A Brief History of Fanaticism
"Who writ the histories of the Anabaptists but their enemies?"
- Richard Overton, leveller
Wherever we look, the attempt to bind – in an emancipatory manner – political action and truth has been confronted with the accusation of fanaticism. Indeed, we could say that any attempt to evaluate the theoretical and organisational manifestations of a politics of truth, or even its most basic preconditions, cannot afford to circumvent the circulating idea of egalitarian politics as a properly fanatical pursuit, a denial of mediation and representation, in short, as a type of practice that would simply secularise (in some acceptation of this fraught and layered notion) certain theological, cultic or even archaically ritual motifs. Though the refrain and reproach of fanaticism (and related concepts of millenarianism, chiliasm, and political messianism) is manifestly entangled with the ‘classical’ critique of totalitarianism and Terror, it is of special interest because of its concern with political subjectivity and what it sees as the religious matrix of uncompromising or ‘true’ political action. Rather than merely engaging in historico-political categorisation and condemnation, the notion of fanaticism aims to reveal the transcendental and epistemological errors that underlie any attempt at a robust linkage of politics and truth. Indeed, unlike totalitarianism and Terror, fanaticism is perhaps primarily a question concerning the thinkable. I would thus like this brief investigation of some of the tropes and signature events of the critique of fanaticism to serve as a propedeutic to answering the question under whose banner we are speaking today. To answer it, hopefully, in the affirmative.
In so doing, I’m concerned with fanaticism as an abiding object of horrified fascination, but also, more generally, as a symptom of a poverty of analysis and imagination, bound to the wish to remain within a closed horizon defined by the mastery of differences and finite possibilities afforded by our political common sense. The field of history, and of the theses proffered to account for certain key conjunctions of politics and truth, most often in a religious or spiritual vein, is crucial in this respect. ‘Fanaticism’, when ascribed to singular subjects or movements, is a political and historical judgment, a judgment which incorporates the idea that an egalitarian politics of truth is in some sense a-historical and therefore anti-political. The ‘point at which theology and social protest intersect’, as the historian Peter Blickle refers to it, thus remains one through which a politics of truth must pass, if only because its adversaries and detractors have set up their tribunals there long ago.
The equation of egalitarian and primary communist politics under the rubric of fanaticism is hardly a recent fact. Edmund Burke famously spoke of an ‘epidemical fanaticism’, which, in continuity with the peasant depredations, or levellings, of the Anabaptists of Munster, afflicted an anti-clerical revolutionary France – asking ‘to what country in Europe did not the progress of their fury furnish cause for alarm?’ In this respect, we might observe that the theory of fanaticism is the reactionary obverse of what Badiou and Balmès termed ‘communist invariants’ in their 1976 text on ideology. The Cold War saw a rich, if monotonous seam of tracts and analyses focussing on fanaticism as the subjective determinant, affect, cognitive position or ethical stance which uncovered a supposed continuity between mediaeval millenarian uprisings and communism. Norman Cohn’s seminal The Pursuit of the Millennium, used as a resource even in anti-systemic works such as Vainegem’s, is canonical in this respect and remains a reference – even for authors such as Anatol Lieven, who seek to unearth the millenarian roots of contemporary American nationalist fanaticism. In an erudite, albeit nouveax-philosophical vein, we could cite Dominique Colas often shrill but instructive Civil Society and Fanaticism: Conjoined Histories. In such books, fanaticism designates a form of anti-representational, millenarian politics. Or rather, inasmuch as politics is identified with civil society, and with the maintenance of certain ‘natural’ levels of inequality and distinctions of culture, ethnicity and identity, fanaticism – and its supposed search for an absolute and incarnate truth – is designated as violent anti-politics par excellence. Of course, many other texts could be considered, for instance J.L. Talmon’s influential The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, with its analysis of a continuity between the French revolution and 20th century ‘totalitarian movements’ in terms of a concept of political (or totalitarian) messianism. More to the point perhaps, is the indication of the fundamental continuity between the anti-communist denunciation of political fanaticism – also present within the philosophical field in Merleau-Ponty’s attack on Sartre’s ultra-bolshevist decisionism – and the proponents of ‘radical democracy’. Ernesto Laclau’s endorsement of Cohn’s work on the millenarian character of communism in the concluding passages of New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time is more than symptomatic in this respect, inasmuch as he considers the millenarian tendency to betoken a ‘limitless representability’, that famous transparency of the social which Marxist and revolutionaries have allegedly sought, ravaging the world with their impossible, hysterical demands. Laclau’s use of Cohn is also revealing inasmuch as it shows the reversibility or coincidence within the notion of fanaticism between anti-representation – in what Kant in the Critique of Judgment regarded as the delusion to SEE the infinite in a positive presentation – and total representation, such that perfect, i.e. unmediated representability, is indistinguishable from the death of representation.
As Colas notes, of course, the reproach of fanaticism, and its oppositional pairing with civil society, runs throughout modernity – featuring in such works as Leibniz’s Theodicy, Voltaire’s Muhammad, or Fanaticism and more recently, John Paul II’s Centesimus annus. However, following Colas’ lead, we shall focus on the reception of the salient episode in this peculiarly monotonous history and focus principally on three moments: the historical and theoretical debates around the German Peasants’ War of 1525. The principal source for the trope of fanaticism may in fact be found in the ideologue of Protestantism and companion of Luther, Philipp Melanchton (in a commentary on Aristotle’s Politics from 1529), though crucially, for the anti-communist and ‘postmodern’ revisionism which has been with us since the late 70s, it is a theme which is given its philosophical droit de cité in Kant’s Critique of Judgment and other writings, where we encounter the crucial distinction between the mania of fanaticism, at once iconoclastic and idolatrous, and the admissible madness of political enthusiasm – a distinction which has received significant treatment in the writings of Lyotard and Arendt, among others. As for Islamism, which I shall touch upon with respect to Foucault, it is no mystery that it has supplanted communism as the main object of that epithet – thus returning us to some of the less savoury aspects of the Enlightenment excoriation of fanaticism, witness Voltaire.
The philosophical history of fanaticism is an instructive one. What we need today are antidotes to the role of the concept of fanaticism as a kind of negative talisman, a tool for exorcism: rather than accepting the image of a fanatical invariant, and of a trans-historical divide between the partisans of fallibility and the partisans of the absolute (and of partisanship itself), disactivating the lure of fanaticism from within might permit us to lay the groundwork for a position that might do justice to instances of uncompromising egalitarian politics, without disfiguring them as simple instances of a metaphysical temptation. As I shall indicate in the conclusion, to leave behind the lure of fanaticism, we need to leave behind the terms of the juxtaposition between the critique of representation and the ‘critique of the critique of representation’. From a historical, and not just philosophical level, this means treating the political subject not the merely at ideational level (where the blind affect of fanaticism is the centrepiece) but in terms of its specific conditions of emergence and organisation.
‘Anno domini 1525, at the beginning of the year, there was a great, unprecedented upheaval of the Common Man throughout the German lands’, thus we read in Stumpfs Reformationschronik, bearing witness to what Marx too would call ‘the most radical fact of German history’. Since the reaction to the supposedly delusional politics of messianic truth at the heart of this upheaval is the locus classicus of the discourse on fanaticism, I’d like to dwell here on some of the theoretical responses to it. These orbit, for the most part, around the character of the German Peasants’ War as a manifestation of what Alain Badiou, in D’un désastre obscur, has dubbed ‘the eternity of communism’ – of a politics of truth based on a hypothesis of non-domination, i.e., on axiomatic equality (as encapsulated in the statement ‘men think’, les gens pensent) and the systematic dismantling of any mastery over truth. In this respect, the conservative or reactionary tradition that has reiterated its attacks on a supposed political fanaticism for the past 500 years is perhaps to be grasped first and foremost as an attack on the possibility of a thought that would refuse a mastery or authority over truth and its partition, as a putting of truth in its proper place and a termination of any socially efficacious ‘raving with reason’ (to use Kant’s term) – an attack on a politics of truth which, as Badiou himself put it in Peut-on penser la politique?, might seek to make inegalitarian statements impossible.
Reading the proclamations, drafts and constitutions collected in compendiums such as the recent The German Peasants’ War, we can say that the drastic repudiation of mastery in the 1525 revolt, despite the customary references to the Pauline and Lutheran requirement to respect worldly authorities, is patent and that this – rather than the ruleless, deep-seated and brooding passion of Schwarmerei as Kant would have it – is the key to these political movements. Of course, Thomas Müntzer, whose statement Omnia sint communia (let everything be in common) is perhaps the emblem of Badiou’s communist invariance, did take this repudiation of authority into passionate theological terrain, proposing, in his theology of crucifixion, that the ascetic assumption of suffering – and the desire, as he put it in his reading of Daniel, to make oneself insane in what is most intimate – was akin to a becoming God. This utter repudiation of mastery went to the extent of bridging the gap between scatology and eschatology. Melanchton thus transcribes what was allegedly one of his enemy’s favourite formulae: ‘I shit on God, if he does not put himself at my service like he did with Abraham and the Prophets.’ Yet, when the likes of Michael Gaismair, revolutionary leader in Tyrol and the author of a an astoundingly lucid programme for the constitution and economic structure of a non-capitalist republic in Switzerland, write of creating a union of ‘masterless men’ – in terms of a rupture with the order of authority and privilege, rather than an ascetic and fanatical rapture – we can begin to see that the theme of fanaticism might be cloaking the reality of a communist politics in the state of mind of a communist apocalypse.
The figure of Müntzer, recently resurrected in the historical novel Q., also features in History and Class Consciousness, where Lukács articulates an unsparing critique of Ernst Bloch’s utopianism – as manifest in the latter’s 1919 book, Thomas Müntzer: Theologian of the Revolution. Whilst Bloch was unequivocal about his Marxist allegiance, Lukács, adamant about the non-substitutable role of the proletariat in a historical materialism, attacked the former’s positing of an Ubique – a trans-historical, mystical kernel of revolt that Marxism actualised despite itself, and which was only being unearthed by what Bloch regarded as the ‘religious element’ in the Russian revolution. For Lukács – who inserts his critique of Bloch’s Müntzer within a broader assault on the shortcomings of any revolutionary humanism – the problem of the peasants’ revolt is the problem, inherited from Christianity and the gospels, of starting from man. This entails either the conservative ontology underlying a moral defence of the status quo, i.e. the Pauline-Lutheran political theology of authority mentioned above; or a utopian response which is in turn split into apocalypse as the global annihilation of empirical reality, on the one hand, and the ascetic psychology of the saint, on the other. In this Christian speculative Leftism, as it were, relaxation of utopia equals the capitulation to conservatism, a capitulation which Lukács contends is written into the very undialectical fabric of the utopian instinct. Revolutionary utopianism is thus mired in an undialectical humanism, as well as what he dismisses as a ‘consumption communism’. Such a millenarian communism depends on the idea that an unblemished internal life could be awakened independently of man’s concrete historical life, that we could simply organise the exodus from the apparatuses of production and reproduction impinging on the realisation of a non-dominated human essence. What’s more, Lukács reaffirms the Weberian thesis whereby it is no accident that such a revolutionary messianism developed in the heartlands of capitalism, and was thus but the preparation for a subjection to the imperatives of capital. As he puts it:
For the union of an inwardness, purified to the point of total abstraction and stripped of all traces of flesh and blood, with a transcendental philosophy of history does indeed correspond to the basic ideological structure of capitalism (192).
The target of Lukács’s polemic is thus the ‘irreducible quality and unsynthesized amalgam of the empirical and the utopian’ that he finds obscured by the elemental subjective vigour of Müntzer. Bloch-Müntzer is guilty of the wishful, fanatical sin of trying to see the truth of revolution without wielding the tools of change in the scientifically propitious moment. As he says: ‘it is trapped in the same “dark and empty chasm”, the same “hiatus irrationalis” between theory and practice that is everywhere apparent where a subjective and hence undialectical utopia directly assaults historical reality with the intention of changing it’. Providing a Marxist twist to the critique of fanatical immediacy proper to the post-Kantian tradition, Lukács argues that, contrary to Bloch’s hopes for a vivifying fusion of the religious with the socio-economic, Müntzer’s proclamations merely show that social actions are ‘wholly independent of the religious utopia’. In making this argument, Lukács, who also contends that Bloch underestimates the depth of the restructuring of life called for by historical materialism, nevertheless remains faithful to the Engelsian orthodoxy: the revolt is an anachronism; for it, a definition of the problem of emancipation was ‘objectively impossible’. Crucially, Lukács holds that is strictly impossible for the individual to exit the situation of reification, especially through an affirmation of inner freedom which is merely the utopian counterpart of a frozen empirical realm. The species, or even Gattungswesen, qua mythologized individual, is also incapable of such a feat. ‘And the class, too, can only manage it when it can see through the reified objectivity of the given world to the process that is also its own fate’ (p. 193).
The figure of Müntzer and his peasant hordes also haunts Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, where millenarian fanaticism or chiliasm is presented as the paradigm, or zero-degree of utopia, defined as: ‘A state of mind … incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs’, and, significantly, as a state of mind, or situationally transcendent idea, which strives towards some kind of realization. For Mannheim there are 4 types of utopia: chiliastic, liberal, conservative, and socialist-communist, with the first two characterised by a kind of indeterminism or a notion of contingency (fanatical and decisionist in the first case, regulative and deliberating in the second) and the latter two by a determinateness or a notion of necessity (inert in the first case, transformative in the second).
Chiliasm is the zero-degree of utopia inasmuch as it is pitted against the old order in a total and uncompromising manner (to the point of pushing for a veritable exodus from the world). Its conjunction with the ‘social question’ amounts to a historical explosion:
The decisive turning-point in modern history was … the moment in which “Chiliasm” joined forces with the active demands of the oppressed strata of society. The very idea of the dawn of a millennial kingdom on earth always contained a revolutionizing tendency, and the church made every effort to paralyse this situationally transcendent idea with all the means at its command (190).
What’s more, this moment, in which ‘Chiliasm and the social revolution were structurally integrated’ (190) is the birth of modern politics, ‘if we understand by politics a more or less conscious participation of all strata of society in the achievement of some mundane purpose, as contrasted with the fatalistic acceptance of events as they are’ (191). The chiliasm of Müntzer, John of Leyden and their epigones, in other words, is for Mannheim the first anti-systemic movement, and modernity is not born of a secularization of politics but, as he puts it, of its spiritualization.
One of the features of modern revolution … is that it is no ordinary uprising against a certain oppressor but a striving for an upheaval against the whole existing social order in a thorough-going and systematic way (195n2).
Mannheim’s distinction between utopia and ideology is also a possible antidote against the pervasive the trope of fanaticism – which depicts ‘religious’ revolts as delusions, anti-political explosions of the social or failures of mediation. Utopias such as the peasants’, according to Mannheim, ‘are not ideologies, i.e. they are not ideologies in the measure and in so far as they succeed through counteractivity in transforming the existing historical reality into one more in accord with their own conceptions’ (176). Far from being reducible to a kind anti-representational frenzy, the chiliastic utopia is best seen as a creation of a new temporality by determinate social strata in a process which is formative of political consciousness. Contrary to what he condemns as the ‘liberal-humanitarian prejudice’ that politics is a matter of ideas and representations, such a transformation mobilises a political affect which is pre-representational without necessarily being anti-representational. What is more problematic in Mannheim is the unwillingness of thinking through the specifically political forms and political demands of this religious politics (among which are the Christian Unions and the peasant assemblies). This disavowal of organisational thought – dominant in most analyses of millenarian political movements – once again manifests itself in the fatal attraction for Müntzer, the apocalyptic preacher, over any other leader in the wars against the German lords.
The limitations of Mannheim’s sociology are especially evident in terms of the question of time:
It is the utopian element … which determines the sequence, order, and evaluation of single experiences. This wish is the organising principle which even moulds the way in which we experience time. The form in which events are ordered and the unconsciously emphatic rhythm, which the individual in his spontaneous observation of events imposes upon the flux of time, appears in the utopia as an immediately perceptible picture, or at least a directly intelligible set of meanings (188).
In other words, the time of revolution is wholly subordinated to the static and visible time of utopia, a time of synchronic apperception of the future. Political time is stifled by the supposedly primary role of subjective time, of a mindset or world-view. This inattention to the specific organisations, prescriptions and constituent processes undertaken by these putatively religious movements – and the documentary record is a rich and surprising one – means that the link between ideas, religion and social protest is ultimately read internally in terms of a suspension of time and externally or methodologically in terms of a variant of the philosophy of history. On the first count Mannheim plausibly argues that not ideas but ‘ecstatic-orgiastic energies’ were at stake in the revolt’s spiritualization of politics, and that chiliasm is marked by a ‘tendency always to dissociate itself from its own images and symbols’ (193). But in so doing he reduces his own image of the peasant revolts to the cognitive state of ‘absolute presentness’ (193), where there is ‘no inner articulation of time’, and in which revolution is ‘the only creative principle of the immediate present’ (196). On the second count, though not replicating the ideas of an ‘anachronism’ of the peasants’ war which features in much of the literature, Mannheim still argues that ‘every age allows to arise (in differently located social groups) those ideas and values in which are contained in condensed form the unrealized and the unfulfilled tendencies which represent the needs of each age’ (179).
But do such of these stances really do justice to the relation between politics and theology in the peasants’ war and similar events? Do they not simply reaffirm one of the constants in the diagnosis of fanaticism – the depoliticising idea of a historical anachronism, an epistemological misfit between religious form and political or social content? Much of the recent historical work on the ‘radical fact’ of 1525 argues against such an appraisal and what can be seen as a fallacious overestimation of the theological or spiritual element in so-called chiliastic politics. In this respect it goes against the grain of some Marxist readings, from Engels on the ‘early bourgeois revolution’ to Badiou’s ‘communist invariants’, via Lukács, which in order to bolster the logical singularity of the proletariat as class subject must overplay the importance of the mask of theology in historical events such as 1525 – thereby skating over the invention of modalities of political thought and subjectivity which are not merely immature social forces whose impossibility of translating themselves into political action bursts into history through the visionary violence of a fanatical project.
This is what emerges from the work of Peter Blickle, who counters Engels’ idea of an ‘early bourgeois revolution’ with the thesis of the ‘revolution of the common man’: according to this thesis the peasants’ war was a transversal alliance, across class groupings, to maintain urban independence and peasant autonomy in the face of the concentration of princely power and the devastations wrought by the rise of money capital, personified by the figure of the banker Jacob Fugger – an explicit nemesis both of Luther and of peasant leaders like Gaismair (the insult fucker was allegedly first used by Luther to attack said banker). Here the subjective figure of the common man is neither an invariant doomed to failure, nor a mere unwitting vehicle for the irruption of a bourgeois revolution, nor even a theologically over-determined figure that substitutes for the proletariat as the only subject conscious of its own revolt and that revolt’s conditions – it is instead a political configuration in its own right, in which the religious element does not play the overweening ideological role elsewhere ascribed to it.
In his essay ‘Social Protest and Reformation Theology’, Blickle investigates the war in terms of ‘the mutual dependence of Reformation theology and social protest’, asking the following questions: ‘(1) where and how is social protest articulated; (2) how does it stand in relationship to Reformation theology, and (3) what consequences arise from the possible combination of these two movements’? Contrary to the single-minded focus on the fanatical form taken by the politics of those groups and movements which triggered the peasants’ war of 1525, Blickle is attentive to the manner in which seemingly pragmatic and specific demands are combined with religious themes and citations from Biblical authority – which are accorded the function of minimal if perennial criteria of justice. As he puts it: ‘concrete economic and social demands are arranged within a vindicatory nexus with “the Word of God” and “the Gospel”’ – via the use of certain ‘logograms’ (4) proper to religious discourse. This articulation is divided by Blickle into positive protest, via the Gospel and towards a more just socio-economic order; and negative protest, via the Gospel and away from the socio-economic order altogether (what he calls “the exodus from history”). Justice and exodus. It is the vindicatory nexus which here not only has legitimising force but manages to make converge the urban protests of guilds with the demands of peasant communities and assemblies:
It provides the basis for urban and rural anticlericalism, with its cutting-edge against the monasteries and orthodox clergy; it legitimises the demand for communal autonomy, exemplified in the call for the right to decide issues of correct religious doctrine, to elect the minister and to allocate tithes; and it is ultimately made the yardstick of social and political order (8)
through the theme of the common weal or brotherly love. Urban demands in the German context primarily centre on representation and religious freedom, peasant demands around economic equality and autonomy. According to Blickle, reference to the Gospel allowed the putting forth of demands which would have been impossible with the prior form of legitimation (reference to the ‘old order’), such as the abolition of serfdom (9). There is thus a definite sequence, both causal and chronological, from urban to rural to chiliastic (or Anabaptist) – inasmuch as ‘the very experience of transforming Reformation theology into political practice was a necessary pre-condition of Anabaptist, negative protest’ (11). Negative, ‘fanatical’, protest – which takes the form of separation of the community of the faithful and Müntzer’s proclamation of a ‘total reversal of the secular order’ is thus seen to follow from a failed reformation in the city and military defeat in the countryside.
Interestingly, it is scripture which here, contrary to some of its later fundamentalist transformations, results in a negation of dogma and doctrinal authority. Most significantly, behind this oppositional and revolutionary use of Biblical ‘logograms’, which opened the way for a traversal of the town and city distinction in the figure of the common man, there lay the development of new political and organisational, as well as military forms (such as the Christian Union), institutional inventions that force us to move beyond the purely ideational and historico-philosophical interpretation of these phenomena crystallised in notion of fanaticism and related concepts of millenarianism and chiliasm.
If the German Peasants’ War, or revolution of the common man, is really the founding moment of modern politics, what is the role of the trope or accusation of fanaticism and of the theorization of political millenarianism in the estimation of contemporary political events?
With a certain inevitability, Foucault’s chronicles of the Iranian revolution, written for Il Corriere della sera, have been recently republished, in appendix to a volume whose equally inevitable subtitle is ‘Gender and the Seductions of Islamism’. The dossier presented in this book covers all the themes I’ve introduced herein: the spiritualization of politics (a term Foucault uses repeatedly), the figure of Müntzer (who Foucault mentions together with Savonarola and Cromwell in writing about Khomenei), the matter of the temporality proper to religious politics (he speaks of the ‘continuous impatience’ which drives political Shi’ism) and, of course, the accusation of abetting fanaticism (forcefully put to Foucault in the pages of Le Monde by an Iranian woman dissident). Throughout these texts – which are not devoid of the kind of two-dimensional ‘plebeian’ anti-Marxism of the nouveaux philosophes, with whom he sympathised with at the time – Foucault tries to resist and provoke what he sees as a typically Occidental supercilious dismissal of religious politics. He highlights the importance, within the mounting social turmoil in Iran, of a religious resistance to what he calls the ‘modernisation-corruption-despotism’ series, explicitly trying to resist the capture of the situation in Iran by the ‘millenarian concept’ of fanaticism (708). Foucault also counters some of the more naïve or platitudinous responses to the spiritualization of politics and its relation to the social. In a typically acerbic remark, he says:
Do you know the phrase that makes the Iranian sneer the most, the one that seems to them the stupidest, the shallowest, the most Western? “Religion is the opium of the people.” Up to the time of the current dynasty, the mullahs preached with a rifle by their side in the mosques (201).
Shi’ism is thus seen by Foucault not as inertial form, as the ideology that true revolutionaries need to cloak their discourse in, or even as a simple common vocabulary for popular aspirations. Religion is viewed not as a mask or vehicle but, somewhat in the terms used by Blickle to deal with the 1525 revolt – and indeed, in another passage on the subject, Foucault makes the analogy entirely explicit, writing of the Anabaptists – as a veritable crystallising force, inasmuch as it represents ‘a mode of social relations, a supple, and widely accepted, elementary organisation, a way of being together, a manner of speaking and listening, something which allows people to comprehend one another and will together’.
In his 1977 preface to the English translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus Foucault had uttered the following directive for what he famously called a non-fascist ethics of thought: ‘Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action’ (xiv). It is thus striking to see, how, at certain moments in his reports, and for all the micro-political methodology elsewhere employed, with its techniques, technologies, discourses and dispositifs, Foucault turns to one of the most classical forms of the grounding of political truth, the collective will. Explicitly sidelining the occidental prism of power struggles and political intrigues – not to mention the unabashedly ‘representational’ discourse of legal religious authority which was Khomenei’s crucial innovation – Foucault depicts in the Iranian revolution one of those insurgencies of the ‘plebs’ so dear to the anti-party, anti-Marxist, renegade Maoist rhetoric of the nouveaux philosophes. Whence the constant theme of a religious mass against the State. At the very time that he was lecturing in the Collège de France on the molecular administrative practises of governmental biopolitics, he encounters mass religious politics – and not political Islamism per se – as a peculiar realization of a kind of unmediated Rousseauian scene.
Faced with the advance of the revolution, Foucault asks himself whether the idea of Islamic government is to be seen as a reconciliation, contradiction or the threshold of a novelty? (694). His intuition was that the supposed absence of a classical political programme driving the revolutionary uprising was matched by the strength of will, ‘the collective will of a people’ (746) – ‘an abstraction in political philosophy encountered for the first time in the flesh’. Tellingly, Foucault seems to elide the idea that Iran manifested a finally embodied Rousseauianism with the provocative notion that this appearance of the popular will in a religiously articulated uprising was a general strike against politics. Or, more precisely, that it demonstrated a political will not to allow any grip within the uprising for politics as it is classically understood. The question for Foucault then, who remains rather pessimistic on this count, is that of knowing when this popular or general will, this spiritual plebeian irruption, was to be replaced by the instrumental exercise of politics.
It is undeniable, rereading the Corriere articles, that the supposedly non-representational will of this ‘spiritual politics’ exerted a massive fascination on Foucault. So that, despite himself, and in order to flee from the specific rationality of the historical materialist explanations he was opposing at the time, Foucault too fell prey to the lure of fanaticism, witness the following statement:
It is the same protest, the same will which is expressed by a doctor from Tehran and a mullah from the provinces, by a petrol worker, by an employee of the post office and by a student under her chador (715).
Khomeini – like Müntzer, but possibly through a far graver misunderstanding of the former’s ‘art of governing’ – is dramatised as attacking the very scene of politics, in ‘the first great insurrection against planetary systems, the most modern form of revolt and the maddest’ (716). In this short-circuit between an immovable spiritual leader and a convergent mass, the limit-concept of a totally anti-systemic politics, born with the German Peasants’ War and its intimations of negative protest, scuppers the attempt to think, in a determinate and organised form, the nature of a politics of truth. The anti-Marxist stance – which leads Foucault to argue that there is no classical social or political revolution at stake in Iran, no evident class struggle, social contradictions or political vanguard – together with the methodological focus on an eventality indifferent to consequences crystallises in a return, via a reference to François Furet, to the dichotomy and disjunction of revolt and revolution; a temporal and subjective asymmetry between the domain of social contradiction and change, on the one hand, and the specific (spiritual) intensity of the political act. Religion, no longer an ideology or a space of conciliation, is here ‘the vocabulary, the ritual, the atemporal drama wherein one could lodge the historical drama of a people which puts its existence on a balance with that of its sovereign’ (746). It is this which allows Foucault to endorse the mythic figure of a revolt of the people against the power, in a ‘bond between collective actions, religious ritual and act of public right or law’ (748) which suspends history:
Because it is thus “outside history” and in history, because everyone puts his or her life on the line, we can understand why uprisings have easily found in religious forms their expression and dramaturgy. Promises of the beyond, return of bygone periods, wait for the saviour or empire of the last days, undivided reign of the good, all of this has constituted for centuries, where the form of religion allowed it, not an ideological costume, but the very way of living uprisings (791).
Iran thus dramatises for Foucault a definitive refusal of the analytical schemas of either liberal or Marxist thought, or of ‘Western’ thought tout court, the irruption of a different ‘regime of truth’ (753). Reconnecting with a tradition whose roots lie in Stirner, revolt is seen by Foucault as the point of insertion of subjectivity within history, a protest against any notion of political ‘evolution’ or progress, such that a spiritualization of politics is read, via a projection onto Shi’ism, as a total, internal revolution (an inner exodus of the kind promoted in Müntzer). As Christian Jambet notes, for Foucault:
It is a matter not of the politics of a future State, but of the essence of an uprising, of the ‘spiritual’ politics that makes it possible, and this is, consequently, a ‘transcendental’ interrogation: under what conditions can a culture determine a revolt, on the basis of an experience and a hope marked by ‘events in the sky’?
Foucault’s customary method of ‘microanalysis’ is thus inflected in an explicitly non-teleological and indeed (contrary to the usual image of his thought) anti-strategic sense, witness Foucault’s motto: ‘be respectful when a singularity rises up, intransigent when power violates the universal’ (794). It is here, in the fantasy of a mass anti-systemic singularity, of a primal capacity for resistance against which revolution is a mere rationalist domestication, that lies Foucault’s subjection to the trope of fanaticism – not in a supposed collusion with ‘Islamism’ or in some dubious sort of homosexist Orientalism, as the authors of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution contend.
If a politics of truth is indeed to be thinkable we need to move beyond the Scylla of denunciation – fanaticism as the ideology of a failed or anachronistic politics, as anti-representation, as a way, following Lukács, of violently vaulting the hiatus between a humanistic idea and an unjust order – and the Charybdis of enthusiastic assumption of a politics of pure singularity or exodus. Moving beyond the trope of fanaticism, is, I believe, a condition sine qua non for the formulation of a politics of truth. Such a suspension of the denunciatory and mythological machine of fanaticism involves confronting three decisive issues:
A. The legacy of Kantianism
Inasmuch as the condemnation of fanaticism – as well as of the ‘totalitarian’ or ‘terroristic’ politics of truth that supposedly rest on the fanatical subreption, the delusion of pure presentation – achieves its modern canonical form in Kant, to what extent must we surpass the very transcendental parameters in which Kantianism poses the question of truth (or rather of truths – moral, scientific, political)? It is this question which organizes the differend staged at the end of The Ticklish Subject by Žižek between Lacan and Badiou. Is the non-totalization of being, which defuses the very problem of fanaticism, to be understood in terms of the ‘specific mode of human finitude’ (conceived, allegedly, in psychoanalytic and not merely anthropological terms), or is it rather to be grasped via what Badiou terms a mathematical secularization of the infinite – of an infinite which is not the delusional aim of political truth, but its starting point in the axiom of equality? My own sympathy for the second stance is in part driven by the limits of the Kantian opposition between a defensible political enthusiasm and a disastrous or terroristic fanaticism, as it features in the works of Lyotard and Arendt, among others. Part of this suspicion lies in the fundamental limitation of the category of enthusiasm to the figure of the political spectator – explicit in Kant’s and Arendt’s reading of the French revolution – and the impossibility within the Kantian horizon of thinking a political (rather than a moral) subject, and therefore a political (rather than a moral or scientific) truth, in terms other than a regulative notion of the human species.
B. The question of political versus historical time
Whether in the form of an immediate revelation of time in the fanatical vision of the future kingdom, a suspension of time in the intense act of revolt, or an outright denial of time, the vision of politics that shadows the notion of fanaticism seems unable to temporalise political truth. In this regard we could argue that Badiou’s suggestion that we think a properly political time, the time of sequences, periodisations and ‘historical modes of politics’ might be a way out of the oscillation between the apocalyptic suspension of time, on the one hand, and the neutralisation of politics and truth within a dense, historical time, on the other. Whilst such a treatment of political time in interiority, as it were, might bypass the problems of political anachronism which have bedevilled much historical materialism (see Lukács above), it always risks overcompensating by drawing a separation, at once stark and opaque, between politics and history, the truth of the subject and the profane density of the world. In brief, this is the problem of the relation to be entertained between a politics of truth and the entire tradition of dialectical thought, be it negative, messianic or materialist, for which the articulation of politics and history is of paramount concern. This distinction between politics and history in what concerns truth leads us to the final issue.
C. The problem of separation
Ever since Luther and Melanchton, the tradition of anti-fanatical thought, or what Colas calls the ‘critique of the critique of representation’, has rested on a defense of the separation between the city of men and the city of God. In more contemporary and secular writers such as Arendt, who have transformed the critique of fanaticism into a critique of totalitarianism, this immunising, demarcationist impulse is translated – still as a way to ward off the totalizing drive of a fanatical perception of truth – into a distinction between the social and the political, a distinction which in Arendt’s case is the object of, if not fanatical, at the very least obsessive concern. To what extent must a politics of truth maintain such demarcations, even or especially, as in the case of Badiou, when it moves beyond the Kantian framework? In what sense do there remain traces within such a politics of truth of a preoccupation with the possibility of a terrorising, unlimited truth – of the possibility for truth to overstep its proper bounds and generate what Badiou has termed a political disaster? Perhaps we could end by saying, in a more affirmative vein, that in the face of the line of thought running from Luther to our Kantian contemporaries, a politics of truth needs to construct what we could call its own protocols of limitation, protocols which are not over-determined by the fear, or better, the terror of fanaticism.