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  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: September 2012

5 - The secular priesthood and the perils of democracy


The term “secular priesthood” I am borrowing from the distinguished British philosopher and intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin. He was referring to Communist intellectuals who defended the state religion and the crimes of power. To be sure, not all Soviet intellectuals joined the secular priesthood. There were the commissars, who defended and administered power, and the dissidents, who challenged power and its crimes.

We honor the dissidents and condemn the commissars, rightly of course. Within the Soviet tyranny, however, quite the opposite was true – also of course.

The distinction between “commissars” and “dissidents” traces back to the earliest recorded history, as does the fact that, internally, the commissars are commonly respected and privileged, and the dissidents despised and often punished.

Consider the Old Testament. There is an obscure Hebrew word that is translated as “prophet” in English (and, similarly, other Western languages). It means something like “intellectual.” The prophets offered critical geopolitical analysis and moral critique and counsel. Many centuries later, they were honored; at the time, they were not exactly welcomed. There were also “intellectuals” who were honored: the flatterers at the courts of the kings. Centuries later, they were denounced as “false prophets.” The prophets were the dissidents, the false prophets the commissars.

There have been innumerable examples in the same era and since. That raises a useful question for us: Are our own societies an exception to the historical rule? I think not: they conform to the rule rather closely.