A Critical Theory of Authority

These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “Marcusean Politics Today.” My co-panelists were Shon Meckfessel and Rocío Lopez.

In Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (1954), the sociologists Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills observe that, “from a psychological point of view, the crux of the problem of power rests in understanding the origin, constitution, and maintenance of voluntary obedience.” They add that “Authority, or legitimated power, involves voluntary obedience based on some idea which the obedient holds of the powerful or of his position” (Gerth and Mills 194-5). Indeed, in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1577), Étienne de la Boetie came to much the same conclusion: namely, that authority persists because we allow it to. Although the reproduction of hierarchy under capitalism is not so simple as that, considering the threats of unemployment, imprisonment, starvation, and assassination for those who rebel, there is something to Jean-Paul Sartre’s comment about a kind of “complicity between the oppressor and the oppressed” (Sartre 338).

In turn, the models of sexual sadomasochism and socio-political authoritarianism developed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Jessica Benjamin, and Lynn Chancer highlight the psychodynamic dimensions of erotic frustration and gender and class oppression. In other words, under generalized relations of dependence on capital and male authority, the power of the boss, man, sadist, and/or ‘top’ is ultimately derived from the psychological self-subordination of the worker, woman, masochist, and/or ‘bottom.’ In this sense, the specter of revolt can function as a destituent power that reverberates throughout society, as we have seen on many occasions in history, up to and including the present.

At the same time, not all revolt is emancipatory, and “there is no theory of subversion that cannot also serve the cause of oppression” (Rancière xvii). In Reason and Revolution (1941), Marcuse controversially defends G. W. F. Hegel’s criticism of the “pseudo-democratic” opponents of the post-Napoleonic Restoration régime, likening them—in their xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and German nationalism—to precursors of the Nazis (Marcuse 1999: 179-81).1 Along similar lines, Ze’ev Sternhell sees the fascist cultural and political revolt against Enlightenment values like humanism and rationalism not as anomalous to European history, but rather, as integral to it (Sternhell 3, 250-1). The anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker likewise saw in fascism a “reaction to progress […] rooted in German history but concerning the whole of Europe” (Bernardini 9). Unfortunately, as was confirmed not only by the descent of the Russian Revolution into a Stalinist nightmare, but also by the collaboration of revolutionary syndicalists in the birth of national socialism, the phenomenon of the “leftist right,” or what Jürgen Habermas termed a “left fascism,” certainly exists (Rancière 72; Gandesha). Both in the past, as in the present, we see “discourse[s] of order composed in the vocabulary of subversion” (Rancière 116). In this sense, the Russian Marxist Georgii Plekhanov was right to accuse Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the “Father of Anarchy,” of having combined “extreme Radicalism of mind with extreme Conservatism of mind” (Plechanoff 57, 63). Along similar lines, the neo-Stalinism of the GrayZone bloggers and the Trumpists’ coup attempt at the Capitol in January 2021 are arguably just two sides of the same coin.

Thus, in this presentation, I will analyze the ‘reactionary rebellion’ of the revolutionary French syndicalist Georges Sorel (1847-1922), follower of Proudhon and mentor to Benito Mussolini, the first Fascist leader, whose 1922 March on Rome animated Adolf Hitler’s failed “beer hall putsch” (1923). I will also explore the bureaucratic anti-humanism of Louis Althusser (1918-1990), who sided with his Party (the French Communist, or PCF) in rejecting the May 1968 uprising. I will then conclude with an analysis of national-socialist currents among ‘anti-imperialists’ today, and offer some reconstructive, anti-authoritarian ideas for anarcho-syndicalists and critical theorists going forward.

Georges Sorel’s National Revolution

Perhaps ironically, George Sorel—who infamously synthesized revolutionary syndicalism with ultra-nationalism to inspire Fascism—shared some concerns with the anti-fascist Marxists of the Institute for Social Research, otherwise known as the Frankfurt School theorists. They commonly focused on symbols, emotions, and socio-political psychology in their respective intellectual projects, although admittedly, for vastly different reasons: Sorel sought to “mobilize the masses and to change the world” by annihilating bourgeois society while upholding the authority principle and the place of “revolutionary ‘élites,’” whereas the critical theorists aimed at a non-repressive, anti-authoritarian transformation of global society (Marcuse 2008: 105; Sternhell 59). Across different generations, both the Frankfurters and the Sorelians worried that the working classes of advanced-industrial societies had been integrated into capitalism. Sorel despaired that the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) was more interested in reform than revolution, and Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man (1964) under the impression that workers in the U.S. would not rise up against capitalism (Sternhell 96). In the prologue to Negative Dialectics (1970), Theodor W. Adorno laments that “Philosophy […] remains alive, because the moment of its realization was missed,” given that “the transformation of the world failed.” Along similar lines, Sorel and Walter Benjamin shared a belief in the heroic potential of pessimism.

Of course, neither Adorno nor Marcuse (much less Benjamin) turned, as Sorel and Martin Heidegger did, to national socialism as a “new revolutionary path” (Sternhell 25, 123). Rather, as German-Jewish Marxists, they were forced to flee Nazi Germany and relocate to New York as refugees. After scaling the Pyrenees Mountains in late September 1940, Benjamin poignantly lost his life in the Spanish border town of Portbou, where he overdosed on morphine rather than be deported by Franco’s guards to the Nazi-collaborating Vichy régime. In the U.S., their newfound home, the surviving Frankfurt School theorists continued their principled anti-authoritarian analysis of society, rather than betray the cause, as Sorel so egregiously did.

According to Sternhell’s account in The Birth of Fascist Ideology (1989), fascism can be interpreted as a revolt against the principles of the Enlightenment (3). Certainly, this thesis can explain Heidegger’s own attraction to, and promotion of, Nazism. Like his intellectual mentor Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger sought to demolish the “post-1789 moral-political dispensation [and] replace it with a new radically illiberal and anti-egalitarian dispensation” (Beiner). In Reason and Revolution, Marcuse analyzes the Counter-Enlightenment philosophers who rejected German Idealism and inspired Nazism. In this sense, he highlights F. J. Stahl (1802-1861), who affirmed anti-rationalism, repudiated natural law, and sought to replace the category of reason with obedience (Marcuse 1999: 360-74). Likewise Sorel: “a horror of the Enlightenment [was] basic to his thinking” (Sternhell 69). Indeed, this devout Catholic had no truck with the anti-clerical cause. As a white supremacist, Sorel condemned what he saw as the Jacobins’ “recklessness” for “abruptly abolishing slavery in the colonies’”—particularly, in Haiti (Abromeit 396). Many of his followers encouraged Italy’s invasions of Libya (1911) and Ethiopia (1936) as “labor imperialist” projects. Like his protégé and fellow revolutionary syndicalist Mussolini, Sorel found Nietzsche’s ideas attractive, especially the philosopher’s contempt for “English ideas,” liberalism, and bourgeois society—and presumably, as well, the Nietzschean affirmation of slavery (Beiner; Sternhell 101, 110, 126, 196, 200). Sorel attacked the idealist tradition while hailing “proletarian ‘violence’” as a new form of authority (Marcuse 2008: 104).

Like Stahl, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, Sorel rejected rationalism, humanism, and natural law. His infamous “revision” of Marxism involved advocacy of the destruction of liberal democracy and parliamentary socialism through class struggle. Paradoxically, like Proudhon, Sorel “refused to touch private property and […] believed neither in equality nor in social justice […].” In reality, this “antidemocratic socialis[t]” envisioned the creation of a “producers’ civilization,” which would effectively function as a “revolutionary capitalism—[or] a capitalism of producers.” In this vein, the Sorelians “had nothing to put in place of capitalism and they did not conceive of a postcapitalist era.” As such, it is not hard to see how such a vision of stripping away liberal norms while retaining the capitalist mode of production could morph into Mussolini’s class-collaborationist, corporatist strategy (Sternhell 22, 28-9, 33, 37, 46-50, 69, 75, 80-2, 91, 117).

In this sense, the birthplace of fascism was neither Italy nor Germany, but rather, France. Though Mussolini would not seize power until 1922, on Sternhell’s account, all the requisite conditions for the propagation of the fascist ideal were in place before the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918). In the years after the publication of his Reflections on Violence (1908), a volume that exhorted the proletariat to wield violence to annihilate the bourgeoisie, Sorel abandoned socialism in favor of ultra-nationalism and the “conservative revolution.” In turn, Sorel inspired the founding of the national-syndicalist Cercle Proudhon in late 1911 as a clearing house for “nationalists and leftist anti-democrats.” The futurists and Sorelians in this Cercle highlighted Proudhon’s defense of private property, militarism, traditionalism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. As champions of anti-rationalism, anti-humanism, pessimism, a “revolutionary” hatred of democracy, and fidelity to Sorel’s masculinist cult of violence, these left-right syncretists proclaimed their ideal “the nonproletarian revolution, the national revolution” (Sternhell 4, 7, 27-9, 69, 75, 78, 80, 86, 90, 124, 130). As Marcuse might say, the Sorelians failed to question, much less overcome, technical reason; instead, they inspired Mussolini and Hitler to build on Sorel’s vision of a future wherein the “cult of energy” and “authority would emerge victorious all along the line” (Sternhell 24-7, 129, 168, 236-7).

Crucially, Sternhell distinguishes between the theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism and anarchists. For Sorel and his followers, “the principle of authority was never in question.” In fact, “Sorelism detested anarchism,” and the master’s right-hand man, Édouard Berth, “wrote that ‘a real abyss’ divided the ideas of the syndicalists from those of the anarchists.” Paradoxically, the Sorelians opposed the concept of self-management, whether individual or collective; effectively, they proposed a hierarchical and productivist society run by syndicates (Sternhell 31, 103-104, 127, 218-223). Ultimately, these revolutionary unionists were just used by the Fascists to seize power. After all, conceptually speaking, national syndicalism and corporatism utterly contradict the cause of worker autonomy. As we know from Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1942), the Nazi regime was run in the interests of the industrialists, the bureaucracy, the military leaders, and the National Socialist Party (Neumann). Accordingly, Sternhell is right to conclude that fascists’ use of leftist discourse always has “’rightist’ results” (211), just as Rocker is right to denounce Stalinism and Fascism as totalitarian ideologies that “both grew on the same tree” (Bernardini 7).

Even so, the case of Sorel is a disturbing one, considering how it illuminates the overlap between left and right, which are categories that are often considered to be mutually exclusive. How can it be that Jacques Rancière describes Sorel (perhaps unfairly) as an anarcho-syndicalist, that Mussolini and the Sorelian George Valois had had anarchist sympathies before embracing national socialism, and that so many Italian revolutionary syndicalists became Fascists? (Rancière 61; Sternhell 96, 143) In reality, many leftists and fascists commonly emphasize direct action, energy, violence, heroism, and sacrifice, while championing the will to power and conquest and critiquing “moralism” (Sternhell 29, 176-9). Mussolini and the Nazis admired Bolshevik authoritarianism, and Stalin trusted and allied with Hitler—rather irrationally, it turns out (Arendt 308-9; Bernardini). Part of the appeal of Sorelianism to syndicalists and nationalists alike was (and remains) its claim that both groups share(d) common enemies in liberalism and parliamentarism. Especially in the wake of postmodernism, many self-proclaimed leftists share a reactionary commitment to anti-universalism (Sternhell 163, 250-1). Whether a century ago or now, it is apparent that Sorelians, neo-Stalinists, and national socialists merely seek the worst of all possible worlds: that is, capitalism without any rights at all (Hensman).

Althusser’s Lesson

In Althusser’s Lesson (1974), the French philosopher Jacques Rancière takes his former professor to task for siding with the Communist Party of France (PCF), which opposed the revolutionary student movement of May 1968 as “petit bourgeois.” In regurgitating the Party line, Althusser effectively defended the division between mental and manual labor, privileging the former over the latter, while affirming the “very model prescribed by the philosophy of educators: enlightened despotism.” (In contrast, Sartre supported May 1968.) Besides Althusser’s disgrace, Rancière’s volume is focused “on the much broader logic by which subversive thoughts are recuperated for the service of order” (Rancière xvi, 11, 19, 54).

In this vein, Rancière identifies Althusserianism as a discourse of order wrapped up “in the language of leftism.” He traces its origin to “the desire to combat the revisionist tendencies that had seeped into philosophy following the Twentieth Congress” of 1956, when Nikita Khrushchëv denounced the crimes of Stalin, his then-deceased predecessor. In other words, Althusser followed Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in their questionable defense of Stalin, announced during the Sino-Soviet split in the post-1956 context. Broadly speaking, for Rancière, Althusser’s career amounted to the “fight of a ‘communist philosopher’ against that which threatens both the authority of his Party and of his philosophy: [namely,] Cultural Revolution on a global scale.” Both Althusser and the PCF leadership were anxious about the discovery of Marx’s Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which so moved Fromm, Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and others, because they feared the creation of a “political authority other than the Party.” Accordingly, Althusser maligned these pieces as having been written during Marx’s “petit bourgeois” as opposed to “proletarian” communist phase—despite the fact that this distinction is entirely arbitrary. In terms of theory, Althusser insisted that “Marxism is a[n] anti-humanism,” proposing instead that humanism is “bourgeois idealism,” while championing Marxist-Leninist orthodoxies through his promotion of “an unofficial version of Stalinism” (Rancière xx, 9, 21, 23, 33, 72, 78-9, 83, 113, 116).

Indeed, by the time the May 1968 uprising began with student revolt, Althusser had long given up on any ideas he may have had about questioning and dissolving State power, factory despotism, or wage labor. His attacks on the syndicalist left, and his disgrace over May 1968, speak for themselves. Some of the reconstructive proposals that Rancière considers in closing are ideas about proletarian humanism, self-management, and the independence of labor leading to the autonomy of producers and “a world [re]made for and by the labour community.” At its best, society would operate as a network of cooperatives “which impos[e their] own rhythm on the work [through] non-hierarchical organization” and the democratic recognition of human equality (Rancière 37, 89-90, 93, 108, 117; May).

Conclusion: National Socialism, ‘Anti-Imperialism,’ and Anarcho-Syndicalism

Returning to the attempted Capitol putsch of 2021, we see that this disturbing neo-fascist moment united hyper-masculinity, white-male rage, anddirect action with anti-parliamentarian and anti-democratic politics. As Eric Alterman describes, “Trumpism’s release of suppressed sexual and aggressive drives is a far cry from [what Marcuse termed Eros]. Rather, it represents what Marcuse called the ‘political utilization of sex’ and aggression to reinforce social domination” (Alterman). That being said, this moribund marriage of opportunism with authoritarianism has not been limited in recent years to the far right. In the wake of the rise of self-described ‘leftist’ streamers and ‘anti-imperialist’ bloggers who claim independence from mainstream media while reproducing their brand competitiveness and associated ‘spins’ on reality, many neophyte ‘socialist celebrities’ have profited from “preach[ing] a contempt for democracy and parliamentarism,” as revolutionary syndicalists and ultra-nationalists did a century ago (Sternhell 108, 153).

Along these very same lines, the political comedian Jimmy Dore bases his appeal in a call for the left and the right to “join forces” against “the Establishment.” Likewise, the GrayZone conspiracy theorists deny the existence of concentration camps for Uyghurs and other ethno-religious minorities that are maintained by the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang. Appallingly, one of GrayZone’s main shticks is to deny Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility for hundreds of chemical-weapons attacks carried out against insurgents and civilian communities alike in Syria over the past decade. We shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised that Dore and GrayZone have now switched to promoting disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, and agitating in favor of the use of ivermectin to treat COVID.

Rancière mentions the case of Pierre Daix (1922-2014), a journalist who first “denied the existence of labour camps in the Soviet Union [in 1949]; he never convinced anybody,” and then he resigned from the PCF in 1974, after having engaged with Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago (1973) (Rancière 107). Given the profit and self-promotion involved, we cannot expect the GrayZone editors to argue in good faith about history or current events, much less renounce their absurd positions. The problem is that they do seem to convince their audiences, who admittedly may already be predisposed to aggressive, delusional, and sadistic thought-patterns and behaviors. Like Althusser over May 1968, ‘anti-imperialist’ authoritarians—ostensibly on the left—have built up their brands by denying the existence of the Syrian Revolution over the past decade on the one hand, and covering up the egregious atrocities carried out by the counter-revolutionary axis on the other: that is, Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. With nearly a million Syrians murdered, and millions more displaced internally and across borders, the “line” of GrayZone and its sympathizers—of allying with the executioners—is a fundamental violation of leftist and Enlightenment principles around internationalism, humanism, and egalitarianism. In short, this ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse is merely another discourse of order and a “consecration of the [status quo] in the language of revolution” (Rancière 124).

Around Syria, the Trump regime, and COVID-19, we have seen a clear convergence between Stalinists and fascists who seek to marry revolution with tradition by advancing anti-rationalism, anti-humanism, and a hatred of democracy (Stites 250; Sternhell 240-1). The risk is that contrarian bloggers and streamers in touch with these currents are implicitly and paradoxically promoting neo-Nazism by espousing “an authoritarian and corporatist national revolution based on an ‘anticapitalist’ alliance” (Sternhell 248). Though this risk may seem exaggerated, the experience of four years of Trump, plus the resentment that persists over his electoral loss, show us just how much support the Counter-Enlightenment continues to enjoy.

Within this struggle, in the hopes of avoiding contributing to a reinvigorated fascism in our time, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists should restate our opposition to private property, and our universal support for worker and community self-control of the economy and polity. Plus, we should revisit implicit or explicit futurism, anti-rationalism, and anti-humanism in the movement, and in our history, plus reconsider to what extent sharing a Nietzschean, Heideggerian, or Sorelian critique of liberal democracy is helpful. Furthermore, the cause of worker autonomy, which is realistically the only means of ensuring the preconditions for collective liberation and protection of the Earth from climate destruction, might greatly be assisted by integrating the insights from Critical Theory about the psychological dimensions of overcoming hierarchy, which ultimately is based on voluntary obedience, into labor organizing. Therefore, I conclude: anarcho-syndicalists and critical theorists, unite!

Works Cited

Abromeit, John. “Transformations of Producerist Populism in Western Europe.” Transformations of Populism in Europe, the United States and Latin America: History, Theories and Recent Tendencies. Ed. John Abromeit. Unpublished manuscript. 367-413.

Alterman, Eric 2021. “Altercation: Authoritarians Amok.” The American Prospect. Available online: https://prospect.org/politics/altercation-authoritarians-amok. Accessed 25 September 2021.

Arendt, Hannah 1968. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt.

Beiner, Ronald 2021. “Dangerous Minds in Dangerous Times.” Thesis Eleven, vol. 163, no. 1. 29-42. doi:10.1177/07255136211005989.

Bernardini, David 2021. “A different antifascism. An analysis of the Rise of Nazism as seen by anarchists during the Weimar period.” History of European Ideas. DOI: 10.1080/01916599.2021.1963629.

Gandesha, Samir 2019. “The “Authoritarian Personality” Reconsidered: the Phantom of ‘Left Fascism.’” American Journal of Psychoanalysis. 79(4): 601-624. doi: 10.1057/s11231-019-09227-w. PMID: 31745203.

Hensman, Rohini 2018. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Marcuse, Herbert 1999. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

— 2008. A Study on Authority. Trans. Joris de Bres. London: Verso.

May, Todd 2008. The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

Neumann, Franz 1942. Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism. London: Victor Gollancz.

Plechanoff, George 2014. Anarchism and Socialism. Trans. Eleanor Marx. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

Rancière, Jacques 2017. Althusser’s Lesson. Trans. Emiliano Battista. London: Bloomsbury.

Sartre, Jean-Paul 1983. Cahiers pour une morale. Paris: Gallimard.

Sternhell, Ze’ev 1994. The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution. Trans. David Maisel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1Marcuse comments: “Hegel wrote his Philosophy of Right as a defense of the state against this pseudo-democratic ideology, in which he saw a more serious threat to freedom than in the continued rule of the vested authorities” (1999: 180).

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