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Dialectic of Anti-Enlightenment

By Neil Davenport, 17 May 2009

Books reviewed in this essay are:   

Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer (1944)

One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse (1964)

The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans (2003)

The Third Reich in Power by Richard J. Evans (2005)

The Third Reich at War by Richard J. Evans (2008)   

In the introduction to The Coming of the Third Reich, Professor Richard J. Evans asks a pertinent question: “Anyone embarking on a project such as this must inevitably begin by asking whether it is really necessary to write yet another history of Nazi Germany. Surely we have had enough? Surely so much has already been written that there is little more to add?” With memories and memorials of The Holocaust more widespread, and widely discussed, than at any time since the Second World War, Evans’ doubts about his project are perhaps understandable. Indeed, in 2005 the UK examinations board criticised History teaching in British schools for dwelling far too much on the Third Reich (1).   

And yet, there’s a real sense that the social context in which The Holocaust took place is all but ignored. The extermination of 6 million Jews is today explained away as a grim consequence of humanity’s capacity for destructive hatred. ‘Stop the hate’ was the slogan surrounding this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, while the inclusion of Bosnia and Rwanda in the roll call of genocides creates the impression that The Holocaust was simply another consequence of man’s innate evil and destructiveness. Evans makes it clear in his Third Reich trilogy that this dark period of European history needs to be re-examined and re-assessed in the context of Europe’s dire economic and political crisis. We need to move away from ahistorical explanations of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ and look closer at the specific social forces that was hurtling Germany and Europe to physical and moral ruin. This is why on the cover of The Coming of the Third Reich  there’s a photo of German police breaking up a demonstration by the Communist Red Front-Fighters League in Berlin, 1937. The very fact that Evans is suggesting that the rise of fascism was needed to ‘tame the proletariat’, as he calls one chapter in The Third Reich In Power, hasn’t gone unnoticed by some right-wing journalists who expressed outrage that he’d dare suggest there was a connection between capitalist crisis and fascism. (2).    

Alongside the banal ‘man’s innate evil’ phrase to explain away The Holocaust, an equally common place explanation for the rise of Nazism and scientific racism is to point the finger at Enlightenment rationality. Leading the way in this field were left-wing intellectuals at the Institute for Social Research of the University of Frankfurt during the 1930s and 1940s. Under the auspices of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, and later Hannah Arendt, Jargen Habermas and Eric Fromm, they became known as the Frankfurt School and developed Critical Theory (or a critical theory of society) to describe their sociological work. The Frankfurt School’s methodology was known as ‘multi-disciplinary’ and synthesised Hegelian Marxism, the German Idealism of Immanual Kant, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Max Weber’s theories on bureaucracy. By doing so, the Frankfurt School believed that together philosophy, culture, political economy and psychology can show how any apparently diverse aspects of society correspond and reinforce one another.   

The Frankfurt School’s account for the Third Reich, in which both modernity and the masses are in some way to blame for the Holocaust, has never been more influential than in recent years. Today British academics who base much of their ideas and research on the Frankfurt School insist that the German working masses were in some way culpable, even responsible, for anti-Semitism and The Holocaust (3). And although many of their ideas were a major influence on the New Left and Sixties radicalism, they’ve never been more politically centre stage and mainstream than in recent years. To this end, Evan’s exhaustive trilogy on the Third Reich provides invaluable empirical evidence to challenge many of the Frankfurt School, and their contemporary mouthpieces, dubious assertions. As Evans states outright in The Third Reich at War, certain aspects of the Nazi state bore little resemblance to that ‘portrayed by the exiled adherents of the Frankfurt School of sociology’. The purpose of this essay is to critique the Frankfurt School’s theories on the rise of Nazism and, in the process, expose how their anti-mass outlook has helped provide a progressive cover for very disturbing, contemporary ideas.    

Enlightenment equals slavery?

The first generation of critical theorists believed that The Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationality, positivism and ‘instrumental reason’ led to a loss of moral and critical meaning at the levels of society, culture and personality. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer put forward a number of ideas that later turned out to have widespread influence. Firstly, they held that modern society became barbaric and immoral because it was founded on the realisation of Enlightenment ideas. They argued that the growth of human dominion over nature was ultimately dehumanising and “disaster triumphant”. The Enlightenment had turned nature into “mere objectivity” for human kind and, as a result, human beings were forced to: “pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator towards men”. In other words, humanity’s attitude towards nature helped foster dictatorial attitudes towards so called ‘inferior’ classes, countries and peoples and this accounts for the Third Reich and The Holocaust.    

The idea that Nazism was a revolutionary lightening rod of Enlightenment thinking has always been a perverse inversion of social reality. Although the Nazi’s obsession with medical health and the horrific experiments in the death camps gives credence to the idea that the quest for ‘the perfect society’ has a whiff of scientism, in truth the Nazis were driven by irrational myths rather than objective reason and rationality. Incredibly, Frankfurt School academics today ignore a very basic point about fascism and Nazism: it was founded above all else as a movement against The Enlightenment, partly reflected in the slogan ‘1789 is Abolished’, with a strong desire to return to feudalism and slave-based society. As one politics writer simply puts it: “Fascism emerged very much as a revolt against modernity, against the ideas and values of the Enlightenment and the political creeds that spawned it…fascism seeked to reverse the gains of the Enlightenment” (4).    

Although the Frankfurt School ideas here have certainly contributed towards a negativity and pessimism regarding scientific enquiry and modernity (see Science and the Retreat from Reason by John Gillott and Manjit Kumar), it is not the only retrograde legacy of the Frankfurt School. Equally as influential, but in some ways less commentated upon, are the Critical Theorists view of the masses. Adorno’s starting point was to reject the Marxist proposition that the working class is the universal class that could liberate the whole of humanity. Instead the Frankfurt School believed that the so called ‘Culture Industry’ in modern day society could absorb and nullify any oppositional forces. Capitalist society’s ability to contain and co-opt any radical forces means that even seeking an agent of change becomes an utterly futile exercise. This isn’t merely the triumph of pessimistic thought, but rather that the working-class becomes re-cast as an objective lump rather than a subjective and potentially revolutionary class.

Although Adorno was influenced by the revolutionary Marxist Georg Lukács, he could not accept that the proletariat occupied a privileged position as the subject-object of history. Nevertheless Adorno did adopt aspects of Lukács thinking based on Marx’s concept of the ‘reification’ of human life. Reification is the consideration of an abstraction, relation or object as if it had human characteristics. It is to attribute living powers to something which in truth it does not have and this helps distorts human consciousness. For Lukács, the wage/labour-capital relationship was itself a form of reification as workers exchange their labour power on the market, for which they receive a wage that reproduces their labour power. In this context, workers function as commodities, they become commodities, and therefore capitalism objectifies the working class and their experience under capitalism. The potential to see ourselves as anything different in day-to-day life becomes drastically diminished as real life is experienced only as being a commodity in the labour market. For Lukács it takes a revolutionary organisation to help overcome the distortions created by the process of reification.  

Adorno’s adoption of reification as a concept, however, was used to call into question political opposition itself. For him, notions of political agency was itself bound up in the reification of human life, meaning that revolutionary Marxists were investing powers in a subjective class that it did not possess. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno argues that mass entertainment in the Culture Industry begins to take on a life of its own leading to ‘mass deception’ of the masses. The triumph of fascism, the apparent willingness of the masses to go along with their own enslavement in the Third Reich, confirmed for the Frankfurt School the sheer folly of seeking a universal, agent of change. Clearly, there is a very selective reading of the Third Rich as the Frankfurt School choose to ignore the fact that in 1933 millions more Germans were opposed to Nazism. By November 1932 the electoral appeal of the Nazi Party was already in sharp dealine, leading to a panic amongst industrialists and establishment figures. And was it really the case that the German proletariat, numbed and brainwashed by the Culture Industry, had really become blind willing foot soldiers for fascism?

The bigoted leading the blind? 

In his Third Reich trilogy, Evans makes it clear that the working-classes were the section in German society to support the Nazi Party the least. Evans writes: ‘The lower middle class in town and country remained heavily over-represented in the Nazi Party by comparison to its numbers in the population as a whole. By the early 1930s, however, the proportion of middle and upper-class Party members was increasing as the Party became more respectable. Slowly, the Nazis were escaping their modest and humble roots and beginning to attract members of Germany’s social elites’.

In the centres of Germany’s major cities, such as Berlin and Hamburg, the vast majority of working-class people were either members of the Social Democratic Party or the German Communist Party. And it was this fact that alarmed the elites and middle-class Germans into supporting Hitler. “Communist agitators…organised rent strikes in working class districts…they proclaimed ‘red districts’ like the Berlin proletarian quarter of Wedding…they marked down certain pubs and bars as their own; they proselytised among children in working-class schools, politicised parents’ associations and aroused the alarm of middle-class teachers, even those with left-wing convictions…The Communist Party thus seemed a looming threat of unparalleled dimensions to many middle-class Germans in the early 1930s.” Although the Nazi Party did attract some working-class members, usually in areas where trade unions were weak, the overwhelming majority of its membership came from ‘the mittlestand’ or middle-classes (as well as the social elites).  

Evans writes: “In German politics, the middle classes stood for a set of values. Located between the two great antagonistic classes into which society had become divided, they represented people who stood on their own two feet, independent, hard-working, the healthy core of the German people. It was to people like these – small shopkeepers, skilled artisans running their own workshops, self-sufficient peasant farmers – that the Nazis had initially directed their appeal. The Nazi Party programme of 1920 was indeed among other things a typical product of the far-right politics of the German Mittlestand; the support of such people was among the factors that had got the Party off the ground in the first place”. 

Throughout their 12 year rule, the Nazi regime was supported by the big wheels of German industry, many of which remain household names today. Evans does a fine job in showing how elite forces were instrumental in creating the Nazi dictatorship in the first place. Evans writes: “If the Nazis decline (in November 1932) continued, and then into the foreseeable future…it seemed possible that the old political parties might recover…possibly even the Social Democrats…causing serious concern among elements in the business world whose interests Papen, Hindenburgh and Hugenberg took seriously.”  

Far from the German working-classes being the largest champions of Nazism, they suffered enormous defeats at their hands instead. As Evans points out: “Mass unemployment had undermined the cohesion and morale of the working-class in the early 1930s. It had destabilised Germany’s large and well-organized trade union movement. In the search for a solution, the major working-class parties had either lost the capacity for independent action, like the Social Democrats, or deceived themselves with futile and self-destructive revolutionary fantasies, like the Communists. In 1933, they paid the price. Between March and July 1933 the Nazis destroyed the long-established German labour movement, closed down the trade unions and banned the two main parties of the working class. Organized resistance by remnants of the old labour movement continued for a while bit it too was eventually suppressed.”

When discussing the intense fire bombing of Hamburg, the bitter irony of this particular war crime isn’t lost on Evans. “The firestorm had devastated the working class areas to the south-east of the city centre, inhabitated by people who were traditionally opposed to the Nazis, while the wealthy villa quarter to the north-west, where the pro-Nazi elite lived, was largely untouched.” And when assessing who was responsible for leading Germany into moral, cultural and physical ruin, Evans says: ““In launching a war to be fought on a European scale with the goal of world domination as the long-term aim, Hitler and the Nazis were living out the fantasies that had impelled them into politics in the first place; fantasises of a great and resurgent Germany, expunging the stain of defeat in 1918 by establishing an imperial domination on a scale the world had never seen before. These fantasies were shared to a significant degree by key parts of the German Establishment, including the civil service, the professions and the top generals in the army. Despite their doubts, they all went along with it in the end.”   

After the war, although the Left could claim some kind of moral victory, the British, French and German working class were robbed of their ideological coherence and political independence. Although the KPD attempted to organise Soviet councils at the end of the war in Berlin, by the 1950s it was all over for Marxist politics. As Evans writes about the long term impact on working-class life and organisations in Germany, ‘the Nazis had succeeded in destroying those organisations forever, never to return.’ Alongside this catastrophic defeat, the post-war boom (made possible by the dramatic increase of exploitation during the Second World War) helped usher in a long period of class peace and collaboration throughout Western Europe. These developments seemed to confirm further the Frankfurt School thesis that an agency of change was not possible to locate within the ‘iron cage of modernity’. Economic growth, political stability and the extension of state involvement in social and economic life, and marked improvements in working-class living standards, now appeared to confirm the irrelevance of a revolutionary perspective.   

Workers as One-Dimensional?   

In 1960 the Frankfurt School-influenced New Left radicalism dispensed engaging with the working-class altogether. A second generation Frankfurt School thinker, Herbert Marcuse, provided the key text, One Dimensional Man, through which these ideas were up-dated and expanded upon. Compared to Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Marcuse was far more explicit in arguing that the working classes were as reactionary and dangerous as the bourgeois elites themselves.   

According to Marcuse, the capitalist and working classes are still capitalist society’s basic classes, but the structure and function of these classes has been altered in a way “that they no longer appear to be agents of historical transformation.” Marcuse reckons that a society based on technology has transcended prior modes of capitalist production. So much so that a ‘totalitarian productive apparatus determines not only the socially needed occupations skills and attitudes, but also individual needs and aspirations.” Under totalitarian technology, Marcuse says “culture, politics and the economy merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives. The productivity and growth potential of this system stabilise society and contain progress within the framework of domination”.   

For Marcuse, capitalism had therefore succeeded in “channelling antagonisms in such a way that it can manipulate them. Materially as well as ideologically, the very classes which were once the absolute negation of the capitalist system are now more and more integrated into it.” If the working-classes are no longer the negation or opposite of the capitalist class, and are politically indistinguishable from it, then for radicals the working-class must constitute part of society’s problem rather than its solution. Of course, there are historical examples where the working class have shared the same interests as the ruling elite, such as the Protestant working-class in Northern Ireland or the white working class in South Africa during Apartheid, but the Frankfurt School are arguing that the working class as a whole in late capitalist society are merely conduits of ruling elite domination. In other words, through the process of modernity the working-class, far from being a subjective agency, has become permanently objectified and thoroughly reactionary.   

The Frankfurt School’s gloomy prognosis is partly down to a rejection of taking on organisational responsibility for their ideas and thus their theories end up being at odds with revolutionary Marxism. So while Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse asserted the need to unite theory and practice, their adaptation to Hegel’s notion that philosophy embodies consciousness meant the separation of theory and of making history. Such a theoretical approach led to a view of objectifying history and, in the process, completely removing The Subject from the historical process. The conceptualising of history without a Subject thus rejects any responsibility for controlling the future and denies the possibility of an agent of change.  

The influence of the ‘complicit masses’ theory today   

In more recent years, the collapse of the Left and the working-class as a distinct social force could also be said to confirm the Frankfurt School’s thesis of the impossibility of social transformation. And yet, in many ways, the political response to such recent social developments seems to draw out Adorno and Marcuse’s conclusions in quite a disturbing way.   

The contemporary political juncture can perhaps be defined as a general disdain for universalism, liberty, modernity and social progress. Far from a widespread celebration of the marvels of medicine, increased food production and increased living standards, modernity is seen to lead to environmental catastrophe, urban ugliness, stress and mental health problems and even the destruction of childhood innocence. For many radicals today, the preferred option is to seek ways in which to retreat from the ‘alienation’ of modern day life via rural retreats or organising life around ethical consumption habits. Above all else, a desire to put some distance against the imaginary masses and their cultural tastes pretty much constitutes and defines ‘radicalism’ today.  

In many ways, the objectification of the working classes as a destructive representative of modernity, the binary foot soldiers of the Conservative Party, supporters of the Royal Family and bourgeois prejudices, are the dominant ideas through which politics is understood and organised. Any discussions on race and racism, for instance, are used to demonstrate how objectively awful the white working-classes are and how they’re directly responsible for the modernist domination of ethnic minorities. The novelist Andrew O’Hagan, for instance, recently laid into the English working-classes based on their supposedly innate and objective brutishness that can now be projected back throughout history (5). This is why connections with the supposed ‘underclass’ today and the rise of fascism throughout Europe in the 1930s are often made. For example on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said "We remember above all that the Holocaust did not start with a concentration camp. It started with a brick through the shop window of a Jewish business, the desecration of a synagogue, the shout of racist abuse on the street." (6) Britain’s official anti-fascism serves to upgrade the idea of state authority and downgrade ordinary people in the process. They are now viewed as the unpredictable and menacing force in society – one that needs careful observation and control in order to avert havoc.  

Such assumptions about the objective destructiveness of ordinary people also inform much of the environmentalist and ‘anti-Globalisation’ movement’s agenda as well. Fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Starbucks are targeted because they are seen as arenas of ‘soul destroying’ mass society that must be curbed. Elsewhere, the masses consumption habits are seen as being complicit with big businesses’ wilful lack of regard for the environment. The apparent ‘selfishness’ of ordinary people needs to be combated by high-minded green campaigners who are battling to save the planet from the rapacious domination of modernity and mass society. There is very little in the current environmentalist programme that such apparent leftists as Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse would find objectionable.   

Perhaps the darkest expression of viewing ordinary people as an objectionable and objectified mass is the nihilistic terrorism of al-Qaeda. Whereas genuine anti-imperialist movements in the past would specifically target symbols of political power to demonstrate who was responsible for oppression, Islamic terrorists have no qualms in killing ordinary citizens. Radical Islamists theoretical approach is to see western masses as ‘complicit’, and therefore responsible, for the real and imagined ‘hurts’ against Muslims. Ordinary people are seen as an objectified and decadent reflection of modern society and are thus considered worthwhile targets for retribution. This is how one of the July 7th bombers, Mohammed Khan, justified targeting ordinary Londoners travelling to work. “Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world, and your support for them makes you directly responsible” (7). The origins of such a worldview are arguably closer to Critical Theory found in western academia than anything found in political Islam.   

Of course, It would be historically foolhardy to suggest that such ideas today have a direct lineage in the 1930s Frankfurt School and Marcuse in the 1960s. Arguably, many of these anti-mass sentiments are influenced by more specifically recent developments. Nevertheless, it is the association of anti-mass and anti-modernity ideas with left-wing radicalism that had it’s original expression in the Frankfurt School theories. One of the grim ironies of Dialectic of Enlightenment is that it draws on many of the ideas it is supposedly challenging and critiquing. And if their hostility towards modernity and the masses have an unmistakable air of right-wing pessimism, that’s largely because Adorno, Marcuse and Arendt were initially influenced by the theories of Martin Heidegger. In the 1930s, Heidegger was the leading thinker and lecturer at Frieburg University who became a member of the Nazi Party and actively assisted in the persecution of Jewish students. As with George Lukács, Heidegger was theorising on how modern society could overcome the negative effects of alienation. But Heidegger’s solution was to go in an opposite direction.  

The author James Heartfield points out that: “Heidegger analysed alienation as a metaphysical problem. The instrumental rationality of traditional ontology had separated being from its rootedness, making it inauthentic, 'thrown' and abstract. Heidegger's programme was a 'destruction of ontology' - that is a dismantling of the instrumental reasoning that had separated us from our primordial being” (8). But whereas Lukács argued that proletarian revolution would offer the best solution to man’s alienation in modern society, Heidegger threw his theoretical weight behind the Nazi Party whose ideas chimed with his own. After the defeat of Hitler and Nazism, Heidegger was inevitably disgraced but his romantic rejection of the modern world lived on via the apparently left-wing Frankfurt School. In their inverted theories, which were previously championed by the discredited Heidegger, fascism and domination no longer becomes the proposed resolution to the dangers of modernity and mass society but rather its logical outcome.   

All this is more than simply of historical interest. Many of the romantic anti-Modernity ideas originally devised by Heidegger, and then inverted and expanded upon by the Frankfurt School, are more influential than ever. It is the Frankfurt School’s claim to be far-left and Marxist that has enabled such destructive ideas to gain considerable purchase amongst the radical intelligentsia since the 1960s. And it is that radical intelligentsia who have contributed to revising Europe’s darkest hour by presenting ordinary people as an objective ‘problem’ to be controlled and monitored. Evans’ compelling trilogy on the Third Reich is an important and essential counter-point to the ‘complicit’ masses consensus today.    

See ‘The Hitlerisation’ of History Teaching by Neil DavenportReview, Sunday 26th October, Sunday TimesSee The Left Must Stand Up To Anti-Semitism by Philip J Spencer See Political Ideologies by Andrew Heywood, (Macmillan) 2003‘What went wrong with the working class’, Andrew O’Hagan, Guardian, Saturday 10th January 2006 video here: in 20th century intellectual thought by James Heartfield (