Fanaticism: To Write A History Of A Thing Without History


The first years of the third millennium, captivated by a spectacular, if ambiguous, resurgence of religiously motivated violence, have seen the revival of a charged term in the Western political lexicon: fanaticism. Societal upheavals, revolutionary periods, religious wars, crises of legitimation, imperial projects – in the past five centuries, all have provided occasions for invoking fanaticism to stigmatise incorrigible enemies, whose disproportionate convictions and intractable beliefs put them beyond the pale of negotiation. Millenarian German peasants, anti-colonial ‘dervish’ rebels, terrorising Jacobins, anarchist bombers, anti-slavery ‘immediatists’, and eschatological Stalinists are just some of the figures thrown up by an investigation into the adversarial uses of this powerful idea. Exploring the historical semantics and polemical deployments of fanaticism reveals, among other things, its impressive plasticity. Cultic superstition and unbridled rationality, the refusal of progress and its immoderate celebration, intransigent particularism and expansive universality have all been the targets of the accusation of fanaticism.

This is partly accounted for by the closeness of fanaticism to extremism as a term of political abuse: as long as otherwise incompatible positions take sufficient distance from a standard of moderation or normality, they can be tarred with the same brush. Centrist denunciations of the excesses of Right and Left often take this form, as in the doctrine of ‘opposed convergent extremisms’ that was applied by Christian Democrats to Italian terrorism in the 1970s. Yet among political smear-words fanaticism has its own pedigree, which crucially includes two elements arising from its association with political theology and theological politics. First, fanaticism defines an ethic of conviction that abhors compromise. Second, fanaticism results from a politics of abstraction in which disembodied principles override pragmatism and mediation. In the fraught and discontinuous history of fanaticism, it was the reaction to the French Revolution’s egalitarian dictatorship of abstract reason that foregrounded these distinctive features. In particular, it was then that the reactionary trope of a ‘fanaticism of reason’ – mostly alien to the Lumières’ insistent condemnation of religious fanaticism – came into its own. It is not difficult to grasp how intransigence and abstraction, whether in religious or secular garb, could be associated with a certain ‘fatal purity’ – to quote the title of a recent biography of Robespierre. Twentieth and twenty-first century attacks on political fanaticisms continue to borrow from the arsenal of counter-revolutionary thought (be it liberal, conservative or fiercely reactionary, as in De Maistre), for which the Revolution’s frenzied attempt ‘to abstract and equalize’ society – to purify it of its stratifications, hierarchies, customs and differences for the sake of the ‘monstrous fiction’ of equality and human rights – was foredoomed to tyranny and catastrophe.

In writing Fanaticism, I set myself two peculiar and paradoxical challenges. First, to write a history of a thing without history. The discourse about fanaticism is not only almost invariably condemnatory, it also treats it as a fundamentally ahistorical pathology of religious and political life. Whence the ease with which it launches into analogies torn from historical or geographical context: the Radical Reformation of Thomas Müntzer is twinned with the political regimes of Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia, Khomeini rubs shoulders with the Florentine heretic Girolamo Savonarola, ancient Roman goddess cults (from which we get the term fanatici) prefigure anti-colonial rebellions. Our ruling ideologues’ 'arcs of extremism' and 'axes of evil' sit comfortably within this tradition. Second, I tried to explore one of the most polemical and obfuscatory terms in our political vocabulary to gain some orientation into the political challenges and possibilities of our contemporary condition.

The last decade has witnessed a surge in Europe and North America in the public visibility of Enlightenment ideals. Calls to defend secularism, tolerance, atheism and science against militant, theological and demographic threats abound among political leaders and public intellectuals. Neo-conservatives descrying the suicide of the West and progressives bemoaning the retreat of reason seem intent on reclaiming the spirit of the Lumières and the Aufklärung. Yet anyone wedded to the battle against those powers that curtail the development of human capacities and debase the intellect will find little inspiration in this trend.

In our neoliberal times, the very idea of collective emancipation from what Immanuel Kant famously called ‘our self-incurred immaturity’ smacks of utopian hubris or totalitarian delusion. Though there may be some lip-service  paid to Enlightenment as an open project, sustained by self-criticism, what we are most often confronted with is the vociferous defence of the political institutions and economic practices of an anxious, privileged minority, and of contemporary liberal capitalism as the least worst of all possible worlds. The Enlightenment that is now resurgent is thus a negative, polemical Enlightenment, little concerned with the risky task of questioning its own principles in the light of reason, but eager to identify the nemeses of some kind of cultural monopoly, in the guise of ‘our values’, ‘our civilisation’.

The popularity of Voltaire, scourge of unreason and superstition, finds its sources here. It was Voltaire – in texts like Fanaticism, or Muhammad the Prophet, and the Philosophical Dictionary – who painted the most enduring portrait of the fanatic as the sworn adversary of the Enlightenment, and conversely of the philosopher as the paladin of tolerance. Fanaticism is here a political perversion of the religious spirit, a destructive and contagious group fixation on divine prescriptions which will not rest until any contrasting opinion or belief is laid to waste – an image for which the despotic 'Orient' often serves as shorthand. Though Voltaire excels in enumerating the many faces of irrationality, there is an underlying monotony to his characterisations of fanaticism. All fanatics, he writes, ‘have the same bandage over their eyes’. There is perhaps something comforting about the idea that unreason is in the end unified, that the battle between tolerance and fanaticism draws a clear line between two opposing camps. Contemporary condemnations of religious and political fanaticism frequently inherit this trait of Voltaire’s polemics, and relish lists of the enemies of reason that freely range over geopolitical contexts (Hezbollah, Hindutva and the American Christian Right), history (from the Prophet Muhammad to David Koresh) and political orientation (Hitler and Lenin, medieval millenarians and neo-conservative demagogues).

Against the ravages of competing, if ultimately identical uncompromising doctrines, the remedy seems to be secularism. Another element of Voltaire’s thinking bears an important affinity with contemporary defenses of the gains of ‘Western civilisation’: namely, the primacy of social peace (averting any recrudescence of wars of religion and sectarian persecutions) over emancipation. Voltaire’s suspicion of atheism and his support for the enforcement of secular order through state coercion (whether in Catherine’s Russia or in the Ottoman empire) fit within this scheme.

Faced with the historical legacy of the critique of fanaticism, the predicament of self-avowed secularists and atheists is uncertain. Though vital in some situations, the opposition between tolerance and fanaticism can easily turn into the defence of established, coercive authorities, and the defence of secularism into the revival of an imperial worldview which always treated legitimate resistance against it as irrational and deserving of repression. Conversely, an atheist politics will be met with cries of fanaticism from those liberals and conservatives who hold moderation and social peace as the chief principles of political administration. Only a fidelity to that Enlightenment which treats fanaticism – the refusal to compromise on certain principles and beliefs – as a intimate dimension of rationality, rather than its alien enemy, will allow us to confront these questions in the spirit of criticism and emancipation. This requires us not only to revisit the Enlightenment in light of its entanglement with the subjugating violence of European imperialism and colonialism, and a Eurocentric philosophy of history, but to consider its internally riven, plural and, to use an expression from Jonathan Israel's monumental work on this matter, contested.

What we rather lazily refer to as the Enlightenment harboured other, less consoling visions of the relationship between the accusation of fanaticism and the defense of freedom, criticism and rationality. In the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, rather than representing an external threat to the flourishing of rationality, fanaticism appeared as one of reason’s own possible forms. The project of critique wrestled with the mind’s tendency to overstep its own boundaries, and, as Kant put it, ‘rave with reason’, believing it could ‘see the infinite’. Rather than a delirium based on religious narrowness, Kant investigated fanaticism as a misuse of reason’s powers, an arrogant transgression of its limits. Not parochialism and particularity, but something like an excess of universality defined the pathology of fanaticism.

Hegel’s attempt to produce a philosophy of history – which Kant would have doubtless deemed fanatical in its claim to channel Absoute Spirit – also treated fanaticism, which Hegel recognised in both the expansion of Islam and the French revolution, as a universalism, ‘an enthusiasm for the abstract’. It was in effect the French Revolution, with its unconditional affirmation of the rights of man against religious authority and social privilege, which thoroughly transformed the problem of fanaticism in ways that resonate to this very day, but which most of today’s supposedly secularist political commentariat is oblivious to.

The conservative reaction to the French Revolution turned the tables on the Enlightenment, which was now attacked for its fanaticism, in other words, for setting the stage for the intransigent and destabilising political  affirmation of the principles of freedom, equality and solidarity. Edmund Burke famously castigated the attempt to turn the principles of rational philosophy into the bases of civic constitution, arguing for the civilising function of hierarchy, religion, custom and gradual change against the ravages wrought by ‘political metaphysicians’.

Edmund Burke’s 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France – a watershed in the history of anti-fanatical polemic – persistently links the dangerous metaphysical abstractions of the rogue lawyers and agitators behind the Revolution to the destructive projection of a Cartesian geometry onto the finely grained physical and social geography of France, as well as to the fictional devices of a financial speculation that volatilises all value into mere ‘paper’. Against those who wish to destroy and found, who ‘consider [their] country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which [they] may scribble whatever [they] please’, he celebrates the need ‘to preserve and to reform’. Radical novelty, a child of pure abstraction and disregard for the wisdom of instituted customs, is the enemy of civility: ‘The very idea of the fabrication of a new government, is enough to fill us with disgust and horror’. Government is matter of negotiating complexity, of ‘a comprehensive and connected view of various complicated external and internal interests which go to the formation of that multifarious thing called a state’; ‘The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori’. Proper government also requires the toleration, or even cultivation, of prejudice and illusion – the very dimensions of social intercourse which the fanatical rationalism guiding the Revolution wishes to obliterate.

Burke’s attacks established the template for pro-slavery attacks on Haitian revolutionaries and ‘abstractionist’ American abolitionists (one of the few groups to reclaim the epithet ‘fanatic’), and filtered down to Cold War denunciations of the ‘political religion’ of communism, as well as to the still widespread view of radical politics as fanatical.

Now, though the contemporary denigrators of uncompromising, egalitarian politics are usually far from channeling Burke's corrosive acumen and reactionary eloquence, they do continue that long tradition (coterminous in many ways with Western political philosophy and with ideologies of rule across the globe) which can be encapsulated, following Étienne Balibar, as that of the fear of the masses. To govern away radical antagonisms, to disperse opposition, euthanise an extremist practical reason – these are the aims that the contemporary capitalist management of conflict generally sets itself. But it does so, most often, and in continuity with Cold War anti-communism, under the aegis of 'democracy'. In this respect, in East and West alike, it is an anaemic, procedural conception of the democratic process, pre-formatted to retain compatibility with the reproduction of social relations of exploitation and exclusion, which is juxtaposed to the threat of fanaticism. As the ongoing European response to the sovereign debt crisis demonstrates, with its hollowing out of claims of popular sovereignty over the economy, democracy under capitalism tends to the condition euphemised in the Putinesque expression 'managed democracy'.

As Choi Jang-Jip observes in Democracy After Democratization: The Korean Experience, this involves not just an ideological diminution in the egalitarian and libertarian claims of democracy, but a kind of Gramscian passive revolution in which democratisation by movements from below is overtaken by an elite variant of democratisation, which evacuates the social and subjective content of democracy (Kevin Gray has also proposed this Gramscian lens for the interpretation of contemporary Korean politics in his insightful article 'The Political Cultures of South Korea'). In this respect, the Korean case appears to provide an important lesson in how the battle against the 'political religion' of communism, portrayed as a fanatical and abstract creed, serves to shore up the ongoing attempt to neutralise any oppositional, emancipatory energies (one could usefully compare this depoliticising function of anti-communism across political cultures, for instance contrasting South Korea with Eastern Europe after 'transition', or the enduring scarecrow of 'socialism' in the USA). As Choi writes: 'Everyday authoritarianism, the exclusion of labor, the system of discrimination and special privileges, the suppression of differences in opinion, a great propensity for standardization are some aspects of Cold War anti-communism internalized in the Korean social structure and its sub-systems.' This is indeed one of the foremost 'uses' of the idea of fanaticism: to cement domination, inequality and privilege by holding up the threat of extremist upheaval against any movement for greater equality and popular control.

It is worth noting that this ideology and practice of a managed, passive democracy – inasmuch as it relies on a language of legitimation that, under normal circumstances, tends to make reference to discourses and symbols related to moments of radical popular action –  maintains an ambivalent relationship to insurgent, expansive conceptions of democracy. The 'democratic' fear of the masses is an anxious, unstable construct. As we are witnessing in Egypt and Tunisia today, ruling powers strive to neutralise the moment of revolutionary democracy (of what Alain Badiou has called, with reference to Tahrir square, 'movement communism'), to turn it into a vanishing mediator, thereby permitting the reproduction of the status quo under adjusted circumstances, perhaps with a different balance of power but without a root-and-branch transformation of the social and economic bases of the polity. Both practically and ideologically, all democracies have engaged in forms of this neutralisation, even when they trumpet their revolutionary legitimacy (say, in the case of France, though there too 1989 saw an attempt almost to disavow the very moment of revolutionary foundation, as Eric Hobsbawm discusses in Echoes of the Marseillaise).

In this regard, we could see the attempt to incorporate and neutralise the 1980 Gwangju uprising and commune into a narrative of democratisation (as recounted in Kim Yong Cheol, 'The Shadow of the Gwangju Uprising in the Democratization of Korean Politics') as belonging to a wider pattern, in which the ruptural moment of a constituent power (to borrow the terminology of Antonio Negri) is hollowed out by the establishment of constituted power. Aside from recovering a remarkable and inspiring experiment in popular rule, with numerous lessons for contemporary attempts to enact radical equality, political histories and theories that take Gwangju as their point of departure suggest the need to break with the geographically and culturally limited set of references (or events) with which contemporary radical theory operates (I owe the discovery of this political moment to George  Katsiaficas's writings, in particular the recent Asia's Unknown Uprisings, volume 1: South Korean Social Movement in the 20th Century, and acquaintance with its theoretical repercussions to Jung Keun-sik's article 'The Experience of the May 18 Uprising and the Communal Imagination'). As regards my own work, the Gwangju commune suggests that a treatment of the forms of political action that have often fallen under elite condemnation as fanatical would require a sustained reflection on the field of terms which beginning with commune, includes community and the common (to double back onto the very theme of communism, which is of course very much at stake in the pages of this book).

From the standpoint of what the late Joel Olson termed the 'pejorative tradition' of fanaticism, the kind of direct democracy (or even 'communisation') evidence in Gwangju, exhibits that mix of intransigence, absence of representative order, and popular appropriation of the means of production, reproduction and repression which embodies the opposite of managed democracy, a kind of unmanageable democracy. To the extent that passive, neoliberal democracy separates itself from radical democracy it will do so by tarring the latter, in some fashion, with the brush of fanaticism. The characteristics of the Gwangju commune listed by Katsiaficas are thus the inversion, point-by-point, of a dominant 'anti-fanatical' conception of democracy (of the kind that drew its lessons from Samuel Huntington's infamous Trilateral Commission report on the 'crisis', that is to say the excess, of democracy in the 1970s): '(1) the spontaneous appearance of a popular organization whose decision-making is democratic, (2) the emergence of an armed uprising from below, (3) the reduction of urban crime, (4) the existence of a true solidarity and cooperation among the citizens, (5) the absence of hierarchy, such as classes, power, or ranks, and (6) the appearance of a division of work among the participants.'

I am struck in this list, as in the chronicle of the events presented by Katsiaficas, by the fact that it counters the tendency in the dominant discourse of fanaticism to regard the levelling politics of equality as a force for homogeneity and indistinction (be it, as I note in the book, in the guise of abstraction or in that of hybridity). On the contrary, what we have here is both the dismantling of hierarchy and the invention of a 'division of work', that is to say of a new form of articulation, mediation, and even, of representation – antagonistic to its managed, capitalist form. In this respect, we could wonder whether excessive emphasis on the unitary character of egalitarian moments such as Gwangju – for instance in Choi Jeon Un's 'absolute community theory' – doesn't accord too much to an image of radical democracy, or communism, which sees it through the lens of fusion and indistinction, and which must, of necessity, regard it as a necessarily passing, ephemeral flash of emancipation, rather than an experimental base to build and articulate equality outside of its neutralisation by what Alain Badiou aptly terms 'parliamentary capitalism'.

Beyond the critique of the dominant uses of the idea of fanaticism to demonise, culturalise or neutralise dissent and opposition, we need to reflect more thoroughly about the manners in which our own political imaginary is over-determined by the ways in which political thought has conceptualised radical, uncompromising equality. Otherwise, the risk is that we will simply invert the terms of familiar oppositions, pitting the non-representational, fleeting, fusional character of an insurgent equality to the mediations and machinations of what passes itself off as democracy; accepting the dominant idea, often incorporated by a melancholy Left, that revolts are doomed to vanish, leaving only the ethereal traces of a concerted will to refuse compromise. To move beyond the discourse of fanaticism and the dominant image of what is possible in politics is also to develop a positive vocabulary to articulate a democracy other than the one imposed by our managers.

Preface to the Korean Edition of Fanaticism (2013)

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