‘Happiness is a new idea in Europe,’ the austere, implacable revolutionary Louis de Saint-Just wrote in 1791, as events in France were moving swiftly towards the establishment of a republic and the onset of Terror. The French Revolution was (if we prefer not to go back so far as the Renaissance) the cradle of modernity. It carried the aspirations of those reformers who as the 18th century progressed turned their backs on religion and the promise of an eternal afterlife as the hope of sinful man and looked for ways to improve the lot of humanity in the here and now. French philosophes and English Utilitarians made war on superstition and prejudice and sought to promote ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. In the eyes of many observers then and since, the outcome was the emergence of a new religion, the ‘religion of politics’.
That is the starting-point of Michael Burleigh’s book, which examines the working-out of the relationship between politics and religion in Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution’s cataclysmic assault on what Voltaire had denounced as ‘l’infame’. Churches had to operate in a new environment of rampant nationalism, out-of-the-closet secularism and burgeoning socialism. They made their various accommodations to the changed map of the political world. In Germany and Great Britain Protestantism played a central part in the forging of national identity and Christian Socialism in England was the herald of a non-Marxist Labour party. But the roadway led eventually, many historians have argued, to 20th-century totalitarianism. Burleigh is not the first of them to trace its antecedents to the well-documented aspiration of Jacobinism to enclose all French people within its intellectual compass by a ruthless stamping out of dissent in the name of progress, liberty and equality. Jacobinism triumphant was an unedifying spectacle, and Burleigh attributes its bloody excesses to the fanaticism of politics as religion. It is true that in their messianic zeal for the regeneration of the French nation the Jacobins sought to remould the minds and manners of the French people in ways that foreshadowed Mao’s Cultural Revolution. But it is unjustifiable to accuse them of implementing ‘a programme of mass murder’ in the Vendée and elsewhere and an abuse of language to call it ‘genocide’. It was not simply ideological passion and moral certainty that drove on the Jacobins. By the time of the Terror France had fallen into civil war. The new republic was fighting for its life against counter-revolution and the threat of foreign intervention. So fierce is Burleigh’s hostility to the revolutionaries that his tone becomes more polemical than historical; the venom of his sneering language is more suited to the hustings than to scholarship. The initial welcome given to the revolution by Wordsworth and Southey is ‘the political equivalent of juvenile acne’; Victor Hugo’s father lays his ‘grubby’ hands on Spanish paintings; and it is gleefully recorded that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, after landing in France, makes a point of visiting the counter-revolutionary Vendée, ‘skipping audiences with French intellectuals’.
At any rate, Jacobinism’s heyday was brief. The enduring legacy of the 18th century and the French revolution was the demise of the assumption that had so long prevailed in Europe that successful government required the ethical foundation that only religion could provide. The most potent offspring of the revolution was nationalism. Just as religion did, nationalism offered, in Burleigh’s words, ‘to fulfil a human need for intense belonging’. The instrument of that fulfilment was no longer to be the church, but the nation-state. After 1815, the year of Napoleon’s final defeat and of the reactionary (though chiefly symbolic) Holy Alliance of the Russian, Prussian and Austrian monarchies, nationalist movements of various hues sprang up all over Europe, some in emulation of French liberal reform, some, especially the German variety, in reaction against French intellectual dominance and Napoleonic imperialism.
The papacy and the Orthodox patriarchy denounced liberal and nationalist rebellion against installed authority wherever it raised its head. Pope Gregory XVI preached ‘obedience and submission as advocated by St Paul’ to the Polish Roman Catholic rebels against Tsarist rule and even the Greek nationalists were denounced by Patriarch Grigorios V for rising up against the savage rule of the ‘infidel’ Ottoman Turks. But nationalist revolution was unstoppable and Burleigh documents the inflammatory rhetorical mix that religion and politics made. The German romantic nationalist, Ernst Arndt, called upon his countrymen ‘to be a nation, to have one feeling for one cause, to come together with the bloody sword of revenge’. That, he said, was ‘the religion of our times’. The unification of Germany, Talleyrand agreed, had become a ‘religion, carried even to fanaticism’. No one was more colourful in the use of religious language than Mazzini, the founder of Young Italy, who called upon his followers to ‘rise again as a religious party’ and to worship at the twin altars of Fatherland and humanity.
That the repeated use of religious metaphors meant that politics had been elevated into a religion is far from self- evident and Burleigh is no more able than 19th-century enemies of liberalism were to show that it was so. From the long annals of European autocracy it is more demonstrable that, in their support of royalism and conservatism, church hierarchies turned religion into politics. ‘No bishop, no king’ was not an empty phrase, though by the end of the 19th century it had become one. The century, Burleigh writes, that ‘commenced with the near universality of the confessional state under which one religion, or Christian denomination, was privileged by the state’ ended with that arrangement having been ‘abandoned, or modified almost beyond recognition’. Today, as a result, European churches has been able ‘to recover their spiritual and social mission’, while states have been delivered from ‘the sometimes deleterious influences’ exerted by ‘over-mighty churches’. Burleigh is not exactly fond of the Enlightenment, but that was an outcome to please the philosophes.