Book examines fanaticism in history

Issue 

Fanaticism, On the Uses of an Idea
Alberto Toscano, Verso 2010
269 pages, $43.00

Review by Barry Healy

“Nothing great has been accomplished in history without fanaticism,” Leon Trotsky wrote in 1938. Certainly, the great turning points in human history, such as the Anabaptist peasant revolt in Central Europe or the Russian Revolution, required their participants to set aside their normal dispositions and assume a single-minded dedication to a cause greater than the self.

Such dedication is derided as fanaticism today. Or rather, certain types of such dedication are derided.

Australian soldiers who sacrificed their lives at Gallipoli or elsewhere are not regarded as fanatics, but the flower of Australian manhood, or so we are told on ANZAC Day each year. They were selfless, austere and committed, not mindlessly, ruthlessly bloodthirsty: that language applies to others.

US and Australian soldiers in Afghanistan breaking into people’s homes in the middle of the night wearing face-masks and blowing the residents away are professionals doing their job. Taliban suicide bombers exacting revenge for those raids are fanatics.

All too often, any impassioned commitment, especially to social betterment, meets the invalidating challenge of being labeled “fanaticism”.

Alberto Toscano has written this book to trace the history of the use of the idea of fanaticism, teasing out its subtleties from the enlightenment to now. It is partly a history, but it is also a work of philosophy, a literary critique, a history of ideas and more.

Toscano points out innumerable examples of when anti-colonial struggles against the British were stuck with the “naturalisation and racialisation” of fanaticism. Having defined the colonials as fanatics, the British were completely entitled to unleash ultra-violence in retaliation.

Of course, in the “war on terror”, the US has done exactly the same. Defining Islamic terrorists as fanatics and then allowing the label of terrorism to smear all Muslims letting all forms of Western violence become legitimate. All liberal and humane voices are considered to be giving comfort to the enemy.

Toscano's is wide ranging. Besides the historical examination he delves into European philosophy, revealing such gems as Hegel’s thinking about Islam.

This book is interesting if, for nothing else, getting past the “Muslim fanatic” discourse that pervades our media.

Unfortunately, this book is not for the average reader. It is so high falutin’ it practically makes your brain bleed. A pity really because there is a mountain of important material in it.

Perhaps someone else can translate it into plain English for those of us who aren’t fanatical intellectuals.