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The Thuringian flagellants and the green gluers

29 June 2019

9:00 AM

29 June 2019

9:00 AM

Those young men and women who have taken to gluing themselves to walls and roads in order to save the planet have probably not heard of the Flagellants of Thuringia.

In 14th-century Europe, the arrival of the plague was interpreted as a sign that God was not happy and that the end of days was approaching. In Thuringia in Southern Germany people decided they could save themselves by forming penitential groups who marched around town whipping themselves with leather thongs with nails attached.

The similarities between the flagellants and the gluers are unmistakable.  Just as the flagellants believed that the world was about to end so the gluers are convinced that unless we stop burning coal we are all doomed and, just as the flagellants believed that by mutilating themselves they would be saved, so the gluers believed that by sticking themselves to walls, they will save not only themselves but the planet.

Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, millennial cults prophesying the end of the world emerged like Godzilla from some primeval swamp and brought chaos and destruction to communities.

The pursuit of the Millenium, by Norman Cohn, first published in 1957, remains perhaps the most influential study of this strange topic and argues that, from the fall of the Roman Empire until the middle of the nineteenth century, religious cults emerged in Europe prophesying either the catastrophic end of days or that heaven on earth was in reach of the cult adherents. According to Cohn, now forgotten groups such as the Bogomils, the Albigensians and the Flagellants of Thuringia ‘can be seen… to bear a startling resemblance to the great totalitarian movements of our day’. Cohn wrote this in the 1950s and the totalitarian movements he was then referring to were, of course, Communism and Fascism.

The similarities that Cohn saw centred on ‘peasants without land or with too little land for subsistence… unskilled workers… beggars… that amorphous mass of people… who could find no assured and recognised place in society’ and who, in the twentieth century, followed leaders such as Hitler, Mao or Lenin, who claimed that they were ‘charged with the unique mission of bringing history to its preordained consummation’.

The strangest similarity between the flagellants and the greens lies in their antisemitism. Whenever the plague reemerged in central Europe, pogroms often ensued. As Cohn put it, ‘The flagellants… burnt and drowned all the Jews they could find, because they thought to please God in that way’. Green socialists today show the same sort of moral blindness as the medieval Thuringians with their hatred of Israel.

Even today, despite the catastrophic failure of socialism as an economic system in Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, etc., Marxists maintain that an earthly paradise awaits us all once we overthrow capitalism and accept the dictatorship of the proletariat. For Marx and his followers, this would mean that we would all live in harmony and be free ‘To fish in the morning, hunt in the afternoon… and debate after dinner’. Despite this pleasing prospect, the number of Marxists in the real world (as opposed to those in the sheltered workshops of academia) continues to decline. Many have moved to what has become known as the ‘Green Left’. While they are almost all atheists, they approach their self-appointed task as saviours of the planet with a religious fervour reminiscent of the aforementioned Flagellants of Thuringia.

The massacres of thousands of students in Tiananmen Square, of millions of Cambodians by Pol Pot, the millions of Kulaks in Russia — all of the terrible crimes against humanity committed by socialist governments — are not proof that the model is flawed. In exactly the same way that contemporary Islamic leaders dismiss crimes committed for the greater glory of the prophet by arguing that the people who commit such crimes are not ‘true Muslims’, so socialists dismiss past failures by simply arguing that Mao, Stalin et al. were not true Marxists.

Instead of recognising that there is something seriously wrong with Marxist economic and political theory, each new failure merely elicits the blithe observation that capitalism’s inevitable collapse is imminent.

Eric Fromm, the German (Marxist) philosopher/psychoanalyst argued that we all need a ‘frame of orientation and devotion’, a sort of internal mind map which helps us make sense of the world. Millenarian cults do this with varying degrees of success. The adherents of the cargo cults which emerged in the Pacific around the second world war believed that by clearing a bit of jungle, or building a runway in the treetops, food and cargo would fall from the sky in the same way it had fallen when American planes dropped supplies to soldiers fighting the Japanese.

Like the socialists, the Pacific Island cargo cultists were doomed to repeated failure. Unlike the socialists, the Pacific Islanders learned a lesson from the failures and moved on.

Contemporary socialist greenies gluing themselves to roads are probably motivated by a quasi-religious devotion to the same sort of vague ideals that inspire animal liberationists to vandalise chicken farms. The greenies of course want to save the planet. Even wretched people like you and me are entitled to salvation.

The animal liberationists are different. Their sole concern is to save the pigs or sheep; whichever form of protein they are attached to. They are not millenarians. They are more concerned with the fate of the inhabitants of a chook shed than the fate of humanity. I would rather see vegans in charge of the planet than the socialists. With the former, you know they will leave you alone as long as you leave their pets alone. The socialists will not rest until you share their world view.

The standard definition of millenarian cults incorporates the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming fundamental transformation of society, after which ‘all things will be changed’.

Socialist groups fit exactly into this definition. Do the socialists believe that a fundamental transformation of society is coming? Of course. They constantly assert that the internal contradictions of capitalism mean that, inevitably, capitalism will collapse and the proletariat will triumph. Will ‘all things be changed’?  Of course they will as peace, harmony and prosperity will spread over the world and economic competition will be changed to economic cooperation. We won’t burn any more coal and the planet will be saved. What can possibly go wrong?

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