Reformation and Revolution: Reflections on Luther, Lenin, and Liberal Democracy in Dark Times

  • Jeffrey C. IsaacEmail author
Part of the Radical Theologies and Philosophies book series (RADT)


The 1517 Protestant Reformation and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution represent two crucial moments in the history of modern politics, in which forms of rebelliousness gave way to new forms of oppression. Luther’s rebellion asserted the metaphysical primacy of the individual believer, searching for an authentic relationship with and justification by God. Accused of heresy, Luther inaugurates a movement fiercely hostile to those who blaspheme against his Truth. Accused of radicalism, Luther becomes an apostle of a new kind of authoritarianism centered on an absolutist state. Lenin’s rebellion asserted the primacy of a disciplined and determined revolutionary party acting in the name of a revolutionary proletariat. Claiming to inaugurate a universal emancipation, Lenin institutes a (“proletarian”) dictatorship. Anticipating the “withering” of the state, he lays the foundations of an all-powerful, totalitarian state, foundations on which his successor, Stalin, constructs precisely such a state. Neither of these individuals anticipated or fully sought all of consequences of their acts, much less all that was done in their names after their passing. At the same time, both were zealous revolutionaries acting with an unwavering faith in the righteousness of their causes and the essential, even metaphysical, malevolence of their opponents. In this way, each achieved real “greatness,” one reason we now, today, recall their efforts. At the same time, each also engendered, and adamantly justified, much destruction, violence, and suffering.

In this chapter, the author expands on the power, and limits, of such ideological zealotry, and then reflects on some of the lessons that can be drawn for liberal democrats in the dark times in which we currently live.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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