The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism

The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism

by Richard Wolin


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Fifteen years ago, revelations about the political misdeeds of Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man sent shock waves throughout European and North American intellectual circles. Ever since, postmodernism has been haunted by the specter of a compromised past. In this intellectual genealogy of the postmodern spirit, Richard Wolin shows that postmodernism's infatuation with fascism has been widespread and not incidental. He calls into question postmodernism's claim to have inherited the mantle of the left--and suggests that postmodern thought has long been smitten with the opposite end of the political spectrum.

In probing chapters on C. G. Jung, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Georges Bataille, and Maurice Blanchot, Wolin discovers an unsettling commonality: during the 1930s, these thinkers leaned to the right and were tainted by a proverbial "fascination with fascism." Frustrated by democracy's shortcomings, they were seduced by fascism's grandiose promises of political regeneration. The dictatorships in Italy and Germany promised redemption from the uncertainties of political liberalism. But, from the beginning, there could be no doubting their brutal methods of racism, violence, and imperial conquest.

Postmodernism's origins among the profascist literati of the 1930s reveal a dark political patrimony. The unspoken affinities between Counter-Enlightenment and postmodernism constitute the guiding thread of Wolin's suggestive narrative. In their mutual hostility toward reason and democracy, postmodernists and the advocates of Counter-Enlightenment betray a telltale strategic alliance--they cohabit the fraught terrain where far left and far right intersect.

Those who take Wolin's conclusions to heart will never view the history of modern thought in quite the same way.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691125992
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/19/2006
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books, which have been translated into eight languages, include Heidegger's Children (Princeton) and Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption. His work has also appeared in The New Republic and Dissent.

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The Seduction of Unreason

The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism
By Richard Wolin

Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12599-6



IN HONOR of the Enlightenment the eighteenth century was commonly known as the century of lumière, or light. Its advocates viewed themselves as the "party of humanity": they sought to represent the "general will" rather than the standpoint of particular interests, estates, or castes. The champions of Enlightenment counterposed reason as an analytical solvent to dogma, superstition, and unwarranted social authority. Their compendium of political grievances culminated in the cahiers de doléances submitted to Louis XVI in conjunction with the summoning of the Estates General in 1788-a damning indictment of the injustices and corruptions that prevailed under the absolute monarchies of Louis and his predecessor, Louis XV. With one or two notable exceptions (e.g., Jean-Jacques Rousseau), the philosophes were political moderates. They confidently believed that the monarchy could be progressively restructured, and, consequently, put their faith in piecemeal political reform from above. As such, most were proponents of either "Enlightened Despotism" or, in the case of the so-called Anglomaniacs, English-styleconstitutional monarchy. Yet, time and again, monarchical intransigence pushed them in the direction of democratic republicanism. When on June 27, 1789, the deputies representing the Third Estate-whose members had been bred on Enlightenment precepts-took their seats in the National Assembly on the left side of the hall, the modern political left was born.

Of course, the same sequence of events precipitated the birth of the modern political right, whose adherents elected to sit on the opposite side of the Versailles assembly hall on that fateful day in 1789. But in reality the political battle lines had been drawn decades earlier. By mid-century defenders of the ancien régime knew that the cultural momentum lay with the "party of humanity." A new breed of anti-philosophe emerged to contest the epistemological and political heresies proposed by the Party of Reason-the apostles of Counter-Enlightenment. Relying mainly on theological arguments, the anti-philosophes cautioned against the spirit of critical inquiry, intellectual hubris, and the misuse of reason. Instead, they emphasized the need to preserve order at all costs. They viewed altar and throne as the twin pillars of political stability. They believed that any challenge to their unquestioned primacy threatened to undermine the entire social edifice. They considered self-evident the view-one in effect shared by many of the philosophes themselves-that men and women were fundamentally incapable of self-governance. Sin was the alpha and omega of the human condition. One needed both unquestioned authority and the threat of eternal damnation to prevent humanity from overreaching its inherently fallible nature. Unfettered employment of reason as recommended by the philosophes was an invitation to catastrophe. As one of the leading spokesmen of the Counter-Enlightenment, Antoine de Rivarol (one of the major sources for Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France), remarked in 1789, "From the day when the monarch consults his subjects, sovereignty is as though suspended ... When people cease to esteem, they cease to obey. A general rule: peoples whom the king consults begin with vows and end with wills of their own."

Rivarol and company held "philosophy" responsible for the corruption of morals, carnal licentiousness, depravity, political decay, economic decline, poor harvests, and the precipitous rise in food prices. The social cataclysms of revolutionary France-mob violence, dechristianization, anarchy, civil war, terror, and political dictatorship-convinced the anti-philosophes of their uncanny clairvoyance.

In a much-cited essay Isaiah Berlin contended that one could trace the origins of fascism to Counter-Enlightenment ideologues like Joseph de Maistre and Johann Georg Hamann. Indeed, a certain plausibility marks Berlin's claim. For one of fascism's avowed goals was to put an end to the Enlightenment-derived nineteenth-century worldview: the predominance of science, reason, democracy, socialism, individualism, and the like. As Goebbels pithily observed a few months after Hitler's rise to power, "The year 1789 is hereby erased from history." Maistre and his contemporaries were horrified by the specter of radical change. As such, they preferred the "contrary of revolution" (reform from above) to the specter of "counter-revolution," which would merely perpetuate the cycle of violence.

The fascists, conversely, crossed the Rubicon and never looked back. They knew that, in an age of total war, a point of no return had been reached: there could be no going back to the tradition-bound cocoon of the ancien régime. They elected to combat the values of the French Revolution with revolutionary means: violence, war, and total mobilization. Thereby, they ushered in an alternative vision of modernity, one that was meant to supersede the standpoint of the philosophes and the political champions of 1789.

Who's Afraid of Enlightenment?

Surely, one of the more curious aspects of the contemporary period is that the heritage of Enlightenment finds itself under attack not only from the usual suspects on the political right but also from proponents of the academic left. As one astute commentator has recently noted, today "Enlightenment bashing has developed into something of an intellectual blood-sport, uniting elements of both the left and the right in a common cause." Thus, one of the peculiarities of our times is that Counter-Enlightenment arguments once the exclusive prerogative of the political right have attained a new lease on life among representatives of the cultural left. Surprisingly, if one scans the relevant literature, one finds champions of post-modernism who proudly invoke the Counter-Enlightenment heritage as their own. As the argument goes, since democracy has been and continues to be responsible for so many political ills, and since the critique of modern democracy began with the anti-philosophes, why not mobilize their powerful arguments in the name of the postmodern political critique? As a prominent advocate of postmodern political theory contends, one need only outfit the Counter-Enlightenment standpoint with a new "articulation" (a claim couched in deliberate vagueness) to make it serviceable for the ends of the postmodern left. Yet those who advocate this alliance of convenience between extreme right and extreme left provide few guarantees or assurances that the end product of the exercise in political grafting will result in greater freedom rather than a grandiose political miscarriage.

One of the crucial elements underlying this problematic right-left synthesis is a strange chapter in the history of ideas whereby latter-day anti-philosophes such as Nietzsche and Heidegger became the intellectual idols of post-World War II France-above all, for poststructuralists like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. Paradoxically, a thoroughgoing cynicism about reason and democracy, once the hallmark of reactionary thought, became the stock-in-trade of the postmodern left. As observers of the French intellectual scene have frequently noted, although Germany lost on the battlefield, it triumphed in the seminar rooms, bookstores, and cafés of the Latin Quarter. During the 1960s Spenglerian indictments of "Western civilization," once cultivated by leading representatives of the German intellectual right, migrated across the Rhine where they gained a new currency. Ironically, Counter-Enlightenment doctrines that had been taboo in Germany because of their unambiguous association with fascism-after all, Nietzsche had been canonized as the Nazi regime's official philosopher, and for a time Heidegger was its most outspoken philosophical advocate-seemed to best capture the mood of Kulturpessimismus that predominated among French intellectuals during the postwar period. Adding insult to injury, the new assault against philosophie came from the homeland of the Enlightenment itself.

One of the linchpins of the Counter-Enlightenment program was an attack against the presuppositions of humanism. By challenging the divine basis of absolute monarchy, the unbelieving philosophes had tampered with the Great Chain of Being, thereby undermining morality and inviting social chaos. For the anti-philosophes, there existed a line of continuity between Renaissance humanism, Protestant heresy, and Enlightenment atheism. In Considerations on France (1797) Maistre sought to defend the particularity of historical traditions against the universalizing claims of Enlightenment humanism, which had culminated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of August 20, 1789. In a spirit of radical nominalism, the French royalist observed that he had encountered Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and even Persians (if only in the writings of Montesquieu). But "humanity" or "man in general," he claimed, was a figment of a feverish and overheated philosophe imagination. "Man" as such did not exist.

An assault on humanism was also one of French structuralism's hallmarks, an orientation that in many respects set the tone for the more radical, poststructuralist doctrines that followed. As one critic has aptly remarked, "Structuralism was ... a movement that in large measure reversed the eighteenth-century celebration of Reason, the credo of the Lumières." In this spirit, one of the movement's founders, Claude Lévi-Strauss, sought to make anthropology useful for the ends of cultural criticism. Lévi-Strauss famously laid responsibility for the twentieth century's horrors-total war, genocide, colonialism, threat of nuclear annihilation-at the doorstep of Western humanism. As he remarked in a 1979 interview, "All the tragedies we have lived through, first with colonialism, then with fascism, finally the concentration camps, all this has taken shape not in opposition to or in contradiction with so-called humanism ... but I would say almost as its natural continuation." Anticipating the poststructuralist credo, Lévi-Strauss went on to proclaim that the goal of the human sciences "was not to constitute, but to dissolve man." From here it is but a short step to Foucault's celebrated, neo-Nietzschean adage concerning the "death of man" in The Order of Things.

For Lévi-Strauss, human rights were integrally related to the ideology of Western humanism and therefore ethically untenable. He embraced a full-blown cultural relativism ("every culture has made a 'choice' that must be respected") and argued vociferously against cross-cultural communication. Such a ban was the only way, he felt, to preserve the plurality and diversity of indigenous cultures. His strictures against cultural mixing are eerily reminiscent of the positions espoused by the "father of European racism," Comte Arthur de Gobineau. In The Origins of Inequality Among Human Races (1853-55) the French aristocrat claimed that miscegenation was the root cause of European decline. The ease with which an antiracism predicated on cultural relativism can devolve into its opposite-an unwitting defense of racial separatism-was one of the lessons that French intellectuals learned during the 1980s in the course of combating the ideology of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front.

Lévi-Strauss's polemical critique of Western humanism represents a partial throwback to J. G. Herder's impassioned defense of cultural particularism at the dawn of the Counter-Enlightenment in Yet Another Philosophy of History (1774). For Herder, a dedicated foe of universal Reason's leveling gaze, it was self-evident that "Each form of human perfection is ... national and time-bound and ... Individual ... Each nation has its center of happiness within itself, just as every sphere has its center of gravity." While Herder's standpoint may be viewed as a useful corrective to certain strands of Enlightenment thought (e.g., the mechanistic materialism of the High Enlightenment; La Mettrie, after all, sought to view "man as a machine"), in retrospect his concerted defense of cultural relativism ceded too much ground vis-à-vis the political status quo. To achieve their ends, the advocates of political emancipation required a more radical and uncompromising idiom. Unsurprisingly, they found it in the maxims of modern natural right as purveyed by philosophes such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and Condorcet.

During the 1960s among many French intellectuals cultural relativism came to supplant the liberal virtue of "tolerance"-a precept that remained tied to norms mandating a fundamental respect for human integrity. When combined with an antihumanist-inspired Western self-hatred, ethical relativism engendered an uncritical Third Worldism, an orientation that climaxed in Foucault's enthusiastic endorsement of Iran's Islamic Revolution. Since the "dictatorship of the mullahs" was antimodern, anti-Western, and antiliberal, it satisfied ex negativo many of the political criteria that Third Worldists had come to view as "progressive." Similarly, Lévi-Strauss's unwillingness to differentiate between the progressive and regressive strands of political modernity-for instance, between democracy and fascism-suggests one of the perils of structuralism. By preferring the "view from afar" or the "longue durée," the structuralists, like the anti-philosophes of yore, denigrated the human capacities of consciousness and will. Instead, in their optic, history appeared as a senseless fate, devoid of rhyme or reason, consigned a priori to the realm of unintelligibility.

The parallels between the core ideas of Counter-Enlightenment and postwar French thought have been shrewdly analyzed in a recent study of Maistre's intellectual legacy. With tact and discernment, Owen Bradley phrases the problem as follows:

Maistre's absence from current debates is a yet much greater surprise given the uncanny resemblance between his work and the dominant trends in recent French thought. Bataille on the sacred as the defining feature of human existence ... Blanchot on the ... violence of all speech and writing; Foucault on the social function of punishment in pre-Revolutionary Europe; Derrida on violence and difference ... all of these themes ... were anticipated and extensively elaborated in Maistre's writing.

In many respects, these suggestive remarks concerning the strangely underresearched affinities between Counter-Enlightenment and the postmodernist credo form the core of the study that follows.

"The Sovereign Enterprise of Unreason"

In the concluding pages of Madness and Civilization Foucault praised the "sovereign enterprise of Unreason," forever irreducible to practices that can be "cured." Foucault's contrast between the exclusionary practices of the modern scientific worldview, whose rise was coincident with Descartes's Discourse on Method, and the nonconformist potentials of "madness" qua "other" of reason, would help to redefine the theoretical agenda for an entire generation of French intellectuals. Even in the case of Derrida, who formulated a powerful critique of Foucault's arguments, there was little disagreement with the Foucault's central contention that Reason is essentially a mechanism of oppression that proceeds by way of exclusions, constraints, and prohibitions. Derrida's own indictment of "logocentrism," or the tyranny of reason, purveys a kindred sentiment: since the time of Plato, Western thought has displayed a systematic intolerance vis-à-vis difference, otherness, and heterogeneity. Following the precedents established by Nietzsche and Heidegger, deconstruction arose to overturn and dismantle Reason's purported life-denying, unitarian prejudices.


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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xvii

A Note on Giorgio de Chirico's "Song of Love" xx

INTRODUCTION: Answer to the Question: What Is Counter-Enlightenment? 1


1. Zarathustra Goes to Hollywood: On the Postmodern

Reception of Nietzsche 27

2. Prometheus Unhinged: C. G. Jung and the Temptations of Aryan Religion 63

3. Fascism and Hermeneutics: Gadamer and the Ambiguities of "Inner Emigration" 89

POLITICAL EXCURSUS I: Incertitudes Allemandes: Reflections on the German New Right 129


4. Left Fascism: Georges Bataille and the German Ideology 153

5. Maurice Blanchot: The Use and Abuse of Silence 187

6. Down by Law: Deconstruction and the Problem of Justice 220

POLITICAL EXCURSES II: Designer Fascism: On the Ideology of the French New Right 256

CONCLUSION: "Site of Catastrophe": The Image of America in Modern Thought 278

Notes 315

Index 369

What People are Saying About This

Michael Walzer

Richard Wolin demonstrates conclusively that contempt for liberalism and parliamentary government, whether it comes from the right or the left, whether it is anti-modern or postmodern, is very bad politics. His learned and provocative 'genealogy' of contemporary anti-Americanism should cause deep anxiety among its intellectual purveyors in Europe and here at hometoo.
Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study

Jeffrey Herf

I recommend this powerful critique with great enthusiasm. It is that infrequent book that is of enduring scholarly significance while deserving of a broad readership outside the academy. It also offers American readers insights into French and German mentalities at a time of transatlantic irritations.
Jeffrey Herf, University of Maryland

Jerrold Seigel

This is a wide-ranging and hard-hitting critique of postmodern thinking—especially of its political limitations and failures—based on broad reading and straight thinking. The author adds relevance to his critique of thinkers by juxtaposing those thinkers with interesting accounts of contemporary European politics.
Jerrold Seigel, New York University

From the Publisher

"I recommend this powerful critique with great enthusiasm. It is that infrequent book that is of enduring scholarly significance while deserving of a broad readership outside the academy. It also offers American readers insights into French and German mentalities at a time of transatlantic irritations."—Jeffrey Herf, University of Maryland

Todd Gitlin

Richard Wolin's superb book is urgent reading for those who would toss the Enlightenment out with Descartes. In this tour d'horizon, as deep as it iswide, Wolin refuses to be impressed by the glamour of extremity. He shines light into many dark corners where intellectual fraud, self-deception, and hauteur passed for liberty during a murderous century. Talk about genealogy! Unreason will never be the same.
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University, author of "The Twilight of Common Dreams"

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