Each generation sees history through lenses ground by its own experience. In these days of recoil from radical involvement it is hardly surprising that reinterpretations of just those phases of Western history in which the radical impulse was strongest have become a fashion. What Richard Hofstadter recently did for Populism and the Progressive movement in his The Age of Reform, Norman Cohn, an English historian, has done in his The Pursuit of the Millennium for the chiliastic and messianic movements which arose in Europe from the eleventh to the sixteenth century and which played so crucial a part in the peasant and artisan revolts in Germany, France, Bohemia and the Lowlands.
Hofstadter challenged the current liberal and radical interpretations of American Populism by focusing attention on the paranoid, distorted and irrational anti-Semitic elements in the motivations of its leaders and followers; Cohn now contends that those very movements which Karl Kautsky discussed under the title of Precursors of Socialism should really be considered precursors of modern totalitarianism. Revolutionary chiliastic movements thrive best, writes Cohn:
“where history is imagined as having an inherent purpose which is preordained to be realized here on earth in a single, final consummation. It is such a view of history, at once teleological and cataclysmic, that has been presupposed and invoked alike by the medieval movements… and by the great totalitarian movements of our day.”
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