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Brigitte Studer
Berthold Unfried
Irène Herrmann

ΙII. Autocritique

4. Confession of Sins within Virtuosi Communities: an Interpretation of Stalinist Criticism and Self-Criticism through the Perspective of Max Weber’s Sociology of Religion

Klaus-Georg Riegel

Texte intégral

  • 1 See also the remarks in this context of Puritanism and religious virtuosity by Ilana F. Silber (Sil (...)
  • 2 Western monasticism, Weber explains, “had developed a systematic method of rational conduct with th (...)
  • 3 The public included even the neighborhood. “This consciousness of divine grace of the elect and hol (...)

1Communities of virtuosi played a decisive role in Max Weber’s comparative-historical studies of religion. It was particularly within the context of his theory of the rationalization and modernization of Western societies that Weber dramatized the cultural revolution accomplished by the innerworldly, activist, and instrumental asceticism of Puritan Calvinism (Weber 1984).1 The Puritan virtuosi pursued their ultimate religious ends with an astonishing single-mindedness, subjecting their daily lives to a regimen of self-control and self-discipline subordinate to their desperate search for salvation, thus revolutionizing, albeit unintentionally, the preindustrial, magical world of their societies. “The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system. There was no place for the human Catholic cycle of sin, repentance, atonement, release, followed by renewed sin. Nor was there any balance of merit for life as a whole which could be adjusted by temporal punishments or the Churches’means of grace”. (Weber 1984:117). Weber was firmly convinced of the revolutionary consequences of religious ideas of salvation. He declared that under certain historical and institutional conditions, the charisma of these Salvationist ends “revolutionizes men’from within’and shapes material and social conditions according to its revolutionary will” (Weber 19782: 1116). In contrast to the “world-rejecting asceticism” of Catholic monasticism, the “inner-worldly asceticism” of Puritan Calvinism demanded that every member of the denomination had to fulfil the ascetic requirements in his personal life-style. “The moral conduct of the average man was thus deprived of its planless and unsystematic character as a whole.” (Weber 1984:117). The virtuoso ethic could no longer be practiced by a minority of virtuosi behind the walls of a monastery but rather served as a call to every member of the community to conduct “a rational system of ascetic control of everyday life” (Weber 1984,1:574). The ordinary member of the community of believers had to transform his total personality pattern to the ascetic regimen of a virtuoso. The institutionalized grid of formal and informal social control which the Puritan sects (Weber 1972: 227-235; Berger 1971: 486-499) worked out, effectively transformed the individual virtuoso ethic to a personality pattern conforming with the expectations of the community of believers. In particular, the penitence of public confessions of sinfulness before the assembly of believers had a strong impact upon the conduct of the virtuoso whose “eternally vigilant self-control” (Weber 19782, 1: 561) was protected and guided by the censorship of the public.3 In this way, the former huge gap between a virtuoso elite, an “aristocracy with respect to salvation” (Weber 19782, 1: 540), and mass religiosity (Silber 1995: 27) could hopefully be narrowed. “By founding its ethic in the doctrine of predestination, it substituted the spiritual aristocracy of the predestined saints of God within the world for the spiritual aristocracy of monks outside of and above the world.” (Weber 1984: 121).

  • 4 According to Voegelin’s thought (Voegelin 19932). See also the concept of the religion séculière us (...)

2It seems reasonable to enlarge the concept of the religious virtuoso to the ideological virtuoso (Roth 1979: 148-149; Roth 1987: 142-145) in order to describe and analyze important components of the political religion4 of revolutionary movements. Crucially important to the political religions of these revolutionary movements is the fusion of the religious and political spheres, of their ideologies into one dominant Weltanschauung and one prevailing behavior pattern. The transfer of sacral, transcendental systems of meanings to the secular, inner-worldly horizons of ideological self-definitions of revolutionary movements leads to an inner-worldly asceticism of revolutionary action and belief. The revolutionary, inner-worldly and secular vocation (Gesinnungsethik) is no longer driven by the search for the otherworldly certitude salutis but follows the secular calling of the revolutionary commitment, i. e., to realize the Utopias of moral self-perfection and the total reconstruction of societies and cultures. “The inner-worldly asceticism and the disciplined quest for salvation in a vocation” (Weber 19782: 573) had no longer to “please God” (Weber 19782: 573) but to realize the Ten Commandments of the revolutionary movements in a mundane world. In this sense, the Jacobinism of revolutionary modernity continues the Salvationist legacy of the axial age (Eisenstadt 1999). The sacralization of the political power (Gentile 1996) is characteristic of this totalitarian modernity whose political religions legitimized the extinction of millions of human beings stigmatized as “enemies of the people” (Riegel 1997).

3The close affinities between other-worldly religions and revolutionary, inner-worldly and Salvationist movements can be demonstrated in the figuration of a Leninist cadre. He worked as a virtuoso whose pattern of everyday life extolled “its devotion to the revolution, its self-control, its self-sacrifice, its heroism” (Stalin 1928: 39). Like the puritan virtuoso, the Leninist cadre “is a soldier whose battles are fought in the self before they are fought in society [...]. It is the acting out of a new identity, painfully won” (Walzer 19768: 315). The party of professional revolutionaries required the unreserved devotion of the cadre virtuoso to the revolutionary, Salvationist principles and articles of faith of the movement. The permanent search and fight against real or invented internal enemies resulted in endless self-purification campaigns confirming the exclusiveness of the party and in the strengthening of internal cohesion. The whole self-purification machinery worked as a selection-procedure to train true believers in systematic obedience, to expel heretics, to search out dissenters and to fight against renegades. Despite their apparent differences with respect to the ultimate ends of salvation and to their anchorage in the world, religious communities of virtuosi as well as their secular, revolutionary counterparts share sufficient common structural characteristics to deal with them as one type of Salvationist communities of virtuosi.

4The proposed enlargement of the religious meaning of the virtuoso complex to the secular, inner-worldly context of political religions leads to a deeper insight of the internal social structures and cultural belief-systems of revolutionary movements. First of all, it is very instructive to observe how the transfer of sacral meanings to the mundane world of political ritualism is managed by the experts of ideological conversion and propaganda fidei. The selective procedure of this transfer of sacral meanings shows what kind of political self-legitimization is preferred or denied by those experts. A detailed description and analysis of these procedures of political self-legitimization may lead to an examination of the forms and contents of the goals of social and cultural processes of change. In this context it is especially interesting to explore the extent of the influence which the cultural tradition might exert upon the ideological universe of the revolutionary movement.

5Secondly, the manifold and sometimes bizarre world of mythologies, rituals, symbols and ideological self-definitions of political religions gives one a deep insight into the hidden internal dynamics of Salvationist motivations, hopes and desires normally covered by ideological declarations and scientific explanations. The whole range of millenaristic, nativistic and eschatologist dreams, aspirations and feelings (Mühlmann 19642: 377-424; Sarkisyanz 1955) appear on the stage. The emotional background of Salvationist exaltations can be deciphered through a careful analysis of the key symbols and cultural figurations of a political religion, a research discipline which is normally left to specialists of the philosophy of religion.

  • 5 “We shall henceforth employ the term charisma for such extraordinary powers.” (Weber 19782: 1209). (...)

6Thirdly, the incorporation of the political religion in the study of secular revolutionary movements opens the field for comparative-historical studies. The comparison of structural similarities and cultural differences of historically different revolutionary movements and religious communities leads to new questions about the organization and presentation of the sacred numinosa of transcendental and secular religions. These numinosa form the central sphere of sacred symbols, rituals, myths and cults of political religions. The communities pretend to be in immediate contact with this world of numinosa and cultivate an esoteric knowledge and practice of it. The invention of a revolutionary tradition (Hobsbawm 199410) by these ideological virtuosi refers to the numinosa which serve as a reservoir of mythologies used in revolutionizing societies and cultures. Max Weber called this sacral arcanum of numinosa the charisma of revolutionary beliefs and prophets (Weber 19782, 1: 400)5 and Emile Durkheim pointed to an “état d’effervescence” as being the central focus of religious ceremonies. The religious ritual ceremony “... a pour effet de rapprocher les individus, de mettre en mouvement les masses et de susciter ainsi un état d’effervescence, parfois même de délire, qui n’est pas sans parenté avec l’état religieux. L’homme est transporté hors de lui, distrait de ses occupations et des préoccupations ordinaires” (Durkheim 19796: 547).

7The characterization of the Leninist party of professional revolutionaries as a community of virtuosi does not exclusively represent an invention of the sociologists (Coser 1974) of political religions. The long and complicated tradition of religious communities, especially the evolution of monasticism within the Western Christian tradition, provided the conceptual background for comparisons and analogies of modern secular communities of virtuosi with their historical religious predecessors. The Leninist party cadre fits into this historical tradition of religious and secular communities of virtuosi.

Confessions of sins within revolutionary communities of virtuosi

  • 6 Weber (19782, 1: 539) defines the virtuosi as heroic men of self-control and self-discipline pursui (...)

8Lenin’s party of disciplined professional revolutionaries can be considered as a community of virtuosi.6 Those communities of virtuosi attract only specially qualified people who are willing to subordinate their whole life to only one aim of salvation. They will totally identify with the dogmas and norms in their faith of salvation and they are inclined to surrender themselves unconditionally to the disciplinary courts of their communities. The following characteristics seem typical for these closed communities of virtuosi: 1) All ethical acts need to be coordinated towards the ultimate ends of the believing community. Different disciplinary strategies should guarantee this uniformity of wills and acts., 2) It is intended to destroy any individual autonomy which should manifest itself as a critical attitude of independent thinking and acting. 3) Instead of individual autonomy, an unconditional obedience is required. In order to secure the smooth running of the disciplinary machinery, all virtuosi have to standardize and habitualize their ethical visions and subordinate them to the vigilant eye of the collective. In this sense, the communities of virtuosi are operating with the strategy of Bentham’s panopticon (Foucault 19914: 195-228).

  • 7 This moral self-perfection culminates in a process of self-deification with the corresponding reign (...)

9Their aim, to revolutionize the societies and cultures from which they themselves originate, requires an exclusive morality for the virtuosi. Their communities are the first social groups where the processes of moral perfection take place. The revolutionary community of virtuosi figures as a model of moral perfection.7 The whole of society is to be liberated from the corrupting past and contaminated present. As a consequence of this Utopian anticipation of future destiny, revolutionary communities develop internal mechanisms to secure this claim to moral self-perfection within the range of their disciplinary institutions. These are confronted with three structural problems of integration: 1) The moulding of the faithfulness of true believers, 2) the demarcation against rival communities, and 3) the stabilization of the normative identity of one’s own community (Riegel 1994).

10Rites of purification are necessary in order to cope with these problems of structural integration. The machinery of purification is not only directed to the outer conformity of the true believer but rather to his inner identity, to his soul. Hidden scepticism in matters of faith along with concealed heretic temptations and even committed deviant acts form the center point of self-purification processes. The revolutionary virtuoso is expected to examine his conscience, to cleanse himself of impure thoughts, reveal his inner identity, and offer the purified soul to be inspected by collective surveillance. The virtuoso is supposed to sincerely confess his sinful thoughts and actions to the public for the censorship of the community. He is also expected to indicate his repentance and to agree to do penance.

11Revolutionary communities of virtuosi deliberately cultivate the public confession of sins. They act as spiritual directors (directeurs de conscience) to their members. They put deviant members on stage to publicly confess not only their visible sins, but also their hidden, sinful thoughts, aberrations and conscientious scruples. The public confession of sins humiliates the sinner but strengthens the moral integration of the community (Durkheim 1963:67-70). It demonstrates the moral superiority of the community which uses the individual sinner and his confession as proof of its weakened moral cohesion and as an urgent demand to purify and cleanse its supposedly damaged moral collective. The procedures to confess sins, to accept the verdict, to repent and to do penance are strictly pre-arranged, and the drama of publicly exposing the sinner is put on stage like a show trial.

  • 8 The Catholic Church combines secrecy and confession in its ritual of confession. The spiritual dire (...)
  • 9 In the sense in which Durkheim used this term (Durkheim, 19607: 46).
  • 10 It acts as a piacular rite. Cf. Durkheim (1965:434-435). “Le terme depiaculum a, en effet, cet avan (...)

12The public confession of sins also has the latent function of binding the sinner closer to the community. The community does not concede the secrecy of private guilt to the sinner but insists on exposing him in order to dominate his hidden acts and thoughts. The confession is not protected by secrecy.8 The community represents a collective power, une conscience collective9 with the monopoly to bind and to solve. The verdict of non-guilty liberates the sinner only for a certain amount of time which is determined by the disciplinary organs of the community. As long as the sinner is committed to the community, his guilt is inscribed in its public memory which can be activated once again on occasions and situations favorable to a new enactment, such as in the course of a purge. Public confessions of sins serve as collective rites of purification and expiation10 within the communities of revolutionary virtuosi.

13The collective rites of purification and expiation within the revolutionary communities of virtuosi are re-enacted whenever the ideological boundaries of demarcation seem to be crossed by rival communities. The permanent search for traitors, who are doing their subversive work behind the masks of outward loyalty, is typical for revolutionary communities who are obsessed by the idea that the ideological rivals could undermine the normative basis of the community. Traitors to the holy cause within the rank and file of the community have to be discovered, exposed, publicly condemned and sentenced with the enthusiastic assistance of the censoring collective. The last confession of the supposed traitor, spy or saboteur serves as a moral example as well as an awful warning to his former comrades-in-arms who are not to be trapped by diabolic rivals.

  • 11 There are remarkable parallels between revolutionary show trials and the ceremonial “Last Dying spe (...)

14Public confessions of mortal sins are carried out in a context of ceremony and ritual. In his last speech the condemned sinner has to open his soul to the public, to confess his sins and give a general account of past sinfulness and delinquency. The public has to be given a clue to understanding the logic of his criminal acts and treacherous thoughts. The disciplinary organs of the revolutionary community has pre-arranged the role which the convicted sinner has to play in a prescribed manner in such a show trial. The confession of crimes also means the reinforcement of important values of the betrayed community. Only those crimes and wrong doings are confessed, which were of central importance to the values and norms of the betrayed. The community which was contaminated by ideological poison therefore has to be cleansed of impurity through the sentencing of the sinner. His active co-operation is crucial for the smooth functioning of the confession ritual. The condemned, exposed and humiliated sinner has to confess his mortal sins publicly. If he were to remain silent, the ritual arrangement would break down. The last service which the sinner can render the community is to give a complete, public confession as a demonstration of unquestioned obedience to the revolutionary cause and his longing for a good end in his criminal career. The whole ceremony is arranged as a heroic display of revolutionary confession, penitence, and condemnation.11

15Another opportunity for the re-enactment of purification rituals comes when the revolutionary community of virtuosi experiences a structural change in the establishment of an institutionalized revolutionary regime acting as a state power. Three processes of structural change indicate a transformation of the revolutionary charisma of virtuosi to the “hierocratic domination” (Weber 19782, 2: 1158) of a church-dispensed grace: 1) the take-over of the state power, 2) the non-fulfillment of prophecies, and 3) the adaptation to the given world.

16In the first case of structural change, the revolutionary enthusiasm of the confessing, repenting and disciplining community of virtuosi is transformed to a church equipped for the monopoly of dispensing grace over sinners and non-sinners. The revolutionary regime in power represents an “institutionalized salvation and office of charisma” (Weber 19782, 2: 1204). The personal charisma of the revolutionary virtuosi is substituted by this office of charisma which preserves “the dignity of the organization. Whoever works miracles on his own, without an office, is suspect as a heretic or magician” (Weber 19782, 2: 1165). The existence of heretic virtuosi in particular challenges the “hierocratic domination” (Weber 19782, 2: 1158) which evolved into an administrative apparatus with obedient and disciplined functionaries. In many historical cases, the heretic virtuoso earlier belonged to the pneumatic community of the pure and elect revolutionaries who reminded the grace-dispensing church of the broken promises of messianic aspirations.

17Church-dispensed grace is confronted with the second problem of structural change, namely the non-fulfillment of eschatologist prophecies. The delayed prophecy of the Second Coming (parousia) causes an explosive situation of deferred gratification. The heretic virtuoso stands for the immediate fulfillment of the messianic promises as opposed to the representatives of the “hierocratic domination” who had to explain to their subjects that “those alive at present would not be able to see salvation during lifetime, but would see it after death, when the dead would awaken” (Weber 19782,1: 528). The “hierocracy” (Weber 19782, 2: 1164) is forced to develop their own interpretations of the history and future of the revolutionary cause. “The rise of a professional priesthood [...] with salaries, promotions, professional duties, and a distinctive way of life” (Weber 19782, 2: 1164) indicates that the ideological specialists of propaganda and state security have noticed the heretic challenges. They are engaged with the task of rationalizing “dogma and rites (Kultus), [which were] recorded in holy scriptures, provided with commentaries, and turned into objects of systematic education, a distinct difference from mere training in technical skills” (Weber 19782, 2: 1164). The stock of sacral scriptures and teachings had to be cleansed from chiliastic pronouncements and the hopes and promises of eschatologists. The entire history of revolutionary movements had to be rewritten and explained in terms of the completed adaptation to the daily routines of the organization of a state power. The enthusiastic comrades-in-arms stemming from the first pneumatic phase of the revolutionary movement had to be purged or transformed into disciplinary machines.

18The transfer of revolutionary charisma to the officeholder of the “hierocratic domination” can be demonstrated by an arrangement of show trials directed against heretic virtuosi. The heretic turns the present cosmos of sacral beliefs upside down: he seriously questions the legitimacy of the monopoly of the “hierocratic domination” to bind and to solve. In order to preserve its exclusive right of interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, the church which dispenses grace is obliged to mobilize its administrative and disciplinary capacity in order to exterminate the alternative heretical world of belief and to try to deter its followers from joining the other, heretical side. Orthodox disciplinary power uses the arrangement of a show trial to detain the heretic, to isolate him from his fellowship, to expose him on the stage to the public and to sentence him. The moral identity of the heretic is supposed to be annihilated as an example of warning to all potential dissenters. His holy crusade against the orthodox establishment ends in public penitence, humiliation and destruction. Guilty of the ultimate crime of heretical challenge to orthodoxy, even the memory of his name and belief is meant to be extinguished.

  • 12 See also the interesting analogy of the Catholic Church as opposed to the nonconforming Protestant (...)

19The orthodoxy does not want unrepentant heretics who are willing to embrace the martyrdom,12 but rather repentant heretics who publicly abjure their ideological heresies. The elaborate ritual of confession gives repentant heretics a last chance to positively end a sinful life and thereby serve as an example of warning to people who might be seduced by heretical temptations.

Stalinist Criticism and Self-Criticism

  • 13 Κotkin speaks of a “theocracy” (19972: 293-298). Berdiajew (1934: 30) had characterized the Stalini (...)

20Stalin transformed the Leninist community of virtuosi into a church-dispensed grace (Anstaltsgnade) which “includes the righteous and the unrighteous and is especially concerned with subjecting the sinner to Divine law” (Weber 19782, 2: 1204). The organizational necessities of wartime communism and the revolutionary transformations of industrialization and collectivization in the thirties transformed the Leninist community of virtuosi to 1) a bureaucratized and hierarchically organized institution of grace with “institutionalized salvation and an office of charisma” (Weber 19782, 2: 1204). It evolved into an administrative apparatus with obedient and disciplined cadres who substituted the pneumatic enthusiasm of the early virtuosi. The Stalinist church was also organized as 2) an office hierarchy which dispensed grace. The correct interpretation of the store of sacral scriptures, the supervision of canonical preaching and the functioning of the missionary apparatus belonged to the duties of the office holders. The vouchsafing of grace and the absolution of sins are organized as a ritual which requires little “personal ethical accomplishment” (Weber 19782, 1: 54). The structural change from the Leninist political religion of virtuosi to the Stalinist church institution was accompanied by 3) a selective reformulation of the Leninist legacy of sacral scriptures. The sacral experts of the Stalinist orthodoxy worked out and invented (Hobsbawm 199410) the new sacral tradition of Marxism-Leninism with the intention of legitimizing the new monocratic office holder of the church. The most important tenet of faith in this invented sacral tradition of Marxism-Leninism was that Stalin alone qualified as the only true disciple of Lenin, the consequence thus being his monopoly of infallible interpretation of his holy scriptures. Stalin’s own dogmatic performances, his lectures at the Sverdlov University (1924), published as Leninism (Stalin 1928), can be presented in this way as an authentic interpretation of the sacral teachings of Lenin. The dramatic management of the Moscow show trials (1936-1938) formed the last step in the formation and legitimization of the new Stalinist monocratic rule. They brought Stalin “a monopoly of the legitimate use of hierocratic coercion” (Weber 19782, 1: 54). The means for implementing this monopoly of “hierocratic coercion”13 consisted mainly of the 4) establishment of internal security organs and leadership cadres who could act as representatives of the Stalinist center. Training and education centers for the enlarged new cadre leadership are, in this context, of eminent importance. At the same time, this applies to mission institutes (Riegel 1999) which acted as instruments of power in dominating the foreign parties as well as ideological and cultural zones of influence in forming a world-wide church headquartered in Moscow.

21As already mentioned, the Stalinist cadres who replaced the Leninist virtuosi presented a different biographical identity. They stemmed predominately from peasant origins, with low intellectual standards and no cosmopolitan outlook. “The lower ladders of the now swelling administration, in the economic, political, and other spheres, were swamped by newcomers from the popular classes, badly prepared for their new positions, in fact, for the most part poorly educated, if not semiliterate [...]’Petit bourgeois mentality’, to use the language of official disapproval, soon permeated officialdom and all too often combined greed with incompetence.” (Lewin 19942:267).

22Lewin observes that even the upper levels of the administrative apparatus, “the powerful class of bosses (nachal’stvo) endowed with power, privileges, and status” (Lewin 19942: 267) could not act as a counter-force to Stalinist monocratic rule, but “were submitted to a regime of insecurity, control, and finally terror, undertaken against them from above, thereby barring them from the security of personal positions and the crystallization into a self-confident and competent ruling class. Once more, in a pattern not unfamiliar in Russian history, a ruling level was created by the state, trained, indoctrinated and paid by it – exactly as when the early tsars, some centuries beforehand, created the gentry (dvorjanstvo) and enserved the peasantry for them as a prize for their service to the state” (Lewin 19942: 267). Those party cadres had to pay the Stalinist “hierocratic domination” “pure obedience to the institution” (Weber 19782, 1: 563) (Anstaltsgehorsam). This “pure obedience”, Weber explains, presents itself as a “formal humility of obedience” (Weber 19782, 1: 563) (formale Gehorsamsdemut) which informally deviates from the prescribed patterns of commands by formally keeping up appearances. “Wherever the pattern of institutional grace is consistently carried through, the sole principle integrating the pattern of life is a formal humility of obedience.” (Weber 19782, 1: 563).

  • 14 Yaroslavsky writes that “it is necessary to carefully check on his past, that it is necessary to re (...)

23For such cadres it was sufficient to function as disciplined and obedient machines without any personal calls to revolutionary enthusiasm. The ethic of the virtuosi was transformed into “pure obedience to the institution – regarded as inherently meritorious – and not concrete, substantive ethical obligation, nor even the qualification of superior moral capacity achieved through one’s own methodical, ethical actions” (Weber 1978 2, 1: 563). Institutional grace was dispensed after the principle “extra ecclesia nulla salus” (Weber 19782, 1: 560). Party membership could be obtained by regular admission procedures. Minimal knowledge of the party catechism and some sacred formulas for faith in salvation were sufficient for admission. A good proletarian background, the achievement of a party card and the demonstration of obedience and discipline belonged to the minimal standard equipment of a normal party cadre (Yaroslavsky 1933: 38).14

  • 15 See the semblance to the Medieval church confession outlined by Alois Hahn (1998: 31) “The focus of (...)

24Under those historical conditions, the purging machinery of the “hierocratic domination” was implemented only in the registration of party membership and the verification of minimal requirements of ideological knowledge and personal conduct. Party cadres were purged due to “passivity”, “breaches of party discipline, including factional activities”, “reports of bad behavior”, “misappropriating funds, of taking bribes” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 31). Getty (Getty 1985) has vividly described that the purges discovered an abyss of corruption, nepotism, minimal ideological knowledge, bureaucratic formalism and inefficiency as well as Mafioso practices within the party ranks. Thus the proverka was restricted to examine only the outer conformity but not the inner vocation of a cadre. The public confession of deviant acts before a purging commission or the public of a party collective can be considered as ritual obligation without a soul-searching transformation of the total personality of the respective party cadre. Confessing minor and mortal sins belonged to the routine practice of an experienced cadre. The confessing of sins seemed to be restricted to external acts without a questioning of ideological motives. The repentance was rather conceived as an external retaliation relative to the severity of the deviant acts.15 Max Weber pointed to an analogue form of confession typical for the Catholic church as an institution dispensing grace.

“It is particularly important that the sins remain discrete actions, against which other discrete deeds may be seen as compensations or penances. Hence, value is attached to concrete individual acts rather than to a total personality pattern produced by asceticism, contemplation, or eternally vigilant self-control, a pattern that must constantly be demonstrated and determined anew. A further consequence is that no need is felt to attain the certitude salutis by one’s own powers, and so this category, which in other circumstances may have such significant ethical consequences, recedes in importance.” (Weber 19782, 1: 561).

25Even when the purging commissions had discovered and exposed “Rightist opportunists, reformists, Mensheviks and liquidators [...] who have betrayed the lines of revolutionary Marxism and Leninism, who have departed from it and fought against it” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 11-12), only a mechanical attribution of deviant acts of false ideological motives took place. In the case of a counterrevolutionary biographical background, it was very difficult to dissociate the biographical dates from the deviant acts of the accused. For example, to be born as a kulak was almost identical with the possible or actual committing of mortal sin in the eyes of the purging commissions. A dissociation between sinful motives and the given or invented fact of an ideologically defined criminal biography was neither possible nor desirable under those circumstances. The mere fact of an ideologically-defined criminal biographical identity was sufficient to combine mechanically biographical dates with sinful motives and acts. The inner realm of sinful thought, remorse and repentance as a separate sphere of sin and confession was not taken into account.

26Apparently, this practice of merely mechanically connecting external, sinful acts and corresponding punishments and retaliations only leads to outer conformity without a social control of painful feelings over sinful thoughts and a conscience which includes the total personality pattern. Consequently, it is very doubtful that the aimed results of the purges were really achieved as the author of a Stalinist penitential work tried to insinuate. “Discipline rose in many organizations; the participation of Communists in socialist competition and shock-brigade work has risen; Party meetings are attended more punctually; dues are paid more promptly; Party assignments are discharged more actively. The interest displayed by members and Party candidates in theory, in the study of Marxism-Leninism, in a more serious study and knowledge of the more important Party documents and Party decisions has arisen appreciably.” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 45). All of the purge and confession rituals were enacted by a “hierocratic domination” as a means to control, admonish and threaten a submissive administrative apparatus with external retaliations in the case of visible moral faults and shortcomings in the conduct of party affairs. The fulfillment of the tasks of industrialization and collectivization were the required capabilities from the party cadres, “...for a regime of economy, the fulfillment of the industrial and financial plan, the punctual fulfillment of grain collections, proper preparations for the spring sowing, for harvesting and the distribution of the crop, and in general for firmness in regard to the accuracy and efficiency of work done by Party members subordinated to the leadership of one or the other comrade” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 53). Thus the purge by verification was directed against “local influences, which still reflect the fact that we have not outlived lawlessness and show that even at times like a Party purging, we are not yet able to rise above settling local or personal scores [...]; it obliges us to fight against « family » relationships, against round-robin pledges of a degenerate Communist, against « plots of silence », etc.” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 25).

27The central apparatus of the “hierocratic domination” had to invent the imagery of an almighty master who could periodically discover, expose and punish unworthy cadres in order to overcome their localism and purge their ideological and administrative shortcomings. The necessity of the central power to install at least an external threatening potential to be internalized by the administrative party cadre seems to be indicated in the closing speech of Stalin at the Thirteenth Party Congress: “The basic idea in the purging is the fact that people of this kind feel that there is a master who may call them to account for their transgressions against the Party. I believe that sometimes, from time to time, the master must without fail go through the ranks of the Party with a broom in his hands” (Yaroslavsky, 1933: 35).

  • 16 The whole history of Stalinism could be written under the perspective of these “secondary adjustmen (...)

28Surely, the Stalinist “hierocratic domination” tried to inculcate a revolutionary motivation formed by ideological aspirations and promises which should function as a driving moral force to fulfill the administrative and professional obligations of the party cadres required by the industrialization and collectivization campaigns. The purges and the rituals of confession were supposed to work as moral incentives to stimulate high work performance, to attract only solid and morally qualified cadres and “to purge the ranks of unreliable fellow travellers, of those who had joined the movement by chance, and still more of people who had penetrated our Party with the direct purpose of disintegrating it – the agents of the class enemy and even the agents of the tsarist government” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 12). The internalization of a Proletarian work ethic by submissive, obedient and conforming party cadres took place within the institutional framework of party control commissions which centrally directed, systematically prepared, widely propagandized and organized purges. The purge was supposed to function as apanopticon which “will make certain that « all secrets come into the open » ” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 45). The party appeared as a panopticon which could discover at “open meetings of the nuclei” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 53) the “moral corruption and discreditable conduct on the part of Party members (drunkenness, corruption in daily life, social conduct with alien elements, antisemitism...)” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 53). The imperative calling of the Party – “the cleansing of the Party must improve the « apparatus of the state authorities » ” (Yaroslavsky 1933:19) – was supposed to be internalized by the party cadre “to subject [him] to the supremacy of a purposeful will, to bring his actions under constant self-control with a careful consideration of their ethical consequences” (Weber 1984:119). The Stalinist panopticon with those assaults upon the self of party cadres provoked “secondary adjustments, namely practices that do not directly challenge staff but allow inmates to obtain forbidden satisfactions or to obtain permitted ones by forbidden means” (Goffman 1961: 54).16

29But this exposed conscience could not claim the protection of a private guilt-biography. The routinized rituals of criticism and self-criticism were arranged as degradation ceremonies to expose, humiliate and in most cases to exclude the sinner accused of sins which were publicized by a censuring purging commission or a monitoring and questioning public. In this instance, the ritual of criticism and self-criticism was organized as an institutionalized ritual of exclusion for those cadres who dared to confess criminal thoughts and acts. The purge commission or the public of the respective party nucleus worked as prosecuters of the “hierocratic domination” to discover the hidden shameful thoughts and acts. On the other hand, the accused, exposed and confessing party cadre could not shelter his deviant identity behind the secret of auricular confession represented by a priest authorized to give him absolution. In contrast to the Catholic practice of confession combining secrecy with publicity, the public rituals of criticism and self-criticism within the Communist party could neither guarantee the protection of a private and secret confession nor the certainty to receive absolution by the priest as representative of the chinch dispensing grace presupposed the sinner to show at least attrition and accept the penance. In the case of a public ritual of confession, criticism and self-criticism, the confessional practice is transformed to a ritual of exclusion, an “inquisition by confession” (Goflman 1961:46).

Inquisition by confession

  • 17 Coser points out correctly that for Ignatius “real obedience involved internalized acceptance. The (...)

30The inquisition by confession, the chistka, tries 1) to isolate the deviant sinner socially. 2) The enactment of public criticism and self-criticism aims at his stigmatization. The baring of his soul to the disciplinary authorities of the party does not give him the certainty of absolution from his criminal identity but rather binds him closer to the community. His obedience to the discipline of the community and his unconditionally surrender to its commandments are demanded from him. The public confession of sins serves as a sign of this submission and surrender. The training in systematic obedience17 is the centerpiece of the ritual of criticism and self-criticism. 3) The physical isolation and social stigmatization of the deviant sinner have to serve as means of moral instruction and terrorization. The pedagogy of terror and moral instruction is applied to deter further contagion by heretical diseases. 4) The inquisitorial confession is directed towards the total surveillance and control of the personal conduct of the members of the community. 5) The extraction of confession by physical and psychological means of torture is practiced by trained personnel of the state security apparaty. In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, the Stalinist inquisition disguises all traces of physical or psychic torture. The Catholic inquisition (Langbein 1976) worked within the legal frame of justice which believed in the effectiveness of torture as a legal means to get the last testimony of his guilt from the charged culprit. Torture as a legalized practice, the procedure to torture as prescribed and testified by legal persons, was thought of, at that time as an improved legal procedure compared to the ordeal preferred earlier. However, the Stalinist inquisition worked with the arranged illusion (Riegel 1987) to present the public sinners who confessed invented sinful thoughts and criminal acts. Especially in the context of the Moscow show trials (1936-38), the accused heretics and criminal “cadres of diversion and sabotage” had to play a prearranged drama of the successful unmasking of hidden and dangerous spies, saboteurs and heretics. The accused and “cadres of diversion” who were tortured before their appearance on the stage of the show trial had to play their role as culprits according to the directives of the screenplay writers, Ezhov (Hedeler 1996: 18) and Stalin. The touching display of light against dark, of Stalinist heroism against heretic cowardice, and of Leninist discipline and obedience against Bukharinist or Trotskyist treason and sabotage was enacted for moral instruction (Riegel 1985) and for a positive end of the heretics who welcomed their defeat as true soldiers of the party.

31The inquisition by confession does not concede to the conscience the secrecy to practice a trial of the interior self, sheltered before the vigilant eye of the disciplinary court of the community. The self is not exposed to the inner court of conscience but rather to the public court of the purging commissions which demand from the sinner to bare his soul before their investigative authority, but not to hide it in the secret sphere of his private moral inquiry.

32The negation of the interior conscience, as an alternative, secret, and subjective court of confession of sins by the ritual of public criticism and self-criticism, has important public consequences. In particular, the discovered, exposed and charged sinner acquires a public guilt-biography which is noted by the disciplinary authorities of the “hierocratic domination”. His sins, his guilt and the verdict of the disciplinary authority of the community are summed up to the logic of a criminal carrier whose life course appears as a “kompromat”, a fabricated dossier reflecting further on his moral identity. The impure, contaminated moral identity of the confessing party member cannot fall into the oblivion of time, forgiveness or repentance but resides in the archives of the disciplinary courts of the “hierocratic domination” and the public memory of his community. Even if the sinner might be re-integrated in the ranks of his party-cell, he remains stigmatized by his former sinful past. All the members of his party-cell who participated at the public confession meetings are a visible social memorial reminding him of his shame, humiliation and deviance.

33Through the practice of public confessing, the private inner conscience immediately is linked with the public court of censuring the sinful behavior. The private, inner and secretive conscience is not legitimated as an alternative secret moral guide but functions only as an enlarged public court of the prosecuting authority. The self-activated moralizing individual has no social affirmation and approval by other relevant persons (Mead 1962) in his reference group. The party-cell, his reference group, does not tolerate this non-conforming inner conscience but demands undivided commitment to their social norms and values. The private self is demanded to act as a representative of the group and its disciplinary authorities and not as a speaker of his inner conscience. Consequentially, the sin committed by one party member becomes not a “pollution of the sinner self which only the cure of souls could reach” (Hepworth and Turner 1982: 70), but rather a pollution of the reference-group which “ritual immersion could wash clean” (Hepworth and Turner 1982: 70). In this way, the ritual of public confession normally practiced in minimal differentiated societies is integrated by a “solidarité mécanique” (Durkheim 19607: 35-78). The confessional culture of such groups does not legitimize the inner workings of private conscience, sin and individual responsibility. Social groups with a solidarité mécanique cultivate public rituals of confession in order to control dangerous, sinful forces which could threaten the purity of the collectivity. “Sin is a tangible phenomenon which, like an infectious disease, threatens to contaminate the collectivity. These sins are confessed during séances, when, in the presence of the shaman and the group, offences are publicly acknowledged.” (Hepworth and Turner 1982: 71). The individual misconduct is at the same time an affair of the whole collectivity. Therefore the individual sinner is demanded to expiate his sins publicly in order to purify the contaminated conscience collective. The confession of sins is public and collective since the individual sinner has violated the collective norms and values of his reference group and is therefore obliged to exercise acts of piacula to restore the endangered stability of his community.

  • 18 Hepworth and Turner are referring to the study of Raffaele Pettazzoni, La Confessione dei Peccati. (...)

34Thus the criticism and self-criticism rituals are public séances where through his confession the sinner contributes a piaculum to the process of the purification of the contaminated community. Both the disciplinary authorities and the censoring public of the party nucleus investigate, castigate and expose the sinner and his open or concealed sins and thoughts in order to get his submission to the discipline and authority of the community. The sins confessed represent rather stereotypes of sinful motivations and offences. As soon as the stereotypes of sins, acts and thoughts have been spoken, or « vomited », so to speak (Hepworth and Turner 1982: 73),18 before the public, the pollution of the community can be healed and the former purity of their sacral authority restored. The ritualized confession of sins is supposed to destroy the individual sinner as the cause of the pollution and possible contagion for further diseases, to strengthen the moral consensus of the community and to clean the contaminated purity of the holy cause. The discovered, exposed and expelled individual sinner had to play the role of the piaculum which purifies and preserves the existence of the community. “The whole point is that the governing Party, relying on the healthy and strong, advanced masses, must know how to cleanse its ranks.” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 20). The purity of the Party is at stake when the purification process is mobilized. “It takes steps to ensure that its ranks consist of people who are welded together by a single revolutionary will, a single revolutionary theory. The Bolshevik Party, the Leninist Party,.. .took particular pains to assure the purity of the membership of the proletarian party” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 5). The purification process had to “train” and to “steel” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 8) the Party members to “unconditional unity in the Party ranks, conscious iron discipline” (Yaroslavsky 1933:9) and to fight the heretical theories “which were hostile to scientific socialism. These traditions of straggle for purity of theory and for the purity of the proletarian party tried to inculcate into the international labour movement” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 8). The solidarité mécanique becomes endangered when this “iron discipline,’bordering on military discipline’” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 9) is broken through the sins of an individual party member. The solidarité mécanique is based upon the unity of thought and action of all party members. "But this unconditional unity and iron discipline must be based on the fact that all members of the Party recognize but one revolutionary theory, that all decisions of the Party are binding upon them; that there is no place in the Party for various groups and tendencies with an ideology differing from the ideology of the Party.” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 9). The “militant, fighting party” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 8) needs those purification processes. “Under the leadership of Comrade Stalin, the Party is unswervingly carrying this revolutionary line into practice. It makes demands on those it calls its members such as no other party in the world makes. This is why a systematic, periodical purging of its ranks is one of the conditions of its existence.” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 8).



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1 See also the remarks in this context of Puritanism and religious virtuosity by Ilana F. Silber (Silber 1995: 26-27).

2 Western monasticism, Weber explains, “had developed a systematic method of rational conduct with the purpose of overcoming the status naturae, to free man from the power of irrational impulses and his dependence on the world and on nature. It attempted to subject man to the supremacy of a purposeful will, to bring his actions under constant self-control with a careful consideration of their ethical consequences. Thus it trained the monk, objectively, as a worker in the service of the kingdom of God, and thereby, subjectively, further assured the salvation of his soul. This active self-control, which formed the end of the exercitia of St. Ignatius and of all rational monastic virtues, was also the most important practical ideal of Puritanism. As in every rational type of asceticism, the Puritans tried to enable a man to maintain and act upon his constant motives against the emotions, especially those which they themselves had taught Contrary to many popular ideas, the goal of this asceticism was to be able to lead an alert, intelligent life – the most urgent task was the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment; the most important means was to bring order into the conduct of its adherents” (Weber 1984: 118-119).

3 The public included even the neighborhood. “This consciousness of divine grace of the elect and holy was accompanied by an attitude towards the sin of one’s neighbor, not of sympathetic understanding based on consciousness of one’s weakness, but of hatred and contempt for him as an enemy of God, one bearing the signs of eternal damnation.” (Weber 1984: 122).

4 According to Voegelin’s thought (Voegelin 19932). See also the concept of the religion séculière used by Raymond Aron. Aron described Leninism almost in the same manner as Voegelin, as a gnostic sect. “Le léninisme apparaît donc la gnose d’une religion du salut par l’histoire, dont se réclamait une Internationale peu cohérente sans la prendre au pied de la lettre.” (Aron 1993: 392; Aron 1985).

5 “We shall henceforth employ the term charisma for such extraordinary powers.” (Weber 19782: 1209). These extraordinary powers also include revolutionary beliefs, Utopias and Salvationist promises. As an example of the revolutionary charisma of an idea, Max Weber mentioned “the charismatic glorification of Reason, which found a characteristic expression in its apotheosis by Robespierre, (as) the last form that charisma has adopted in its fateful historical course” (Weber 19782, 2: 1209).

6 Weber (19782, 1: 539) defines the virtuosi as heroic men of self-control and self-discipline pursuing their salvation. “Thus, all these methodologies of sanctification developed a combined physical and psychic regimen and an equally methodical regulation of the manner and scope of all thought and action, thereby producing in the individual the most completely alert, voluntary, and anti-instinctual control over his own physical and psychological processes, and insuring the systematic regulation of life in subordination to the religious end. The goals, the specific contents, and the actual results of the planned procedures were very variable.”

7 This moral self-perfection culminates in a process of self-deification with the corresponding reign and terror of the domination of the morally perfect minority (Voegelin 1993 49-61).

8 The Catholic Church combines secrecy and confession in its ritual of confession. The spiritual director has the obligation to be secret about the confessions of his sinners. In the early phases of historical development of Catholicism, the practice of the public humiliation of a sinner dominated. The penitent was relegated as repenting in the back-room of the church, therefore visible to the community (Lea 1896,1: 171-183).

9 In the sense in which Durkheim used this term (Durkheim, 19607: 46).

10 It acts as a piacular rite. Cf. Durkheim (1965:434-435). “Le terme depiaculum a, en effet, cet avantage que, tout en éveillant l’idée d’expiation, il a pourtant une signification beaucoup plus étendue. Tout malheur, tout ce qui est de mauvais augure, tout ce qui inspire des sentiments d’angoisse ou de crainte nécessite un piaculum et, par conséquent, est appelé piaculaire. Le mot paraît donc très propre à désigner des rites qui se célèbrent dans l’inquiétude ou dans la tristesse.”

11 There are remarkable parallels between revolutionary show trials and the ceremonial “Last Dying speeches” within the Public Execution Ceremonies in seventeenth-century England (Sharpe 1985: 157-159). Typically, for example, one of the many self-condemnation exclamations of Nikolaj Bukharin, presented 1938 to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. “I should be shot ten times for my crimes. The proletarian court passed its judgement, which I deserved for my criminal activity, and I am ready to bear my deserved punishment and die, cloaked in the just indignation, hatred, and contempt of the great and heroic people of the USSR, whom I have so basely betrayed.” (Document 52 in Koenker and Bachman 1997: 109).

12 See also the interesting analogy of the Catholic Church as opposed to the nonconforming Protestant heretics presented by David Nicholls (1988: 50-51).

13 Κotkin speaks of a “theocracy” (19972: 293-298). Berdiajew (1934: 30) had characterized the Stalinist rule also in this manner. In his ideological writings, Stalin (1952) acted as theocratic officeholder who could correct and punish the deviations within the party. See also his little catechism concerning “self-criticism” (Stalin 1950).

14 Yaroslavsky writes that “it is necessary to carefully check on his past, that it is necessary to require him to have a certain minimum of political knowledge, it is necessary to know how the applicant has proven himself to be a Communist, a Bolshevik, by what action he has proven his devotion to the cause of the proletariat, how he has participated and is participating in the work of socialist construction. It was sufficient to mention these questions to see that these requirements for the checking up of the applicants for admission into the Party were frequently ignored, and that frequently the Party organizations, in their drive for members, overlooked this most important aspect” (Yaroslavsky 1933: 38).

15 See the semblance to the Medieval church confession outlined by Alois Hahn (1998: 31) “The focus of Early Medieval church confession is therefore not the confession as such, but rather the reparation (satisfactio) that follows the confession.”

16 The whole history of Stalinism could be written under the perspective of these “secondary adjustments”, a perspective which will not be followed further here. See Fitzpatrick 1999.

17 Coser points out correctly that for Ignatius “real obedience involved internalized acceptance. The fulfillment of commands must not be merely mechanical and external [...]. By incorporating the will of the Superior into his own psyche, the model Jesuit joyfully sacrifices his autonomous self and becomes, as it were, putty in the hands of his Superior” (Coser 1974: 123).

18 Hepworth and Turner are referring to the study of Raffaele Pettazzoni, La Confessione dei Peccati. According to Pettazzoni, confession is “always accompanied by rituals of purification, namely fumigation, immersion, blood-letting, ablutions and so forth. In Kikuyu, the word kotahikio (confessing) is derived from tahika which means vomit; thus, as the penitent lists each separate sin, he spits on the ground. Pettazzoni argues that in confessing his sins, the penitent evokes their power through the spoken word. The defilement of the original sin is reactivated in the confession and this act brings past pollution into the present. The purification rituals of washing, spitting and fumigating are addressed to the pollution which is present in the words of the confession. Primitive confession is thus connected with the objective breaches of social norms which produce physical pollution” (Hepworth and Turner 1982: 73).

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