The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism
By Richard Wolin
* Publisher: Princeton University Press
* Number Of Pages: 400
* Publication Date: 2004-03-01
* ISBN-10 / ASIN: 0691114641
* ISBN-13 / EAN: 9780691114644
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.
Summary: When extremes meet
Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York and his THE SEDUCTION OF UNREASON is a captivating read. Against a historical background, he posits two modern interludes; one on the German New Right and one on its French counterpart. Putting things in perspective, Wolin reflects on the roots of contemporary postmodern, and sometimes reactionary, thinking. In the 1930’s the Left began to adopt some of the ideas traditionally associated with the Right. The expression “les extremes se touchent” gained credibility, giving room to the oxymoronic terming of Bataille’s “Left Fascism.” After World War II Nietzsche and Heidegger, with their critique of reason and democracy, became the intellectual idols of the French Left. Wolin dubs this counterintuitive phenomenon “left Heideggerianism.” With the collapse of state socialism and the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, yet again voices from the left began to coincide with traditionally reactionary appeals to Nation, “Volk”, and Identity. The Enlightenment twin-concept of reason and progress became the punchbag of the day. This book is largely about this “problematic right-left synthesis.”
In a critical review, the late Richard Rorty argued that Wolin, although his heart is in the right place, has a hard time separating a philosopher’s moral character from his teachings; any thinker who has displayed either hypocrisy or self-deception is unlikely to have any ideas worth adopting. Although Wolin “protests that his book is not an exercise in guilt-by-association”, this is according to Rorty actually pretty close to the mark (The Nation 2004). This is, however, not fair. Firstly, what Wolin says appears on p.301 and is a reference to Heidegger’s catchphrase “reason is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought” as being a philosophical inspiration for a postmodern worldview. Even if this can lead to conceptual confusion and postmodernists can assume a variety of political hues, “they are hardly `fascists’.” Secondly, on page 62 Wolin states that “Nietzsche’s status as a prophet of the twentieth century should neither be exaggerated nor sidestepped”, and “one can be both a towering writer and thinker a n d a fascist – or, in Nietzsche’s case, a protofascist. This lesson challenges our customary notions of intellectual greatness which makes it all the more worth contemplating.” Furthermore, in the first sentence of his preface to “The Heidegger Controversy” from 1991, Wolin characterizes Heidegger as “probably the century’s greatest philosopher.” This conundrum has puzzled philosophers and laypersons alike: how can otherwise brilliant minds be seduced by crude politics?
Rather than “digging up the dirt” on famous European thinkers, Richard Wolin critically addresses the philosophical underpinnings of political thought. As a book reflecting on the political inclinations of a range of thinkers, including Jung, Freud, Schmitt, Blanchot, Derrida, and Habermas, it serves its objective admirably. Written in an engaging style THE SEDUCTION OF UNREASON is a probing foray into a historical landscape which appears to be as yet not fully explored. It depicts with vivacity a division of thought, the repercussions of which are still with us today.
Summary: very interesting
It was very interesting and insightful reading about the intellectual origins of fascism, and how parts of the left have ironically adopted them. I especially found the sections about Bataille and Mussolini fascinating.
Summary: The Destruction of Reason and Seduction of Unreason
This is a wonderful book. Anyone appalled by the trendy popularity of postmodernism for a decade or more, and the devastating impact its preposterous claims for difference, identity, etc., has had on social justice movements for equality, liberty, and solidarity, should go right out and get it–whether or not you’re suffering in a university or on a department full of left-over postmodernists driving BMWs and wearing Gucci while proudly using unintelligible jibberish to impress undergrads and intimidate grad students, perhaps in order to lure them to the boudoir as is so often the case. Wolin does a systematic job walking through the thick forest of postmodernism, taking it right to its personifications, takes them up philosophically and historically, and tracks the cat right back to fascist theory and practice.
With this firmly supportive evaluation as background, I must say it is a shame Wolin rejects Marx in favor of a slippery case for “democracy,” a term losing its meaning as fast as postmodernism is losing its panache. Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, Russia, and of course the US Supreme Court decision in 2000, the emergence of popular fascism around the world puts a problem in the face of those who abstract democracy and treat it as standing above exploitation.
However, other moderate scholars have taken on postmoderism and people need to know about them. Breisach in “The Future of History,” is one, doing an autopsy on postmodernism with great care. Sivanandan, from the left, attacks cultural politics as a mask to reestablish the rule of capital and racism on new grounds.
Wolin’s great contribution, read critically, is to bring the critique of irationalism up to date, to disarm the postmodernists of today and expose their fascist underpinnings. This work, however, has been done before, long before. Cornforth, in “Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy,” predicted postmodernism, and ripped it up from an unfortunately mechanical stance on Marx.