The Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev’s 1923 book The End of Our Time, written in the aftermath of the devastating Bolshevik revolution, missed a few things, but it’s astonishing how much he got right about the world we live in, and the world to come. Check this out:

Faith in the ultimate political and social salvation of mankind is quenched. We have reached settlement-day after a series of centuries during which movement was from the centre, the spiritual core of life, to the periphery, its surface and social exterior. And the more empty of real significance social life has become, the more it has tyrannized over the general life of man.

Politics have twined about us like a strangling parasite, and the greater part of contemporary political and social life has no reality, no being, at all: it is just bogus. The strife of parties, parliaments, conferences, newspapers, programmes and platforms, propaganda and demonstrations, the grab and scheming for power — these are not life, they have no point of contact with its essence and end, they are a hopeless hindrance.

The world needs a strong reaction from this domination by exterior things, a change back in favour of interior spiritual life, not only for the sake of individuals but for the sake of real metaphysical life itself. To many who are caught up in the web of modern activities this must sound like an invitation to suicide. But we have got to choose. The life of the spirit is either a sublime reality or an illusion: accordingly we have either to look for salvation in it rather than in the fuss of politics, or else dismiss it altogether as false. When it seems that everything is over and finished, when the earth crumbles away under our feet as it does today, when there is neither hope nor illusion, when we can see all things naked and undeceiving, then is the acceptable time for a religious quickening in the world.

We are at that time: Dostoevsky recognized it, Soloviev recognized it, and we should do well to recognize it too, fully and unflinchingly. It is in the tradition of Russian thought to understand these things, and the revolution of 1917 can help us to.

His point is that the Bolshevik Revolution was the fully-realized endpoint of modernity, that God does not exist, and the idea that man is wholly a material being. Russia under Communism, he wrote — remember, this was 1923 — shows the rest of the world what awaits it if it casts aside God, and the religious sense, and embraces modernity without restraint.

It is easy to see how a Russian in 1923 concluded that, but Berdyaev was wrong, or rather, not entirely right. He did not foresee the triumph of global capitalism, nor the triumph of the therapeutic. Berdyaev ought to be read in tandem with Philip Rieff. Here’s an excerpt from his 1966 classic, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Emphases mine:

Christian culture survived because it superintended the organization of Western personality in ways that produced the necessary corporate identities, serving a larger communal purpose institutionalized in the churches themselves. Ernst Troeltsch was correct in his institutional title for the moral demand system preceding the one now emerging out of its complete ruin: a “church civilization,” an “authoritarian and coercive culture.” What binding address now describes our successor culture? In what does the self now try to find salvation, if not in the breaking of corporate identities and in an acute suspicion of all normative institutions?

Western culture has had a literary canon, through which its character ideals were conveyed. What canons will replace the scriptural? None, I suppose. We are probably witnessing the end of a cultural history dominated by book religious and word-makers. The elites of the emergent culture—if they do not destroy themselves and all culture with a dynamism they appear unable to control—are being trained in terminologies that have only the most tenuous relation to any historic culture or its incorporative self-interpretations.

It needs to be noted that in particular on the geographic margins of our moral demand system, and in the Orient, the rejection of religious culture, even in principle, is far from complete. By contrast, the Communist movement may be viewed as culturally conservative, belonging to the classical tradition of moral demand systems. The revolution in the West is profoundly cultural whereas that in the East, withal its defensive doctrine of the cultural as a mere superstructure of the techno-political class system, has been less certainly so. Of the two, our revolution is, I think, the more profound one. Communist culture, no less than the Christian, is in trouble; it cannot stave off a revolution coming out of the West, in part as a repercussion, in that it renounces the renunciatory mode of Communism. The Russian cultural revolution is already being signaled by the liberation, however grudgingly, of the intellectuals from creedal constraints.

The new religiosity is remissive. It represents no mere literary challenge, as in the time of the Enlightenment. The would-be instinctual Everyman and his girl friend are the enlightened ones now; a Freud would be quite superfluous, specially in view of the fact that he sought to find ways other than neurotic of supporting renunciations.

Indeed, Freud has already receded into history. His problems are not ours. The psychoanalytic movement, no less than its rationalist predecessors, has been ruined by the popular (and commercial) pressure upon it to help produce a symbolic for the reorganization of personality, after the central experience of deconversion, of which Freud was the last great theorist, had been completed. Fixed as they are at the historical stage of deconversion, responsible psychotherapists continue to struggle confusedly to discover their own proper attitude toward renunciatory moral demand systems even as the normative character of their abandonment has altered both the theoretical and working conditions of clinical practice. So confused, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, in their hospitals and consulting rooms, stand almost as helpless as their functional predecessors and sometime cultural opponents, the clergy. But other therapeutic elites are not in a better condition, as I have tried to bring out more elaborately in the final chapter.

Our cultural revolution does not aim, like its predecessors, at victory for some rival commitment, but rather at a way of using all commitments, which amounts to loyalty toward none. By psychologizing about themselves interminably, Western men are learning to use their internality against the primacy of any particular organization of personality. If this re-structuring of the Western imagination succeeds in establishing itself, complete with institutional regimens, then human autonomy from the compulsions of culture may follow the freedoms already won from the compulsions of nature. With such a victory, culture, as previously understood, need suffer no further defeats. It is conceivable that millennial distinctions between inner and outer experience, private and public life, will become trivial. The individual heart need have no reasons of its own that the corporate head cannot understand and exploit for some augmentation of the individual’s sense of well-being. Thinking need not produce nausea or despair as its final answer to the assessment of communal purpose because men will have ceased to seek any salvation other than amplitude in living itself. Faith can then grow respectable again, as one entertainable and passing personal experience among others, to enhance the interest of living freed from communal purpose. The significance Marx attached to the division of labor for the organization of society may have bearing in our emergent culture on the variety of entertainments. To paraphrase Marx and Engels, all morality, be it ascetic or hedonistic, loses its force with a therapeutic outlook.

Jeremy Beer, now the TAC publisher, in a 2006 review in this magazine of Rieff’s posthumously published book My Life Among the Deathworks, adds:

Indeed, compared to the emergent Western rejection of all “moral demand systems,” Rieff notes that communism was, in a certain sense, conservative. Americans, on the other hand, had been released by the anti-cultural doctrine of the therapeutic to be “morally less self-demanding,” aiming instead to enjoy “all that money can buy, technology can make, and science can conceive.” (This comparison helps explains why self-publicists such as Christopher Hitchens have been able so easily to “switch sides” in our culture wars; their fundamental allegiance is to the globalization of therapeutic remissiveness, and they realize that that goal is now best served by Western secular liberalism.)

More:

The hopefulness that marked Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, even the chastened hopefulness of The Triumph of the Therapeutic, is completely absent from Fellow Teachers. Rieff blanched in the face of a new personality type that was “radically contemporaneous. … This is the uniquely modern achievement. Barbarians have never before existed. At the end of this tremendous cultural development, we moderns shall arrive at barbarism. Barbarians are people without historical memory. Barbarism is the real meaning of radical contemporaneity. Released from all authoritative pasts, we progress towards barbarism, not away from it.”

Rieff also saw that both the corporate and technological elites and the cultural radicals were united as partisans of the therapeutic. “The propertied classes, their lawyers and editorial writers, are self-interested, which is not the same as conservative,” he scoffed. “Modern culture is constituted by its endless transitionality; the people at the top have learned to want it that way.” Furthermore, Rieff wrote, “The destruction of the family is the key regimen of technological innovation and moral ‘deviancy.’ In particular, it is through hostility to the cultural conservatism of the working-class family that corporate ad-mass capitalism and psych-revolutionary socialism are working out the terms of their limited liability, joint enterprise. . . . [P]reserve our hard-hats from the affects of the higher re-education.” It is not hard to see why Christopher Lasch claimed Rieff as an influential teacher.

Read the whole Beer essay. Contra Berdyaev, the Russian Revolution was not the revolution that foreshadowed the West’s post-Christian future mankind’s future; it was, rather, the Sexual Revolution.

But let us return to Berdyaev’s insight. Let me recast this graf slightly in a Rieffian mode:

Faith in the ultimate political, social, hedonist, individualist, and consumerist,salvation of mankind is quenched. We have reached settlement-day after a series of 556cd6644ae56e586e4588d8_caitlyn-jenner-bruce-jenner-july-2015-vfcenturies during which movement was from the centre, the spiritual core of life, to the periphery, its surface and social exterior. And the more empty of real significance social life has become, the more it has tyrannized over the general life of man.

The strife of parties, parliaments, conferences, newspapers, programmes and platforms, propaganda and demonstrations, the grab and scheming for power; the clamor and busy-ness of popular culture, the sexual adventurism, the polymorphous perversity, the buying, the selling, the relentless search for the self — these are not life, they have no point of contact with its essence and end, they are a hopeless hindrance.

The world needs a strong reaction from this domination by exterior things, a change back in favour of interior spiritual life, not only for the sake of individuals but for the sake of real metaphysical life itself. To many who are caught up in the web of modern activities this must sound like an invitation to suicide. But we have got to choose. The life of the spirit is either a sublime reality or an illusion: accordingly we have either to look for salvation in it rather than in the fuss of politics, or else dismiss it altogether as false. When it seems that everything is over and finished, when the earth crumbles away under our feet as it does today, when there is neither hope nor illusion, when we can see all things naked and undeceiving, then is the acceptable time for a religious quickening in the world.

We are at that time: Dostoevsky recognized it, Soloviev

recognized it, and we should do well to recognize it too, fully and unflinchingly. It is in the tradition of American life to stand incomprehending before these things, but Sexual Revolution, and the subsequent passing away of religion in all but its Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic forms from the public and private consciences of contemporary Americans, can help us understand.

We have got to choose. The culture of life, or the culture of death. The splendor of truth, or the dictatorship of relativism.  Karol Wojtyla or Kim Kardashian. Benedict of Nursia, or Bruce-Caitlyn Jenner.

Choose your icon. But understand clearly: you cannot avoid the choice.