11. The Near East and Russia

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

In the Near East, where it first appeared, the communal life of the neolithic village has endured, warped and crippled by the invasions of the State and an external economy, to the present day. Until the Second World War or until the discovery of oil in the vicinity, life in an isolated village in the Middle East went on very much as it had for eight thousand years. So it is not surprising that communalist movements have come and gone in the very birthplace of the centralized State, nor that they have failed, since the larger economy based on irrigation, regional granaries, and national planning of agriculture demanded a centralized administrative apparatus.

The official Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, could be considered a reflex of the centralized State of the Near East, with its palace system and its absolute monarch. The yasnas of the Zend Avesta contain many maxims directed against communism, disrespect for nobles, pacifism, and the nomadic freebooting community, yet communalist tendencies were there, working underground, to emerge in the religion of Mazdak in the latter years of the Sassanian dynasty.

Mazdak was born toward the end of the fifth century and his preachers spread his doctrine so rapidly over Persia that they soon converted large numbers of important people and eventually King Kawaz himself.

For Mazdak the source of all evil was due to the malevolent action of the devils, Envy, Wrath, and Greed, who had destroyed the primitive equality and community of man. Mazdak’s disciples held all things in common including, according to their enemies, women. Like most heretics they were accused of indulging in sexual orgies. On the other hand they were also accused of extreme asceticism, vegetarianism, and the refusal to take life under any circumstances. Communism was not incidental to Mazdaism, but central. The greatest of mortal sins were those of possessiveness and violence, and the greatest virtues were those of the community of love.

We have inadequate information as to what happened following the conversion of the king, but the social effects must have been drastic and supposedly led to his temporary deposition by his brother Jamasp. On his restoration his son, later Khusraw I (Chosroes I), tricked Mazdak into coming to court with all his disciples to receive Khusraw’s formal submission and public profession of the new religion. As the Mazdaites entered one of the royal gardens to partake of a great banquet, each group was seized and buried head downward in the earth with their feet protruding. Khusraw then led Mazdak through the garden and said, “See the crop which your evil doctrine has brought forth,” and had him buried, head downward, in the midst of his followers.

The massacre, which took place in A.D. 528, did not exterminate the sect. On Khusraw’s accession three years later a new persecution broke out and the Mazdaites were hunted throughout Persia. However, a remnant seems to have continued underground, to pass on their doctrines and practices to the strange sects which broke forth from the Ismailians and Assassins, themselves schismatics from the main body of Islam. For his efforts in defending orthodox Zoroastrianism Khusraw was given the title Nushirwan-Anushak-Ruban — “of immortal spirit” — and is still venerated by the Persians as a saintly hero.

It is unfortunate that we know practically nothing of the details of what after all was a major historical episode. Zoroastrian, Muslim, and Christian sources, though some of them are by eye-witnesses, substitute abuse for economics and sociology. We know even less of the communism attributed to the inner circle of the earlier Manichaeans whom their opponents called Zandiqs, who corresponded to the Cathari amongst the later European Albigenses descended from the Manichaeans. Amongst the Zandiqs communism seems to have been practiced by an elect minority who chose to follow counsels of perfection similar to the Christian monks. Far more than Mazdaism, which flourished only within the limits of the Sassanian empire, Manichaeanism, and later Gnosticism, profoundly influenced the development of Islamic heresy. Since, most especially in its early days, Islam partook of the character of an immense band of nomads led by caravan merchants, raiding the settled societies on its ever-expanding perimeter — a war of the steppe against the sown — there was always an element of piratical communalism in its social ethic and to a lesser degree in its practice. Although Mohammed was a merchant and spoke for the mercantile communities of Mecca and Medina, the distinction between rading Bedouins and trading merchants was hazy. The latter had evolved from the former and remained dependent upon them. The difference, an essential one, was between loot and profit. The nomad band shared loot; the merchant kept his profit for himself. So those communities of Islamic heretics who practiced communism were usually pirates of the desert and the steppe, or, like the Assassins, a secret society of extortionists.

Yet the source of most Islamic heresy lies not in the main body of Mohammedanism, Sunnism, the religion of most Arabs and of the lands they conquered and held, but in the Shia, the religion of Persia. The Shiites reject the notion of an elected caliph and of a clergy that functions as a kind of rabbinate with a body of law always subject to discussion — like the Talmud — in favor of an hereditary caliphate descending from the prophet through Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, through a line of divinely ordained successors, the seven (or the twelve, depending on the sect) Imams who come to acquire the character of direct emanations of the deity. In Persia the line also descends from the last of the Sassanian kings through the daughter of Yazdigird, Harar, the gazelle, the wife of the martyr Husayn, and the mother of Ali Asghar. Thus combined in one hereditary line are the mystic divine incarnation of the Persian King of Kings, the Hellenistic Basileus ó Soter, the incarnation of Ahura Mazda, and the divinely sanctioned caliphate, all together as an emanation of the deity. The final Imam is hidden, only to appear at the end of the world, and is represented before the world — a saviour or Mahdi, himself usually inaccessible and represented before the people by dais, missioners — who carry on their propaganda clandestinely. Sometimes the Mahdi and Imam are identified, or in the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, function as actually ruling caliphs. Amongst the Ismailians the final vanished Imam is the Seventh, Ismail, on whose reappearance, like the Second Coming of Christ, the world will come to an end. In most Ismaili sects he is the final emanation of the series of seven, not to be confused with the Seven Imams who are all spiritually identical, but of a Gnostic, metaphysical character, similar to the Aions of the Gnostic Valentinian or of the Sephiroth of the Jewish Kabbala. We are dealing here with an emanationism, a soteriology, and an apocalypticism which goes back to the dawn of recorded religion in the Near East — for instance, to the Egyptian “Memphite theology,” and finds analogues in Mahayana Buddhism. The resemblance to the prevailing form of Zoroastrianism, a religion which has varied widely under the Sassanids immediately before the Muslim conquest, and even more to its heretical expressions, is pronounced. Shiism has been called the revolt of Persia against Arabic Sunnism, although Shiism flourished for a time in Egypt, and even as far away as Spain and Indonesia. It is the present religion of Persia, and of the Ismailis in India, whose Mahdi is the Aga Khan.

Both in structure and in doctrine most advanced forms of Shiism are like Chinese boxes, a hierarchical government becoming ever more inaccessible, and an occult religion, an inclusive series of mysteries whose final secret is that there is no mystery. The appeal of such a religion and secret society is immense, especially when it is coupled with actual worldly power.

Contemporaneously with the establishment of the Fatimid dynasty at the end of the ninth century in Tripoli and the conquest of Egypt in 972 A.D. the closely related sect of the Carmathians developed in the lower end of the Mesopotamian valley and along the northwestern shores of the Persian Gulf. The orthodox Sunnite Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad was preoccupied with a great revolt of Negro slaves, the Zanj insurrection. The Carmathians attempted an alliance with the Zanj leaders. This proved to be impossible, but they were able to pursue a parallel opposition and after the suppression of the Zanj revolt the Carmathians not only were in secret control of the northern shores of the Persian Gulf, but had organized subversion in Yemen, Syria, and even Baghdad itself. In 900 A.D. the troops of the caliphate were defeated at Basra and from then on the Carmathians controlled Bahrayn, sometimes Basra, and many other towns between Mesopotamia and Arabia, cutting the pilgrim routes to Mecca, and usually the sea connections of Baghdad. Here they established what was probably the only communist society to control a large territory, and to endure for more than a generation, before the twentieth century.

The Carmathians also raided the pilgrim caravans to Mecca, often killing thousands of people, and laid siege to cities as far away as Damascus, where they seem to have had a considerable body of secret followers. Finally they attacked Mecca itself and carried away the sacred Black Stone, the holiest object in Islam, as well as immense loot (928 A.D.). Within Bahrayn itself there was a complete absolutist communism. The citizens paid no tribute or tax; their welfare was guaranteed from birth to death, in sickness or health. All hard, menial, or unpleasant work was performed by Negro slaves, who seem at first to have been the defeated remnants of the Zanj revolt who fled to their quasi-allies and voluntarily chose slavery with the Carmathians rather than extermination with the Sunnites. The orthodox accused the Carmathians of community of women and all manner of orgies. As a matter of fact they were strictly monogamous, a military caste something like Plato’s guardians or the Teutonic Knights, who led a pure, severely regulated life. The use of wine and all minor vices were strictly forbidden. Women were unveiled and circulated freely in public and enjoyed considerable influence. The specific ordinances of Islam, however, were not enforced, not even the Friday meeting, the daily prayers, or the eating of food that was taboo. The esoteric practices of Mohammedanism were replaced by a cult of Light, a contemplative mysticism related to Sufism, and very like that of the greatest Sufi theologian, Ibn el Arabi. Like the Sufis the Carmathians dressed exclusively in white and placed great emphasis on moral and physical purity. We are still in the world of the Essenes, the Therapeutae, and the Light by Light emanationism of Philo Judaeus. If any of the accusations of their persecutors or any of the secret traditions of the occultists are true of the Knights Templar, this is their source.

In 1084 A.D. Bahrayn was overthrown, but another branch of the Ismailians, a new brotherhood of mystery and adventure, the Assassins, arose, far to the north in Syria and on the Caspian Sea. Based on a series of fortress communities in remote desert and mountain areas, of which Alamut was the most famous and the longest lived, the Assassins functioned all through the period of the Crusades as a secret brotherhood of extortionists — and assassins — who terrorized the entire Near East. They were able to extract loot, exert political influence, and exact obedience from Christians and Muslims alike. The authoritarian communism of the Carmathians gave way to a pure authoritarianism in which the rank and file were supposedly controlled by a kind of mass hypnosis induced by the excessive use of hashish, hence their name, Hashishim. Their fortresses were destroyed and they were exterminated almost to a man by the Mongols under Hulagu, who seems to have specially hated them. After the Grand Master of Alamut was captured, sent to Hulagu, but escaped, they survived as the followers of the Aga Khan.

The Carmathians and the Assassins are the first clear examples of a communal mutual-benefit society living on the plunder of other communities. Such a body can only be interstitial and function in the gaps between classes in a highly organized State, or on the marches of two antagonistic States, or on the borders over against less highly organized societies. This is the communism of the urban gang or the roving band of robbers in times of social disorganization — like the band immortalized in the Chinese novel, The Water Margin (All Men Are Brothers), and, of course, in the tales of Robin Hood. The Carmathians flourished in the march between the fundamentally antagonistic Arab and Persian civilizations. The Assassins were the most famous of several similar esoteric religious communities who lived by plundering their neighbors along the northern borders of Persia, in the Caucasus, along the Caspian, and across the Oxus, and in what is now Afghanistan.

Before the Crusades, Islamic civilization was incomparably higher and wealthier than that of Western Europe. The Crusades themselves were a species of religious brigandage, just as Islam had been, when the Bedouins and traders of Arabia looted the Byzantine Empire. So it is not extraordinary that the type of organization invented by the Carmathians and Assassins should pass to the Crusaders. The Knights Templar and the other military orders were at the beginning similar, authoritarian, communist societies of religious bandits distinguished only by their vows of celibacy.

If we are to accept anything of the charges made against the Templars when they were suppressed by Philip the Fair in 1307, they had copied not only the organizational structure of the Assassins but also their graded esotericism, leading to skeptical deism and accompanied by rites and practices the orthodox considered blasphemous and obscene. The Templars were accused of spitting on the cross upon initiation, institutionalized pederasty, and nocturnal orgies, but they were suppressed because they had become the wealthiest organization in Europe and a state within a state, independent of both kings and papacy, as well as an immense corporation of “international bankers.”

On the shores of the Baltic and into the interior, the Teutonic Knights were organized similarly to the crusading military orders except that they were fixed to specific territory. As the Templars had succeeded to the Assassins and Carmathians, so the Teutonic Knights were successors to the pagan Varangian communities that dotted the waterways from the Baltic to the Black Sea, fortified communities of Scandinavian trader-warriors amongst the more barbaric populations of Finns, Letts, and Slavs. They seem to have practiced the economy of robber bands, sharing the wealth, but with the biggest share going to their chiefs. They were not celibate like the Teutonic Knights. Their women were slave concubines taken from surrounding peoples, and in some instances seem to have been immolated on the death of their chief and master. One of their principal commodities of trade with the Byzantine and Persian Empires were blonde slaves. The Varangian colonies of greater Russia never managed to unite to form a single Scandinavian state, although they laid the foundations for the Kievan monarchy, and even the Romanovs pretended to be descended from them. However, for a while, in the Viking period, the Jomsvikings from their fortress city of Jomsburg somewhere on the southwestern shore of the Baltic (the site has never been certainly identified) functioned as a state on equal terms with Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

The Mongols’ conquest destroyed the Scandinavian power in Russia and the settlements on the Baltic withered. As the Mongols overwhelmed the interior and destroyed Slavic and Varangian domains alike at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Teutonic Knights shifted their activities from the Holy Land to pagan Prussia where they subjected the Finnish and Slavic population in genocidal war, and eventually came to control the entire southern shore of the Baltic.

This type of predatory, parasitic, mutual-benefit association would drop its communist, and to a certain degree its religious, characteristics and emerge at the beginning of the capitalist epoch in the great Oriental trading companies, the Dutch and English East India Companies and similar joint stock, chartered bodies of combined military brigands and traders.

In such society juridical or implicit contractual relations, which prevail between the members and are scarcely felt, are exchanged for the warm fraternity of men united by constant danger and the hope of wealth without hard labor. Obedience, loyalty to the death, devotion of self to the cause, sacrificial help to brethren in distress, flourish far more in a society of bandits than amongst the refined citizens of a stable community. Such a body grew in antagonism to the values of the societies outside itself, whether more civilized or more barbaric. It gained strength by presenting a mysterious face to all outsiders, and developing onerous rites of initiation and grades of advance. In the highest circles, which deliberately trained and manipulated the lower ranks, complete skepticism usually prevailed and when one was admitted to the governing, final council, the last secret was revealed to be that there was no secret. Another characteristic of such a society was the merciless purge of all members from bottom to top who could not adapt to sudden changes of rule or policy. Community depended upon absolute obedience and in the most perfected form authority continuously narrowed until it vanished in a pinnacle, the metaphysical principle of authority itself. Such societies, whether Templars, Jesuits, or Bolsheviks, have always filled the surrounding greater societies with terror, been the subject of horrifying legends, and subjected to ruthless persecution.

Scientific historians dedicated to unemotional weighing of evidence, and usually committed to a social gospel of liberalism, have almost always dismissed the charges of outrageous and obscene conduct brought against secret societies, heretical groups, and occult movements as products of the diseased minds of their accusers. Partly this is due to prior commitment to the doctrine of the inherent goodness of man. Many pages have been devoted to proving that the Carthaginians did not sacrifice babies to Moloch, that pederasty has never been known on Mount Athos, or that the witches were just crazy old women. One can reject the evidence if one wishes, but there is certainly a mass of it to the contrary. The witches of Europe and New England may have confessed under torture to things that they did not do, but all over the world in Asia, Africa, and primitive America witches and shamans still do precisely those things.

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The social relations that prevailed in the neolithic village community in the fertile agricultural regions bordering the great Eurasian steppe from the plains of the Danube basin across the Ukraine and into Siberia — what American ecologists would call the long grass prairie climax — endured for millenniums, in a sense down to the twentieth century. The environment was such as to permit an exceedingly stable mixed farming, with a basis of small grains, and the sedentary domestication of animals for meat and milk. Such communities were subject to continuous raiding from the nomadic pastoralists who ranged over the great sea of the steppe beyond them. Most centralized states were imposed on this peasant community by the nomads, and came and went in a few generations, as other nomads pushed them aside.

A way of life endured in a typical Ukrainian or Great Russian village from as far back as there are archaeological traces, until the imposition of serfdom in the modern epoch, and proved singularly resistant to the special Slavic form of feudalism and its later serfdom. The Slavic peasant community survived even the abolition of serfdom and the only partially successful attempts of the State and the new upper classes to “free the serfs” and establish a wage-labor and sharecropping agriculture — which would permit the primitive accumulation necessary to capitalist development. Even the long struggle of the Bolsheviks to industrialize agriculture, abolish the small communities, and substitute agricultural towns on vast collective and State farms has never been completely successful. The collectivized agriculture of modern Russia, however highly rationalized and communalist it may be in theory, lags far behind the productivity per capita and per acre of Western European, much less American, large-scale agriculture, and so far has proved to be less productive than the old time, two-hundred acre, mixed farming of the American Middle West. This is true although the Slavic lands, but most especially the Ukraine, include some of the most fertile soils in the world.

Thousands of years ago, when man first entered these regions, he developed a way of life, and with it a kind of community, almost perfectly adjusted to this special environment, and all attempts to change it have only brought about disorder, inefficiency, and demoralization. For fifty years every Soviet or Party congress has had to face a permanent agricultural crisis, however the facts may have been disguised with oratory.

Russian literature and revolutionary theory, except for Marxism, is full of a mysticism of the Russian peasant community. Typically the Socialist Revolutionaries, the majority Party of the Russian Revolution, hoped to reorganize Russian society in forms developed from the peasant community, the mir, or even the upper-class community administrative unit, the zemstvo — in other words they envisaged a kind of peasantization of the entire industrial and civic structure. This is in fact what the early Soviets really were, and they had grown up spontaneously in the 1905 revolution amongst workers, citizens, soldiers, and sailors, a majority of whom had come, in one or two generations or less, from peasant villages.

Certainly the peasant community was highly idealized by the entire revolutionary populist movement, from Narodnaya Volya — “the People’s Will” of the nineteenth century — to the Socialist Revolutionaries. Thousands of educated young men and women “went to the people” in the belief that if only the peasant were educated he would spontaneously produce a special Slavic communism which would redeem industrial society — eventually all over the world. The brutal facts of peasant life are well enough shown in the stories of Chekhov, and it is probable that the leftist Social Revolutionaries would have found it as difficult to introduce a neolithic village ethic into modern factories and banks as the Bolsheviks have found it to industrialize agriculture. Still the fact remains that communal forms whose origins were lost in the most remote antiquity appeared quite naturally, though briefly, in the 1905 Revolution, and in the 1917 Revolution until the Soviets and farm communes were suppressed by the Bolsheviks in the two years after their seizure of power.

In modern times, of course, the Slavic village community was not communist. It was very far from sharing all things in common. Poverty and grinding exploitation made the peasant desperately rapacious. However, Russian dissent is characterized by an overall drift to communism. Russian Anabaptism appears in history about the same time that it does in the West — during the sixteenth century — but, as in the West, there are indications that it led a clandestine occult existence dating back to the first centuries of Christianity in Russia. The two leading Baptist sects, the Doukhobors and Molokani, have continuously budded off communalist groups which were usually ruthlessly suppressed, however harmless and insignificant. This process has continued in the immigrant communities in Canada, South America, and the United States, but none of the schismatic movements has endured very long. There are a number of extreme sects which somewhat resemble the Gnostics and Manichaeans, and may be related to the Paulican-Bogomile-Cathari-Albigensian movement that spread in the Middle Ages from Asia Minor to the south of France. Other groups like the Khlisti and Skoptsi, ecstatic orgiastic cults, who nevertheless are celibate to the point of emasculating themselves, bear more resemblance to the Mandeans of the Mesopotamian marshes, or to some of the more extreme cults which have developed out of Shiite Islam, than they do to Christianity. The peasant background and the savage persecution they have suffered has often created an enforced communism amongst them, but they never established permanent communities where all things were held in common.

After the Hutterites and Mennonites were settled in Russia they had a certain influence on the peasant society about them. There still exist Russian-speaking Anabaptists who are essentially Mennonites, although if there were ever purely Russian communities which followed the strict Hutterite communist way of life they are unknown.

In the first years after the Bolsheviks took power they had hoped to use the inherent communalism of Russian dissent in the development of a program of communal farms, as distinguished from collective farms, and for a while such farms, both secular and Dissenter in leadership, flourished in spite of bureaucratic meddling. With Stalin’s drive for the collectivization of agriculture, the first Five-Year Plan, and the suppression of all political dissent as “Trotskyism,” both communal farms and Dissenters were suppressed, and the former were liquidated. During the great purges probably fifty percent of all Russian Dissenters were exterminated, and most especially those whose way of life could be interpreted as political heresy.

Of all those who idealized both the Slavic peasant community and the inherent communalism of the Russian Dissenter by far the most influential, more influential as a single person than any populist party, was Leo Tolstoi. Under his inspiration many little communities of intellectuals dedicated to communism, pacifism, vegetarianism, and a secularized mystical religion sprang up here and there in Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Often, like the Polish Anabaptists, landowners turned their estates into communes, invited their bohemian friends from the city, and urged “their” peasants to share in the building of nuclei of a new society in the womb of the old. As might be expected, few of these lasted more than a couple of years and their tragi-comic stories make pensive reading today. Although there were many such communities and a few of them were successful, there is no history of them in any Western European language, unless Czech is classed as such. Both the Yugoslavs and the Czechs during their brief period of intellectual freedom have shown great interest in all aspects of the history, religious and secular, peasant and industrial, of communist groups and movements.

A special Russian development of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the establishment by wealthy industrialists, who were also great landowners, of heavily subsidized communities of artists. These, of course, however strong their community life, were far from being economic communist groups. They included some of the leading artists of pre-revolutionary Russia and they had a profound influence on Russian art and indirectly at first through the ballets russes, and then, through their emigrated former members, upon modern painting in the West. The famous Bauhaus, almost all of whose leaders were free communists and many of whom had been in Russia in the first, exciting, pre-revolutionary years, was for its short life under the Weimar Republic an attempt to realize the disappointed hopes of the Russian Constructivists, Comfuturists, and other modernists for a community of artists which would by its work and teaching revolutionize the mind of capitalist society. Alas, Hitler destroyed the Bauhaus and dispersed the artists, most of whom became very capitalist industrial designers and architects in the United States.