More should be made of moral anger

Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions
April 26, 2002

"Politicians," as my Southampton colleague Peter Calvert observes in the first line of the first essay of the first issue of this new journal, "spend a great deal of time being angry". Whether this is an ironic accident or a subtle manifesto statement one cannot tell, but one might observe that the same would hold true for some journal editors. And while it is not easy to work out the precise targets of the palpable moral anger that inspires this project, they clearly include those who think that they can make the world a better place but always end up making it worse, those whose beliefs demand that they do harm to other people, and those who are so convinced that they are right that they have an obligation to force their views violently onto others.

Small wonder that essays on the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and other fascist regimes form the core of the early issues of this journal, along with pieces on contemporary fundamentalism. Michael Burleigh and Robert Mallett have made sure that some of the most highly regarded scholars of the phenomena of "totalitarianism" and "political religion" contribute to its launch. Essays by Emilio Gentile, Stanley Payne, Hans Maier and Tzvetan Todorov discuss issues such as the sacralisation of politics, the relationship between Nazism and communism, the violent potentials of modernity, or scientific and religious notions of totalitarianism.

Their quality is for the most part high, and they certainly give food for thought to those who insist on dismissing the theory of totalitarianism as a crude instrument of cold war politics, although, of course, it was this too.

Indeed, in explicitly linking the study of totalitarian regimes to that of political religion they underline the possibility of liberating the former from its exculpatory overtones in favour of an approach that stresses that the totalitarianism of the Third Reich, for example, represented not the power of the bandit minority over the innocent, terrorised masses but precisely the opposite: the tyranny of the moral majority over the minority of those who dared, or happened, to be different.

Is this a suitable theme for a journal? If there is a question mark here, then it lies in the somewhat prescriptive agenda of the journal title and in the foreclosure of debate it would seem to imply.

This is all very well if the editors wish their journal to preach to the converted. But if this journal is to establish itself as a key forum for rigorous argument, it will need to cast its net wider. What place will there be for the ideas of those authors who, like me, prefer not to use the language of totalitarianism when thinking about fascist regimes? How about authors who prefer to confine the language of religion to those belief systems whose vision of redemption is a metaphysical one? There are many who share Burleigh and Mallett's interests in the mass mobilisation of ideological fanaticism to whom the language of political religion is anathema.

One might argue that it is completely legitimate to insist on a core of shared concepts and assumptions and that this is what gives a journal its focus. But it is worth noting that there are rich strands of thought that have produced a canon of their own relating to these issues, but that have yet to find much place in the journal. In a journal devoted to themes to which the aestheticisation of politics is so central, one would expect to find the odd footnote to Walter Benjamin or Ernst Bloch, for example, but these are few and far between. This, one feels, is no accident.

All journals end up being associated with intellectual traditions, schools of thought or broad political positions of some kind, and long may that continue. It is part of what reminds us that our academic reflections are not isolated from the broader currents of debate in a pluralist society but are deeply embedded within them. But for this journal, in particular, the balance between editorial focus and scholarly pluralism will be one that will need constant thought.

Was I persuaded? Rarely. Was I stimulated? Very much so. And in this spirit one cannot but welcome the appearance of this lively and engaging journal.

Neil Gregor is reader in modern history, University of Southampton.

Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions

Editor - Michael Burleigh and Robert Mallett
ISBN - ISSN 1469 0764
Publisher - Cass
Price - Individuals £35.00; (introductory offer £28.00); Institutions £125.00
Pages - - (Three times a year)

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