Renaissance and Nazism as Ideas of Progress
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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The Renaissance as a reactionary idea of progress
The Renaissance ("rebirth" c. 1348-1648) evolved around a modernist and, therefore, reactionary idea of progress. This statement is not as nonsensical as it sounds. As Roger Griffin observed in his essay "Springtime for Hitler" (The New Humanist, Volume 122 Issue 4 July/August 2007):
"(Modernism is the) drive to formulate a new social order capable of redeeming humanity from the growing chaos and crisis resulting from modernity’s devastation of traditional securities ... Modernity ... by threatening the cohesion of traditional culture and its capacity to absorb change, triggers an instinctive self-defensive reflex to repair it by reasserting “eternal” values and truths that transcend the ephemerality of individual existence ... From this perspective modernism is a radical reaction against modernity."
Adolf Hitler put it more succinctly:
"The new age of today is at work on a new human type. Men and
women are to be healthier, stronger: there is a new feeling of life, a new joy
Hence the twin Nazi projects of eugenic euthanasia and continent-wide mass genocide - both components of a Herculean program of social-anthropological engineering. The Nazis sought to perfect humanity by ridding it of inferior and deleterious specimen and by restoring a glorious, "clean", albeit self-consciously idealized past.
Similarly, Renaissance thinkers were concerned with the improvement of the individual (and consequently, of human society) by reverting to classic (Greek and Roman) works and values. The Renaissance comprised a series of grassroots modernist movements that, put together, constituted a reaction to elitist, hermetic, and scholastic Medieval modernity with its modest technological advances.
This Medieval strain of modernity was perceived by Renaissance contemporaries to have been nescient "Dark (or Middle) Ages", though whether the Renaissance indeed improved upon the High and late Middle Ages was disputed by the likes of Johan Huizinga, Charles H. Haskins, and James Franklin. The Renaissance idea of progress was, therefore, not linear, but cyclical: Mankind’s hard-earned accomplishments are easily squandered and have to be regained repeatedly throughout history. Indeed, the literacy rate, an important indicator of progress, had fluctuated throughout the period (from the 15th to the 18th centuries).
In stark contrast to Medieval Man, the Renaissance Man was a narcissistic, albeit gifted and multi-talented amateur, in pursuit of worldly fame and rewards - a throwback to earlier times (Ancient Greece, Republican Rome). Thus, the Renaissance was both reactionary and modernist, looking forward by looking back, committed to a utopian "new human type" by regressing and harking back to the past's "ideal humanity".
But, contrary to the observations of Jakob Burckhardt in his masterpiece, "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" (1860, 1878), it was the Renaissance that gave birth to the aesthetics of totalitarianism, to the personality cult, to the obsession with "men of action", to the cultivation of verbal propaganda and indoctrination (rhetoric) as means of influencing both the masses and decision-makers, and to the pernicious idea of human perfectibility.
Many Renaissance thinkers considered the state to be similar to a constantly-belabored massive work of art, whose affairs are best managed by a "Prince" and not by God (see the writings of Machiavelli and his contemporary, Jean Bodin or even Leonardo Bruni). This authoritarian cast of mind did not prevent the vast majority of Renaissance philosophers from vociferously and incongruously upholding the Republican ideal and the individual's public duty to take part in the political life of the collective.
But the contradiction between authoritarianism and republicanism was only apparent. Renaissance tyrants relied on the support of the urban populace and an emerging civil service to counterbalance a fractious and perfidious aristocracy and the waning influence of the Church. This led to the emergence, in the 20th century, of ochlocracies, polities based on a mob led by a bureaucracy with an anti-clerical, anti-elitist (populist) Fuehrer or a Duce or Secretary General on top.
The colonialist ideas of Lebensraum and White supremacy - forms of racist and geopolitical narcissism - also have their roots in the Renaissance. Exploratory sea voyages gave rise to more virulent forms of nascent nationalism and to mercantilism, the economic exploitation of native lands. With a few notable exceptions, these were perceived by contemporaries to be progressive developments.
Industrialization, Modernization, and Progress
As the Renaissance and humanism petered out, the industrial-scientific revolution and the emergence of Capitalism transpired in a deprived and backward part of the known world: in northwestern Europe. As ancient or older civilizations - the Arabs, the Chinese, the Italian principalities, the Mediterranean, and the Spaniards - stagnated, the barbarians of France, Germany, England, and the Netherlands forged ahead with an unprecedented bout of innovation and wealth formation and accumulation.
This rupture in world history, this discontinuity of civilizations yielded ideational dyads of futuristic modernity and reactionary counter-modernity. Both poles - the modern and the reactionary - deploy the same emerging technologies but to disparate ends. Both make use of the same ideas but draw vastly different conclusions. Together, these antagonists constitute modern society.
Consider the concept of the "Will of the People". The Modernizers derived from it the construct of constitutional, parliamentary, representative democracy. In the hands of the Reactionaries it mutated into an ochlocratic "Revolt of the Masses".
"National Self-determination", another modern (liberal) concept, gave rise to the nation-state. In the hands of Hitler and Milosevic, it acquired a malignant, volkisch form and led to genocide or ethnic cleansing.
The Reactionaries rejected various aspects of the Industrial Revolution. The Communists abhorred its exploitative and iniquitous economic model; the Nazis - albeit a quintessential urban phenomenon - aspired to reverse its social costs by re-emphasizing the family, tradition, nature, and agriculture; Communists, Nazis, and Fascists dispensed with its commitment to individualism. They all sought "rebirth" in regression and in emulating and adopting those pernicious aspects and elements of the Renaissance that we have reviewed above.
Exclusionary Ideas of Progress - Reactionary Counter-Modernity
Communism, Fascism, Nazism, and Religious Fundamentalism are as utopian as the classical Idea of Progress, which is most strongly reified by Western science and liberal democracy. All four illiberal ideologies firmly espouse a linear view of history: Man progresses by accumulating knowledge and wealth and by constructing ever-improving polities. Similarly, the classical, all-encompassing, idea of progress is perceived to be a "Law of Nature" with human jurisprudence and institutions as both its manifestations and descriptions. Thus, all ideas of progress are pseudo-scientific.
Still, there are some important distinctions between Communism, Fascism, Nazism, and Religious Fundamentalism, on the one hand, and Western liberalism, on the other hand:
All four totalitarian ideologies regard individual tragedies and sacrifices as the inevitable lubricant of the inexorable March Forward of the species. Yet, they redefine "humanity" (who is human) to exclude large groups of people. Communism embraces the Working Class (Proletariat) but not the Bourgeoisie, Nazism promotes one Volk but denigrates and annihilates others, Fascism bows to the Collective but viciously persecutes dissidents, Religious Fundamentalism posits a chasm between believers and infidels.
In these four intolerant ideologies, the exclusion of certain reviled groups of people is both a prerequisite for the operation of the "Natural Law of Progress" and an integral part of its motion forward. The moral and spiritual obligation of "real" Man to future generations is to "unburden" the Law, to make it possible for it to operate smoothly and in optimal conditions, with all hindrances (read: undesirables) removed (read: murdered).
All four ideologies subvert modernity (in other words, Progress itself) by using its products (technology) to exclude and kill "outsiders", all in the name of servicing "real" humanity and bettering its lot.
But liberal democracy has been intermittently guilty of the same sin. The same deranged logic extends to the construction and maintenance of nuclear weapons by countries like the USA, the UK, France, and Israel: they are intended to protect "good" humanity against "bad" people (e.g., Communists during the Cold war, Arabs, or failed states such as Iran). Even global warming is a symptom of such exclusionary thinking: the rich feel that they have the right to tax the "lesser" poor by polluting our common planet and by disproportionately exhausting its resources.
The fact is that, at least since the 1920s, the very existence of Mankind is being recurrently threatened by exclusionary ideas of progress. Even Colonialism, which predated modern ideologies, was inclusive and sought to "improve" the Natives" and "bring them to the White Man's level" by assimilating or incorporating them in the culture and society of the colonial power. This was the celebrated (and then decried) "White Man's Burden". That we no longer accept our common fate and the need to collaborate to improve our lot is nothing short of suicidal.
Nazism as the culmination of European History
Hitler and Nazism are often portrayed as an apocalyptic and seismic break with European history. Yet the truth is that they were the culmination and reification of European (and American) history in the 19th century. Europe's (and the United States') annals of colonialism have prepared it for the range of phenomena associated with the Nazi regime - from industrial murder to racial theories, from slave labour to the forcible annexation of territory.
Germany was a colonial power no different to murderous Belgium or Britain or the United States. What set it apart is that it directed its colonial attentions at the heartland of Europe - rather than at Africa or Asia or Latin and Central America. Both World Wars were colonial wars fought on European soil.
Moreover, Nazi Germany innovated by applying prevailing racial theories (usually reserved to non-whites) to the white race itself. It started with the Jews - a non-controversial proposition - but then expanded them to include "east European" whites, such as the Poles and the Russians.
Germany was not alone in its malignant nationalism. The far right in France was as pernicious. Nazism - and Fascism - were world ideologies, adopted enthusiastically in places as diverse as Iraq, Egypt, Norway, Latin America, and Britain. At the end of the 1930's, liberal capitalism, communism, and fascism (and its mutations) were locked in mortal battle of ideologies. Hitler's mistake was to delusionally believe in the affinity between capitalism and Nazism - an affinity enhanced, to his mind, by Germany's corporatism and by the existence of a common enemy: global communism.
Colonialism always had discernible religious overtones and often collaborated with missionary religion. "The White Man's burden" of civilizing the "savages" was widely perceived as ordained by God. The church was the extension of the colonial power's army and trading companies.
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