The meaning of fanaticism

The Meaning of Fanaticism

IN THE fifties, Jules Feiffer coined the term “radical middle” to ridicule, in his cartoons, the liberal obsession with moderation, an obsession portrayed nowadays by Jon Stewart in The Daily Show with his visceral rejection of militant language and his mobilizing for a 2010 Washington rally in defense of political reasonableness.

In contemporary politics, one expression of this obsession that is far more worrisome is the way in which many liberals are confronting political Islam. In this approach, legitimate objections to reactionary clericalism and the deliberate targeting of non-combatant civilians are melded into a false and repugnant political equivalence and symmetry between the violence of the oppressor and the oppressed. This view ignores any distinction between the principal issues—racist or imperialist aggression—and real but subordinate matters: the beliefs and practices of the victims. The more sophisticated proponents of this type of liberal politics claim to represent the traditions of the Enlightenment: the “Western values” of reason, liberalism, and humanitarianism.

This political posture seems to assume that the Enlightenment was homogeneous, instead of highly diverse, including liberating and revolutionary currents (including Marxism) as well as politically reactionary manifestations. Liberals also imply that the policies and actions of the Western powers in the Middle East and Central Asia are carried out to defend moral and political values, instead of these values being used as an ideological cover to justify imperialist policies and tactics.

In his Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, the scholar Alberto Toscano traces the history of the idea of fanaticism, a politics of passionate and unconditional conviction, and presents a rigorous treatment of the roots of the liberal and conservative attacks on fanaticism. His book is primarily cast as a treatise in political theory and the history of ideas. Although unquestionably an erudite work, it is often difficult to follow and seems to have been addressed to doctoral students and professors of political theory familiar with the literature and controversies in the field rather than to a lay, politically interested audience. Having said that, it is a valuable and stimulating study and throws considerable light on a number of issues bearing on political militancy and provides much historical information. In tracing the historical uses of the notion of fanaticism, Toscano’s analysis shows its relation to other phenomena such as violence and religion (including differences within Marxism on how to interpret religious beliefs and practices) and how it has been used against the left and political Islam.

The study also shows the various meanings of fanaticism in widely different and contrasting circumstances. Thus, for example, the epithet “fanatic” was worn as a badge of pride among the radical wing of the abolitionist movement when major figures like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips were “self-defined fanatics.” However, fanaticism was also a complimentary epithet under the German Nazi regime. The historical use of the notion of fanaticism to describe widely different behaviors in many differing contexts could render the notion pretty useless: it applies to too many historical circumstances and therefore it does not clarify historical analysis very much. A sociological analysis, which is almost totally absent in Toscano’s study, could have helped to clarify the specific meaning of fanaticism in these various contexts.

Nevertheless, Toscano’s discussion can be put to good use. We could borrow Justice William O. Douglas’ notion of “penumbra” in American jurisprudence and apply it to our present discussion. In trying to defend the constitutionality of a right to privacy that is not explicitly spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, Douglas argued that the specific guarantees spelled out in the Bill of Rights have penumbras. These are formed by emanations from those explicit constitutional guarantees that help give them life and substance, and from which the right of privacy can be inferred. We could similarly say that the notion of fanaticism exists within a penumbra emanating from other important and far more precise concepts. One such concept, which turns out to be historically and logically related to the notion of fanaticism, and central to it, is abstraction. Toscano shows the close association between the conservative attack on abstraction and its indictment of radical political thought. Conservative thinkers since Edmund Burke have stressed the need to base political practice on common sense, custom, and tradition against what they regarded as the misty abstractions of fanatics.

As a response to Burke and conservative thought, Toscano brings up the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and his defense of abstraction and revolutionary enthusiasm in the same terms that Kant supported the French Revolution. Moreover, for Kant, fanaticism was immanent in human rationality itself. According to Toscano, Kant saw fanaticism being “incorporated” into reason, through which process reason would be inoculated by and from fanaticism. Thus, Kant made an effort to distinguish between enthusiasm, which he favored, and fanaticism, which he did not. Nevertheless, a century later, Nietzsche, the patron saint of postmodernism, branded Kantianism as a “moral fanaticism,” a subjection of life to abstract and transcendent principles of right. Toscano’s presentation of Kant is particularly interesting in light of the contemporary idealization of the German philosopher as the patron saint of moderation and a liberal ethical cosmopolitanism.1

There are other important issues that have, in my view, a somewhat weaker connection to the notion of fanaticism that are nevertheless discussed by Toscano in an interesting and provocative fashion. One of these is political consciousness and organization. This controversial topic has helped to shape the conflicting intellectual traditions that have emerged from within Marxism and other forms of leftism. One such conflict concerns what I would call, for lack of better terms, the clash between “rationalist” and “romantic” analyses of political consciousness and action. The “rationalist” version of Marxism is well represented by Primitive Rebels, one of the major works of the British historian E. J. Hobsbawm. This fascinating study of rebellions throughout various historical periods and countries suggests an evolutionary development from pre-political to the highest political forms of rebellion in terms of consciousness and organization. “Politics” is defined here in terms of the movement’s ability and organizational capacity to focus on the seizure of state power as a necessary requisite to carry out a program of social transformation. As Toscano indicates, Hobsbawm understands politics in terms of “its efficacy, durability, and capacity to generate a new and better world.”

In contrast, what I would call the “romantic” analysis of political consciousness and action, which became part of the political culture of the New Left, tends to attribute political significance and consciousness to a wide variety of behaviors ranging from leisure activities to prostitution and crime. These are often redefined as expressions of “resistance.”2 Instead, the British Marxist Raymond Williams far more sensibly referred to these forms of conduct as “alternatives” to mainstream culture. It is clear that these “alternatives” can exist within the nooks and crannies of mainstream culture without challenging or resisting it. If so, they have little if any political significance.

Toscano discusses some of the critiques that have been made of Hobsbawm’s “rationalist” view of social movements. In my view, these deserve much more serious consideration than the “romantic” fantasies about crime, prostitution, and leisure activities. Toscano shows how the critique of Hobsbawm plays an important role in subaltern studies in India. According to these studies, Hobsbawm’s notion of the “pre-political” failed to understand the logic of peasant revolts in the subcontinent and, more importantly, took practical consciousness and political subjectivity away from those who repeatedly rose against the British Empire. For these thinkers, the notion of “pre-political people” suggests blind spontaneity or false consciousness that do not do justice to the characteristics of peasant insurgencies. They also argue that since British economic exploitation used direct force, the militant movement of the rural masses against imperialism was necessarily political.

As I earlier suggested, since Toscano’s study is primarily cast as a treatise in political theory and the history of ideas, he pays little attention to the sociology of fanaticism. He does note in the conclusion that “abstract passion and unconditional demands” are likely to be an important dimension of politics when “the space for negotiation” is absent, as in the case of abolitionism. Moreover, Toscano notes that fanaticism is in many ways the product of crisis, when the normal rhythm of “business as usual” politics is broken. Nevertheless, Toscano offers no analysis of social structures, which under various conditions may push particular class groupings towards certain kinds of political conduct.

Marx pioneered this type of socio-historic political analysis in the classic The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte where he attempted to explain the social basis of the politics of peasants, lumpen-proletariat, and conflicting factions of the ruling class at that particular time and place. Of particular interest to a study of fanaticism is the behavior of certain sections of the middle and intellectual strata that have sometimes opted for individual terrorism in their attempt to force rather than persuade people. These range from the Russian “liberals with bombs” derided by Lenin3 to the anti-working-class Weather Underground in the American sixties and seventies.

Toscano’s study opens the door to a series of reflections that are important to political activists on the left, since fanaticism has been a historically recurring accusation leveled against our side. As Toscano shows, starting with Edmund Burke, conservative critics of revolution have attacked the “rootless, geometrical character of ideas of universal emancipation,” which ignores “national differences, natural hierarchies and the limits of human possibility.” Liberal opponents of revolution have likewise portrayed the “leveling abstractions of egalitarian fanaticism as violent denials of the empirical complexities that only the joint work of representative institutions and market transactions is capable of coordinating.”

Here is where the thought of several Enlightenment philosophers becomes relevant when they see abstraction as the indispensable application of reason to political affairs. For the political activists on the left it is not possible to understand the systemic nature of capitalist exploitation and oppression and to propose an alternative without abstraction and generalization. We can point to the common interests of workers in the public and private sectors of the economy, notwithstanding the real differences between them, only on the basis of abstraction and generalization. Besides the necessity for abstraction, enthusiasm, passion, and hatred for injustice, oppression, and exploitation are requirements to engage and sustain political struggles for liberation. However, that does not mean they can guide and determine political action. Reason and a critical spirit are the political requirements to prevent dogmatism, triumphalism, as well as the brutalization and dehumanization that have been associated with many forms of political change, including revolutions. This is not primarily a matter, as it is often thought, of consideration for the enemy. It is rather the only way to maintain the integrity of our own cause and movement. As C.L.R. James, in his classic work on the Haitian Revolution reflected on the danger of vengeance:

The massacre of the whites, was a tragedy: not for the whites. For these old slave-owners, those who burnt a little powder in the arse of a Negro, who buried him alive for insects to eat, who were well treated by Toussaint, and who, as soon as they got the chance, began their old cruelties again; for these there is no need to waste one tear or one drop of ink. The tragedy was for the Blacks and the Mulattoes. It was not policy but revenge, and revenge has no place in politics. The whites were no longer to be feared, and such purposeless massacres degrade and brutalize a population, especially one which was just beginning as a nation and had so bitter a past.4

Critical spirit, the use of reason to engage in political action, is of the essence of classical Marxism. This spirit is also warranted by the experiences of the twentieth and twenty- first centuries, the first of which E.J. Hobsbawm referred to as “The Age of Extremes.” It was not only the epoch of Hitler, Stalin, the Latin American torturers, and the Cambodian Pol Pot. There were also “minor” incidents involving poor, minority, and working-class Americans such as the 1978 murder/suicide of over 900 people in the Guyanan jungle organized by the Rev. Jim Jones, a “left-wing” charismatic and paranoid religious leader.

It is also in the light of a critical spirit that political Islam, another phenomenon very different from Marxism, which has also been labeled as fanatic, should be analyzed. The principal political tasks posed by political Islam are not, as some liberals and former leftists would have it, the defense of the liberal Enlightenment against fanaticism and unreason. Ironically, many of these supposed defenders of individual liberty support the banning of the hijab in public schools in France. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, much lionized as a courageous “feminist” by Western conservative and some liberal opinion, disregards the widespread racism against Muslims and other minorities in Europe and North America. Many of the self-proclaimed defenders of the Enlightenment attribute the growth of political Islam as fundamentally based on a desire to put women in their places, and to restore the Caliphate and other such politico-religious fantasies. But they do not consider structural realities such as racism and particularly U.S. and NATO imperialist actions in the Middle East and Central Asia as the most fundamental and determining factors. And in spite of recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan, they refuse to confront the fact that neither North American nor European liberals, much less imperialist intervention, can emancipate women (and men) from the reactionary strictures of religion. Such emancipation, if it is to really happen, will be only accomplished by the autochthonous change and rebellion of those directly affected.

On the other hand, and because critical thinking is a requirement of radical left politics, leftists cannot hide their values and politics from fear of offending the supporters of political Islam, even though both oppose imperialism and racism. To denounce the growing clamor in Israel and the U.S. for military action against Iran does not erase the denial of the Holocaust and other reactionary pronouncements of Mahmoud Ahmajinedad, his suppression of political opposition and mass demonstrations at home, and the necessity to oppose those too. Similarly, the highly repressive blasphemy laws in Pakistan deserve criticism although consideration should be given to the meaning of this sentiment in the political context of present-day Pakistani society. The fact that the blasphemy laws enjoy widespread popular support, including the support of members of the lawyers’ movement that opposed other antidemocratic measures in the country, may affect the manner in which this criticism is presented, but not the criticism itself. The same can be said for our objections to the Iranian rulers, given their vulnerability to attacks by the U.S. and Israel.

Toscano concludes his stimulating analysis of fanaticism citing Antonio Gramsci to the effect that the “heating up of passions and fanaticism,” which “annihilated the critical sense and the corrosiveness of irony” follows from the perception of a great and imminent danger. However, for Gramsci such fanaticism could never lead to a coherent and effective project of reshaping society. It could at most reorganize or restore, but never found a new polity. There is nothing that this reviewer can add to that.

  1. Quite independently of the uses that current liberals may make of Kant, it is true that he was a moderate in the context of Enlightenment thought. See the very interesting work by Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010), 13, 129, 138, 150.
  2. For a detailed discussion of the misuse of the concept of “resistance” and other problems of the “romantic” tradition in the study of social protest see chapter 7, “The Perils of Political ‘Romanticism,’ A Closer Look at Robin D. G. Kelley,” in my book Social Decay and Transformation. A View From the Left (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2000), 113-125.
  3. V. I. Lenin, “The Career of a Russian Terrorist,” Collected Works, Vol. 17 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 46-48. Source: Marxist Internet Archive.
  4. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), 373.


Issue #72

July 2010

¡Todos Somos Arizona!

Issue contents

Top story




Critical Thinking


  • Getting slaves to market

    Greg Love reviews The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker and Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora by Stephanie Smallwood
  • Lenin’s Marxism

    Paul D'Amato reviews Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Movement by Neil Harding