Fascism as a recurring possibility: Zeev Sternhell, the anti-Enlightenment, and the politics of an intellectual history of modernity
by Tommaso Giordani
Examining the development of Zeev Sternhell’s work yields a precise impression: that of a movement from the particular to the general, from an intellectual history rooted in precise contexts to increasingly broad studies dealing with larger and less narrowly contextualised traditions of thought.
His first monograph, published in 1972, was titled Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français and examined the role of Barrès in transforming a French nationalism which was originally “Jacobin, open, grounded in the doctrine of natural rights” into an “organic nationalism, postulating a physiological determinism”. In the decade between 1978 and 1989, Sternhell publishes the three works which created his reputation as one of the world’s most important historians of fascism: Ni droite ni gauche, La droite révolutionnaire, and Naissance de l’idéologie fasciste. Though still maintaining a focus on France, these studies—especially the last one—cannot be reduced to contributions to French history. They are instead an attempt to outline a theory of fascism centred on the importance of the ideological element, something which naturally brought the Israeli historian and his collaborators beyond the borders of the hexagon.
Following this interpretative line, we can identify a third phase of Sternhell’s work starting from the 1996 collective volume The intellectual revolt against liberal democracy. Having first moved beyond the examination of French nationalism towards a more general theory of fascism, in this third phase Sternhell leaves the question of fascist ideology behind, embedding it in a larger narrative embracing the last three centuries of European intellectual history and revolving around the dichotomy between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment ideas. The high point is represented by his last and most ambitious study, Les Anti-Lumières, in which the Israeli historian traces the development of what he calls a “different modernity”, consisting in a “comprehensive revolt against the Enlightenment’s fundamental views”.
There is obviously a great deal of truth in this way of reading the Israeli historian’s trajectory, especially given the substantial growth of the materials treated and the enlargement of both chronology and geography. And yet, there is an important way in which this reading is wrong, namely if it is taken to claim that the large, meta-historical categories of “Enlightenment” and “Anti-Enlightenment” are inductive generalisations, synthesising decades of work in intellectual history and emerging from Sternhell’s previous studies. A summary look at Sternhell first book reveals, instead, that these categories have informed his work since the beginning.
Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français is, as we have pointed out, not a simple intellectual biography, but a work which sees the significance of Barrès through the wider lens of a study of the transformation of French nationalism. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that even the framework of French nationalism is a very reductive description of Sternhell’s perspective, for it is a nationalism which is embedded in a wider current of ideas, both spatially and temporally. Spatially, Barrès participates in a tradition of thought which is continental. He is cast by Sternhell much more as a European than as a Frenchman. Barrès is “the child of his century: Baudelaire and Wagner fascinate him, he calls himself—and is—a disciple of Taine and Renan; he has read Nietzsche, Gobineau, and Dostoevsky. For his first trilogy, he claims to have been inspired by Schopenhauer, by Fichte, and by Hartmann”. Temporally, this continental tradition to which Barrès belongs is cast as deploying itself over a broad chronology, as can be evinced by Sternhell’s insistence on its similarities with “another movement of revolt against the status quo: pre-1830, post-revolutionary romanticism”. Without denying the decisive role of European fin de siècle culture, Sternhell finds common traits between this “neo-romanticism” and the older movement. In both cases, we have a “resurgence of irrational values”, the “cult of sentiment and instinct” and, finally, “the substitution of the ‘organic’ explanation of the world to the ‘mechanical’ one”. Even if the connections are merely sketched, it is clear that the temporality in which Sternhell places his object is that of modernity. Barrès, in other words, is significant not just as a French nationalist, but as a member of a tradition marked by the “systematic rejection of the values inherited from the eighteenth century and from the French Revolution”.
Granted, the term “Anti-Enlightenment” does not appear in this work, and comparison of this initial sketch of the tradition with later versions yields some differences, such as a greater role he later ascribes to German and Italian historicism, as well as a tendency to read this current of ideas in an increasingly static and monolithic way. And yet, beyond these small differences, substantial similarities emerge: the broad chronology, the continental extension, and the dichotomous division of the last two centuries of European intellectual history into the two opposing camps of the Enlightenment and its enemies.
This dichotomy informs virtually the entirety of Sternhell’s works in the history of political ideas. We see it at work in his trilogy on fascist ideology, and it is subtly yet unmistakeably active in his analysis of Zionism, in which Jewish nationalism is characterised, inter alia, as a “Herderian” response to the “challenge of emancipation”. Underlying historical enquiry on particular political ideologies, in other words, is a theory of European modernity revolving around the opposition between what Sternhell came to label the universalistic “Franco-Kantian Enlightenment” and its particularistic opponents.
Methodologically, the advantages of this approach are many: it allows the writing of a profoundly diachronic history of ideas, capable of embracing a multitude of contexts and spaces, and in theory able to trace the evolution of traditions of thought without losing sight of the underlying continuities. At the same time, various critics have underlined its limits. Sternhell has been accused of not having learnt the lessons of postmodernism, and of reconstructing the intellectual history of European modernity in the form of a “Manichean struggle” between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment. General accusations of Manicheanism, approximation, and teleology are, in fact, amongst the most common directed against Sternhell. Shlomo Sand gives a more precise way to consider the limits of this approach, identifying the problem in Sternhell’s use of “narrow, static, unhistorical definitions”, that is, of meta-historical categories.
Here we come to the crux of the question: Sternhell’s way of proceeding is indeed marked by the use of categories of analysis which transcend the contexts in which historical actors developed their thought. Is this, however, enough to methodologically invalidate his analysis? The use of categories transcending narrow historical contextualisation is a necessity for any work with diachronic ambitions. Tracing the development of any tradition of thought over time, in other words, implies the use of descriptions and definitions which would have appeared bizarre to the thinkers of the time. The employment of a meta-language, and the anachronism, teleology, and de-contextualisation that come with it, are, to a point, a necessity of any genealogy, of any historical enquiry which aims to do more than simply take a synchronic snapshot of the past. Therefore, it seems incorrect to identify the problem in the mere use of categories such as Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment.
The problem lies not in the mere presence of these meta-historical tools of analysis, but, rather, in the way in which Sternhell has come to employ them over time. As we have seen, in Maurice Barrès the anti-Enlightenment tradition was sketched with a certain nuance, insisting on its internal transformations over time, and paying attention to the crucial distinction between the work of an individual and its reception. Over time, however, much of this nuance disappears, and passages from his later works do seem, at times, to interpret two centuries of European intellectual history through the prism of what is, after all, a not too dynamic dichotomy between French universalistic culture and German romantic particularism.
Take Sternhell’s analysis of Georges Sorel’s revision of Marxism at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. For the Israeli historian, it constitutes a crucial step towards the creation of fascist ideology. According to him, the key element of Sorelian revisionism is the destruction of the connection between the industrial working class and the revolution, something capable of altering “Marxism to such an extent that it immediately transformed it into a neutral weapon of war that could be used against the bourgeois order not only by the proletariat but by society as a whole”. Sorelian revisionism thus consists in the removal of Marxian categories of analysis based on social antagonisms grounded in the positioning in the productive structure of society, which are then replaced by antagonisms grounded in an opposition to the decadence of bourgeois civilisation. As Sternhell puts it, “history, for Sorel, was finally not so much a chronicle of class warfare as an endless struggle against decadence”. It follows that if the proletariat is unable to fulfil its struggle against bourgeois decadence, there is no reason why another historical agent, such as the national community, should not engage in the same struggle. The result is fascism.
The problem with this reading is that, despite its apparent plausibility, it is historically inaccurate. Real Sorelian revisionism consists in a number of texts published in the 1890s in which the main thrust is epistemological and social scientific more than political. Its consequences are opposite to those drawn by Sternhell. Animated by the desire “show to sceptics that… socialism is worthy of belonging to the modern scientific movement”, Sorelian revisionism revolved around three main points: (1) the refusal of historical determinism; (2) the rejection of economic determinism; and consequently, (3) a vision of Marxism not as a predictive social science but as the intellectual articulation of the historical experience of the workers’ movement. Even if this revisionism is much more concerned with Marxism as a social science than with Marxism as a political project, its political uptake is not the breaking of the connection between proletariat and revolution, but its strengthening. A Marxism which renounces its predictive capacity and the very idea of a necessary historical development cannot but evolve into what Sorel later called a “theory of the proletariat”. The removal of historical necessity means that the transition to socialism can only be yielded by the agency of the revolutionary subject—the proletariat. It should thus not be surprising that, as early as 1898, Sorel insists on working class autonomy, arguing that “the entire future of socialism resides in the autonomous development workers’ unions”.
The revision of Marxism does not exhaust Sorel’s production and there are parts of his trajectory, and of those of some of his disciples, which are more in line with Sternhell’s analysis. And yet, the fact remains that this analysis completely overlooks contexts which are crucial to Sorelian revisionism, resulting in an historically inaccurate picture. The point is not merely to underline the many substantial imprecisions which characterise Sternhell’s reading of Sorelian revisionism, but to emphasise how these misreadings derive directly from the indiscriminate use of the abovementioned meta-historical categories. “Marxism” writes Sternhell “was a system of ideas still deeply rooted in the philosophy of the eighteenth century. Sorelian revisionism replaced the rationalist, Hegelian foundations of Marxism with Le Bon’s new vision of human nature, with the anti-Cartesianism of Bergson, with the Nietzschean cult of revolt, and with Pareto’s most recent discoveries in political sociology”. But is it plausible to speak of a rejection of Hegel for someone so profoundly influenced by Antonio Labriola, who represented one of Europe’s main Hegelian traditions? Is it correct to speak of the “Nietzschean cult of revolt” for a figure who wrote over 600 texts and yet discusses Nietzsche virtually only in a handful of pages in the Reflections on violence? Is it historically acceptable to suggest proximity to Paretian elitism for a political thinker who wrote vitriolic pages against the leadership of French socialism by bourgeois intellectuals?
These misreadings derive from the fact that Sternhell’s dualistic approach, if taken rigidly, cannot make space for Sorelian revisionism, for that would imply accepting the possibility of a Marxism capable of incorporating elements of romanticism without ipso facto becoming a sworn enemy of the Enlightenment. But Marxism, for Sternhell, is “rooted in the philosophy of the eighteenth century”, and any deviation from this particular philosophical outlook is to be classified as anti-Enlightenment thought. Strictly speaking, for Sternhell, Sorelian revisionism is a betrayal. But here are the limits of Sternhell’s rigid application of his categories, limits which emerge not only in relation to Sorel, but also to Marxism more in general. Marxism is, from its beginnings, a politico-philosophical tradition which is transversal to the dichotomy between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment. The mere suggestion of reading a tradition derived from Hegel and Marx as in opposition to German romanticism shows the dangers of overreliance on these categories. The appropriate historical context for understanding Sorelian revisionism is the battle, internal to Marxism, between positivistic and humanistic interpretations of Marx’s work. Against Sorel’s insistence on the impossibility of historical laws there is Lafargue who advocates their existence; against Antonio Labriola who struggles to free historical materialism from positivism there is Enrico Ferri who goes in the opposite direction. To miss this transversality of the Marxist tradition cannot but yield serious mistakes. How would Sternhell judge Gramsci’s claim that Marxism is “the continuation of German and Italian idealism, which in Marx had been contaminated by naturalistic and positivistic incrustations”? Would he see a voluntaristic cult of revolt in the affirmation that “the main determinant of history is not lifeless economics, but man”?
Why, in the face of much criticism, did Sternhell never even go close to admitting the risks of a certain way of employing an approach based on meta-historical categories? Why did he not only stick with it, but began using it in an increasingly rigid and passionate manner? To answer these questions, a preliminary point must be clarified. If the Enlighenment/anti-Enlightenment dualism is the conceptual centre of Sternhell’s work, its existential core is the question of fascism. Orphaned and turned refugee by anti-Semitic violence in his native Poland during World War II, Sternhell has always been very clear on the fact that for him the study of fascism went far beyond purely academic interest. Anyone who has read the pages he has written will be aware of the urgency of his prose, of the passionate tone of warning which permeates most of them, especially those on fascism. “Thinking about fascism” he wrote in 2008 “is not a reflection on a regime or a movement, but a reflection on the risks that might be involved for a whole civilisation when it rejects the notion of universal values, when it substitutes historical relativism for universalism, and substitutes various communitarian values for the autonomy of the individual”. Aside from clarifying the relationship between fascism and anti-Enlightenment in Sternhell’s thought—with the former political option becoming possible only in an environment in which the latter’s ideas are present—this quotation sheds much light on Sternhell’s insistence on the Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment duality.
To frame fascism as a political possibility enabled by the existence of certain anti-Enlightenment ideas means adopting a view of fascism as a recurring possibility of modernity. Fascism is thus not an abstract and a-historical ideal type, but neither is it an historical particularity inextricably linked to the specific, and unrepeatable, conditions of interwar Europe. To embed fascism in a theory of modernity, in other words, allows one to see it as a living political culture, perhaps at times dormant, but constantly capable of making the leap from cultural contestation to political project, at least as long as the particularistic ideas of the “alternative modernity” of the anti-Enlightenment continue to inform European intellectual life. Sternhell’s dismissal of the decisive role of World War I and his insistence that the fascist synthesis was already achieved in the belle époque substantiate this reading.
The Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment framing, in short, stems from the fiercely held conviction that fascism is not a thing of the past, but of the present. It is a framing, thus, that at once emerges from the need for public engagement and simultaneously enables a mode of public intervention which could not as easily be sustained through a narrower contextualism or a taxonomical approach. Recent years have brought, together with the electoral victories of right-wing forces in Europe and the United States, a flurry of analyses on the return of fascism. Whether through taxonomies, historical parallels between the present and the interwar period, or analyses of fascist mentality, this literature has been animated by the same conviction that has long animated Zeev Sternhell’s work: that fascism is not a thing of the past. Eschewing these strategies, however, Sternhell has long pioneered a different way of thinking about fascism: not an historical particularity, not a mentality, not a list of criteria that regimes must possess, but instead a constant potentiality of European modernity, embedded in two centuries of anti-Enlightenment thought.
By way of conclusion, a tentative answer to the obvious question: from where does Sternhell’s conviction that fascism is always possible emerge? It is true that the defeat of 1945 has not been the historical caesura one unreflectively imagines, and that fascism has continued to exist, in less ideologically assertive forms, in many countries of southern Europe. At the same time, before the recent, possibly short-lived, resurgence of the fascist spectre, academic analyses of fascism were rarely animated by this urgent conviction of its relevance. The answer to this conundrum is to be found in Sternhell’s political engagement in his country, Israel. In March 1978, together with other reservists of the Israeli army, Sternhell signed an open letter to then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, warning that a policy “which prefers settlements beyond the Green Line to terminating the historic conflict” was a dangerous one, which could “harm the Jewish-democratic character of the state”. The letter established the organisation Peace Now, in which Sternhell continued to be active for the rest of his life.
Over the years, the evolution of the political situation made the positions Sternhell supported increasingly minoritarian. But the Israeli historian did not back down. On the contrary, he continued to put forward his positions. This earned him a pipe bomb attack at his home in Jerusalem in 2008, from which he emerged substantially unscathed. Flyers offering over 1 million shekels to whoever killed a member of Peace Now found near his home left little doubt as to the motivations behind it. After Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, Sternhell became increasingly vocal, denouncing what he saw as a dangerous evolution of Israeli society. In his many public interventions, he uses the language with which we have been dealing here, that of the anti-Enlightenment. He saw the rise of the Israeli right as that of a “power-driven national movement, negating human rights, and rejecting universal rights, liberalism and democracy”. In a 2014 interview in which he denounced signs of fascism in Israeli society, he framed that political option in familiar terms: as a “war against enlightenment and against universal values”. In 2013, he was called as an expert witness in a defamation case put forward by the nationalist association Im Tirzu against some activists who had labelled it as fascist. In an exchange with Im Tirzu’s lawyer, we see, again, the same language: “…they are not conservatives, but revolutionary conservatives. What they seek is a cultural revolution. ‘Neo-Zionism’ as they define it is an anti-utilitarian, anti-western, anti-rational cultural revolution.”
Examples of this kind could be multiplied, but the point should by now be clear. Certain methodological options may seem puzzling when judged uniquely by the standards of academic practice, but the rationale for their employment may become more understandable when they are seen as connected to a concrete historical situation. The Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment dichotomy, with all the limits that Sternhell’s passionate use involved, is one such case: it must, at least partially, be seen as emerging from the imperative of engagement. Still, Sternhell’s historical works are not political pamphlets. Even if sometimes they possess the urgent tone of that genre of writing, they remain contributions to the study of European intellectual history, and should be judged also according to those standards. And yet, the separation of these two layers, engagement and scholarship, is not easy and, to a point, not desirable. To effect this separation would be to misunderstand the work of a scholar for whom the two were intertwined. As he argued in the most articulate defence of his method, “through contextualism, particularism, and linguistic relativism, in concentrating on what is specific and unique and denying the universal, one necessarily finds oneself on the side of anti-humanism and historical relativism”.
The author would like to thank Or Rosenboim for discussions on the Israeli context and for help with translations from Hebrew. All other translations from French and Italian sources are the author's. Research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under Grant Agreement No. 757873 (project BETWEEN THE TIMES).
 Zeev Sternhell, Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français , 3rd ed. (Paris: Fayard, 2016), 251.
 Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, trans. David Maisel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 1.
Sternhell, Maurice Barrès, 56.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 41.
 Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel. Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State, trans. David Maisel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 12.
 David D. Roberts, ‘How not to think about Fascism and ideology, intellectual antecedents and historical meaning’, Journal of Contemporary History 35, no. 2 (2000): 189.
 Shlomo Sand, ‘L’idéologie Fasciste en France’, L’Esprit, September 1983, 159.
 Zeev Sternhell, Maia Asheri, and Mario Sznajder, The Birth of Fascist Ideology. From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution., trans. David Maisel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 37.
 Ibid., 38
 Sorel to Croce, 20/12/1895, in Georges Sorel, ‘Lettere di Georges Sorel a Benedetto Croce’, La Critica 25 (1927): 38.
 Georges Sorel, ‘L’avenir socialiste des syndicats’, L’humanité Nouvelle 2 (1898): 445.
 Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, 24.
 Antonio Gramsci, ‘La rivoluzione contro il Capitale’, Avanti! 24 November 1917.
 Zeev Sternhell, ‘How to Think about Fascism and Its Ideology’, Constellations 15, no. 3 (2008): 280.
 Open letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, March 1978, https://peacenow.org/entry.php?id=2230#.YK5yjKGEY2w
 Zeev Sternhell “Does Israel still need democracy”, Haaretz, 17 November 2011
 Gidi Weitz, ‘Signs of fascism in Israel reached new peak during Gaza op, says renowned scholar’, Haaretz, 13 August 2014.
 Oren Persico, “Analyzing with an ax”, Ha-ain ha-shvi’it, 12 May 2013, https://www.the7eye.org.il/62652
 Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, 35.
by Aristotle Kallis
For centuries ‘civilisation’ has been a loaded, unstable, and ambiguous term. It has been used as a description of the present but also as an aspirational projection of a process that promises to lead to perfection. It could be seen to designate a positive process and trajectory, as well as a desired destination in the future; or conversely it could be suggestive of liberation from the ghosts of a supposedly primitive and barbaric prior human state. At times claimed to be objective or subjective, absolute or relative, universal or culture-specific, permanent or temporary and reversible, ‘civilisation’ has proved to be a formidable discursive formation that thrives in controversial polysemy.
If ‘civilisation’ is hard to pin down, its dialectical opposites too has eluded specificity. Was civilisation the antithesis or overcoming of barbarism or did it co-exist with it in a state of unity of opposites? Was it all about a zero-sum game, whereby gains in civilisation presupposed broadly equivalent distancing from a state of barbarity, and vice versa? And, perhaps more importantly, was the ‘civilising’ trajectory linear, progressive, and path-dependent or could it become subject to unpredictable movements in the opposite direction?
* * *
Exhibit number 1. In 1939, the German sociologist Norbert Elias, by that time living in Britain after having fled his home country in the wake of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933, published his mammoth treatise Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (translated in English as The Civilizing Process). Elias saw both courtoisie—deliberate references to courtly life—and civilité as the ancestors of civilisation; but it was the middle stage (civilité), he claimed, that witnessed the cultural embedding of civility in everyday behaviour as the key driver of the ‘civilising process’. Elias also identified the gradual monopolisation and strict regulation of violence by the various institutional appendages of the modern state as conducive to a longer-term shift from externally imposed control of behaviour to individual self-restraint. The ‘civilising process’ then was the historical engine room of ‘civilisation’, the latter analysed by Elias as the cumulative outcome of deeper, sedimented over the long(er) term, changes in society (sociogenesis) that in turn effected, over time, appreciable transformations in individual and collective human behaviour (psychogenesis). This historical translation of sociogenetic/structural changes into psychogenetic/behavioural shifts underpinned and explained the gradual move towards more individual self-discipline and pacification—both qualities that Elias identified as critical to the ‘civilising process’.
It took more than three decades for Elias’s work to gain international recognition (courtesy of its translation and updated publication in English in 1969). During this long hiatus between the publication of the original German text and its English translation, his interpretive schema had been put to an extreme stress test by the atrocities of WW2 and the revelation of the full horror of the Holocaust. The interwar crisis, and the rise of National Socialism in particular, had already left a mark on the original 1939 edition, when Elias observed that the 1920s and 1930s represented a challenge to his overall historical schema:
"in the period following World War I, as compared to the pre-war period, a ‘relaxation of morals’ appears to have occurred. A number of constraints imposed on behaviour before the war have weakened or disappeared entirely. Many things forbidden earlier are now permitted. And seen at close quarters, the movement seems to be proceeding in the direction opposite to shown here."
Nevertheless this and other ‘fluctuations … criss-cross movements, shifts and spurts’ in history ought not to ‘obscure the general trend’. The ‘civilising process’, he argued, ‘does not follow a straight line’ and is prone to ‘very slight recession(s)’. More than half a century later, Elias revisited his original ‘civilising process’ thesis, this time confronting the full dystopian panorama of Nazi brutality, including of course the Holocaust and the institution of the industrialised death camp. In the face of such a devastating ‘counter-spurt’, Elias conceded that the ‘final solution’ constituted a callous reversal of the ‘civilising process’ and evidence of decivilisation that pointed, in his view, to the ‘deepest regression into barbarism’.
* * *
Exhibit number 2. When interviewed in 1991 about his early life in 1930s Shanghai, the author J G Ballard observed wryly:
"Many people have said to me, ‘What an extraordinary life you’ve had’, but of course my childhood in Shanghai was far closer to the way the majority of people on this planet, in previous centuries and in the 20th century, have lived than, say, life in Western Europe and the United States. It’s we here, in our quiet suburbs and our comparatively peaceful cities, who are the anomalies."
For Ballard ‘civilisation’ is skin-deep, fragile, transient and unpredictable, more akin to a randomly generated pattern than to a temporal arrow pointing purposefully towards the promise of a ‘better’ future. In his view, under the thin veneer of civilised society contradictory human passions continue to seethe and even intensify because of their proscribed, taboo status, at every moment threatening the comforting fantasy of purposeful collective progress. Civilisation was like the ‘thin crust of lava spewed from a volcano’, its apparent stability being more a wishful projection than an empirically validated condition. ‘If you set foot on it’, he continued, ‘you may feel the fire (underneath)’. Unsurprisingly perhaps to anyone familiar with Ballard’s dystopian fiction, his message was pessimistically cautionary: ‘we have to admit that humanity is not completely civilisable’ and therefore, as ‘the real hurricanes are starting to blow more strongly … (a)nd the wind in our heads is getting stronger day by day’, humankind had to accept that whatever we may celebrate as ‘civilisation’ was fragile, contingent, cancellable. Rather than bending inexorably towards progress, the arch of history in the Ballardian universe remained decidedly crooked.
* * *
Exhibit number 3. Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of the Nazi ‘final solution’ as ‘rare, yet significant and reliable, test of the hidden possibilities of modern society’ involved a stinging critique of the ‘civilising process’. Bauman called it a ‘myth’ constructed on the wobbly foundations of a ‘morally elevating story of humanity emerging from pre-social barbarity’:
"in view of this myth (civilising process) … we do not have as yet enough civilisation. The unfinished civilising process is yet to be brought to its conclusion. If the lesson of mass murder does teach us anything it is that the prevention of similar hiccups of barbarism evidently requires still more civilising efforts. There is nothing in this lesson to cast doubt on the future effectiveness of such efforts and their ultimate results. We certainly move in the right direction; perhaps we do not move fast enough."
Rather than viewing the Nazi spasm of genocidal violence as a deviation from a normative historical path and a gross aberration of (Enlightenment) ‘civilisation’ (a view that historians often put forward post-WW2), Bauman contended that uncivility and violence were intrinsic to modern ‘civilisation’. He argued that modernity has provided the crucial wherewithal—technological, organisational, moral—to use violence in peerlessly extreme and devastating ways, not to mention at the service of chillingly brutal ends. Therefore, far from being a hallowed state at the end of a supposedly meaningful historical development, ‘civilisation’ was in no way antithetical to ‘barbarism’; in fact, very often the line separating the two was agonisingly thin and twisted.
* * *
The civilisation–barbarism conundrum posed in different ways by the three authors above highlights the contested meaning of ‘civilisation’ itself. For Elias civilisation was the historical mean of a particular—and fortuitous—constellation of (western) modernity that gradually took hold and generated powerful ‘civilising’ path dependences in the development of societies. It may have been a story without start or linear progression but it had produced a range of structural, attitudinal, and behavioural shifts whose effect he viewed as positive and in sharp ethical contrast to its antithesis, ‘barbarism’. Responding to the darkest episodes of the twentieth century that he lived through and experienced in a profoundly personal way, Elias concluded reluctantly that the ‘civilising process’ was not a failsafe guarantee against ‘barbarism’—but the latter was presented as the temporary or partial exception on a micro-historical sense that did not threaten the macro-historical direction of travel.
Bauman, on the other hand, narrated a very different story about modernity, this time one in which modern civilisation was potentially generative of unpredictable and uncontrollable excess. This potential for excess, reaching one of its most devastating spasm in the ‘final solution’, was no deviation from modern civilisation, no ‘counter-spurt’ in an assumed civilisational mainstream as per Elias’s own terminology, but structurally intrinsic to it. Thus Bauman’s ‘civilisation’ was a protean construct, capable of the ‘civilising’ and the ‘barbaric’ all at once, as well as evidently prone to excess, violence, and transgression when safeguards and regulation failed:
"the most vaunted accomplishments of modern civilisation failed as safeguards against barbarism. Civilisation proved incapable of guaranteeing moral use of the awesome powers it brought into being."
Ballard’s views on ‘civilisation’-versus-‘barbarism’ shared Elias’s understanding of the former as something positive and the latter as its inversion. He also echoed Bauman’s ambivalence vis-à-vis modernity as an essentially Janus-faced project, capable of generating both positive and devastating potentialities. Where Ballard stood on his own, however, was in his pessimistic view of the balance between civilisation and barbarism: if for Elias the latter was the short-term exception to the former, and for Bauman its alter ego, Ballard saw civilisation as a short, always fragile islet in the midst of multiple flows of fiery lava. He thus effectively inverted Elias’s image of exception: it was civilisation, not barbarism, that resembled a quirky and unpredictable counter-spurt. Violence and rupture, on the other hand, were never too far away, never contained, let alone tamed. To Bauman’s warning about barbarism as a mere potentiality towards which society could drift, Ballard revealed how violent excess inhered in a million everyday ‘normalities’, behaviours, and sedimented habits untouched (perhaps even untouchable?) by civilisation or modernity. That violence appeared so contained and inconspicuous in comparison to the past was not because it had now become uncommon but because it has mutated into a pervasive new normality. Thus the seeming absence of violence as the benchmark of modern civilisation was little more than a collective cultural blind spot: it appeared rare and exceptional because it had become more and more widely pervasive and routinised that it barely registered on the standard-resolution monitors of everyday life.
I am arguably exaggerating the difference between the three ‘exhibits’ because I wish to draw attention to a critical element that, in spite of their different vantage points, Elias, Ballard, and Bauman shared: the belief that the apparent drift to violence was the upshot of some kind of comprehensive systemic failure (Elias: ‘many things forbidden earlier are now permitted’; Bauman: ‘the most vaunted accomplishments of modern civilisation failed as safeguards against barbarism’; Ballard: ‘a continuous decline had been taking place for some time, a steady erosion of standards … a falling interest in civilised conventions of any kind’). The sobering message was that ‘civilisation’ was best understood as a social and moral stratagem to re/design norms of behaviour and—crucially from the point of view of self-preservation—delineate boundaries of (un)acceptability. These two components--norms and outermost boundaries--determine the ‘mainstream’ space of a society at a given point in time and space. Norms indicate desirable cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioural standards. Boundaries mark two critical thresholds that in theory ensure the very ‘safeguards’ that Bauman spoke about: first, the all-important boundary between legality and illicitness; and second, the more subtle and elusive (though at least as important) line that distinguishes tolerable from unacceptable social behaviour. Taken together, norms and boundaries map a vast and heterogeneous space of moral gradations from positive aspiration to the outermost fringes of tolerability and permissibility, with the overwhelming majority of a society’s members roaming the in-between spaces between the two poles.
It is the more elusive second boundary of (un)permissibility—the threshold of shame qua Elias—that presents the biggest challenge. Situated in the fuzzy hinterlands of mainstream society, it marks a constructed set of cultural and social fortifications against the kind of behaviour that, while openly challenging or even defying and subverting a society’s norms, is hard to delegitimise as stricto sensu illegal. Societies have always devised and promoted a set of norms in both positive/aspirational and negative/inhibitory iterations. Thus in many ways the obverse of the positive norm was (and is) not obvious illegality but a different, more vague kind of transgression of the threshold of tolerability.
The concept of taboo comes very close to capturing the essence and function of this threshold. It refers to a strong prohibition that is ethical rather than strictly juridical. There are sacred and secular taboos; taboos seemingly fixed and enduring or taboos that are pliable and more amenable to change or that—at a certain point in time and place—become even delegitimised; taboos so embedded in cultural and social practice that appear forbiddingly unquestionable and taboos with a shorter, more contested history that has rendered them less effective, less accepted, and thus more vulnerable to challenge. Taboos are negative norms and thus a particular society’s constructed taboos mirror to a significant extent its constructed norms and vice versa. Changes in one very often echo and reinforce changes in the other. When previous taboo prohibitions come under scrutiny or attack, it is usually because the positive assumptions and conventions that underpinned them have also lost their normative status in the eyes of social majorities or at least significant minorities.
However not all taboos are made equal. Some are universally operative and remain broadly unquestioned. Others rely more on the regularity and strength with which prohibition is directly and indirectly (through effectively aligning them with repugnance and the shame triggered by transgression) regulated. While some taboos have, over time, become embedded and reproducible without scrutiny, others are—or come to be seen in certain conditions—as imposed, undesirable, alien or counter-productive when it comes to the pursuit of other positive goals. Thus while taboos may become hard-coded into a society’s everyday practices and may appear unassailable most of the time, they may also come under scrutiny, be transgressed, abrogated or eroded, whether temporarily and conditionally or more permanently. As Georges Bataille observed, taboo and its transgression were in necessary—indeed relational—coexistence and mutual dependency.
Elias, unlike Bauman, made numerous references to the functions of ‘taboo’ prohibitions, whether directly enforceable or implicitly invoked, in his Civilizing Process. He understood a taboo as a social construct that marked and enforced the qualitative threshold of repugnance and shame. In many respects his entire ‘civilising process’ was the story of the gradually ‘expanding threshold of repugnance’ in modern (western) societies. This stretched from everyday manners and attitudes to bodily functions to broader moral questions such as attitudes to violence and empathy towards others. Here it was possible to observe the transition from sociogenesis to psychogenesis: what was initially enforced as either legal sanction or formal rebuke (shame) gradually became so deeply embedded in social and cultural practices that it was internalised and quasi-automatically reproduced by individuals and communities in the form of voluntary self-restraint. It was also in this macro-historical process that Elias grounded the entire ‘civilising process’ as positive path dependence: the forbidding net of repugnance became both thicker (stronger condemnation) and wider (extending in adjacent areas of social conduct). ‘Counter-spurts’ could be neither ruled out nor ignored for their devastating effects on the civilising process; yet they were not part of this story—hence the significance of the Eliasian imputation of ‘decivilising’ effect.
With this in mind it is perhaps easier to understand Elias’s earlier tendency to single out the experience of National Socialism and especially the Holocaust as extreme historical ‘regressions’ and lapses into ‘barbarism’. His trope of a ‘decivilising counter-spurt’ deployed the full armour of exception—a double negative in the civilising process used to intensify the negation of, and divergence from, ‘civilisation’ itself. While dealing in his later—post-WW2—work with the challenge posited by the full horror of totalitarianism and of the Nazi ‘final solution’, Elias imbued his earlier schema of the civilising process with more nuance. He did not question his earlier conviction that, over time, structural shifts became culturally embedded and effected behavioural changes. In his attempt to explain the National Socialist ‘regression’ from the canon of the civilising process, he treaded a delicate and sometimes awkward path between (German) exceptionalism and broader critiques of modernity qua Bauman. He therefore conceded that, on the one hand, the drift to extreme violence in interwar Germany was also facilitated by ‘common conditions of contemporary societies’ and that the ideas that nurtured National Socialism and ensured its social appeal in the 1930s were far from unique to Germany or even the interwar crisis.
"Few of the social and, especially, the national myths of our age are free of similar falsehoods and barbarisms. The National Socialist doctrine shows, as if in a distorting mirror, some of their common features in a glaring form." 
Still the historical specificities in the case of German history did matter because, in his view, they went a long way towards explaining the depth and severity of the Nazi ‘counter-spurt’. The problem with interwar Germany, Elias claimed, was that short-term contingencies intersected with, and intensified, longer-term peculiarities (late unification, middle-class weakness, anachronistic social structures, and so on). Sociogenetic idiosyncrasies or shortfalls graduated into allegedly irregular psychogenetic traits. The overall translation schema (from structure to behaviour) still worked as a macro-historical interpretation; the issue with modern/interwar Germany was with the particular long-term social and political trajectory that had produced the particular structures in the first instance. Taboos were in place and the threshold of repugnance had been raised, very much in line with the precepts of the ‘civilising process’. Yet at a certain point the taboos proved—perhaps, more accurately, they were revealed to be—not strong enough to regulate and enforce the prohibition, let alone to embed it as standard social practice.
Elias was only too keen to highlight how the transgression of the taboo of violence formed the backbone of the Nazi ‘regression’ into ‘barbarism’. The taboo prohibition of violence directed at other humans may be arguably rooted in the (universal) ‘animal pity by which all normal men are afflicted in the presence of human suffering’; but it can also be relativised, qualified, and effectively transgressed in a seemingly normative, legitimate and authorised disguise. The formula ‘transcending without suppressing’ identified by Bataille underlined how a taboo can be fully operative in 'normal’ times but can legitimately be transgressed when a perceived crisis, threat or emergency generated the possibility of exception—an exception within or alongside the prohibition itself. Back to the 1930s and the German case, it must be remembered that the regime headed by Hitler operated as a ‘normal’ constitutional arrangement for just twenty-nine days. In the wake of the arson attack that destroyed the Reichstag building in late February 1933 the declared ‘state of exception’ granted the executive extraordinary legal and political powers with which to counter the alleged emergency. Of course exception was not per se an illegal deviation from the constitutional order: Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution that Hitler instrumentalised in 1933 had already been used by the liberal Chancellor Gustav Stresemann in September 1923 in order to confront the Ruhr crisis. Yet while Stresemann’s use of constitutional emergency powers lasted five months, Hitler’s proved a prelude to a permanent exception and licence for transgression. The trope of crisis beget exception and exception beget the theoretically open-ended potential for deeper and wider authorised transgression. In a similar way to violence as authorised transgression in a state of war, Nazi violence was uniquely transgressive as an exception to the otherwise affirmed taboo prohibition as ‘normal’ condition.
From this point of view, what Elias saw as the ‘deepest regression into barbarism’ in the 1930s and 1940s, in Germany but arguably elsewhere as well, was not the product of failing taboos regarding civility, let alone intra-human violence. The paradox of the National Socialist violent spasm was it was peerless in the brutality of its logic, methods, and effects yet strikingly banal as an ‘exception’ and unremarkable as a step-by-step justification. Exception was practised on every level and in the name of national self-defence not in order to abrogate the taboo of violence but in order to suspend it in a limited and conditional way—only against particular groups of ‘others’, only in specific spaces, only under the guise of an ‘external war’, only for as long as it was deemed necessary in order to eliminate the claimed ‘threat’. Extreme, transgressive violence against the existentially threatening ‘other’ cohabited with intense group self-love. The problem was not only, not even primarily excess or violation per se but their conditional sanctioning and normalisation. If taboos are indeed negative norms, if they correspond to a large extent to positive projections, then the Nazis did very little to disrupt the symmetry on either end. The ‘civilising process’ carried on in principle—but for the exclusive benefit of the ethnic/racial majority. By redefining the community, ostracising a host of allegedly dangerous ‘others’, and invoking the necessity of exception, the Nazi authorities could also generate zones of authorised conditional taboo-breaking excess. Even in the darkest days of the war, the two—the taboo of violence and its extreme transgression—continued to cohabit in the same abode but in strictly quarantined rooms.
Therefore it may be that Elias posited the ‘civilising process’ in a way that was too tidy and arguably too normative. The upshot of this was he was often forced to reckon with false positives and felt the need to resort to the awkwardly dualistic explanation of ‘regression to barbarity’ in order to defend the historical validity of his overall theory of civilisation against violent ‘counter-spurts’. By comparison, Ballard’s conception of ‘civilisation’ was a much less tidy space riddled with contradictions and zigzags, where both ‘civilising’ movements and ‘decivilising’ spurts constantly fought it out without definitive winner or overall plot. Whereas Elias encountered the threshold of the taboo prohibition as the furthermost outpost of civilisation, and Bauman approached it as the point of the critical equilibrium between two anti-diametrical potentials inherent in ‘civilised’ modernity, Ballard saw it as a brittle and inevitably short-lived truce. Such an ambivalent and pessimistic view may be unsettling for it hypothesises a different kind of ‘civilisation’—one that is often self-contradictory and morally directionless, where individual self-restraint, empathy, and civility coexist incongruously with uncivility, violent excess, and taboo-breaking transgression, whether as norm or as exception or more often both. Rather than viewing the ‘civilising process’ as a story of meaningful advancement in which every ‘counter-spurt’ needs to be tagged with ‘decivilising’ effect and treated as aberrant, we may instead approach it less as ‘civilising’ (that is, conducive to ‘civilisation’ as an index of progress) and more as an essentially direction-less ‘process’ of negotiating and balancing—always precariously and inconclusively—a multitude of contradictory impulses and ’spurts’.
 Florence Delmotte and Christophe Majastre, “Violence and Civilité: The Ambivalences of the State in Norbert Elias’s Theory of Civilizing Processes”, 9th EISA Pan-European Conference (2015), 55-80.
 Bryan S. Turner, “Weber and Elias on Religion and Violence: Warrior Charisma and the Civilizing Process”, in Steven Loyal and Stephen Quilley (eds.), The Sociology of Norbert Elias (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 245–64.
 François Dépelteau, Enio Passiani, and Ricardo Mariano, “Ariel or Caliban? The Civilizing Process and Its Critiques”, in François Dépelteau and Tatiana Landini (eds.), Norbert Elias and Social Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013), 41–59.
 Dépelteau and Landini, 20-40.
 Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 157.
 Norbert Elias, The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Cambridge: Polity, 1996), 308–15.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 12-13.
 For example, Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe: Reflections and Recollections (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963).
 Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
 John Keane, Violence and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 54–88.
 Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, 111.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000).
 Cristina Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
 Aristotle Kallis, “When Fascism Became Mainstream: The Challenge of Extremism in Times of Crisis”, Fascism 4(1) (2015), 6–11.
 Chaim Fershtman, Uri Gneezy, and Moshe Hoffman, “Taboos and Identity: Considering the Unthinkable”, American Economic Journal: Microeconomics 3(2) (2011), 139–64.
 Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, viii.
 Benjamin Noys, Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 84–6.
 Elias, The Civilizing Process, 71–99.
 Stephen Mennell, “Decivilising Processes: Theoretical Significance and Some Lines of Research”, International Sociology 5(2) (1990), 205–23; Jonathan Fletcher, “Towards a Theory of Decivilizing Processes”, Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift 22(2) (1995), 283–96.
 Stephen Mennell, “The Other Side of the Coin: Decivilising Processes”, in Thomas Salumets (ed.) Norbert Elias and Human Interdependencies (Montreal, QC: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2001), 32-49; Mennell, “Decivilising processes”.
 Elias, The Germans, 302–3, 315.
 Eric Dunning and Stephen Mennell, “Elias on Germany, Nazism and the Holocaust: On the Balance Between ‘Civilizing’ and ‘Decivilizing’ Trends in the Social Development of Western Europe”, The British Journal of Sociology 49(3) (1998), 339; cf. Moses on Elias, 'The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’, H-German, February 1999, available at https://networks.h-net.org/node/35008/reviews/43630/moses-elias-germans-power-struggles-and-development-habitus-nineteenth
 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006), 106.
 Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 15.
 Agamben, State of Exception, 3.
 Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality (New York, NY: Walker and Co, 1962), 71–80; Stuart Kendall, Georges Bataille (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 151–8.
 Karel Plessini, The Perils of Normalcy: George L. Mosse and the Remaking of Cultural History (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), 93–130.