Vaults with Bosse Blocks, from "Roman Ruins and Buildings" Courtesy of The Met Open Access.
Amphitiatri Romani, from "Roman Ruins." Etcher Wenceslaus Hollar, After Sebastiaen Vrancx, ca. 1650. Courtesy of The Met Open Access.

Can Fascism Think?

The deafening silence around Heidegger’s fascism has been broken – what does this mean for philosophy and politics?

Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology by Richard Wolin, Yale University Press (2023)

The vulgar reading would have it that philosophers are immune to cancellation: they are humble purveyors of truth, dealing in pure dialectic, above ad hominem frivolities. That Rousseau was a deadbeat father does not refute Émile. That Schopenhauer pushed his landlady down the stairs does not a posteriori negate a World as Will. Philosophy after all was inaugurated by Socrates in an act of defiance of the court of public opinion, an aristocratic martyrdom garnered in a sip of hemlock. Yet the matter is complicated if the philosopher in question advances a radical historicism, imbricating his thought with its times no longer as a matter of mere coincidence but of methodology. The question is downright vexed if this history was also the site of an epoch’s direst atrocities. Here, least of all, can dialectic wipe its hands of the facts.

If Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations have always been well-known, the degree and scope of such facts have been anything but. The barest bones of the historical record are irrefutable: he joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and was soon promoted to the Rectorship of Freiburg University, where he sought to reform it through a program announced in his infamous Rectoral Address, proclaiming “the inner greatness of National Socialism.” All else is moot. He would leave the post within a year under unclear circumstances and did not resign from the party for almost a decade. The rest is silence, be that penitent or bitterly pregnant. 

These years of Nazi rule were the fulcrum of Heidegger’s career – what he called his Kehre or “turning.” It was then that the revolutionary, if still recognizably philosophical, theses of Being and Time gave way to the gnomic formulations of the so-called “late Heidegger,” characterized by a quasi-mystical register, an evasive hermeticism, and a staunch political laconism that would persist until his death in 1976. While Heidegger’s silence in the wake of the century’s worst crimes is in itself inexcusable (his sole public reference to the Holocaust was shockingly blithe: “mechanized agriculture [is] in essence, the same as the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps”), this deafening quiet has become nothing less than a cipher whose interpretation has become one of the most fraught sites of modern thought. At stake in the back-and-forth between critics and apologists is not simply a philosopher’s reputation, but questions of abiding pertinence insofar as this same philosopher happened to conduct one of the most searching interrogations of our epoch and its degradations, questions that, for better or worse, transcend the petty bigotries of a single man to encompass our history, our thinking, and their tangled knot that we call politics. 

Two diametric camps have emerged from these mists. On one hand are the redeemers seeking to absolve Heidegger of his sins. Much of this comes down to cynical deception that runs the gamut from biographical misrepresentation to more wily sophistries that rehash the most vicious canards of Holocaust trivialization – “he, like most good Germans, was a product of his times, a victim even!” And yet, this camp also includes the vast body of philosophical commentary which aims, whether hamfistedly or adroitly, to perform a kind of conceptual surgery and excise the theoretical pith from the rot of historical happenstance in Heidegger’s life and work. Opposite the baby-defenders are the bathwater-throwers, who deride such half-measures when, to mix metaphors, the gangrene has already fully corrupted the body philosophick and amputation is the only option.1Ironically enough this recapitulates the same act of Destruktion, the thoroughgoing “destruction” of all metaphysical pieties purportedly dominating Western thought since Plato, that Heidegger sought to wreak upon Western metaphysics. Though not untenable in principle, such a radical excision of Heidegger from the respectable canons of philosophy is a tall order. Part of the problem is methodological: Heidegger did not so much advance a set of falsifiable claims as develop an entirely novel way of philosophizing; he did not take a definitive position so much as found a whole new field, one whose subsequent practitioners straddle the political spectrum from the far right to the radical left. This entails another problem, that of historical influence. To be done with Heidegger is to relegate huge swathes of twentieth-century thought tout court. To truly disengage from Heidegger would require a herculean feat of engagement with his works, let alone their vast influence in areas beyond philosophy – a feat to which the partisans of his prosecution have typically fallen short.

“If the modern era is paradigmatically defined by the ‘death of god,’ and so the severance of man from cosmically given meaning, its history could be described as a fraught series of attempts to find a novel surrogate and so reestablish unity in the absence of any divine guarantor. Fascism, taken as ideology, is in this light just the most pernicious such attempt, envisaging this union in blood and by border.”

The publication of the Black Notebooks almost a decade ago was meant to settle these scores. A trove of some thirty-odd notebooks that Heidegger tirelessly added to for over four decades until his death, these revealing works were meant at first to be kept from prying eyes. Heidegger had demanded that they comprise the last volumes of his Complete Works and hence, de facto, that they be published well after his death. Rumors of their salacious contents had circulated for years, and many took Heidegger’s directive to be a calculated ploy to diminish their impact on his legacy. If so, he was plainly hubristic enough to have believed – albeit correctly – that his work would become too important to too many people for its legacy to be straightforwardly wiped away by the belated revelation of even his most heinous views. What is worse, he was also evidently correct in his prognosis, explicitly made in the Notebooks, that the ascendant postwar liberalism of his time was merely a stopgap phenomenon, and that his far-right views might again be popularly palatable in the future. 

As for the notebooks themselves, they’re nothing if not damning. Their contents encompass a broad range of motifs familiar from some of the most insidious fascist idiocies of his day, from the crass (antisemitic blathering, no longer hidden behind veiled allusions, about “Jewry’s unique predisposition towards planetary criminality”)2Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.36 to the ridiculous (Germany’s victory in the Battle of France as proof of the Cartesian Subject’s inferiority)3Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.193 to the nakedly cruel (unambiguous support for the Nazi regime not in spite of, but because of, its inhumanity: “National Socialism is a barbaric principle. Therein lies its essence and its capacity for greatness”).4Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.60 This was a gauntlet thrown down on all sides – and yet in the decade intervening, no reckoning has been forthcoming. Academic philosophers did what they do best: largely talk past each other and re-entrench their roles in the stately quadrille of scholarship on which their tenure is premised.5Even so penetrating a reader of Heidegger as Giorgio Agamben, as Wolin points out, could only troublingly equivocate that “if every assertion that is critical or negatively disposed towards Judaism – even that which is contained in private diary entries – is condemned as antisemitic, the net effect is to place Judaism outside of language.” Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.9 This stalemate only underscores the urgency of another, better position beyond partisan bickering, one grounded in the unsettling notion that the deep potency of Heidegger’s thought is not in spite of but bound up in his fascism. This is not, of course, to endorse fascism in any respect, but rather to recognize that to truly confront it, we must profoundly reconfigure the terms of debate.

The popular pieties of Whig historiography, and the self-satisfied liberalism descended from it, are prone to underestimate fascism as some mere deviation from the royal road of Progress. In taking it to be in effect an anomaly, a crude and futile counter-reaction to the inevitable march of History, they confine themselves to the same Manichean terms of progress and tradition assumed by the fascists they decry and so, situating themselves opposite but still within this binary, can only ever oppose them on ideological terms: the lame-duck moral posturing and declamation of empty ideals that in fact fuels this conflict rather than getting to the roots of it. On this view, you are either for Progress or against it… and so one is left to happily read Heidegger in spite of his politics, or censure him altogether for them. We fail to gauge not only the immensity but the perversity of fascism where we fail to see it as a specifically modern phenomenon: not a premodern regression from, but the obscene obverse of, “progress.” To confront fascism root and crown is therefore to take seriously the hypothesis of a so-called “dialectic of enlightenment”: that a fascist possibility is somehow structurally implicated into modernity, its emancipatory ideals of freedom and autonomy, its cultural paragons, and perhaps even the practice of philosophy itself. 

In this light, that Heidegger was at once responsible for one of the most radical philosophical programs of the twentieth century and also a fascist might seem less a contradiction, even less a coincidence. It is, rather, a peculiarly vexed instance of this knot produced out of the conditions of modernity, as troubling as it is crucial to understanding that century’s (and ours’) direst political failures. Heidegger is not a man to be absolved or damned, but an emblematic “document of barbarism,” to be read all the more urgently and critically for it. In doing so, it is impermissible to repress his politics from his philosophy, just as much as it would be a fantasy to extricate ourselves from his philosophical legacy by sheer diktat, when we ought rather to see in him a symptom of an epoch’s wider contradictions, one that compels us to work through the fascisms of our past so that we may tirelessly combat those of our present.

Above all, this underscores the broader stakes of the Heidegger Debate beyond any mere academic errand. At this point, it is impossible to argue in good faith that Heidegger was not a bigot. And yet the petty stupidities of a Badisch philosophy professor from a hundred years ago are in themselves insignificant outside the realms of intellectual history – no matter his currency in the academy, no matter what parties may have benefitted from their suppression. Instead, the debate’s profounder stakes are only illuminated where we keep a fastidious eye upon our present: to what degree does a critical reading of Heidegger enable a better conjunctive analysis of the resurgent fascism of our own moment? The wager is that the internal contradictions of the twentieth century’s greatest fascist thinker are somehow reflected in the antagonisms of the contemporary political field so that philosophical critique, so far from anything like abstract navel-gazing, may yield tactical insights into a confrontation to which the Left is more beholden than ever. 

Here is the core question: does fascism think? Are fascisms created by relatively autonomous historical agents operating under a coherent set of concepts, or are they merely reflex epiphenomena to a modernity that uproots, a capitalism that exploits and deludes? Is fascism a philosophy or an ideology? Either option entails radically different antifascist strategies. That the orthodox Left has overwhelmingly hewed to the latter line might imply a certain conceit in its self-image as the prime agent of history – fascists do not reflectively act so much as passively fill whatever vacuum is left by the shortcomings of the labor movement. Yet even if the contradiction of capital and labor is taken to be the major impetus of modern history, a subsidiary analysis of the precise articulation between capital and fascism thereby becomes an urgent task, one at which we are still largely failing at the level of political economy. And on the other hand, if fascism is not merely a puppet of historical forces but does think – in however qualified a sense – a comprehensive antifascist program is obliged to engage with it, to fathom its objects, impulses, and limits not only to better assess the fascism we must combat on the streets, but also that which lay within us, in the depths our own thinking. Heidegger is paradigmatic in this respect, and we are behooved to read him not as a way of salvaging a dead man’s legacy, but as an extreme example of how the will to think unbound from the prerogative of authority – the only real definition of philosophy – may, by the direst irony, be coopted by that authority. This is to say that it is not so much his legacy as our own that is at stake in determining this boundary between philosophy and ideology.

Heidegger as a fascist philosopher

For over three decades Richard Wolin has furnished tools invaluable to this kind of analysis. He gained prominence with his 1990 book The Politics of Being, which he released into waters newly unsettled in the aftermath of Victor Farías’s Heidegger and Nazism (1987), a clarion work that had dragged Heidegger’s politics from out of the wings (where it had been uneasily sequestered by the philosophical establishment) to center stage. These were the books which stoked the bluster that surrounds the so-called Heidegger Debate to this day. Yet whereas Farías mounted his case on largely biographical evidence, Wolin presented this Nazism not as some personal dalliance but as a profound commitment that can be excavated from the very roots of Heidegger’s philosophy. The incisiveness of his critique lay in a three-pronged approach: he deftly triangulates between history, philology, and philosophy, holding these in a productive tension that enables us to critically read Heidegger without seeing his fascism as a mere product of its time or exempting him from it entirely. Setting his sights specifically on the arcane lexicon of Being and Time, he pared its basic terms of their veneer of technical neutrality to reveal a kernel epitomizing the extremist discourses of the 30s, and in turn a practical philosophy of authoritarianism, prejudice, and anti-reason.

Heidegger in Ruins marks Wolin’s long-anticipated return, now with the widened retrospect of the Notebooks, to a field more divided than ever. If its title implies a definitive verdict, it is tempered by its subtitle: Between Philosophy and Ideology. To salvage Heidegger, Wolin argues, is to gauge the dimensions of this interstice, eschewing both “a simplistic dismissal of Heidegger’s philosophy” and “the reverential, text-immanent approach…that treats his texts as compendia of numinous, self-evident Higher Truths.” The point instead is to “historicize Heidegger’s work, not to impugn its originality but to broaden our understanding of its scope and aims.”6Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.23-24 

As a kind of sequel to the earlier work, Ruins turns its crosshairs upon Heidegger’s output during and following Nazi rule. Wolin’s method has become only more apposite to Heidegger’s later work: while Heidegger’s jargon is infamously abstruse, these years in particular mark a pivot to an outright hermetic idiom of Gods and Mortals, Clearing and Event, the metaphorical density and connotative scope of which prove amenable to dissection by Wolin’s philological scalpel. Grounding the second act of Heidegger’s career in the grotesqueries of the Notebooks and the seminars, lectures, and essays of these years, Wolin sees in them a cryptographic key to all that followed; in drawing out all of these correspondences, he dispels whatever was left of the myth of late Heidegger as some larping mystic of the Black Forest, a Luftmensch haughtily above worldly concerns. Instead, Wolin paints a grim picture of Heidegger’s post-Nazi corpus: far from being a recantation of the century’s worst atrocities, these late works are recast as a coded ideological vehicle for their perpetuation.

In corralling his testimony, Wolin is loath to pull punches or shield Heidegger from further insult – beyond the sprawling 3,384 pages of injury, that is, already contained in the Notebooks themselves. The first chapter outlines nothing less than a long-standing editorial conspiracy by both Heidegger’s literary executors and his Complete Works’ publishing house, Vittorio Klostermann, to systematically expunge his work of its most damning stains: references to Hitler and related antisemitic bilge, the literal substitution of “Natural Science” for “National Socialism,” and the postwar attempt by Heidegger himself to retcon his legacy as some Widerstandskämpfer (resistance fighter) of the regime. That the Complete Works editorial board has been run as a kind of “family business” by a cabal of Heidegger loyalists (literally including his son, who had no scholarly credentials, and now his granddaughter) has been an open secret, and its infractions do not seem to have lapsed but actually intensified with the publication of the Notebooks. Whatever we make of the Heidegger who comes down to us, it is clear we are irreparably consigned to a bowdlerized version of him and so, perhaps, have forsworn any real reckoning from the get-go.

The overwhelming heft of the book sees Wolin turn to the texts themselves, tracing the trajectory of several troubling categories through the dense bibliographic thicket of Heidegger’s middle and late work. The grimmest and most pervasive of these is Rassengedanke, or literally Race-Thinking, a fundamental pillar of Nazi ideology. This is a markedly more radical proposition than even “scientific” racism, one “in polemical opposition to nineteenth-century positivism… a confused, yet highly potent, amalgam of German Romanticism, fin-de-siècle esotericism (Ariosophy), Aryan supremacism, and old-fashioned Machtpolitik [power politics].7Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.15 Heidegger’s Notebooks superimpose the racial distinctions of his era upon possibly the most fundamental conceptual binary of his work up until that point: that between the “ontic” and “ontological” (in short, the distinction between the bare empirical appearance of “beings” and our historically-mediated conception of them, by which they become meaningful as “Being”). A useful distinction in many ways – but Heidegger ties himself in obscene knots trying to apply it to race. He argues that race is not merely an empirical attribute that justifies discrimination on the pragmatic grounds of Social Darwinism, but a metaphysical one that becomes meaningful through its relationship (or lack thereof) to the “history of Being” – different groups, he says, are simply more or less fundamentally capable of grasping or embodying Being in its transformations, and their “attunement” to or alienation from this history deterministically mandates their “Destiny.” Indeed, a pointed irony of this racialized ontological difference is that its criterion is ultimately ontic: a Volk (a People) is only capable of ontological Being when it possesses a Volksgemeinschaft (literally a Community, acculturated through common language and the social bonds of blood) and inhabits a Boden (literally Ground, Territory, or Soil, this last carrying the connotation of an indigenous homeland, most infamously epitomized in the moniker of Blut und Boden – blood and soil). The ontological here is but the ontic gussied up in the trappings of inscrutable myth. This proviso entails that a supposedly nomadic people, such as the Jews, were by this measure “preternatural[ly] Bodenlos [Soil-less or, more pointedly in an antisemitic context, Rootless]… lacked this connection [as a] type of existential-cognitive impairment” and so “ontologically speaking… were incapable of authenticity.”8Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.169 This deficiency apparently renders them unable to develop a fully meaningful relationship to their environment – what Heidegger calls World, which he takes to be a necessary condition of what it is to be human – and they are therefore subhuman, ontologically on par with an animal or even a stone, not truly “living” in any comprehensive sense. This qualifies the paradox Heidegger identifies in Judaism as a People without a Soil:

[O]n the basis of their manifestly cunning talents, [the Jews] have “lived” on the basis of the principle of race longer than any other people. Yet, they defend themselves to the hilt against the application of that principle.9Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.168

This is why Heidegger, as early as the 1920s, could declare himself a “spiritual antisemite.” It also explains his opposition to the Nazi Blood Laws and the State’s progressively biologistic classification of racial caste – not out of any umbrage over its perversity, but because it was not extreme enough. This coincidence of a basic Heideggerean division (between ontic and ontological) with a racial one enables the philosophical apparatus to be co-opted to various grotesque ends.

For one, it qualifies the Jews not merely as inferior, but as antagonistic to a people who are, by contrast, grounded in the soil. Through their lack of Soil and therefore of World, Heidegger muses, they instigate a “planetary Machenschaft” – literally machination, but more widely the Mechanization epitomized in “instrumental reason” and industry, the vast social and technological transformations that corrode the bonds of blood and soil. And so for Heidegger the Jews become the paradigmatic avatar of a distinctly modern nihilism inimical to Being. Mere segregation will not do against such an active threat: only a zero-sum crusade of Manichean pretension is up to the task, where genocide is the only definitive, hence final, solution. Perhaps most perversely the Jew, insofar as he meets his annihilation in a gross parody of inauthentic industry (the gas chamber), is for Heidegger no victim but, ontologically speaking, the author of his own demise.

Ruinae Coliseum, from “Roman Ruins.” Etcher Wenceslaus Hollar, After Sebastiaen Vrancx, ca. 1650. Courtesy of The Met Open Access.

From here there follows another major category, that of Deutschtum, or Germanness – Heidegger’s preferred euphemism for German chauvinism. This is the upshot to Race-Thinking: those Peoples who do – unlike the Jews – possess a Soil, by this very fact also possess Bodenständigkeit (literally Soil-Standingness, as in groundedness, standing upon the soil – or else, to highlight again its antisemitic undercurrent, Rootedness). If an authentic relationship to the History of Being requires a People to possess a Soil and Community (and hence a concomitant World), and those who lack a Soil are liable to Mechanize everything to the detriment of all possible Worlds, then it follows that those who do possess a Soil have a “historical mission”: the Rooted, to “shelter” their Rootedness – the Germans, to preserve their Germanness – must stop the Rootless, the Jews, by whatever means necessary. A somewhat more well-known German fascist may as well have been summarizing Heidegger when he pronounced,

The Jews are a people of robbers. He [sic] has never founded any civilization, though he has destroyed civilizations by the hundred. He possesses nothing of his own creation to which he can point… . He can build no State and say, “See here, Here stands the State, a model for all. Now copy us!”… So he is forced to bring every mortal thing to an international expansion. For how long? Until the whole world sinks in ruins and brings him down with it in the midst of the ruins.

That, of course, was Hitler in 1922.

Again, this far exceeds the scope of the biological racism one would expect from the positivistic anthropology of the same time period. Rather, this train of thought indulges a telluric, neopagan mythos of Heimat or Homeland.10While the most natural translation of Heimat is “Homeland” (heim = “home”), we wanted to explore in this footnote the alternate choice of “Heartland,” a term whose homespun connotation better captures the peculiar associations Heimat elicits in German speakers. At least in American English, “Homeland” is not particularly emotionally or poetically charged, signifying in a generally abstract way the place where one was born. (More so than in everyday conversation, the word has taken hold recently in American political discourse following the founding of the Department of Homeland Security, which, it is true, might as well be called the Heimatschutzministerium, in the full Heideggerian sense.) Heimat, on the other hand, conjures in some German sensibilities romantic notions of childhood, of the hearth, and of the countryside. (If we wanted to be cheeky about it, we’d translate it as “Hearthland,” but we figured Heidegger might like that too much.) The term is closely bound to the geography of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, to the point where it can almost be considered synonymous with the Black Forest, the Alps, and the land along the Rhine. For a striking example of this particularly teutonic sense of the word, consider the genre of post-World War 2 cinema called the Heimatfilm. The typical Heimatfilm set a simple love story, whose heroes never fail to embody the virtues of the vigorous yet cheerful yet sensitive German character, against the backdrop of Germania’s most romantic pastoral settings – in many ways responding with similar urgency and disbelief to the rubble and the obliterated souls of the Third Reich as Heidegger’s own essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking.” We suggest that “Heartland” plays the corresponding role in American English. If the land that lies closest to the German heart is, in the last analysis, best suited to hobbits and gnomes, the “real” America has always been the solitary house on the plain. Our heartland, where the ethic of the frontier still informs the mythic (white) American character over a century after the frontier closed, is the uncontested empire of highways and cornfields toward which the patriotic heart yearns in all our sappiest cultural artifacts. Ultimately, by translating Heimat as “Heartland,” we’d merely be substituting amber waves of grain for Black Forest cake. – Eds. Indeed, Heidegger’s later euphemistic talk of “sheltering” thus conceals a more insidious ethnocentrism more openly on display in the 1930s: “national histories are lodged in the soil, and peoples ‘make history’ insofar as they produce space and soil.”11Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.262 The claim here is twofold. It is temporal, elevating those peoples vocationally called upon to make history over “nonhistorical” Unrooted ones that not only deny the latter’s agency but in so doing implicitly “forfeit their right to exist.” It is also spatial, embodied in what Wolin calls Heidegger’s Raumpolitik or Politics of Space, a transmutation of philosophy into a doctrinaire geopolitical program aligned with the Third Reich’s – for all Hitler’s scaremongering over “international expansion,” it was not so much the goal as the proviso that he obviously took issue with. Heidegger advocated the exclusive territorial claim of a People to the Soil in which they are Rooted, at the expense of any other Peoples that incidentally inhabit it; and further, should that People’s neighbors be Rootless, he believed it was not only their expansionary right but their duty to claim the Rootless Peoples’ land, should there be members of the German People there who must be rescued from alien sovereignty and brought back into their proper Homeland. Thus Heidegger was a proponent of the Nazis’ Drang nach Osten (drive to the East), and of their call for Germans to submit themselves to the State (a word entirely absent from Heidegger’s late and early work, but momentarily prominent in the 1930s) as the main organ of Volkisch self-consciousness:

The space of a [People] and the [S]oil of [the People] extends as far as the members of the [People] have found a [Homeland] and have become [Rooted in the Soil]. The space of the state and its territory find their borders by striking out into wider expanses.12Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.277. I have substituted the translations I’ve been using in this essay for Volk, Boden, Heimat, and Bodenlos so a reader can understand the true impact of these words.

These polemic motifs of struggle and submission, which characterize the relationship with Being, are epitomized in another category: that of Arbeit, or Work. Wolin devotes an entire chapter of Ruins to this, an underdiscussed facet of Heidegger’s thought. If it is the most peripatetic chapter, Wolin still convincingly illuminates a deep interpenetration with wider Nazi culture. While the glorification of work is not in and of itself a fascist trope, equally conspicuous in the capitalist “protestant ethic” or Soviet “Stakhanovism,” its German valence found its most influential formulation in the Schollenromantik13Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.221-224 or Romanticism of the Soil of the 1920s, as epitomized in Ernst Jünger’s The Worker, a militaristic utopia of a totally mobilized society that Heidegger was known to have deeply admired. Its ironic proposition that emancipation from the woes of modern alienation and Western decadence lies in a profounder subjugation, whether to the State, the Führer, or Being, composes a vital thread of his philosophy: the overcoming of the divide between manual and intellectual labor (the German student as Worker); the idealization of premodern handicraft, as embodied in his mythical Black Forest idyll; and the endorsement of Joy in Work (Arbeitsfreude) as embodied in the Work Site or Work Camp (Lager) – these being on the one hand privileged sites for the People insofar as “the Third Reich substituted a labor ideology for a meaningful and consequential labor policy,” but obviously assuming a far more infamously insidious valence for those deemed to exist outside of the People and thus fit only for destruction in the extermination camps.

What does Wolin achieve?

For over 400 pages the evidence – voluminous, fastidiously researched, and fascinating – mounts, and yet it is ultimately unclear to what degree Wolin’s archaeology of Heidegger’s fascism translates into an indictment of his philosophy. This is partly a matter of selectiveness (perhaps inevitable given the vast and esoteric bestiary of late Heidegger), so that while the case for local infections is indisputably made – for instance, that the ominous shades of Soil boil over into the central concept of Erde (Earth) – these are largely not articulated into the kind of synoptic reading that demonstrates the metastatic spread from the connotations of a trope to the conceptual underpinnings of the Heideggerian project. Earth, for instance, is not a concept that can be taken in isolation, as Heidegger constantly underscores, but only gains its significance through its interaction with so-called Sky, Mortals, and Gods, a notoriously cryptic dialectic underpinning Heidegger’s late philosophy that he calls the Fourfold (mentioned by Wolin yet left unpacked). Again, if it is perhaps unfair to criticize Wolin for not encyclopedically scrutinizing the entirety of late Heidegger against The Notebooks, his stated project – to critically discriminate what may and may not be salvaged from him – runs up against some more glaring elisions: Ereignis (Event), for example, perhaps the linchpin of late Heidegger, is mainly glossed over by Wolin’s otherwise eagle analytical eye, as are other keystones to his edifice, such as Aletheia (Truth or Disclosure), Lichtung (Clearing), das Offene (the Open), or Gelassenheit (notoriously difficult to translate, but something like Letting-be).

An analogous issue arises from a persistent ambiguity in Wolin’s method: while he undeniably shows the roots of a certain Heideggerian nomenclature in the fascist discourse of its times, this is not always relayed into a comprehensive critique of each concept itself. Where the incisiveness of The Politics of Being lay in its dynamic interplay of philology and philosophy, Heidegger in Ruins tends to focus on the former over the latter, on genesis over function, and so imputes to Heidegger his fascism more by a simple causality than by a more dialectical approach – i.e., Wolin treats Heidegger’s fascism more as a straightforward inheritance of historical circumstance, rather than conclusively showing how this inextricably botches Heidegger’s entire philosophical apparatus.

For instance, the notion of a Worldless being might justify the most reprehensible discrimination against those deemed bereft of this constitutively human attribute – but does this in itself spoil the pregnant concept of World entirely? Heidegger is for the most part vague about what confers Worldliness, and where he does it is only negatively: a lack of Rootedness in the Soil supposedly deprives a People of a World. Thus Heidegger’s idiosyncratic condition of Worldliness is purely – and, in light of his private ethnonationalist convictions, paradoxically – ontic. This suggests the possibility (which, to be clear, Heidegger would have rejected) of a revised conception of World which a community could possess without being Rooted in a Soil – that they could be, so to speak, Rooted in other shared practices and bonds. By such a definition, there is nothing prima facie that precludes the possibility of a Jew possessing a World. Indeed, if a World is a shared universe of meaning buttressed by a common culture, history, and language, it would be patently absurd to exclude the Jewish people from the concept. What is at play here is not a philosophical concept that is in itself fascist, but rather a genocidal ethnonationalist programme co-opting philosophical rhetoric for its own self-justification. There was, perhaps, a part of Heidegger’s thinking which could have pushed past the limitations of his fascist commitments – but these commitments hijacked precisely those potentially emancipatory elements, turning them into little more than justifications for his support of the most brutal exterminationist policies. To argue for the subhumanity of a demographic according to a mutable and arbitrary set of criteria comes down to historical fantasy, not a conceptual dialectic. Indeed, a concept of World that includes the Jews might just as well be expanded to even more positive ends – for instance extending the boundaries of meaningful consciousness to animals or even other entities under the banner of a radical ecosophy.

To police the nature and boundaries of Heidegger’s infamously oblique metaphors means we miss the opportunity to revise them for our own ends – pointedly so in the case of his later work, where the obscurity of the vernacular increases their potential scope. Why, for instance, should we take Rootedness, that most vexed of terms, as literally as Heidegger did, when we can functionally maintain its role in his philosophy without resorting to its basely literal origin in Soil? (As one is often painfully aware while reading Heidegger, etymologies alone do not an argument make when usage is often apt to subvert the original intention.) This is all to say that while Wolin is utterly justified in tearing down “the cordon sanitaire between ‘philosophy’ and ‘worldview’”14Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.2 in Heidegger, this would in any complete version of Wolin’s project have resulted in one of two outcomes: he must either produce a comprehensive refutation of Heideggerian philosophy to its very fundaments, or articulate with specificity the way a certain truth in at least some of Heidegger’s concepts can be extracted from his fascist commitments because in some important sense they do not depend upon these and have something to say to us. Ultimately, Wolin does neither of these things. Despite his stated intention to “not impugn [Heidegger’s] originality but to broaden our understanding [of his] scope and aims,”15Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.24 Wolin would have needed to reconceive that boundary if he were not to capitulate Heidegger’s philosophy entirely to Nazi ideology; instead, he more or less becomes a partisan of the very binary he sought to move past. What Wolin has given us in Heidegger in Ruins is in effect a momentous work of intellectual history rather than of philosophical critique – indispensable to the latter, but ultimately somewhere short of his stated aim to nuance our reading of Heidegger rather than to dissuade us from reading him altogether. Indeed, besides leaving open the question of what precisely is philosophically viable in Heidegger, this also risks reifying his thought into nothing but a historical artifact. For better or for worse, it is far more than that.

Roman remains at Tivoli, from “Roman Ruins.” Etcher Wenceslaus Hollar, After Sebastiaen Vrancx, 1673. Courtesy of The Met Open Access.

Heidegger’s Metapolitics: A fascist solution to the problems of modernity

Wolin is acutely aware of this in highlighting Heidegger’s most immediate relevance – his appropriation by the contemporary New Right. In what is perhaps the most novel section of the book, he surveys the landscape of resurgent European fascisms and collates their citations into the portrait of a philosopher urgent to our moment. Beginning with Dominique Venner – a fixture of the French Nouvelle Droite who in 2013 spectacularly killed himself in front of 1,500 worshipers in Notre Dame in protest of the legalization of gay marriage, and who cited Heidegger liberally in his manifesto-cum-suicide-note – Wolin teases out the Heideggerian threads linking the Far Right up to the present day. Venner co-founded the seminal think tank GRECE with the more well-known Alain de Benoist, which was a centralizing hub for extremist activity and became a kind of intellectual vanguard to electoral politics in its ties to the Front Nationale (Marie Le Pen publicly lamented Venner’s death). This same pattern of a small but organizationally cohesive intellectual clique kindling downstream political effects is repeated in Austria and Germany, where the likes of PEGIDA or the editorial boards of far-right journals such as Sezession or Junge Freiheit have become ideological organs of the Identitarians or the AfD.16Les Identitaires – not to be confused with the left-wing identitarians or wokies of US politics — are a fascist movement of intellectuals and activists originating in France with smaller chapters elsewhere in the developed world, whose ideology of a “pan-European” identity to be buttressed against “the Muslim hordes” has gained widespread currency as a bigger umbrella by which to unite the global far right than the old national chauvinisms (unlike Hitler’s old Master Race, say, which rather pointedly excluded Eastern and Southern Europeans, much less Latin American criollos or Israelis). The Alternative für Deutschland or Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) are an extremist breakaway party from Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats that is widely understood in Germany to be an out-and-out fascist party contesting elections. While anti-Nazi laws still on the German books mean that the AfD has had to maintain plausible deniability about its real views, even expelling some of its less discreet members, it’s taken only minimal investigative reporting to demonstrate that in terms of both ideology (they’re plotting with state-connected billionaires to ethnically cleanse Germany of immigrants) and personnel (many of the party’s key figures come from the postwar Nazi underground) they are the literal descendants of the Nazi Party. This fact is all the more disturbing given that they’re polling quite well and are likely to lead a government sometime before the end of the decade. –Eds. Marc Jongen, the so-called “Partei-Philosoph” (party-philosopher) of the AfD, is an avowed student of Heidegger, while Björn Höcke, the Thüringen AfD party leader, has invoked Heideggerian motifs: “The German Volk must detach itself from the matrix of the contemporary Zeitgeist. It must surmount its Seinsvergessenheit [forgetfulness of Being] and instead come closer to its Seinsordnung [order of Being].” “Of course,” Höcke goes on to say, “that is Heidegger.”17Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.343

Wolin’s catalog identifies an unmistakably Heideggerian throughline to these movements in their “antipathy to universal norms and […] correlative endorsement of “ontological rootedness” and völkisch particularism [that] have emerged as key points of reference in the far right’s efforts to redefine European citizenship in ethno-populist terms.”18Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 2022, p.327 Namechecking, however, belies the nature of this complicity. For one, this influence is characterized less by serious engagement with Heidegger’s work than an adoption of its superficial contours and so cannot be said to straightforwardly reflect it. The radical metaphysical thesis of a Forgetting of Being is trivialized into maudlin hand-wringing over the loss of “traditional values.” The critique of technology is bastardized into some empty catch-all harangue of modern industry that is little more than an excuse to bypass class analysis and preserves none of Heidegger’s insights into, say, technology as a mode of truth-disclosure. The most philosophically preening of these figures, Aleksandr Dugin – sensationalized by the media as “Putin’s Brain,” and whose 2013 The Fourth Political Theory might be read as a blueprint for Russian foreign policy – has written prolifically on Heidegger. Yet in the end he seems to have only translated a Heideggerian Politics of Space from a chauvinism of the German Volk to one of the Slavic narod, garnished with a mythos of western “thalassocracies” (commercial seafaring states) pitted against Eurasian “tellurocracy” (states who derive their power from the land) that is fantastic even by Heideggerian standards. Even in this nominally more involved engagement, it is still the reductively literalized themes of rootedness and ethnic singularity that characterize Heidegger’s influence on Dugin.

If there is a Heideggerian specter stalking Europe, to reduce this influence to the transmission of ethnonationalist ideologemes (and attendant hand-wavy jargon) is to defang Heidegger of his specific perils. After all, ideologies do not think – we do not, for instance, combat racism by arguing with racists on the finer points of their racism, but by analyzing and then counteracting the structural forces that produce it. If fascism were simply an ideological inheritance, antifascism would be a purely historical task, tracing the trajectory of these beliefs over time, rather than a philosophical one as well. Of course, fascism has historically been allied with the tropes of nationalism, ethnic suprematism, antisemitism, autarky, authoritarianism, and the like, but it is not reducible to them: the prevalent identification of fascism by a sort of “laundry-list” of ticked boxes might have a tactical value (“you know it when you see it”), but having no real sense of what fascism is beyond a vague convergence of these attributes is strategically impoverished.19Probably the most famous example of the “laundry-list” approach Hegelman is poking at here is Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism” in New York Review of Books (22 June 1995). Despite his objections, you should definitely read this classic essay. –Eds. 

Indeed, there is nothing particularly unique about Heidegger’s explicit fascism as revealed in the Notebooks. For all its highfalutin ornament, the basic tenor of his espoused fascism is the banal, bargain-basement stuff typical of any middle-management Nazi ideologue. A central thesis of Wolin’s The Politics of Being was that the fascism embedded in Heidegger’s philosophy is not in itself original but a regurgitation of the hallmarks and clichés of the far-right discourses of the 20s and 30s, which in turn were only able to coopt his philosophy through deep structural contradictions in it – a pivotal vulnerability that allowed a conceptual repertoire to become infected with an extraneous ideological rhetoric. If Heidegger in Ruins largely demurs from philosophical analysis, it seems to take the same operative assumption. This is to say that what is most important to us in an antifascist reading of Heidegger is not a direct refutation of its outwardly antisemitic and ethnonationalist elements – these neither specific to him nor “thoughts” that can be engaged with per se – but, as with our racist, to bracket these effects and identify their enabling cause in the structural contradictions of his thought. This is the specifically philosophical task of an antifascist philosophy – to excavate the site and mechanism of this vulnerability, and thus to determine that fragile frontier where philosophy becomes ideology and thinking a perverse and brutal thoughtlessness.

If the modern era is paradigmatically defined by the “death of god,” and so the severance of man from cosmically given meaning, its history could be described as a fraught series of attempts to find a novel surrogate and so reestablish unity in the absence of any divine guarantor. Fascism, taken as ideology, is in this light just the most pernicious such attempt, envisaging this union in blood and by border. Modern philosophy may be read as a series of responses to this same quandary, albeit along an adjacent path that seeks this unity not in some substitute myth but in a Subject, newly emancipated from divine bondage, who must reckon the bounds of its newfound freedom and construct a World around itself accordingly – i.e. who thinks and acts. This is what marks the shift in philosophy from the question of What? – scholastic quibbling over the nature of Substance – to one of How? – the conditions of knowledge and action in the Subject – where unity is not so much a thing as a function, a horizon to our cognition against which the disparate phenomena of experience are mediated into unified meaning. This boundary concept (or “transcendental”) takes multiple forms: it is universal reason and morality in Kant, history in Hegel, class in Marx, and mind in Husserl. This is to say that the trajectory of modern philosophy is also a progressive immanentization of the bounds of our freedom – released from the reins of a murdered god, agency is brought down from heaven to earth, and the sphere of free action is brought ever closer to lived human experience. In Heidegger, this lineage reaches its apotheosis where this “transcendental” is time itself. Time is the basic background of lived experience and so, in centering the construction of meaning around everyday existence, existentialism augurs the possibility of a radical freedom divested not only of god, but of all twilit idols – history, politics, the Good – that superseded and so constrained it. It is in this respect that Heidegger perhaps made good on his claim to have destroyed Western metaphysics in completing it. And yet time is also pure flux: it is a figure of “pure self-difference” that, because it subverts all unity, can support no substantive principle except the dissolution of all principles if it is our ultimate value of recourse. In the history of Western thought, Heidegger’s philosophy is a Pandora’s box wherein the price of absolute freedom is made out to be absolute meaninglessness, and it is precisely this that undergirds the paradox of his being at once the most modern and reactionary thinker of his era: having taken the project of modern freedom to its logical extreme, his only resort when confronted with its nihilism was to a pre-modern metaphysics of Substance, albeit now one of blood and soil rather than the divine. Earth, Rootedness, Sheltering, Standing-ness: these are no incidental metaphors in Heidegger’s philosophy, but desperate graspings after a permanence fetishized against the indomitable flux of time, a repression transposed into a metaphysical register of an abyss that he himself surmised.

Of course, Heidegger is hardly unique in his recourse to tropes of stasis and preservation against the withering headwinds of modern nihilism – Counter-Reformation, Monarchism, Romanticism, Conservatism, or any other of anti-modernity’s sundry trends, outwardly evince the same. Yet the difference is that Heidegger proceeds from an ultramodern impulse whereas these others are anachronistic holdovers of premodern sentiment. Whatever we may think of them, they do have values, however bygone, with which they struggle to staunch an encroaching nihilism. Meanwhile fascism, properly speaking, is itself a nihilism dialectically produced out of the same modern nihilism it laments, the authoritarian recoil to radical freedom. Again, this is not some merely academic distinction but crucially distinguishes fascism from other forms of reaction, as against the Left’s tendency to cast the Right as some monolith. Specifically, fascism, as emblematized in Heidegger, entails the negation of all ethical thought. Ethics is the mediation between thinking and action, theory and praxis: an ethical action is one that accords with some premeditated ideal, and so is premised on a gap between an agent and its reflective thought upon its actions wherein it may consult principles, gauge consequences. When divine decree no longer served to furnish these principles, philosophy was able to provision other criteria external to experience – the Useful, the Other, Humanity, the Moral Law, the State, or the Nation – that, even if pernicious in action, still testified to an ethical thinking whereby this gap was preserved. In Heidegger, this gap collapses: where lived time is the horizon to all thought there is no recourse to any external criterion, and again, time itself can furnish no principle except the transience of all principles. Thus is there is an ambivalence to the most radical freedom when this also elicits a freedom from ethics: ethics, which is nothing but a principled bondage, the negotiation of commitments, is negated where any such principle is unavailable. Fascism constitutively excludes the Other because it literally cannot think an Other. This is the sense in which fascism is, properly speaking, a form of psychosis. There is of course in Heidegger something that resembles a positive practical program, its obscenity being the entire purview of Heidegger in Ruins, but it cannot be said to come out of a thinking qua ethics. Instead, it is the product of this cardinal vulnerability in his thought where the solipsism of a paradoxical freedom has no recourse but to the contingent inanities of its time, reproducing them under the façade of an unthinking “philosophy.” It is this limit that is characteristic of fascism, one where the elision of the gap between theory and praxis has produced at once their confluence and their disarticulation – a theory without praxis and a praxis without theory – a zone of indistinction whose practical consequences are recognizably consonant with the fascisms of history.

This goes some way towards explicating what is perhaps the most outwardly apparent contradiction of almost all historical fascisms, which display at once an egregious praxis by way of barbaric aggression and yet are utterly passive in their obedience to whatever totem – Führer, Homeland, or kinship tie – they might brandish as their organizing principle. The psychic structure of fascism is essentially sadomasochistic, and the Janus faces of praxis without theory and theory without praxis underpin this. The former, action exempted from any evaluative standard, is known as Decisionism, the exaltation of the untrammeled exertion of the will, a pure act valorized irrespective of its content. Wolin identified its role as the central lever of Heidegger’s philosophy as early as The Politics of Being. It elevates contingency as the expression of unbridled freedom (when it is in actual fact typically that of dogmatic groupthink). Decision, devoid of any reference to truth, ethics, common measure, is also the pseudo-philosophical justification of dictatorship – analogous to the divine right of kings, but utterly modern in its derivation. It is the central concept by which Carl Schmitt constructed the legal justification for the Nazi regime and, as many have observed, has a direct genealogy to our own times in the political form of the “State of Exception.” Indeed, Wolin notes in Heidegger in Ruins that Decisionism might also be seen as a progenitor to the generalized environment of “post-truthism” that is both a commonplace of our time and a basic premise to the propagation of contemporary fascisms, where the value of a claim lies in the force and potency of its assertion, rather than its referential content. Hence the evident impotence of any assertion of facts or postures of moral superiority in response to modern fascist utterances, when what is in fact at stake is a fundamental paradox of modern thought. It also illumines a contradiction of the wider contemporary Right, which pillories the evils of so-called “postmodern relativism”: as exemplified in the case of Heidegger, these “concerns” are only a projection, leveled not on behalf of any substantive tradition but anxiously grounded in an extreme and cynical relativism.

Thought without praxis is encapsulated in one of Heidegger’s most well-known concepts, Gelassenheit (figuratively serenity or repose, but more literally Letting-Be). This is a notoriously vexed term, but it may be read as something like a praxis of passivity preaching a meditative attunement to Being, one that many have astutely faulted for advocating uncritical deference to a higher power (whether that be Being or a Führer.) The “contemplative life” has been the perennial ideal of philosophy since its inception, yet whereas for Socrates this entailed an autonomous and critical thinking outside the bounds of the Zeitgeist, and so to be a gadfly on its eye, for Heidegger this meant almost the opposite – a hollowing-out of thought in order to become vested by one’s environs and so to determinedly assimilate with it. In the postwar decades, Letting-Be was elaborated as a pacifist pseudo-Buddhism, but this site of thinking at the confluence of philosophy and ideology had a rather more nefarious and activist form in the 30s: an “attunement” with the times has a rather different implication when those times are ominous, theory disarticulated from reflective praxis being a proviso for it becoming mere doctrine. This is what Heidegger called Metapolitik or Metapolitics, the essential continuity of philosophy and politics whereby the former, folded into the latter, takes itself to be the latter’s “brain” when it is little more than its dupe. Heidegger was pompously clear on this point, envisioning his own metapolitical role as a kind of spiritual führer to the Führer, ultimately propounding philosophy’s vocation to be not the classical ends of Truth, Justice, or Beauty, but no less than the fruition of the racial and geopolitical prerogatives of the Volk. This collapse of thought into agitprop finds its clearest formulation in the so-called new “Gramscism of the Right,” espousing the unmistakably metapolitical maxim (notwithstanding that Gramsci asserted no such thing)20Indeed, it was the right-wing tabloid editor and Koch Brothers apparatchik Andrew Breitbart who made this his slogan, and his fascist disciple (and creature of the Mercer family) Steve Bannon who popularized it as a totemic truth about the universe among the alt-right of the Trump era. –Eds. that “politics is downstream of culture”: the former relegated from a primary site for the construction of consensus through negotiated dissensus to a secondary one acquiescent to the top-down imposition of a monoculture. And it is precisely this duplicity between action and passivity, Letting-Be and Metapolitics, that informs the predominant affective stance of the contemporary right, at once caterwauling victim and chest-beating activist, in their self-proclaimed culture war – a war waged at the level of ideology with no real attention to material conditions, of theory become fantasy when it is bereft of praxis.


So does fascism think? In short, no – but with the proviso that as a historical force, there is a profound thinking that is its condition, and that its apparently contradictory aspects and desires in its historical manifestations only become legible when we take that thinking into account. Heidegger is our unfortunate contemporary insofar as his thinking, despite itself, embodies this decisive boundary between thinking and unthinking, philosophy and ideology, with unusual perspicacity. Indeed, it is a curious idiosyncrasy of contemporary fascism that, for all its novelties, it lacks any serious intellectuals – certainly no one on par with Heidegger or Carl Schmitt, not even the likes of a Spengler or an Evola – so that it is still through the lens of Heidegger that we may focalize its deepest contradictions.

What then is to be done with Heidegger himself? In some sense, the frontier investigated here gives some indication of what is salvageable and what is not: the negative component of Heidegger’s thought, the deconstruction of Western metaphysics, is still one of the most ambitious and ranging philosophical enterprises ever undertaken and still holds vital insights for those committed to not reproducing its direst failures, fascistic or otherwise; its positive upshot by which he fumbled to some kind of solution, enacting just such a reproduction, may be in some degree severed from it. Indeed, some of the most penetrating antifascist thought of our times takes up the baton of his critical project: there is Giorgio Agamben, whose entire corpus may be read as a reinvigoration of the crucial if problematic Heideggerian concept of “dwelling”; there is Jean-Luc Nancy’s development of a concept of community ungrounded from Soil or People. Peter Sloterdijk, though hardly politically unproblematic himself, has at least shown that Heideggerian thought is perfectly reconcilable with a pluralism of Worlds. Perhaps Heidegger’s greatest reader, the wildly underread Reiner Schürmann, has synoptically reformulated the entirety of Heidegger’s late philosophy as an ethics of radical anarchism. Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, reading Heidegger against himself, has proffered what is possibly the most powerful analysis of fascism as a cultural phenomenon. Meanwhile a man named Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, an eccentric living somewhere off the grid in rural France, and who may stake good claim to be one of the most important philosophers alive today, has developed a critical philosophy of Ereignis (Event) that may prove to be one of the twenty-first century’s most perspicacious documents of self-reflection.

St. Croix de Jerusalem, from “Roman Ruins.” Etcher Wenceslaus Hollar, After Sebastiaen Vrancx, 1650. Courtesy of The Met Open Access.

And beyond the ivory tower? If Heidegger’s potency lies in a critique that drives to the very roots of Western thought, its hazards are no mere academic quibble but manifest across the whole span of culture inflected by that critique. To ask “what is to be done with Heidegger?” then is to invoke areas foundational to our lifeworld – the likes of religion, politics, or even poetry – as concrete sites of contestation in an era of contradictions at once profoundly illuminated by his analyses, if often sullied by his conclusions that we must vigorously contend. Take for instance theology, a field as pervaded by Heidegger’s influence as philosophy. On several occasions, he intimates that the nihilism encountered at the end of metaphysics might also be a precondition to a radical leap of faith. In his renowned late dictum that “only a god can save us” is certainly an element of his characteristic kvetching, but also the radical proposition of a despair so profound it is coincident with hope. This is a religious feeling that is no longer a retrospective anachronism, but one that has passed through the dark night of the modern and so is adequate to its degradations. If Christianity is premised on the resurrection of the Son, what might we call the at once desperate and yet imperturbable belief in the resurrection of the Father whose death Nietzsche once proclaimed? And does this not, of all things, imply a certain concomitance of Gentile and Jew? Is it merely coincidence that it is the century’s preeminent Jewish writer, Kafka, who is the paradigmatic figure to have lived this thought?

As for those of us who are godless, politics is a rather less abstruse matter. The libidinal appeal of fascism is uncomplicated: against the gross sense of impotence to which the masses are indentured under late liberal democracy, its tired incrementalism and patronizing false choices, the option of apocalypse might very well seem appealing as a panacea. And yet it is important to remember that against a liberalism allergic to real change, there is another historical force that, like fascism, proposes an exit strategy of modernity, and yet pursues this not through the wholesale destruction of its premises but rather through their radical reconfiguration. Socialism is the only true antifascist practice precisely because it too seeks an object outside of modern categories, albeit towards an outcome diametrically opposed to fascism’s.

The precise nature of socialism’s antifascism relies on another superficial family resemblance between them, belied upon closer inspection. Both broadly advocate a unity of theory and praxis – we saw this as a zone of indetermination in Heidegger, called either Metapolitics or Letting-Be; meanwhile it is hard to think of an imperative more influential on the Left than Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.21“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” –Eds. And yet fascism propounds the total coincidence of theory and praxis: it is the utopian fantasy of a precisely defined community, underwritten by a certainty where thought and action are totally aligned.

We name this coincidence by that most vexed of terms, adjacent to fascism: totalitarianism. Indeed, the grand failure of twentieth-century socialism was Orthodox Marxism’s adoption of precisely this same identity of theory and praxis. When their interstice, which enables a self-reflective practice, is closed on a societal scale, that society can only devolve into thoughtless authoritarianism.

The thinking of socialism – and socialism, in principle, does think – is called dialectical materialism. While this asserts a tight rapport of theory and praxis, it actively prohibits their identity in favor of a dialectical unity: one where thought and material conditions recursively inform, without ever collapsing into, one another. Dialectical materialism is therefore ethical – that is to say antifascist – precisely in denying this confluence in the last instance: theory and praxis are reciprocally grounded but always, ultimately, non-identical, and so buttress a politics that knows any certainty to be a fantasy and change to always be possible, attentive as it is to material conditions.22Hegelman’s anti-totalitarian version of dialectical materialism vibes with our founding manifesto, “Words For Our Present Reality” in Strange Matters Issue One (Summer 2022). Readers interested in philosophy, and the question of how to be a materialist who believes in the unity of theory and praxis while remaining open to error and change and avoiding closed-minded authoritarianism, might want to check out the Editors’ provisional ideas on how this might be accomplished. –Eds. Against the nihilism of liberalism, it hazards the fortuity of another world; against the nihilism of fascism, it does not seek to psychotically impose this from without but to construct it from within. While both fascism and socialism are heirs to that most modern of thoughts – our radical freedom imposed by the death of god – the former ultimately cowers from this in its perverse resort to a new idol, while socialism is nothing except the insistence on an opening against any such closure, a fissure that is our sole means by which to glimpse, and enact, a history that ends not in apocalyptic fantasy but our real and unanimous betterment.

And as for the poets, they can only ever speak for themselves. And so here, perhaps, only an anecdote is germane. On July 24th, 1967, in what might be one of the most auspicious encounters of the era, the greatest German poet of the twentieth century, Paul Celan, met its greatest German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, at the latter’s Black Forest hut. Both of Celan’s parents had died in the camps, a fate the poet himself only narrowly avoided. While each man kept fastidious records of their daily lives in their voluminous journals and correspondence, conspicuously, neither ever made a single remark over what was exchanged between them during that day. The only testament we have is a single poem by Celan, “Todtnauberg” – the place of their meeting, but also literally, “death-mountain” – one of the most picked-over items of verse in the German language. A few lines:

raw exchanges, later, while driving,

he who drives us, the mensch,
he also hears it…

Heidegger “the mensch” – it is hard to take this as anything except as a perverse irony, but is this a provocation upon the reader or Heidegger? In any case, there is nothing here of easy condemnation nor of pat reconciliation. Anhört – he hears… the basic premise of dialogue persists, a clearing for thinking… for thinking what? This is what he hears:

the half-
trod log-
trails on the highmoor…23Paul Celan (tr. Pierre Joris), Breathturn into Timestead (2014), p.255

The “log-/trails” (Knüppel-/pfade) a clear echo of Heidegger’s Holzwege (wood-paths), the title of a famous late collection of essays and one of his favored metaphors for his philosophical method. They are “half-trod,” in ruins, and yet the very stuff of the paths that, presumably, might lead out of these woods. These texts that strew our way… they are the barbarism to which our culture is inured, a barbarism that may be ignored as little as it may be redeemed. And yet they are the detritus beneath our footfall, footprints legible to us as history, and, as we stumble ever forward into the future, they are a terrain whose knowledge can only behoove us, whether this be a path into an ever-deepening darkness or else an eventual light. ~


Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.