The Resistance to Christianity – Raoul Vaneigem

Translator’s Introduction

It’s unfortunate that the author of this remarkable book, Raoul Vaneigem, did not take the time to write a concise and easily understandable “Foreword.” Instead, as the reader will see, he dashed off something that only a few people – those who had already had the good fortune to read The Movement of the Free Spirit (first published in French in 1986) – would be able to fully understand. Furthermore, his “Foreword” to Resistance to Christianity discusses the events and possibilities of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, while the book itself covers a period that, with the exception of the last section of the last chapter, ends with the Eighteenth Century (1793, to be exact). As a result, it is possible that some readers would not move beyond this “Foreword” and try to read the many chapters that follow it. And, of course, that would be a great shame.

Indeed, the “Foreword” to this book is so inadequate to the task at hand that we considered either supplementing it or replacing it entirely with the two short texts that introduce the English translation of The Movement of the Free Spirit (New York: Zone Books, 1994). But we decided against such interventions: Vaneigem certainly had his reasons for writing such a text. As he explains in the first chapter of The Movement of the Free Spirit,

“As he analyzed the reproduction and self-destruction of commodities Marx never asked himself how far his personal behavior obeyed economic reflexes. His critique is the product of an intellectualism that reproduces the power of the mind over the body; it is the work of a lasting influence of God on the material world.”

Vaneigem also detects “intellectualism” – that is, a lack of traces of his own “personal behavior” and the “lasting influence of God” – in his own work. He writes in the “Introduction” to The Movement of the Free Spirit that

“This stubborn determination not to let anything take precedence over the will to live, to reject at whatever cost even the most imperative calls of survival, first took shape in my books The Revolution of Everyday Life and The Book of Pleasures. The latter was needed to clarify and correct the former, to remove the intellectual cast that won it high esteem from people incapable of putting its lessons into practice but who, instead, used them as a consoling alibi for their own premature aging.”

And so, to counter the “intellectualist” cast and reception of The Movement of the Free Spirit, Vaneigem saddled Resistance to Christianity with a “Foreword” that would discourage certain (many?) readers from misusing it or even reading it in the first place. This certainly explains the curious last sentence in his “Foreword”: “If it is, finally, necessary to furnish an excuse for a style of writing in which one hardly finds the care that I try to give to the books that are not too far removed from my way of my life, I would like simply to say that each matter has been given the treatment that it suggests.”

Fortunately for us, this is as far as the parallelism between the two sets of books goes. While The Revolution of Everyday Life (written between 1963 and 1965, and published in 1967) is an excellent book, The Book of Pleasures (1979) is a piece of crap; but both The Movement of the Free Spirit and Resistance to Christianity are superb, indeed, much better than The Revolution of Everyday Life.

Let there be no mistake: Resistance to Christianity is a scholarly work, even more so than The Movement of the Free Spirit. In his “defense” of “the cursory character” of The Movement of the Free Spirit, Vaneigem refers to “the sheer number of texts that had to be uncovered and translated.” But if its predecessor was “cursory” or incomplete (it is in fact neither), then Resistance to Christianity is exhaustive, even definitive: a veritable encyclopedia. Not only does it incorporate the ground covered by its predecessor – that is, the resistance to Christianity (the “heresies”) of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – but it also extends this ground in both directions: forward into the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and all the way back to the Tenth Century B.C.E. Like its successor, Resistance to Christianity demonstrates an astonishing erudition: trained in Latin as a student, its author also calls upon works written in Greek, English, Italian, Dutch, German and, of course, French.

Vaneigem’s motivations for reiterating the (best parts of the) material contained in The Movement of the Free Spirit were two-fold: he couldn’t very well get to the Enlightenment without going through the Renaissance; and he couldn’t simply refer his readers to The Movement of the Free Spirit, because – at least in its French version – the book wasn’t reprinted by its original publisher after the first edition, which was hardcover only and appears to have been quite limited. Indeed, French-language readers had to wait until 2005 for the book to be reprinted. (Thanks to a 1998 paperback reprint, the English translation has never gone out of print.)

Born on 21 March 1934 in Lessines, Belgium, Raoul Vaneigem is best known for being a member of the Situationist International (the “SI”), which he joined in 1961. An unusual grouping of European radical artists, filmmakers and writers, the SI was founded in 1957 and dissolved in 1972. Between those years, the group reinvented the theory of proletarian revolution and propagated it through a journal called Internationale Situationniste, several books and a great many scandalous provocations. The SI was deeply involved in the protests, riots and occupations that nearly toppled the French government in May-June 1968.

Given this pedigree, one might be surprised that Vaneigem has been so interested in Judeo-Christianity, even if his interest is focused upon the beliefs and practices that have been categorized, denounced and forbidden as “heretical.” Is not heresy simply the “negative” twin of orthodoxy? Were not the situationists dedicated to the abolition of religion as well as the abolition of capitalism and the State? The answer to both questions is “Yes.” But in much the same way that his fellow situationist, Guy Debord (author of the anti-spectacular book The Society of the Spectacle), has made several films, Raoul Vaneigem has written several books on the subject of heresy. Unfortunately, with the exception of the present volume, none of them have been translated into English.

For Vaneigem, religious values and behaviors – guilt, self-hatred, fear of pleasure, the hope for a future heaven on earth and, above all, the contempt for the body and for the earth – persist (even) among those who consider themselves to be atheists and anarchists. They persist, not only in their political ideologies (which are often informed by the notions and practices of hard work, self-sacrifice and intellectual and moral superiority), but also in their psychological states (often imbued with weariness, resignation, self-contempt and a sense of impotence). Just like “the others” – the capitalists, the bureaucrats employed by the State and the “religious nuts” – atheists and anarchists all-too-often neglect or abuse their personal health, their capacities for (sexual) pleasure and the roles that women play in their organizations and actions. And yet Resistance to Christianity is not a pep talk or a self-help manual. It is a very serious historical (albeit subjective) investigation into the rise and fall of Judeo-Christianity. In his “Introduction” to The Movement of the Free Spirit, Vaneigem says,

“I want to challenge those who dehumanize history, seeing it as fated and fatal: hence my wish to pay homage to those who refused to give in to the idea that history moves toward some inevitable outcome. I want also to seek out signs of life, behind the edifices of religious and ideological obscurantism, and in so doing I hope to dispense once and for all with the cherished but no less dubious notion of a Christian Middle Ages.”

Substitute “Western civilization” for “Middle Ages” and you will have an idea of what Vaneigem is up to in Resistance to Christianity.

In this incredibly ambitious project, Vaneigem both relies heavily upon and disagrees with a number of “traditional” historians, but especially Norman Cohn, the author of The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements. Originally published in 1957, and revised and reprinted in 1961, this pioneering and exceptionally influential work claims that,

“Although it would be a gross over-simplification to identify the [Medieval] world of chiliastic exaltation with the world of social unrest, there were many times when needy and discontented masses were captured by some millennial prophet. And when that happened movements were apt to arise which, though relatively small and short-lived, can be seen in retrospect to bear a startling resemblance to the great totalitarian movements of our own day […] The time seems ripe for an examination of those remote foreshadowings of present conditions. If such an enquiry can throw no appreciable light on the workings of established totalitarian states, it might, and I think it does, throw considerable light on the sociology and psychology of totalitarian movements in their revolutionary heyday.”

As Greil Marcus has noted in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, the situationists “would carefully plunder” Cohn’s book, which was published in France in 1962 under the title Fanatiques de l’Apocalypse. But the situationists saw the validity of Cohn’s hypothesis only when it was inverted. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord points out that,

“The great European peasant revolts were attempts to respond to the history that had violently torn them from the patriarchal slumber that feudal tutelage had guaranteed. This was the millenarian utopia of the terrestrial realization of paradise, which brought back to the forefront what had been at the origin of semi-historical religion, when the Christian communities, like the Judaic Messianism from which they sprang, responding to the troubles and misfortunes of their time, expected the imminent realization of God’s Kingdom and added elements of disquiet and subversion to ancient society […] So, contrary to what Norman Cohn believes he has demonstrated in The Pursuit of the Millennium, modern revolutionary hopes are not irrational sequels to the religious passions of millenarianism. Quite the contrary: millenarianism, which is revolutionary class struggle speaking the language of religion for the last time, was already a modern revolutionary tendency, which still lacks the consciousness of only being historical. The millenarians had to lose because they could not recognize revolution as their proper project. The fact that they waited to act until there was an external sign of God’s decision was a translation onto the level of thought of a practice in which insurgent peasants followed leaders from outside their ranks.”

Though he generally accredits this analysis, Vaneigem’s position in Resistance to Christianity is somewhat more nuanced. As he states in Chapter 33, “The great revolutionary movements gave to millenarianism a more ideological than religious form – nevertheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate the role of irrational and Joachimite faith in Nazi millenarianism, that is to say, in the antithesis of the projects for a classless society or an ecological paradise, both brought to consciousness by the successive waves of the economy.” On the other hand – unlike Cohn and Debord – Vaneigem does not see a general consistency or uniformity in millenarianism. In his “Introduction” to The Movement of the Spirit, he says, “The partisans of the Free Spirit were divided on one fundamental issue.”

“Driven by their will to follow nature, some identified with God and the ordinariness of his tyranny, using force, violence, constraint and seduction to secure the right to gratify their whims and passions. Others refused to countenance such a union between a despotic God and a denatured nature, a union whose exploitation found perfect expression in the myth of a divinity at once pitiful and pitiless. Instead they saw the refinement of their desires and the quest for a ubiquitous and sovereign amorous pleasure as a way of replacing the spiritualized animal and its labor of adaptation with an authentic human species capable of creating the conditions favorable to its own harmonious development.”

All through Resistance to Christianity, Vaneigem will highlight this division or disagreement among the so-called heretics. It is in fact the central theme of the book: “Yes” to Simon of Samaria and Marguerite Porete; “no” to the Cathars and Thomas Münzter. He writes in The Movement of the Free Spirit,

“Once this division has been drawn, and its significance has been recognized, the reader might fully understand the peculiar character of ‘modern life.’ Over the course of human history, have we not overcome all of the obstacles to freedom and happiness on earth that have been erected by the economy? Have we not ceased to be ruled and made miserable by the gods, God, the Church, kings and princes, dictators and political ideologies of all stripes? Yes, indeed – but we remain constrained by the economy itself, that is to say, by work and the commodity, by the production and consumption of pollution.”

It is significant that Vaneigem doesn’t remind his readers of the phrase NEVER WORK, which Guy Debord scratched into a wall on the Rue de Seine in Paris in 1953 and which, a decade later, was cited by the Situationist International as the “preliminary program for the [entire] situationist movement.” Instead Vaneigem offers (in The Movement of the Free Spirit) the following “good watchword”: “The minimum of survival in the service of a maximum of life.” The latter appears to be much less radical and memorable than the former, and perhaps this will comfort those who believe that Debord was right when he said that, after his departure from the SI in 1970, Vaneigem demonstrated the “impossibility of keeping quiet,” a quality that “strictly co-exists with a total impossibility of speaking” (letter to Gianfranco Sanguinetti dated 13 August 1973). Though we do not wish to choose sides, it is also quite clear that Vaneigem had Debord, among others, in mind when he stated (once again in The Movement of the Free Spirit):

“What started as a revolution against misery turned into a miserably failed revolution, all because of a reluctance to be anything for oneself; and this failure still condemns even the most vociferous seekers of emancipation and happiness to the gall of impotence in which they acquiesce. Anyone who has the intelligence to comprehend the world but not enough to learn how to live, or who takes his self-hatred out on others, blaming and judging so as not to be blamed and judged himself, is, deep inside, no different from the priest.”

In this context, it is interesting to note that, unlike Vaneigem’s “watchword,” Debord’s slogan is phrased as a command, if not a “commandment” along the lines of “Thou shalt not work.” This command-like aspect certainly would not have reduced if Debord had written NEVER WORK, AND LIVE ACCORDING TO YOUR TRUE DESIRES. The Marx-like “intellectualism,” the “lasting influence of God,” would still remain.

To conclude, a few technical notes are necessary. The French text includes both footnotes and endnotes: the former, which are generally reserved for commentary (there are a few exceptions), are marked by asterisks; the latter, which are always reserved for the attribution of source materials and quotations, are marked by Arabic numerals. In our translation, the footnotes have been incorporated into the main body of the text within parentheses (thus) and, to indicate their previous status as footnotes, they have been introduced with the phrase “Note that.”

As the reader will see, we have taken the liberty of offering our own endnotes. We have done so to translate phrases or words that were not in French in the original text; to elucidate references that might be obscure to his readers in the English-speaking world; and to draw the reader’s attention to connections that she might find interesting.

When necessary, we have supplied within brackets [thus] words that the author failed to include. If we relished a certain play on words or did not choose a literal rendering of a word or phrase, we supplied the original French in italics and within brackets [ainsi]. When the author’s sentences have contained a great many sub-clauses, we have used parentheses (like this) for the sake of clarity and to avoid confusion. But when parentheses appear in quotations taken from the works of other writers, they have always been supplied by Vaneigem himself, and not by us.

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