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by Alberto Toscano

There are few terms in our political vocabulary as damning as ‘fanatic’. Beyond tolerance and impervious to communication, the fanatic stands outside the frame of political rationality, possessed by a violent conviction that brooks no argument and will only rest, if ever, once every rival view or way of life is eradicated. A fanatic, Winston Churchill once quipped, ‘is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject’. He or she is also a subject who will not change, an intransigent, incorrigible subject. Though one might hazard explanations as to the elements or sources of fanaticism, fanatical action itself, lying outside the domain of negotiation, is most often viewed as undeserving of the assumption of rationality that commonly governs our evaluation of social and political behaviour. Those who refuse dialogue, so the reasoning goes, are unworthy of our understanding. Here our ‘powers of empathy’, our ‘ability to reach into another’s heart’, find it impossible to ‘penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction’.

Fanaticism, Hegel declared, is ‘enthusiasm for the abstract’. The question of abstraction is at the core of any political and philosophical reckoning with fanaticism. It is abstraction, and the universality or egalitarianism that attaches to it, which separates the figure of the fanatic from that of a mere madman, and into the bargain lends fanaticism its allure of extreme danger. The apparent anti-humanism of fanaticism is often the vehicle for a humanism, that is, a political universalism that trespasses ethnic or social boundaries — though such humanism may be anything but humanitarian. Similarly, though fanaticism defies explanation and dialogue, it is also frequently identified not with the absence but with the excess of rationality. Homing in on the question of abstraction — which is the foremost legacy of Marx’s reflections on religion — permits us to complicate the common perception of fanaticism as simply the encroachment of religion into a supposedly secularized public sphere; it also allows us to engage those treatments of fanaticism, especially under the rubric of political religion, which regard it as an irremovable potential within religion itself, and a driving force in ‘totalitarian’ movements like communism. To consider fanaticism under the heading of the politics of abstraction is to give ourselves the means to follow this notion in its numerous shifts across seemingly disparate intellectual domains, historical periods and geographical areas. In this way, we can open the critical and historical interrogation of this term to a broader reflection on the contemporary relationship between universal emancipation and abstract universality, a relationship nicely encapsulated in a question posed by Jacques Derrida: ‘Should one save oneself by abstraction or save oneself from abstraction?’ Rethinking the history and politics of fanaticism is not simply a way of resisting the invidious calls for a defence of the beleaguered West against its irrational adversaries; it also allows us to confront the impasses and hopes of a radical politics of emancipation and egalitarianism — a politics that over the centuries has frequently been smeared with the charge of fanaticism.

This book explores the enigmatic and unstable conjunction, under the banner of fanaticism, of a refusal of compromise and a seemingly boundless drive to the universal. Sometimes, the accusation of fanaticism is levied at those who inflexibly, intolerantly and sometimes insanely defend an identity or a territory. As we will see, nineteenth century British pundits, imperial administrators and counter-insurgency experts characterized the rebels they encountered from India to the Sudan as ‘fanatics’, grudgingly recognizing their partisan valour and local solidarities while arguing for their elimination. At other times, it was not resistance to dispossession but the unconditional affirmation of universal rights, or of a universal human nature beyond any hierarchy or distinction, which was deemed fanatical. The hugely influential polemics against the French Revolution composed by Edmund Burke, Hippolyte Taine and many others fit into this category. Their writings turned the Jacobin into the very archetype of the modern fanatic: a reckless innovator ‘possessed with a spirit of proselytism in the most fanatical degree’; zealously attacking religion ‘in the spirit of a monk’; laying waste to custom, property and manners, decreeing laws and parcelling out territories — all in a frenzy of abstraction forcing upon human affairs ‘the monstrous fiction’ that they could be handled like mathematical theorems or geometrical objects. Burke’s vitriol against the ‘tyranny of the politics of theory’ sets the template for treating all advocates of radical equality as dangerous fanatics — most evidently in the nineteenth century attacks against American abolitionism, but also throughout the history of the workers’ movement in its socialist, anarchist and communist strands. Warnings against philosophical ‘fanaticks’, spreading the ‘political metaphysics’ of unconditional equality and the Rights of Man, were often accompanied by a conspiratorial sociology preoccupied with the explosive alliance between deracinated intellectuals and impulsive mobs.

The anti-revolutionary critique of fanaticism promoted a remarkably enduring model of explanation and polemic, depicting the social implementation of philosophy — understood as an atheistic, abstract and universalizing doctrine — as the very essence of fanaticism. In what is perhaps the founding gesture of the counter-Enlightenment, it turned the philosophes’ attack on religious fanaticism against the politics whose very groundwork they had laid — asking, for instance: ‘Is this horrible fanaticism not a thousand times more dangerous than that inspired by religion?’ Burke did not mince his words:

These philosophers are fanaticks; independent of any interest, which if it operated alone would make them much more tractable, they are carried with such an headlong rage towards every desperate trial, that they would sacrifice the whole human race to the slightest of their experiments. . . . Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thorough-bred metaphysician. It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit than to the frailty and passion of a man. It is like that of the principle of Evil himself, incorporeal, pure, unmixed, dephlegmated, defecated evil.

Coldness was the very predicate chosen by Herder to identify philosophy’s dangerous fanaticism, for which he employed the term Schwärmerei, coined by Luther to castigate the theologies of peasant revolt. For Herder, philosophy and fanaticism became synonymous: ‘If it was a philosopher who named our century the age of philosophy, perhaps he understood thereby the century of cold Schwärmerei and schwärmender coldness. . . . The Schwärmer wants to be the greatest philosopher, and the greatest philosopher is the greatest Schwärmer.’ Underscoring the link between abstraction, confusion (swarming), and mass behaviour (swarming, again), critics of the Enlightenment like Herder or Lessing posited a close and dangerous link between the philosopher and he who ‘schwärmt for the rights of man’, to use Lessing’s expression. Such thinkers identified ‘a perverse dialectic between unrestrained subjectivism and collective frenzy — or, perhaps better, between the implosion of the individual self and the explosion of the collective self’.

In so doing, they mined the linguistic and etymological resources of the family of terms that we are investigating here under the rubric of fanaticism. Where Schwärmerei denotes confusion, unrealism, and a menacing multitude, a swarm, while enthusiasm (Enthusiasmus, enthousiasme) evokes a divine inspiration that finds its Greek sources in Plato’s philosophy, fanaticism proper (Fanatismus, fanatisme) derives from the Roman term fanum, referring to a consecrated place (the opposite of this being the profane, and the act of disrespecting the fanum, profanation). In particular, fanatici was the name given to the followers of the Cappadocian goddess Comana, introduced to Rome as Bellona. ‘In celebrating the festival of the goddess they marched through the city in dark clothes, with wild cries, blowing trumpets, beating cymbals and drums, and in the temple inflicting wounds upon themselves, the blood from which they poured out as an offering to the goddess’. Without engaging in genealogical fallacies — as we’ll see there are many uses of fanaticism that bear little relation to this cultic model — in this origination we can see the sign not just of an inaugural link with religion, but of a preoccupation with the religion of the other (Bellona was not the state cult, but had been brought back by legionaries from their Anatolian campaigns) and with unchecked violence. The description of the cult’s vital by a Roman contemporary foreshadows many of the portraits of indomitable religious ‘fanatics’, from Canetti’s account of the Persian Muharram in Crowds and Power to Voltaire’s tableau of theological possession in the Dictionnaire Philosophique: ‘Once set in motion by the transports of Bellona, in her frenzy she fears neither the heat of the fire nor the blows of the whip. With a double-edged hatchet, she violently wounds her arms, sprinkling the goddess with blood, yet feeling no pain. Standing, her side pierced by a dart, she prophesies events which the powerful goddess makes known to her.’ It is from the Roman Empire too that a frequent synonym for fanatic, zealot, derives. This was a specifically political term, deriving from the religiously motivated Jewish resistance against colonial Rome in Palestine. In terms redolent of two millennia of counter-insurgency literature, Josephus, chronicler of the Jewish rebellion, speaks of nationalist and spiritual enthusiasm as a surrogate for military weakness, of ‘animal courage for which no numbers were a match’, of men joining battle ‘with their passions in command’. Political violence and intransigent emotions are certainly one of the concerns of this book, but my principal focus will be on the various configurations taken by the idea of fanaticism in philosophy and theory, with particular attention to its shifting polemical uses and what they might reveal both about the critics of fanaticism and about the types of political behaviour that elicit this accusation.

Philosophically, the response to fanaticism is broadly divided between thinkers who regard it as the outside of reason, the persistent threat of pathological partisanship or clerical irrationality, and those who instead perceive some unconditional and unyielding abstract passion as intrinsic to a universalizing rationality and an emancipatory politics. Very roughly, this is where the difference between Voltaire’s Lumières and the Aufklärung of Kant and his epigones (or between the pre- and the post-revolutionary Enlightenment) is to be located. While the former treats philosophy as the nemesis of fanaticism, the latter views fanaticism as a potentiality inherent to reason, and even regards political enthusiasm as inextricable from a rational or universalizing politics. In revisiting, through the prism of fanaticism, a critical and dialectical lineage that travels through Kant, Hegel and Marx — but also through Sigmund Freud, Ernst Bloch and Alain Badiou — this book will go on to examine the recent calls for what we might term an ‘Enlightenment reloaded’, urging us all to écraser l’infâme, whether in the guise of Islamic militancy or Christian fundamentalism. The present fortunes of the term ‘fanatic’ as a political epithet can be linked to this nostalgic and sloganeering turn to a certain image of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, in particular to its diagnosis and excoriation of religious intolerance as the principal motor behind political violence, social destabilization and intellectual backwardness. Today’s ‘rentiers of the Enlightenment’, showing neither the intellectual inventiveness nor the political courage that marked the practice of the philosophes, think it enough to broadcast denunciations of irrationality and demands for a muscular secularism — all the while deeming the immanent philosophical and social critiques of the Enlightenment, as well as the historical reflections on its colonial and imperial uses, to be irrelevant. The prevalence of demonizing and superficial treatments of fanaticism is among other things a symptom of the incapacity of our broader intellectual culture to incorporate the lessons of the different waves of critique, the mutations and supersessions of Enlightenment that constitute the legacy of nineteenth- and twentieth-century critical political and philosophical thought. One of the aims of this book’s detour through political and philosophical history is to undermine this lazy and pernicious reliance on a one-dimensional Enlightenment, together with some of its corollaries: in particular the relegation of extreme or unyielding political behaviour to the domain of psychopathology, and the often related culturalization of political fanaticism as a manifestation of the Arab mind, Asiatic despotism, Hebrew theocracy or what have you. As Edward Said noted apropos of terrorism (the contemporary magnet for talk of fanaticism), such essentializing visions ‘serve the purpose of . . . institutionalizing the denial and avoidance of history’, and obscure political understanding by ‘a kind of metaphysical purity of horror’. If it is true that ‘no other epoch but ours is defined by its campaigns against its primitive rebels’, investigating the intellectual and emotive frameworks that govern the perceptions of insurgent ideologies can contribute to orienting ourselves in an otherwise opaque present.

There is a certain irony in approaching fanaticism historically, since one of the abiding features of its employment as a term of abuse is that it is frequently presented as an ahistorical or even anti-historical phenomenon. To describe an agent or an action as fanatical is to lend them a kind of monolithic invariance. Among the most striking aspects of the uses of fanaticism as a political trope is the reliance on analogy, simile, homology. Whether it is the short-circuit between Lenin, Hitler and Thomas Müntzer in Norman Cohn’s seminal The Pursuit of the Millennium (aptly translated into French as Les fanatiques de l’apocalypse), Michel Foucault’s sympathetic analogies between the ‘spiritualization of politics’ in the Iranian Revolution and the figures of Cromwell and Savonarola, or Hegel’s pairing of Mohammed and Robespierre in The Philosophy of History, the discourse on fanaticism often seems to suggest that when it comes to the politics and subjectivity of unconditional conviction we can ignore chronology and geography. While liberals, authoritarians or even radical reformists may come in all sorts of guises, it appears that fanatics not only do not differ from themselves, since their conviction seems impermeable to dialogue, they also do not really differ from one another (even if, in religious or civil wars, they may be uncompromising adversaries). Whence the repetitiousness of much writing about ‘fanaticism’, so often resorting to lists and descriptions, copious inventories of cruelty, intolerance and monomania that postulate, but rarely analyze or define, an invariant core. Not just zealots, but their critics, too, seem to be ’embosomed in . . . monotony’. So, is there no history of fanaticism, or only, at most, a catalogue of its crimes and delusions? It is not so easy to answer in the affirmative, for a number of reasons. To begin with, there is the widespread conviction, voiced by Rousseau, Kant and Emerson among others, that any true human achievement, any historical act, requires, if not fanaticism proper, then at least its nobler cousin, enthusiasm. Furthermore, for many the drastic and ‘fanatical’ denial of a history understood in terms of gradual change or development, a denial that may take millenarian or messianic forms, is the conditio sine qua non for a properly modern experience of historical and political time as a time of breaks and anachronisms, discontinuities and irreversibilities.

One of the perhaps more obvious motivations for undertaking this conceptual and historical inquiry is the relatively recent rise in discourse about fanaticism. Though end of history narratives such as Francis Fukuyama’s relegate fanatical drives to the ‘zones of history’ within an otherwise post-historical liberal order, many essayistic and journalistic treatments of the question, though they may note the technological instrumentalities of contemporary religious radicalism, treat fanaticism as anti-historical, anachronistic, atavistic: the revenge upon global modernity of peoples without history, but impassioned by transcendence. This is one of the paradoxes that I will try to investigate: the disruptive force of fanaticism lies in its explicit refusal of history as a domain of gradualism and mediation, combined with its de facto interruption of history as a naturalized dimension of predictable combinations. The pervasive uncertainty as to whether fanaticism is antihistorical, or a revenge of history, indicates profound tensions in our conceptions of change and action.

Whether by a ruse of reason or a heterogenesis of ends, the violent severance from the rhythms of custom — or from the time of deliberation and negotiation — would thus be what permits the unfolding of a notion of politics that harbours an uneliminably utopian, even transcendent dimension. Fanaticism here points towards a type of action that is, as I’ve suggested, at once sub-historical and supra-historical, but also towards forms of subjectivity that, for related reasons, oscillate between the anti-political and the ultra-political. When the accusation of fanaticism is used to disqualify or reject certain modes of political behaviour or allegiance from the normalized and normalizing vantage-point of a liberalism at once gradual and eternal, it is often difficult to tell whether we are dealing with the refusal to allow other forms of life now separated from the political to trespass into its realm (as in the secular critique of fanaticism), or whether the real problem is that of an excess of politics. Indeed, it could be argued that fanaticism lends itself so well to a symptomatic inquiry into a hegemonic liberalism because it exposes a fundamental ambivalence in liberalism’s apologetic discourse about the place of politics. An investigation of fanaticism can therefore prove instructive, both to the reflexive liberal and to those whom liberalism might be tempted to class as fanatics.

To reiterate: the superiority of a post-Kantian critical tradition when it comes to dealing with fanaticism lies in its commitment to exploring this vital ambivalence or dialectic, allowing us to reflect on how our conception of politics cannot be sundered from potentially ultra- or antipolitical notions of absolute conviction, just as our notions of history collapse into mere developmentalism or naturalism if they expunge the kind of discontinuity and transcendence that marks fanatical or millennarian politics. David Hume‘s contention that political enthusiasm, unlike superstition, can be incorporated into a pacified polity provides an interesting and unimpeachably liberal corollary to our argument. Though he judges both to be corruptions of religion, for Hume superstition and enthusiasm belong to different affective constellations: the first derives from weakness, fear, melancholy and ignorance; the second, though it shares ignorance with superstition, has its sources in hope, pride, presumption and a warm imagination. This clinical catalogue explains why, despite its epistemic deficit and unlike superstition, for Hume enthusiasm shares with ‘sound reason’ and philosophy an antinomian resistance to ‘priestly power’. ‘All enthusiasts’, he writes, ‘have been free from the yoke of ecclesiastics.’ Enthusiasm is portrayed by Hume as having a developmental arc, beginning with violent fury and progressing towards moderation, as can be seen among Anabaptists, Levellers and Quakers. Its ‘presumptuous boldness of character . . . begets the most extreme resolutions’, producing ‘the most cruel disorders’. But enthusiasm’s ‘fury is like that of thunder and tempest, which exhausts itself in a little time, and leave[s] the air more calm and serene than before’. The rejection of an official authority that would structure and prolong religious fury is what allows enthusiasm to ‘cool’, but also what counter-intuitively makes it a ‘friend’ of civil liberty: ‘As superstition groans under the dominion of priests . . . enthusiasm is destructive of all ecclesiastical power. . . . Not to mention, that enthusiasm, being the infirmity of bold and ambitious tempers, is naturally accompanied with a spirit of liberty; as superstition, on the contrary, renders men tame and abject, and fits them for slavery.’ Such a comprehension of the virtues of what William James called the ‘partisan temper’ is of course something alien to the vast majority of today’s self-avowed liberals, for whom fanaticism is simply the absence of progressive history and the foe of consensual politics, an atavistic regurgitation proving, if proof were needed, the enduring urgency of enforcing secularism and securing Enlightenment.

For such sworn enemies of intolerance, fanaticism is something to be exorcised in order to move from an intransigent politics of conviction to a pluralist ethics of responsibility. But whether fanaticism has its own history, or indeed whether it plays a motive function in historical change, can we think of a history without fanaticism? Some indications for an answer are provided in a text written almost a hundred years after Hume’s essay, one that also deals with the entanglement between the violence of religious sentiment and the politics of emancipation. ‘Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and the Politics of Our Times’ was published in 1842 in the oppositional journal Deutsche Jahrbücher by the Young Hegelian and collaborator of Karl Marx, Arnold Ruge. Reflecting on the key problem of his time, the relationship between Church and State, Ruge declared that religion manifests itself as desire (Lust) for liberation, while fanaticism represents an ‘intensified religion’, or rather a passion (Wollust) for liberation that is born from a prior failure, from a blockage of the routes to emancipation. As in much of German political and philosophical thought, the French Revolution and Terror loom large, with their ‘insane’ but comprehensible attempt to crush the obstacles to freedom. In his phenomenology of the fanatic’s ‘practical pathos’, Ruge shows himself to be one of our contemporaries. As he writes: ‘when there is something to explode, one goes up in smoke with it, so that ultimately, while not sparing oneself, one also sacrifices others horribly to one’s purposes’. But while many of our talking heads might read this pathos (or pathology) in abstraction from its context of motivation, for Ruge it was a consequence of the failure to incorporate the passion for liberation into the mechanisms of the State. That is why he declared that ‘as long as there are batteries to man and positions to defend with one’s life, we will have no history without fanaticism’.

Against the comforting idea that fanaticism is an irrational aberration, to be vanquished by some combination of pedagogy and coercion, this book wants to stay true to Ruge’s recognition of the threads that tie fanaticism to emancipation. To this end, it considers a series of historical episodes or conjunctures in which political and philosophical thought delved into the threat, ambivalence and possible promise contained by the figure of the fanatic. Though fanaticism is rarely, if ever, an object of political affirmation, serving almost invariably as a foil against which to define the proper path of politics, like its kin enthusiasm it is also ‘a foil that [is] difficult to control’ — both because it comes to inhabit as a possibility any politics of conviction wedded to ‘abstractions’ such as equality and emancipation, and because anti-fanatical politics so often finds itself justifying a kind of counter-fanaticism, in which the supposed partisans of reason and Enlightenment inoculate themselves with the virus affecting their enemies and justify their acts with the prose of counter-insurgency. Just think of Richard Nixon’s notorious ‘madman theory’, according to which the enemies of the US ‘should recognize that we are crazed and unpredictable, with extraordinary destructive force at our command, so they will bend to our will in fear’. The most powerful inquiries into fanaticism, and the ones more likely to allow us some distance from facile condemnations, are those that recognize the considerable if unsettling affinities between political behaviour stigmatized as fanatical, and rational, emancipatory politics.

By situating the current concern with passionate commitments in terms of the polemical history of fanaticism, this book aims to enhance the conceptual horizons of debates that rarely move beyond static juxtapositions between conviction and responsibility, fervour and reasonableness, decision and deliberation. Indeed, part of my purpose is to mine a set of theoretical debates and controversies around fanaticism so as to reconstitute a political vocabulary capable of accommodating both enthusiasm and abstraction as inextricable elements of any politics of emancipation. In this regard, every chapter of this book should be read both as a critical excavation of the place of fanaticism in a discourse of demonization, and as a search for conceptual elements that might help us to reconstruct a theory of political abstraction not so easily dismissed as mere fanaticism.

Neither a history of fanaticism properly speaking nor a systematic theory of it, this book thus seeks to read the dark adventures of this idea with its mind on a present in which it has once again come to be used as term of abuse or political smear word — rarely, if ever, with the kind of depth or even the insight shown by the great reactionaries of yesterday. But it also intends, by a kind of counterpoint, to explore these various episodes of denunciation in order to contribute to the thinking of an egalitarian politics, one that will undoubtedly continue to be perceived by its detractors as an abstract and dangerous passion.


Alberto Toscano is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of The Theatre of Production, translator of Alain Badiou’s The Century and Logics of Worlds and co-editor of Alain Badiou’s Theoretical Writings and On Beckett. He has published numerous articles on contemporary philosophy, politics, and social theory, and is an editor of Historical Materialism. Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea is published by Verso Books. This excerpt from Fanaticism (endnotes omitted) was first published by New Left Project on 11 July 2010 under a Creative Commons license. See, also, Alberto Toscano, “Fanaticism: A Brief History of the Concept” (Eurozine, 7 December 2006).





2 thoughts on “Fanaticism

  1. Too esoterical ,for my liking………..
    As i suspected ,the blog wold become an internal memo………….the article proves the argument………NM

    Posted by Naushad Mohydin | December 28, 2010, 7:45 am
    • The article is dealing with an abstaction, therefore bound to be tough going. But it is only one of many and one must keep in mind the difference between descriptive essays and analytical works dealing with complex social phenomena.

      Posted by apnakal | December 28, 2010, 8:29 pm

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