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James Heartfield examines why France's radical intelligentsia is apologising for a German fascist

The Heidegger affair

Books discussed in this article include:

  • On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy, Tom Rockmore, Harvester Wheatsheaf, £30 hbk

  • Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, Jacques Derrida, University of Chicago Press, £15.95 hbk, £7.95 pbk

  • Between the Blinds: A Derrida Reader, Peggy Kamuf (ed), Harvester Wheatsheaf, £12.95 pbk

  • Heidegger and 'the jews', Jean-François Lyotard, University of Minnesota Press, £8.50 pbk

  • The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Jean François Lyotard, Manchester University Press, £11.95 pbk

  • Heidegger and Modernity, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, University of Chicago Press, £13.50 hbk

  • Nietzsche and Modern German Thought, Keith Ansell-Pearson (ed), Routledge, £40 hbk

  • Within Nietzsche's Labyrinth, Alan White, Routledge, £8.99 pbk
In 1987, Victor Farias' book Heidegger et le Nazisme was published in France, establishing beyond all doubt that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger did not simply turn a blind eye to fascism, but openly espoused it, renewing his Nazi Party card every year from 1933, when Hitler took power, to 1945, when the Allies overthrew the fascist government. The book caused an uproar, with conferences and seminars held, speeches and books written, as French intellectuals were obliged to clarify their relationship to Martin Heidegger. Why so much concern? Because, as Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut point out in their clear presentation of the Heidegger affair, the radical intelligentsia in France - from Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism to Jacques Derrida and deconstructionism - has based itself on the anti-rationalist philosophy of Heidegger and other German irrationalists.

Now Tom Rockmore, who edited the English edition of Farias' book, has returned to the fray with On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy, a retelling of the tale that includes a critique of Heidegger's apologists. Rockmore, like many right-wing commentators on deconstruction, has taken advantage of the association between the radicals and the Nazi philosopher to press home his attack. His book is well researched, but marred by an ill-concealed motive to attack all thoughts radical and Continental. For Rockmore, any expression of German nationalism is tantamount to fascism, while the French are alternately parochial and hysterical.

Also, Rockmore virtually ignores the significant Marxist challenge to Heidegger's thought, such as
Hungarian Georg Lukacs' The Destruction of Reason and Existentialismus oder Marxismus?, because it does not fit his desire to equate Marx and Heidegger. Where Lukacs situates Heidegger's fascism within a parallel development of anti-democratic politics and irrational philosophy, Rockmore reduces the question to one of which of Hitler's policies Heidegger supported. However, flawed as Rockmore's book is, it puts the spotlight on the radicals, leaving the real question of the Heidegger affair: what did they see in him?

The deconstructionists especially had some explaining to do. They had caused a few eyebrows to be raised when they embraced the German irrationalism of Friedrich Nietzsche. France, after all, has been the home of rationalism since Rene Descartes first argued 'I think, therefore I am' - and Nietzsche's ideas had not previously been thought of as radical, but more as a precursor to fascism. However, Nietzsche died before he could be implicated in the rise of the German right, and, it was argued, his contempt for democracy was more an expression of his wholesale rejection of modernity, than of any sectional interest.

Then there was Paul De Man, a literary critic who did so much to further the cause of deconstruction, until he was discovered to have been a propagandist for the Dutch Nazi Party during the war. De Man was quietly shelved, though even then some argued that his political affiliations were not the issue. But then the bombshell - Victor Farias' Heidegger et le Nazisme. Once, after all, could be an accident, twice a coincidence, but three times?

The deconstructionists' response to the Heidegger affair is represented here by Jacques Derrida's Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question and Jean-François Lyotard's Heidegger and 'the jews', as well as the survey by Ferry and Renaut. Taking the opportunity to look again at deconstruction through the prism of the Heidegger affair, three things emerge. First, the French deconstructionists have much more in common with German irrationalism than they have differences with it, and they are not prepared to give up the essence of Heidegger's ideas without a fight. Second, in so far as deconstruction differs from classical irrationalism, it only succeeds in a further degeneration of the morbid subjectivity of that outlook. And third, the French intelligentsia's rejection of the Enlightenment aspiration to reason is an unthinking reaction to the degradation of socialism by Stalinism, that ends up reproducing the central fault of Stalinism, its narrowly national orientation.

The various attempts by deconstructionists to explain the relationship between fascism and Heidegger's philosophy all seek to detach the real lesson of Heidegger from his political affiliations. Lyotard explains his purpose in rethinking the Heidegger affair as avoiding the trap: 'if Heideggerian, then Nazi; if not Nazi, then not Heideggerian.' (p51) Indeed, the characteristic argument is that Heidegger's fascism was a consequence not of his hostility to the Enlightenment tradition of rationality, but rather of his unwillingness to make a complete break with rationalism. Remaining implicated within a humanist tradition of rationalism, Heidegger, against his better judgement, must follow the inexorable path from Enlightenment to fascism. As Derrida's pupil Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has it, 'Nazism is a humanism' (Ferry and Renaut, p2).

Derrida identifies Heidegger's failure to break with the Enlightenment as his remaining commitment to humanism. Heidegger's insistence on the superiority of man to animal 'cannot avoid a certain anthropocentric or even humanist teleology' (p55). The expression of that humanist teleology for Derrida is Heidegger's concept of Spirit which is implicated in fascism: 'One could say that he spiritualises National Socialism' (p39). Well, one could, but isn't it asking too much that we should believe that if only Heidegger had wanted to save the whale he would not have turned out to be a speciesist Nazi?

The confidence with which the deconstructionists trace the lineage from Enlightenment to fascism is disconcerting. One only has to demonstrate some lingering attachment to Enlightenment values to explain fascist affiliations. The ease of this conflation of Enlightenment with fascism is the clearest sign of the common ground between German irrationalists like Heidegger and deconstructionists like Derrida. For, though they differ on their assessment of fascism, they agree on the overriding wickedness of Enlightenment rationalism.

Now that fascism is discredited, irrationalists assume that fascism's barbarism arose from its roots in rationalism, not its break from rationalism. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe even goes so far as to cite Heidegger's own apologetic description of the final solution from 1949:

'Agriculture is now a mechanised food industry; in essence it is no different from the production of corpses in the gas chambers and death camps, the embargoes and food reductions to starving countries, the making of hydrogen bombs.' (Quoted in Heidegger and 'the jews', p89)

Lacoue-Labarthe is cautious enough to say that this is 'scandalously insufficient' and yet 'absolutely correct' (as if something could be both insufficient and absolute), because it places the extermination camps on their true stage, that of technology (quoted in Heidegger and 'the jews', p85). The assumption that the application of human reason in technology and industry is a negative thing is so strong in both irrationalism and deconstruction alike, that fascists, farmers and scientists are all pretty much as guilty as one another.

In fact the relationship between the irrationalist Heidegger and Enlightenment thinking is misunderstood by the deconstructionists. Heidegger is not somebody who made a brave attempt to escape from the totalitarianism of Enlightenment thought but failed. Rather, Heidegger was engaged in a reaction against Enlightenment reason that, if it did not necessarily oblige him to sign up for the Nazi Party (some things we must allow to choice), was, nonetheless of the same order as the fascist revolt against democracy.

Heidegger stands in the tradition of the Enlightenment only in the sense that he attacks it for not fulfilling the promise of subjectivity that Descartes made when he 'broke down the door' to 'the sovereignty of the Earth'. Heidegger explains the failure of the French to resist the German invasion of 1940 as their failure to live up to Descartes, being unequal 'to the metaphysics born of [their] own history' (quoted in Ferry and Renaut, p62).

German irrationalism decries reason in favour of the Nietzschean 'will to power', a celebration of the Enlightenment value of the subjective will over that of rationality. Even here subjectivity is either restricted in its application, as with Nietzsche, who felt that a handful of supermen can exercise it while the rest of us plebs keep our mouths shut, or subjectivity is ossified, as with Heidegger, for whom subjectivity found its high point in the national spirit.

Deconstruction, by contrast, lacks even the perverse subjectivity of German irrationalism, and in that is a descent from the low point of Heidegger and Nietzsche.

On the face of it deconstruction would seem to be subjectivity in spades, with its celebration of differance over the subjugating universals that it seeks to undermine. Peggy Kamuf's comprehensive Derrida reader reproduces the founder of deconstruction's original 1968 lecture, 'Differance', which demonstrates an early hostility to the subject:

'What differs? Who differs? What is differance? In effect, if we accepted the form of the question, in its meaning and its syntax...we would have to conclude that differance has been derived, has happened, is to be mastered and governed on the basis of the point of a present being, which itself could be some thing, a form, a state, a power in the world to which all kinds of names might be given, a what, or a present being as a subject, a who.' (Between the Blinds, p68)

The celebration of difference, then, is prior even to the subject. It is not a question of my difference from you; that would be to tie difference down to one person. Instead we have a blind differance that disrupts all unity, even the unity of the individual subject. Most of all, though, difference disrupts the possibility of communication between individuals. So, where Derrida places differance before the subject, Lyotard places the differend beyond all possible commensurability:

'A differend would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments.' (The Differend, pxi)

The emphasis upon difference made in both of these terms - differend and differance - need not be too mysterious. Both are attempts to avoid the lifeless abstractions that characterise classical capitalist ideology, and socialist ideology, the deconstructionists would add. However, in the blanket rejection of the universal for the particular, deconstruction forgets a far richer conception of their relation in Marxism .

'To be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man the root is man himself.' Karl Marx praised the Enlightenment resolution of the overarching religious conceptions in to their human, and hence universal, essence in his 'Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right' (Early Writings, 1975, p251), but he went further. The challenge then was to explain how specific ideas arose from a specific social reality. Instead of abstract man, one had to work from historical man in the real conditions of his existence:

'Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.' ('Theses on Feuerbach', Early Writings, p423)

The concept of specificity, as opposed to that of differance, alights on the particular without losing sight of universality. As in biology, species implies genus. Differance, however, implies nothing but differance. It is an abstract dogma - 'attend to difference' - like the autocratic rule: 'there are no rules'. In this way differance is asserted as an already given abstraction, whereas specificity is a guide to investigation that avoids the unmediated reduction of particulars to universals, but retains the aspiration to universality.

Derrida's hostility to universality is such that he fears he sees it in Heidegger's occasional references to Spirit. Derrida suspects Heidegger of giving nationalism a universal existence as Spirit, and eschews even this mystified attempt at universalism. His criticism of Heidegger's Spirit is not that it is an insufficient basis for agreement, but that in presuming to lay the basis of agreement, Heidegger is falling into the old rationalist trap. Derrida would rather have many leprechauns, all giving voice to their differance, than one Spirit. Here one can say that even Heidegger's sordid mystification of German society has the advantage over Derrida's non-judgemental respect for every point of view in that it can at least be refuted.

The popularity of the German irrationalists for the French radical intelligentsia is that they seem to provide an alternative viewpoint to Stalinism that remains critical in its approach to modern society. In fact, the very terms of the break with Stalinism show that the radicals remain within the Stalinist trajectory away from the universalism of Marx and the Bolshevik Revolution.

Ferry and Renaut explain the attraction of German irrationalism to the intelligentsia as 'the chance to condemn, no longer on the basis of Marx but of Heidegger, the economic exploitation of the world, the false values of the industrial culture' (p86). In the absence of a credible Marxism, the irrationalist opposition to modern society appears to be a suitably oppositional one for the intelligentsia.

In Within Nietzsche's Labyrinth, Alan White makes clear that the critical posture he takes from Nietzsche is as much directed at the presumption of opposition as at the status quo, if not more so. Nietzsche provides 'a doctrine that denies gods, afterlives, and even radically different futures (Marxist or technological utopias, or Kantian indefinite progress)--a doctrine that insists life is as it is, now, that it will never be anything else' (p103). The authors of Nietzsche and Modern German Thought provide a less adulatory treatment, but retain the hope that 'Nietzsche "follows" the achievements of Marx by adding yet another vast dimension to the potential for human understanding' (p163).

None of this affection for the German irrationalists' retrograde attack on modern society would make sense if it were not for the perceived failure of Marxism to fulfil the intelligentsia's aspirations to a progressive end to capitalist society. In the events of 1968, when students and younger workers occupied their colleges and factories, the French Communist Party (PCF) opposed them. Radical critics of the party drew the conclusion that the PCF and the bosses were much of a muchness. The student slogan 'no leaders' summed up the hostility to all forms of organisation, whether called communist or capitalist.

As a reaction to the bureaucratic stranglehold of the Stalinists on workplace organisation, the students equation of bosses and the PCF was understandable, but as a method of social investigation it was disastrous. The formalistic identification of all organisation - whether repressive, reformist or revolutionary - turned away from the process of critical analysis in favour of blanket condemnation. All that had to be done was to characterise a point of view as ideological, or as a 'grand narrative', and no further explanation was necessary: the ideology was exposed, the narrative was deconstructed.

In Of Spirit the echo of the slogans of '68 can still be heard. Associating the left with the right, Derrida writes 'discourses...state their opposition to racism, to totalitarianism, to Nazism, to fascism, etc...[they] do this in the name of (the) spirit, in the name of an axiomatic' (p40). Derrida means that to take a definitive stand against fascism is to adopt the totalitarian outlook of fascism. In The Differend Lyotard is more explicit: 'The party must supply the proof that the proletariat is real, but it cannot, no more than one can supply a proof for the ideal of reason.' (p172) Hence Marxism is just as idealistic as rationalism. This method is nothing but formalism. Formal similarities between different phenomena - racism and anti-racism, the proletariat and the ideal of reason - are emphasised at the expense of an investigation of their true specificity.

The formal method of deconstruction, far from prov-iding an alternative to Stalinism, gave a more forceful expression to its inner trajectory - the disintegration of the international communist movement. The radicals, victims of their own formalism, saw in Stalinism only an excessive totalitarianism. However, the bureaucratic methods of the communist organisers masked the subordination of internationalism to national particularism. Stalin's instruction to the communist parties to orient themselves to their own national roads to socialism was not only the defeat of Lenin's universalising synthesis of internationalism, but also the pre-history of the politics of difference.

When the French students counterposed autonomy to the French chauvinism of the PCF, they were in fact taking the disintegration of the left into new territory. Stalin had already laid the basis for the collapse of the international communist movement along national lines. With the politics of difference, even unity within a nation state is held to be too abstract. The deconstruction of Lenin's internationalism which began as socialism in one country, ends up as difference in one living room.

Indeed, Lyotard, an opponent of Stalinism in the sixties, now accepts its basic premise, seeking only to draw its consequences out further: 'Internationalism cannot overcome national worlds because it cannot channel short, popular narratives into epics, it remains "abstract".... Even the communist epic of workers' liberation splits off into national-communist epics.' (The Differend, p161)

The collapse of the Stalinist-inspired left has visited lasting and often humiliating defeats upon the working class movement. But the ideological confusion of the once radical intelligentsia makes a virtue of necessity. In place of Marx's attack on the chaos of capitalism, it embraces the irrationalist condemnation of modern society's excessive rationality. In place of Lenin's universal programme of internationalism, it follows Stalin's path of national particularism. The alternatives of chauvinism and irrationalism demonstrate the need to rebuild an internationalist opposition.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992

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