Permanent Revolution

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It’s hard to believe that something as stringent and unyielding as the English Reformation could lay the foundations of liberalism and the Enlightenment, but this is what James Simpson argues in his substantial and challenging new book.

The phrase “permanent revolution” is most commonly associated with Leon Trotsky owing to his book of the same name (The Permanent Revolution, 1929).

Here we are reminded that it had been used previously, not only by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon when he referred to the stymied 1848 French revolutions: “La révolution est en permanence” but also by Karl Marx himself in 1850 during his famous address to the Central Committee of the Communist League: “Their battle cry must be: Permanent Revolution!”

Simpson goes on to argue that evangelicals put forward ideas very similar to this while “reforming the Reformation”.

Be prepared to read this with a Latin dictionary in one hand and the works of Milton, Donne, Marvell, Marlowe, Shakespeare, et al, on the other. Simpson animates the misery of the Reformation with hundreds of liturgical and literary references.

Initially, however, we are guided through the particularities of 16th century Protestant theology. For example, in the matter of soteriology (salvation theory) Protestant theologists believed in God’s potentia absoluta (absolute power), demanding total change through spiritual conversion and rolling out a single, authoritative text to be universally enforced — with violence as required. Examples of the latter are manifold, for example, between 1580 and 1600 there were 80 cases of judicially-sanctioned torture of Catholics.

Contemporary writers are pulled in by the author to illustrate things such as the difficulty of producing literary work without running into trouble.

Interestingly, it is John Milton who is quoted using the word “reduction” as a synonym for both “reformation” and “revolution” (in the sense of returning to beginnings). Milton starts out as a Presbyterian but stops after his 17 year old wife walks out on him after only a few weeks of marriage. He then sees scripture as merely “repugnant riddles”.

Satan and the fallen angels in Paradise Lost embody Milton’s anti-literalist/ anti-Presbyterian/ revolutionary approach when: “Vaunting aloud but racked with deep despair” they “look for what reinforcements they may gain from hope”. The fallen here are like the Puritan Parliamentarians being pushed aside by the Independents in 1648.

Shakespeare too is shown to have criticised the corrosive effects of literalism on society in The Merchant of Venice (first performed around 1600). Everything in this play pivots around the reading lesson regarding applying the literal “pound of flesh” as a debt. Simpson is adamant here that seen in the context of the schism over literalism, Shylock should be recognised as a Puritan rather than a Jew. Thus any “virtue-parading extremity” is seen to be inimical to society both then and now.

Finally it is impossible to encapsulate here just how compelling and relevant this book is for our troubled times as Simpson shows that religious liberty was born through the pain of a post-Reformation world.

He reminds us that permanent revolution is “hard, exhausting and dangerous”, through his warning that “Revolutions occur, that is, under the sign of Saturn, who eats his children”.