In its early days, the movement called National Socialism in Germany did not look like a horror story about to happen. It looked ok to most people. You had to be discerning to smell a rat. Here are some of the features that fascism was showing before it swelled into outright violence and totalitarianism.

  1. A legitimate grievance. National Socialists could claim that they or the people they claimed to represent (the German people) had been ill-treated and hard done by, and this was not an idle claim. The fact that they had legitimate grievances made other people slow to recognize the larger agenda.
  2. Popularity. It was a popular movement.
  3. Support from many intellectuals. Fascism could reassure itself and others that it was intellectually grown-up, by appealing to some of the “intelligentsia” who supported it.
  4. Rallies and personality cults. You could attend big meetings, and experience a swell of excitement as the leader strode onto the stage. The leader was full of confidence, and eloquently trounced his opponents. It felt refreshing to have it all explained by someone untroubled by doubt. The struggle of life would soon be made easier as all the confusion was swept away.
  5. Re-writing and misrepresenting history. This seems to be a widespread feature of totalitarian thinking. George Orwell singled it out for special attention in his novel, 1984.
  6. Characterizing a class of people as sub-standard, irrespective of whether or not they go about their lives in basically peaceful, creative ways. Labelling them.
  7. Misrepresenting the behaviour of those others, especially by the use of examples drawn from the margins and presented as the norm.
  8. Making initial inroads into basic human rights of those people. Chipping away at things like their right to speak or to teach, on the argument that those “other” people have some private agenda and are not basically committed to the common good. Suggesting that the young or the vulnerable need “protecting” from their influence or the influence of their culture, even though it is a long-lasting culture with a strong record in education, and in science and the arts and peaceful commerce and politics.
  9. The idea that a new era was opening, that the future belonged to this new movement, whose time had come.
  10. Documents and studies which had the appearance of science, and which showed, in apparently scientific terms, that the people the movement disparaged were intellectually sub-standard. These studies were not addressed to what those people said, note, but to a supposedly scientific study of the way their brains were working.
  11. The cynical and violent element of the human population were drawn to the movement, not with a view to becoming non-violent, but with a view to exercising their violent tendencies.
  12. But many non-violent people were also drawn to it in its early days. It felt like a combination of the oncoming future and the ‘proper’ way, the way all ‘right-thinking’ people know is right. The way we can all enjoy once those irksome others have stopped, the ones whose worst we rightly disdain and whose best we regard with a patronizing faux-respect in public, and baffled amusement in private.

[The image at the top of this piece shows Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. I show this rather than an image of violence because fascism was not obviously violent in its early days; Mosley’s movement, for example, became rapidly vile, but it was supported at the beginning by many establishment figures before it showed its true colours more clearly.]

I am not an expert on totalitarian thinking nor on the history of fascism. However, I think the above is a fair summary of some of the attitudes that ought to set off warning bells when we detect them in public life or in popular movements. Another thing that Orwell included in his important work, 1984, was the idea of a “hate session”. Some present-day internet forums seem to me to be a rough approximation to that.

There are parallels with the abusive forms of religion. Among the features of religion gone bad are the following:

  1. A legitimate grievance. The religious group feels that there are powerful forces ranged against it, and this is, to some extent, a legitimate feeling.
  2. Popularity. It is a popular movement.
  3. Support from many intellectuals. It has always been possible to find some supposedly “scholarly” backing for religious bigotry and ill-founded structures of belief.
  4. Rallies and personality cults. You can attend big meetings, and experience a swell of excitement as the leader strides onto the stage. The leader is full of confidence, and eloquently trounces his opponents. It feels refreshing to have it all explained by someone untroubled by doubt. The struggle of life will soon be made easier as all the confusion is swept away.
  5. Re-writing and misrepresenting history. The idea that there was a time in the past when the religion was practiced better, and that was a sort of golden era, and it is the cultural movement away that has spoiled things. The notion that many real advances in knowledge and humanitarian practice were hidden away in our ancient scriptures, or were only incidentally promoted by other ways of seeing the world.
  6. Dividing the world into “us” and “them”, the “saved” and the “unsaved”, the “elect” and the “lost”/“heathen”/“infidels”, irrespective of whether or not people go about their lives in basically peaceful, creative ways.
  7. Misrepresenting the behaviour of the ones who don’t like the religion, especially by the use of examples drawn from the margins and presented as the norm.
  8. Making initial inroads into basic human rights of those people. Chipping away at things like their right to speak or to teach, on the argument that those “other” people have some private agenda and are not basically committed to the common good. Suggesting that the young or the vulnerable need “protecting” from their influence or the influence of their culture, even though it is a long-lasting culture with a strong record in education, and in science and the arts and peaceful commerce and politics.
  9. The idea that a ‘revival’ is about to come, that God is about to “move”, and this blessed “movement” will exonerate us, reward our brave efforts, and release the tension we are under.
  10. There is a Holy Book which is infallible in every sentence. There are studies which have the appearance of wisdom, and which show, in apparently well-argued terms, that the people opposed to the movement are spiritually sub-standard. These studies are not addressed to what those people say and do, note, but to a supposedly spiritual insight into their internal condition.
  11. The lazy and easily-duped element of the human population are drawn to the movement, not with a view to becoming more open-hearted, but with a view to overcoming their insecurities.
  12. But many humble people are also drawn to bad religion before it reveals its true nature. It puts on much of the garb of good religion; it talks the talk of mercy and truth-seeking. It seems to be the guardian of honourable conduct.

I enter this territory with a sense of hesitation. I don’t want to accuse anyone unfairly, so I have not named any people or works in the above, but I do appeal to people of all persuasions to consider whether some combination of the above is to be found in their literature or what their community prizes. Don’t just mull over a list that does not apply to you, but also, think hard about a list that could apply to you. I have posted this material out of a feeling that it is part of all of our duty to be alert to bad practice.

Items 1 to 3 on my list are not bad in themselves; it is just that their presence does not guarantee the validity of the movement, whatever it might be. For item 4, an eloquent lecture is no bad thing, but one should listen critically, and the degree of trust placed in the speaker should be proportionate to the degree he/she merits it by good behaviour and arguments, not by their current popularity nor by the rosy picture they paint of how the world will be, just around the corner, when the movement triumphs.

Items 5 to 12 are all bad and definite danger signals.

One may feel that I ought not to say item 9 is bad. Am I saying we can’t have progress, or there can’t be good ideas such as the abolition of slavery, universal education, reform of prison conditions, universal voting rights, religious revival and secular freedoms? I think we can wish for all those things, but my point is that we may wish for them only on the grounds that, and only in so far as, they are good. We have to resist the completely irrational notion that mere temporal sequence implies the goodness of our cause. The mere fact that it is the “up and coming” thing, that it is “next”, says nothing whatsoever about whether or not it is good, and history gives a very definite warning that such a way of thinking is dangerous. Similarly, I don’t want to take away hope from people seeking to acknowledge God, but the only worthy hope is hope for a just world, and it is legitimately expressed by prayerfully working in the present towards that end, not by idle dreaming (nor by adopting unjust means). Also, religious revival should not be conceived as “everyone else joins our way of thinking”; it should be conceived as “we all get a better vision of what life is about, whatever that might be, and live by it more fully”. (Some elements of the first version can be found towards the end of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, but Jesus replaced it decisively by the second version when he talked about the kingdom of God).

Having spent a brief time looking into these murky and ugly things, I would like to urge the reader not to allow this to make us cynical or hopeless. Religion does not need to go bad, and political power does not need to be abused. Good-heartedness will win.

 “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

 ― Martin Luther King Jr.