In America, apocalyptic and millenarian language is most prominently found on the political and Christian right. While hardly absent from the English right, such language is more likely to be utilised on the left. Indeed, the English radical tradition has had a long history of apocalyptic and millenarian thinking, if by those problematic terms we mean the recurring assumptions about dramatic overhaul of society. Such tendencies can be seen, among many historic examples, in the Peasants’ Revolt, radical groups in the English Civil War (e.g., Diggers, Levellers), and the works of William Blake. Echoes could even be heard in the Labour movement and mainstream political discourse in the language of building a New Jerusalem, the development of the welfare state and the founding of the NHS. Most famously, the 1942 Beveridge Report and the 1945 Labour Party manifesto talked about fighting the ‘evil giants’ of ‘want’, ‘squalor’, ‘disease’, and ‘ignorance’ and reordering the country from the rubble of the Second World War. In the second half of the twentieth century, this language took a darker turn among groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the sense that nuclear weapons were seen as having the very real potential to disfigure the world beyond recognition. Such thinking has unsurprisingly been inherited and adapted by environmental campaigners.
Nevertheless, so strong was the more optimistic version within the Labour Party that Tony Blair even used it, and transformed it, in his attempt to persuade the Labour Party to support the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. For instance, at the 2001 Labour Party conference, Tony Blair clearly alluded to, and even intensified, the language of the Labour Party’s 1945 manifesto in his attempt to get a jittery Labour Party to endorse the War on Terror and his own brand of messianic interventionism:
In retrospect, the Millennium marked only a moment in time. It was the events of September 11 that marked a turning point in history, where we confront the dangers of the future and assess the choices facing humankind. It was a tragedy. An act of evil…We [the British nation] were with you [the American people] at the first. We will stay with you to the last…It is that out of the shadow of this evil, should emerge lasting good: destruction of the machinery of terrorism wherever it is found; hope amongst all nations of a new beginning where we seek to resolve differences in a calm and ordered way; greater understanding between nations and between faiths; and above all justice and prosperity for the poor and dispossessed, so that people everywhere can see the chance of a better future through the hard work and creative power of the free citizen, not the violence and savagery of the fanatic. I know that here in Britain people are anxious, even a little frightened. I understand that…Don’t kill innocent people. We are not the ones who waged war on the innocent. We seek the guilty…Today the threat is chaos…The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause. This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.
Additionally, the New Labour project also rethought an apocalyptic hero of the radical English Left—the seventeenth-century Digger, Gerrard Winstanley. In an explanation of the 2008 financial crisis, Gordon Brown implicitly cast Winstanley as a hero of responsible capitalism. Out went the popular memory of Winstanley the millenarian proponent of land occupations and radical egalitarianism, and in came Winstanley the proponent of ‘the light in man’ and of duty, conscience and helping others in volatile economic times.
Apocalyptic language may have long been softened but it still survives on the left, even if in muted form. Developed during his close friendship with Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn has alluded to this tradition, particularly the seventeenth-century radicals such as the Quakers, John Lilburne and the Levellers, as an example of challenging ‘the undemocratic divine rights of kings’, the ‘established church’, the ‘whole class structure of society’, ‘global corporations and global finance’. For Corbyn, the English Civil War is the sort of history that should be taught in schools rather than the jingoistic history of leaders, battles, and national superiority he associated with the Conservatives. Since becoming leader, and as a result of Brexit-related threats to the Labour vote from UKIP, the Corbyn team have even employed such traditions as part of a ‘radical history’, including referencing the Peasants’ Revolt, to emphasise ‘an English Labour Party’ with a ‘socialist vision’ which is a ‘patriotic one, because nothing is more patriotic than building a society for the many; not the few’.
Nevertheless, this is still a more decaffeinated version of the apocalyptic tradition in English political discourse, not least because a more caffeinated version could easily be perceived as too much in mainstream English politics where there is no taste for anything too strange associated with religion or dramatic societal change, especially culturally unusual concepts associated with apocalypticism and millenarianism. However, since the 2008 crash and a resurgent left, the space that opened up on the left of English and British politics has also led to the promotion of distinctive revolutionary constructions of apocalyptic and millenarian language. Volunteers from the British Isles who have gone to fight ISIS and support the progressive revolution in Rojava, northern Syria, highlight this point well. One group, the Bob Crow Brigade, made the national press and were present in various social media settings with sympathetic (and humorous) pro-Corbyn messages. And they also promoted distinctive notions of martyrdom.
The Bob Crow Brigade unashamedly took the term ‘immortal martyrs’ from the Kurdish idiom Şehid Namirin, to denote those who have died for the cause, in this case the socialist cause. Homegrown traditions were also used, such as an updating of the socialist hymn, ‘The Red Flag’. Indeed, in one widely circulated picture associated with the Bob Crow Brigade, the revolutionaries were pictured on a roof with the graffiti: ‘with the blood of the martyrs our flag is red’. This was more than an annual repetition of a socialist hymn about a glorious past. Death for the Rojava Revolution was happening all around them and could happen to them at any time. Martyrdom was assumed by such volunteers to be an inevitability when fighting against the seemingly indestructible forces of capitalism and challenging the dominant western acceptance that there is no coherent alternative imaginable. In this understanding of martyrdom, the socialist ideal is understood to emerge in a victorious future. Those lucky enough to live in these times will have benefitted from the actions of the fallen martyrs. The martyrs would be remembered for the consequences of their actions and it is in this sense that groups such as the Bob Crow Brigade could stress that the ‘martyrs are immortal’.
Martyrdom in the sense of dying for the cause has been difficult for the national press and the English left to understand. When dealing with the deaths of British volunteers it has been ignored or understood as something Kurdish or foreign. Such language is certainly present among some leftist groups outside parliamentary politics but at the moment it is too alien for mainstream discourses and even on the mainstream left there is a curious lack of interest in Rojava. However, it could yet become acknowledged, as groups like the Bob Crow Brigade have used more conventional apocalyptic or eschatological language of dramatic change from the rubble of war. The following example is from the Bob Crow Brigade’s Instagram account (14 November 2016):
In addition to an allusion to the Gospel of Matthew 5.5 (‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’), the quotation (only ever reported in English) is taken from an interview with Buenaventura Durruti who, in the context of the Spanish Civil War, was told by a journalist that if victorious, ‘You will be sitting on a pile of ruins.’ This sort of language was also picked up in various interviews with volunteers and, knowingly or not, included allusions to the sorts of apocalyptic traditions noted above, including environmentalist versions. ‘Now more than ever’, the Bob Crow Brigade argued, ‘the struggle to go beyond capitalism and imperialism is a life and death struggle, for the survival of life on the planet itself, so the left must once again think in terms of life and death’.
As Slavoj Žižek put it of the hope of future change, ‘the light at the end of the tunnel is probably the headlight of another train approaching us from the opposite direction’. If such thinking takes off about the imminence of catastrophe before the reordering of the world then we might witness more use of the language employed by groups like the Bob Crow Brigade. It might take the catastrophe and somehow overcoming the denial of the scale of environmental damage that faces us before this language returns in earnest. Alternatively, there is presently enough political and economic chaos and shifting ideological positions from left to right that it might yet take off again in the nearer future.
James Crossley is Academic Director at CenSAMM and Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at St Mary’s University. He discusses issues of religion and politics in his new book, Cults, Martyrs and Good Samaritans: Religion in Contemporary English Political Discourse (Pluto, 2018).