Alberto Toscano’s excellent new book, Fanaticism, explores the relationship between the pre-modern, millenarian impulse with the modern political movements following from the French revolution. His central thesis seems to be that the charge of fanaticism is an ahistorical trope leveled across the ages to deligitimize and pathologically psychologise those pursuing radical emancipatory and egalitarian political projects. With the return of the political religion thesis of late in response to overblown threat of political Islam, thinkers like John Gray have carved out media niches regurgitating the Cold War approach of comparing communism, fascism, Islamism, or whatever, to one another and drawing the conclusion that they are all united in their unrealistic hubris based on a millenarian religious impulse.
Ultimately, what this all seems to come down to is an argument that positions pluralistic, liberal capitalism as the unassailable correct line, with advocates of every other position treated as merely flip sides of an infinitely faced coin. In this context liberals’ demonisation of religious political movements cannot be taken innocently as broadly coterminous with the Marxist critique of religion. For what they are opposed to is not just the religious content, but rather all attempts to disjoint the status quo.
Thus revisionist historiography nowadays has to not just rewrite such movements as Bolshevism as an unmitigated evil, but all political movements whatsoever that divert from the linear narrative of Enlightenment progress to democratic capitalism. Toscano particularly focuses on the story of Thomas Muntzer—Martin Luther’s radical rival during the peasant revolt—but it seems to me that an even more ambiguous and therefore intriguing figure to examine would be Muntzer’s Italian, Catholic contemporary Girolamo Savonarola.
In the recently released computer game, Assassin’s Creed II, Savonarola is portrayed as a totalitarian demagogue demanding absolute obedience to his fundamentalist line.
There is, of course, an element of truth to the game’s portrayal of Savonarola as a fanatic, and one who implemented many socially illiberal edicts. (Although pandering to the video game consumer demographic his ban on sodomy is not given as a rationale for the necessity of deposing him). But in order to force history into a depiction of the opposing forces of Enlightened, rational tolerance versus totalitarian demagoguery, the game’s script writers have to in fact divert from historical truth on a number of other counts. For one thing where the game depicts Savonarola as deriving power in a sinister putsch against the ruling Medici family the fact is that Savonarola was actually given power by Lorenzo de Medici. And where Savonarola is in the game portrayed as attempting to centralise all power in his hands, the fact is that he restored democracy to the city after many decades of Medici dictatorship and asserted his influence through charismatic authority.
The infamous bonfire of the vanities (1496) was not so much simply an act of puritanical thuggery as a high point in Florence’s religious fervour. Boticelli enthusiastically threw one his own paintings on the fire and Michelangelo is recorded as one of Savonarola’s admirers. Even Machiavelli professed admiration for the unarmed prophet’s ability to influence and persuade in the absence of coercive force. Savonarola also railed against the corruption of the Church and became its enemy for his outspoken criticisms. Eventually he was ousted in a coup d’etat by the returning Medici family resulting in his prolonged torture and eventually his public burning.
What is interesting about this story are the ambiguities. Savonarola’s Florence was socially illiberal yet democratic; religiously puritanical and defferent to hierarchy yet scathing about the actually existing religious order. To use one of those ahistorical similes Toscano rails against, if one had to find an analogue of Khomeinian Islamism in European pre-modern history, this would be it.
For the same reason as one needs to be careful with liberal revisionism in regards to Savonarola’s ambiguous story, one also needs to tread carefully in regard to denunciations of Islamism, especially by the likes of Nick Cohen, who drapes himself in the garb of Enlightened leftism. Because just as, I agree, there is nothing much to like about Islamism as a political ideology, at the same time critiques by Cohen and others are wedded to a more general anti totalitarian discourse that warns against all attempts—Islamist, communist, or otherwise—to radically break from the status quo.
The short documentary, The Burning of Girolamo Savonarola, alludes to the necessary caution required with respect to our treatment of political religion. One that Toscano’s book so thoroughly and convincingly explores across a wide historical and scholarly canvas.