To Fight Against This Age – On Fascism and Humanism by Rob Riemen, WW Norton, 176pp, £15
Is the continent of Europe and the wider world menaced by the rise of fascism? In the view of the Dutch humanist philosopher Rob Riemen it most certainly is, and this short book is his analysis and antidote to what he perceives as the gathering storm threatening the values he holds dear.
It is meant as a wake-up call to the rest of us, to recognise the danger and to act before it is too late. But is he right, is fascism truly on the rise? His view is informed, as you might expect, mainly by the politics of his Dutch homeland.
Ahead of last year’s Dutch general election there was apprehension in Brussels that the Freedom Party (PVV), led by the flamboyant “populist” Geert Wilders, might become the largest party. Indeed, for months it led the opinion polls. In the event, the PVV came in second with 13.3 per cent, well below expectations – but even so, such a result is unnerving to many.
Much of the PVV’s appeal is based on its forthright opposition to Islam. This is a country, remember, which in 2004 witnessed the murder, by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim, of Theo van Gogh, who had produced a film, Submission, critical of Islam’s treatment of women. Since then there have been other outrages and a predictable backlash against Islam.
For Riemen “populism” is merely a euphemism, “one more way to cultivate the denial that the ghost of fascism is haunting our societies again”, as he puts it. He believes that what is happening today is analogous to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. His belief is that European democratic systems have become debased by populists who prey on people’s ignorance and fear.
There’s a problem with this analysis, I think, because, unlike the Jews in the 1930s, it is Europe’s Islamists who, unprovoked, started the bloody quarrel. Hitler’s malignant lies about Jewish bankers willing the destruction of Germany never had a basis in fact, but the current threat from Muslim extremists is not imaginary and to fear them is not irrational.
Suppose, for a moment, that the Muslim minorities in the Netherlands and elsewhere had stayed quiescent and adapted to their new homelands; would populists (“fascists” in Riemen’s terms) now be on the rise across the continent? I don’t think so – other religious minorities have settled in without difficulty; only Islam seems intent on subverting the liberal traditions of its hosts. Politicians like Wilders are the by-product of the alarm felt by many Europeans in the face of Islamic militancy – no militants, no PVV.
That objection aside, Riemen’s book gives a true insight into the crisis of confidence besetting humanism (comforting to know that it is not only Christians who see a world gone wrong). Having triumphed intellectually across Europe in the second half of the 20th century, humanism – a philosophy which trusts the scientific method, rejects the idea of the supernatural and is therefore atheist, and believes in an ethics based on human reason – now finds itself confronted by a conundrum.
For it seems, despite vanquishing the old religion, the ancient problems of humankind are still with us (quelle surprise!) According to Riemen’s diagnosis, Europe has become “nihilistic because it is deprived of moral and cultural foundations, obsessed by the trivial and susceptible to demagoguery, and drenched in resentment and fear”. He later says: “A far greater threat to our society than Islamic fundamentalism is the crisis inherent in mass society: the moral crisis, the ever-increasing trivialisation and dumbing down of our society.” All of which I imagine few Catholics would disagree with.
So what is the humanist solution to this crisis? Here, I confess, I found Riemen’s argument confused, for there is much talk in this book of the glories of “Europa” and the need to recover and nurture her “soul”. I have a traditional Catholic understanding of the soul, but no clear idea of what the term means to a humanist.
Riemen talks quite a lot about Socrates and says that for him “it is the soul, the immortal soul, which makes a human being human”. Well, yes. But “immortal”? That seems to take us straight into the world of the supernatural which humanism rejects.
Riemen believes, I think, in some hazy concept of the “soul” embodied (if that is not a contradiction) in European high culture. It is to the values which created that culture that he wants our age to return as the antidote to “fascism”. Strange then that he doesn’t seem to understand that the very foundation of that culture is the Christianity of which he is so consistently dismissive. And that the humanist love of truth, beauty and justice, about which he makes great play, flows directly from the wellspring of Christian teaching.