Thursday, August 16, 2007

Rosenstock-Huessy doing my thinking for me...

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
(Image from Argo Books)

For the purpose of lurking intelligently at an online discussion, I'm currently reading Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man, by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, and I thought that the following passage might interest some readers:
From 1880 onward a class existed in Russian society which had cut itself off from all loyalties toward the existing order. The Nihilists went on a subterranean crusade. Everywhere abroad groups of them studied. At Bern alone, in Switzerland, six hundred Russian students registered, all utterly devoid of means, but all more or less the type created by this emigration; a type which may be described as student, intellectual, conspirator and politician rolled into one, but first of all a man who says "no" to the existing order. These men did not wish to miss their calling in the history of the world. They forgot their individual conditions, wealth, family, creed, and identified themsleves with the people. Very often they acted as handman and executioner to their own material interests. Their own families, their own futures, their own intellectual treasures and needs, counted for nothing. Before murdering the Czar of the Grand Duke, they committed moral suicide and became emancipated from all earthly interests. The code radiating from people like Lenin or Savinkov was the code of those who died to themselves ten times over because they clung to their mission. More fanatical than the Spanish Inquisition, they were not interested in their own salvation. They wished -- and it seems to have been their only genuine desire -- to be ahead of the West. Once, at least, this damned West would not be the pioneer; Russians would be the leaders of future society! While Europe counted confidently on a permanence of the century of progress, they knew, once for all, the secret of her total revolution. That is why the loss of civilization was no longer a bugaboo to them. Civilization was bourgeois. Liberty was bourgeois, because civilization and liberty already existed. Conscience, Honour, Faith? Nihil! (page 59)
Rosenstock is trying to compose a portrait of those 'Nihilists' whose mindset led to the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia through their own management of savagery in the post-WWI period. He thus construes the Nihilist movement rather broadly, but so be it.

I post this passage for the purpose of focusing my thoughts on a certain revolutionary type that may also find its counterpart in today's Islamist movement. Several of the qualities that Rosenstock specifies are also evident among Islamists -- the fanaticism, the moral suicide, and the desire to outdo the West -- but I see a couple of major differences.

First, unlike with the Nihilists and their 'Nihilism', Islamism emerges from a vast population of believers whose own values are not so easily differentiated from those of the Islamists themselves. Hence the large-scale support that Islamism finds among Muslims.

Second, unlike the atheistic Nihilists, Islamists are centrally concerned about their own salvation. Hunger for paradise drives them as much as their resentment toward the West and their hatred of all things 'nonislamic'.

I don't know how useful this sort of comparison-contrast exercise might be, but worth noting is that the Bolsheviks successfully captured an empire despite being a small minority lacking in popular support.

Who's to say that Islamists couldn't pull off a similar feat, and with far more popular support...

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At 6:38 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Interesting speculation. Many of the Muslims I know are caught within another quandary. Though they are firm followers, they also recognise that the West brings liberty: it isn't a middle-class nothing for them. Just as the media in the UK dwells on the idea that Islam is paradisal, and suicidal and a threat to Western values, there are more Muslims who are interested in the life on Earth and as such not driven by a kind of nihilism. But you are right, of course, that both movements are connected by a propaganda of militant revolution. Worrying thoughts.

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, I suppose that it is interesting, but it's definitely speculation on my part and has doubtless been done better by others.

There is probably a "revolutionary type" that is recognizable across cultures even without influence, but in the case of Islamists, we could probably find influences. Paul Berman has found some links between Islamism and Fascism, but given the many Leftist-Islamist coalitions these days, I wonder if we wouldn't have to scratch much beneath the surface to find Leftist ideological influence.

Islamists may emerge from their own Islamic culture and rely upon orthodox and traditional sources for justification, but they've surely been influenced by non-Islamic sources as well.

Anyway, you're right to note the large numbers of Muslims who appreciate Western liberty. We'll need them in this difficult time...

Jeffery Hodges

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