Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

New International, January 1948


Richard Stoker

Fanaticism and Heresy


From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 1, January 1948, p. 31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Heretics
by Humphrey Slater
Harcourt, Brace. 1947. $2.75.

The Heretics is really two independent novels about two different historical periods, 1197 to 1212 in France, and 1936 to 1939 in Spain. The first novel deals with the fate of the heretical Albigensians and their children; the second is an account of the Spanish Civil War. As an artistic achievement, the latter is the inferior of the two but has a much greater political interest. The first section is the work of a brilliant novelist, the second of an equally brilliant journalist. It is an account rather than a narrative, a report rather than a novel. Slater has, unfortunately, not imaginatively worked through his Spanish material.

The link between these disparate sections is that they both deal with fanaticism and its consequences. Slater states of a Stalinist that his “devout ruthlessness about his policy, which he regarded as something mystically superior to real individuals, and to which they should be utterly subordinate was ... little different from the fanaticism of the old ecclesiastical Inquisition.” The era of Innocent III and the era of Stalin are both characterized by “campaigns, purges, confessions, executions, denunciations, betrayals.”

Fanaticism is, I take it, adherence to a belief no matter what. It submits to no tests. If a Stalinist, ignorant of the latest Soviet edict, derides as false the report that twelve-year-old Russian children are made subject to the death penalty, he will not, when the report is proved true, modify his belief in the justice of the Soviet order. He will state that the edict only proves the advanced character of the regime, because its educational system converts twelve-year-old children into political adults.

I quite agree with Slater on the close similarity between Innocent III and Stalin. But I cannot accept the problem of fanaticism as only a moral one. It is a social and cultural problem as well. Why is fanaticism more virulent in some epochs than in others? The answer must be sought in the social, political and economic tensions of the respective epochs. Stalinism is a horrible perversion, but what are the inadequacies of a capitalist system that make inhabitants of the system into Stalinists? What are the conditions in Russia that permit this rude fanaticism? These arc the questions that Slater must face and has not.

And yet, this is a valuable book. Its anti-Stalinism is not second-hand but is based on Slater’s Spanish experience. Slater understands the role of the Stalinists in the Spanish Civil War. Isolated episodes in the book are brilliant.

He is particularly effective in presenting the Russian policy through the deliberations of the Operational Policy Commission. The Russians propose as their thesis on the duties of the regimental officer that he “obey, know and report,” and mechanically repeat each other’s arguments. When one of the Spanish members of the commission proposes to invest the regimental officer with the power of decision and initiative, he is voted down.

Perhaps the most brilliant writing in the book is his account of a battle scene in which the Loyalists are being slaughtered on a slope. A political meeting is called by the Stalinists to discuss the situation. “The Brigade Commissar made a speech in which he did his best to carry out his instructions to link up the immediate issue of the troops’ morale with the political question of the fight against Trotskyism.” When one of the Stalinists states that he must still try to explain to his men why they are being slaughtered in an untenable military position, he is denounced for undermining morale and giving objective support to fascism. The meeting ends with a unanimous vote of confidence in the leadership and a unanimous condemnation of the “Trotskyist-fascist” agents of the enemy.

Slater is a writer of experience, understanding and power. He has the novelist’s gift, and as soon as he digests his experience, he will write finer novels than The Heretics. But The Heretics is more than a promise; it is an achievement.

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 24 June 2017