The French Revolution from 1789 to 1799 had a large influence on Karl Marx, and on the origins of communism. We’ve written previously about Gracchus Babeuf, regarded as the first revolutionary communist, and his direct influence on Marx; and we’ve also written about Maximilien Robespierre, whose violent Reign of Terror had a strong influence on both Babeuf and Vladimir Lenin.
But what were the ideas that incited Robespierre to start his Reign of Terror? What was the environment that would inspire the atheistic hatred behind the French Revolution’s dechristianization movement? And what was it that inspired the revolutionary revolts that would continue into the 19th and 20th centuries?
To understand these, we need to look at the cultural and philosophical environment in Europe at the time of the French Revolution.
Religion and Politics
Communism grew out of an age in which everything was being reconsidered, and the mid-to-late 1700s was a time of massive religious and political shifts.
The growth of Protestantism led to the First Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s, and it captured many discontents within the Catholic Church. Likewise, the American Revolution between 1775 and 1783 showed there was an alternative to the rule of kings.
People came to believe they could live lives independent of the existing hierarchies, and they sought new ideas and alternatives to the prevailing religious and political systems. The political paths Europe inevitably took, however, were opposite to those of the United States.
The new American system attempted to create personal liberties by limiting government. It allowed people to build wealth and choose how to live their lives with a greater allowance for free will.
The emerging European systems aimed to strip the individual of adherence to traditions, to replace the practice of individual faith with state-sponsored beliefs, and to begin playing with the idea of achieving equality through state redistribution. They would soon find these goals were only possible through a totalitarian system that could force its will on the individual.
Just a few years after Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the famous essayist G.K. Chesterton wrote on March 21, 1925, that the new communist systems “are not rebelling against an abnormal tyranny; they are rebelling against what they think is a normal tyranny—the tyranny of the normal.”
“They are not in revolt against the king,” he wrote. “They are in revolt against the citizen.”
Author Michael Walsh wrote in his book “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace” that these problems persist in modern Western societies and “lie almost entirely in our rejection of myth, legend, and religion as ‘unscientific’ and in our embrace of barren ‘process’ to deliver solutions to the world’s ills.”
Communism is not just a political movement, but also an ideology with its own sense of moral structure and allegiance. Walsh writes, “During the Cold War, critics in the West remarked that the Soviet Union and its doctrine of Marxism-Leninism resembled nothing so much as a new religion.”
He notes this “new religion” of communism mirrored the structures of traditional religions—with its own “scripture” in the writings of Marx and Engels, with its leaders raised as “prophets” of the system, and with a clerical caste in the Politburo committee and communist apologists in the West.
To understand this new religion’s occult and violently anti-religious nature, it’s important to understand the ideological environment from which it emerged.
While the history of Illuminism has unfortunately been overshadowed by conspiracy theories and popular fiction, there really were Illuminati, and their role in influencing the modern ideologies of communism cannot be overlooked.
Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Russian Communist Party alongside Lenin, noted the importance of this in his 1930 autobiography, “My Life.”
Trotsky wrote, “In the 18th century, freemasonry became expressive of a militant policy of enlightenment, as in the case of the Illuminati, who were the forerunners of revolution.”
He noted that those to the left of the Illuminati “culminated in the Carbonari,” referring to the Carbonari secret revolutionary societies in Italy. These societies were prominent during the Napoleonic wars and were partly credited with the spread of socialist ideas.
Illuminism was among the many occult philosophies of the time, with influences from the ancient belief systems of Gnosticism and Hermeticism. It was based on a loose idea of personal enlightenment through reason, with a heavy focus on materialism and the nature of man—and often with strong anti-religious and anti-government overtones.
The Order of the Illuminati was among the more influential institutions of the philosophy, and was founded by occult revolutionary Adam Weishaupt in Bavaria in 1776. His organization was known for its many writings calling for the overthrow of religion and government, and its ideological battle with the Rosicrucians, another occult sect that was popular at the time.
Weishaupt’s order didn’t last long, however. In 1786, the elector of Bavaria, Charles Theodore, banned all secret societies and seized the correspondence and writings of Weishaupt and his followers. The government would later publish these in order to further incriminate the groups of conspirators seeking to overthrow the governments of Europe.
Abbé Augustin Barruel, a French Jesuit priest, wrote in his 1797 book “Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism” that the ideas of Weishaupt were later carried out by the Jacobin Clubs—the group behind the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, of which both Robespierre and Babeuf were members.
Barruel wrote that the Jacobins preached the idea that “all men were equal and free,” but that in the name of equality and liberty, “they trampled under foot the altar and the throne; they stimulated all nations to rebellion, and aimed at plunging them ultimately into the horrors of anarchy.” Weishaupt himself called for the abolition of all ordered government, inheritance, private property, patriotism, family, and religion. In Weishaupt’s writings, we can find many of the same core beliefs preached by Marx.
Weishaupt also developed the idea of stages of civilization, later mirrored by Marx, in his theory of the six stages of society, with communist destruction of culture and belief at the final stage. Under communist leaders that would follow, their belief that their ideas were Utopian was used to justify their destruction of all other traditions and beliefs.
Occult historian Nesta Webster wrote in her 1924 book “Secret Societies and Subversive Movements” that neither the French Revolution nor the Bolshevist Revolution arose from merely the conditions of their times or the direct teachings of their leaders.
She wrote, “Both these explosions were produced by forces which, making use of popular suffering or discontent, had long been gathering strength for an onslaught not only on Christianity, but on all society and moral order.”
There were popular discussions on the nature of religion and politics in France at the time of the French Revolution, and in this, all ideologies from Europe and abroad were being observed and discussed.
Many French began to question the church, with their doubts fueled in part by the church’s attempt to suppress doubt—particularly under the Inquisition, which continued trying heretics until 1834 in Spain. In the debates about religion, the French began abandoning Catholicism for other variants of Christianity and also turned to many dark occult beliefs.
Ideologies of the time were influenced by Hermeticism, as well as dark occult sects of Gnosticism. The Gnostic cults often incorporated parts of Christianity and other faiths, yet largely opposed the Christian moral order. Their core beliefs played a key role in shaping the moral philosophies in the French Revolution.
Some of these beliefs were more upfront in their nature. The Gnostic sect called the Cainites, for example, pushed for a direct rebellion against moral order, and called on followers to destroy the creations of Gods and to engage directly in sin.
Others took a less direct path and masked their nature with a veil of reason. The sect known as the Carpocratians, for example, denied the divinity of Jesus and believed they should not be held to laws or to morality—things they regarded as human constructs.
Jacques Matter, a 19th-century author of ecclesiastical history, wrote about the Carpocratians in his 1828 book “Histoire Critique du Gnosticisme,” noting that the sect opposed religion and that its followers believed their abandonment of restraints made them equal to God.
Its belief in human nature, rather than moral aspirations, was something that mirrored the materialist ideologies that communism would later adopt. It was the idea that if nature takes precedence, anything that springs from human nature is then correct—including any crime and any sin.
Russian author and historian Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his 1983 Templeton Address that “within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions.”
He added, “Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot.”
All of this comes back to the roots of communist ideology—the promotion of human nature over divine aspirations, and the destruction of moral restraint.
And this deification of human nature was a key element in the social philosophies and occult institutions of the French Revolution.
The first state religion of the French Revolution, the Cult of Reason, carried the same anti-religious fervor, and deified the concept of human “reason” in place of a belief in the divine. Under it, Jacques Hébert and his “Hébertist” followers carried out the dechristianization movement to slander and destroy Christianity.
Part of the anti-Christian obsession under the Cult of Reason can be attributed to the prevalence of the teachings of Voltaire, an influential philosopher of the time.
In his letters, Voltaire frequently referred to Christians and Christ as “the wretch,” and frequently called for “crushing the wretch.” He urged one his key followers, Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, to accomplish this using a tactic where he called to “strike but conceal your hand.”
In a 1765 letter, he wrote, “Victory is declaring for us on all sides, and I can assure you, that soon, none but the rabble will follow the standard of our enemies, and we equally condemn that rabble whether for us or against us.” And in a 1768 letter, he wrote that the “monster” of religion “must fall, pierced by a hundred invisible hands; yes, let it fall beneath a thousand repeated blows.”
John Robinson, the first general secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783, wrote about the conspirators behind the French Revolution in his 1797 “Proofs of a Conspiracy,” and noted Voltaire’s effects.
Robinson wrote that the “darling project” of Voltaire and his followers was to “destroy Christianity and all Religion, and to bring about a total change of government.” He wrote that Voltaire took the approach of ideological influence, and mass produced writings “equally calculated for inflaming the sensual appetites of men and for perverting their judgments.”
Solzhenitsyn believed this concept is at the root of many ills the world has witnessed under communism. He said, “The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.”
When people lose a sense of moral responsibility, and when human reason—with similarly unrestrained will and desires behind it—becomes the sole foundation of understanding right and wrong, what then motivates people to choose right over wrong? Solzhenitsyn noted this was a core loophole within communist ideology.
“When external rights are completely unrestricted, why should one make an inner effort to restrain oneself from ignoble acts?” he said. “Or why should one refrain from burning hatred, whatever its basis—race, class, or ideology? Such hatred is in fact corroding many hearts today. Atheist teachers in the West are bringing up a younger generation in a spirit of hatred of their own society.”
A similar ideological source was found in the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a political philosopher who was a major influence on the French Revolution and modern socialism.
Similar to the Gnostic sects, Rousseau held that character and identity were formed post-natally, and he preached a new “virtuous” social vision that he believed would bring people closer to unbridled human nature.
Among his key texts was “The Social Contract,” published in 1762. The book contains Rousseau’s theories on how to establish a political society, which aimed to free people from his concept of slavery by having people all equally surrender their rights.
Robespierre was heavily influenced by Rousseau, although Robespierre’s belief in using terror is not found in Rousseau’s thought.
Among the other major beliefs of the Enlightenment was deism, a core belief in Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being and a philosophical religion that believed the universe was reasonable and could be understood by unassisted human reason. While deism didn’t go as far as atheism, its morality was centered on man rather than the divine.
Behind all these beliefs was a shift in religious thinking. It would look to personal “reason” in place of traditional faith and belief. From this grew a new concept of the deification of man, and a tolerance of all evils that arise from unrestrained human desire.
Leading 19th-century French occultist Éliphas Lévi explained the nature of some of these sects in his 1860 book, “Histoire de la Magie.” He referred to them as “rebels to the hierarchic order” and said in place of the moral sobriety of traditional religion, they sought “sensual passions” and “debauchery,” which fed their desire to destroy all social hierarchy, down to even the family structure.
Nesta Webster wrote that these sects had two focuses: the esoteric and the political. They used perversion to bind men to a system, which then acted to “obscure all recognized ideas of morality and religion.”
The writings of Marx and Friedrich Engels would mirror this assessment. They said in “The Communist Manifesto” that their new system “abolishes all religion, and all morality.”
Solzhenitsyn said that before the communist revolution in Russia, “Faith was the shaping and unifying force of the nation,” and the religious culture was the moral foundation that held society together.
He said when he was a child, “I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
After his more than 50 years of researching, conducting interviews, and writing about the history of the communist revolution, he said, “If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
Communism is estimated to have killed at least 100 million people, yet its crimes have not been fully compiled and its ideology still persists. The Epoch Times seeks to expose the history and beliefs of this movement, which has been a source of tyranny and destruction since it emerged. Read the whole series at ept.ms/TheDeadEndCom
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.