Lost to Translation

May 1, 2009

Damn this multi-lingual world! 

Or at least that’s my immediate thought after reading this fascinating review of Communism as Religion: The Intellectuals and the October Revolution, Michail Rylkin’s history of the intellectuals who made the pilgrimage to Moscow in the wake of the Russian Revolution. It hasn’t been translated into English yet (grr!) so any real assessment of his fascinating main contention, that Communism during it’s early phases was a basically religious  movement, will have to wait, frustratingly.

But regardless of the fact the book ain’t on hand, here’s some stuff to chew on from the review:

We began with Ryklin’s idea of communism as a form of religion. Not a completely new idea. Why did he feel there was more mileage left in this perspective? “It is true,” he conceded, “the idea is not entirely new. But the point I am making is different from what has been said before. Communism has been regarded by authors like Raymond Aron and some German authors as a kind of substitute religion, or a pseudo-religion, perhaps a parody. They concede that it has a resemblance to religion but no more than that. I argue, on the other hand, that communism was in fact really a religion, perhaps the most important religion of the 20th century.” But how can it really be a religion without a god? “Yes, this is true, and it is precisely this feature that attracted so many intellectuals towards it. Having been brought up within monotheistic traditions, many of these intellectuals were drawn to Russia after the October Revolution of 1917 because they were fascinated by the idea of a country making something without God. The revolution was seen by them as an event that would solve the puzzle of history.

“But at the heart of communism lies a paradox, which is that the renunciation of God is the founding article of faith. In the zealous belief that they had moved beyond the realm of God and faith into the realm of the scientific laws of history, the revolutionaries and their supporters reveal themselves precisely to be true believers.

“And here we need to be able to think outside of the categories we have grown up with. There are of course different definitions of religion. No Christian or any monotheist will accept the definition of communism as a religion because for them the presence of God lies at the very root of defining what religion is. But it is only the religions of the book – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – which share a common origin in the Old Testament, that put such an emphasis on God. This is not the same for Buddhists, for example, for whom God is not important or is a secondary item in religion, and this is true of other religious systems.

“There is a scientific and sociological definition of religion that is very different. This view – as expressed in the work of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, as well as many anthropologists – defines religion as a kind of totalising experience, something for which people are prepared to sacrifice everything and which makes sense of their entire lives. By this definition, of course, communism is religion. For millions of people the sense of their lives was defined by communism as a set of beliefs. Communism was real religion.”

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