Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Modern Collective Guilt Theory as Rooted in the English Revolution

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Modern Collective Guilt Theory as Rooted in the English Revolution

Article excerpt

Guilt is an inextricable but problematic component of political ideologies and radical movements. Its role in mass movements such as national socialism is well known, where it is usually taken as evidence of its destructive capability. But guilt has also figured in more benign mobilizations for political change, where, depending on how it is used, it can serve as a constructive force as well. When Martin Luther King pronounced the "collective guilt" of American society for its history of racial oppression he did so not to assign it exclusively to the dominant race, but precisely the contrary, to emphasize that it transcended racial lines and that every individual of whatever race, both oppressor and oppressed, bore some culpability for injustice and a responsibility to rectify it. Czech President Vaclav Havel has more than once condemned "the pernicious doctrine of collective guilt" as it was used to justify persecution of opponents by both communist and post-communist governments. Yet he himself has come under fire for his repeated insistence that blame for the crimes of the communist system did not rest exclusively with party officials and that everyone in Czechoslovak society was, whether actively or passively, inescapably involved and implicated.(1)

Such dilemmas demonstrate that collective guilt is still an important part of modern politics, but it is not new in the history of western society; nor is western literature lacking means to express it. It is a central feature of classical tragedy, for example, rediscovered in modern times during the Renaissance through the drama of the Elizabethans. On a popular level it is more likely to be expressed in religious language, through the myths and metaphors of the Bible, which were similarly revived and transmitted to the modern world in the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps the earliest and most pervasive system of organizing guilt for mass political purposes in modern history was Calvinism. Often expressed in biblical terms, the conviction that guilt for moral and social evils can spread itself so as to include all members of a society was at the core of Calvinist theology and, by extension, Calvinist sociology and political thought. Though usually credited with a decisive role in the origins of modern "individualism," the Calvinist group that developed these mechanisms of collective identity to their full political and revolutionary potential was English Puritanism. By examining the language used by Puritan preachers in sermons to the Long Parliament and other political assemblies before and during the English Civil War, I will argue that guilt was used as a kind of popular sociology and social psychology which mobilized public action and contributed directly to the English Revolution. This picture of radical religion in action may further offer, if not a unique, certainly an unusually vivid commentary on the symbolism of Calvinist religion, if not of Christianity itself, and its meaning for the political culture of early modern England.(2)

Despite academic attempts to devise more technical definitions, the trait for which the Puritans are renowned remains their keen Hobbesian conviction of human moral depravity. "Man hath an evil root within him," warned the notorious Thomas Brooks, "that root of bitterness, that curses sinful nature that is in him."

The whole frame of man is out of frame. The understanding is dark, the will cross, the memory slippery, the affections crooked, the conscience corrupted, the tongue poisoned, and the heart wholly evil, only evil, and continually evil.

Such a view of one's fellow human beings (or for that matter oneself) might be seen as the product of disturbances in early modern society, a time when rapid social change and economic dislocation had weakened many traditional moral and legal constraints; and while the Puritans' opinion of humanity in the best of times was bleak indeed, they were also convinced that in their own age the natural evil that lurked within the hearts of men and women had been given an unusually free rein. …

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