, "in interpreting voluntary poverty as specifically a movement of the oppressed, Marxists such as Beer and Volpe certainly distorted the facts." And so The Pursuit of the Millennium was written to correct the over-simplifications and distortions made by Marxist historians.

But there is more to Cohn's relationship to Marxists and Communism than just this. For Cohn, "more curious" than the fact that the memory of the medieval free spirit Thomas Munzter "should have been venerated" by the Anabaptists, "even though he had never called himself an Anabaptist," "is the resurrection and apotheosis which he [Muntzer] has undergone during the past hundred years." Cohn continues:

From Engels down to the Communist historians of today -- Russian as well as German -- Marxists have inflated Munzter into a giant symbol, a prodigious hero in the history of the 'class war.' This is a naive view, and one which non-Marxist historians have countered easily enough by pointing to the essentially mystical nature of Muntzer's preoccupations, his general indifference to the material welfare of the poor. Yet it may be suggested that this point of view too can be over-emphasized. Munzter was a propheta obsessed by eschatological phantasies which he attempted to translate into reality by exploiting social discontent. Perhaps after all it is a sound instinct that has led Marxists to claim him for their own.

To Cohn, contemporary Marxists -- just like medieval prophetae such as Thomas Muntzer -- do nothing but exploit social discontent, and are totally unconcerned -- despite their grand-sounding pronouncements -- with eradicating its underlying causes. Indeed, Marxists actually need social discontent to continue uninterrupted, for, without it, there is nothing to recommend their "Communism," their "heaven on Earth." And so The Pursuit of the Millennium has a certain sort of built-in reversibility: it is as much about contemporary Marxism -- and German Nazism, which Cohn often mentions in the same breath as Communism -- as it is about medieval heresies.

In a key passage, Cohn writes:

As for the Communists, they continue to elaborate, in volume after volume, that cult of Thomas Muntzer which was inaugurated already by Engels. But whereas in these works the prophetae of a vanished world are shown as men born centuries before their time, it is perfectly possible to draw the opposite moral -- that, for all their exploitation of the most modern technology, Communism and Nazism have been inspired by phantasies which are downright archaic. And such is in fact the case. It can be shown (though to do so in detail would require another volume) that the ideologies of Communism and Nazism, dissimilar though they are in many respects, are both heavily indebted to that very ancient body of beliefs which constituted the popular apocalyptic lore of Europe.

Either people such as Thomas Muntzer anticipated and set the stage for the totalitarian leaders of the twentieth century, or people such as Lenin and Hitler were throw-backs to the leaders of heretical medieval sects. Take your choice: the results are the same. For Cohn, there is only massacre and terror to be expected from the realization of Munzter's or Hitler's or Lenin's respective "phantasies" of the "mystery and majesty of the final, eschatalogical drama"; there is only death and despair to be expected from these leaders' "restlessly dynamic and utterly ruthless group[s] which, obsessed by the apocalyptic phantasy and filled with the conviction of its own infallibility, set itself above the rest of humanity and recognized no claims save that of its own supposed mission." For Cohn, all three of them -- Muntzer, Hitler, Lenin -- are, in plain English, mentally ill. The theories of each sound like "a paranoiac expounding his private systematised delusion." All three were obsessed with purifying the world by destroying the agents of corruption, who are consistently identified as the Jewish people. As for the followers of these mass-murdering, anti-Semitic madmen, they are simply "the great mass of the disoriented, the perplexed and the frightened."

And so this is Cohn's ultimate message, despite the reversibility at the heart of his book: nothing has really changed in Northern Europe since the medieval period; for the last eight hundred years, Northern Europe has been a barbaric place.

Unlike Raoul Vaneigem, who merely uses Cohn's book as a reliable source of information (and does not call attention to the irony of his doing so), the situationist Guy Debord is explicitly interested in the strange reversibility contained within it. In his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, Debord writes:

The social revolt of the millenarian peasantry defines itself naturally first of all as a will to destroy the Church. But millenarianism spreads in the historical world and not on the terrain of myth. Modern revolutionary expectations are not irrational continuations of the religious passion of millenarianism, as Norman Cohn thought he had demonstrated in The Pursuit of the Millennium. On the contrary, it is millenarianism -- revolutionary class struggle speaking the language of religion for the last time -- which is already a modern revolutionary tendency that as yet lacks the consciousness that it is only historical.

And so Debord re-establishes the Marxist position (reversed by Cohn) that medieval free spirits such as Thomas Muntzer were really forerunners of today's social revolutionaries -- but he does so while making a crucial alteration in its fundamental assumptions.

The millenarians [Debord goes on to say] had to lose because they could not recognize the revolution as their own operation. The fact that they waited to act on the basis of an external sign of God's decision is the translation into thought of the practice of insurgent peasants following chiefs taken from outside their ranks. The peasant class could not attain an adequate consciousness of the functioning of society or of the way to lead its own struggle; because it lacked these conditions of unity in its action and consciousness, it expressed its project and led its wars with the imagery of an earthly paradise.

Unlike both Marxist and Nazi historians, Debord insists that the millenarians of the twentieth century must not make the same mistake made by their medieval predecessors. That is to say, Debord insists that modern millenarians will lose if they allow a "socialist" political party to conduct the revolution for them or on their behalf. Leaders must never be drawn from outside the ranks of the insurgents, and moments for insurrection must never be chosen on the basis of external signs or concerns. The revolution must be recognized and conducted as the operation of the millenarians themselves if it is to be successful.

[There is some irony in the fact that Debord's reversal of Cohn is not located in the chapter of The Society of the Spectacle entitled "The Proletariat as Subject and Representation," in which it clearly belongs -- precisely because Cohn himself uses the word "proletariat" to designate the mass of urban workers who consistently participated in "heretical" movements and micro-societies throughout the Middle Ages. Instead, Debord places his reversal of Cohn in the chapter entitled "Time and History," which seems to indicate that Debord is uncomfortable with the fact that he himself is (still) a Marxist; it indicates that Debord is uncomfortable with the validity of Cohn's attacks on Marxism. Or, rather, it indicates that Debord knows that his situationist Marxism must be clearly set apart from "Marxist" Communism, from the Marxism of Lenin and Stalin. This setting apart is in fact accomplished in "The Proletariat as Subject and Representation," which evaluates and strongly criticizes both the Marxists and the Bakunists, who, in their own time, clashed with the Marxists over their support for authoritarian use of state power to abolish class society.]

Unfortunately, neither Debord nor Vaneigem nor Marcus undertake a sustained discussion of The Pursuit of the Millennium -- that is to say, of how its author demonstrates the opposite of what he sets out to do, of how the book in fact shows:

1) that the medieval "heresy" of the Free Spirit is not doomed to be reborn in fascist or otherwise authoritarian milieus, and that it can in fact be reborn in anarchist or otherwise anti-authoritarian formations;
2) that "heaven on earth" is in some sense historically possible, that is to say, realizable, in the modern era.

Not surprisingly -- given the fact that "Never work" is a central, if not the central situationist slogan -- the theme of refusing to work for one's living is a consistent one in The Pursuit of the Millennium, or, rather, it is a consistent theme in the various pronouncements of the adepts of the Free Spirit over the course of some six centuries. Cohn notes that Irenaeus interpreted the remark, attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, "And I appoint unto you a kingdom . . . that ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom," as meaning that "during the Millennium the Saints would do no work but would sup of a banquet prepared for them by God with all sorts of fine dishes." Cohn notes that for Joachim of Fiore,

The Age of the Spirit was to be the sabbath or resting-time of mankind. In it there would be no wealth or even property, for everyone would live in voluntary poverty; there would be no work, for human beings would possess only spiritual bodies and would need no food; there would be no institutional authority of any kind.

Cohn notes that John of Leyden (aka Jan Bockelson) wrote that, come the New Jerusalem, "all things were to be in common, there was to be no private property and nobody was to do any more work, but simply trust in God." Cohn notes that the "phantasy" of never working was part of the Roman Stoics' legend of the Golden Age, in which (in the words of Seneca) "no labourers ploughed up the soil, nobody was allowed to mark out or divide the ground; when men [sic] put everything into a common store, and the earth bore all things more freely because none demanded it."

In addition to all this, Cohn notes that, throughout the six centuries under consideration, millenarians actually did refuse to work for relatively long periods of time. The flagellants of Thuringia in the 1360s; the Beghards of Colonge in the 14th century; the radical Taborites in 1419-1420 -- all of them refused to work, even if or precisely because it meant becoming destitute and having to beg for bread "for God's sake." But for Cohn, these attempts at "heaven on earth" were "wildly impractical," and consequently led to the abandonment of these "anarcho-communistic experiments." He contrasts them with the German Peasants' War, in which

the peasants showed themselves not at all chiliastically minded but, on the contrary, politically minded in the sense that they thought in terms of real situations and realisable possibilities. The most that a peasant community ever sought under the leadership of its own peasant aristocracy was local self-government; and the first stage of the movement, from March 1525 to the beginning of May, consisted simply of a series of local struggles in which a great number of communities really did extract from their immediate lords, ecclesiastical or lay, concessions giving them greater autonomy. And this was achieved not by bloodshed but by an intensification of the tough, hard-headed bargaining which the peasantry had been conducting for generations.

The intended polemical parallel with conditions in the twentieth century couldn't be clearer: if only the working-classes would abandon their wildly impractical "chiliastic" hopes for revolutionary change, and just stick to working for reforms within the trade union ("bargaining") format! In case his readers have any doubts about this, Cohn insists that the question has at any rate become academic, closed. "In the seventeenth century," he states simply, "voluntary poverty was no longer practicable as a consistent way of life." Incredible as it seems, this is what Cohn would have his readers believe: that with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, never working became not more possible, but impossible. Quite obviously, he's wrong. As a matter of fact, the Industrial Revolution was truly or was only "revolutionary" in that, for the first time in human history, it made the "phantasy" of never working a real, actualizable possibility. But Cohn isn't the only one who refuses to admit that something profound changed in Northern Europe since the Medieval period: our whole society is based upon the stubborn refusal to admit that work is no longer necessary, that "heaven on earth" is realizable now, for everyone, and without the need for either bargaining or bloodshed.

If the slogan "Never work" doesn't strike you as heresy, it can only be because -- after centuries of becoming historical -- the dream of not working is no longer an illusion or a matter of speculative doctrine. Never working has become something for the eye to see and desire, and for the hand to reach out for, hold and enjoy.



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