Editor Luna Sarti interviews Lydia Barnett, Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University about her book After the Flood: Imagining the Global Environment in Early Modern Europe (Johns Hopkins University Press: 2019) which has been honored with the Morris D. Forkosch Prize from the Journal of the History of Ideas for the best first book in intellectual history.
The book discusses how the story of Noah’s flood has been understood, interpreted, and retold by different authors between the late 16th and early 18th century and illuminates the flood’s complicated legacy in the emergence of a global environmental consciousness.They talk about deep time, human agency and “natural” disasters, and speculate on the role of sin as an intellectual tool of the Anthropocene.
With the proliferation of online lectures, working groups and all manner of events, we at the JHI Blog thought it would be a good idea to consolidate news and opportunities relevant to our colleagues working in intellectual history. We will publish these roundups of public lectures, conferences, calls for papers, working groups and new journal issues every other Saturday.
We encourage our readers to send us information and updates about any news or events that fits within this scope. You can use this form to let us know about something you’d like us to publicize.
Hans Blumenberg Seminar Series and Special Events
30 November, Willem Styfhalls (Leuven) Hans Blumenberg’s eschatology – On the Metaphor of the World’s Doom 7 December Pini Ifergan (Bar-Ilan) Goethe and Philosophy? Blumenberg’s version
Lecture: “The Memory of Racial Terror: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum,” Marita Sturken (New York University)
Cultural Memory Seminar, Columbia University Monday, Nov 30, 2020 03:00 PM EST. Register.
Lecture: “German as a Jewish Problem,” Marc Volovici (Birkbeck College)
Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies, University of Oxford Tuesday, December 1, 6:30pm GMT. Register.
Conference: Singularity’s -abilities: In Celebration of Samuel Weber’s 80th Birthday
On the occasion of Samuel Weber’s 80th birthday, twelve scholars who have been inspired and influenced by his work will give short papers, reflecting on the ways in which Weber’s thinking constellates with their own, revealing a singular multiplicity of disciplines. Presentations will be in English and German.
Tuesday, December 1, 2020, 9:00AM – 1:30PM CST. Register.
Lecture: “Money and Capital in Volume I of Capital,” Fred Moseley (Mount Holyoke College)
Yale University, Franke Lectures in the Humanities Wednesday, December 2, 2020, 6:00pm EST. Register.
Roundtable: Experiencing and Remembering Cultural Trauma
As illness and deaths mount and COVID-19 continues to exact its toll, there is no question that we are experiencing a cultural trauma of enormous magnitude and globality. The time is right for asking: What does it mean for a community as a whole to experience trauma? How does the community represent the trauma, both as it is unfolding and in the future? How will it remember the trauma in the future? How will these memories affect future experiences?
Center for Public Scholarship, New School for Social Research Friday, December 4, 2020, 12:00PM to 1:30pm (EST). Register.
Featured Image: Eastman Johnson, Interesting News, 1872.
Kathrin Witter (KW): Until recently, you were best known for your theoretical introductions to Marx, including An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital. What inspired you to write Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society, a biography that covers the life and work of Marx from 1818 until 1841?
Michael Heinrich (MH): The theoretical foundation for this introductory work can be found in my book The Science of Value, of which an English translation will be published with Brill next year and which deals with the evolution of Marx’s works following his dissertation in 1841 with an emphasis on his critique of political economy. For that book, I already had to dive into his biography to some extent, in order to shed light on the background of his writings.
In my diploma thesis in 1982 (which was published in a shortened version in Capital & Class in 1989), I traced the evolution of Marx’s understanding of capital from the Grundrisseto Capital, and I realized that one cannot simply isolate individual texts from Marx’s larger oeuvre. On the contrary, one has to consider every text in the context of Marx’s complete body of work. In a sense, I was thus already preparing for a book connecting Marx’s biography to the development of his thought—I just didn’t know it yet.
Realizing this fact required some biographical coincidences, or rather, contingent events. For example, in 2006 a good friend of mine asked me if I knew a good biography of Marx. I had a lot of complaints about the ones I knew, and when I looked at the ones I didn’t know, I couldn’t find one that I would wholeheartedly recommend. So, I started thinking about what a good biography of Marx would look like, at first without wanting to write one myself. What finally convinced me to tackle this project were two major insights.
First, the desolate state of research on Marx’s biography. Over the years, people have added a number of legends and half-truths to the more or less verified facts about his life. Biographers just copied other biographers, without revisiting the archival documents. New insights, published in the apparatus of the MEGA and some of essays about Marx’s life and work published in rather obscure places, were often neglected.
Second, I realized that his works had to be placed into their historical context with more emphasis than others had done before, but without reducing their existence to these contexts and thus without declaring them obsolete.
MH: Wheen’s book focuses mainly on Marx’s private life and contains a lot of made-up stories. I don’t think it is a serious biography. Considering its time of publication, McLellan wrote a very good book, but he sees the late Marx through the eyes of the early Marx. The main problem with his biography is that it was published in 1973—before the second edition of MEGA, which contains several drafts, excerpts, letters to Marx, and biographical information that were previously unknown. McLellan simply couldn’t take these into account. Sperber is a well-known historian and like any other historian, he offers a great number of sources for his claims. But his claims are not always supported by the material he refers to. Sperber is an expert on the political history of the 19th century, but less so on philosophy and economic theories. His knowledge on Hegel seems to be mainly drawn from J.E. Toews Hegelianism—a solid book, but a rather shaky foundation for making such far-reaching claims on the relation between Marx’s theory and Hegelian Philosophy. Also, his understanding of Marx’s Capital remains superficial. It is reasonable to ask how much knowledge and understanding of Capital one needs to write a biography. But in his introduction, Sperber makes it clear that he understands Marx as a figure of the 19th century, and that he therefore doesn’t think Marx’s theories can help us understand the 21st century. If that is his claim, though, he should have read these theories a bit more closely. To some extent, the work of Stedman Jones is similar. The somewhat programmatic subtitle of his book reads Greatness and Illusion. However, he ascribes more illusion than greatness to Marx. Steadman Jones is known for his contributions on intellectual history, but similar to Sperber, economic theory is not his strong suit. Like Sperber, he neglects recent debates on Marx’s Capital, yet claims that the latter’s program ultimately failed.
The best recent biographical work on Marx is certainly Liedman’s book. He deals with Marx’s work against the backdrop of debates over the last 30 years, but one could critique it insofar as it cuts short on some aspects of Marx’s life.
KW: One of the main problems of intellectual biographies is to define the relationship between the protagonist’s life and their intellectual work. How do you assess the link between the two aspects in the case of Marx? His life was partly dominated by political conflict, in which he was often directly involved. How important is it to have knowledge about Marx’s life in order to understand his work?
MH: I would say that there is a close relationship between his life and his writings. Of course, you cannot solve problems like how to prove the tendency of the rate of profit to fall by simply looking at Marx’s biography. But to understand the history of his work, and particularly why he started but didn’t finish so many new projects, it is necessary to look into his biography. Until today, critics and Marxists alike have often neglected the fact that all of his works were meant to be interventions into the political conflicts of his time. However, it’s not sufficient to deal with these conflicts and controversies on a general historical level. Marx delivered specific interventions that were quite different from those of other commentators. To speak appropriately about the development of his work, you have to take into account the ever-changing horizon of problems he dealt with, his changing enemies, and the specific source material he drew on. And in doing so, you already find yourself in the midst of his biography.
On the other hand, Marx’s biography is influenced by the development of his work: new insights led to new strategies and alliances, provoking in turn the dissolution of friendships and intense personal conflicts. The histories of his life and his work are reciprocally connected. To inquire into this relationship, it’s important to take into account his correspondences and his numerous excerpts. We now have the opportunity to do this kind of research because, in addition to the letters thatMarx received, his excerpts are part of the newly published MEGA. But looking into this is not an end in itself. In contrast to Sperber and Stedman Jones, who try to substantiate their claim that Marx’s works and ideas are mostly obsolete by historicizing him, I want to understand which parts of his works are stuck in the debates of his time and which transcend these debates, and which of the problems he dealt with are also problems of our time. In short: the ultimate goal of my ‘historicization’ of Marx is to update his thought for the contemporary world.
KW: In your book, you emphasize the fragility of Marx’s intellectual biography but also argue that Marx was able to quickly adapt to the drastic changes of his time. He was able to recalibrate his thinking while simultaneously posing the most penetrating questions. Could we read this determination, this preservation of a critical mind in adverse circumstances, perhaps as something like the essence of Marx?
MH: Marx was certainly keen on constantly gaining new insights. He also intended to think politically and revolutionary. Yet this is also true for some of his allies, and even for some of his foes, like Bakunin. Therefore, this is a somewhat vague statement about Marx. But it is important to understand and research how this determination developed over time—and with this, we are back to the fragile and contingent parts of his biography.
KW: In the annex to your book, “How Is Biographical Writing Possible Today?,” you write about the deconstruction of the subject, in a vein similar to the proclamation of the “death of the author” in literary studies by Barthes and Foucault or Bourdieu’s radical critique of biographical writing. Here, you emphasize breaking points and contingencies, and the importance of keeping them visible against the biographical fiction of teleology, and you speak in favor of Foucault’s method of discourse analysis. Yet formally speaking, you defend an emphatic notion of the individual throughout the book, and your project could thus also be understood as a counterpoint to the aforementioned poststructuralist methods. How would you describe your relationship to poststructuralism?
MH: Poststructuralism revealed a set of weaknesses in widely-held beliefs across a range of different fields of research. However, I am not always convinced by the proposed alternatives. The question of subjectivity is a good example. The concept of a subject which is the center of its actions, an entity in time, accessible to the biographer via the use of as many personal documents as possible—today, all of these assumptions appear naive. Still, most biographers, including those of Marx, work that way. But what consequences can be drawn from the poststructuralist critique of biographies? That all biographies are fiction? That we can’t speak of subjects, only of formations of discourse? These conceptions are just as misguided as the idea that history (both political and intellectual) is made only by great men.
On the other hand, I don’t support an emphatic theory of the individual, as you put it in your question. I realize that individual people are bound by structures and discourse, which have to be carefully assessed. Foucault’s Archeology and Genealogy can help a lot with this. But individuals can also transcend structures and discourses, and the possibilities for doing so arise from both subjective and objective conditions. The skills and accomplishments of the individual are not naturally given, they are mediated in manifold ways. And that’s not all. As a historian or biographer, you have no immediate access to a historical individual—for one because there are many blind spots in the knowledge that is accessible about any single person, but also because the biographer’s approach is influenced by its specific historical context. In other words: how a certain historical individual is able to transcend discourse and time depends not only on the actions and contributions of the given individual, but also on the perspective of the biographer. In sum, I maintain the existence of a coherent subject, but I also emphasize that a biography contains mediations, breaking points, and contingencies and dispute the idea of an unmediated access to the subject. Biography should not aim to reveal the “essence” of the person Marx; rather, it is about the permanent, contradictory, and often ruptured process that characterizes the constitution of a particular person under particular social conditions and conflicts.
KW: In the book, you write that you want to discuss whether Marx was “Eurocentric,” and whether he managed to emancipate himself from that view. Regarding his early works about India, would you say that he had Eurocentric views that he needed to overcome? Or was this historical-philosophical speculation an expression of a materialist universalism? I am specifically thinking about his assessment that India’s pre-industrial infrastructure never enabled the proletariat to organize and emancipate itself. Put provocatively, if this is indeed Eurocentric, would that be a purely negative thing? In other words, how important is the idea of a universal historical trajectory for social critique?
MH: Marx’s essays on India from the 1850s are Eurocentric in two ways. First, the developments in Europe are seen as the only path towards freedom and emancipation. Second, Marx assumes that the populations of Asia were too passive, too confined in their conditions to spark any change. Both of these premises changed over time, however. Especially the Indian uprising of 1857 convinced him to overthink his second assumption. And his ethnological and historical studies from the 1870s led him to realize that his first assumption was untenable as well.
A certain infrastructure, a certain level of technological development makes communication and organization easier, but we should be careful when it comes to technological determinism. A liberated society has to overcome existing power relations. This is not a question of technological development or industrial production. Today, we need industrial production to feed the soon to be 8 billion people on earth, and to provide a standard of living beyond mere survival. But emancipation can start in a rural community, which is one of the insights Marx gained in the 1870s. I would thus be careful regarding the idea of a “universal historical trajectory” you mention and would counter as follows: is the assumption of a “universal historical trajectory” perhaps a hasty generalization of very specific circumstances? In his letters from the late 1870s, Marx shows himself quite skeptical about broad assumptions like that.
KW: In the theoretical discussions of this first volume of your planned four-volume biography, you obviously focus on Marx’s early philosophical efforts, especially on his engagement with Hegel and his followers, and the religious-philosophical debates of his time. You claim that these early years are very important for Marx’s intellectual development later on. What are the most formative factors?
MH: Early on in his life, Marx encountered enlightened-liberal thought through his home and his school, especially through his father’s friend Ludwig von Westphalen. In his last school years he discovered Romantic literature, which was important for his attempts at poetry. His literary ambitions came to an end when he moved to Berlin and studied Hegel’s critique of Romanticism for the first time. It’s widely known that Marx became interested in Hegel’s philosophy; however, up until now, no one could explain convincingly why this happened. I think that he started to read Hegel closely because of the intellectual crisis he faced after reading the latter’s critique of Romanticism.
The timing of Marx’s turn to Hegel is important, too: Hegel was criticized by conservatives who increasingly viewed him as a subversive thinker. But he was also criticized by some of his more radical followers, who wanted to go further in critiquing religion and the state. The critique of religion in particular became more and more important. But not—as it’s often said— because people wanted to avoid the critique of politics. Prussia was deemed a “Christian state,” so the critique of religion was inherently also a political question.
Since 1837, Marx was friends with Bruno Bauer, a Hegelian theologist, who became more and more radicalized over the span of a few years. The Marxist tradition has often underestimated Bauer because it has only recognized the critique of him that Marx’s articulated in The Holy Family and The German Ideology. These passages, however, don’t explain why Marx and Bauer were so close between 1837 and 1842. And the critique of religion remained important in Marx’s works. If you read Capital carefully, you can find many explicit and some implicit theological references. Their purpose was not to loosen up a seemingly dry plot but rather to serve in an explanatory function in Capital.
KW: You criticize Engels’ understanding of “Left- and Right-Hegelians” as an opposition of “system” versus “dialectical method,” arguing against this binary of system and method and, more generally, questioning the widely accepted categories of Young and Old Hegelians. What does that mean for Marx’s work and the often somewhat naive emphasis on the development in his thought from idealism to materialism?
MH: The most common stories told about this period are filled with oversimplifications. Most of the time, Left and Right Hegelians are identified with Old and Young Hegelians. Left and Right Hegelians debated religious-philosophical questions in response to Strauss’ text The Life of Jesus. Old and Young Hegelians debated Hegel’s philosophy at large. The latter opposition in particular is way too simplified to understand the specific differences that mark the school of Hegelians in the moment of its dissolution. In the literature that addresses this question, there is no agreement on who is “Old” and “Young”.
Marxists have largely adopted Engels’ distinction between a Hegelian “method” and a Hegelian “system” without examining if this separation is actually valid. The specific political intention behind Engels’ writing on Feuerbach is also neglected. Engels didn’t put forward an in-depth philosophical examination but rather an argument against Neo-Kantianism as it emerged in late 19th-century Germany. His assumptions in The End of Classic German Philosophy (rightly, he doesn’t use the term “German Idealism” here) are based more on his personal memories than on an actual analysis. His intention was to show that one could draw very different conclusions from this “ending” than the Neo-Kantians did. We should not too readily categorize Hegel’s philosophy as “idealism,” at least not based on the definition of “idealism” that emerged in the second half of the 19th century and that is often projected back to the beginning of the 19th century. For Hegel, “idealism” meant conceptual work rather than what today’s common understanding thinks it is: a counter-philosophy to materialism. In that sense, it would be a blatant simplification to frame the development of Marx’s criticism of Hegel as a transition from idealism to materialism.
Just as with Marx, we have to be very critical about a great deal of Hegel’s reception and dispel a variety of myths and misunderstandings. Especially Marxists should not reduce Hegel to his relation to Marx, but rather start with understanding Hegel as a philosopher of his time. Only then the meaning of Hegel’s philosophy can be understood in a way that advances beyond the usual tropes, such as that Marx placed Hegel or the dialectic on its feet. Digging deeper would not only require considering the different stages of Marx’s critique and affirmation of Hegel, but also questioning to what extent this affirmation was adequate.
In the second volume of my biography on Marx, I will deal with the question of materialism as well as the question of communism, which is inherently connected to it. I want to show that when Marx speaks of materialism, his aim was to discuss communism, and not the ontological relation of mind to matter.
KW: Your book is titled Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society. You assume that there is a continuity that has characterized economic organization since the 19th century, namely capitalism. In what ways does late-modern postindustrial capitalism today differ from the capitalism that Marx witnessed, and how does that impact Marx’s critique?
MH: If you compare the capitalism of the mid-19th century with present-day capitalism, you can see a great number of differences, ranging from the technology used over the organizational forms and the degree of internationalization evident in the structure of the monetary and credit system to the nature of state economic policy. However, very many of these seemingly profound transformations can be analyzed without much difficulty by using Marx’s categories. Central aspects of the operational organization of the capitalist production process were summarized by Marx in the first volume of Capital under the rubric of “the production of relative surplus value“ (division of labor, use of machinery) and, in the third volume, in the chapter on the “economization in the application of constant capital.” The former increases the rate of surplus value (and, as a consequence, the rate of profit), while the latter increases the rate of profit without changing the rate of surplus value. What we see in the 20th and 21st centuries—Taylorization, Fordism, automation, Toyotism—can easily be grasped by using these categories.
Regarding the form of wages, Marx already recognized the fundamental importance of the difference between time wages and piece wages. In the former, the capitalist must employ supervisors and control mechanisms to ensure a fast production process and high product quality. With piece wages, the workers themselves are interested in speed and quality; the capitalist in turn saves considerably in control costs. When today parts of the workforce are released into (bogus) self-employment, where they receive the majority of their means of production as well as their orders from their previous company, then they are, in fact, still wage workers producing surplus-value—it’s only that the company avoids the costs for the usual social safeguards, at least in Western Europe (paid vacation, sick pay, social security contributions). The social condition that Marx analyzed as “piece wage,” where the workers independently optimize their own work process in terms of capital, is taken to the extreme here.
To analyze the financial markets, Marx developed the category of “fictitious capital”: claims to payments are given a price (without having any value) and thus become a commodity sui generis. As a consequence, according to Marx, real capital doubles: it executes the movement M-C-M’ in capitalist commodity production, but, at the same time, it circulates as a claim to interest or dividend payments in the form of shares and bonds with a price. Today’s important financial derivatives (options, index certificates, etc.) continue this process and expand it: in the case of stock options, for example, we are dealing with claims to other claims that are traded and receive a price: a share is the claim to a part of the profit of a company, whereas a stock option is the right to acquire a share under precisely defined conditions. If I sell a stock option, I am thus selling an entitlement to an entitlement. Even if I stop at this point, it should have become clear that while there are far-reaching changes in the concrete form of capitalism compared to the 19th century, the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy are very well suited to provide an exact analysis of these changes.
However, Marx was not only concerned with the precise analysis of capitalist conditions. In his mind, this analysis should always also serve a critical function. It should show that increasing social inequality and the destruction of people and nature—tendencies that are more prevalent today than ever—are not industrial accidents, but necessary consequences of this mode of production. So today, just as in Marx’s time, the question is how long we will tolerate the unreasonable demands of this mode of production.
KW: This brings us to today’s repeated talk about a crisis of capital due to the pandemic. However, upon closer inspection, we can see that while there are major losses in certain social and economic areas, other areas emerge from the pandemic stronger than before. Do you think capital is in crisis, or are we just dealing with yet another transformation?
MH: In capitalism, “reform” and crisis are not opposites. Transformations always take place by way of crises. It is precisely the capitalist production of goods that is characterized by the fact that people produce atomistically (although such an atom can be a large corporation), so that there is no social authority that controls this production. The social production process is independent from the individual producers, it appears as a kind of “fate,” as Marx put it in the Grundrisse: “The individuals are subsumed under social production, which exists outside them as their fate; but social production is not subsumed under the individuals who manage it as their common wealth.” (MEW 28, 96). In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the economic dimension of this “fate” was discussed in particular: is capitalism heading towards crisis or collapse? Contrary to such expectations of economic collapse, capitalism has repeatedly succeeded in reforming itself. Although it did not satisfy the needs of the great majority of the population, capitalism did restore the profitability of its production. Now we are dealing with a different type of crisis, one that has begun long before the pandemic: the ecological crisis that threatens the natural foundations of life for all of humanity. A purely intra-capitalist solution to this crisis, a kind of “green” capitalism, is hardly conceivable. Without significant interference in capitalist property, we will not be able to counteract this threat. But this is not simply a matter of nationalizing large companies. A mere change of ownership won’t change anything about the way of production. Beyond the question of property, it must be a question of what and how much should be produced and consumed, and how it should be produced. These are social questions that society must consciously address instead of leaving everything to “the market.”
KW: Finally: when can we expect the next volume of your biography, and which parts of Marx’s life and work will it address?
MH: The second volume is intended to deal with the period up to the beginning of 1845, when Marx was expelled from Paris. It will deal with the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, Marx’s criticism of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and his exile in Paris, where he had extensive contact with the workers’ movement for the first time and where his critical examination of political economy and his lifelong friendship with Friedrich Engels began. I hope to have the manuscript for this volume ready by the end of 2021, so that the volume (as well as its English translation) can be published in 2022. The third volume will go up to 1857, and the fourth volume should then extend to the death of Marx—and a little beyond that: a good biography should not end with the death of its main character.
Kathrin Witter is writing her dissertation on the reception of the so-called Frankfurt School in the GDR at Princeton’s German department. Her interest focuses on the tradition of dialectical philosophy since Hegel.
The new issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (October 2020, 81.4) is now live on Project MUSE.
Over the coming weeks, we will publish short interviews with some of the authors featured in this issue about the historical and historiographical context of their respective essays. Look out for these conversations under the new rubric Broadly Speaking.
Nikhil Menon’s article and the Books Received section are both available without a Project MUSE subscription.
A typical genealogy of the Frankfurt School traces the roots of its critical theory back to what Martin Jay calls the “intellectual ferment” of mid-nineteenth-century German intellectual history (41). Seeking to transcend Hegel’s heady idealism and wrest his legacy from the politically conservative Right-Hegelians, the so-called Left-Hegelians, among them Karl Marx, re-grounded philosophy in progressive practice by developing a materialist approach to apprehending social reality. Ironically, this framework would eventually reify into a scientistic metaphysics of its own. Thus, so the story goes, Frankfurt School forerunners György Lukács and Karl Korsch went beyond vulgar Marxism by looking back to its Hegelian roots and in doing so inspired the Hegelian-Marxism now closely associated with the Institute for Social Research. While no doubt a largely accurate account, this story leaves out a particular voice in the nineteenth-century German philosophical scene that profoundly shaped the Institute’s work. As Theodor Adorno himself made clear in a 1963 lecture, “to tell the truth, of all the so-called great philosophers I owe [Nietzsche] the greatest debt—more even than to Hegel” (172).
The more one looks, the more one finds Friedrich Nietzsche both implicitly and explicitly in the writings of the first generation of the Frankfurt School. In Dialectic of Enlightenment(1944), Adorno and Max Horkheimer place Friedrich Nietzsche alongside Hegel in “recogniz[ing] the dialectic of enlightenment. He formulated the ambivalent relationship of enlightenment to power” (36). In this way we might see, as Gillian Rose has argued, Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modernity’s self-undermining, indictment of modern culture, and critique of reason as foreshadowing many of Adorno and Horkheimer’s arguments in Dialectic. The continuities are more than merely thematic, however. For example, Nietzsche’s aphoristic writing style is the guiding structure for the fragmentary form of Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951), which he describes as a product of his “melancholy science”—a knowing inversion of Nietzsche’s famous “gay science” (in addition to the Magna Moralia once attributed to Aristotle). Likewise, Nietzsche and the early Frankfurt School can be linked on account of a shared ethics of radical creation in the face of stupefying conformity. Herbert Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969)is a case in point: Marcuse explicitly invokes Nietzsche and the very same “gay science” in order to articulate an aesthetic ethos of liberation. Nietzsche’s influence and omnipresence were such that Rolf Wiggershaus, noted historian of the Frankfurt School, claimed that the original members of the Institute “find in him, as in no other philosopher, their own desires confirmed and accentuated” (145).
Despite these clear continuities, we must also take stock of how the early Frankfurt School broke from and, in some cases, condemned Nietzsche. In Minima Moralia, a work already so indebted to Nietzsche, Adorno laments that the seemingly inescapable horrors of the twentieth-century transformed the well-known Nietzschean liberatory dictum amor fati into nothing more than a conservative “love of stone walls and barred windows,” the “last resort of someone who sees nothing and has nothing else to love” (98). At the same time, Horkheimer points out that the master morality Nietzsche articulated in response to the Christian slavishness of the nineteenth century metamorphosed into a projection of the oppressed masses, who having lost their spontaneity lionize the antics of faux-supermen (159–160). But the most stringent critique of all appears in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the very same text in which Adorno and Horkheimer also praise him for his insight into the interpenetration of reason and power. There, Nietzsche is accused of “maliciously celebrat[ing] the mighty and their cruelty” (77) and advocating a “cult of strength” which taken to its “absurd conclusion” as a “world-historical doctrine” results in atrocities like German fascism (79). Further, Adorno and Horkheimer dig into the Nazi connotations of Nietzsche’s infamous blond beast, quoting at length from the Genealogy of Moralsto describe its “pleasure in destruction” and “taste for cruelty.” Finally, they make the strong claim that “from Kant’s Critique to Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, the hand of philosophy had traced the writing on the wall; one individual put that writing into practice, in all its details” (68). As the text makes clear, that one individual is Adolf Hitler.
While we might reason that the early members of the Frankfurt School invoked no one uncritically, their all-but-explicit association of Nietzsche with fascism in Dialectic is bizarre given their explicit interest elsewhere in rescuing him from these trappings. For example, in his early essay “Egoism and the Freedom Movement: On the Anthropology of the Bourgeois Era” (1936), Horkheimer writes that Nietzsche’s superman “has been interpreted along the lines of the philistine bourgeois’ wildest dreams, and has been confused with Nietzsche himself” but is precisely the “opposite of this inflated sense of power” (108–109).Wiggershaus, who already described the Nietzschean streak in their writing, contended that transcripts of early conversations between Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and a handful of other associated thinkers display a clear agreement that “Nietzsche must be rescued from fascist and racist appropriations” (145). If that’s true, what seems to be going on in Dialectic? How do we make sense of this relationship, and what does it teach us about the Frankfurt School itself?
In an article forthcoming in Contemporary Political Theory I argue that the early Frankfurt School saw in Nietzsche not only their desires confirmed, as Wiggershaus puts it, but also their fears: that a radical critique of reason risks courting fascism if it cedes all recourse to reason. In this way, the striking presentation of Nietzsche in the pages of Dialectic is less an interpretive aberration than a performative exaggerationof how Nietzsche’s critical insights made possible his own misappropriation. In other words, the authors wish to draw attention to how Nietzsche is himself an exemplar of enlightenment’s relapse into barbarism. What’s more, knowing that Nietzsche would balk at his uptake by the ressentiment-fueled National Socialists, Adorno and Horkheimer nevertheless exaggerate the proximity between master morality and National Socialism as a way to differentiate themselves profoundly on the question of reason; whereas Nietzsche asks, “why not unreason?” Adorno and Horkheimer remain committed to an admittedly elusive form of positive enlightenment precisely so that they have a bulwark against the barbarism that coopted Nietzsche. As they make clear in the preface to Dialectic, though enlightenment thinking already contains within it the “germ of the regression that is taking place everywhere today,” it is at the same time indispensable for freedom (xvi).
In the final analysis Nietzsche, like Hegel, is turned on his head in the writings of the first generation of Frankfurt School thinkers. Elements of his radical critique were extended while his articulation of master morality and morally-generative radical autonomy were written off as abstract negations of bourgeois reality that risked being appropriated by fascists. For Adorno and Horkheimer in particular, Nietzsche’s most powerful contribution was exposing the domination at the heart of enlightenment. That his moral and political visions could not also be separated from this violence was his prime limitation. And yet, Nietzsche’s shortcoming was of critical interest given their own hostility to abstract utopia and skittishness about articulating the positive form of enlightenment which would serve as the boundary between their own critique of enlightenment rationality and irrationalism. Right alongside their admiration for Nietzsche’s artistic style and critical subtlety was their anxiety about its repercussions and how they might proceed anew. Whereas most descriptions of the early Frankfurt School place them solely within a Hegelian-Marxist framework (though perhaps with an occasional mention of Freud), it is also entirely the case that they took up and reworked this fundamental Nietzschean problematic.
In some ways, labelling the first generation of critical theory (but especially Adorno and Horkheimer) “Nietzschean” not only illuminates their own project but also the contours of the Frankfurt School more broadly. Adorno and Horkheimer’s concern in Dialectic with distinguishing their own disposition toward reason from Nietzsche’s would ironically become a site of contestation within the Frankfurt School, between Adorno and Horkheimer on the one hand and their protégé Jürgen Habermas on the other. In much the same way that Dialectic took issue with Nietzsche’s total evacuation of reason, Habermas writes in his Theory of Communicative Action (1981) that Adorno and Horkheimer’s reliance on the elusive mimetic impulse (their “positive” form of enlightenment) results in an aporia. As he puts it, “the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ is an ironic affair: It shows the self-critique of reason the way to truth, and at the same time contests the possibility ‘that at this stage of complete alienation the idea of truth is still accessible’” (383). Habermas’s Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985) drives the wedge between the first and second generations of the Frankfurt School even deeper: given the aporetic culmination of Adorno and Horkheimer’s appeal to mimesis, Habermas condemns them with precisely the irrationalism they attempted to differentiate themselves from in Nietzsche. Here, Habermas pulls no punches: “Horkheimer and Adorno find themselves in the same embarrassment as Nietzsche: If they do not want to renounce the effect of a final unmasking and still want to continue with critique, they will have to leave at least one rational criterion intact for their explanation of the corruption of all rational criteria.” (126–127). Thus, paying attention to Nietzsche’s hyperbolized presentation in Dialectic brings into relief the distinct irony that Adorno and Horkheimer’s own attempt to “rescue” some form of enlightenment (the title Horkheimer proposed for a sequel volume that was never written) was subjected to the same charges of irrationalism that they performatively raised against Nietzsche.
If Nietzsche looms large both in the early Frankfurt School’s theoretical approach as well as in the critiques leveled against it, a further chapter in the story of their dialectical relationship seems to be on the horizon. Dialectic was in part an attempt to understand how Nietzsche was coopted and mobilized by the far right—a tradition that persists up to the present day (one need only note Richard Spencer as an example). However, it may well be the Frankfurt School’s own turn to be conscripted into the culture wars; as Jay lays out in a recently-published collection of essays, a vulgar right-wing meme is emerging that traces the “cultural Marxism” ostensibly responsible for the “subversion of Western civilization” directly back to the Institute for Social Research (155).
In the same way that Nietzsche’s critical acumen was perverted and mobilized for precisely the ends it sought to undermine, the legacy of Adorno, Horkheimer, and the other early lights of the Frankfurt School is currently being twisted into precisely the prohibition on thinking they vehemently rejected. For the far right, “Critical Theory” has become shorthand for the academic and intellectual forces ostensibly seeking to stifle free speech with its “wokeness” and “social justice,” ultimately destroying Western culture. It’s no surprise, then, that right-wing critics seeking to attack Angela Davis—to many the modern face of radical communism and identity politics in the United States—emphasize her “radical Marxist” training under Marcuse and Adorno. This vast conspiracy theory has proven deadly: Anders Breivik, a Norwegian neo-fascist who believed himself to be combatting “cultural Marxism” when he murdered 77 people in a 2011 killing spree, even recommended Jay’s Dialectical Imaginationas a resourceto his imagined followers. More recently, Trump’s “Patriotic Education Commission” likewise defines itself as a response to Critical Theory—though over time Trump has begun to call out Critical Race Theory, clearly not understanding that the two terms do not mean the same thing.
Of course, even ironic reversals of historical narratives are not total. Despite Nietzsche’s continued misuse and caricature by the right—notably on the issue of antisemitism—his work remains of critical inspiration to progressive social theory after Adorno and Horkheimer, from Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault on through contemporaries such as Judith Butler and Wendy Brown. In a short piece debunking the facile argument that “postmodernism gave us Trump,” Ethan Kleinberg seems to open a way to recuperate the critical Nietzschean legacy of “French Theory” for combatting the far-right “post-truth” ideologies they are wrongly conflated with. In much the same way, the Frankfurt School continues to be a deeply generative critical tradition regardless of their embattled position in current right-wing ideology.
Sid Simpson is Perry-Williams Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy and Political Science at the College of Wooster.
Featured Image: Friedrich Nietzsche (circa 1875), courtesy of Wikimedia.
Jonas Knatz & Anne Schult: Deportations and forced emigration from the 1930s onward entailed a rapid decline of intellectual history and its methods within German academia; yet, parts of this intellectual tradition quickly found a new home abroad, specifically in the US. Some of Meinecke’s students, such as Felix Gilbert, but also others like Werner Jaeger, Erwin Panofsky, and George Mosse were crucial for the establishment of the American history of ideas. In this sense, the history of Geistesgeschichte is not a purely German but rather a transatlantic one. To what extent is US intellectual history, and its trajectory over the second half of the 20th century, indebted to a specifically German approach?
Richard Bourke: The US historical establishment is massively indebted to the impact of German ideas, both under the influence of Meinecke’s students and more generally as a result of the sheer power of German thought. You cite the examples of Gilbert, Panofsky and Mosse. One might also mention Lovejoy, Hughes, Schorske, Krieger, Gay, Iggers, Jay and Toews. The question is to what extent this tradition has been advanced (or derailed) by a succession of intellectual “turns”—respectively dubbed linguistic, postmodern, and postcolonial.
Hayden White, Lynn Hunt and Dominic La Capra practised the history of ideas under the influence of assorted currents of French intellectual life. Since the 1970s, the impact of Michel Foucault has been considerable, as, more generally, was la pensée soixante-huit. Heidegger (and, to a lesser extent, Marcuse and Adorno) had a substantial impact on the character of the latter. Despite the enduring authority of Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hippolyte, the younger generation in France turned violently against Hegel, associating alleged teleological elements in his thought with the totalitarian politics of the 1930s—and, more parochially, with strands of Marxism that culminated in the French Communist Party.
Altérité, différance, and micropolitique were pitted against the aspiration to “totality.” Following the identification of rationality with “violence”—usually meaning coercive forms of occidental universalism—the West along with its culture fell under suspicion. As this cocktail of ideas mixed with debates about gender and race in the US, identity politics rose to prominence on university campuses, convicting past canons of thought of various forms of complicity with oppression. While sweeping verdicts of the kind gained ascendancy, intellectual history was met with misgivings to the extent that it was associated with its roots in Geistesgeschichte. Even its self-proclaimed cosmopolitan ambitions fell under the hermeneutics of suspicion: this, it was claimed, was a mere ruse for the goal of hegemony.
In a historically immigrant society scarred by the legacies of slavery, criticism began to focus on “exclusion” from dominant norms, symbolized by the existence of a Western canon of texts. The rising currency enjoyed by “history from below” helped to brand the history of philosophy as a kind of elitism. There is some irony in the fact that these amorphous indictments were launched under the influence of an alternative (no less canonical) body of writings. Conspicuous besides Heidegger were arguments extracted from Nietzsche and Freud, with Marx retaining at least symbolic capital in the process of arraignment.
Altogether, tools originally deployed to challenge and expose the philosophical foundations of Lutheranism were inchoately turned against the dominance of Western ideals in US universities. In all this the traditions of German thought were conscripted by the prosecution—often convicting German ideas among their opponents. If intellectual history was substantially a German bequest, elements of the same body of thought have been subtly abetting what looks like its demise.
Dina Gusejnova: I wanted to follow up on two points here—the transatlantic theme, and the “German approach.” In a recent discussion of the film, Emily Levine perceptively pointed out that the transatlantic story was not monodirectional. In fact, there were also many cases of reverse influence which are not touched upon in the film. To continue this line of thought, if we wanted to study the history of intellectual history in Germany more comprehensively, we would have to go into more detail about the paths through which ideas and intellectual traditions crossed the Atlantic. We examine the nature of this influence through a look at intellectuals who are themselves also historians of thought. They produce key books which transmit an idea of a tradition to new and multi-disciplinary audiences. I am thinking here particularly of Martin Jay’s group portrait of the Frankfurt School, The Dialectical Imagination, but I should also refer to Raymond Geuss’ The Idea of a Critical Theory. For Geuss and his work in American contexts, in addition to Critical Theory which influenced him in 1960s Germany, the intellectual influence of a Viennese thinker and exile in Princeton, Paul Feyerabend, and his 1970s work, Against Method, is also significant.
When it comes to the reverse direction, perhaps the most forgotten German-American influence, in my view, is that of Max Weber’s influence on W.E.B. Du Bois. Their respective biographers are of course aware of it, but there is a much more significant strand of reception here which intellectual historians should probably make more of. Du Bois’s relevance is often confined to the role of a scholar of race.
One further element of the reverse transatlantic influence which we do touch on in the film is the institutional legacy of German and Austrian intellectuals at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and beyond. Wolf Lepenies was profoundly influenced by his intellectual encounters in Princeton. While his book Melancholie und Gesellschaft remains a German long-seller and is very widely known, it is less influential among historians. At the same time, his influence on historical work involved shaping institutional and personal connections which cut across traditional disciplinary and national boundaries through the Wissenschaftskolleg.
Relatedly, looking at the influence of German thought on US history—rather than more narrowly, German intellectual history—I would follow the suggestions by Robert Pippin, who rightly asserted in his recent discussion of the film that we would need to account for the presence of philosophers like Jürgen Habermas or Hans Blumenberg in German and to some extent international intellectual life. In this context, there are the strange timings in their reception in Anglophone contexts to account for, which are partly due to decade-long lags in their translation into English. One important step in the history of this influence is, of course, France. There is the French reception of Heidegger and Hegel, particularly in Pippin’s own work, which leads to an important strand of reception within Philosophy, which then indirectly influences History. I am not sure I would go as far as identifying a specifically “German” approach that remains essentially recognisable through time—the problem rather is that there is an intellectual breadth which used to be widely represented in the historical profession in Germany but is now much rarer there.
JK & AS: As pointed out by Eva Marlene Hausteiner in the film, after World War II Geistesgeschichte reappeared as a subfield in the newly founded political science departments in German universities, where it became intimately linked to processes of postwar democratization. At the same time, its approach maintained a foothold in conservative history departments, where it was taught and shaped by a handful of influential scholars, such as Reinhart Koselleck or Hans Blumenberg. How would you characterize the multifaceted forms of Geistesgeschichte after 1945?
RB: The film largely concentrated on developments within the historical profession. However, the interview with Hausteiner, among others, shows that a wider angle would certainly prove fruitful. This broader perspective would include an account of approaches to the history of thought that evolved among philosophers, lawyers, and political theorists. Hans Blumenberg, whom you mention, was a figure of singular originality. His nearest predecessors were probably Ernst Cassirer and Karl Löwith, philosophers similarly interested in the modern predicament, which they analysed through the lens of long-term philosophical developments—in Blumenberg’s case spanning the worlds of Nicolas of Cusa and Thomas Mann. In his own time, Blumenberg enjoyed some affinities with Odo Marquard, but it is hard to think of eligible successors to his style of thought.
Legal historians also present interesting lines of development. Carl Schmitt is, of course, very widely studied today. However, other traditions contributed powerfully to Rechtsgeschichte, above all to the effort to explore the foundations of postwar German democracy. Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, Michael Stolleis, and Dieter Grimm have contributed importantly to the history of legal thought, while Böckenförde and Grimm additionally stand out as significant political thinkers.
It is also important to recognise the contribution of historical political philosophy in Germany. Joachim Ritter, and the Ritter Schule, exemplifies the combination of normative inquiry with the history of political thought. Influenced by Weber, Wilhelm Hennis similarly sought to advance political theory as a form of practical reflection rooted in historical experience. Variously responding to the legacy of Hegel, Manfred Riedel, Axel Honneth, and Jürgen Habermas have also drawn on the history of political thought as a means of pursuing political philosophy.
All these thinkers stand out as considerable figures in the intellectual history of modern Germany. However, our aim was not to give an overview of the history of ideas, but instead to explore the fate of the discipline of intellectual history. That discipline has indeed been sustained in interesting ways outside of history departments proper. Yet our subject was how it had fared among professional historians. In that context, practitioners have largely rejected the rich tradition of making philosophy itself a subject of historical inquiry.
DG: I would throw in a small correction regarding the terms of the question here. I think that Eva Hausteiner, when speaking about Dolf Sternberger and the institutional founding of democratic theory in Germany, was using intellectual history in the sense of Ideengeschichte rather than Geistesgeschichte. Speaking of intellectual influences, I think it is important to acknowledge that some very influential intellectuals in German public life were in fact influential not through their work as academic Mandarins, but rather because of their professed dissatisfaction with German academic life. Hans Blumenberg is the best example of this. Generally, what Dolf Sternberger, Blumenberg, and even Koselleck (despite his better anchoring at Bielefeld, he remained less institutionally influential there than Wehler)–what they have in common was an intense preoccupation with language and the way language, through metaphors, vocabulary, and situatedness within various structures of power and influence, shapes minds and social life as well. Interestingly, all three were uneasy with the institutional landscape of post-1945 Germany but still did not find a way to attach themselves to alternative intellectual communities.
If you asked me, I would say the strongest fields of continuity both in Ideengeschichte and Geistesgeschichte in Germany after 1945 have been in three areas: Firstly, intellectual biographies and particularly the biographies of intellectual communities, whether we are looking at the George circle, the Weber circle, as in the work of Gangolf Hübinger, individual portraits of particular thinkers like Weber or Meinecke, but also approaches to understand the mentality of workers’ milieux. The transitions from the study of milieux towards biography over time are particularly visible in work by Gisela Bock, for instance. Secondly, there is work at the juncture between legal, constitutional, and cultural histories of various practices, as in the research on legal and symbolic practice by Wilhelm Hennis, Dieter Grimm, and Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger. Thirdly, the field of Problemgeschichte which emerged from scholarship in medieval history, particularly the work of Otto Gerhard Oexle and the school of reflexive historical research which he influenced. My former colleague at the University of Sheffield, Martial Staub, who is also an editorial member of the Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte, always reminds me of the significance of Oexle for a wide range of research areas and laments his relative invisibility outside German scholarship.
I would also say that influential Germanisten such as Karl-Heinz Bohrer, Helmut Lethen, and others have worked on aspects of intellectual history, as have cultural historians such as the Egyptologists Jan and Aleida Assmann. What interests me in this context is the relative fragmentation of the preoccupations with intellectual history among the figures I just mentioned, the fact that they are at home in other kinds of institutional and disciplinary frameworks. Having said that, there are certainly efforts to consolidate the German achievements in intellectual history of the last decade, notably an edited volume by Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, Edith Hanke and Barbara Picht, Geschichte intellektuell(2015).
JK & AS: Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, one of the interviewees in your film, currently serves as co-editor of the Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte. Founded in 2007, this journal is in many ways a product of the very history you narrate in the film. Indeed, in the journal’s mission statement, the editors describe the project as “consciously genealogical,” drawing on the tradition of the Meinecke circle but also making explicit reference to the American Journal of the History of Ideas, where émigré historians like Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller and others found an intellectual community. At the same time, the editors wish to reestablish Geistesgeschichte as a broad-scale methodology in German academia that reaches beyond disciplinary boundaries: “In the midst of the village of the humanities,” they write, “there are the green pastures of the history of ideas, akin to a common land shared by all.” What is the status of German intellectual history today, and how (or where) do you see its future?
DG: Regarding the last part of the question, I interpret this in the first instance as a question about intellectual history both on Germany and in Germany, but not necessarily institutionalized in History departments. I see a lot of current work in German intellectual history being done on the intellectual and cultural history of the Bundesrepublik, and this seems to be where a lot of the new interest in the field is. There is also a lot of research at the intersection between cultural and diplomatic history, particularly of the Cold War.
There is certainly now also a cosmopolitan and comparative strand in intellectual history as practiced in Germany, so you could say that after a Sonderweg period, German intellectual history has been aufgehoben in the Hegelian sense of the term, even though this would have hardly been to his liking… It is noteworthy that from eight classic essays included in the “Basistexte” edition by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger on Ideengeschichte (2010), only two are by German authors (Koselleck and Luhmann). Eva Marlene Hausteiner examines British imperial mentalities and studies federalism in comparative perspective. The list goes on with work on the History of Science at various Max Planck Institutes and, more recently, collaborative work on the history of ideology associated with the FU.
The one area where there is a particular German peculiarity that persists, and I think this has only intensified in the post-1945 era, is the German tradition of critical editions. In the film, it is Edith Hanke who conveys something behind the spirit of this type of endeavour. She has dedicated a large part of her scholarly life to the coordination of a mammoth project, the critical edition of Max Weber’s Nachlass. This whole tradition of Historisch-Kritische Ausgaben sits alongside academic and public-private research institutes, and doesn’t really exist anywhere else in this form, to my knowledge, but in Germany. Editorial projects like hers, and other grand projects such as the Nietzsche edition or the Hegel edition, constitute comprehensive contextualist efforts towards understanding past thinkers, and endeavours like this are certainly inspired by the philological care exhibited by some of the earlier traditions which Suzanne Marchand discusses when she talks about the roots of intellectual history in theology.
In terms of the institutional settings for this kind of work, only a fraction is conducted within History departments or what is now called research-led teaching (the so-called Humboldt model). Key intellectuals work in a research capacity for private or research-only institutions such as the Einstein Forum, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, and indeed journals like the ZIG. One of the founding editors of the journal, Warren Breckman, has used the magazine’s success to question the decline theme in our film, and described it as a “self-conscious effort to revive the tradition of intellectual history in Germany. It has been, by most criteria, a success, but both the editors, authors, and readers of the Zeitschrift are mainly not historians. The persistence and now reinvigoration of intellectual history in Germany is perhaps even more interdisciplinary than is the practice of intellectual history in the American tradition.” Its chief editor, Stephan Schlak, has recently published a biography of Wilhelm Hennis, whose intellectual presence in West Germany is underappreciated by English-speaking scholars of German thought. All this certainly suggests a vibrant interest in the subject, but one which thrives, contrary to what you indicate, on private lands to which all are theoretically invited, rather than on common land already shared by all—and certainly not on land owned by German History departments. Also noteworthy is the lack of focus on fields such as the intellectual history of the GDR, the reception of German thought in non-Western countries, etc. Our film sadly mirrors these gaps rather than filling them, but there is always more work to be done.
Richard Bourke is Professor of the History of Political Thought at the University of Cambridge. He has published widely in enlightenment and post-enlightenment intellectual history and political theory.
Dina Gusejnova is Assistant Professor in Modern European History at the LSE. She has published on German intellectual history and political thought in European and global contexts.
Jonas Knatz is a PhD Student in New York University’s History Department. He works on 20th century European intellectual history.
Anne Schult is a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.
Featured Image: Close-up of a German manuscript. Unless noted otherwise, all images are stills from the film.