The March of the Megalothymiacs

Few have stirred beehives of the Left and Right like President Donald J. Trump. Love him or hate him, the man elicits fire-hot responses. Militant direct action groups like Antifa who use physical power in their resistance to everything Trump have been near redlining. The tachometer metaphor is apt. Though they have engaged in riots, property damage, assault, and harassment, their mayhem has not yet crossed the line into murder, shooting, or kidnapping. Not yet is the key.

Not yet might not hold for long if rank and file members follow the advice of Mark Bray, who in 2017 published Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook:

You fight them by writing letters and making phone calls so you don’t have to fight them with fists. You fight them with fists so you don’t have to fight them with knives. You fight them with knives so you don’t have to fight them with guns. You fight them with guns so you don’t have to fight them with tanks.

Bray’s escalation tracks with the “If-you-can’t-beat-‘em-at-the-ballot-box, beat-‘em-with-a-baseball-bat” approach of revolutionary militants. This should not surprise for Antifa is, according to Bray, “a pan-left radical politics uniting communists, socialists, anarchists and various different radical leftists together.” The record of such groups does not bode well for its current incarnation and Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man (1992), offered insight into why.

Fukuyama describes the “motor” that drives the historical process. In simple terms, he views thymos, or spiritedness, as driving individuals and groups. Borrowing from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and from Plato’s Republic, Fukuyama sees three forces motivating human behavior: reason, desire, and thymos. In the political arena, thymos drives the passion for self-recognition and self-worth in people—and also the anger that comes when they feel that recognition is not forthcoming. This dynamic can be seen operating in today’s identity politics and progressive activist movements, where individuals and groups demand respect and recognition and engage in heated language and behavior when they do not receive it. (Pick the protest movement du jour including the French Yellow Vest where plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.)

Fukuyama pushes his insight further when he focuses on megalothymia, where an individual or group wants to be acknowledged as superior to others. This superiority underlies the blinkeredness of militant groups who cannot abide alternative points of view. When political groups driven by excessive passion and righteousness deem themselves irrefutably superior in their claims they use violence to obtain their ends. This has been the narrative and process from the Reign of Terror to today’s Antifa. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it’s political déjà vue all over again.

Bray and other like-minded leaders would do well to heed Fukuyama’s observation that the dust heap of history is littered with megalothymiacs. They would also do well to embrace poet and theorist Kenneth Burke’s insight that great literature and art offer us “equipment for living.” That is, they teach us better and worse ways to conduct our personal and communal lives.

One equipment-bearing work of art today’s militants need to see is Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex. This German-language film from 2008 (based on Stefan Aust’s 1985 book) reveals the truth of Fukuyama’s observation about megalothymia and supports Burke’s prudence that we can learn from the mistakes of others especially when it is presented in compelling and cogent ways.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang, also known as the Red Army Faction, was founded in 1970 in then-West Germany by Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler, and Ulrike Meinhof. Like many obsessive Marxist-Leninist-Maoist groups, this one aimed to radically alter West German society by overthrowing the existing powers and implementing socialism. During its terror spree, the Red Army Faction murdered 34 people and engaged in over 290 other violent assaults.

This two-and-a half-hour film utilizes staged scenes and documentary news footage to viscerally recreate the group’s actions during the 1970s and 1980s. It opens with raspy-voiced Janis Joplin singing “Mercedes Benz,” according to her a “song with great social and political import.”

Oh lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends
So oh lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz

Oh lord won’t you buy me a color TV
“Dialing for Dollars” is trying to find me
I wait for delivery each day until three
So oh lord won’t you buy me a color TV

With these lyrics as background, we see naked children and adults playing in the water and sand at a nudist beach. This juxtaposition is important. This and the other nudity during the film symbolize the motif that runs throughout the story, namely, the desire of the Baader Meinhof group to realize Rousseau’s ideal of the noble savage living in an Edenic state of nature which their Marxism will bring about. The use of the song encapsulates their goal to destroy the ignoble and oppressive structures of capitalism and bourgeois materialism represented by German luxury cars and vacuous television game shows.

But there is something deeper happening during the opening. When we focus on the adults we glimpse a foreboding of the bad ending to come when Ulrike Meinhof, a journalist of communist sensibilities, catches her husband making lingering eye contact with a topless blonde. The implied lust or adulterous affair between them reveals that no matter how hard we try to create Eden or utopia, we bring our fault-ridden human nature with us as evidence when she leaves her husband later in the film.

The story then plants the rationale for Meinhof to join the revolutionary group when she rants during a television interview against the killing of a protester by the German police during a visit of the Shah of Persia. Fed up with the complacency  of the German bourgeois establishment she becomes increasingly critical of its oppressive nature through her journalism.

Inspired by Meinhof’s depiction of West Germany as a fascist police state, the revolutionary radicals Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader firebomb a department store. While documenting their trial for the crime, Meinhof becomes enamored of them. She calls for armed struggle and helps Baader escape from jail. Abandoning her husband and family, she joins up with the group in a Fatah camp in Jordan, where Palestinian terrorists teach them guerrilla warfare tactics.

Returning home, the group launches its revolutionary campaign, and its chaotic acts of destruction are tracked by Horst Herold, the head of West Germany’s police force. Horst is an interesting antagonist, one who understands and partially empathizes with the gang’s idealism,  yet who knows he has to capture or kill them. The story also reveals the gang’s solidarity with other revolutionary groups such as American Anti-Vietnam war protesters and the Argentine guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

On the surface, despite the complexity of numerous characters and their mini-stories, this film is simple. A radical militant group goes on a terror spree to force others to accept its agenda and meets its demise at the hands of law-enforcement officials who are more clever and powerful than their quarry. Yet there is more going on here beneath the surface.

The movie’s ending indicates what that is, by hearkening back to its beginning. The last sequences focus on the capture of Baader, Ensslin, and Meinhof. During their imprisonment we see their fury, self-doubt, and depression as they begin to realize the enormity of what they’ve done. A dog-eat-dog attitude toward one other sets in. Each of the main characters, isolated in their cells, contemplates suicide. Their self-destructive state bears an ironic twist: Instead of the Rousseauian Eden envisioned at the beginning, they end up in a literal Hobbesian state of nature where their lives become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The self-induced tragic ending meshes with the film’s opening but also reveals the deeper meaning of the story, which is that militant revolutionaries are prone to myopic excess. When utopian zeal is not mitigated by reason and practicality, the result is the destruction of self and the hated Other. This is the meta-truth embedded in the failures of militant groups small and large as evidenced by the Baader Meinhof Gang and the atrocities committed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and a host of other monomaniacal ideologues during the 20th century.

Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof fell prey to cyclopean passion. Without the use of reason to guide their desire and thymos, they met the same fate as the ideologues who preceded them: anger, death, and mayhem with little to show for it. Despite what befalls the Red Army Faction’s founders, the movie’s final scene depicts new members taking a kidnapped man into a forest and killing him.

The Baader Meinhof Complex functions as a form of therapeutic cinema. It is both a cautionary tale and a harbinger. It warns of how a militant gang went wrong and reveals what will befall the radically militant when they allow hubristic megalothymia to rule their lives and dictate their ideals. In doing so, the ending raises a vital question: Can the radically militant ever learn from the past?

This is the question groups like Antifa must address. Can they rise above megalothymia and work for rational sustainable outcomes?

Creating a just political and social order is perennially challenging, even asymptotic—an ideal line we can approach but never reach. Such is the bane of our fault-ridden personal and collective nature. We can deny this ineluctable truth and try to force-engineer our utopias and social correctives but we do so at our peril.