Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Book Review: Ronald Beiner’s Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right

July 27, 2018

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First published on Marx and Philosophy, 27 July 2018

This volume presents compelling critiques of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger as far-right agitators who inspired (Nietzsche) or actively supported Nazism (Heidegger). Author Ronald Beiner connects Nietzsche’s affinities for feudalism with the philosopher’s critique of compassion, morality, and egalitarianism, and he shows how such despotism of thought was reproduced by the Nazi enthusiast Heidegger as well. Beiner details Heidegger’s disturbing commitment to Nazism not only under Hitler, whom he wholeheartedly welcomed in his infamous inaugural address as Rector of the University of Freiburg, “The Self-Assertion of the Germany University” (May 1933), but also within the post-war context and for decades thereafter. In light of the menace posed by the neo-Nazi alt-right, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán, and Narendra Modi, Beiner is rightly worried that the philosophies of Nietzsche and Heidegger, as anti-liberal critics of modernity, are coming back in a rude way. However, it is doubtful whether the Rawlsian or Habermasian liberal alternative Beiner endorses is the correct treatment for this diagnosis, or rather part and parcel of the same disastrous problematic that is driving the consolidation of neo-fascist forces.

Besides the acute political-philosophical commentary to be found in Dangerous Minds, the author reflects movingly on the inevitable difficulties related to death within the context of Heidegger’s identification of the everyday suppression of the recognition of our individual and social finitude, or finiteness, as raised in Being and Time (1927).

In Dangerous Minds, Beiner discusses the influence Nietzsche has had on notorious contemporary ultra-rightists such as the U.S.-based white supremacist Richard Spencer and the Russian neo-fascist Aleksandr Dugin, as well as the historical Italian fascist Julius Evola, who was an “explicit disciple of Nietzsche” (3). Like Evola, Spencer declares himself a Nietzschean, and Dugin swears by the iconoclast’s ominous statement that “man [sic] is something that should be overcome” (2, 12). These prominent figures of an increasingly powerful Fascist International find inspiration in Nietzsche’s aristocratic differentiation between the putatively “elect” and “unfit peoples” (4) as well as the philosopher’s anticipation of Nazism’s practice of große Politik (“great [or noble] politics”) in his militaristic critique of Otto von Bismarck from the right, as György Lukács points out in The Destruction of Reason (1952), and his “imperialistic critique of nationalism” (136n2). Today’s far-rightists also admire the Nazi Heidegger, who himself took a great deal from Nietzsche, particularly his critique of liberal modernity as nihilistic. To date, reports Beiner, Dugin has dedicated four volumes to discussing Heidegger, with “more to follow” (139n27).

Yet it has not just been the right which has found Nietzsche and Heidegger of use; in fact, Beiner endorses Geoff Waite’s view that Nietzsche also left his mark on the Frankfurt School critical theorists, Albert Camus, and post-structuralists like Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari, and Gilles Deleuze, among others. Whereas one finds few positive references to Nietzsche in Herbert Marcuse’s oeuvre, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno admittedly incorporated a Nietzschean skepticism toward instrumental rationality, though they both, like the other Frankfurt School thinkers, held an overall more Hegelian view of rationality, viewing it as also having strong emancipatory potential. As for Camus, his position is ambiguous, given his view in The Rebel (1951) that, on the one hand, Nietzsche’s appropriation by the Nazis represented a great injustice to the philosopher, while also acknowledging that “Nietzscheism was nothing without world domination” and that, when “[p]laced in the crucible of Nietzschean philosophy, rebellion, in the intoxication of freedom, ends in biological or historical Caesarism” (Camus 1951, 75-80). For his part, Beiner illustrates the relevance of Foucault’s adoption of Nietzsche’s critique of truth as power, yielding “post-truth” and “fake news.” Notably, Foucault’s Nietzschean-Heideggerian preference for pre-modern alternatives to capitalist modernity may help to explain his uncritical support for the Khomeinist faction of the Iranian Revolution, whose seizure of power in 1979 effectively put an end to the revolutionary process, as Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson (2005) detail.

Crucially, Beiner clarifies Nietzsche and Heidegger’s philosophical critiques of the modern world as being reactionary assaults on the egalitarian legacy of the French Revolution which quite openly sought to entrench imperialistic domination and re-establish feudalistic modes of social organization. Hence, Beiner argues, we should take Nietzsche seriously when he endorses the ideas of social castes and slavery (18, 144n35), just as we should take seriously Heidegger’s explicit admission in 1948 to his former student Marcuse of his uncritical view of Nazism, from which he had reportedly “expected […] a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety, a reconciliation of social antagonisms, and a deliverance of western Dasein [‘Being’] from the dangers of communism” (Marcuse 1998, 265-7). Such pseudo-radical posturing by a thinker who sides with the Nazi dictatorship is precisely what many far-rightists find so attractive in Heidegger: this dramatic perspective, shared by Nietzsche, Dugin, and also the Counter-Enlightenment traditionalist and irrationalist Joseph de Maistre, amounts to the paradoxical concept of ‘conservative revolution,’ whereby the socio-political goal becomes the overthrow of liberal society, the cancellation of the ideas of the French Revolution, and even the abolition of Christianity due to the egalitarianism of the doctrine of Jesus the Nazarene.

Indeed, Beiner argues that, for Nietzsche, “repudiation of Christianity constitutes the necessary condition of a return to an aristocracy-centered culture” (27 emphasis in original). Little surprise, then, that his The Anti-Christ (1895) has been adopted by contemporary white supremacists as a neo-pagan tract—and that his celebration of the idea of the Supermen (Übermenschen) who would overthrow egalitarianism necessarily presupposes “subhumans” (Untermenschen), as the Nazis rather catastrophically put in practice. Moreover, neo-Nazi movements have appreciated Nietzsche’s classification of Judaism and Christianity as ‘slave religions,’ a position that is inseparable from the philosopher’s analysis of compassion as reflecting resentment and weakness—a view which is arguably itself a reflection of rightist resentment. Nietzsche’s explicit affirmation of the “protracted despotic moralities,” which on his account predominated in premodern contexts, demonstrates the degree to which his philosophy is an inversion of that of Arthur Schopenhauer, who emphasizes compassion as being the basis of morality (32 emphasis in original; 161n72). Steeping himself in irrationalism, Nietzsche expressly saw his philosophy as a wholesale destruction—or, to use contemporary parlance, ‘owning’—of “the left,” understood as German Idealism, the principles of the French Revolution, Christianity, and even Platonic and Socratic rationalism.

In contrast to Nietzsche, who died in 1900 and did not necessarily frame his concept of the Superman in ethno-racial terms, Heidegger clearly was a völkisch fascist, an enthusiastic Nazi, and a rabid anti-Semite, as the recently published Black Notebooks (1931-1938) attest. This so-called ‘intellectual’ displayed a swastika at the well outside his cabin in the Black Forest until the war’s end in 1945 (114), and we have already seen his view from 1948 as expressed to Marcuse above. Beiner correctly notes that “[o]nly a real Nazi […] could have written such a letter” to Marcuse, a left-wing German Jew (120). Moreover, in his 1947 response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” contrasts the rationalism and humanism extending from Plato and Socrates to Johann Wolfang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller with the supposedly nationalistic attitude found in Friedrich Hölderin which emphasizes the overthrow of contemporary “uncanniness” (otherwise known as ‘homelessness’) and the goal of establishing a strong homeland, or Heimat. He clearly considers the latter approach more authentic, two years after the end of World War II, regardless of the genocidal implications of Nazism.

As Beiner writes, “[o]ne feels compelled to say that here is a man who experienced political events without really experiencing them” (101). Yet this is perhaps too kind an assessment, as Heidegger could not deny what Nazism had wrought on the world. Marcuse for one had brought it up to him in his 1946 meeting with Heidegger in the Black Forest, and then again during their subsequent correspondence. Still, as Beiner relates, never once did the author of Being and Time apologize for his collaboration with Hitler’s regime, let alone concede any wrongdoing. On the contrary, he would continue to publicly defend National Socialism until at least 1966. His friend Rudolf Bultmann reports that Heidegger utterly ignored his request that the philosopher write a confession, like Augustine of Hippo (119).

Beiner’s “call to arms” to liberals and leftists about Nietzsche and Heidegger’s very “dangerous minds” and the resurgence of ‘conservative revolutionary’ rightism is certainly an important and relevant study. The author is justified in finding it “bizarre” that the Nazi Heidegger became one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, and that several leftist intellectuals take after his thought and even describe themselves as Heideggerians (21). Nonetheless, in light of Heidegger’s fascism, Beiner has a point in arguing that left-Heideggerianism should “close up shop” (67). Considering in turn that Heidegger clarified how decisive Nietzsche’s influence was in his becoming a Nazi (111), ‘left-Nietzscheanism’ presumably should do the same. Hence, if Beiner were to be heeded, post-structuralism and postmodernism would likely have to be rethought and overhauled—as they arguably should be anyway, given the ties between these schools of thoughts and the ideas of Nietzsche and Heidegger in the first place. In this sense, Beiner’s volume recalls Richard Wolin’s The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (2009), and has a similar critical force.

One qualification to this conclusion relates to Beiner’s ideological support for liberal capitalism as an alternative to Nietzsche and Heidegger’s ultra-reactionary actionism. The author of Dangerous Minds at times equates liberalism with egalitarianism, when clearly—as Marxists, anarchists, and other socialists have long noted—liberalism has in fact greatly violated egalitarian principles in upholding capitalism and its inevitably associated racial, gender, and labor hierarchies. Indeed, one cannot overlook Marcuse’s point in “The Struggle against Liberalism in the Totalitarian View of the State” (1934) that fascism grew out of liberal-bourgeois society itself; Lukács makes a similar point overall in The Destruction of Reason. The ongoing transnational resurgence of far-right authoritarianism shows this playing out in real time. Taking all of this into account, instead of the minimalist demands for social-democracy made by Rawls and Habermas and endorsed by Beiner, we should advance and support egalitarian and transformative anti-capitalist critique and social reorganization.

Works Cited

Afary, Janet and Kevin B. Anderson Foucault and The Iranian Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Knopf, 1956).

Marcuse, Herbert. Technology, War, and Fascism: Collected Papers Volume 1, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 1998).

Wolin, Richard. The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

 

The Insurgent Kingdom of God: On The Politics of Zealot

February 18, 2016

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First published on Anarkismo, 18 February 2016

Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House 2013. 296pp.

Professor Reza Aslan’s Zealot is in large part the story of how the life of Jesus of Nazareth was “revised” ex post facto by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While Jewish themselves, these early Christians wished to break definitively with their mother religion in the wake of the brutal counter-insurgent campaign waged by Rome against the Jewish Revolt that had been launched in Palestine in 66 C.E., only to be finally put down when the Romans destroyed the Temple and ravaged Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Indeed, it was in this year or the very next one that the first Gospel, written by Mark, was composed; the rest of the gospels were written later, between 90 and 120 C.E. Aslan makes clear that the birth of Christianity was not the end sought by Jesus or his closest disciples, including Simon (Peter) and his brother James, but was rather the result of the unflagging efforts of Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, who in his missionary epistles to the Greco-Roman gentiles stressed the divinity of Jesus, thus transforming the rebel-prophet Jesus into Christ the messiah, a “Romanized demigod” (171).

In this way, the ascendancy of Pauline Christianity was largely due to historical circumstance: with the “Jerusalem branch” of Jesus’ followers wiped out by the Roman attack on Jerusalem, Paul’s vision of Jesus was the only one left standing, with the exception of the hypothetical Q document on which Matthew and Luke were based (214). Plus, as Aslan observes, Paul’s views certainly permeate in Luke and John (215). According to the author, this geographical shift from Jerusalem to the Greco-Roman Diaspora implied the opportunistic transformation of the historical zealot Jesus into a pacifist and of the Kingdom of God he had proclaimed into an ethereal matter reserved for the afterlife. As Aslan notes, such conscious manipulation of history cannot be dissociated from the virulence of European Jew-hatred over the past two millennia, as inspired by the evangelists, who portray the Jewish rabble and/or their corrupt leaders as responsible for Christ’s execution, with Pilate merely “washing his hands,” when in fact Jesus was murdered by the State, the occupying power of Rome.

Aslan makes clear that Jesus was crucified for sedition—indeed, that crucifixion was the punishment reserved for political offenders, and that the two prisoners executed alongside Christ on Golgotha were “bandits” (lestai), not “thieves.” The author places Jesus’ rebellion within the context of the times, echoing the demands and fate of similar anti-Roman messianic figures and the movements they led from the century leading up to the general Revolt, such as the bandit chief Hezekiah, Judas the Galilean, “the Samaritan,” and “the Egyptian” (79). Ironically enough, Aslan argues that Jesus was effectively John the Baptist’s disciple, for Christ adopted John’s ascetic-defiant announcement of the Kingdom of God, and even shared the same fate as his master at the hands of the State (80-9).

In addition, the author provides a compelling clarification of Jesus’ well-known proclamation regarding the need to “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and render unto God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17/Matthew 22:21/Luke 20:25). Though this line has often been used to rationalize Christian subordination to the State, its meaning is in fact quite revolutionary, as demonstrated by the evangelists’ recording of the audience’s reaction, “amazed at him.” In response to the question posed by the Pharisees or their spies about whether Jews should agree to pay tribute to Rome, Jesus requests to be shown a denarius, an imperial coin, and asks “whose image and inscription hath it?” In response to his listeners’ correct identification, Christ tells the audience that the symbolic coin must be returned to Caesar, to whom it belongs, just as the land of occupied Palestine must be rendered holy, emancipated from the yoke of Roman occupation (76-8). Though the national-liberation zealot movement as represented by the Zealot Party would not formally be founded for another three decades after the death of Christ, Aslan observes that Christ’s view of the denarius and Caesar clearly communicates the prophet’s affinity for the philosophy of that movement. Of course, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God being at hand should be interpreted similarly as a fundamental challenge to the established system of clerical-military domination, for “God’s rule cannot be established without the annihilation of the present leaders” (119).

Hence, Aslan clearly acknowledges that the “Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple” (120). However, in his discussion of this insurgent concept, Aslan calls into question what is perhaps most radical within Christ’s teachings: the affirmation that the “greatest commandment” is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:39). Aslan writes that Jesus’ declaration of this maxim was meant to be applied only to members of the Jewish nation only, and thus should not be understood as a universal humanistic declaration of equality and solidarity (120-2). “There is no reason to consider Jesus’s conception of his neighbors and enemies to have been any more or less expansive than that of any other Jew of his time” (122). To support this claim, Aslan argues that Christ’s clarification that he came not to destroy Mosaic law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) necessarily means that the prophet must have endorsed chauvinist conceptions about peoples other than Jews. However, this claim is somewhat imprecise; it is unclear why Christ’s affirmation of the Golden Rule, if directed primarily toward Jews, could not also dialectically apply to gentiles or humanity in general. Beginning three centuries before Christ, the Stoics had identified the innateness of human equality and the unity of humankind through natural law.1 In parallel, four or five centuries before Christ, Buddha had developed the concept of the common struggle of all suffering beings. Christ’s “new commandment” for his followers to “love one another” (John 13:35) self-evidently shares a great deal with these other egalitarian philosophies.

Related to the question of Christian, Buddhist, or Stoic egalitarianism is Aslan’s presentation of the Kingdom of God. Aslan intimates that Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God was “neither purely celestial nor wholly eschatological,” but rather real and physical, such that Jesus envisioned himself ruling a reconstituted, liberated Israel in God’s name, with the twelve apostles serving as his lieutenant-governors (118-25). The accusation of Christ’s having proclaimed himself King of the Jews (INRI), was, according to the Gospels, the “evidence” for the charge of sedition on which he was executed. Yet Aslan also discusses the translation of a line unique to John that may have been uttered by Christ during his interrogation by Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this order [or system]” (John 18:36) (116). Usually translated as not being “of this world”—and hence understood as being reserved for the afterlife—Christ’s “kingdom” in this sense presents a very different vision of social organization, whether we think of the classical eastern Mediterranean or the world of our own day. This is particularly the case if we juxtapose this heretical declaration with the prophet’s condemnation of private property, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5-7), the parables about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) and Lazarus and the wealthy man (Luke 16:19-31), and the apocalyptical vision of Judgment Day, when the rich would be cast into hell, while the oppressed and those promoting mutual aid would be saved (Matthew 25:31-46)—to say nothing of his physical clearing of the Temple in Jerusalem of the money-changers (Mark 11:15-19/Matthew 21:12-17/Luke 19:45-48). Though Aslan recognizes Christ’s revolutionary vision, he does not explicitly acknowledge the Kingdom of God’s proto-communist character or the materialist metaphor of Christ’s healing of the sick free of charge, preferring to associate the former concept with the national-liberation struggle against the Romans and the concept of divine sovereignty. Nevertheless, he describes how Christ’s revolutionism influenced his brother James, known as “the Just,” who too would be executed for championing the cause of the oppressed (197-212).

One final matter to discuss from Aslan’s volume is the author’s dismissal of the evangelists’ imputing to Christ a stance of pacifism and the espousal of non-resistance to evil by violence. In Matthew 5:38-44 and Luke 6:27-29, Jesus includes within his Sermon on the Mount a critique of the established lex talonis stipulating “an eye for an eye” and in its place presents the injunction to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” Aslan rejects these teachings as fabrications, for they contradict his account of Christ’s zealotry; he clarifies his view that Jesus was “no fool” when it came to social change, meaning that he “understood” that force would be necessary to realize the Kingdom of God (120-2). Aslan cites Christ’s statement that he had “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) to support the line of argumentation, though he entirely decontextualizes this statement—with the image of “sword” incidentally being translated in Luke 12:51 as “division” to express the same idea—for in Matthew the very next lines read as follows: “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother […]. He that loveth father or mother [or child] more than me is not worthy of me […]. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:35-8). Hence, while it is evident that Christ’s critique shares much in common with zealotry in terms of the question of the Roman occupation—as reflected, verily, in the prophet’s warning to his apostles that they would likely face execution for joining him—it is far less clear that Jesus agreed with the violent tactics used by zealots against Rome. Indeed, next to the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the calls for non-violent non-cooperation and the harmonization of means and ends are among the most innovative of Christ’s teachings. In this vein, while in no way uncritically advancing pacifism, one wonders if Aslan would also call Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or their followers “fools.”

In sum, Aslan has certainly provided a thought-provoking account of the “life and times” of Jesus of Nazareth. He places one of history’s most fateful personalities directly within the political and economic realities that led him on the path of anti-colonial, proto-socialist rebellion. In so doing, the author implicitly condemns the depoliticized image of Christ that has been propagated by the various institutionalized churches which arose over the past two millennia to officially “represent” Christianity—however fundamentally essentially all of these churches have departed from the essence of Christ’s teachings, summarized by Tolstoy as being the proclamation of “universal brotherhood, the elimination of national distinctions, the abolition of private property, and the strange injunction not to resist evil by violence.”2 As a biographical and philosophical examination of the world-historical Jewish prophet who demanded that his disciples “call no man [their] father upon the Earth [… and] neither be called masters” (Matthew 23:9-10), Zealot bears a great deal of contemplation, discussion, and action.

1Ernst Bloch, Natural Law and Human Dignity, trans. Dennis J. Schmidt (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986), 10-16.

2Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You and Peace Essays, trans. Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 134.