“War is beautiful,” wrote journalist and founding father of fascism Filippo Marinetti, “because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns.” Last week seven decades ago, on May 8, 1945, the war Marinetti’s words helped birth came to end — claiming the lives of some 60 million people, an estimated three of every 100 alive when it began.
The fascist impulse, though, has survived — though it is rarely called by its proper name. It has manifested itself in the savageries of Islamism, in the blood-cults of Christ and tribe, in communal pogroms. Fascism’s form, though, isn’t always apocalyptic: “It does not always and of necessity,” as French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy put it, “mean storms of iron and blood.” Instead, fascism survives in a thousand movements that denigrate the idea of progress built on reason, with human agency at its core. The vanguard of anti-reason is varied: religious or ethnic identity to the centre of political life; romantic celebration of the tyranny called tradition; even in postmoderns who reject political choice between states built on republican ideals and their nihilist adversaries, choosing instead to wallow in weary cynicism.
Europe’s intellectual journey in the decades before 1939 provides a useful prism through which the problem may be examined. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, repelled by modernity, called for a new politics “in opposition to the dwarfing and adaptation of man to a specialised utility”. For Nietzsche, the truth was simply “an illusion without which a certain species could not live”. This was a fundamental upturning of the Enlightenment. Nietzsche believed the new order could “grow up only out of terrible and violent beginnings”. “Where,” he lamented, “are the barbarians of the 20th century?” Fascism would soon answer his call. Martin Heidegger’s unashamed embrace of National Socialism; Hans-Georg Gadamer’s veneration of tradition; Carl Jung’s gushing description of Adolf Hitler as “a form of spiritual vessel, a demi-deity” — these journeys grew from Nietzsche’s reduction of truth to an aesthetic choice.
In 1922, the theologian Ernst Troeltsch identified the malaise thus: instead of the “ideas of the equal dignity of reason everywhere and of the fulfillment of universal law, we have the conception of a purely personal and unique realisation of the capacities of the mind”.
The assault on reason did not, it is important to note, take place in Europe alone. The Hindu-nationalist ideologue Dayanand Saraswati flatly asserted that “wherever and whatever truth is to be found it has proceeded from the Vedas and all untruth has its origin outside them and has not proceeded from god”. Like the German romantics, Saraswati saw no role for critical thought about the truth. For Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb — whose manifesto Milestones fired the minds of two generations of Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda reactionaries — the problem of modernity was similar: man had placed his law over that of god.
Fascism succeeded, Antonio Gramsci noted, because it “enabled a formless multitude to cover over the savage outpourings of passions, hatreds and desires with a varnish of vague and nebulous political ideals”. It embodied the “barbaric and anti-social psychology of certain strata of the Italian people which have not yet been modified by a new tradition, by education, by living together in a well-ordered and well-administered state”.
Hostility to modernity has proved durable, even in Europe. In his influential 1990 manifesto, On the Misfortune and Fortune of Art in Germany After the Last War, director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg lamented that post-Nazi culture had been “taken over by the plastic world”. In the modern world, he claimed, “our thought, our memories [are but] the simulation of life”. Elsewhere, we can see precisely where this yearning for the primal life leads: to millenarian projects like the Islamic State; to the obscenities of the Lord’s Resistance Army or the blood-soaked nihilism of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
India’s own anti-modern movements — the communal violence of the Shiv Sena, the ethnic-religious secessionisms in Kashmir, Punjab and Manipur, or the Maoists, a nativist blood-cult dressed up in Marxist colours — have more in common than they imagine. Each determinedly resists reasoned engagement with the bewildering complexities of the modern world, choosing, instead, to sweep away the world with a tide of blood.
The increasing legitimacy of pseudoscience and spurious ideas—witness the rise of Ramdev, Zakir Naik, Vaastu, astrology—are evidence of a society that is losing its ability to use reason to negotiate its way through modernity.
For decades now, metropolitan liberalism has sought accommodation with anti-reason — a project that, history tells us, is doomed, just as it was in the build-up to 1939. The great tide of anti-reason will have to be fought by rising to the challenge Gramsci laid out — or perdition lies ahead.