Are post modernists fascists?

George Crowder, Flinders University

Richard Wolin The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2004 (xxii + 375 pp). ISBN 0-69111-464-1 (hardback) RRP $55.95.

One of the marvels of social and political thought over the past twenty years has been the alliance between left-wing politics and postmodernist philosophy, or anti-philosophy. Thinkers like Foucault and Derrida have been enshrined as intellectual authorities in the cause of oppressed groups of many kinds: indigenous and colonised peoples, women, the gay community, refugees, and others. Yet little thought is required to raise serious doubts about how far progressive causes are really assisted by the kind of thinking that these writers have promoted.

Traditionally, the left was universalist, basing its claims on notions of reason, truth, human rights, justice and democracy. On the postmodernist view, however, these standards themselves, indeed all norms whatsoever, merely express particular interests or power relations that arbitrarily favour some people, cultures or outlooks over others. On this basis, progressive postmodernists are in a position to ‘deconstruct’ the norms of dominant or privileged social groups. It is, however, obvious that precisely the same corrosive procedure can then be applied to progressive ideals too. The justice sought by indigenous people, for example, is, on the postmodernist view, merely an expression of their will to power, no more worthy than that of the groups they are opposing. Postmodernism leads to an ethical stand-off, and consequently to political paralysis. Indeed, the reducing of all ethical debate to terms of power can only benefit those who possess the power already. The powerless are then stripped of their principal weapon, the moral force of appeals to justice. Politically, the logic of postmodernism leads to conservativism.

Postmodernism leads to an ethical stand-off, and consequently to political paralysis.

This much is obvious—or one would have thought so. But might it be possible to go further still? Might the postmodernist outlook have even closer affinities with fascism? This is the possibility explored by Richard Wolin in his excellent The Seduction of Unreason: the Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism. Wolin is no stranger to this territory, having written extensively on one of the great intellectual fathers of postmodernism, Martin Heidegger: The Politics of Being (1990), The Heidegger Controversy (1993), Heidegger’s Children (2001). Notoriously, Heidegger was a member of the Nazi Party and, as Rector of Freiburg University, an enthusiastic propagandist for the regime. After the War, he tried to play down his complicity, giving the impression that this was a temporary aberration. But in the 1980s it emerged that he had been far more deeply implicated in Nazi affairs than he claimed, remaining an active informant on friends and colleagues until the end of the War (Farias 1989).

Of course, it is one thing to say that certain postmodernists or proto-postmodernists were fascists in a previous life (Paul de Man was another), and something else again to argue that they were fascists because of their postmodernism. To infer that postmodernists must be fascists simply because some postmodernists have been fascists in the past would be as silly as concluding that all liberals must be in favour of slavery because Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner. Wolin is, indeed, aware of the dangers of simply claiming ‘guilt by association’ (xiv). His task is to show not just that some forerunners of postmodernism were, as it happens, fascists or fascist sympathisers, but that their politics emerged directly out of, or at least fitted naturally with, their underlying philosophy.

The source of that philosophy was Counter-Enlightenment opposition to the liberal and republican ideals of the French revolution. For thinkers like Joseph de Maistre, the upheavals of the revolution demonstrated the evils of the Enlightenment faith in humanism, universal reason, and the possibility of social and political improvement based on the values of liberalism and democracy. The fundamental message of the Counter-Enlightenment was the very opposite of all this: reason and universality should be rejected as social guides, and the claims of instinct and local tradition reasserted. Human nature is flawed and unreliable, needing to be constrained by received institutions exemplified by the unquestioned, mystical authority of the king, the priest and the executioner.

Carl Jung, the darling of New Agers, flourished under the Third Reich.

It may seem a long way from here to the freewheeling relativism of the postmodernists, but Wolin deftly sketches some of the main links. The central point is the rejection of reason, and nowhere was this more enthusiastically embraced than in nineteenth-century Germany. As Wolin puts it, the doctrine of the Counter-Enlightenment became, essentially, ‘the German Ideology’. Its most spectacular practitioner was Nietzsche, whose reception by the French and later American postmodernists is the subject of a chapter appropriately entitled ‘Zarathustra Goes to Hollywood’. What Foucault, Derrida and others take from Nietzsche is his ‘perspectivism’, his claim to have unmasked ‘reason’ and ‘morality’ as mere vehicles of the will to power. What they conveniently ignore is Nietzsche’s reassertion, on this basis, of the aristocratic values of heroic society, and consequently of a ‘Great Politics’ in which the mass of humanity is a mere instrument for an elite. Reducing Nietzsche to his relativism, cleansed of his substantial moral and political message, postmodernist Nietzscheanism makes possible ‘a stance of uncompromising philosophical radicalism while avoiding all questions of direct moral or political commitment’ (p. 34).

Subsequent chapters tell a similar story about two more German gurus, whose post-War domestication conceals a less than savoury intellectual background. Carl Jung, the darling of New Agers, flourished under the Third Reich, having created a form of psychoanalysis that, unlike Freud’s Enlightenment-oriented view, meshed comfortably with Nazi ideology. For Jung, the key to mental health was liberation from the rational ego and access to the mythic archetypes of the collective unconscious—a process that he believed was easier for Aryans than for Jews. Hans-Georg Gadamer is today celebrated by sensitive communitarians like Charles Taylor as the father of ‘hermeneutics’, a view that emphasises the local, situated character of all interpretation. But Wolin points out the strong affinity between Gadamer’s hermeneutics and that staple of the Counter-Enlightenment, the uncritical acceptance of tradition—in his own words the celebration of ‘prejudice’. In the 1930s the tradition Gadamer valued most was that of German cultural superiority. The acceptability of his views enabled him to advance his career at the expense of Jewish colleagues, and during the war he made himself useful to the regime by lecturing on the propaganda circuit. After the war he quietly dropped the theme of German superiority in favour of an apparently more neutral cultural relativism. But his use of relativism to defend the Soviet Union exhibited, as Wolin aptly puts it, ‘a failure to learn’ (pp. 120-21).

Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot sang the praises of fascism in the 1930s.

From Germany, the German Ideology travelled to France. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair, the First World War and the Great Depression, many right-wing French intellectuals of the 1930s saw in the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment an antidote to the perceived corruption and decline of capitalist liberal democracy. Indeed, the enemy was really modernity as a whole. Socialism, too, was implicated in the image of a shallow, moribund civilisation in which the rationalist, bureaucratic organisation of economic interests was treated as central. The Counter-Enlightenment celebrated a different set of values that seemed to have been lost in modern times but might yet be recovered: vitality and manliness, ritual rather than reflection, the mythic or mystical dimension of experience in contrast with the scientific, self-assertion through violent conflict, and above all the rejection of reason in favour of action and instinct. These were the themes of Nietzsche—and they became the themes of fascism. These values attracted Heidegger, appealing to his philosophical emphasis on the authenticity of ‘being’ in contrast with reason and the pursuit of truth.

Among those French intellectuals who took the same path, Wolin singles out two as especially significant. Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot sang the praises of fascism in the 1930s, retreating into ‘inner emigration’ during the War only when it became clear what fascism looked like at close quarters. Their significance, for Wolin, lies in their influence on Foucault, Derrida and their supporters. From Bataille the postmodernists take their condemnation of reason as ‘homogenising’ and suppressive of ‘difference’, without acknowledging that the difference Bataille is principally concerned to reassert includes anti-democratic authoritarianism and gratuitous (‘transgressive’) violence. From Blanchot the postmodernists inherit a suspicion of language as an insuperable barrier between thought and reality, ignoring the origins of this view as a rationalisation of Blanchot’s prudent wartime ‘silence’.

These themes—the ‘impossibility’ of language, and the homogeneity of reason and democracy—come together in the work of Derrida in particular. For Derrida, language can never generate the stable meaning presupposed by notions of objective truth, and the generality of legal rules necessarily impedes ‘justice’, which is always peculiar to concrete cases. In short, the notion of objective truth is incoherent, and the rule of law unjust. As Wolin points out, the first of these conclusions is itself incoherent, since it presupposes the objectivity it purports to deny. The second is typical of the postmodernist penchant for ludicrous overstatement and for striking radical postures that have no sane implications for political action. Justice, obviously enough, calls for both particularity and generality: attention to the particularity of cases, and general rules to prevent bias and special pleading. The silliness of Derrida’s pronouncements on the injustice of law is nicely brought out by Wolin though the story of the philosopher’s arrest in Czechoslovakia in 1981. Suddenly subject to a genuinely arbitrary decision process, Derrida found himself impelled towards the thought that humanist norms like the rule of law might have some value after all. Undaunted and with ‘great lucidity’, however, he rationalised this odd experience by positing a new philosophical category in which contradictory thoughts confront each other without ‘intersecting’: ‘the intellectual baroque’.

Postmodernism does not entail a thoroughgoing dedication to fascism.

Where does the defining postmodernist hostility towards truth come from? Hatred of the Enlightenment and the modern world is its remote source, but one of Wolin’s most interesting and provocative ideas is that much of French postmodernism can be traced to what he calls the ‘Vichy Syndrome’ (189). For example, he attributes Blanchot’s ‘silence’ (that is, his doctrine of the impossibility of language) to a ‘subconscious will to unknowledge’ resulting from a failure or refusal to face the distressing facts of occupation and collaboration. Indeed, the Vichy Syndrome, Wolin believes, lies behind the radical and dogmatic scepticism of postmodernism as a whole. Although the Counter-Enlightenment or German Ideology was influential in France in the 1930s, it was after the War that notions of reason and truth reached their lowest ebb among French intellectuals.

Wolin’s account of the passage from Counter-Enlightenment to postmodernism is intriguing, persuasive and highly readable. His writing is learned but accessible, and he has a great eye for the telling quotation. Here are two critical questions, though. First, it seems to me that Wolin’s emphasis on the Vichy Syndrome as a source of French postmodernism may risk underplaying other factors, including the colonial experience in Indochina and Algeria, and in particular the failure of Marxism. After all, it was Marxism, not fascism or crypto-fascism that was the intellectual starting point for post-war thinkers like Foucault and Derrida. Indeed, the Vichy Syndrome and the failure of Marxism can be seen as instances of the same broader phenomenon, the psychology of ‘sour grapes’. Both extreme right and extreme left looked forward to utopias that either did not materialise or did not last. After that, where is there to go (for the unapologetic) but inward, into a position of extreme cynicism in which all norms are equally spent and all politics equally suspect?

Second, might Wolin be accused of committing the same ‘genetic fallacy’ that he rightly attributes to postmodernism: the confusion of validity with origins? To show that postmodernist ideas were first conceived by fascists, or proto-fascists, is not in itself to show that those ideas are mistaken. They are mistaken, not because they were conceived by fascists but because they are incoherent.

Wolin does, I think, succeed in keeping these issues separate. He does expose postmodernism’s incoherence, but his principal concern is to point out its dangers. These dangers should not be overstated, as he is careful to note, since the vogue of postmodernism has now greatly diminished, especially in France, at least for the present. Nevertheless, all postmodernists are pro-fascist, in the sense that they can hardly avoid admitting fascism as part of the glorious spectrum of Otherness. They are not pro-fascist in the same way as ordinary fascists, since they must also admit anti-fascist voices as legitimate. So it would be better to say that postmodernists are simply confused, politically as well as philosophically: for the postmodernist, all positions are moral and political equivalents, no matter how contradictory. The trouble is that this confusion is debilitating. Postmodernism does not entail a thoroughgoing dedication to fascism, but neither is the fascism of its forerunners merely coincidental. Jefferson owned slaves against the grain of his Enlightenment convictions; the fascism of Bataille and Blanchot is wholly consistent with postmodernism. Postmodernism opens the door to fascism, and is unable to close it again.


Farias, V. 1989, Heidegger and Nazism, ed. Margolis J. & Rockmore T., trans. Burrell P. and Ricci G.R., Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Wolin, R. 1990, The Politics of Being: the Political Thought of Martin Heidegger, Columbia University Press, New York.

Wolin, R. (ed.) 1993, The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Wolin, R. 2001, Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

George Crowder is Senior Lecturer in the School of Political and International Studies, Flinders University, Adelaide. He is the author of Classical Anarchism (1991), Liberalism and Value Pluralism (2002), and Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism (forthcoming 2004).

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