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Collingwood on nazism and fascism

R.G. Collingwood’s article ‘Fascism and Nazism’ (1940) is relevant to think about today. It’s main aim is to explain how fascism and nazism can get off the ground. How can it be that in countries where a clear majority of people share the values of liberal democracy, fascistic groups, groups that overtly threaten democracy and undermine the ideal of freedom for all people, gain a foothold, grow in force, and, at least in Collingwood’s lifetime, seize power?

Collingwood’s answer to this question continues to trouble me. Part of me just doesn’t want to believe it. It is that the democracies in Europe have become secular societies. We’ve lost religion.

In particular, Collingwood writes, it is because the magical and emotional elements of Christianity have all been dismissed as unscientific superstition, and no longer form a part of the majority of people’s lives. As an atheist, I cannot but raise my hand in recognition. But as Collingwood writes:

The real ground for the ’liberal’ or ‘democratic’ devotion to freedom was religious love of a God who set an absolute value on every individual human being. Free speech and free inquiry concerning political and scientific questions; free consent in issues arising out of economic activity; free enjoyment of the produce won by a man’s labour—the opposite of all tyranny and oppression, exploitation and robbery—these were ideals based on the infinite dignity or worth of the human individual; and on the fact that God loved the human individual and Christ had died for him.

These are the kinds of things that are hard to swallow for me. Due to secularisation, Collingwood suggests, people can no longer feel what’s valuable about protecting the freedom for all people. As Iris Murdoch may have put it, the magnetism of this ideal has been defused.

This gives an interesting spin on the idea of the ‘silent majority’, the hordes that disapprove of the rise of fascism but don’t speak up. They are silent, because they are confused. They have the principles, but are shut off from the religious energy required to understand why exactly they’re worth fighting for. They know what fascists do and say is wrong, but they don’t really feel it. Instead, they feel themselves in the presence of the virile, primitive force of the crude but real emotional energy the fascists have managed to tap into. And stripped naked of their own emotional energies, the majority is slowly drawn in.

This is a psychological explanation of the rise of fascism, rooted in an understanding of the moral function of religious experience in people’s lives. This explanation is different from one Collingwood gave only a year before he wrote his article. In his Autobiography (1939)—a book he wrote in during a time where some people close to him suspected he had become a communist—Collingwood portrayed fascism as the expression of class consciousness among capitalists. The fascist, he suggested, is the political actor doing capital’s dirty work. This is a more traditional Marxist analysis of how fascism arises: because capital is in trouble. This is the analysis I would like to believe.

Nonetheless, in the 1940 article Collingwood dismisses it. His argument is that the Marxist take on fascism and nazism turns them into class movements. But they are not, Collingwood says. “They affect every class alike, and there is no one class whose special interest they advance or whose special point of view they express.”

Now, I’m not immediately convinced by this argument. But I don’t think it matters for me right now, because I’d like to understand what Collingwood says about emotional force. For even if the Marxist is right, and fascism is a sign of class struggle, there still is the question of how fascism can arise in a society that is, by and large, and at least at a cerebral level, opposed to the anti-liberal and undemocratic values the fascists brandish. And perhaps here Collingwood’s explanation of a lack of emotional force or magnetism is still relevant.

As Hilda Oakeley makes clear in a response to Collingwood’s article, Collingwood’s ‘religious energy’ must be understood in a very broad way, close to something like ‘creative force’. It’s not something that should threaten the ambition of a secular society as it is commonly understood. (I’m reminded of the work of Akeel Bilgrami on secular re-enchantment, which I once read with an entirely different set of questions in mind.) Besides, Collingwood’s claims about Christianity can be read as purely historical ones, and as such they seem undeniable. In much of Europe, the value of freedom for all has as a matter of fact been traditionally experienced as a Christian value—and a poisonously Eurocentric one, I hasten to add. (Oakeley points to Thucydides to remind us that the history of valuing freedom precedes Christianity, but I don’t think that undermines Collingwood’s psychological point about its emotional sources for people living in modern societies in Europe.)

So the real question Collingwood presents, even to a secularly minded writer like me, is whether we shouldn’t be urgently looking to find ways of rekindling a broadly shared emotional consciousness of the political values we rationally know to be best. How? I don’t know yet. But if Collingwood is right, then without such a project sooner or later fascism will win.

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