A lot has been said about fascism; except the most important thing. Fascism is democracy with a man (rarely a woman) as saviour, an ideology as scripture, and propaganda as doctrine. Fascism is quasi-religion. Without the religious spirit married to it, democracy cannot give birth to the monstrosity called fascism.
Examine any part of the huge propaganda material that paved the way for the ascent of Hitler in Germany in the thirties of the last century. He was projected and exalted, using the full arsenal of partisan and committed media especially documentaries custom made for the purpose as the saviour of the humiliated and much wronged against German people. Hitler was not a mere political leader. He was a demagogue who incarnated himself as a demi-god. From being the first, to morphing into the second, it is a small step for the leader; but it is a giant leap for the people into the abyss of perdition.
To me the most important insight in Hannah Arendt’s classic work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) is the observation that the spiritual decay of the Jews preceded the Holocaust and contributed in no small measure to their misery. Surely, this is a cruel thing to say; but, remember, Hannah was a Jew. She was a prodigious scholar and radical thinker. She had nothing against her own people, even if she was in love with Martin Heidegger, who was, in the early thirties, in sympathy with German National Socialism. She knew the truth and had the courage of her convictions. To have written what she has in 1951, would have required a lot of courage; something that the Indian intelligentsia lacks so lamentably.
According to Erich Fromm (Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 1973) Hitler was a clear case of childhood trauma. He was not normal. It is a known anthropological fact that a child growing up in traumatizing circumstances develops the more destructive of his potentials. Very likely this happened to Ishmael, abandoned as a child in the desert thanks to fierce internecine family jealousy. History continues to be still scarred by that archetypal of injustice. The fact that it was master-minded by Sarah, the wife of Abraham, does not make it any less unjust or harmful. Hitler was, if Fromm is believed, punishing the world for the trauma he had to live through in his formative years; something that Hitler himself alludes to in his autobiography Mein Kampf (My Struggles), 1938. This historical fact holds scary implications that Indians need to ponder over today; especially those who think that their euphoria needs to be celebrated by traumatizing those different from them.
I believe, with Gandhi, that we need to be the change that we wish to see in others. Most people don’t realize that this is a self-empowering insight. It means that we have a lot of power to change the world. The only hitch is that we need to change if the world is to change. So, shall we not ask if we do not harbour seeds of totalitarianism within, and among, ourselves?
Consider this personal experience of mine. A few months ago, Swami Agnivesh, with whom I have had a long and effective inter-religious partnership, was visiting me for a week. We often meet to compare notes and to plan what we might do together. I thought it was a good idea to let my fellow Christians in Trivandrum, who might be interested, to interact with him. Accordingly, invitations were sent out. The priest in charge of my parish got alarmed at, in his words, “the flock being exposed to one who is not a communicant Christian.” That is fine; for it is to be expected. But what surprised me was that his order to boycott the occasion was blindly obeyed by every member of the congregation.
Yet, we are surprised and indignant if the masses follow the communal clarion calls of Hindutva. We are disappointed that they don’t think factually and see that they are being led into the pits. It’s high time we realized that there is something seriously wrong with our religious conditioning. We are trained, I would say, subtly brainwashed to believe that obeying priests unthinkingly is tantamount to obeying God. The fact that Jesus made a clear distinction between obeying man and obeying God, and disapproved obeying man when he went away from the authority of God, hardly matters to us.
Though we don’t admit this in public, we equate, in practice, unwillingness to think for oneself based on facts readily available and the light of the scriptures with being a faithful Christian. To me, people of this persuasion are poor specimens of humanity. They are, what is worse, a malleable and ductile mass that any unconscionable demagogue can shape at will to do his bidding even at gross violation of the essence of the biblical faith and the sanity of our species.
Think, for a moment, of Jesus! By our standards, he would not pass muster as a pious Christian. He had a mind of his own. He had, more terrifyingly, the courage of his convictions. He spoke his mind in obedience to God. Read the 23rd chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew. No further argument would be needed. Small wonder, William Blake wrote of him, “Tiger, tiger burning bright/ In the forest of the night!” Jesus, let’s not forget, was killed as a heretic, as Socrates was. He taught a way of life, not wholly in conformity with the line of the religious establishment of his days. He spoke God’s truth. They killed Him for it.
But He stands, for all ages to come, as a guardian angel, with a flaming sword in hand, against all oppressors of people and murderers of human freedom. Jesus, the radical thinker and resolute non-conformist, is the icon of liberation. He said, ‘the truth will set you free.’ How can we see or accept the truth, if we don’t think for ourselves? To refuse to think is to go entirely by the ‘opinions’ of others. And the simple word for that is slavery.
A beginning for change can be made only by admitting to ourselves in truth where we stand. We too are part of the vast nursery for fascism that India is fast becoming. We don’t have political power; so, we talk the democratic lingo. But where we have power, we replicate the very same patterns that are pushing this country to the edge.
Please remember this: the distance from democracy to fascism is a thin line. It is drawn by mind-set. Unthinking submission to irrational authoritarianism, which we often mistake for faithfulness, is the bridge that leads from democracy to fascism. That multi-track bridge now lies inaugurated and wide-open in India. Many walk on it. Are we sure that we are not among those headed thus to perdition?