The Rise of Radicalism: The Social Psychology of Messianic Extremism

The Rise of Radicalism: The Social Psychology of Messianic Extremism

The Rise of Radicalism: The Social Psychology of Messianic Extremism

The Rise of Radicalism: The Social Psychology of Messianic Extremism

Excerpt

I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous—from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows.

—Karl Popper
The Open Society and Its Enemies
(Preface to second edition, 1950)

The French Senate once commenced an address to Napoleon with these striking words:

Sire, the desire for perfection is one of the worst maladies that can affect the human mind.

Hardly a man among the assembly had not suffered personally and poignantly from that malady during the turbulent French Revolution just behind them. They had all lived through the intoxicatingly hopeful days of 1789 and 1791; exulted with Robespierre in his dream of creating a "Republic of Virtue"; and trembled and wept as they watched that dream turn into the Reign of Terror.

How much more relevant for our own twentieth-century world is the realization that moved those sobered Frenchmen! We who have lived through the utopias-turned-to-terror proffered by Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, and their ideological progeny in the 1960s and 1970s, should hardly miss their meaning.

Yet in fact rare are the contemporaries who have understood. One such was the Italian historian Ferrero, who wrote sadly from his place of exile at the time of Adolf Hitler's early victories that men of our day should jettison the traditional celebration of the Fourteenth of July, Bastille Day, and make it instead a time for somber meditation on that "revolutionary apocalypse which has lasted for a century and a half and now, after having devastated Europe, threatens to spread all over the world and destroy everything."

The apocalyptic rage runs among us still. Born of a utopian expectation and lust for a new "Republic of Virtue," a tidal wave of hate and terror struck America in the 1960s. Though it seems now to . . .

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