In an article in the BBC News Magazine, philosopher John Gray urges us to put aside our fantasies of achieving some ideal historical end point through politics. I sympathize with Gray’s anti-Utopianism, but I think we need to ask why modern people are so often drawn to the idea that we are moving toward some yet to be realized state of social and political perfection. Ultimately, I think the illusion lies in a kind of secular mysticism that rejects the worldly present in favor of an imagined worldly future. Leszek Kolakowski, the great analyst of Marxism, traced the roots of Marxist theory to Gnostic teachings of an otherworldly salvation, and presented Communism as an eschatological worldview that promised to one day return humanity to the true state of being.
Along similar lines, political scientist Eric Voegelin distinguished between “transcendent religions,” which placed the focus of worship outside of human institutions, and “immanent religions,” which made the human institutions themselves the focus of worship. A refugee from Austria after the 1938 Anschluss with Germany, Voegelin used the term “immanent” not to imply that the quality of transcendence was absent from movements such as Nazism, but that transcendent themes of ultimate good versus ultimate evil, the mission of a chosen people, and the end of history in an ultimate salvation had become absorbed into the worldly project of secular politics.
While Kolakowski traced Marxism from Gnostic roots, Voegelin identified all of the major extreme secular ideologies of the twentieth century with the Gnostic heresies of antiquity. Gnosticism, in all its varieties, had contrasted the chaotic, contingent material world with the absolute order and truth of the spiritual world from which the material had fallen and to which the Gnostics hoped to return. The immanent religions, in Voegelin’s view, posited a future realm of purified class or state which had all of the reality that the merely conditional present lacked. The classless society and the rule of the master race were eschatons within the immanent, destined end states of the world that were outside the present state of things and for which any actions in the rejected, chaotic present were justified.
Few of our dreamers today go as far as the Nazis or Marxists. But still the utopians seek visions of a realm that is both secular and mystical.