The introduction to the original 2004 edition of Richard Wolin’s study of Post-Modernism’s intimate relationship with fascist-related philosophy of the 1920s to the 1940s (newly re-published) has a puzzlingly premature obituary for Post-Modernism.
Today the postmodern juggernaut seems to have run aground. Outside of the parochial climate of contemporary academe, its program of a “farewell to reason” failed to take root. Its bold proclamation concerning the end of “metanarratives” of human emancipation also failed to gain widespread acceptance.
In recent years we have seen empirical reasoning assaulted by political activists who declare that human sex difference is a scientific falsehood and that Western science itself is a tool of racist oppression. Scientific data is considered “too upsetting” to be published and contentious ideas are so dangerous they cannot be publicly discussed (even to debunk them). It is demanded by students that public institutions must institute racial quotas and that authors should be stripped of their place in reading lists due to skin colour. Language “is violence” and speech can legitimately be met with actual violence. The cult of victimhood holds sway over national broadcasters, political parties and judicial systems. Post-Modernism has expanded to touch every aspect of discussion as ad hominem attacks and emotional grandstanding threaten to overwhelm reason and evidence.
Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism may have fallen from favour in philosophy and English faculties at leading universities 15 years ago, but since then Post-Modernist relativism has powerfully undermined rational discourse as graduates have entered the wider world, eager to dispense social justice. Wolin observes that Post-Modernism has been co-opted in a recent resurgence in nationalism, while suggesting that as a line of academic inquiry it is discredited. Post-Modernism is often spurned by supporters of Neo-Marxism as politically unsound, reliant on philosophy that is tainted by obscurantism and authoritarianism. Yet the combination of Neo-Marxism and Post-Modernism – contradictory though they may be – is what has given the New Left intellectual traction in its attack on the pillars of the West: family, church, capitalism, science, nationhood.
The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism presents the kernel of Post-Modernism in the opposition of the Counter-Enlightenment to the humanism of the Enlightenment. The overlap between philosophy and politics is apparent in the way philosophy was used to justify political prejudices and the way politicians adopted philosophy to provide their positions with intellectual fibre. At the outset, Wolin writes that he does not wish to tar Post-Modernism with guilt by association, but rather to examine how principles that the Fascists advanced became embedded in Post-Modernism.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s aristocratic and anti-democratic proclivities steered his writing towards the espousal of elitism and the necessity of inspired might over consensus – the antithesis of liberal democracy. Nietzsche’s dictum “There are no facts, only interpretation,” is a favourite with teachers of gender and race studies, who use it to bolster the relativism of “personal truth”. Foucault found in Nietzsche support for the idea of power shaping knowledge. Claude Levi-Strauss saw the horrors of Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries as an inevitable extension of humanism. This correlates with Nietzsche’s prophecy of totalitarian regimes dominating a post-Christian Europe. Framing knowledge in terms of power becomes a tenet of Post-Modernism. “Jean-Francois Lyotard attained notoriety for his controversial equation of “consensus” with “terror”. The idea of an uncoerced, rational accord, argues Lyotard, is a fantasy. Underlying the veneer of mutual agreement lurks force.”
Carl Jung is conceived of as the Post-Modernist antithesis of Modernist Freud. Jung’s intuitive understanding of man’s eternal internal struggles to reconcile archetypes of the unconscious stood in stark contrast to Freud’s quasi-scientific teasing out of friction between conscious and subconscious. Jung posited a racial dimension to archetypes and went on to contrast the cerebral nature of Jews with the youthful vigour of Aryans. Fascism seemed to align well with Jung’s collective racial thinking and the idea of a Nietzschean shamanic figure taking command. In an interview in 1939, Jung nominated Hitler as such a figure. Jung was recipient of the Nazi state’s patronage through work with German institutions. Despite Jung subsequently distancing himself from Fascism, there is no doubting the sympathy between Jungian psychoanalytic theory, National Socialist racial ideology and Post-Modernist anti-rationalism.
Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer were both sympathetic towards Nazism’s claims of Germanic intellectual and biological superiority, at times guardedly supportive (or more) in public actions and statements. Heidegger’s involvement in National Socialism is well documented. Here Wolin describes Gadamer’s propositions regarding the role of prejudice within judgment and his support for Plato’s anti-democratic Republic as advocacy of the unreason inherent in the Nazi Weltanschauung.
Georges Bataille, informed by study of history and ethnography, proposed an aesthetics of violent spectacle; his dwelling upon (and celebration of) degradation, perversion, suffering and destruction mark him as a precursor of Post-Modernist Post-Structuralists intent on destabilising a society founded on complacent materialism. Sexual libertinism (apparent in his erotic novel The Story of the Eye as well as his theoretical writing) is revolutionary because it returns sex to the sacramental function to be found in pagan societies of recent history and pre-history. The cult of primitivism is an alternative to the fallacy of rationalism which debilitates and denatures man. Transgression of the utilitarian law will give rise to the establishment of irrational laws of pre-Enlightenment culture, religious in essence. Advancing paganism, sacrifice (up to and including human sacrifice), the sovereignty of the mystical leader and communal bonding through observation and participation in the grand spectacle all distance Bataille equally from Enlightenment reason and Socialist materialism. Wolin situates Bataille (and his associates in the College of Sociology and the quasi-pagan Acéphale brotherhood) in the group of Left Fascism. Left Fascism, as Wolin describes it, is a rejection of liberalism, democracy and Enlightenment ratiocination and the adoption of Fascist methods for the advancement of the left. Many of Bataille’s associates of the 1930s and 1940s considered him a covert Fascist and thought his commitment to leftism was a cover for infatuation with Fascism. The final rupture between Bataille and André Breton’s Surrealists was a manifesto which included praise of Hitler. Bataille had included as signatories Breton and other Surrealists without consulting them.
Maurice Blanchot’s anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist journalism is cited as evidence of this thinker’s political sympathies. His post-war literary theories were influential on Post-Structuralists due to “the need to account for the rhetorical dimension of language, the focus on the perplexing ambiguities in literary texts, the problematic nature of citations, and the transfer of linguistic structures to the study of literature, psychology, cultural phenomena, history, and metaphysics.” “Literature’s essential characteristics are absence, silence, meaninglessness, and death.” Aside from their content, it was the deep seriousness and density of Blanchot’s texts which left a deep impression on intellectuals.
Jacques Derrida’s metaphysical word-games deconstruct philosophy and language yet also undermine themselves. A hermetic circularity is commenced, one that fails to offer anything but banal generalities, playful mischief and pervasive mistrust. Buoyed by a comforting wave of nihilism, followers of Derrida’s ideas are insulated from correction and refinement, free in the knowledge that political engagement was not only unnecessary but impossible. If “there is nothing outside the text” one might as well retreat into discourses on linguistic riddles and slippages in meaning. Foucault and Edward Said (among others) lambasted Derrida as a purveyor of weighty minutiae and of adopting the status of an oracular authority. Wolin quotes Michèle Lamont who observes that Derrida has gained credibility in the USA – and to a lesser extent, the UK – which have weak native traditions of leftism, but been rejected by European countries with strong leftist intellectual schools. Derrida’s link with Fascism is his criticism of law based on determinant certitude and legal positivism derived from logos, a set of positive firm attributes which he sees as fundamentally fallacious. In contrast, he stresses the deep irrationality of justice and the need for a mystical authority.
While Wolin’s assessment of influence of Fascist thinkers on Post-Modernism is accurate, he fails to fully identify Fascism as a variant of Socialism. (This is despite Wolin’s nuanced description of Mussolini’s syncretic adaptation of Marxism through the lens of Nietzsche and a discussion of Left Fascism.) Nazi National Socialism and Italian Fascism share many characteristics of Socialism, were allies of Socialist countries and adopted the forms and language of Socialism. Socialism is not the least component of Fascism. Wolin is in error conceiving of Fascism as irrational rightism in opposition to rational leftism, rather than identifying Fascism and leftism as two warring siblings sharing many traits. Wolin takes leftism at face value. “Historically, the left has been staunchly rationalist and universalist, defending democracy, egalitarianism, and human rights.”[v] Sporadically, yes. Yet it is Socialist regimes which were founded on opposition to democracy and the underlying motivation of leftist politics is sentiment not rationality. In Socialist states, human rights apply selectively, to be strategically withdrawn from opponents. Leftists support free speech when they are a dissident minority; when in power, leftists oppose free speech. Wolin fails to adequately highlight the utopian authoritarianism in the Old Left and the sectarianism in the New Left; his conflation of liberalism with leftism is a common error.
On the question of left unreason, Wolin seems a prisoner to the conception that unreason is primarily the prerogative of the political right. Yet it was the positioning of Neo-Marxists such as Gramsci, Horkheimer and Marcuse who dismissed the idea of reason as a tool to critique society. Facing a Late Capitalist society – with its privileges so entrenched in traditional forms and well defended with its weapons of capitalism, consumer goods, mass entertainment and representative democracy – was it not the Neo-Marxist thinkers who determined to avoid persuasion and instead infiltrate institutions to occupy key positions? Was the unreason of the New Left not an admission that tradition, capitalism and democracy could not be overcome by discussion alone and that force and terror may be necessary to combat these axes of oppression? Once these positions had been taken, was not the worm of unreason hollowing out the Western institutions over half a century as much a creation of the left as of the right?
In short, the rise of nationalist populism across the Western world is a reaction to neoliberal social and economic policies – a reaction which has taken the form of identity politics partly due to the legitimisation of the New Left, which has abandoned universalism.
Notwithstanding the reservations outlined above, The Seduction of Unreason is an informative, thoughtful and admirably clear dissection of the ties of Post-Modernism to Fascist thought and identifies Post-Modernist as essentially sceptical towards political liberalism and parliamentary democracy. Anyone wishing to study the intellectual origins of Fascism – and intellectual support for and collaboration with Fascism – will find The Seduction of Unreason a valuable guide.
Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism, second edition, Princeton University Press, 2019, paperback, $29.95/£24, ISBN 978 0 691 19235 2
© 2019 Alexander Adams
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