A Brief Intellectual Genealogy of the Totalitarian Left

A discussion with commenter Theo over at Morgan’s place got me wondering how far back the totalitarian left’s intellectual pedigree actually goes.  I’m not seeing much on the internet, and of course there’s very little academic work on it.  Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is great for the 20th century, but doesn’t go much further back than that…

….so I guess it’s up to me.  I don’t claim to be an expert on the whole sweep of history (and I’m certainly not a capital-E “Expert” in anything), but I know a bit.  And since a lot of Rotten Chestnuts’ mission statement involves collating resources to challenge what “everyone knows,” I hereby present a

Brief Intellectual Genealogy of the Totalitarian Left*

Joachim of Fiore (c.1132-1202): As Goldberg writes somewhere (I think), his work inspired certain excitable folks to try “immanentizing the eschaton.”  It’s not this column, but here’s a quick vernacular definition:

So: Immanentize means to make part of the here and now. Eschaton, like eschatology, relates to the branch of theology which deals with humanity’s destiny. You know, the end times, when all of that wacky, end-timey, Seventh-Seal stuff happens (oceans boil, the righteous ascend to heaven, Carrot Top is funny, etc). Hence “immanentizing the eschaton” means, in effect, trying to make what is reserved for the next life part of the here and now. You can see why all sorts of cults, heretical sects, Scientologists, and various flavors of Mother Jones readers — including the Fighting Illuminati — would be accused of doing precisely that.

Like Marx and his beloved Revolution, Joachim thought the Angelic Pope would come whether or not anyone did anything.  His followers, though…

The Brethren of the Free Spirit  (13th-14th centuries): Took Joachim’s ideas to mean that Christ could be moved to return sooner if they simply killed all the sinners.  They were radical egalitarians, but like all radical egalitarian movements, the “taking stuff from the rich” part was way more important than the “giving stuff to the poor” part.  They were also sexual libertines par excellence (if such a thing as a conservative “gender studies” professor were possible, he/she could write a killer dissertation on leftism/utopianism as one long quest to get losers laid).

The best exposition of this stuff is still Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957).  I’ve even seen it cited in academic works, though Cohn was not a conventional academic historian by any means.  Because he saw ex-Nazis and refugees from Stalinism firsthand, he was able to draw “immanentizing the eschaton”-type parallels from these medieval heresies to socialism and communism.  It’s a fascinating read.

King Henry VIII of England (r.1509-1547): The capital-T Truth is what the government says it is.  Henry VIII was a staunch supporter of the Papacy, even writing a book attacking Luther (Assertio Septem Sacramentorum; here’s a translation if you want to scope out the royal prose)…. until he wasn’t, because it was politically inconvenient.

John Calvin (1509-1564): Protestant theologian who developed the idea of predestination.  His ideas combined with the ferment of late Tudor politics to produce the Puritans, the world’s first ideological murderers.  Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints argues that the Puritans in fact invented ideology itself.  I’m told this is a central tenet of “Moldbuggery,” a very popular — ahem — ideology on the “dissident right:”

Progressivism (also called Universalism) is responsible for the vast majority of the world’s problems today. It is a non-theistic religion descended in a direct line from the various Dissenter sects of England. Although the belief in God was dropped during the religion’s evolution in order to improve its ability to spread, the core of progressive beliefs are very similar to the Quaker beliefs of a few centuries ago. In short, progressives are dangerous and creepy religious maniacs who don’t need to believe in God but that makes them no less dangerous, creepy or maniacal.

I don’t know if this Mencius Moldbug cat got it from Walzer (hell, this is the internet; he might actually be Walzer), and frankly I’m scared to go looking for it, but The Revolution of the Saints is the academic version.  It’s definitely deep, academic history, though, so unless you’re a specialist in this stuff (I’m not), just read the reviews if you want to know more.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658):  The first successful ideological revolutionary.  Executed Charles I in 1649 for treason. To the country he was king of.  Which makes as much sense as anything else the Left does.

John Locke (1632-1704): Theo’s got this one covered:

John Locke, generally regarded as the father of modern liberalism, developed the then radical notion that government acquires consent from the governed which has to be constantly present for a government to remain legitimate. Locke also defined the concept of the separation of church and state, based on the concept of a social contract. He also formulated a general defense for religious toleration, the right to private property and freedom of speech. John was much influenced by ideas of John Milton, who was a staunch advocate of freedom in all its forms. Milton strongly argued for the importance of freedom of speech – “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”.

Locke was, overall, a good guy.  His aim was to protect English liberties while avoiding Cromwell-style excesses.  He wasn’t a totalitarian, but watch what happens when the “social contract” idea ends up in the wrong hands…

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778):  The social contract requires communism, because social justice.  From Discourse on Inequality, 1755:

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

Developed further in The Social Contract (1762), which introduces the concept of “The General Will:”

Rousseau argues that freedom and authority are not contradictory, since legitimate laws are founded on the general will of the citizens. In obeying the law, the individual citizen is thus only obeying himself as a member of the political community.

That this argument is more circular than the Indy 500 didn’t bother anyone, because it meant that in practice, whoever seized the levers of power could murder his enemies with a clean conscience — since, you know, they were really guillotining themselves. For instance,

Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794): ‘Nuff said.  If Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao had plush toys they slept with when they were kids, those toys were Robespierre dolls.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831): A philosopher with a major chubby for Napoleon, he proposed the famous thesis-antithesis-synthesis form of “dialectics” that has been baffling undergraduates ever since.  As you might guess from his Boner-parte, he was a state power fetishist, who argued that the State was the ultimate synthesis.  His baffling prose style, outright government worship, and intellectual pretensions were the direct inspiration for

Karl Marx (1818-1883): Y’all know about him, and since we’re on familiar turf now, I’m going to stop with

The Social Gospel (late 19th-early 20th century): Big-government Christianity.  Everything the “Progressives” wanted to do, the Social Gospelers did first.  But since “Progressives,” then as now, could never quite figure out the difference between “Evangelical Christians” and “their daddies,” the Proggies dropped the whole Gospel bit and replaced it with the Cult of the Expert.

I hope this helps!


*Please feel free to add / correct in the comments

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6 thoughts on “A Brief Intellectual Genealogy of the Totalitarian Left

  1. nightfly

    Excellent overview, though I also suggest that the libertinism isn’t solely a “get losers laid” strategem. It’s much more a necessary step to dehumanizing us. Because we share the physical sex act with the animals, we are commanded to consider ourselves nothing more than that in all things, and especially in this one thing. Losers simply attach themselves to that concept like remorae on the bellies of sharks, hoping to clean up the scraps.

    Once that happens, of course, you’ve gotta hold on for dear life; letting go may get you devoured by that shark. These ideologies lie when they claim to be liberating.

    1. Severian

      I couldn’t agree more. I’ve said so, in fact. Because feminists are stupid, they don’t realize that control of the sexual instinct — sacralizing it, if you will — isn’t a tactic to keep women down; it’s a necessary precondition for building civilization up. (Ever notice how they completely ignore the Middle Ages when they start spouting their tripe about “controlling women’s sexuality?” Ummm, just about everything written on control of sexuality by the intellectual class for a thousand years was about controlling male sexuality, the better to contemplate God in the cloister. But whatevs, because capitalism).

        1. severian Post author

          That’s true. I should’ve specified “feminist activists.” There are feminist-oriented medievalists who are medievalists first, feminists second. I stand corrected. 🙂

          Activists, though — if they’re aware there was a “Middle Ages” at all — dredge up a quote from Augustine and move on, because capitalism.

  2. Morgan K Freeberg


    Plato, with the Allegory of the Cave, and the idea that the loftiest insight the masses can ever muster is the wisdom to elect a ruler possessing divine insight. This is a forerunner of both American conservatism and American liberalism; conservatism since it is ancestral to the constitutional republic, liberalism since it is ancestral to despotism.

    William the Conqueror, first Norman King of England. Not because of the Norman Conquest, but because of the Domesday Book, the 11th-century equivalent of NSA wiretapping and the parody 2-line 1040 form (“1. How much did you make last year? 2. Send it in.”) Many a time, observing the cultural differences between ourselves and our friends across the pond, I’ve gotten the feeling there’s always going to be a Yankee/Anglo cultural split because our country started with a tax revolt, their country started with the opposite of one.

    1. Severian

      And from Plato, the Stoics, who claimed that living “according to nature” and “according to Reason” are the same thing. And thus, by swillogism, what I think is reasonable is Reason; therefore confiscating the property of “the 1%” is Reason; therefore this confiscation is according to Nature; therefore I am living according to Nature; therefore I can envy and hate and rob with a clean conscience.

      And let’s not forget the Peace of Augsburg (1555), which established the principle “cuius regio, eius religio” — whose state, his religion. I.e. the same thing Henry VIII pulled — the capital-T truth is what the State says it is, and thoughts contrary to state dogma are treason.

      You know, there’s a reason Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism starts with Plotinus….

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