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That the same ideas reappear in new guises throughout history was stated by Isaiah Berlin to explain enlightenment and counter-enlightenment. Indeed, He was right.
The fanatical totalitarian beliefs that emerge today in the United States long predate the neo-Marxism that underpins the American far-left. Marxism was another garb of collectivist beliefs that have reappeared for centuries.
Karl Marx rewrote the communism of the Christian millenarian heresies and turned them into an atheistic pseudo-science. But Marx’s false messianic promises, double standards, and dogmatic fanaticism were already in the Anabaptist revolution of Münster in 1534, a revolution that laid the groundwork for the totalitarian governments of the 20th century.
The prophets of Marxist-totalitarianism
The revolutionary agitation of heretical sects with prophets of the second coming was not new in the sixteenth century. Nor was it strange that they demanded the community of goods by means of revolutionary seizure and redistribution. Or proclamations that all sin and crime ceased to be sin and crime if it was done to impose the Kingdom of God on earth. The novelty was that the success of the Protestant Reformation unintentionally strengthened the traditions of millenarian communism as a dangerous extremism within the agitated ranks of the Reformation.
And in this environment of religious wars, Münster — an episcopal principality — was recognized as an autonomous Lutheran city by its Catholic ruling bishop in 1532. Filled with Anabaptist refugees and followers of the self-proclaimed prophet Hoffmann, who wrongly predicted the second coming in 1533. With no second coming in sight, most of the Münster Anabaptists would adopt revolutionary post-millennialism, proposing to establish for themselves the kingdom of God on Earth after 1533.
From conspiracy to insanity
Adhering to the revolutionary postmillennialist doctrine of the popular prophet, Jan Mattys, the experienced agitator Jan Bockelson, and the guild leader Bernt Knipperdollink, led a conspiracy that seized the City Hall in February 1534. With this accomplishment, the prophet Mattys triumphantly entered and expelled Catholics and Lutherans from the city, thus establishing a new revolutionary government but not before seizing their property, food and clothing. Those who remained in the city were forcibly rebaptized. The lawless executions of those who resisted or criticized the revolutionary power began shortly thereafter.
The prophet distributed a large part of the confiscated goods among the poor, who in a besieged city full of refugees were many. They prohibited money, confiscated gold, and established mandatory work for the entire population. Soon after, he banned all books except the Bible. They burned the library of the Cathedral, all private libraries held by the authorities, and all the loose books they could seize.
Matthys claimed that God commanded him to attack the bishop’s troops and died in an unsuccessful attempt to break the siege. Bockelson immediately seized power and proclaimed himself King of the World in 1534. To quell doubts over the prophet’s surprise death, he banned meetings and separated the city into twelve enclosed sections which he placed under the command of 12 dukes, with the penalty of death for moving outside the section of residence.
Less than a year after the proclamation of communal goods, with severe condemnations of luxury and demands for absolute material equality, the self-proclaimed leaders of the communist kingdom of God on earth, attributed themselves titles of nobility and enjoyed luxuries amidst the first signs of famine.
The King of the world decreed obligatory polygamy, under penalty of death, both for women who refused the additional wives granted to their husbands, and for those who refused to marry whoever the leaders of the revolution ordered them to marry.
And he proclaimed that this would usher in the messianic communist kingdom of a thousand years, after an epic battle with the forces of evil. Understanding as such those who had any wealth, no matter how modest.
That great Anabaptist heresy – of which Münster was only the most tragic episode – expressed through the religious terminology of its century, all the ideas of Marxism – common to pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet Marxism in all its variants – on alienation, exploitation, class struggle, end of history and chosen revolutionary vanguards. But above all, that of the new man liberated from sin to live in material plenitude through centrally planned production and without money.
The sectarian organization of professional revolutionaries ironically disciplined around charismatic leaders, under a dogmatic “revelation” of the inevitable final triumph of their revolution in a prophesied — more or less imminent — end of history. They conjured to kill and die for the revolution, and were willing to commit any crime to establish and sustain communism. This is the origins that passed intact from those great heresies to the “other” communism that proclaimed itself atheist and “scientific” at the end of the 19th century.
The end of the revolution and the beginning of the myth
The communists confiscated the last remains of food, slaughtered the horses, and saw the famine spread. Two deserters gave the Bishop’s troops information about the defenses that facilitated a successful final assault on June 24, 1535.
The King of the World, laden with chains, was tortured to death and his corpse, along with those of his closest accomplices, hung in cages in the tower of the Cathedral for half a century. But the mythification of the tragic disaster was maintained for centuries — with Mattys as martyr and Bockelson as corrupter of revolutionary purity or glorious martyr, depending on who is telling the story — among communist agitators.
It is that and no other — no matter in what garb it is dressed each time it reappears — the kind of fanaticism with which the entire left in the United States flirts today. And nothing but to a path of lawlessness is what awaits the U.S. if it continues that route.
Guillermo Rodríguez is a professor of Political Economy in the extension area of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Universidad Monteávila, in Caracas. A researcher at the Juan de Mariana Center and author of several books // Guillermo es profesor de Economía Política en el área de extensión de la Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas de la Universidad Monteávila, en Caracas, investigador en el Centro Juan de Mariana y autor de varios libros