Jules Monnerot and the Concept of  ‘Political Religion’

by Mark English

Jules Monnerot [1909–1995] was born and spent his early years in Martinique where his father (also Jules) was a lawyer and left-wing activist. Jules Monnerot, fils went from being a Marxist in his youth to being a cold warrior after World War 2, subsequently moving further to the Right.

Some see him as having been a fascist in his later years. Dan Stone, for example, tracing Monnerot’s intellectual trajectory, highlights the preoccupations of the Collège de Sociologie which Monnerot co-founded in 1937 and suggests that the notion of “secular religion,” which formed the basis of Monnerot’s mid-century critique of the extreme Left, played into his gradually-evolving – and allegedly fascist – stance.

The Collège de sociologie did promote ideas (about the sacred, for example, and a kind of anti-rationalistic primitivism) which could be seen to exhibit similarities to or, at least, compatibilities with some fascist ideas. But it was a loose alliance of intellectuals concerned with directions in the arts and the broader culture and in social research, not a political organization.

Though there are many ways of using and understanding concepts like “secular religion” or “political religion,” one common (and I think quite acceptable) way involves highlighting psycho-social parallels between the behaviors and attitudes of members of religious groups – as we typically see and understand them today or as we know them from historical sources – and those of people who are bound together by political ideology or other other kinds of secular allegiance. Such parallels might include the following: in-group/out-group dynamics; a set of core values and beliefs that is seen as being in some sense “sacred,” or at least not to be questioned, and which forms the basis of decisions concerning inclusion and exclusion (the blasphemy concept is relevant here); a tendency to sanctify or make heroes of founding figures and prominent practitioners of the past and to demonize opponents and apostates; moral certainty, and a sense that a vindication of core values and a fulfillment of goals and expectations will be forthcoming; an important role for ritual; and so on.

Such comparisons may be merely observational and descriptive but, more often than not, comparisons between religious and political structures are critiques and have a polemical aspect. For example, authors aligned with a specific church or denomination may present political ideologies as ersatz religions, as weak or dangerous religion-substitutes. Thinkers ill-disposed to religion may take a similar line. In both cases, drawing parallels with religion is specifically designed to undermine the credibility of the ideology in question.

My focus here is on Monnerot the cold warrior of the late 1940s and early 1950s and specifically on a defense that Monnerot made of his position that was prompted by an attack on his ideas by Hannah Arendt.

Monnerot’s works are written in an erudite but journalistic style. They do not purport to be empirical or scholarly studies. Certainly, they do not aspire (as Max Weber’s works generally do) to sociological neutrality. When, in Sociologie du communisme (1949), Monnerot compares contemporary communism with historical Islam, he is consciously engaged in a polemic. He is seeking to draw attention to the dangers implicit in Marxist ideology which he interprets as a political mythology. He calls his approach “aetiological” and “clinical,” and sees himself as exploring the politico-mythological causes of social and cultural maladies.

Specifically, it was Monnerot’s utilization of the concept of secular religion which prompted Arendt’s ire. Both Monnerot and Arendt took religion very seriously but their perspectives on religion were far apart. Arendt was operating within a broadly Kantian context and her views were heavily influenced by Christian thinkers of the past and by the liberal theology of her time. Monnerot (like other members of the Collège de Sociologie) was not associated with these traditions of thought but nor was he advocating an entirely secular or science-based point of view. The sacred meant something for him, something real, something which had a continuing relevance. It could manifest itself in various ways and contexts: in ordinary life, in the arts, in politics. Monnerot was particularly interested in political manifestations of the sacred. But the ideologies of the time didn’t measure up and were flawed in various ways. Communism, for example, was an unstable hybrid of rationalistic and religio-philosophical elements.

“For Monnerot,” speculates Stone, “this belief that modern ideologies functioned as substitute religions – “a direct link relation between eschatology and villainy” – meant that he accepted the need for an “authentic” sense of the sacred; his rejection of communism [as a political religion] meant that he nevertheless continued in his quest for a suitable alternative, in a way that anti-communist liberals such as [Raymond] Aron did not.”

The main problem with Communism, according to Monnerot, was related to its intrinsically totalitarian and universalistic nature. It sought to subvert all local loyalties. He saw it as operating much like historical manifestations of Islam in seeking to dominate all aspects of life. And the ultimate goal was to dominate the entire world, to create a universal state.

“As universal state,” argues Monnerot, “it would seek to abolish all the differentiations which keep the world divided into distinct and individual units (the most recent unit of this kind being the nation). In its role as secular religion, communism encourages and harnesses discontent, it reinforces and exploits every impulse which sets individuals against their native society and works relentlessly to undermine the vital psychological and social forces which prevent societies from plunging into dissolution and ruin.”

Though Arendt moved in left-wing circles (her family were socialists, her mother was a follower of Rosa Luxemburg, her first husband had communist links and her second husband was a Marxist), she did not see herself as left-wing. Most of her political thought and activism was preoccupied in one way or another with Jewish themes and specifically with combating anti-Semitism.

Given that she was not a communist or a committed Marxist, her strong negative reaction to Monnerot’s attempt to compare Communism with Islam seems to call for an explanation. She claims that politics and religion are incompatible concepts. Especially puzzling is her use of the concept of blasphemy. She accuses Monnerot of blasphemy (against whom or what exactly?).

From what I have read, even scholars who are very sympathetic to Arendt concede that she is not at her best in this encounter with Jules Monnerot. And Monnerot, however his later views are understood or interpreted, makes some strong and valid points in the letter he sent to the editor (Henry Kissinger, no less) of the journal which had published Arendt’s critique of his work. While not endorsing Monnerot’s broader point of view, I think his criticisms of Arendt for rejecting out of hand any possibility of overlap between the political and the religious are entirely justified. I also share Monnerot’s puzzlement concerning Arendt’s blasphemy accusation.

Here are some excerpts from Monnerot’s letter:

Ms. Arendt cites Kierkegaard, Pascal, Dostoievski […] but she also draws on Marx and particularly on his shifting and somewhat imprecise notion of ideology. In Marx’s writings, the notions of superstructure and ideology are sometimes interchangeable. Sometimes “ideology” is one of the superstructures (others being law, the arts, religion); sometimes “ideology” and “superstructure” are synonymous such that art and law, for example, are seen as “ideological” phenomena. The same can be said of religion within a Marxian framework. […] We do not find in Marx an absolute opposition of ideology and religion. It is Ms. Arendt who decrees that there must be such an opposition, but without any justification.

“God is not only a late arrival in religion; it is not essential that he should come.” Reacting to this sentence (quoted in my book, Sociologie du communisme), Ms. Arendt speaks of “blasphemy”. What is blasphemy? A sacrilege in words. It is sacrilege only by reference to the sacred. It is only in the name of something sacred (a revelation, a church) with the speaker standing, as it were, inside this invisible sacred enclosure that a proposition can be considered as blasphemous. Concerning the nature of this sacred reality in whose name Ms. Arendt cries anathema, we can only conjecture. Is it just a case of verbal inflation, of empty literary rhetoric? […] Ms. Arendt believes that in the book Sociologie du communisme I blasphemed. The communists felt similarly. I understand perfectly why they reacted as they did. They saw what I was saying as blaspheming against certain beliefs or values which they held to be sacred. I am less sure what it is in the name of which Ms. Arendt’s claims against me are being made.

Ms. Arendt writes: ” … We no longer live merely in a secular world which has banished religion from its public affairs, but in a world which has eliminated God from religion, something which Marx and Engels still believed to be impossible.” This claim involves a clear misinterpretation of the concept of religion. In Hinayana Buddhism (or in Vedanta before it) there is […] no God. But there are monasteries and pilgrims. The movement spread, then ebbed. It was born, grew, declined. It persists today. Historians, whatever confession or absence of confession they themselves belong to, are in the habit of calling it a religion.

Setting aside details of the evolutionary schemas utilized by the pioneers of the religious sociology of primitive peoples, their way of seeing the whole of humanity as being interconnected and their insistence on a kind of continuity between very lofty and very humble things had a positive impact on Western thinking. From this perspective, a higher or universal religion – which exceeds by definition the limits of a race, or of any “closed society” – is the most complex […] form. A glance at history teaches us that such complex forms arise quite late, that they presuppose, and derive from, previous contingent forms. […] Nor are such complex and differentiated forms immune to regressions. […] The expression “secular religion” (the adjective at once modifying and specifying the meaning of the noun) can, within this framework, be usefully employed in connection with communism, just as it can with respect to Hitlerism. This may be theologically absurd, but it is not sociologically absurd.

[…] The “bourgeois” communist is an agent of self-destruction of the real in the name of the unreal. Communist beliefs about the function of the Red Army or that of the State Security Ministry are not realistic representations. What such Marxists put above mankind they do not call God but, if one analyzes their thought, one arrives at the conclusion that what is being actualized is a conception of the human species as an alienating and mystifying abstraction (as the Marxists would say if they applied their criticism to themselves).

Functionally speaking, the human species – conceived in relation to a recognizably providential view of history, courtesy of Hegel – plays the role of a kind of divinity within Marxist thought.

In both the Russian and Chinese communist systems […] man suffers from separation from himself. The movement of history will cure it, but only in terms of the species. The individual person in this system, the individual who is this one or that one, you or me, is (as I have previously written) “the manure of history.” […]

The communist has an answer to everything. This phenomenon characterizes unitary orthodoxies. Such a system of ideas rejects what cannot be assimilated and assimilates the rest. And the elements it assimilates it renders homogenous, changing them beyond recognition.

15 comments

  1. Baehr, Peter.(2010) Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism, and the social sciences.

    “…Do the previous two subsections entirely negate Arendt’s objections to secular religion theory? They do not. Her concern to avoid conflating things best kept apart remains cogent. And, sociologically, clear distinctions can be drawn between identities that attach to transcendental or divine religions and those that cleave to totalitarian ideologies; the former are far more durable than the latter. The zeal of Nazi ideology was quickly shed; Bolshevism took a little longer to dissipate. Both proved to be historically evanescent. In contrast, Abrahamic religions are the great survivors, capable of renewal over centuries. What explains that difference? The key to it, surely, is that ideologies like National Socialism
    and communism proved culturally shallow. It is easy to imagine a world without them. It is much harder to conceive of a world without Islam. A related point is that while military and po liti cal defeats appear to kill totalitarian ideologies, they are not terminal for world philosophies or divine religions.”

    Baehr has a chapter of his book discussing this dispute. However, his argument here could as easily be turned onto the difference between cults and religions – the former are just early or unsuccessful. Baehr also quotes Toqueville [1856] on the French Revolution:

    The Revolution in France formed a “body of doctrine” that was a “sort of political Gospel or Koran.” It proselytized much in the same way that “Islam simultaneously had soldiers, apostles, and martyrs.” Indifferent to borders or national distinctions, the French Revolution and the Reformation radiated across regions…

    When one considers modern French secularism, one could argue some characteristics have persisted.

    Now Arendt’s argument against social science “functionalism” seems to be a plain language philosophical one. I’m just listening to a criminologist saying that radical Islamists arising in the West do so mainly for social and psychological reasons (alienation, unemployment, mental illness). Arendt would say, I think, that one should concentrate on the actual ideas and arguments being offered. We are not “thinking stones” falling under the inexorable gravity of social forces, but agents that are picking and choosing.

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    1. “When one considers modern French secularism, one could argue some characteristics have persisted.”

      Not certain I understand what you mean with that sentence. Of course, the French feel that their way to deal with religion is the right one. They probably believe that the world would be a better place if everybody accepted their view on laïcité. But I think the US and the UK are just as convinced *they* got it right, and are equally convinced the world would be a better place etc.

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      1. Yes, I am by no means saying it is a strong argument. However, one can easily find statements like:

        La République est une philosophie avant d’être un régime; elle est une Eglise, une Eglise
        laïque dont le dogme est la libre pensée et dont le prêtre est l’instituteur.

        and how this interacts with French Catholicism – clericalism v. anticlericalism. But don’t forget, the first intellectual movement described by its enemies as a secular religion was atheism, at least according to Arendt. Baehr does give a great quote, that

        Engels decried the tendency (polemically fashionable in his day) to equate atheism with religion, with the lampoon that “this makes about as much sense as calling chemistry an alchemy without the philosopher’s stone.

        Of course, many people do think just that, except running backwards.

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      2. In light of what Couvent 2014 says, if one considers communism to be a religion, then any widely and deeply held belief system about social reality which combines rational and irrational elements, must be considered a religion. The beliefs in American exceptionalism, in the Free World and in the white man’s burden would be religions too.

        Why don’t we limit the use of the word “religion” to refer to widely and deeply held belief systems which contain elements of the supernatural or which are part of a tradition of widely and deeply held belief systems containing elements of the supernatural (I speak of being part of a tradition so as to include certain forms of Reform Judaism which do not incorporate the supernatural as well as contemporary forms of Buddhism).

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  2. David

    Thanks for your comment. Peter Baehr is a significant thinker in his own right. But he (like everyone else in this debate) is implicitly defending a broader point of view.

    You say that Baehr’s argument could “as easily be turned onto the difference between cults and religions – the former are just early or unsuccessful.” As you suggest, the distinction between cults and religions is not absolute.

    Baehr: “The key to it, surely, is that ideologies like National Socialism
    and communism proved culturally shallow. It is easy to imagine a world without them. It is much harder to conceive of a world without Islam.”

    This imagining game makes little sense to me. The world is as it is.

    Baehr continues: “A related point is that while military and political defeats appear to kill totalitarian ideologies, they are not terminal for world philosophies or divine religions.”

    You could frame this differently and see traditional forms of Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism (which were closely integrated into the fabric of social and intellectual life in Europe and elsewhere) as being in long-term, terminal decline, while radical and fundamentalist forms re-emerge.

    I do not see political religion as such as evanescent, though particular manifestations, e.g. Hitlerism (as Monnerot calls it) can quickly pass. We are constantly in the midst of political and social cults of various kinds, and they often bear resemblances one to another. Sometimes (as with Marxism) you can trace the history over considerable periods of time.

    “Now Arendt’s argument against social science “functionalism” seems to be a plain language philosophical one. I’m just listening to a criminologist saying that radical Islamists arising in the West do so mainly for social and psychological reasons (alienation, unemployment, mental illness). Arendt would say, I think, that one should concentrate on the actual ideas and arguments being offered. We are not “thinking stones” falling under the inexorable gravity of social forces, but agents that are picking and choosing.”

    There are different strands of “ordinary language” philosophy. Some of them are aligned with Kantian approaches to morality and free will, some are not. Arendt was, as I pointed out, a committed Kantian and she was greatly influenced by the liberal Christian theology of her time.

    The quote from Tocqueville is very apropos.

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  3. Hi Mark: I happen to be reading Fritz Stern, “Five Germanys I Have Known”. He speaks of giving a lecture in Paris soon after Arendt’s death. He says “I spoke of her as a moraliste, a cultural critic trained in German idealism under the tutelage of Karl Jaspers and Heidegger, who then experienced radical uprootedness and discovered how easy it was to be stripped of the normal attributes of life, citizenship, civil rights, and home.” This sounds right to me.

    You say she was “a committed Kantian and she was greatly influenced by the liberal Christian theology of her time.” Which theology do you have in mind?

    Alan

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  4. Hi Mark: I happen to be reading Fritz Stern, “Five Germanys I Have Known”. He speaks of giving a lecture in Paris soon after Arendt’s death. He says “I spoke of her as a moraliste, a cultural critic trained in German idealism under the tutelage of Karl Jaspers and Heidegger, who then experienced radical uprootedness and discovered how easy it was to be stripped of the normal attributes of life, citizenship, civil rights, and home.” This sounds right to me.

    You say she was “a committed Kantian and she was greatly influenced by the liberal Christian theology of her time.” This surprises me. Which theology do you have in mind?

    Alan

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  5. Hi Alan

    The borders between philosophy and theology are ill-defined. There is theology and/or mysticism in certain forms of idealism (or should I say idealism in certain forms of theology?). Western philosophy came to be within a theological matrix (Christian, Christian Platonist…) and much of the tradition remained (remains?) very close to those origins, as I see it.

    Hannah Arendt intended at one point to major in theology; just about all the thinkers who influenced her were either explicitly Christian or heavily influenced by Christian philosophy. Even Heidegger started out as a Catholic interested in scholastic philosophy before rejecting Catholicism for a liberal Protestant position and then moving to something else entirely. Jaspers (who probably influenced Arendt more than any other teacher or friend) drew on Christian mystics and was a follower of Kant (whom I see as a profoundly Christian thinker, especially in respect of his concerns with morality and human freedom) and of Kierkegaard. The work of Jaspers has been enthusiastically embraced by Christian theologians.

    As I noted, in her attack on Monnerot, Arendt talked about blasphemy and quoted Christian writers like Pascal and Kierkegaard. The major (unfinished) work Arendt was engaged in writing in her later years was based on broadly Kantian ideas.

    From the blurb of Hannah Arendt and Theology by John Kiess:

    “Recent years have seen a growing appreciation of [Arendt’s] complex relationship to theological sources, especially Augustine, the subject of her doctoral dissertation and a thinker with whom she contended throughout her life. This book explores how Arendt’s critical and constructive engagements with theology inform her broader thought, as well as the lively debates her work is stirring in contemporary Christian theology on such topics as evil, tradition, love, political action, and the life of the mind.”

    Kiess argues that Arendt’s early training in theology had a profound and lasting effect on the way she thought and the way she approached the themes which characterize her work. Two early influences were the eclectic Catholic theologian Romano Guardini and Rudolf Bultmann. She explicitly engaged with Bultmann (as did Jaspers), but seems to have had more in common with Guardini who first introduced her to Kierkegaard.

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    1. Thanks Mark, that certainly broadens by sense of Arendt’s background and interests. I guess I was taking “liberal Christian theology of her time” rather narrowly. I would see Bultmann as existentialist rather than liberal, and Kierkegaard would not count as “of her time” — though I think he was only appreciated in her time.

      Perhaps Tillich is the person best counted as a liberal theologian of her time. I would not be surprised if they knew each other. No doubt the Kiess book has more to say.

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  6. s. wallerstein

    I started to make some notes prompted by your comment which may (or may not) form part of a future article. Here is the gist of my response…

    You wrote: “[I]f one considers communism to be a religion, then any widely and deeply held belief system about social reality which combines rational and irrational elements, must be considered a religion.”

    Communism is not being presented as a religion pure and simple but as a *secular (or political) religion*. And, yes, other such systems of belief (I would say belief *and practice*) can be seen as secular religions also.

    “The beliefs in American exceptionalism, in the Free World and in the white man’s burden would be religions too.”

    I would see these ideas as being part of broader systems of belief and practice (American “civic religion”; the complex set of institutions associated with the British Empire; etc.), not as secular religions in their own right.

    “Why don’t we limit the use of the word “religion” to refer to widely and deeply held belief systems which contain elements of the supernatural or which are part of a tradition of widely and deeply held belief systems containing elements of the supernatural?”

    This remains the primary meaning of the word. Nothing I said or quoted Monnerot as saying should be interpreted as denying this.

    “I speak of being part of a tradition so as to include certain forms of Reform Judaism which do not incorporate the supernatural as well as contemporary forms of Buddhism.”

    Yes, well, definitions always seem to require adjustments to fit non-prototypical cases. But I myself question whether a religion, like Buddhism or Judaism, say, remains a religion if it gives up on the supernatural. Doesn’t it then become a kind of “ex-religion”, qualitatively different both from the traditions it grew out of and from the secular (political) religions discussed above?

    Qualitative differences matter. For me this is where the real interest lies. Broad categorizations only take us so far.

    That said, a commitment to the view that every social or historical phenomenon must ultimately be analysed qualitatively and in its own terms is perfectly consistent with holding that comparisons between the way secular ideologies (or, better, this or that secular ideology) and religions (or this or that religion) work can throw important light on the respective phenomena.

    No social institution exists in a vacuum. Not only are there always comparisons — synchronic and diachronic (i.e. contemporaneous and historical) — to be made with other social or cultural phenomena, the phenomena themselves are what they are in part by virtue of other comparable or related phenomena. And the elements which constitute these phenomena are what *they* are only by virtue of other (contrasting) elements within the system.

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    1. Communism is a fairly complex phenomenon. Do we date it from the Communist Manfesto in 1848 or from the Russian Revolution in 1917? It includes instances of outright totalitarian regimes, the Soviet Union under Stalin or
      China under Mao and also less repressive authoritarian dictatorships such the Soviet Union under Khruschev and Gorbachev or Cuba under the Castro brothers or Yugoslavia under Tito. What’s more, communist parties exist today: I live in Chile where there is a communist party (which is in a direct line of continuity from the pro-Soviet party of the cold war era), which gets around 5 or 6% of the vote and has several deputies in the lower house of congress (we have semi-proportional representation) and has elected mayors in some important municipalities.

      Are all of the above secular religions or only Soviet communism and its Western followers at the time Monnerot wrote the book, in 1949 at the height of the cold war? I might agree that in 1949 Communism was a secular religion, but I don’t see that it always is one.

      I know several Chilean communists (people who are party members) and while their sense of political identity is deeply held and has elements of irrational faith, I don’t see their political participation as more “religious” than that of members of other political parties (who generally also deeply identify with their political commitment).

      You have only to turn to so many political “discussion” in internet to see that for many people, not only Communists, political ideals are a matter of deeply held faith, which they uphold with the intensity of a crusader. So is much of online trans activism a secular religion?

      I’d be interested in reading your proposed future article on this subject.

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      1. “Are all of the above secular religions or only Soviet communism and its Western followers at the time Monnerot wrote the book, in 1949 at the height of the cold war? I might agree that in 1949 Communism was a secular religion, but I don’t see that it always is one.”

        I am glad to see that we are not as far apart on this as I thought we might be. The differentiations you make seem reasonable enough, and Monnerot’s analysis must be understood within the context of the time.

        But it seems reasonable to group together movements deriving from the writings of Marx. For one thing, they drew on Hegelian ideas about history. Though most Marxists categorically reject the existence of a spiritual realm, elements of German idealism (combined with certain Christian and Judaic ideas) remained an integral part of Marxist ideology.

        I see this tradition as religionizing politics in a particular way or ways that does/do not apply to other political philosophies.

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        1. If you listen to Dan K.’s dialogue about Marxism with Professor Leiter on Sophia TV, you’ll see how far removed from Hegelian idealism a professed Marxist (Leiter) can be.

          Now I agree with you that Marxist-Leninism, especially in the Stalin era, became messianic. I believe that beginning with the end of Stalinism and especially after the fall of the Soviet empire, Marxism (without the Leninism), which has taken on new life post sub-prime crisis, has become more diverse, less messianic, less idealistic and less of a secular religion.

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          1. While Marxism is now irrelevant (he was right about capitalism but class consciousness will likely always be trumped by god, guns, and race) we should ponder that Leninism is about gaining power and can work as well on the right as the left. Conservatism in the US is quite Leninist. Recall Buckley’s mission statement for NR back in the 1950s.

            From “What is to be Done:”

            “Unless we train strong political organisations in the localities, even an excellently organised all-Russia newspaper will be of no avail. This is incontrovertible. But the whole point is that there is no other way of training strong political organisations except through the medium of an all-Russia newspaper…In a word, the “plan for an all-Russia political newspaper”, far from representing the fruits of the labour of armchair workers, infected with dogmatism and bookishness (as it seemed to those who gave but little thought to it), is the most practical plan for immediate and all-round preparation of the uprising, with, at the same time, no loss of sight for a moment of the pressing day-to-day work.”

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