The Despairing Marxist

members of the Frankfurt School
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno

No ‘school’ is perhaps more mentioned with disdain in rightist circles today than the Frankfurt School, established by Jews in Germany at the prestigious Goethe University during the Interwar Period. Like escaped rats coming back to feast on a carcass, these men slithered back into the now divided Germany once the war was over to continue their Marxist activities. There’s not much point doing a history on the collective. It’s been done to death. Instead, I want to note a perculiar conclusion reached by one of its most recognizable members in the wake of the Holocaust.

Theodor Adorno  was so disgusted by what had supposedly transpired in Germany during the war, that his outlook changed. He was still very much a Marxist, but he had lost the optimism that giddy revolutionaries had experienced during the Interwar Period. In his eyes, what had occured at Auschwitz had to revolutionize the entire assessment of the ‘Enlightenment’. He famously said this:

“All post-Auschwitz culture, including its urgent critique, is garbage.”

His view was that the Holocaust had proven the Age of Enlightenment an utter failure. Nothing could be taken for granted anymore, and Marx’s concept of the inevitable rise of the ‘proletariat’ was nothing more than a pipe dream built on faulty assumptions. In the penultimate document of pessimism which was penned with the help of his friend Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of the Enlightenment, it is lamented that contra Marx, the capitalist world order was not some improved step on the way to an eventual utopia, but actually the human condition had worsened in that people were being controlled now by being actively encouraged to pursue their own desires rather than having them smashed by an authority. In a sense, Adorno sees a world in which populations are being manipulated more than ever before, but suffer from the collective delusion of thinking they are more free.

Now, make no mistake: Adorno was still looking for some means to achieve utopia, some way to emancipate all those who were so unjustly, to borrow a phrase from Rousseau, “in chains”, but in his opinion human reason had proved itself more monstrous and dangerous than anything to ever take pride of place at the center of society.

There are some big mistakes that he makes. His critique is three-pronged, political, economic, and cultural. From the political standpoint, he sees Nazism as the pinnacle of the ‘Enlightenment’, which is ridiculous. As is evident from history, Nazism thought it was the pinnacle, but was less advanced and dynamic than Liberalism, something that the Communists themselves found out a few decades later. Liberalism is in fact the pinnacle, it is the most advanced of the three contemporary political theories. Do not mistake the fact that it is built on lies, hypocrisies, and principles that revolve like a weather vane as a weakness. These are its practical strengths.

’twas not to be

Communism and Nazism both suffered from not being ridiculous and counterfactual enough.They couldn’t change because they were rooted in achievable ‘utopias’, whether based on a master race or a centrally planned economy. Once this had been achieved, where was there to go when it didn’t turn out as wonderful as they had hoped? A Thousand Year Reich? An immortal government of the Proletariat? Hocus pocus. No, Liberalism’s great tactical advantage is in fact that the utopia can never be achieved because nobody knows what the hell it looks like. Its only face is chaos. Each generation creates a phantom dream to chase, some new cause, some way in which everything still isn’t perfect. The previous generation of Liberals don’t understand it? Tough! And they’re racist bigots anyway!

Bear in mind, the vast Marxist intelligentsia of which the Frankfurt School was only a small part of failed in their overarching mission. Real Communism is essentially a joke today. The Soviet Union is gone, China has more sweatshop-condition factories than England, and North Korea far from being an egalitarian paradise has turned into a barely functioning fiefdom in search of a few million light bulbs. The entire ideology is dead. Where these schools did succeed was in finding a way to gnaw and destroy what remained of Traditional culture in many Western societies using that “long march through the institutions”, but it’s not as if Liberalism wouldn’t have achieved this anyway, all be it in a longer time frame. Or, if you want to think about it in an even more interesting way, and we observe Communism as a stepchild of Liberalism, it was all part of a grand long game by Liberals all along. Come to think of it, both Communism and Nazism were indispensable to Liberalism’s total predominance in the world. The intellectual and conspiratorial Communists finished off what was left of the Church and Patriarchy, while Nazism provided the greatest boogeyman of all time (as Donald Trump supporters know all too well). 

useless to communism
very helpful to liberalism

Adorno wasn’t happy. He may not have fully realized what it was which made him so unhappy when he looked at the world, but he seemed at a loss. He and Horkheimer described the dialectic of the Enlightenment as being an argument between the subjugation of man to reason, and the subjugation of man to myth. Out of hand, they dismiss myth, laugh at it through the same fogged up glass that Voltaire and others did. Reason wins out. But where has reason led? In Adorno and Horkheimer’s view, reason had led to a catastrophe somehow, but they could not turn back to myth because of course that wasn’t conducive to a Marxist vision of a better and more egalitarian future. It is actually amazing how well the narrative fits the Reactionary worldview, as in the ‘age of myth‘ (which comes after the age of memetics, a primitive kind of state), man’s concept of the self is not yet ‘fully formed’ and is open to the cosmos, not able to distinguish itself from nature. In the words of David Ebert, “what we have is a porous sense of self, that is open to these transpersonal forces. And so the self largely has not differentiated itself from this background of cosmic, transpersonal, impersonal forces, which nature is full of and which subjugate the human being and make demands upon him.”

Now, to the Reactionary, this is in no way a human that isn’t ‘fully formed’. This is the most fully formed human being! This is Traditional man! Again, we see the contrast between a view that sees history as a linear progression, and a view that sees history as a cyclical decline.

The essential interesting point I wanted to get across here is that despairing from the Second World War, Adorno and other Marxists like him had a weird moment of clarity on the nature of reason and the peculiar state this newly liberated mankind had fallen into. There was mankind, fully aware, fully formed in his sense of self, marching towards a great bold future and then… something… somewhere… had gone horribly wrong. They spent the rest of their time trying to figure out what it was, but never came up with the correct answer, that it was in fact that transition away from the age of myth which represented man’s degeneration into something less than human.
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9 thoughts on “The Despairing Marxist

  1. Mark, I think it's important to realize–as I'm sure you do–that though you extol “myth” and the “porous, undifferentiated self” (the self that is, so to say, one with myth) in your piece, the piece itself is written, not from the perspective of myth as such or the “porous self”, but rather from a highly conscious (and thus differentiated) standpoint. I would characterize that standpoint as “philosophical”, which is classically construed as extraneous to myth.

    I think this is important because traditionalists like yourself–and I'm by no means unsympathetic to your school of thought, if not quite an adherent–want to revive the age of myth or at least await its eventual return. But consciously (self-consciously) to revive, or to await the return of, myth is necessarily to stand outside of myth as a differentiated self that in a sense seeks to master nature (and/or human nature, the human condition) rather than being itself mastered by nature. Traditionalism seeks to exercise a kind of control over human nature and thus society, the control of “tradition”, from a standpoint outside of tradition–to which it hopes to return us. Once we all get back inside tradition, there will be no need for “traditionalism” as one distinctive (differentiated) political-philosophical faction among many others.

    It seems impossible to undertake this course without implicitly acknowledging the primacy of philosophy over myth–for if you were already subjugated by nature (or the divine) in the sense of being a porous self, I suspect your writings would partake more of the spirit of prophecy rather than that of political philosophy. How do you resolve this paradox? In other words, your piece would seem in fact to point to the superiority of the age of philosophy over the age of myth, in that it supposes that political philosophizing will lead us back to the salutary mythic life–and in a cyclical view of history, it must ever be so: philosophy, not myth (or tradition) itself, is the pathway to the best life (in your view, the mythic life).

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  2. Sorry to throw another query your way before you've had a chance to answer the first–but, if I may, I'd like to append another.

    You claim that neither fascism (or Nazism) nor communism proved to be as “dynamic” as liberalism, presumably because it appears that they have either failed or been defeated. By any conventional reading of Western history, Christianity or Christendom would appear to have failed or been defeated and at this point in time only “liberalism” (or, as I and perhaps the Frankfurt school would prefer, capitalism) is left standing. Why isn't Christianity or “tradition” liable to the same sort of critique which you level against Nazism–namely that its time has passed, its failure having been made evident?

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  3. This is a very good question.

    The reason is that you make a category error. The decline of Tradition (Christendom was really just one subset of this) marks an epoch shift, not a simple competitive loss. The reason for its grand decline was an inevitable degradation in the character of man, part of the cyclical cosmic decline. Its collapse was pre-ordained, like passing from 2015 to 2016. There is nothing that can be done to preserve 2015. It has an ordained life span which expires at a certain point.
    By contrast, Nazism and Communism both represent offshoots of the Liberal ideal, ossified into a rigid future pursuant to some goal. They fought Liberalism, and at one stage, were seemingly poised on the brink of victory! If either had won, their vision of utopia would have been implemented.

    In short then, the reason for Tradition's eventual dissolution in the face of Modernity was due to a change in the fundamental composition of man, a degredation. The reason for Nazism and Communism's failings meanwhile lies in their practical implementation vis-a-vis Liberalism, which was able to conquer both competing Modernist philosophies using different methods (the first being military, the second economic). In both of these respects, Liberalism rather surprisingly emerged victorious.

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  4. Wade, we first need to make clear that we do not use 'myth' in the Modern sense of the word. I think you understand that, but I just want to clarify it. Myth here is in reference to the age of supernatural forces interacting at normal levels with the physical world.

    Now, as to your question, your observation is correct in one sense: if I was writing from a mythic standpoint, I would use prophecy (and I do, just not exclusively, there are plenty of writers for that). However, you're misunderstanding the relationship that the Reactionary has with Tradition as compared to the relationship that what we might call the 'Traditionalist' has with Tradition.

    The world can be described as a layered reality, featuring the physical plane of cause and effect, somewhere above this consciousness of man, and then beyond that the metaphysical plane of cause and effect, and still beyond that the consciousness of non-human entities. The World of Tradition refers to a period in which these higher layers are pressed tightly against our own. This can be said to be the age of myth if you like, which sees rapid exchange between the merely physical, and that which is beyond physical. When these realities are stacked with minimal space between, like a face being forced through a shroud, man can be said to be 'undifferentiated' and indeed spiritually porous.

    However, with the onset of the Kali Yuga, we have disconnected from this entire world beyond our own. We've fallen so far from it that the supernatural has virtually no impact on our day to day lives as we have turned our focus, and the focus of our entire society, towards material concerns and the delights of human consciousness.

    The Reactionary, being as he is situated in Modernity, unlike the Traditionalist who is situated in the World of Tradition (this is how I use the term), is also cut off from these greater forces. Whether he likes it or not, he is captive to the age and so are those he might try to convince. You can use the term 'philosophy' to describe much of my argumentation and that of others, and be very much correct. However, this does not at all entail that philosophy is a pathway to the best life. It does absolutely nothing in that regard. In order to live the best life in Modernity, one has to engage with what little remnant of the age of myth he can find, sustain himself even while he is starved, and strive to survive Modernity by 'riding the tiger'.

    As I have said many times before, no amount of logical, rational argumentation will lead to the reconstitution of Tradition. This will only occur when higher cyclical patterns come full circle. The purpose of the argumentation on behalf of the Reactionary is a tool that can be used to convince others and defend our view. It's just a small mercy that our views are very easy to justify using reason, not that any 'reasonable' people care of course.

    I hope that goes at least some way to answering what you see as a paradox.

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  5. Hi Mark,

    I recently came across an essay that has some indirect relevance to this post. I was wondering if you would be willing to review this- “Capitalism, Tradition and Traditionalism” by Rodney Blackhirst. If you have the time, you can just google it.

    Gratitude.

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  6. One can hardly claim that Nazism and Communism “represent offshoots of the Liberal ideal” without defining what “Liberal” means. Is it Radical Liberalism of Bonaparte or Classical Liberalism of Gladstone? Classical Liberalism, for all its flaws (numerous that they are) could never produce utopian tendencies; at it worst and stupidest it manifested itself in modern Objectivism, and at its best in Enlightened Absolutism of Habsburgs. Yes, Classical Liberalism is the HIV among ideologies (not killing you itself, but rather allowing the things that will kill you to spread), but the ugly truth is that Nazism and Communism are an offshoot of Reactionary ideal. Marx took all the 19th century traditionalism and rid it of theistic metaphysics:

    “One of the most important neglected truths in the history of modern political theory is emphasized by Bramson: that modern left-wing and socialistic theories grew out of nineteenth-century conservatism, which adumbrated theories of holism, organicism, the “community,” the group as superior to the individual, statism against laissez-faire, a fixed, hierarchically ordered society, etc. […] the originators of conservatism such as Bonald, de Maistre, Hegel, etc., attacked […] industrial society as being “atomistic,” as “disintegrating” the helpless individual, etc., and called for a “reintegration” of the individual in the group and the community, a reestablishment of organicism, the “whole man,” the State, hierarchical order, militarism, mystical irrationalism, etc. Bramson shows that the original “socialists” were directly derived from this reactionary wave: e.g., Comte and Saint-Simon, who both wished to restore stagnation, hierarchy, and status from the period from which the Enlightenment had dethroned them. Karl Marx was more of an eclectic, as Bramson shows. From the classical liberals, Marx took an at-least-proclaimed devotion to humanism, reason, industry, peace, and the eventual “withering away of the State”; from the conservatives, however, he took much more, including an idealization of the feudal period, an opposition to individualism on behalf of favored classes and the whole collective society, a determinist belief in laws of history, and the charge that liberal division of labor and the free society “alienated” the laborer from his work, “atomized” the individual, etc. […] As Bramson says, “A consideration of the anti-liberal aspect of sociology brings into sharp relief the links between a reactionary like de Maistre, who idealized the feudal order, and a radical like Marx, who visualized a new industrial order.” We can, incidentally, see these links also in the writings of partisans of such links: e.g., Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation or R.H. Tawney. The second important contribution of Bramson’s work is, in his later chapters, the critique of the current left-wing attack on modern “mass society” or “mass culture,” which Bramson shows to be derived from the nineteenth-century conservative and socialist attacks on “the atomization of the individual” due to modern capitalism and individualism. While the current critics attack not only capitalism but industrialism as well—and thus implicitly call for a return to some sort of agrarian-communal ideal—these critics are basing their theses not, as they claim, on social science, but on their own arbitrary valuations and romanticizing of all other times but the present.”

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  7. There are two key points I and others base this idea upon.

    1) At least for Marxism, it stands shoulder to shoulder with capitalism in seeing capital as the base of society, and capitalism is inherently linked to liberalism (it was the next step after the Mercantile age). This abandonment of the mystical in favor of the material is not some trivial feature of both ideologies, but a sign of common lineage, hitherto unseen. I put forward that the biggest difference was that Marx had a fixed utopian ideal, whereas Liberalism has one that was entirely fluid.

    2) The other key thing here is that all three ideologies see human history as a progression to something greater, whether it be the genetic superman, the society devoid of class strife, or that paradise in which there exists no racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., where man is judged by the 'content of his character' – whatever that means. Liberalism began from a point of radical individualism, but it has inevitably become just as group-centric as other ideologies in practice, based upon ones adherence to its social dogmas of the day. Liberalism functions as a cult, and though it has no official inquisition, it doesn't need one. Private actors carry out the purges of thought criminals.

    Our ideas are also not solely agrarian, this would be a misrepresentation. We seek the return of organic hierarchy, the very antithesis of Marxism, which saw an ultimate end to class. This dynamic we believe can be applied beyond the merely agrarian.

    Go back to Rene Guenon, and look at what he writes about the Reign of Quantity. Nazism, Marxism, and Liberalism all have their roots in this reign, where everything can be reduced to a crude science, God can be disproved, and man can finally take the reins of his own evolution. This is the degeneration of form to matter, it is the decline of humanity itself. Marxism could not have emerged had the 'bourgeoisie' not torn down all those symbols of power that were beyond capital. Nazism could not have emerged had the scientific impetus for a master race not emerged from the Modern university.

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  8. Just found this truly excellent article. I've long had similar thoughts about Frankfurt theory. I'd even go as far as to say that the far Right should claim Marcuse's “One Dimensional Man”- which amounts to Reactionary thought in Enlightenment/faux-Marxist clothing- as their own, on the basis of exactly the sort of deconstructive reading you've just done on Horkheimer and Adorno

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