Domenico Losurdo

Radical Antimodernism and Nonactuality: Nietzsche and Heidegger (1991)

17 minutes | English

It’s not surprising that, as dissatisfaction with the present grows, questions about the past and visions of the future become ever more popular. Therefore, studying important historical reactionary critiques of modernity becomes useful, because it allows us to identify the most persuasive presentations of regressive ideologies, and gives us the tools to defeat them.

This is the 7th section of the 7th (and last) chapter (“Second Thirty Years’ War, Criticism of Modernity”) of Domenico Losurdo’s Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West (1991).

In order to avoid any arbitrary simplification, it is essential to keep in mind the fact that, during the twentieth century, the most diverse critiques of modernity flourish both in Germany and elsewhere. While underscoring the complexity of this historical framework, however, one must not give in to ineffability or renounce making the necessary distinctions. Heidegger’s denunciation of political modernity is not limited to socialism and democracy, but it also attacks the liberal tradition so dear to Hayek and, though in a different way, to Leo Strauss.

With respect to this, what emerges is an undeniable continuity in the development of Heidegger’s thought. The Catholicism of his early years is characterized by an antimodernism that aims at condemning “our time” and the “modern conception of life.” The latter is considered shallow, always thirsting for novelties, attached to all that is ephemeral, and consequently dangerous to the “well-being of the people’s body and soul.” His denunciation of the ruinous nature of the modern individual’s uprooting is so radical that it cannot be compared to any of the criticisms of modernity considered thus far. [1] Moreover, this denunciation reveals itself from the start as something other than a mere giving in to indolent nostalgia. One must aim for the future, without losing sight of the past [rückwärtsblickend vorwärtsschauen]. [2] This text is reminiscent of a passage in the rectorial speech that, after indicating and exalting Hellenism as the beginning of Western history, continues as such: “The beginning is still with us. It does not lie behind us as a past which is by now far away, but it is still before us.” [3] What explains Heidegger’s encounter with Nazism is the combination of an extremely radical denunciation of scientific and political modernity and a fervent desire for an event that will restore primal greatness. From the beginning, Heidegger’s anti modernism is aimed at the future, and thus it has a political tension that can well explain his subsequent attempt to contribute to the complete transformation of Germany and Europe.

During the First World War, Heidegger resumes his polemic directed against an “essential characteristic of the modern world […] the liberation of the subject from his ties to the surrounding world, his obsession with his own individual life.” Life in the Middle Ages presented itself in a very different way: “The sense of ties [Gehunderbeit] did not stand for a lack of freedom or a subordinate position, but for a unitary orientation of spiritual life.” [4] Modern freedom only signifies a lack of roots and foundations: This theme strongly recurs in the following years, for example in the Beiträge zur Philosophie.

A later development in Heidegger’s thought entails the subsumption, under the category of modernity, of Christianity itself. The latter is now accused of being the first cause of those movements (liberalism, democracy, socialism) that Heidegger continues to condemn. During the last phase of Heidegger’s development, Nietzsche himself and finally even Nazism as a whole are subsumed under the category of modernity.

Given Heidegger’s antimodernism, so constantly and firmly antidemocratic and antiliberal, his encounter with Nazism cannot possibly be considered a mere accident. This encounter, however, was destined to deteriorate because of the very extreme radicalism which characterized Heidegger’s antimodernism. In contempt of half-measures, this radical criticism encompassed millennia of history, and had the ambition of accomplishing the desired regeneration through a direct link to the pre-Socratic philosophers. No political movement could rise to this level of radicalism, which has several utopian traits, despite the fact that this utopia has a clearly regressive character.

From this perspective, the history of Heidegger’s development reveals many points in common with Nietzsche’s. [5] [6] Nietzsche leaves no doubt as to the real significance of his political position: It is a form of “aristocratic radicalism” [aristokratischer Radikalismus]. [7] But his radicalism is so extreme that it goes as far as to condemn even Bismarck and the Second Reich because they are too prone “to mediocrity, democracy, and ‘modern ideas’.” [8] It is this displacement from the actual political development, this programmatic “non-actuality,” that suggests the idea of Nietzsche as a nonpolitical figure: In this way, the road lies open to all kinds of “re-readings.” Nietzsche obsessively insists that there can be no civilization without slavery: Only slavery liberates the restricted ruling class from the curse of labor and the division of labor; only slavery guarantees that otium that is the indispensable condition for the production of authentic culture, untainted by the shame of utilitarian and banausic considerations. At this point, one only needs to interpret this discourse on slavery as a simple metaphor, completely separate from the concrete political debate that was being carried out on an international level, and which had been rekindled by the American Civil War and colonial conquests. In other words, one only needs to consider Nietzsche in the same way that one considers Heidegger, denying him the full possession of his faculties within the political realm. One only needs to cover up or eliminate the reference to slavery (the strictest and harshest division of labor), and the philosopher who explicitly affirms the unavoidability of the division of labor miraculously rises to become a critic of that very same division of labor, and of the intellectual mutilation that it entails. In the final analysis, Nietzsche becomes a theoretician of emancipation.

Another possibility: Nietzsche declares that he does not want to have anything to do with modern individualism and its egalitarian implications. To all this he prefers “hierarchy” [Rangordnung], because it is only through hierarchy that the full deployment of individual capabilities within the restricted ruling class is made possible. Even in this case it is not difficult to transform the philosopher, by means of suitable cuts and silences, into a prophet of individualism. An analogous operation may be performed with regard to his criticism of religion and above all Christianity, which Nietzsche denounces as the main cause of the slaves’ democratic and socialist revolt. Nietzsche intends to carry out this criticism to the very end, but not to the point of jeopardizing the comforting, sedative efficacy that religion can and must have on those masses condemned to slavery. Not to the point of upsetting the sleepy tranquility of those who, through their sacrifice, promote the development of society. Even this theme can be assimilated only partially, and it is not difficult to imagine which parts must be discarded in order to turn Nietzsche into a sort of modern follower of the Enlightenment. Finally, one only needs to forget about the pathos of the “life of the species,” the “great economy of the Whole,” the civilization that demands the sacrifice of innumerable slaves and condemns “compassion” as useless and harmful. One only needs to forget about all this, and Nietzsche is once and for all transformed into a relentless critic of false universals and suffocating totalities, a demystifier of every philosophy of history and, in the final analysis, a prophet of postmodernism. The antimodernism characterized by “aristocratic radicalism” has been turned into a tolerant, even liberal, postmodernism.

Something analogous happens to Heidegger. Following Nietzsche’s trail, he develops what could be defined as a radical antimodernism, which is inevitably displaced from the actual political development. On the one hand, Nietzsche can never fully recognize himself in the Second Reich, which is tainted from the beginning with democracy and modernity because of Bismarck’s demagogical recourse to plebiscitary approval from the bottom of society. On the other hand, Heidegger manages to recognize himself for a while in a movement and a regime that promise to completely reestablish Germany and the world. Later on, he experiences the impossibility of really doing away with modernity, and is forced to take note of the influence that modernity continues to exert, despite everything, even upon Nazi Germany. If Nietzsche considers Prince Otto von Bismarck to be too democratic and modern, Heidegger regards even Rosenberg’s rhetoric as contaminated with liberalism and modernity, [9] not to mention the effect that “organization,” standardization, industrialization, and uprooting still have on the regime, despite the fact that this very regime was born under the banner of a promise to return to the soil and the roots. Heidegger’s disappointment can therefore be understood. Yet, it is a disappointment that never leads to a break with a movement which, despite all of its limits, still continues, following Nietzsche’s lead, to condemn modernity. Not only does this movement condemn the most recent manifestations of modernity, but it also condemns its Christian or vetero-testamentary origins, [10] not so much in the government’s actions, which were necessarily characterized by a policy of compromise (the Concordat), but in part of the regime’s political press.

Once again, in analyzing the history of Heidegger’s thought, one stumbles upon a well-known operation: the identification of a proclaimed “non-actuality” and its displacement from the actual political development, with a nonpolitical position. At this point it is not difficult to reduce Heidegger’s support of Nazism to a mere accident, and to expunge his radical hostility to liberalism, democracy, and socialism from his criticism of modernity. In this way, his criticism of modernity is reduced to a criticism of calculative thought. And in addition to this, what is completely overlooked is the fact that, for an entire period of time, the alternative to calculative thought was sought in the will to power or in “sacrifice,” in a war where the stake appears to have been the “truth of Being.” By means of one more oversight or repression, the criticism of calculative thought can be fully identified with a criticism of the will to power and dominion over nature and over man himself. And in this manner Heidegger, too, can become a prophet of postmodernity, a postmodernity perceived under the banner of ecology and technology, the rejection of metaphysical reductio ad unum[11] and respect for the difference in natural and human reality. What is, of course, forgotten or overlooked is the fact that, during Nazism, and sometimes with an explicit reference to Heidegger, the category of difference or irreducible uniqueness is synonymous with “struggle,” antagonism, and the refutation of the ideal or myth of a reconciled humanity.

These considerations are not intended to deny the theoretical prevalence of Heidegger’s thought over the political positions he expresses throughout his life. It is necessary, however, to break free from this dogmatic prejudice, a prejudice that appears to be particularly rooted in the most fervent promoters of the impossible cleansing process we discussed earlier. In order to clarify this methodological problem it might be useful to start by illustrating the cultural and political climate that is manifested in Italy after 1945 (though analogous considerations may be valid also for France and other countries). Eugenio Garin describes it as such: The assumption is that

the culture which accompanied fascism was not itself fascist. […] Therefore, fascism remained a non-culture; and, culture was anti-fascism, with the exception of certain thinkers and artists (who were, after all, fascists as well, but only as individuals, not in their doctrines or their poems, sculptures or paintings). [12]

This assumption is, of course, completely groundless, and yet it still continues to be profoundly influential. One significant example: those who accuse Heidegger of compromising himself with the Third Reich — observes an important participant in the debate regarding the philosopher — do not realize that Nazism “was not, in any way or at any time, a current of thought. […] In fact, one must choose between thinking or killing.” And since “in order to kill one must above all not think,” this seems to be the proof of Heidegger’s complete extraneousness from a movement, “the exterminating power of which lies precisely in the refusal to think.” [13] The thinker, the philosopher, the intellectual are, by definition, extraneous to fascism and Nazism. Suspicion is removed from Heidegger by confining his relationship to Nazism to an episode in his private life. The private dimension is regarded as completely removed from theoretical elaboration, and expanded to the point of absorbing the sociopolitical sphere itself. The tautology upon which the hermeneutics of innocence are founded is by now clear: Since culture and fascism are opposing terms, a philosopher can never be a fascist.

A different variation upon the hermeneutics that exalt the immaculate purity of thought insists on the lack of a “necessary” connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and his support of Nazism. This formulation of the problem is particularly inappropriate, as it completely disregards history. Clearly, there can never be a relation of necessary deduction between two heterogeneous realities such as thought and a concrete sociopolitical movement. But this consideration can be applied to any author, even to the least refined of ideologists: Joseph-Arthur Gobineau, Georges Vacher de Lapouge, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the theoreticians of social Darwinism and of race, and so on. Strictly speaking, it is impossible to deduce a priori the “final solution” of the Jewish question even from Mein Kampf. Between the theoretical formulation and the concrete activation of the gas chambers there are a whole series of unforeseen and unforeseeable events (the failure of the plan to deport all the Jews to Madagascar, the war, the incorporation, through the conquests made eastward, of an even larger number of Jews in the great Reich, and so on). Nevertheless, the gas chambers cannot be understood without taking into account the preceding process of ideological degeneration (the destruction of the universal concept of man) that culminates in Mein Kampf, but which is also influenced by the “theoretical” contributions of Gobineau, Vacher de Lapouge, and Chamberlain, not to mention the theoreticians of social Darwinism and of radical struggle. Therefore, the question is not whether there is a relation of necessary deduction between Heidegger’s thought and his support of Nazism, but whether the former presents some themes and motifs which, in a specific historical situation, will lead to the support of Nazism. And this support of Nazism is not accidental, nor is it mere a private matter, but it has a precise philosophical dimension, as this book has attempted to demonstrate.

Undoubtedly, Heidegger’s theories still prevail over his concrete actions, and this is particularly common in the case of great intellectuals. However, this fact does not need to be proven on the basis of a misrepresentation of the historiographical assesement. Only those who still cling to the naive and dogmatic assumption criticized by Garin feel the need to give an antifascist or progressive character to the great figures of conservative or reactionary culture, be it Heidegger, Schmitt, or, before them, Nietzsche.

[1] The preceding sections of this same chapter cover Horkheimer, Adorno, Husserl, Croce, Gentile, Hayek, Burke, Strauss, and many others. — R. D. 

[2] Heidegger, “Abraham a Sancta Clara,” pp. 2ff. 

[3] Martin Heidegger, Dis Selbstbehauprung der deutschen Universität (Frankfurt. 1983), pp. 12tf. 

[4] Martin Heidegger, “Die Kategorien- und Bedeutungslehre des Duns Scotus” (1916), in Gesamtausgabe, vol. 1, p. 199. 

[5] For this interpretation of Nietzsche, which is presented without making direct reference to his texts, cf. the previously cited essays: “Le catene e i fiori. La critica dell’ideologia tra Marx e Nietzsche” and “Nietzsche, il moderno e la tradizione liberale.” 

[6] See also Losurdo’s definitive elaboration of this subject in Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel (2002). [web] — R. D. 

[7] In a letter to his friend Georg Brandes, who defines Nietzsche’s position as an “aristocraric radicalism,” Nietzsche responds that it is an “excellent” definition and indeed, “the most intelligent word I have read about me so far” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Sämtliche Brief. Kritische Studicnausgabe, eds. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari [Berlin-New York, 1986], vol. 8, p. 206); with regard to this, cf. Michele Martelli, Nietzsche “inattuale” (Urbino, 1988), pp. 20-27. 

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Die Geburt der Tragödie. Versuch einer Selbstkritik” (1886), in Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (München- Berlin-New York), vol. 1, p. 20. 

[9] Alfred Rosenberg was one of the main architects of Nazi ideology and policy. [14] 

[10] Pertaining to the Old Testament of the Bible. — R. D. 

[11] Reduction to one thing alone, as in the simplification to one single governing principle. — R. D. 

[12] Eugenio Garin, Cronache di filosofia italiana (Bari, 1966), p. 518. 

[13] Henri Crétella, “Heidegger contre le nazisme,” Le Débat 48 (1988): p. 124. 

[14] For Losurdo’s discussion of Heidegger contra Rosenberg, see Ch. 2.7:

Liberalism is a school of thought, Heidegger notes in 1934-35, that, “in countless shapes and forms, has continued to dominate up to the present day.” […] [T]he Machtergreifung had little impact, because there were Nazi ideologists who, ignorant of the Machtergreifung’s “inner truth and greatness,” continued to fish in “the torpid waters of values and ‘totality’.”
 — R. D.