Jeffrey Herf on Reactionary Modernism & Dialectic of Enlightenment

More than any other modern social theorists, Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno placed the intertwining of myth and rationalization at the center of attention in their classic work, Dialectic Of Enlightenment. They opened their book with the now well-known assertion that the "fully enlightened world" radiated "disaster triumphant." If this was the case, understanding the relation between nazism and modernity was crucial. Part of their argument merely repeated standard Marxist views: "Bourgeois anti-Semitism has a specific economic reason: the concealment of domination in production."  Right-wing anticapitalists identified the Jews with the "unproductive" circulation sphere of banking, finance, and commerce and praised the sphere of production and technology as an integral part of the nation. German anticapitalism was anti-Semitic but not antitechnological. But it was a second, and more sweeping, analysis of the Enlightenment that made Horkheimer and Adorno's work truly distinctive. They argued that the German disaster was the outcome of a link between reason, myth, and domination implicit in Enlightenment thought since Kant and Hegel. The Enlightenment's true face of calculation and domination was evident in de Sade's highly organized tortures and orgies. In Germany the Jews suffered from being identified with both abstract rationality and with backwardness and reluctance to conform to national community." National Socialism telescoped in a particular place and time the awful potentialities of the Western domination of nature.

Horkheimer and Adorno were right to point out that reason and myth were intertwined in the German dictatorship. No doubt, the cultural paradoxes of reactionary modernism were less perplexing for these dialectical thinkers than for those more accustomed to dichotomous modes of thought. But if their perceptions were accurate, their theory of the Enlightenment and their view of modern German history were woefully mistaken. What proved so disastrous for Germany was the separation of the Enlightenment from German nationalism. German society remained partially  never "fully" enlightened. Horkheimer and Adorno's analysis overlooked this national context and generalized Germany's miseries into dilemmas of modernity per se. Consequently they blamed the Enlightenment for what was really the result of its weakness. Although technology exerted a fascination for fascist intellectuals all over Europe, it was only in Germany that it became part of the national identity. The unique combination of industrial development and a weak liberal tradition was the social background for reactionary modernism. The thesis of the dialectic of enlightenment obscured this historical uniqueness. As a "critical theory," it is strangely apologetic in regard to modern Germany history. It is one of the ironies of modern social theory that the critical theorists, who thought they were defending the unique against the general, contributed to obscuring the uniqueness of Germany's illiberal path toward modernity.

This said, it is better to have been perceptive for the wrong reasons than to have neglected an important problem altogether. It would be less than generous of me not to acknowledge the role concepts such as reification, the aestheticization of politics, and the dialectic of enlightenment have had in directing my attention to the existence of a reactionary modernist tradition in Germany. Although some of the literature on National Socialism inspired by the critical theorists suffers from sloganeering about fascism and capitalism, some very fine reconsiderations of the interaction of modernist and antimodernist currents in National Socialism have also appeared.   [pp. 9-10]

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To be sure, there were similarities between the modernist vanguard in Germany, especially Junger, and right-wing modernism in Europe generally. Some observers have interpreted these parallels as lending support to Adorno and Horkheimer's thesis of the dialectic of enlightenment according to which enlightenment rationality contains within itself a return to myth regardless of national histories and traditions. In my view, however, the urge to compare has obscured German uniqueness. Nowhere else in Europe did technological modernity and romantic protest clash with such force as in Germany. Nowhere else had industrialization developed so quickly in the absence of a successful bourgeois revolution. And nowhere else was protest against the Enlightenment a constitutive element in the formation of national identity as it had been in Germany from the early nineteenth century up through Weimar. Although Italian, French, and British intellectuals presented similar themes, none of these societies witnessed anything comparable to the Streit um die Technik that filled the political clubs of the literati and the lecture halls of the technical universities in Weimar. Nor did they produce a cultural tradition spanning three-quarters of a century.

The reason for the depth and pervasiveness of the reactionary modernist tradition in Germany had less to do with capitalism or modernity in general than with the form they took in Germany. The conservative revolution must be understood in light of the German problem in general, that is, the weakness of democracy and the liberal principle in a society that became highly industrialized very quickly. Neither anti-Western resentments nor technological proficiency were monopolies of the Germans. But nowhere else did the two coexist in such thorough forms. This is why reactionary modernism became part of German nationalism while elsewhere in Europe it remained one of the fads and fashions of the avant-garde. It was the weakness of the Enlightenment in Germany, not its strength, that encouraged the confusions concerning technology I have called reactionary modernism. And it was also Germany's unique (at that time) path to modernity that made possible the ultimate political impact of reactionary modernist ideology. [pp. 47-48]

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Before examining Sombart's views on technology in more detail, it will be useful to introduce the following brief comments on explanations of anti-Semitism in Germany. In particular, I want to comment on Horkheimer and Adorno's analyses in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. The least convincing aspect of Horkheimer and Adorno's theory was their assertion that modern anti-Semitism was connected to the transition from competitive to monopoly capitalism. They argued that power had shifted to the corporations, yet the economic power of the Jews remained in finance. As the circulation sphere declined in power and influence, the attacks on it as the source of Germany's problems grew.  "Bourgeois anti-Semitism has a specific economic reason," they wrote, namely, "the concealment of domination in production."  According to Horkheimer and Adorno, although the capitalists called themselves productive, "everyone knew the truth."  The truth was that this was an ideological mystification obscuring the realities of exploitation in the labor process. Attacks on the merchant, middleman, and banker are "socially necessary pretenses" directed at the circulation sphere to obscure the real source of exploitation. Proudhonian anarchism and German völkisch traditions, though differing in many ways, were similar in redirecting the resentment of peasants, artisans, and later the urban lower middle classes against capitalism into rage at the Jews.  By the time they wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno had distanced themselves from this restatement of conventional Marxist accounts to incorporate a more Weberian and, in the last years of the war, more pessimistic and more interesting perspective.

This second account was part of their view of the disastrous consequences of the Enlightenment. Anti-Semitism, they claimed, represented a distorted "appeal to idiosyncrasy" in the face of civilizational reason and abstraction. By viewing the Jews as the cause of the destruction of particular, idiosyncratic individuals and their national identity and culture, the anti-Semite turned anticivilizational moods into racism. In Helmut Plessner's phrase, antimodernism in Germany ends in the "hour of authoritarian biology." Rather than conceptualize the origins of social problems, anti-Semitism served to rally nationalist sentiment against conceptual thinking per se. Scientific and technical progress seemed to arouse hatred of the intellect because the conceptualization associated with it always "absorbed the different by the same," thus eclipsing a mimetic world of religious myth and imagery with one in which all experience would be subject to quantification. What was peculiar about modern anti-Semitism was that it presented the Jews as both the primary agents of this rationalization process and the remnants of tabooed elements of life that civilization was trying to repress. The Jews both lagged behind and were too far ahead of civilization. As Horkheimer and Adorno put it, "They are both clever and stupid, similar and dissimilar . . . Because they invented the concept of kosher meat, they are persecuted as swine." The Jews were the demiurge of rationalization as well as representatives of backward remnants, both members of German-Jewish assimilated cosmopolitanism and the East European ghetto. Moishe Postone has recently analyzed these paradoxes in terms taken from Marx. Modern anti-Semitism translated a revolt against commodity fetishism into biological terms. The Jews stood for abstract labor and the Germans for concrete labor. Anticapitalist revolution was thus redefined into its subsequent murderous paths. A powerful German revolution was necessary to destroy the all-pervasive power of the Jews.

These authors' efforts are interesting from our perspective not because they succeed in presenting a general theory of modern antiSemitism. Such success is, in my view, both impossible and not worth the effort. Rather, their interest lies in grasping German, and subsequently National Socialist, anti-Semitism as possessed of equal parts of modernist and antimodernist components. This is what Horkheimer meant when he described National Socialism as a system of rule that used bureaucratic organization and modern propaganda to organize this "revolt of nature" against abstraction. If the Jews were simultaneously agents of abstract rationality and symbols of backwardness, then attacking them both placed one firmly within the traditions of the national insiders and signified adaptation to the spirit of modern times. Anti-Semites attacked the Jews for being both soulless and overintellectualized, and oversexed and money hungry.  It was a form of racial hatred that attacked the mind yet did not call industrial advance into question.  Instead of attacking machines or the capitalists, anti-Semites dreamed of a world without Jews.  [pp. 130-133]

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However critical the Frankfurt theorists were of developing Soviet orthodoxy, their analysis of National Socialism, even after World War II, was imprisoned in the limits of Marxist theory. Probably the most peculiar and bizarre analysis of nazism was Marcuse's view that liberalism and fascism were intertwined. He mistook the weakness of German liberalism, its failure to have effectively confronted the authoritarian forces in German society, for the essence of liberalism. Benjamin's analysis of fascist aesthetics was particularly insightful in grasping the appeal of fascism for the intellectuals in France and Italy as well as in Germany. But again, Benjamin generalized a phenomenon that was most widespread and pervasive in Germany into the problem of fascism as a European phenomenon. Franz Neumann's Behemoth was embarrassingly wrong about the Holocaust because he could not believe that the Nazis would do something so irrational as to kill the scapegoats that allegedly held their rule together. He, too, interpreted National Socialism as a German variant of a crisis generally inherent in advanced monopoly capitalism.

But the most important work on National Socialism written by the critical theorists was the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Let us recall its first sentence: "The fully enlightened world radiates disaster triumphant." Adorno and Horkheimer went on to argue that implicit in the beginnings of the Enlightenment, in Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, was the synthesis of reason, domination, and myth that was revealed in all its truth in de Sade's orgies and Nietzsche's aphorisms, and then put into practice in Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the Enlightenment's truth: reason as total domination. What is striking in rereading this now-classic work is how little, if any, space is allotted to the Enlightenment as a contributor to the liberal political tradition—political pluralism, parliaments, public discussion, the defense of individual liberty against the state—and how much the book focuses on scientific reason undermining universal normative claims to the good life. The book is also striking in how little it has to say about the fate of the Enlightenment in Germany, discussing it instead as if it were a uniform development throughout Europe and America. Its authors' clear intention was to suggest that Auschwitz presented the possible fate of the modern world as a whole. Modernity in general, not only German modernity, combined myth and reason. Enchantment and disenchantment exist side by side. Auschwitz, not the proletariat, is the specter that haunts the modern world.

Because they viewed modernity through the prism of Auschwitz and because they were accustomed to laying bare the antinomies and inner tensions within bourgeois thought and society, Horkheimer and Adorno saw paradoxes the Marxists and modernization theorists missed. But they mistakenly attributed to the Enlightenment what was in fact the product of Germany's particular misery. Germany did not suffer from too much reason, too much liberalism, too much Enlightenment, but rather from not enough of any of them. De Sade's orgies and Nietzsche's aphorisms were warnings of the possibilities of rationalized domination in the absence of liberal freedoms. Horkheimer and Adorno misinterpreted modern German history so badly because they remained too loyal to a version of Marxist orthodoxy that failed to reflect enough on the weakness of liberalism in the German national context. It is ironic that two theorists so devoted to salvaging the particular and unique should have attempted to interpret National Socialism in the context of an overgeneral theory of modernity. It was not the "fully enlightened world" that radiated disaster. Hitler's Germany was never more than partly and woefully inadequately enlightened. Auschwitz remains a monument to the deficit and not the excess of reason in Hitler's Reich. [pp. 233-234]


SOURCE: Herf, Jeffrey. Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich.  London: Cambridge University Press, 1986 [1984].


R. Dumain's Critique of Dialectic of Enlightenment

The Aporias of Marxism / Archaism and Modernity by Enzo Traverso

Anti‑Semitism and National Socialism” by Moishe Postone

Reviews of Stephen Eric Bronner, A Rumor about the Jews: Antisemitism, Conspiracy, and the Protocols of Zion

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide

2003 Reading Review

Marxism & the Jewish Question: Selected Bibliography


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