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20191103 – Permanent Revolution


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The main idea of this book is to demonstrate that traditional historical understanding of Western transition from medieval Dark Ages to Enlightenment is not exactly correct because early Reformation was much darker than Dark Ages and brought with it religious violence, suppression of human individuality, and lots of other nasty things on the scale unknown before.  Author’s point, however, is that eventually it produced its opposite: Enlightenment as one and only way out from initial tragedy of societal self-distraction of the Western Europe that occurred in the beginning of the process. Here is how author defines this:

Permanent Revolution, then, addresses the competing claimants to Anglo-American (and global) modernity (i.e. evangelical religion and the Enlightenment), and poses the following questions with regard to the British Reformations: (i) how did we get from the first, illiberal Reformation to the Protestant proto-Enlightenment?; and (ii) why did we need to?

Three perceptions animate the argument: (i) that dissident, repressive, non-conservative sixteenth-century evangelical religious culture was revolutionary; (ii) that revolutionary evangelical culture was simultaneously a culture of permanent revolution, repeatedly and compulsively repudiating its own prior forms; and (iii) that permanent revolution was, as it always is, punishingly violent, fissiparous, and unsustainable, so much so that it needed to invent self-stabilizing mechanisms. In the seventeenth century, I argue, English Calvinist Protestantism necessarily produced its opposite cultural formation (what I call the proto-Enlightenment), against the punishing, crushing, violent, schismatic logic of the evangelical Reformation. The Protestant proto-Enlightenment made the permanent revolution of evangelical religion at least socially manageable and personally livable, even if the liberal order remained scarred by the effort.


Each part of the book looks at specific aspect of the period going chronologically through 3 steps:

  1. Appropriation of powers and carnivalesque, revolutionary energy (c. 1520–1547);
  2. Revolutionary grief (c. 1547–1625);
  3. Escaping revolutionary disciplines (c. 1603–1688).

PART 1: Religion as Revolution:

1 Revolutionary Religion;

In this part author first trying to demonstrate revolutionary character of reformation due to it’s nearly complete break with pre-Reformation past. Author looks at theological differences and finds that it kind of mirrors historical process of switch from multiple feuds coexisting via mutual obligation to centralized monarchies being installed all over the Europe.  Here is author presentation of this contrast: “ The late medieval European Christian God was a constitutionalist of sorts: despite the fact that he could do whatever he liked, he freely made reliable agreements with humans according to which they could negotiate their way out of sin. Most (not all) late medieval theologies had imagined God working out from various combinations of his agreed, reliable, ordained power (potentia ordinata) and his wholly unrestrained absolute power (potentia absoluta). Of course the late medieval God had absolute powers at his disposal, but he freely decided to hold by his ordained, which is to say his established and rationally perceptible, power. Sixteenth-century Protestant theology was starkly different. The Protestant God acted, not coincidentally, like sixteenth-century monarchs, insisting on his absolute prerogatives. He actively repudiated any reliable agreements that would abrogate his “independent and unlimited Prerogative.”

Author also provides a comprehensive list of features that identify a process as revolutionary:

  • Posited unmediated power relations between highly centralized, single sources of power on the one hand, and now equalized, atomized, interiorized, and terrorized subjects on the other;
  • Looked aggressively upon, and sought to abolish, horizontal, lateral associational forms;
  • Produced a small cadre of internationally connected, highly literate elect who belonged to the True Church, and who felt obliged by revolutionary necessity both to target the intellectuals of the ancien régime, and to impose punishing disciplines on the laity, who were expected, in this case, to become a “priesthood of all believers”;
  • Generated revolutionary accounts of both ecclesiology and the individual life: both could achieve a rebirth, wholly inoculated from the virus of the past;
  • Demanded total and sudden, not developmental, change via spiritual conversion;
  • Targeted the hypocrisy of those who only pretended to buy into the new order;
  • Abolished old and produced new calendars and martyrologies;
  • Proclaimed the positivist literalism of a single authoritative text, to be universally and evenly applicable across a jurisdiction, if necessary with violence;
  • Demanded and enacted cultural revolution, through iconoclasm of the repudiated past’s accreted, erroneous, idolatrous visual culture and by closing down its theatrical culture;
  • Distributed the charisma of special place across entire jurisdictions, thereby legitimating the destruction of sites considered in the old regime to have compacted charisma most intensely, or to provide sanctuary;
  • Actively developed surveillance systems;
  • Legitimated violent repudiation of the past on the authority of absolute knowledge derived from the end of time. The saints were in a position confidently to judge and reshape the saeculum, or the world of everyday experience, precisely because, as elect members of the eternal True Church, they were saints; they beheld the everyday world from the determinist vantage point of the eschaton, or the end of time. They knew how to see historical error (it was in fact easy), and they knew the denouement of History’s narrative;
  • Promoted the idea of youth’s superiority over age;
  • Appropriated the private property of religious orders and centralized previously monastic libraries;
  • Redefined and impersonalized the relation of the living and the dead, notably by the abolition of Purgatory and the prohibition on masses for the dead;
  • And, by no means least, legitimated revolutionary violence by positing a much more intimate connection between violence and virtue than the Maoist dictum “no omelet without breaking eggs” would imply. In this culture, persecution and violence were a sure sign that the Gospel was being preached, that Christ was indeed bringing not peace but the (necessary) sword. The absence of tumult was symptomatic of somnolent hypocrisy.
  • Violence was a necessary obligation within the logic of History.
  1. Permanently Revolutionary Religion;

Author identifies Protestant revolution with other revolutions, especially communist revolutions and Marxist ideology in which permanent revolution is permanent class war with revolution periodically destroying generations of revolutionaries. Author looks at several examples of destroyed destroyers during period of 1540s and 1550s, especially at live of John Bale in some detail. Then he proceeds to discuss struggle between Catholic Church and Protestant reformation in England that produced Anglican Church. Finally he looks at its reflection in works of John Milton and Thomas Edwards.

PART 2: Working Modernity’s Despair: 3 Modernizing Despair; 4 Modernizing Despair: Narrative and Lyric Entrapment; 5 Modernizing Despair’s Epic Non-Escape

Author first discusses nature of human despair and then identify general causes of such despair as disconnect between human effort and reward, which happens when society establish strictly enforced rules transferring wealth from its creators to elite.  In chapter 3 author sketches the theology of this human depravity; the peculiar psychic cruelty of its necessary consequence (i.e. the doctrine of predestination, whether double or not); and the energy that exclusivism produces. He pursues that theological story up to the end of the reign of Elizabeth (1603). In Chapter 4, author turns to literary expressions of near-total subjection to predestinarian punishments, between 1530 and 1620 or so, in the form of brilliant, claustrophobic lyric poetry and endlessly recursive romance narrative, both forever unable to move out of or beyond the Cave of Despair. From 1625 or so, the promise of a recovered freedom of will and then Miltonic epic seem to produce an escape route from the punishing disciplines of predestination and its attendant despair. In the final chapter of this part author looks to the ways in which that apparent escape route to the proto-liberal future does not, in fact, offer its promised, full escape from early modernity’s despair. Rebellion against the early modern absolutist God and his revolutionary theology themselves took revolutionary form, and thereby remain profoundly scarred by the struggle.

PART 3: Sincerity and Hypocrisy: 6 Pre-Modern and Henrician Hypocrisy; 7 The Revolutionary Hypocrite: Elizabethan Hypocrisy; 8 Managing Hypocrisy?: Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, 1689

In this part author moves from despair to Hypocrisy stating that sectarian division brought continuing squabbling between clerics with claims of sincerity and accusations in hypocrisy created high potential for violence. Hypocrisy accusation and sincerity claims have a history within revolutionary moments, since the kinesis of revolution produces an intelligible sequence of phases, each of which seeks to exploit and / or to manage the impossible demands of revolutionary sincerity, and the impossible burden of avoiding hypocrisy. In this and the following two chapters, author aims to delineate the story of early modern English hypocrisy. As he does so, his essential argument is that sincerity and hypocrisy are of ecclesiological origin; that they are inevitable, unmanageable products of the centralizations and disciplines of revolutionary early modernity; and that the only way to deal effectively with the threat of hypocrisy (the Shakespearean solution) is to become a hypocrite. In chapter 6, author tells the story from its late medieval sources up to and including the first, energetic outburst of Reformation hypocrisy accusation in the first half of the sixteenth century. In Chapter 7, he turns to the subsequent, more somber trajectory of hypocrisy accusation, as it rebounds back onto Elizabethan evangelicals. Chapter 8 looks to hypocrisy management (or lack thereof), from Shakespeare to Bunyan.

PART 4: Breaking Idols: 9 Liberating Iconoclasm; 10 Saving Images and the Calvinist Hammer; 11 One Last Iconoclastic Push?

In this part author looks at iconoclasm that is typical characteristic of all revolutionary movements. In this particular case of reformation Protestants saw themselves as ancient Israeli who destroyed idols per God’s commandment. Author divides this process in 3 phases: “The kinesis of iconoclasm begins with energetic and irreverent evangelical destruction of physical religious images. That first phase of material destruction (c. 1538–1553) was, however, just the easy start, before a much more painful, unjoyful second sequence (c. 1558–1625) began. Iconoclastic hygiene around the absolutist, modernizing God targeted all forms of idolatry, not only visual images. It therefore worked its way into the liturgy, to be sure, but also into the most intimate recesses of the soul, breaking visual imaginations, and breaking the idols of false doctrine. In that second phase, lovers of the image needed to invent ways of managing the punishing dynamism of iconoclasm. One key form of management was to stabilize and rename our love of, and need for, salvific representations of others, and ourselves otherwise known as images… A third phase (c. 1625–1670s) is mixed: on the one hand, the counterrevolutionary is determined to replace the images; on the other, the revolutionary is determined to return to iconoclastic business, precisely in response to counterrevolutionary attempts to reinstate images.

In chapter 9 author delineates phase 1, the carnivalesque, fun phase of iconoclasm (1538–1553 or so), before turning in Chapter 10 to phases 2 and 3: the less amusing matter of breaking the psyche’s images (c. 1558–1625); and the further, overlapping struggle between lovers and destroyers of the image in England (c. 1625–1670s).

PART 5: Theater, Magic, Sacrament: 12 Religion, Dramicide, and the Rise of Magic; 13 Enemies of the Revolution: Magic and Theater; 14 Last Judgment: Stage Managing the Magic

This part is about use of magic and art during reformation revolution. Author argues that evangelicals invented black magic primarily because they needed to attack Catholic sacramental practice, in which performative language (e.g. “Hoc est enim corpus meum”) makes something happen between earth and heaven. The Catholic Mass in particular needed to be described as juggling magic or as “hocus pocus”This attack also applied to other sacraments, and from there extended to denigrate the entire Catholic Church. Author connects it to “linguistic performativity in all its forms” making “fundamental argument that, as early modern fears of sacramental and black magic rose, so too did drama fall, or at least shrank its own magic circle.”

Author looks at key areas of art to support this point: Chapter 12 is about theater, Chapter 13 narrates the evangelical persecution of witches and the correlative evangelical prosecution of theater in early modern England. Chapter 14 turns to the production and shrinkage of drama itself, from Marlowe and Shakespeare to Milton.

PART 6: Managing Scripture: 15 Scripture: Institutions, Interpretation, and Violence; 16 Private Scriptural Anguish; 17 Escaping Literalism’s Trap

Here author turns to ideological foundation of Reformation revolution: “Like most revolutions, the Reformation had its book and its reading practice. The book was the Bible, and the reading practice was literalism. Revolutions all usher in a new textual canon in their train, and they all, of necessity, locate interpretative truth in the literal sense. They must do that, since the revolution, by definition, constitutes a radical break with the past; the new society is determined by a document, either freshly written or rediscovered. The reading protocols for that document must be open and incontrovertible in the present; and the truth claim of any such document must not make appeal to a past reading community, with historically shaped interpretive practices. To recognize any historical determination of meaning would compromise the revolution’s claim to have started afresh, without reliance on any practice of the ancien régime. The society brought into being by the revolution, whether in 1517, 1688, 1776, or 1789, is brought into being by the document, not the other way around. The document must therefore be self-generating; must posit literalism as the hermeneutic default position; and must itself lay claim to literalist status. Its understanding of textuality is nearly the opposite of, say, English common law, and of English constitutionalism, both of which depend wholly on precedent, so much so in the case of English constitutionalism as to abjure any single codified, written document whatsoever.” After that author discusses information revolution of the time caused by implementation of printing press and movable type that made bible and other literature widely accessible, giving impetus to various interpretations and conflicts based on them. The chapters of this part “pursue less the material history of the book than the history of reading and community formation (and fracture). They pursue, to put it another way, the relation of textual interpretation and violence. The evidential materials author uses are less material books than, on the one hand, Reformation discourse about how scriptural writing legitimates or delegitimates institutional practice and spiritual status; and, on the other hand, Reformation literary texts that express, and sometimes seek to neutralize, the violence of early modern revolutionary Biblical reading.”
PART 7: Liberty and Liberties: 18 Liberty Taking Liberties

The final part is about author’s contemplation of Liberty. He writes: “I distinguish the main traditions of liberty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Two are of especial importance: evangelical liberty and the so-called Neo-Roman theory of liberty, traditions that are, evidently, wholly heterogeneous in content. I will not parse which of these traditions was the principal force in the English Revolution (a task outside my competence in any case). Instead, I look first to the ways in which these wholly heterogeneous traditions in fact share formal properties in their understanding of Liberty as singular and animated…  In sum, this final chapter aims to work out when liberties (plural) became Liberty (singular). I’ll also attempt to elucidate what the stakes of that change were. The essence of my argument is that singular Liberty is a product of early modernity: it comes into re-existence as a response to the theological and political centralizations—singularizations, if you will—of early modernizing Europe. Above all, it comes into existence as the response to two distinctively early-modern neoclassical resurgences: those of political absolutism on the one hand, and of theological absolutism on the other.”
Author also discusses role of Liberty, difference in its understanding (economic liberty and social choice liberty) in contemporary USA by different political forces, then links it back to early modernity and specifically to Protestant Reformation: “The key articulations of this longer narrative occur in the Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The key driver of this change in early modernity is as follows: as power centralizes and singularizes, so too does resistance to power centralize and singularize. As power claims absolutist prerogative, so too does resistance to power. The subjects of absolute power describe their condition as one of slavery. The past is described as the period of enslavement, enslavement either to the tyranny of the Roman Church, or to absolutist, or to potentially absolutist monarchical power. In response to those enslavements, singular, revolutionary, absolutist Liberty commands attention. The pattern also works in reverse: in response to a notion of singular Liberty defined negatively, as a savage state of nature, theorists such as Hobbes turn to the attractions of singularized, absolute Power. Promoters either of Liberty, or of absolutist monarchy, work within distinctively early modern singularizations of both liberty and power. Singularization of one produces a mirroring response in the other.”

Author also provides an interesting table for this thesis:

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In conclusion author describes his work as analysis of history and foundations of Liberalism and that’s how he characterizes result:

First, contemporary Liberalism looks unpersuasive in its account of its own history. When many liberal early modernist scholars go back to the sixteenth century, they focus on the following (for example) with approval: liberty, equality, free will, consent, the individual conscience, interiority and individuality, division of powers, rationality, toleration, reading, work, revolution. They focus on the following (for example) with disapproval: absolutism, predestination, hypocrisy, iconoclasm, anti-theatricality. “Protestantism” tends to be a code for the terms of approval, whereas “Catholic” encodes many of the terms of disapproval.

Second, Liberalism has not escaped the influence of its older sibling, evangelical religion. The reader will have noticed that in my chapters I consistently say that anti-evangelical movements “almost,” “nearly,” or “partially” succeeded in neutralizing the forces of permanent evangelical revolution. These qualifications are crucial, even if they cannot be fully substantiated within the bounds of the present book. If a revolution is truly permanent, then it leaves its scars on even the most resourceful alternative cultural forms that seek to neutralize and survive its punishing regime. For good or ill, liberals continue automatically to distrust institutions; overwork; calibrate agency with minute attention; fear inauthenticity; enjoy visual art in aesthetic conditions that remain partially iconoclastic; remain appalled at various forms of idolatry, even if the idolaters are now consumers; read to save themselves. Above all, many of us remain historical secessionists, vigilantly insisting on the legitimacy of the modern age, even as we find ourselves forever rowing against the current. We liberals remain children of our permanent revolutions; both energized and scarred by them.

Third, and finally, progressivist liberals stand in danger of damaging the good of Liberalism by claiming impossibly excellent standards for Liberalism. Liberals regard Liberalism as a worldview, or what Germans would call a Weltanschauung. A worldview proper implies claims about the process of history and the makeup of human being. A worldview claims to understand the historical process and to deliver humans from history, so as to liberate full human being. Christianity and Marxism are, for example, worldviews, with their separate salvation histories and anthropologies…

Liberalism is not a worldview. It claims no scheme of salvation history, or Heilsgeschichte, and has no developed anthropology. It does not offer itself as a category to sit beside a religious or political Weltanschauung. When those with a proper Weltanschauung (what might be called a first-order belief system), either religious or secularist, dismiss Liberalism as “hollow” (as they frequently do), they are missing the point. Liberalism is meant to be hollow. Liberalism is a second-order belief system, a tool for managing first-order belief systems. It is derivative (as its historical appearance would suggest), and secondary to first-order belief systems. It promises only to manage and mediate those first-order systems. The clash of first-order belief systems leads to violence; Liberalism promises to manage the violence. Liberalism is a tool, an instrument designed to govern first-order belief systems that tend not to negotiate. For this reason, Liberalism stands always in an asymmetrical rhetorical position with regard to first-order belief systems, looking cool and detached against its hot and committed first-order competitors. When progressivist liberals treat Liberalism itself as a first-order belief system, they produce what look like hollowed-out versions of first-order belief systems. Liberalism’s minimalist anthropology; the abstract, universalist legal principles that flow from that anthropology; its lack of a salvation history; its default positions of institutional distrust; its often impoverished conception of singular Liberty: each make Liberalism look weak as long as liberals claim that Liberalism is a worldview rather than a tool for governing worldviews.”


It is very interesting approach and I think it would be great if one could divide systems of believe in the first and second orders. However I think such attempts are possible only if and when mode of behavior linked to Liberalism: such as tolerance, non-violent discussions, and peaceful change of control over government, are the first-order believes and worldviews are secondary. The contemporary Progressivism is the product of Socialist ideology only slightly disguised as something different, kind of related to Liberalism, and not related to oceans of blood spilled on behalf of this ideology in XX century. Historically this Socialist ideology was very successful in using Liberalism to get power and then pushed it out of window. The only way Liberalism can survive is to recognize that it is the first-order believe system and start responding violently to any hint of violence, and intolerantly to any hint of intolerance. For example heckler’s veto should be responded to by heckler removal and punishment to compensate others for time lost. In the past the victory over illiberal forces came from competitive illiberal forces. I think the time is nigh to remove such forces from existence.


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