Part of the attraction of intellectuals to totalitarianism is, as Bob Dylan put it, “you just want to be on the side that’s winning.” The regime may be thugs, however intellectuals can find cozy, lucrative positions inside it. That they may eventually be tortured on orders of Maximum Glorious Leader is an occupational hazard of apologists for brutal regimes.
Mark Safranski details the fascination by some intellectuals for fascism and communism. I was once in a far left group and saw first-hand the fanaticism and focus of true believers. They work longer and harder than others because The Cause is their life, everything else is secondary. This accounts for their influence often being way greater than their numbers. When intellectuals join totalitarian regimes, their power becomes even more multiplied.
Totalitarianism attracted as supporters and admirers not just intellectual crackpots, but genuinely substantive men of letters, art and science. Many of these did not officially become “party comrades”, though some like philosophers Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt did, most were content to wield their pens as admirers, fellow travelers, enthusiastic supporters and public apologists. Being intellectuals, they were of course entranced by ideas – on the Right, the totemic, mythic, reactionary idolatry and the volkisch ur-narratives of messianic nationalism. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini were innovators here; the bombastic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s grandiose adventurism in Fiume, for example, presaged much of Fascist Italy’s swaggering Il Duce and his bullying blackshirts. On the left, by the intoxicating prospect of revolutionary “justice” and being on the “right side of history”, which could allegedly be explained with “scientific laws” of dialectical materialism. It was all rubbish but it was politically potent rubbish.
While this may seem like history and not relevant now, the growth of ISIS is happening in very much the same way. It is a Cause, a reason to exist and to fight.
What alarms me regarding ISIS is that it is theologically a radical-apocalyptic Islamist movement blending insurgency, terrorism and conventional warfare that is also reviving the secular pageantry of Fascism with its grandiose mythmaking, blood rituals, compelling uniforms, Fuhrerprinzip and war-worship. It is an unholy combination that exudes a dark romanticism, a glamour of evil that rootless young Muslim men – a new generation of “armed bohemians” and “armed intellectuals” – find mesmerizing the way young Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Japanese did decades ago. Worse, while we may rightly laugh at the mummery of a dime store “Caliphate” and Islamists cribbing their P.R. style from Triumph of the Will, their success in manipulating deep cultural avatars as the key to power will inspire imitators in barbarism elsewhere that we can ill afford.
Fascism is dead – but it may not stay that way.