It is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims and premises are boundless . . . Whatever their individual histories, collectively these people formed a recognizable social stratum -- a frustrated and rather low-grade intelligentsia . . . And what followed then was the formation of a group of a peculiar kind,
a restlessly dynamic and utterly ruthless group which, obsessed by the apocalyptic phantasy and filled with the conviction of its own infallibility, set itself above the rest of humanity and recognized no claims save that of its own supposed mission . . . A boundless, millenial promise made with boundless, prophet-like conviction to a number of rootless and desperate men in the midst of a society where traditional norms and relationships are disintegrating -- here, it would seem, lay the source of that peculiar subterranean fanaticism.
The facts themselves will soon come to the aid of the mass of men in their struggle to enter at long last that state of freedom aspired to -- though they lacked the means of attaining it -- by those Swabian heretics of 1270 mentioned by Norman Cohn in his Pursuit of the Millennium, who "said that they had mounted up above God and, reaching the very pinnacle of Divinity, abandoned God. Often the adept would affirm that he or she had no longer 'any need of God.'"
From Engels down to the Communist historians of today -- Russian as well as German -- Marxists have inflated Munzter into a giant symbol, a prodigious hero in the history of the 'class war.' This is a naive view, and one which non-Marxist historians have countered easily enough by pointing to the essentially mystical nature of Muntzer's preoccupations, his general indifference to the material welfare of the poor. Yet it may be suggested that this point of view too can be over-emphasized. Munzter was a propheta obsessed by eschatological phantasies which he attempted to translate into reality by exploiting social discontent. Perhaps after all it is a sound instinct that has led Marxists to claim him for their own.
As for the Communists, they continue to elaborate, in volume after volume, that cult of Thomas Muntzer which was inaugurated already by Engels. But whereas in these works the prophetae of a vanished world are shown as men born centuries before their time, it is perfectly possible to draw the opposite moral -- that, for all their exploitation of the most modern technology, Communism and Nazism have been inspired by phantasies which are downright archaic. And such is in fact the case. It can be shown (though to do so in detail would require another volume) that the ideologies of Communism and Nazism, dissimilar though they are in many respects, are both heavily indebted to that very ancient body of beliefs which constituted the popular apocalyptic lore of Europe.
The social revolt of the millenarian peasantry defines itself naturally first of all as a will to destroy the Church. But millenarianism spreads in the historical world and not on the terrain of myth. Modern revolutionary expectations are not irrational continuations of the religious passion of millenarianism, as Norman Cohn thought he had demonstrated in The Pursuit of the Millennium. On the contrary, it is millenarianism -- revolutionary class struggle speaking the language of religion for the last time -- which is already a modern revolutionary tendency that as yet lacks the consciousness that it is only historical.
The millenarians [Debord goes on to say] had to lose because they could not recognize the revolution as their own operation. The fact that they waited to act on the basis of an external sign of God's decision is the translation into thought of the practice of insurgent peasants following chiefs taken from outside their ranks. The peasant class could not attain an adequate consciousness of the functioning of society or of the way to lead its own struggle; because it lacked these conditions of unity in its action and consciousness, it expressed its project and led its wars with the imagery of an earthly paradise.
1) that the medieval "heresy" of the Free Spirit is not doomed to be reborn in fascist or otherwise authoritarian milieus, and that it can in fact be reborn in anarchist or otherwise anti-authoritarian formations;
2) that "heaven on earth" is in some sense historically possible, that is to say, realizable, in the modern era.
The Age of the Spirit was to be the sabbath or resting-time of mankind. In it there would be no wealth or even property, for everyone would live in voluntary poverty; there would be no work, for human beings would possess only spiritual bodies and would need no food; there would be no institutional authority of any kind.
the peasants showed themselves not at all chiliastically minded but, on the contrary, politically minded in the sense that they thought in terms of real situations and realisable possibilities. The most that a peasant community ever sought under the leadership of its own peasant aristocracy was local self-government; and the first stage of the movement, from March 1525 to the beginning of May, consisted simply of a series of local struggles in which a great number of communities really did extract from their immediate lords, ecclesiastical or lay, concessions giving them greater autonomy. And this was achieved not by bloodshed but by an intensification of the tough, hard-headed bargaining which the peasantry had been conducting for generations.