I recently wrote about how radical intellectuals are treated as ipso facto irresponsible or abhorrent in middlebrow American ideas magazines where little comprehension of their thought is even attempted. I was talking about the liberal-ish ones like the New Republic and the New York Review of Books. If we expanded that out to include conservative magazines; well, there this kind of prosecutorial a priori rejection has so long been an art form that it’s now just a bored performance, devoid of all thought or worth.
A big part of that orthodoxy, especially among U.S. conservative intellectuals, is the conflation of all the radical political ideologies of the 20th century—especially Marxism and Nazism—into one big totalitarian bogeyman. It’s similar to the painfully awful stuff written in France starting in the late 1970s, a delayed reaction to the horrors of the Soviet Union that much of the French intelligentsia had ignored. It was whiplash from various Stalinisms, Maoisms and Althusserianism into an often strident, shallow anti-totalitarianism, which combined its lack of philosophical rigor with an extra helping of moral self-righteousness. Suddenly everything was totalitarian: not just Nazism but Marxism, and even the French Revolution.
If you think the nouveaux philosophes were unsophisticated in their relationship to Marxism, that leaves you without much of a word for what contemporary American conservatives are like. I was reminded of this once again after a tweetsplosion from Commentary editor John Podhoretz that began with his (more or less) equation of Nazism and Marxism, something he continues to advance in this post on that incident. He was surprised to find that his critics were more offended by his conflation of Nazism and Marxism than his speaking ill of the dead:
The ultimate point of contention was expressed by Marc A. Tracy of the New Republic. “I think one can be a Marxist in a defensible way that one can’t be a Nazi.”
That is evidently true, given that Marxism remains a respectable school of thought in America’s universities. And that is in part due to the fact that from Marx sprang that intellectual tradition so beloved of my Twitter correspondent, while there is no comparable Nazi tradition.
But here’s a hard truth: there is no Nazi tradition, or larger Fascist intellectual school, because Nazism and Fascism were literally extirpated as the result of a world war. By contrast, Marxism-Leninism survived and thrived throughout the 20th century.
It is not that there could not have been a Nazi intellectual tradition; oh, there certainly could have been.
So the argument here is that Marxism remains respectable only because American universities think it is, and that Nazism could have been a “tradition” in the same way if only World War II hadn’t wiped it out. The implication is that Marxism is just as bad as Nazism, but lacked a historical event cataclysmic enough to lead to its “extirpation” (though Podhoretz and plenty others think the gulags should qualify as such an event).
I hate to beat a dead horse, but I think Podhoretz’s understanding of Nazism is just as weak as his grasp of Marx. Sure, World War II had a great deal to do with the thorough discrediting of Nazism. But Nazism isn’t a philosophy taught in American universities because it was never a philosophy; it was a grab-bag of affinities or sensibilities, with vast blank spaces wide open to interpretation. As Julian Young puts it, it was “body without a head … an ideological and philosophical vacuum which each ideological faction aspired to fill with its own agenda.” The philosophical blankness of Nazism is precisely why Heidegger could embrace the delusion that he could reform the Nazi university in the image of his own philosophy, and why his tenure in Freiburg lasted less than a year. It quickly became apparent that party leaders weren’t interested in Heideggerian philosophy, or any philosophy for that matter; they were interested in political conformity. To the extent there was “Nazi thought,” it was anathematic to Western philosophy, and usually devoted to immediate political needs and thus not of much interest to future thinkers.
Marxism was (and is) nothing like this. It was a thoroughly developed theory of economic-political structure that has proved to be wildly wrong in some respects and astonishingly correct in others. Don’t get me wrong, there are countless things to disagree with in Marx, and I will even concede that its Hegelian universalism and determinism probably had something to do with its praxis in totalitarian states. But you can read Marx your whole life—all the thousands of pages of Capital—and get an amazingly accurate and prophetic theory about the way capitalism works, and the way it feels to be a person living under that system, but you won’t find any guidelines for setting up dogmatic parties, totalitarian states, autocratic leaders, or labor camps. (In fact, you would find strong opposition to all of the above.) You can teach and criticize and subscribe to Marxism because it has content; Nazism, on the contrary, is so pseudo-philosophical that at some point one simply has to regard it as anti-philosophy. If you asserted such a thing about Marx (I’m not saying Podhoretz does), you’re an idiot with whom I can’t argue further.
The reason Marxism continues to be a “respectable school of thought” is that it has intellectually stood the test of time. No philosophy lasts without being argued with and criticized, but Marxism offered something that has proved unceasingly prescient over the past century and a half. The economic destruction and dehumanization wrought by capital is a more pressing global subject than ever, unlike, say, the self-assertion of the German spirit. So it’s no big surprise, no ideological plot, that we still teach Marx and that Mein Kampf and the court “philosophers” of the Third Reich go unread. It’s not just historical events that allowed Marx to survive and Nazism to perish; it’s the value of the thought itself.