German intellectual history

Between Conservatism and Fascism in Troubled Times: Der Fall Bernhard

by guest contributor Steven McClellan

The historian Fritz K. Ringer claimed that for one to see the potency of ideas from great thinkers and to properly situate their importance in their particular social and intellectual milieu, the historian had to also read the minor characters, those second and third tier intellectuals, who were barometers and even, at times, agents of historical change nonetheless. One such individual who I have frequently encountered in the course of researching my dissertation, was the economist Ludwig Bernhard. As I learned more about him, the ways in which Bernhard formulated a composite of positions on pressing topics then and today struck me: the mobilization of mass media and public opinion, the role of experts in society, the boundaries of science, academic freedom, free speech, the concentration of wealth and power and the loss of faith in traditional party politics. How did they come together in his work?

IMG_9800 (1)

Ludwig Bernhard (1875-1935; Bundesarchiv, Koblenz Nl 3 [Leo Wegener], Nr. 8)

Bernhard grew up in a liberal, middle-class household. His father was a factory owner in Berlin who had converted from Judaism to Protestantism in 1872. As a young man, Bernhard studied both Munich and Berlin under two-heavyweights of the German economic profession: Lujo Brentano and Gustav Schmoller. Bernhard found little common ground with them, however. Bernhard’s friend, Leo Wegener, best captured the tension between the young scholar and his elders. In his Erinnerungen an Professor Ludwig Bernhard (Poznań: 1936, p. 7), Wegener noted that “Schmoller dealt extensively with the past,” while the liberal Brentano, friend of the working class and trade unions, “liked to make demands on the future.” Bernhard, however, “was concerned with the questions of the present.” He came to reject Schmoller and Brentano’s respective social and ethical concerns. Bernhard belonged to a new cohort of economists who were friendly to industry and embraced the “value-free” science sought by the likes of Max Weber. They promoted Betriebswirtschaft (business economics), which had heretofore been outside of traditional political economy as then understood in Germany. Doors remained closed to them at most German universities. As one Swiss economist noted in 1899, “appointments to the vacant academical [sic] chairs are made as a rule at the annual meetings of the ‘Verein für Socialpolitik’,” of which Schmoller was chairman from 1890-1917. Though an exaggeration, this was the view held by many at the time, given the personal relationship between Schmoller and one of the leading civil servants in the Prussian Ministerium der geistlichen, Unterrichts- und Medizinalangelegenheiten (Department of Education, church and medical affairs), Friedrich Althoff.

Part of Bernhard’s early academic interest focused on the Polish question, particularly the “conflict of nationalities” and Poles living in Prussia. Unlike many other contemporary scholars and commentators of the Polish question, including Max Weber, Bernhard knew the Polish language. In 1904 he was appointed to the newly founded Königliche Akademie in Posen (Poznań). In the year of Althoff’s death (1908), the newly appointed Kultusminister Ludwig Holle created a new professorship at the University of Berlin at the behest of regional administrators from Posen and appointed Bernhard to it. However, Bernhard’s placement in Berlin was done without the traditional consultation of the university’s faculty (Berufungsverfahren).

The Berliner Professorenstreit of 1908-1911 ensued with Bernhard’s would-be colleagues, Adolph Wagner, Max Sering and Schmoller protesting his appointment. It escalated to the point that Bernhard challenged Sering to a duel over the course lecture schedule for 1910/1911, the former claiming that his ability to lecture freely had been restricted. The affair received widespread coverage in the press, including attracting commentaries from notables, such as Max Weber. At one point, just before the affair seemed about to conclude, Bernhard published an anonymous letter in support of his own case, which was later revealed that he was in fact the author. This further poisoned the well with his colleagues. The Prussian Abgeordnetenhaus (Chamber of Deputies) would debate the topic: the conservatives supported Bernhard and the liberal parties defended the position of the Philosophical Faculty. Ultimately, Bernhard would keep his Berlin post.


Satire of the Professorenstreit (click for larger image)

The affair partly touched upon the threat of the political power and the freedom of the Prussian universities to govern themselves—a topic that Bernhard himself extensively addressed in the coming years. It also concerned the rise of the new discipline of “business economics” gaining a beachhead at German secondary institutions. Finally, the Professorenstreit focused on Bernhard himself, an opponent of much of what Schmoller and his colleagues in the Verein für Socialpolitik stood for. He proved pro-business and an advocate of the entrepreneur. Bernhard also showed himself a social Darwinist, deploying biological and psychological language, such as in his analysis of the German pension system in 1912. He decried what he termed believed the “dreaded bureaucratization of social politics.” Bureaucracy in the form of Bismarck’s social insurance program, Bernhard argued, diminished the individual and blocked innovation, allowing the workers to become dependent on the state. Men like Schmoller, though critical at times of the current state of Prussian bureaucracy, still believed in its potential as an enlightened steward that stood above party-interests and acted for the general good.

Bernhard could never accept this view. Neither could a man who became Bernhard’s close associate, the former director at Friedrich Krupp AG, Alfred Hugenberg. Hugenberg was himself a former doctoral student of another key member of the Verein für Socialpolitik , Georg Friedrich Knapp. Bernhard was proud to be a part of Hugenberg’s circle, as he saw them as men of action and practice. In his short study of the circle, he praised their mutual friend Leo Wegener for not being a Fachmann or expert. Like Bernhard, Hugenberg disliked Germany’s social policy, the welfare state, democracy, and—most importantly—socialism. Hugenberg concluded that rather than appeal directly to policy makers and state bureaucrats through academic research and debate, as Schmoller’s Verein für Socialpolitik had done, greater opportunities lay in the ability to mobilize public opinion through propaganda and the control of mass media. The ‘Hugenberg-Konzern’ would buy up controlling interests in newspapers, press agencies, advertising firms and film studios (including the famed Universum Film AG, or UfA).

In 1928, to combat the “hate” and “lies” of the “democratic press” (Wegener), Bernhard penned a pamphlet meant to set the record straight on the Hugenberg-Konzern. He presented Hugenberg as a dutiful, stern overlord who cared deeply for his nation and did not simply grow rich off it. Indeed, the Hugenberg-Konzern marked the modern equivalent to the famous Raiffeisen-Genossenschaften (cooperatives) for Bernhard, providing opportunities for investment and national renewal. Furthermore, Bernhard claimed the Hugenberg-Konzern had saved German public opinion from the clutches of Jewish publishing houses like Mosse and Ullstein.

Both Bernhard and Hugenberg pushed the “stab-in-the-back” myth as the reason for Germany’s defeat in the First World War. The two also shared a strong belief in fierce individualism and nationalism tinged with authoritarian tendencies. These views all coalesced in their advocacy of the increasing need of an economic dictator to take hold of the reins of the German economy during the tumultuous years of the late Weimar Republic. Bernhard penned studies of Mussolini and fascism. “While an absolute dictatorship is the negation of democracy,” he writes, “a limited, constitutional dictatorship, especially economic dictatorship is an organ of democracy.” (Ludwig Bernhard: Der Diktator und die Wirtschaft. Zurich: 1930, pg. 10).

Hugenberg came to see himself as the man to be that economic dictator. In a similar critique mounted by Carl Schmitt, Bernhard argued that the parliamentary system had failed Germany. Not only could anything decisive be completed, but the fact that there existed interest-driven parties whose existence was to merely antagonize the other parties, stifle action and even throw a wrench in the parliamentary system itself, there could be nothing but political disunion. For Bernhard, the socialists and communists were the clear violators here.


Ludwig Bernhard, »Freiheit der Wissenschaft« (Der Tag, April 1933; BA Koblenz, Nl 3 [Leo Wegener)], Nr. 8, blatt 91; click for larger image)

The Nazis proved another story. Hitler himself would be hoisted in power by Hugenberg. Standing alongside him was Bernhard. In April 1933, Bernhard published a brief op-ed entitled “Freiheit der Wissenschaft,” which summarized much of his intellectual career. He began by stating, “Rarely has a revolution endured the freedom of science.” Science is free because it is based on doubt. Revolution, Bernhard writes, depends on eliminating doubt. It must therefore control science. According to Bernhard, this is what the French revolutionaries in 1789 attempted. In his earlier work on this topic, Bernhard made a similar argument, stating that Meinungsfreiheit (free speech) had been taken away by the revolutionary state just as it had been taken away by democratic Lügenpresse. Thankfully, he argued, Germany after 1918 preserved one place where the “guardians” of science and the “national tradition” remained—the universities, which had “resisted” the “criminal” organization of the Socialist Party’s Prussian administration. Bernhard, known for his energetic lectures, noted with pride in private letters the growth of the Nazi student movement. In 1926, after having supported the failed Pan-German plan to launch a Putsch (coup d’état) to eliminated the social democratic regime in Prussia, Bernhard spoke to his students, calling on the youth to save the nation. Now, it was time for the “national power” of the “national movement” to be mobilized. And in this task, Bernhard concluded, Adolf Hitler, the “artist,” could make his great “masterpiece.”

Ludwig Bernhard died in 1935 and therefore never saw Hitler’s completed picture of a ruined Germany. An economic nationalist, individualist, and advocate of authoritarian solutions, who both rebelled against experts and defended the freedom of science, Bernhard remains a telling example of how personal history, institutional contexts and the perception of a heightened sense of cultural and political crisis can collude together in dangerous ways, not least at the second-tier of intellectual and institutional life.

Steven McClellan is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. He is currently writing his dissertation, a history of the rise and fall, then rebirth of the Verein für Sozialpolitik between 1872 and 1955.

Book Forum: Working Through Collective Memory

by guest contributor Asaf Angermann

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

In efforts to conceive of the relation between the historical past in its “authentic” experiential immediacy and the consistency of its representation in our living memory, two questions arise which seem to contradict one another: can we ever gain access to an adequate, reliable concept of the past, the way it was “originally” experienced? And on the other hand, can we ever not seek, or even claim to have, such access—either cognitively or psychologically—to an “original,” “authentic,” even “primordial” lost history? What is the relation between the “authentic” immediacy of the past as it was experienced in “real time” and its conceptual, cultural, symbolic representation in contemporary consciousness? In Collective Memory and the Historical Past, Jeffrey Andrew Barash eloquently and convincingly argues for the inevitability of drawing a distinction between the two. “In designating the singularity of the remote past and its irreducible alterity in view of the present,” Barash aims “to deflate mythical claims concerning the scope of collective memory and to distinguish it from the historical past lying beyond it” (p. 216). Such distinction is necessary, for the historian and the philosopher as much as for contemporary society as a whole, in order to allow for critical reflection on the past and its meaning for the present as well as on the mechanisms that produce and reproduce such meanings. The illusion or myth that collective memory stands in some form of direct relation to the historical past, that it consists of adequate representations of the past “the way it was”—which allows for an “authentic” concept of past experiences—jeopardize the capability of critical disentanglement of life and myth, experience and representation. Put another way (to use the phenomenological terminology that is fundamental to Barash’s investigation), they disguise the disparity between the immediate “lifeworld” of original experience and its transfigurations in the symbolic order created in the public sphere by new forms of mass media.


University of Chicago Press (2017)

In order to gain a sustainable critical concept of collective memory, Barash maintains, one must depart from the idea of an adequate correspondence between collective memory and the historical past. As Sophie Marcotte Chénard noted in her forum contribution, “one might think that Barash completely rejects the [concept of] ‘historical past’”, only to realize that his nuanced critical approach actually aims to “preserve the specificity” of both.

A main question that arises—as I will argue along with a certain reservation—concerns such “preservation of specificity.” The immediacy of an original experiential lifeworld in the historical past, that collective memory, precisely in its intention to symbolically and communicatively represent, actually mystifies and mythologizes, a process which only the careful distinction suggested by Barash could counteract, namely to rescue the one from the other’s grip. The phenomenological terminology and methodology that Barash employs and extensively introduces in the historical-philosophical introduction and in the theoretical analyses of the book’s first part entails precisely this.

Commencing with Plato’s theory of reminiscence (“learning is reminiscence”), Barash provides a meticulous overview of theories of recollection, spanning the positions of Locke, Bergson, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Benjamin. While the introduction primarily concerns itself with the relation between memory, recollection, and reminiscence on the one hand and personal identity and the historical dimension of human existence on the other hand, the book’s first part elaborates a specific phenomenological argument. The immediacy of original experience—Husserl’s phenomenological idea of a leibhafte Erfahrung, a first-order experience “in the flesh”—has a certain “primordial capacity” (p. 40), which can be remembered but defies mediation. Any second-order representation precludes “precisely the aura of a singular presence encountered in the plenitude of a surrounding ‘lifeworld’ (or Lebenswelt)” (41). It is remarkable that Barash here essentially interrelates Husserl’s late theory of “lifeworld” from his 1936 unfinished and posthumously published book The Crisis of the European Sciences and the Transcendental Phenomenology with Walter Benjamin’s central concept of aura from “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction” (written 1933-1934, published 1935). The immediacy of an experience “in the flesh” of either an historical or a personal event loses its unique aura while efforts are simultaneously made to preserve and recreate, commemorate and represent precisely this lost “lifewordly aura.” Collective memory in Barash’s account is based on a “network of embodied symbols” that aims to represent “a past that lies beyond all contemporary memory—the remote memory borrowed from the testimony of others and attested by their traces” (p. 50). It is a form of compensation for the lost immediacy, creating a surrogate aura for the lost “primordial,” “original” experience.


Edmund Husserl

In an impressively comprehensive and carefully detailed analysis, merging arguments from philosophy, historiography, literature, visual arts, and mass media, Barash proceeds to illuminate concrete articulations of such dialectics between the irrecoverable immediacy of the historical past and the attempts to reestablish it through symbolic—and often mythical, not least in the political sense—representations. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech of August 1963, a decisive moment in the formation of contemporary American identity, provides a crucial example in Barash’s account for discerning between its historical impregnation as “symbolic embodiment” (p. 57) in collective memory and its “horizon of contemporaneity” (p. 55), the immediate experience of its original “lifeworldly aura.” No symbolic representation, however coherent and accurate, can ever truly represent the lifeworldly immediate experience “in the flesh”: “the attentive silence of the forces of order, the casual apparel of many of the demonstrators, their enthusiasm and generally upbeat mood” during the historical speech (p. 53). All of these experiential contingencies are necessarily removed and reified in collective memory. Barash provides numerous thought-provoking examples for such discrepancy, in particular representations in painting, photography, and televised events. The inspiring treatment of these various forms of direct and indirect representations draws upon and simultaneously advances the phenomenological method of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricœur along with a critical theory of mass media following Benjamin. (Here I suspect that adding the sociological perspective developed by Alfred Schütz and Thomas Luckmann would introduce an interesting dimension to the discussion.)


Theodor W. Adorno

The distinction between the immediacy of experience in the historical past as well as the symbolic embodiments and transfigurations it undergoes in collective memory presupposes, however, that such original immediacy of “leibhafte Erfahrung” in the historical past was itself indeed free—“purified” in Husserl’s language—of any such “external,” “impure” representations. In the 1930s, Theodor W. Adorno worked on what he considered to be an “immanent critique” of Husserl’s phenomenology. His book on Husserl, On the Metacritique of Epistemology: Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies (Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie: Studien über Husserl und die phänomenologischen Antinomien; curiously translated into English as Against Epistemology with the original only published in 1956) unfolds the intrinsic antinomies, the paradoxes Adorno sees entailed in Husserl’s work. They predominantly concern the very idea of such a distinction as seems to me to be central to Barash’s argument on the lost immediacy of original experience. Adorno questioned the validity of such “primacy” or “originality” and contended that precisely what seems to be the most “primordial” and “pure” merely conceals its historical and social character: “[t]he search for the utterly first, the absolute cause, results in infinite regress,” since what we experience and cognize as “immediacy” is historically and socially mediated while seeking to conceal this mediation (Adorno, Against Epistemology; p. 29). “This illusion,” Adorno writes, “is a function of reality and historical tendencies. […] Reified thought is the copy of the reified world. By trusting its primordial experiences, it lapses into delusion. There are no primordial experiences” (p. 109). In other words, Adorno expresses radical skepticism concerning the very immediacy of experience that the phenomenological approach sees as given in the historical past, and which, according to Barash, can never be sustained as such in collective memory. The worry that we can draw from Adorno’s perspective concerns the concealed entanglement of historical past and collective memory, which may overshadow the inevitability of a distinction between them. If the historical past does not necessarily imply a “primordiality” or “authenticity” of lifeworldly experience, but rather mediated representations and transfigurations as the later collective memory, the distinction might blur rather than sharpen its critical function.

It seems to me that Adorno’s argument does not necessarily contradict, but rather complement Barash’s important critical objective, however. In his historical-political intervention, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past” (1959), Adorno addresses a different kind of gap between collective memory in post-war Germany and the historical past, and he warns against drawing a sharp distinction between them, raising another dimension of a “working through.” (Aufarbeitung: reprocessing, working up, cognitively dealing with). Beyond questions of responsibility and guilt, Adorno is troubled by its latent aspects: the infiltration of the unworked-through historical past, itself containing ideological and symbolic mediations which perceive themselves as “original” and “primordial” into collective memory, into the process of “working through”. “National Socialism lives on,” Adorno states in 1959, “and even today we still do not know whether it is merely the ghost of what was so monstrous that it lingers on after its demise, or whether it has not yet died at all” (Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” in: Critical Models; p. 89-90) According to Adorno, the mythical residues of a different form of “authentic,” “primordial” experience in the past, that of xenophobic sentiments and ethnic supremacy, carry on latently in the form of representations and symbolic embodiments into the collective memory of the present. “Working through” for Adorno is not measured by the authenticity of a lifeworldly experience; it is, rather, a conscious “turn toward the subject” (Critical Models, p. 102 ), critical questioning of the “authentic” sources of the self, whose undercurrent claim of “primordiality” undermines such conscious “working through.”

Can the culture of remembrance ever be free of ideological, political, material interests that claim to rely on authenticity, primordial experience, on being there “in the flesh”? In other words, what seems to be most subjective, immediate lifeworld experience, and ostensibly cannot be imported as such into collective memory, might indeed intrude it from underneath, subterraneaneously, creating the deceptive myth of a “primordial,” “in the flesh” experience to gain authority over the “true,” “authentic” mode of representation. Adorno’s political critique of phenomenology may therefore complement Barash’s impressively vital project. Alongside the importance of differentiating between historical past and collective memory, it may be as necessary for critical historical reflection to detect the undercurrents of entanglements and infiltrations between them: the modes in which the historical past still invades collective cultural memory in a reified, mythical, ghostly manner, potentially giving rise to a re-invention of “Holocaust centers.”

Asaf Angermann teaches in the Department of Philosophy and the Judaic Studies Program at Yale University. He is the author of Damaged Irony: Kierkegaard, Adorno, and the Negative Dialectics of Critical Subjectivity (De Gruyter, 2013, in German), editor of Theodor W. Adorno and Gershom Scholem, Correspondence 1939-1969 (Suhrkamp, 2015, in German; English translation in preparation for Polity Press), and translator of Theodor W. Adorno, Education to Responsibility (HaKibbutz HaMeuchad, forthcoming 2017, in Hebrew). He is currently working on a book about the philosophical interrelations between Adorno’s social critique and Scholem’s religious anarchism.]

Book Forum: A Practical Past Beyond the Historical Past?

by guest contributor Sophie Marcotte Chénard

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

In a book impressive by the vast array of themes, authors and traditions from which it draws, Jeffrey A. Barash proposes a dense reflection on the theoretical and practical aspects of collective memory, its symbolic institution in the public sphere, and its scope in contrast with what he calls the “historical past.” Barash’s inquiry plays on these two levels: the specificity of the distant past on the one hand, and the conditions of the lived experience given through collective remembrance on the other. The advantage of latter is that it escapes the problem of the remote past, which only exists through the operation of the historian. The specific object of history—the past—is by definition a reality that ceased to be. Therefore, we have a better chance to grasp memories created out of the experience of living generations (the shared experience of Martin Luther King’s speech, for instance, or the memory of the survivors of the Holocaust). Barash argues that collective memory, as an object of investigation, only comes at the forefront after a radical shift from a metaphysical and atemporal conception of human nature to a reflection based on an anthropological turn. An epochal change took place in the inter-war period in Europe: the tragic events of the 20th century paved the way to a vision of history and temporality based on discontinuity rather than continuity. The interplay, or tension—or even to a certain extent dichotomy—Barash draws between memory of lived experience and the “historical” past lies at the core of his demonstration and will be the focus of my intervention.

?The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge? from Au stralian artist William Longstaff (1929) depicting Canadian soldiers' ghosts marching up Vimy Ridge.jpg

The Vimy Ridge Memorial in Nothern France (Captain William Longstaff;
© Beaverbrook Collection of War Art,  CWM 19890275-051)

In chapter six entitled “The contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding,”Barash sets himself to “radicalize” the insights into historicity brought this distinction (p. 169). Briefly stated, collective memory has a specific limit, that of the temporal finitude of groups who share these experiences of remembrance. Collective remembrance will inevitably fade in the past and in the process become more opaque to us. For Barash, experience is the condition of collective memory. In that sense, his approach has definite phenomenological undertones. Temporal change and discontinuity make collective memory slip into the “historical past,” of which we can only have “passive recesses” and not a direct and full experience. The conclusion Barash draws follows accordingly: “In view of the historicity, contingency, and discontinuity of human groups, of the radical shifts between successive horizons of contemporaneity, the ongoing continuity of the êthos, deposited in the passive recesses of shared symbolic forms, is more often a source of ideological claims and political mythologies than of empirically ascertainable comprehension” (p. 170).

From that affirmation, one might think that Barash completely rejects the “historical past.” There are two main reasons for that. The first is quite clear: he insists on the fact that any supposed historical continuity—and its corollary, the idea of a stable identity of groups—could be instrumental in justifying ideological claims. The second reason has to do with the way we approach the past. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s notion the “flesh of the world” (la chair du monde), Barash claims that collective memory is based on the experience of the social and the political “in the flesh.” Given that, the remote past cannot but become a second-order “reality,” a “secondary form of recollection” (p. 35). There is, in the theoretical reflection on history broadly construed, an irremediable gap between Erfahrung and Wissenschaft, between experience and knowledge. In Barash’s view, there seems to be an unbridgeable distance between written historical accounts of the past and collective remembrance that spans generations, but still remains available in a more immediate manner.


Unveiling of the Vimy Ridge Memorial on 26 July 1936 (© George Metcalf Archival Collection, CWM 19910181-036)

As it turns out, Barash’s enterprise is more nuanced: the distinction between the two spheres serves the purpose of preserving the specificity of the latter as much as of the former. He does not develop extensively on that point, but it seems as though the “historical past,” narrated through specific forms and “mises en scène” (such as in historical novels) performs a function of its own. Barash writes: “However biased and incomplete even the most impartial attempt to recover vestiges of a past beyond living memory may be, its significance, far from limited to the status of a fictive invention of the present, reveals itself not only where it is capable of illuminating what has preceded current times, but where it enables us to place the fluctuating horizons of our own present in perspective” (emphasis mine; p. 196). The question is thus: does he propose something like a “practical past” beyond, or drawing from, the “historical past”? What is the specific ethical or normative function of the historical past that could make it “practical”? And can it intervene in the shaping of collective memory?

My suggestion is that his distinction involves a third sphere, that of a “practical” past. In his most recent book, Hayden White revives Oakeshott’s distinction between a “historical past” and a “practical past” (Oakeshott, On History, p. 19, 42). The historical past possesses no definitive existence: it is only an inference the historian makes in order to understand and explain what happened. In contrast, the practical past concerns everyday life. The former is primarily theoretical, while the latter is oriented toward matters of practical conduct and representation of our social and political world. As White points out, the practical past includes ordinary people carrying “archive of experiences” (White, The Practical Past, p. 99).

A substantial interpretation of the “practical past” would be tantamount to seeing history as providing lessons. This, in turn, would imply that there are unchanging features of human nature or at least transhistorical elements that would authorize the transposition of past actions and judgments to present circumstances. The stronger normative version of the practical past as historia magistra vitae faces serious objections: one would have to embrace a strong metaphysical claim such as the existence of natural law.

Jean-Pierre Houel - Prise de la Bastille (1789) - Carnavalet Museum

Jean-Pierre Houël, « Prise de la Bastille » (1789; source

Doubts about a “practical past” in the sense of history providing normative guidance are not new. Hegel already expressed skepticism at the idea that we could learn anything about what one ought to do from studying the past. However, the purpose, in White or in Koselleck’s case, is not to recover some lost conception of history as a teacher of life. There seem to be another possible interpretation, one that is also found in Barash’s book: seeing the historical past as foreign leads to a more acute awareness of the contingency of the present.

White proposes to conceive of the practical past as a “space of experience.” (White, The Practical Past, p. 14) The recuperation or re-enactment of the past, it is true, could reinforce or justify “political mythologies,” but it could also serve to reactivate neglected past experiences or past concepts in order to challenge dominant views. One could think here of Quentin Skinner’s renewal of the Machiavellian republican conception of liberty. Koselleck’s notion of the party of the “vanquished” (Besiegten)—those writers of the past whose vision or doctrines have not triumphed – performs a similar function (Koselleck, Zeitschichten, p. 77). Both are illustrations of an indirect, yet practical usefulness of the past seen as foreign in essence. This, in turn, presupposes discontinuity: the renewal of the past is only possible in light of its alterity.

This idea of a practical past is perhaps best expressed by Claude Lefort’s notion of the “unthought” (impensé). Some events, social symbols or shared experiences carry vast reservoirs of meaning, which appear to be inexhaustible. In contrast with the “historical past,” the practical past could be constituted of such elements that provide continuity amid the discontinuity in temporality. As such, these events—revolutions, moments of foundation—connect past and present. It relates to what we could call a “politics of temporality” insofar as it concerns political and social events that “do not pass in the past” to use Claude Lefort’s expression (ce qui ne passé pas dans le passé (Lefort, Le travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel, p. 64-65). Some experiences and their remembrance endure in time and provoke a constant necessity of re-enactment. In other words, these events carry an “unthought”: something that has not yet been thought or has to be thought through again. Could it be the case that such a renewal of the past participates in shaping collective remembrance, not only in an instrumental way, but also in a meaningful one? In that regard, the role of imagination described by Barash makes it possible to envision such as relation to the past.

The idea of a “practical” past certainly supposes more temporal continuity than what Barash is ready to concede. Yet there is a sense of temporal continuity that goes beyond collective memory. Barash’s view presupposes what I would call a “minimal continuity thesis.” As in Koselleck’s thought, there are in Barash’s philosophy of time “structures of repetition” (Wiederholungsstrukturen) observable in the shared symbolic representations. Furthermore, minimal temporal continuity is a necessary condition of measuring and diagnosing temporal change. Far from being an obstacle to overcome, the opposition between continuity and change is a dynamic and productive tension in interpreting collective memory and the historical past.

Barash’s version of what I presented as a “practical” past is not, however, mainly about reactivating past concepts or ideas. Rather, it concerns a more fundamental insight: that of contingency in history and the illusion of an absolute standpoint. In the end, there is no vantage point: one can never achieve a totalizing perspective on history or look at collective memory from above. His interpretation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu exemplifies this point (p. 201).

The past was once an uncertain future. As such, it is as contingent as the present and cannot teach what to do in specific circumstances. That being said, looking at the remote past, even through imperfect historical sources, could highlight the contingency of our situation and in turn demonstrate the need for a plural reading of the present. Seeing the past as practical—and not simply historical—means recognizing the plurality of possible outcomes and the multiplicity of narratives that can emerge out of it and shape our collective representation of the past and the present. The past puts the present in perspective, even when, as Barash reminds us, historical accounts cannot deliver an objective and unbiased view of historical “reality.”

Sophie Marcotte Chénard is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Centre for Ethics. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy and Social Sciences from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. Her research focuses on theory and philosophy of history, 19th and 20th-century German and French thought, contemporary political philosophy and interpretive methods in the history of political thought. She has published on Claude Lefort’s phenomenological approach and Quentin Skinner’s contextualism and has a forthcoming article on R.G. Collingwood’s historicism in The Journal of Philosophy of History. She is currently working on her forthcoming book entitled Encountering History in the Making: Political Philosophy and the Challenge of Historicism, which focuses on the relationship between political philosophy and history in the early writings of Leo Strauss and Raymond Aron.

Book Forum: History as Critique

by guest contributor Michael Meng

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).


University of Chicago Press (2016)

Jeffrey Andrew Barash has written a highly insightful and erudite book on the complex relationship of the past to the present. Moving capaciously from the ancient period to the present, he addresses a wide range of issues regarding what it means to remember. Chapters include discussions on some of the central theorists of memory from Sigmund Freud to Maurice Halbwachs to Gerald Edelman; on the centrality of the image in twentieth-century mass media; on the reputed ‘skepticism’ of Roland Barthes and Hayden White in regard to the capacity of history to distinguish itself from fiction; and on the origins of “collective memory” as a theoretical concept to interpret the enduring “quest for stability and permanence” in the wake of twentieth-century challenges to metaphysics by Martin Heidegger and many others broadly influenced by him in post-1945 France (128).

Behind these different explorations lies, however, an ambitious attempt on Barash’s part to identify an “impartial” or “critical” space for historical reflection in the sociopolitical sphere of public life in which historical thinking unfolds. Barash defines the critical function of history in the public sphere mostly by what it does not do: history is most clearly different from mythic, ideological recollections of the past but also, if more subtly, from the emergence of the ostensibly human quest to imbue the past with a common meaning through the nourishing of what Barash calls collective memory. In what follows, I consider his attempt to identify a space for history independent from collective memory and myth. Beforehand I will briefly establish as Barash himself does the central dilemma at stake.


Plato (Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377)

Barash astutely begins his book with Plato’s concept of anamnesis. In the Meno, Phaedo, and Phaedrus, Socrates suggests that anamnesis recalls in the present what was always already known by the immortal soul prior to embodiment. Recollection brings one back to the hyperouranian vision of eternal truth that the soul had before falling into this world of flux and death. The political consequence of Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis is significant as Hannah Arendt understood in her important essay on authority (Arendt, Between Past and Present, 91-141). Arendt discusses Plato’s attempt to establish a system of authority that would transcend the conflictual and violent life of the polis. According to her, Plato sought to establish the hegemony of reason in the person of the philosopher king as the possessor of the truth gained through anamnesis. The philosopher contemplates the ideas that “exist” in a realm beyond this world of uncertainty and change. The philosopher contemplates the truth, and the truth is unassailable precisely because it transcends the uncertainties, imperfections, and perspectivalism of finite human existence.

The collapse of this Platonic notion of truth since the late nineteenth century has opened up for Arendt and others the possibility of embracing time or contingency as the basis for a democratic politics of equality. The argument being this: if timeless truth cannot exist for mortals, then no one single person or group can claim the right to rule over another (Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 19; The Human Condition, 32). The lack of absolutes or indubitable foundations precludes any one view from becoming dominant—a community comes together in shared recognition of the fragility of any view. This anti-foundationalist notion of democracy has been embraced by a range of post-1945 thinkers from Theodor W. Adorno to Jan Patočka to Jacques Rancière. In what can be viewed as an important addition to this post-1945 conception of democracy, Barash suggests that history—including the one he writes—brings to public awareness the “group finitude” that subjects any given collective memory to “modification” (215-216). History also underscores the impossibility of ever bringing to full clarity the “opacity” of the past (105-106, 113, 170). Hence, history reveals the fragility and limits of memory as the collective product of mortals who cannot transcend the gap between past and present, since a holistic view of time eludes the “finite anthropological vision” (113).


Hannah Arendt (© Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images, 1949)

A historical awareness of the finitude of collective memory proves especially important because it can undermine the ideological mobilization of collective memory for an exclusionary politics. One of the hallmarks of the radical right’s assertion of authority in modern European history has been the creation of myths about the alleged eternal homogeneity of the community whose interests it claims to represent. The radical right perpetuates a nationalistic memory that claims to be absolutely correct. By insisting on the fragility and limits of any collective memory, history challenges the ideological assumption that the past can be known with absolute certainty.

History also challenges ideological interpretations of the past in another way, as Barash shows in his gentle critique of Barthes and White’s portrayals of history as a form of fiction. In Barthes’ words: “Historical discourse is essentially an ideological elaboration or, to be more precise, one which is imaginary” (quoted in Barash, 179). While Barash appreciates Barthes’s and White’s challenge to naïve empiricism, their view is nevertheless “too extreme” for him (176). Many historians will probably agree, but I think it might be worth considering alongside Barash the deeper issue at stake here regarding the status of critical thought. Barthes’s deployment of the word ideology brings us back to the relevant nineteenth-century debate between British empiricists and German idealists over the question of whether reason is independent of history. Is reason universal and necessary? For Marx, a student of Hegel and Kant on this question, if reason is not universal and necessary, then it has to be conventional or ideological. And, if reason is ideological, then how can philosophy possibly fulfill its critical task? Herbert Marcuse lucidly summarized the issue in Reason and Revolution, writing that empiricism “confined men within the limits of ‘the given’” (Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, 20).


Herbert Marcuse

Barash’s project aims to rescue “critical” thinking from the conventions of the present as well but he does not do so through Hegel (177 and 216). How does he proceed? He locates a critical space for history by distinguishing it from myth, the central difference being that history relies on “the critical methods of reconstruction on a factual basis” (216). The historian builds a narrative partly from the facts of what happened. This view may sound like conventional empiricism at first glance, but it turns out not to be. To understand the nuance of Barash’s argument, we must ask a basic question: What is a fact? The strict empiricist claims that the facts are the unassailable truth that renders the authority of the historical narrative indisputable. The empiricist is an inverted Platonist who forgets the history of the fact. The word fact comes from the Latin factum, which means human actions and deeds. The facts are wrought by humans and that which is wrought by humans –– in the western metaphysical tradition at least –– has long been viewed as contingent beginning with Plato who views history as the study of the shadows of the cave.

Barash is not an empiricist in the traditional sense as just described. He strikes me as advancing what I might call a “contingent empiricism” –– an empiricism that strives to remain open to modification and change in full awareness of the temporality of one’s own exploration of the past. There is no Platonic escape from time in Barash’s account other than the “illusory” escape of myth (113). If there is no escape from history, if our perspective of what happened changes as we change and we change as we explore what happened, then the past cannot be grasped in a final or certain manner. The “opacity” of the past always withdraws from one’s temporal grasp. The only way to claim a final account of the past consists in turning the past into a constantly present thing that never changes.

If all is equally temporal, one might express worry that such a view leads to a vitiating relativism whereby every claim and behavior is equally justified. But this worry overlooks a central presupposition of critique. Any critical project, if it is to engage in an egalitarian exchange of reasons and is not to be mere apodictic Declaration (a “Machtspruch”), implicitly holds some value constant as the basis of the critique it offers. Returning to Barash’s book might illuminate the point. In the end, I see Barash as orienting history towards an affirmation of temporality or transience. The critical edge of such a view of history is not only that it challenges the mythic assertion of homogeneity but also that it undermines the ideological impulse to declare a secure and certain interpretation of our world. History disrupts certainty by affirming the complex condition of change that humans have struggled to make sense of since the ancient period. Ironically, history holds time constant as the basis of its critique of ideology and myth.

To conclude, let me return to my initial praise of Barash’s book. It raises a host of important questions about memory and history, while placing an important emphasis on history as an affirmation of the transience of human life. In this respect, I look forward to the exchange on his stimulating book.

The editors wish to thank Michael Meng for his graciousness in volunteering to write the inaugural post.

Michael Meng is Associate Professor of History at Clemson University. He is the author of Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland (Harvard, 2011) and co-editor of Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland (Indiana, 2015). He has published articles in Central European History, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, The Journal of Modern History, and New German Critique. He is currently writing a book on death, history, and salvation in European thought as well as a book on authoritarianism.

Socialism and Power: Axel Honneth in Paris

by guest contributor Jacob Hamburger

When asked about his political orientation, for many years Axel Honneth would reply almost automatically, “I think I’m a socialist.” Yet as he recounted recently at Columbia University’s global center in Paris, each time he gave this answer, the less he knew precisely what he was saying. This dissatisfaction with his own political identification was part of what motivated his newest book The Idea of Socialism (Die Idee des Sozialismus) which appears in French later this year. As Honneth also explained, the book also furnishes a response to the widespread belief in recent decades that socialism is dead. Though Margaret Thatcher had already captured this belief in the 1980s with her remark that “there is no alternative,” the fall of the Soviet Union has made it more and more tempting to give up on socialism over the last two decades. Though he could not be sure precisely what socialism stood for, Honneth knew that this was a hasty pronouncement. His book therefore attempts to look within the tradition of socialist thought in order to sort the living from the dead, to find something in this tradition that we can take seriously as a political goal in 2017.


Axel Honneth

Honneth’s answer is to separate the “normative idea” of socialism from its outmoded theoretical framework. The original founders of socialism—from Owen, Fourier, and other utopian thinkers of the 1820s and ‘30s, up to Karl Marx—believed that capitalism prevented the realization of the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Capitalism’s understanding of liberty proved overly individualistic and antagonistic, establishing a personal sphere in which others are barred from intervening. The normative thread that Honneth sees running through all of great socialist thought is the idea of a “social freedom” accomplished through cooperation rather than competition. Social freedom is based on an idea of mutual recognition (the subject of much of Honneth’s work), in which one person’s freedom depends on that of the other. As a result, social freedom would allow the ideals of equality and fraternity to fully flourish. Since capitalism has imposed its idea of freedom through the institutions of the economy, socialists have sought to reshape the economy in order to make social freedom a reality.

Though social freedom is an old idea, forged in the aftermath of the French Revolution, it is no less applicable today as a normative concept than it was two hundred years ago. As Honneth sees it, however, socialism’s greatest weakness is an outdated understanding of social relations. He identifies three main flaws with this nineteenth-century theoretical outlook: economism, the belief that the economy is the sphere that determines a society’s basic character; “ouvrierism,” the fixation on the industrial working class as the agent of social change; and determinism, the assumption that history follows general law-like tendencies. Economism, ouvrierism, and determinism have not only blinded socialist thinkers to new possibilities in a changing social world, but also led them to dismiss the value of political liberties and erect a cult of the proletariat and the planned economy. While there may have been good reasons to hold these beliefs in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Honneth urges scrapping socialism’s theoretical framework in favor of a more sociologically nuanced view of the modern world, along with a Deweyan “experimentalist” approach to social change.


Polity (2016)

This critique of the left’s insufficient understanding of the social is a thread that stretches throughout Honneth’s philosophical career. In the doctoral dissertation that became his landmark 1985 work Kritik der Macht, he was inspired by the new approaches of Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault to account for this dimension of human reality that he believed had been lost on, for example, the founders of the Frankfurt School. Their accounts of “communicative rationality” and “micropower,” respectively, provided a more convincing philosophical account of the sphere of social conflict and cooperation than Honneth found in the Marxist tradition.

A young scholar in 1970s Berlin, as Honneth recounted in another recent talk in Paris on the occasion of the first French translation of Kritik der Macht, he still found that the left was stuck between two unattractive theories of power. The first was that of Theodor Adorno, who saw power as something so totalizing and fearsome that no resistance could hope to stand against it; the other was captured by Foucault, for whom power and resistance were equally intertwined in every aspect of social life, no matter how minute. Despite his admiration for both thinkers, it was clear to Honneth that neither’s approach corresponded to the complexity of social reality. At the same time as he began to absorb the insights of empirical sociology, he was also drawn to return to Hegel and the notion that each society in history has its own guiding spirit. Honneth’s take on this historical relativism was the opposite of that of some followers of Foucault. He saw the way that concrete societies initiate individuals into their ways of life not as a form of domination, but rather as a positive affirmation, and following Habermas, he insisted on the indispensability of normative discourse.

Any socialism arising out of this philosophical perspective—with its deep empirical and normative streaks and its refusal of dualistic categories—invites the label of “reformism.” For some on the far left, Honneth’s program may not look like socialism at all (as he tells it, his critics have long branded him the Eduard Bernstein of the Frankfurt School). The alternative between reform and revolution is another dichotomy that Honneth rejects as a vestige of socialism’s outdated past. Analytically speaking, he is right to do so. But as with all of the conceptual errors Honneth skillfully dismisses, one indeed begins to wonder to what extent socialism can rid itself of the categories that have historically defined it, no matter how erroneous these have often been.

The current troubles of the French Parti socialiste are a case in point. The party has moved away from an outmoded fixation on the working class and a planned economy, perhaps necessary moves, only to find that it has lost its base of committed socialist voters. Perhaps the greatest weakness of Honneth’s attempt to revitalize socialism is that, precisely as a result of its open-mindedness and conceptual soundness, it risks cutting itself off from actually existing traditions of socialist thought. Honneth might do well to begrudgingly accept to fit his socialism into the “reformist” heritage.

The French sociologist Bruno Karsenti responded to Honneth’s presentation with the following question: do we need socialism in order to combat the neoliberalism and neo-nationalism of today’s politics, or is it rather an obstacle towards fighting these trends? Honneth’s answer was characteristically clearheaded, pointing out the ways in which neoliberal globalization and anti-global nationalism have worked together. As the market has expanded across the globe, those who suffer from the new economic order have transferred their frustrations onto liberal cosmopolitanism, which is a political and moral ideal rather than economic. Honneth sees potential for socialism, rightly understood, to cut between these two tendencies. Freed of its economism, it can address material inequality while both taking seriously the cultural specificity of each community, and articulating the various responsibilities between peoples. Specifically, he calls for a “European socialism,” and hopes one day to see various forms of “Asian” or “African” socialism emerge. Honneth presents an attractive balance between socialism as a universal idea of justice—à la John Rawls—and an understanding of how freedom emerges from cooperation within a concrete society. Hearing his presentation of its prospects for the future, a thoughtful person open to the nuances and complexity of society is tempted to say with Honneth, “I think I’m a socialist.” On reflection, however, Honneth’s attempt to justify socialism’s living reality may have only made more apparent the uncertainty built into this thought. His is a philosopher’s socialism, which will live on at the very least in the project of self-critique.

Jacob Hamburger is a graduate student in political philosophy and intellectual history at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. He has written on the history of neoconservative thought in the United States, and is currently writing a masters thesis on the idea of the “end of ideology.” He is an editor of the Journal of Politics, Religion, and Ideology, and his writing and translations have appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Tocqueville Review, and Charlie Hebdo.