Against Grand Narratives, Part 2

Shadia B. Drury

In the first part of this essay (Free Inquiry June/July 2009), I argued that the three main ideologies involved in World War II—liberalism, communism, and fascism—were secular grand narratives modeled on the so-called great religions. I focused on the concept of a grand narrative and on liberalism and how its progressive conception of history as moving toward freedom has contributed to its imperialistic instincts. In the second part of this essay, I will focus on communism and fascism.

In my view, it is a mistake to regard communism and liberalism as antithetical grand narratives. They are both products of the same tradition of thought. They share the same faith in history as a progressive march toward freedom. Where they disagree is on the nature of the freedom toward which history is progressing. For Marx and his followers, the trouble with liberalism is that it fails to understand liberty. The liberty of individuals is not some abstraction acquired in a void; it can only be acquired within a cooperative community in which individuals have the opportunity to cultivate their talents and abilities free from the exploitation, competitiveness, and insecurity of capitalist society. Marx did not regard his denunciation of liberalism as a matter of taste or personal opinion but rather as the verdict of history. For Marx, capitalism was bound to self-destruct once it accomplished its historical task—namely, to create the industrial means by which humanity will transcend scarcity, a necessary prelude to the revolution that would allow the exploited working classes to inherit the earth. Industrialized Europe would lead, and the rest of the world would eventually catch up.

However, Lenin was not willing to sit around and wait for history to take its course, especially since Russia was not an industrial country in 1917 and was therefore on history’s back burner. He was determined to fast-track the historical process in the direction that he knew it was already going. Nor was Mao Zedong any more patient when it came to launching the Chinese revolution. In other words, impatient humanity is just as unwilling to wait for the verdict of history as it was unwilling to wait for the salvation of God. Communism is a classic grand narrative insofar as it regards history as having a grand plan that is not totally dependent on human actions.

Instead of attributing to history a grand plan, fascism attributes to nature an intention to which the ideologues are privy. The Nazis were certainly a party of nature—rural, agricultural, and volkish. But it does not follow, as is so generally assumed, that the Nazis were social Darwinists who believed in the “survival of the fittest”—a phrase coined by the British evolutionist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). In fact, social Darwinism was largely an American phenomenon, associated with such champions of capitalism as Yale University professor William Graham Sumner (1840–1910). Like Spencer, Sumner argued that capitalism is the best economic system because its competitiveness mimics the harsh conditions of nature in which survival is an achievement. In capitalism, as in nature, those who succeed are the fittest and the best. Moreover, those who are successful deserve to succeed because they have acquired the capitalist virtues that make success possible—honesty, sobriety, frugality, and hard work. Social Darwinism continues to fuel the neoconservative ideology of the Republican Party; it is and has always been not only a description of the workings of capitalist society but a moral justification of the capitalist order, including its gross inequalities.

Social Darwinism valorizes success in the urban jungle. When the Nazis looked around, they noticed that all those who were successful—liberals, capitalists, and communists—were at home in the modern, urban, industrial, and cosmopolitan world. But this new world was anathema to them. They longed for the quiet serenity of the countryside. They abhorred the industrialism that was at the heart of both capitalism and communism. After all, Marx had denounced the “idiocy of rural life.”

In contrast to liberals, communists, and social Darwinists, the Nazis were not champions of reason or progress. They were anti-Enlightenment romantics. They wanted to return to the wholesome simplicity of rural life, to the security and stability of nature. But Darwin dealt a fatal blow to the consoling stability of nature. He revealed that nature was a product of a dynamic evolutionary process, no more static or stable than history itself. But with the help of Nietzsche, the Nazis managed to transform Darwinism to suit their purposes. In truth, the Nazi agenda was not a matter of tinkering with social Darwinism but of inverting it in a way that has gone largely unnoticed.

In contrast to the social Darwinists, the Nazis rejected the valorization of success. With Nietzsche as their guide, they surmised that those who are successful in this world were not intended by nature to succeed. Nietzsche portrayed nature as static. It was made up of the strong and the weak, the superior and the inferior, the master and the slave. By nature, the superior is intended to rule over the inferior, the strong over the weak. And that is exactly the way things were in the dawn of human history. With their collective strength and their wily machinations, the weak have managed to shackle the strong. On this view, Christianity and democracy were two of the greatest scams ever invented. They have turned the world upside down. The Aryan race, as represented by Nietzsche’s “blond beast,” lies chained in the dark while the dark and surly races have triumphed. As Hitler’s campaign poster indicates (see illustration), the Nazis intended to liberate the blond beast from the chains by which he has for so long been restrained. “Schluss jetzt! Wählt Hitler!” (End it now! Vote Hitler!) Supposedly, the blond beast had been held captive by Jews, bankers, industrialists, and communists. It was not clear how Jews could be simultaneously bankers and communists, but logic did not matter. The point was to make the Jews paradigmatic of everything the Nazis hated about modernity. Needless to say, it was a successful emotional campaign. And the Nazis proved that they were willing to fight to the death for what they believed nature intended—the ascendancy of the superior race, namely themselves.

In conclusion, liberalism, communism, and fascism were three grand narratives that played significant roles in the conflicts of World War II. At the heart of all grand narratives lies not only a lust for mastery but also for oneness, which is closely connected to purity—racial, ideological, and religious. This quest for puritanical oneness was rooted in the granddaddy of all grand narratives: the jealous God of the Old Testament, whose first commandment was that there shall be no other gods before him. The one true God cannot be mixed with other gods without losing his singular status and hence his identity. All grand narratives inherit the aversion of the God of the Old Testament to diversity and plurality. All of them follow the God of the Old Testament in aspiring to global oneness or hegemony.

Like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, then, liberalism, communism, and fascism are singular, “totalizing,” and “hegemonic”—as the postmodernists rightly point out. Plurality and diversity are anathema to all grand narratives. They all claim to seek peace, but it is a peace in which they emerge triumphant over all humanity at the end of history—it is peace only on their terms. What this means is that devotees of any grand narrative are inclined to fight until they subdue everyone and get their own way. That’s not seeking peace but the reverse. It is a recipe for perpetual war,
violence, and conflict.

We must beware of the dangers of faith in an inevitable destiny—it fires the human imagination and inspires atrocities in an effort to satisfy the longing for the unattainable summit. Worst of all, it allows human beings to absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions by imagining that they are pawns in the grand scheme of God, history, or nature. In this way, conscience is silenced in the face of imperialism, indiscriminate slaughter, and genocide.

So, it is time to abandon the puerility of grand narratives. It is time to accept the fact that civilizations will always rise and fall. It is time to embrace a genuine plurality and stop insisting on our own global dominance. It is time to reclaim the maturity of the pagans and affirm life—even if it is an endless cycle with no purpose beyond itself. It is time to transcend the childish longing to be rescued, delivered, or saved.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


In the first part of this essay (Free Inquiry June/July 2009), I argued that the three main ideologies involved in World War II—liberalism, communism, and fascism—were secular grand narratives modeled on the so-called great religions. I focused on the concept of a grand narrative and on liberalism and how its progressive conception of history as …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.