Breivik and Fascism – A Lesson from George Orwell

If the public debate that as ensued in the wake of last weeks’ horrific act of terrorism in Norway has proved anything at all it is – yet again – that George Orwell was right on the money when he wrote the following passage of his classic essay Politics and the English Language:

MEANINGLESS WORDS. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality’, while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness’, the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

If you look hard enough then yo will find some interesting and insightful analysis out there on the Internet; Richard Bartholomew is particularly good on the claim that the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, is a ‘Christian Fundamentalist’, while Andrew Brown (CiF Belief) and Dave R (CST Blog/Harry’s Place) have down a decent job of trying to pin down Breivik’s political platform and ideological motives.

Elsewhere. much of the debate – too much in fact – has been dominated by wrangling over labels.

‘Terrorist’ is universally accepted as a given and there’s seems to be little doubt that ‘conspiracy theorist’ is also apt, other than in those places on the internet that routinely deal in conspiracy theories – and, frankly, who cares what the Troofers think anyway.

Breivik, in his rambling 1500 page manifesto, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, rejects labels such as ‘racist’ and ‘Neo-Nazi’ and – seemingly – any personal association with European Neo-Nazi groups in favour of an explicitly cultural agenda which he calls ‘The Vienna School of Thought’ (after the 1683 Battle of Vienna) which he calls a hybrid between several sub-ideologies and to which he attributes the following list of labels:

  • Pro-Nationalism
  • Pro-pan-nationalism (pro-Europeanism)
  • Pro-national or pan-European crusaderism
  • Pro-Christian identity
  • Pro-cultural conservatism
  • Pro-monoculturalism (pro cultural unity)
  • Pro-patriarchy
  • Pro-Israel
  • Anti-Marxism
  • Anti-globalism/internationalism
  • Anti-multiculturalism
  • Anti-Jihadism
  • Anti-Islam(isation)
  • Anti-imperialistic
  • Anti-feminism
  • Anti-pacifism
  • Anti-EU(SSR)
  • Anti-matriarchy
  • Anti-racist
  • Anti-fascist
  • Anti-Nazi
  • Anti-totalitarian

Breivik also throws in a list of what he sees as controversial principles which make for interesting reading:

  • Revolutionary, supports the overthrow of all Western European multiculturalist governments through armed struggle to prevent the gradual demographical extermination of Europeans through Islamic demographic warfare
  • Against excessive US cultural influence
  • Against US military bases/US military personnel on European soil
  • Restriction of media rights. Media should not dictate the policies of the nation or the lifestyles of Europeans
  • Supports the deportation of all Muslims from Europe

Breivik’s adoption of terms such ‘pro-Christian identity’ and ‘pro-cultural conservatism’ plus the generic use of the term ‘right-wing’ to describe his ideological views has, for obvious reasons, been the source of considerable contention.

For what are perfectly understandable reasons, no one who holds what they personally believe to be eminently sensible, rational and moderate political, ideological or religious beliefs wants to linked, directly or indirectly, to a mass murderer. As a result, the casual use of the labels ‘Christian’, ‘conservative’ and ‘right-wing’ in commentaries on Breivik and his manifesto has been passionately contested in comments on a number of blogs by people who, with some considerable justification, wish to make it perfectly clear that whatever Breivik’s personal brand of Christianity, conservatism or right-wing politics might be, it bears little or no relation whatsoever to their own moderate understanding of the terms.

So far, so humdrum.

This is nothing more than the standard reaction of self-professed moderates whenever fringe extremists manage to do something particularly terrible, or extremely stupid, in the name of the belief system they also espouse. The stock defence of self-styled moderates the world over, when confronted with their own lunatic fringe is that of trotting out the No True Scotsman fallacy. When Al-Qaeda manage to blow something up in the name of Islam, moderate Muslims queue up in their droves to reassure us that Islam is a religion of peace and no true Muslim would ever behave in such a despicable manner. Mainstream Christianity does the same thing whenever the creationist/fundamentalist wing put it egregious stupidity on public display; the centre-left does it when the Trots or the Black Bloc manage to pull off a public boner and, as we’ve seen over the last few days, conservatives and other right-wingers have been doing it in an effort to distance themselves from Breivik, even if – in the case of some well-known commentators – their own personal brand of demogoguery has been cited approvingly in Breivik’s manifesto.

Birds, bees and educated fleas would probably do it, if they were able, and, speaking of fleas, even Nick Griffin got in the act on Twitter by claiming that Breivik is a Zionist* and not a nationalist by virtue of his personal interest in Freemasonry.

*Just this one time I feel a little sorry for Nick** – he’s put so much time and effort into pretending that he’s not unreconstructed Jew-hating Nazi over the last 10 years or so only to blow it all in a single tweet…

** Actually I don’t feel the slightest bit sorry for Griffin at all – he’s a complete arsehole, but I thought I’d say that I felt a little sorry for him because I just can’t pass up the opportunity of taking the piss.

None of this wrangling over labels takes us any closer to understanding Breivik’s actual beliefs and/or how and why he chose to express those beliefs through the medium of mass murder. If arguing over labels achieves anything at all, it is only to get in the way of reasoned debate and deflect attention away from the core issues. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we need to find some sort of mutually agreeable label for Breivik’s political views, if only for brevity’s sake – terrorist may be the one label that isn’t subject to dispute but it hardly serves to capture anything of Breivik’s ideological motives and, for that reason, rather sells his actions short.

Before labelling Breivik there are few questions we to answer in order to understand his ideological position properly.

Is he insane? – Gene, at Harry’s Place thinks he isn’t but for now I’m inclined to disagree.

Irrespective of whether he makes a plea of insanity when his case goes to trial I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a psychiatric evaluation determined that Breivik has an active personality disorder. There’s more to insanity than just disordered thinking, irrationality and paranoid delusions. Breivik’s elaborate and narcissistic Knights Templar fantasy, his evident ‘black and white’ view of the world and, in particular, of the relationship between European society/culture and Islam and his obvious disregard from the rights of others are all in keeping with the Cluster B personality disorders which include Anti-Social Personality Disorder, the ‘parent’ category in DMS-IV for sociopathic and psychopathic disorders.

A diagnosis of ASPD would go some way to explaining how and why he was capable of acting on his ideological beliefs in such an extreme manner but not the source/origin of those beliefs and so its only, at best, a partial explanation for the events of last weekend but, nevertheless one that cannot be disregarded if only because it serve to emphasise just how unusual those events are, i.e. it’s relevant to the risk of similar attacks occurring in future which, give or take the possibility of a similarly disordered copycat, seems likely to be relatively low.

Is he a Christian fundamentalist or, indeed, any kind of Christian? – No, not as I see it.

I’m with Richard Bartholomew and Joseph W on this one. Its not entirely clear from Breivik’s manifesto that he necessarily even believes in god in anything other the sense that many people in this country consider themselves to be ‘Church of England’ even though religion plays no significant part in their lives beyond showing up at church for christenings, weddings and funerals. For all that Breivik advocates the enforcement of draconian laws and policies on marriage, divorce and abortion that are, ordinarily, characteristic of the fundamentalist and dominionist movements in United States – colloquially, the American Taliban – there’s little or no real evidence of religious mania is his own writing and nothing which speaks of Christian Millennialism, apocalypticism, creationism or any other extreme theological positions associated with Christian fundamentalism. His views on marriage, divorce and abortion are couched in wholly pragmatic terms and a predicated on the belief that draconian laws that propel people into marriage and prohibit both divorce and abortion will drive up the birth rate across Europe so as to prevent European society being ‘outbred’ by Islam and overrun on numbers alone. Indeed he goes so far as to estimate the impact of each of these laws/policies on the birthrate across Europe.

Breivik is ‘pro-Christian identity’ because, in part, he views this hypothetical ‘Christian identity’ as being an intrinsic feature of European culture and society and, of course, because it serve to facilitate his Crusader fetishism but what this actually indicates, for the most part, is simple that he has bought wholesale into the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ myth which is a standard component of most extreme anti-Islamic, anti-Jihadist political rhetoric and propaganda, where it serves broadly the same function as the infamous Tsarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, does in relation to the propagation of Anti-Semitism.

Is he either a racist or a Nazi/Neo-Nazi? Not in the conventional/generally accepted sense.

In his manifesto, Breivik explicitly rejects any suggest that views are predicated on racism or that he is, in any concrete sense, associated with or connected to any of the Neo-Nazi groups that have kicking around the fringes of European politics since the 1950s or which emerged from Eastern Europe following in the wake of the demolition of the Berlin wall and collapse of Soviet-bloc communism – and, again, there’s nothing in Breivik’s manifesto to indicate a belief in the kind of White supremacism on associates with the European far-right or with the KKK and other overtly racist groups operating in the United States. Whether or not you see this as evidence that racism is declining in importance as political force or merely that it has put on a new suit and evolved/mutated into a political credo founded on an absolute belief in the cultural rather than racial/biological superiority of White European – albeit one which notionally accommodates non-Whites by way of Europeanisation/cultural assimilation – is really a matter of opinion.

Personally I think terms such as ‘racist’ and ‘Neo-Nazi’ are best avoid not because Breivik’s position is necessarily dissimilar to either but simply because their use tends to bring confusion rather clarity when trying to understand his motives.

For broadly similar reasons I’d also prefer to avoid the use of ‘conservative’ and even ‘right-wing’ when referring to Breivik and even to many of the sources rom which he has evidently drawn the inspiration for his manifesto. Both are terms that are far too broad in both meaning and application to offer any sense of clarity, so broad in fact that they would arguably meet Orwell’s definition of word that have been so extensively abused as to have become effectively meaningless save as means of engaging in the game of unnecessary political point scoring.

So, having ruled out ‘Christian fundamentalist’, ‘racist’, ‘Neo-Nazi’, ‘conservative’ and ‘right-wing’ as appropriate labels for Breivik, while accepting that ‘terrorist’ and ‘insane’ [probably] are correct but inadequate labels, where does this leave us in our search for good word to describe him?

Well, what we can say with a considerable degree of certainity is that Breivik’s ideological position is predicated on an absolute belief in the ‘Clash of Civilations’ myth, one which cast Islam in the role of the enemy which poses an implacable existential threat to the European civilisation, culture and society – at its core its battle of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in which Breivik has cast himself as a paladin hero on the side of good, hence the Crusader fetishism and the elaborate Knights Templar fantasy, which runs through his manifesto.

As a religious/mythological concept this is at least as Gilgamesh – and probably a fair bit older than that – but as religious concept in European culture its roots are to be found in the Middle Ages in relation, of course, to the contents of the Revelation of St John the Divine (John of Patmos). A letter sent by Asdo, the abbot of the Cluniac monastery of Montier-en-Der, is around 950AD to the Queen of France, Gerberga of Saxony, established the idea that a last world emperor would conquer non-Christians before the arrival of the Antichrist and things more or spiralled out of control from there via the Crusades, Ottoman incursions in Eastern Europe and the Spanish Reconquista giving rise to the belief, amongst some Christians, that the Antichrist would born into and emerge from within Islam. Other Christians, of course, identify the Antichrist with the Pope, but that’s another story entirely.

The modern, semi-secular version of this myth emerged in the United States out of the anti-communist paranoia of the McCarthy era only to be partially transposed back onto Islam following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union – I say, partially here because the anti-communist element survived this transition in the form of attacks on ‘cultural Marxism’ as the source for the doctrine of multiculturalism.

For now, we needn’t trouble ourselves too much as to the detail of this emergent ideology, its enough to know that encompassed all three of the primary characteristics of Orwell’s expanded conception of ‘nationalism’ as set out in his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism‘, to wit:

By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

So long as it is applied merely to the more notorious and identifiable nationalist movements in Germany, Japan, and other countries, all this is obvious enough. Confronted with a phenomenon like Nazism, which we can observe from the outside, nearly all of us would say much the same things about it. But here I must repeat what I said above, that I am only using the word ‘nationalism’ for lack of a better. Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism. It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government or a country, still less to one’s own country, and it is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist. To name a few obvious examples, Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White Race are all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling: but their existence can be seriously questioned, and there is no definition of any one of them that would be universally accepted.

It is also worth emphasising once again that nationalist feeling can be purely negative. There are, for example, Trotskyists who have become simply enemies of the U.S.S.R. without developing a corresponding loyalty to any other unit. When one grasps the implications of this, the nature of what I mean by nationalism becomes a good deal clearer. A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.

To be a little more precise, Breivik’s ideological position is that which Orwell called ‘Negative Nationalism’ and most closely resembles Orwell’s scathing description of Trotskyism:

(iii) Trotskyism. This word is used so loosely as to include Anarchists, democratic Socialists and even Liberals. I use it here to mean a doctrinaire Marxist whose main motive is hostility to the Stalin regime. Trotskyism can be better studied in obscure pamphlets or in papers like the Socialist Appeal than in the works of Trotsky himself, who was by no means a man of one idea. Although in some places, for instance in the United States, Trotskyism is able to attract a fairly large number of adherents and develop into an organised movement with a petty fuehrer of its own, its inspiration is essentially negative. The Trotskyist is against Stalin just as the Communist is for him, and, like the majority of Communists, he wants not so much to alter the external world as to feel that the battle for prestige is going in his own favour. In each case there is the same obsessive fixation on a single subject, the same inability to form a genuinely rational opinion based on probabilities. The fact that Trotskyists are everywhere a persecuted minority, and that the accusation usually made against them, i. e. of collaborating with the Fascists, is obviously false, creates an impression that Trotskyism is intellectually and morally superior to Communism; but it is doubtful whether there is much difference. The most typical Trotskyists, in any case, are ex-Communists, and no one arrives at Trotskyism except via one of the left-wing movements. No Communist, unless tethered to his party by years of habit, is secure against a sudden lapse into Trotskyism. The opposite process does not seem to happen equally often, though there is no clear reason why it should not.

While Breivik’s rhetoric, and his extreme views on Islam, are source primarily from the fringes of the American right his preferred methods – revolutionary terrorism – are drawn from Bakunin and other 19th century Russian anarchist, a fact which, somewhat ironically, gives him an indirect ideological connection with Al-Qaeda. Sayyed Qutb, the Islamist author, political theorist and activist, who’s writings are widely regarded as having had a major influence on the development of Al-Qaeda’s Islamist ideology, also ‘borrowed’ the concepts of a ‘revolutionary vanguard’ and the use of terrorism as means of bringing about political revolution from Bakunin, merging both into what has, today, become Al-Qaeda’s ‘version’ of jihad.

In that sense, Breivik’s opposition to Islam, or rather to Islamism and to the modern Al-Qaeda ‘brand’ of Jihad is that of being the tailside of a coin to Al-Qaeda’s ‘heads’.

After all that we’ve [hopefully] arrived at a better understanding of Breivik’s ideological position but we still lack a good word to describe him*.

*’Twat’, after the poem by John Cooper-Clarke is probably good enough for general conversation but not for discussing politics.

However, having read through a fair-sized chunk of his manifesto and looking at his list of ideological pros and antis, one item in particular leaps out as being particularly relevant to the question of finding an adequate label for Breivik – Pro-monoculturalism (pro cultural unity).

The ultimate aim of Breivik’s fantasy revolution is that of placing the government of European nations under the direct, authoritarian, control of a series of ‘tribunals’ made up of  ‘cultural conservatives’; bodies which, facing no democratic or constitutional limitations, would exercise unlimited power and authority over every single aspect of the lives of citizens, using this power to bring about an enforced state of ‘cultural unity’ – a pan-European monoculture.

Although much abused, and derided by Orwell as having come to lack any meaning other than ‘something not desirable‘, there is only one word that adequately describes that political agenda…


Breivik is a fascist, not in the unthinking pejorative sense which deploys the word ‘fascist’ as a generic insult but in the very real, totalitarian sense that fascism operated as an authoritarian system of government in Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy and, yes, before it succumbed to the collective madness of its political leadership, as it did in Nazi Germany.

That Breivik claims to be ‘anti-totalitarian’ is neither here nor there – ideological opposition to totalitarianism often means only that a particular individual would prefer to overthrow one totalitarian system in order to replace it with another equally totalitarian system which appears, to them, to to be rather more to their liking. What matters here is the nature of the new European political order that Breivik wishes to bring about as an imagined bulwark against the encroachment of Islam into Europe and its character, as described in Breivik’s manifesto is that of a collection, or perhaps conglomeration, of fascist states.

So, in the interests – for once – of avoid unnecessary argument can I propose to all sides engaged in this debate that we settle our difference over nomenclature by agreeing that the correct term for describing Breivik is simply ‘Fascist’, a term which – helpfully – neither disadvantages nor disparages either liberals or conservatives.

9 thoughts on “Breivik and Fascism – A Lesson from George Orwell

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  4. Much as I agree with the vast majority of this, I think the main problem with accurately labelling Breivik is that as yet we haven’t come up with a convincing catch-all term for the new far right which on the surface eschews racism but which underneath is just as virulent in its hatred of those with brown skin as the fascists and neo-Nazis we’re all familiar with.  Scratch beneath Breivik’s anti-racist facade and you find the same old tropes, i.e. as in the way he exclusively blames “Muslims” for the crime in Oslo, just as the EDL and those associated with it have banged on about “Muslims” being in control of the drug trade in various cities, as if religion has anything whatsoever to do with it. 

    This is why I think he personally has most in common with Tim McVeigh than any previous European terror group or individual.  McVeigh was a fan of the Turner Diaries and a known racist, but he was further radicalised by the Waco and Ruby Ridge sieges.  Coupled with the then highly en vogue “new world order” conspiracy theories, he decided to strike back against the US federal government.

    Breivik instead found his inspiration mainly from the hysterical far-right,  convinced that pure Muslim demographics mean that Europe is doomed.  He combined this with the utterly bizarre conspiracy theory that the Frankfurt school of Marxist social theorists have somehow managed to influence politicians of both mainstream right and left into imposing state multiculturalism and political correctness onto their people without their consent.  Into the mix also came the “anti-jihadist” bloggers and other assorted right-wing figures, both American and European, Pam Gellar and Geert Wilders to name but two, all of whom he came to believe were simply not going to achieve anything through democratic politics, so convinced of the control the “cultural Marxists” have over everything.  Only he, or rather his almost certainly imaginary group, can start off the war by killing not Muslims, although he includes them in his list of “prioritised targets”, but instead hitting the multiculturalists themselves.  In this he shares the “awakening” belief of many other terrorists before him, that through one spectacular act he can both raise awareness among those of like minds that they can personally do something, and also hopefully provoke the authorities into so overreacting that they make things worse, the same trap the West walked into after 9/11.

    While I won’t demure from the fact that his dream Europe would be a very old-fashioned totalitarian place, with the media controlled and patriarchy mandated (heh), he also proposes the on the surface completely incongruous idea of “liberal zones”, where those who wish to live “Sex and the City” lifestyles can do so, as long as they are cut off “ideologically” from the rest of society to avoid “cultural contamination”.  Not many fascists would be willing to offer an apparent safe haven from their policies, especially when so many would obviously consider things to be far more pleasant elsewhere.

    Apart from being a mess of contradictions then, he’s a fascist of the very latest school, albeit one who unlike the EDL has fully pseudo-intellectualised his actions and gone from viewing all Muslims as being bent on world domination to killing those he believes are enabling them.  The wags over at Blood and Treasure suggested, with tongue firmly in cheek, that he could be viewed as the armed wing of Melanie Phillips.  In my view, he’s best compartmentalised as a 21st century European white nationalist, who while others talked decided to act, by murdering the “friends” of his enemies.

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