All in the family: Hendrik de Man and his nephew, Paul

Texts by Paul de Man

  1. Aesthetic Ideology
  2. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust
  3. Critical Writings, 1953-1978
  4. Notebooks
  5. Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism
  6. The Post-Romantic Predicament
  7. The Resistance to Theory

Texts on Paul de Man

  1. The Political Archive of Paul de Man: Property, Sovereignty, and the Theotropic
  2. Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory

Texts by Hendrik de Man

  1. The Psychology of Marxian Socialism
  2. Beyond Marxism: Faith and Works

Texts on Hendrik de Man

  1. Zeev Sternhell, The Idealist Revision of Marxism: The Ethical Socialism of Henri De Man
  2. José Carlos Mariátegui, A Defense of Marxism

Texts on Paul and Hendrik de Man

  1. Dick Pels, The Intellectual as Stranger: Studies in Spokesmanship


Hendrik and Paul de Man

In a 1973 article on “Semiology and Rhetoric,” the literary theorist Paul de Man raised a question posed by Archie Bunker: “What’s the difference?” Bunker was of course the lovably racist protagonist of the popular sitcom All in the Family. Playing on the character’s last name, de Man therefore continued: “Suppose it is a de-bunker rather than a ‘Bunker,’ and a de-bunker of the arche (or origin), an archie Debunker such as Nietzsche or Derrida for instance, who asks the question ‘What is the difference?’ — and we cannot even tell from his grammar whether he ‘really’ wants to know ‘what’ difference is or is just telling us that we shouldn’t even try to find out.”

Deconstruction takes, or took, such punning deadly serious. One hesitates over the tense because, well, it’s unclear whether deconstruction is taken too seriously anymore. After all, the term is usually taken to derive from Martin Heidegger’s Destruktion, as Derrida made clear in a 1986 interview: “It was a kind of active translation that displaces somewhat the word Heidegger uses: Destruktion, the destruction of ontology, which also does not mean the annulment, the annihilation of ontology, but an analysis of the structure of traditional ontology.” (Later Derrida would trace the concept further back to the thought of another German named Martin: namely Luther, whose word destructio prefigured its contemporary use by several centuries. This is somewhat beside the point, however).

Paul de Man accusations leveled against him

Skeletons in the closet

Ever since the publication of Victor Farías’ incendiary, if imperfect, 1985 exposé Heidegger and Nazism, the great German thinker has fallen into disrepute. Numerous titles were released in the wake of this bombshell, by scholars like Hans Sluga, Tom Rockmore, and Domenico Losurdo. Recently the discovery of the so-called Black Notebooks, which contain Heidegger’s lecture notes for 1933 up through 1935, has added to the mountain of evidence proving he was a committed fascist and virulent antisemite both in private and in public. Translation into English is slated to come out this year from Indiana University Press, but a lengthy commentary and introduction by Emmanuel Faye has been out since 2009.

Many of the criticisms made since Farías reignited the controversy have simply confirmed the judgment already passed on fundamental ontology by figures like Günther Anders and Theodor Adorno. As early as 1948, Anders accused Heidegger of nihilism: “He had no principle whatsoever, no social idea: nothing. When the trumpet of National Socialism started blaring into his moral vacuum, he became a Nazi.” In 1963, Adorno polemicized against The Jargon of Authenticity (by which he meant Heidegger’s philosophy). “Jargon even picks up banal [words], holds them high and bronzes them in the fascist manner which wisely mixes plebeian with elitist elements.”

Jean-Pierre Faye, father of Emmanuel, further implicated Heidegger’s French admirers in the camp of deconstruction already in the 1970s. Unlike Anders or Adorno, who primarily addressed a German and American readership, Faye extended his critique of Heideggerianism to the Francophone world. Loren Goldner, a left communist and outspoken opponent of poststructuralism, explained the substance of his critique in a review entitled “Jean-Pierre Faye’s Demolition of Derrida”:

[He] shows that the famous word Dekonstruktion was first used in a Nazi psychiatry journal edited by the cousin of Hermann Göring, and that the word Logozentrismus was coined (for denunciatory purposes) in the 1920s by the protofascist thinker Ludwig Klages. In short, sections of French and, more recently, American academic discourse in the “human sciences” have been dominated for decades by a terminology originating not in Heidegger but first of all in the writings of Nazi scribblers, recycled through Latin Quarter Heideggerians. Faye zeroes in with surgical skill on the evasions of those, particularly on the left, for whom the “greatest philosopher” of the century of Auschwitz happened to be — as a mere detail — a Nazi.

After 1933, under pressure from Nazi polemics, Heidegger began to characterize the prior Western metaphysical tradition as “nihilist” and worked out the whole analysis for which he became famous after 1945: the “fall” in the Western conception of Being after Parmenides and above all Aristotle, the essence of this fall in its modern development as the metaphysics of the “subject” theorized by Descartes, and the evolution of this subject up to its apotheosis in Nietzsche and the early Heidegger of Being and Time. Between 1933 and 1945, this diagnosis was applied to the decadent Western democracies overcome by the “internal greatness” of the National Socialist Movement; after 1945, Heidegger effortlessly transposed this framework to show nihilism culminating not in democracy but…in Nazism. In the 1945 “Letter on Humanism” in particular, Western humanism as a whole is assimilated to the metaphysics of this subject The new project, on the ruins of the Third Reich, was to overthrow the “Western humanism” that was responsible for Nazism! Thus the initial accommodation to Krieck and other party hacks, which produced the analysis in the first place, passed over to a “left” version in Paris, barely missing a step. The process, for a more American context, goes from Krieck to Heidegger to Derrida to the postmodern minions of the Modern Language Association. The “oscillation” that Faye demonstrated for the 1890-1933 period in Langages totalitaires has its extension in the contemporary deconstructionists of the “human sciences,” perhaps summarized most succinctly in Lyotard’s 1988 call to donner droit de cite a l’inhumain.

Faye is tracking the oscillation whereby, in 1987-1988, it became possible for Derrida, Lyotard, Lacoue-Labarthe, and others, to say, in effect: Heidegger, the Nazi “as a detail,” by his unmasking of the nihilistic “metaphysics of the subject” responsible for Nazism, was in effect the real anti-Nazi, whereas all those who, in 1933-1945 (or, by extension, today) opposed and continue to oppose fascism, racism, and antisemitism from some humanistic conviction, whether liberal or socialist, referring ultimately to the “metaphysics of the subject”-such people were and are in effect “complicit” with fascism. Thus the calls for an “inhuman” thought.

Paul de Man’s reputation in the meanwhile has suffered a fate similar to that of Heidegger. Shortly after his death in 1983, it was revealed that he enthusiastically welcomed the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Between 1940 and 1942, de Man contributed a number of articles to Le Soir while the newspaper was under the management of fascist ideologues. One of the articles, on “The Jews and Contemporary European Literature,” was extremely antisemitic. Coming fresh on the heels of the Heidegger controversy, defenders of deconstruction were now faced with another scandal. De Man’s friends and co-thinkers rallied to defend his memory, organizing conferences in the vain hope that his legacy might yet be salvaged. Though several essay collections resulted from this engagement, featuring heavyweights from across the theoretical spectrum, de Man’s writings are no longer fashionable. Not the way they once were.


Last year, though, Evelyn Barish released a biography detailing The Double-Life of Paul de Man. Suzanne Gordon, one of his former students, wrote a piece for Jacobin in which she denounced de Man as “a Nazi collaborator, embezzler, bigamist, serial deadbeat, and fugitive from justice in Belgium.” Here is not the place to wag fingers at de Man’s extramarital affairs, lackluster parenting skills, or casual misappropriations. While public interest in these aspects of his life is perhaps to be expected, as is its craving for salacious details, a lot of the information in Barish’s book is pure tabloid. Rumors and gossip do not merit serious consideration in the evaluation of a person’s work. Biography is not destiny.

Newspaper articles are still fair game, however. Below, therefore, is reproduced in full a translation of the infamous 1941 de Man editorial, “The Jews and Contemporary Literature.” It appears in David Lehman’s book Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991). Lehman is a hopeless liberal, as are Richard Wolin and his compatriots. But they still render a valuable service in unmasking this reactionary nonsense:

Vulgar antisemitism readily considers postwar cultural phenomena (after the war of 1914-1918) as degenerate and decadent because Judaized [enjuivé]. Literature hasn’t escaped this lapidary judgment: it is enough to have discovered several Jewish writers under Latinized pseudonyms for all contemporary production to be considered polluted and harmful. This conception entails some rather dangerous consequences. In the first place, it condemns a priori an entire literature that in no way deserves this fate. Moreover, from the moment one agrees to assign some merit to the literature of our day, it would be an unflattering estimation of Western writers to reduce them to being mere imitators of a Jewish culture that is foreign to them.

The Jews themselves have contributed to this myth. Often, they have glorified themselves as the leaders of the literary movements that characterize our era. But the mistake has, in reality, a deeper cause. The very prevalent opinion, according to which modem poetry and the modem novel were only monstrous outgrowths of the world war, is at the root of the thesis of a Jewish takeover. Since the Jews have, in fact, played an important role in the phony and disordered existence of Europe since 1920, a novel born in that atmosphere would deserve, up to a certain point, the description enjuivé.

But the reality is different. It seems that aesthetic evolutions obey very powerful laws that continue on their course even while humanity is shaken by important events. The world war provoked a profound upheaval in the political and economic world. But artistic life has been affected relatively little, and the forms that we know at present follow in a logical and normal fashion those that came before.

This is particularly clear with regard to the novel. Stendhal’s definition, according to which “the novel is a mirror strolling down an open road,” contains the law that still rules this literary genre today. What was seen as coming first is the obligation to pay scrupulous respect to external reality. But by digging deeper, the novel has also managed to exploit psychological reality. Stendhal’s mirror no longer remains immobile on the road; rather it undertakes to investigate the most secret comers of the souls of characters. And this domain has been so rich and so fruitful in surprises that it still constitutes the novelist’s one and only terrain of investigation.

Gide, Kafka, Hemingway, Lawrence — the list could be extended indefinitely — do nothing but attempt, through methods appropriate to their own personalities, to penetrate the secrets of the interior life. By this shared trait, they show themselves to be not innovators breaking with all past traditions, but mere continuators who are pursuing further the realist aesthetic that is more than a century old.

A similar demonstration can be made in the domain of poetry. The forms that seem most revolutionary to us, such as surrealism and futurism, have, in reality, orthodox ancestors from which they cannot be detached.

One realizes, therefore, that to consider contemporary literature as an isolated phenomenon, created by the particular mentality of the 1920s, is absurd. Likewise, the Jews cannot pretend to be its creators, nor even to have exercised a preponderant influence over its evolution. On any close examination, their influence would appear to have extraordinarily little importance, since one might have expected that — given the specific characteristics of the Jewish mind [esprit] — the latter would have played a more brilliant role in such artistic production. Their cerebralness, their capacity to assimilate doctrines while maintaining a cold detachment from them, would seem to be very precious qualities for the work of lucid analysis that the novel requires. But in spite of that, Jewish writers have always remained in the second rank and, to speak only of France, writers on the order of André Maurois, Francis de Croisset, Henri Duvernois, Henri Bernstein, Tristan Bernard, Julien Benda, and so on, are not among the most important figures, and especially not among those who have had some directive influence on literary genres. The statement is, moreover, comforting for Western intellectuals. That they have been able to safeguard themselves from Jewish influence in a domain as culturally representative as literature proves their vitality. We could not have much hope for the future of our civilization if it had let itself be invaded, without resistance, by a foreign force. In keeping its originality and its character intact, despite Semitic interference in all aspects of European life, our civilization has shown that its fundamental nature is healthy. What’s more, one can thus see that a solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences. It would lose, in all, some personalities of mediocre worth and would continue, as in the past, to develop according to its higher laws of evolution.

Somehow Derrida thought it possible to isolate a subversive, antifascist subtext buried beneath this dreck. He thus proceeded to deconstruct de Man’s text in order to find what may have been erased. In a stunning inversion, the mauvaise foi of which beggars belief, Derrida asserted: “This article, in any case, is nonconformist, as Paul de Man, as also his uncle, always was.” All of this was an ironic commentary on the Nazi ideology of race, Derrida suggested, perhaps even a deliberate attempt to bypass Belgian censors. By decrying “vulgar antisemitism” and its “lapidary judgments,” de Man was indicting the greater part of fascist propaganda directed against the Jews. “[U]nder the German occupation, and first of all in the context of this newspaper, the presentation of such a thesis [on vulgar antisemitism]… goes rather against the current. One can at least read it as an anticonformist attack.”

Derrida and De Man

Reading de Man’s article in this way accomplishes a couple things for Derrida. Kills two birds with one stone, as it were. First, it sustains the comforting illusion that de Man resisted (rather than collaborated with) the fascist authorities in occupied Belgium. Quietly, and despite the relative powerlessness of his position, de Man managed to slip one past the Nazi press. Derrida clings desperately to this hope: “His irony and his anticonformist burst of laughter took instead the form of insolent provocation — one which was, precisely, cutting. You feel something of that in these ‘early writings’.” Second, however, this interpretative strategy by Derrida performs the same operation de Man so often utilized in his criticism of other figures, such as Rousseau. This was how de Man responded to Derrida’s various deconstructions in Of Grammatology. It reads de Man’s text as self-deconstructing, implicitly undermining its own presuppositions and explicitly stated goals.

Clever though this stratagem may seem, it is ultimately false. Anyone familiar with Marxian critiques of “vulgar Marxism” knows that these critiques are made from the standpoint of a truer — or at any rate more sophisticated — form of Marxism. Likewise with critiques of “vulgar antisemitism.” Hans-Robert Jost made precisely the same point with respect to de Man’s surprising reservations about pro-fascist authors during the war. Taking aim at the novelist and Nazi sympathizer Robert Brasillach, de Man held that such literature often harmed the cause of National Socialism rather than advanced it. Jost observed: “Brasillach is attacked not becaue he is a collaborator, but because he is not enough of a collaborator. It is therefore important not to seek a position against fascism in de Man’s critical stance toward collaborationist literature.”

Internationalist Perspective contributor Alan Milchman wrote a fairly balanced reflection on l’affaire de Man back in 1990. Sam Weber’s and Derrida’s accounts were found lacking in certain respects. “[T]he essays by de Man’s friends and fellow deconstructionists, Jacques Derrida and Samuel Weber, lapse at times into outright apologetics. Perhaps because as deconstructionists their preoccupation is with the text to the detriment of its sociopolitical context, Derrida and Weber provide multifaceted readings of many of his wartime articles but generally fail to grapple with the Weltanschauung in which they were grounded.” Milchman is unsparing in his criticisms of the young de Man, but draws important distinctions between aesthetic nationalism and spiritual antisemitism exhibited by the Belgian writer and Nazi biological racism. Likewise, he finds it impossible to trace a direct continuity from these juvenilia and de Man’s mature writings on deconstruction.

Biography be damned. De Man’s published intellectual output between 1940 and 1942 is enough with which to reproach him. Rather than confront his troubling past, de Man chose to flee it. Fortunately for him, though not for his memory, it never caught up to him while he was alive.


De Man with a plan

One biographical connection is worth taking seriously, however: that of Paul’s uncle, the famous socialist Hendrik de Man. Derrida himself alluded to “the determining role of that uncommon man, Henri de Man.” In a footnote spanning three pages, Derrida sketched the career of this elder de Man:

The influence of Henri de Man, Paul’s uncle and godfather, was no doubt powerful and determining. One must approach this extraordinary European figure in order to understand anything of these dramatic events. During a half century, his reputation radiated through his actions and his writings. Among the latter, all of which are more or less autobiographical, two titles provide brief self-portraits, but also a prefiguration of Paul: Cavalier seul [Lone horseman] and Gegen den Strom [Against the current]. Here, in a telegraphic style, are a few significant traits, for which I have relied on: Au delà du marxisme [French translation of Henri de Man’s Zur Psychologie des Sozialismus (Jena, 1926); reissued by Seuil in 1974 with a very useful preface by Michel Brelaz and Ivo Rens, the foreword of the first French edition (Paris, 1926), and a preface by the author denouncing the “nationalist imbecility” and the “prestige of race or nationality”]; Henri de Man: A Documentary Study of Hendrik de Man, Socialist Critic of Marxism, compiled, edited, and largely translated by Peter Dodge (Princeton, N.J., 1979); Dodge, Beyond Marxism: The Faith and Works of Hendrik de Man (The Hague, 1966); and Jules Gérard-Libois and José Gotovitch, L’An 40: La Belgique occupée (Brussels, 1971).

Freemason father, tolerant anticlerical: “one of the purest incarnations of stoic morality,” says his son of him. Henri was born in 1885, the year that the POB (Belgian Labor Party) was founded of which he will become vice-president in 1933. 1905: expelled from the Ghent Polytechnic Institute for having demonstrated in support of the Russian revolutionaries of 1905. Moves to Germany, “the native and the chosen land of Marxism.” Meets Bebel, Kautsky, Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg. Intense militant and theoretical activity in Germany. First Secretary of the Socialist Youth International. Dissertation on the woolen industry in Ghent in the Middle Ages. In London in 1910, joins the Social Democratic Federation (radical Marxist group). Returns to Belgium in 1911, provokes a crisis in the POB by criticizing its reformism.

First doubts about Marxism as the war begins, after having served as translator in talks between Jaurès and the future chancellor of the Weimar Republic to preserve the peace. Official mission to Russia after the Revolution in 1917. Publishes “La Révolution aux armées” in Emile Vandervelde’s Trois aspects de la révolution russe, 7 mai-25 juin 1917 [Three aspects of the Russian revolution]. In “La Grande désillusion” [1919; The great disillusion]: “It is not for this reason, it is not so that the Europe of tomorrow will resemble the Europe of yesterday that we fought. It is not for the destruction of the German and Russian nations, it was for the independence of all nations and in order to free Europe of militarism.” Plans to immigrate to the U.S., two trips there (1918-1920). Founds a system of worker education in Seattle. Professor of Social Psychology at University of Washington. Dismissed from his position after intervening in a local election campaign in favor of the Farmer-Labor Party. 1919: The Remaking of a Mind: A Soldier’s Thoughts on War and Reconstruction. 1922-1926: lives in Darmstadt and teaches at the Akademie der Arbeit in Frankfurt. 1926: publishes his best-known work, The Psychology of Socialism (trans. Eden and Cedar Paul [New York, 1928). 1929-1933: lives and teaches in Frankfurt (newly created chair in social psychology). 1933: publishes Die sozialistische Idee, confiscated by the Nazis. Director of the Office of Social Studies of the POB (1932) which issues the famous Plan du travail [Labor Plan] and the doctrine of planism (socialization of financial capital, credit, monopolies, and large landed property]. Minister of Public Works and of Unemployment Reduction (1935), Finance Minister in 1936 in tripartite governments that reduce unemployment and fight back rexism (the extreme right). Appointed by the king to secret missions to preserve peace in 1938. Minister without portfolio for several months. Appointed to a post in the queen’s service, during the final days before the defeat perhaps advises the king, who was already inclined in that direction, to share the fate of the army rather than to follow the government into exile. Like many others, believes the war is over. President of the POB, considers the political role of the party to be over and that the war “has led to the debacle of the parliamentary regime and of the capitalist plutocracy in the so-called democracies. For the working classes and for socialism, this collapse of a decrepit world is, far from a disaster, a deliverance” (“The Manifesto,” in Hendrik de Man, Socialist Critic of Marxism, p. 326). Dissolves the POB, creates a single central labor syndicate in 1940. His relations with the occupiers go downhill quickly. From June 1941, considers the pressures untenable, goes into exile in November 1941 in Savoie (France). Already in July 1940, his program had been considered by the German command, “because of its spirit and its origins” and despite elements that are “formally ‘pseudo-fascist’,” to be incapable of ever “being really integrated into a European order, such as Germany conceives it” (quoted in Brelaz and Rens, Au delà du marxisme, p. 16). Writes his memoirs (Après coup). His Réflexions sur la paix [Reflections on peace] banned in Belgium in 1942. Maintains relations with Belgian “collaborationists,” unorthodox Germans as well as French Resistants (Robert Lacoste). Informed of the conspiracy and the failed plot against Hitler. 1944: escapes to Switzerland where he is taken in by a Swiss socialist leader who helps him win political asylum. At the time of the Liberation, severely condemned by a military tribunal “for having, while in the military, maliciously served the policy and the designs of the enemy.” Third marriage. Au delà du nationalisme (1946). Cavalier seul: Quarante-cinq années de socialisme européen and Gegen den Strom: Memoiren eines europäischen sozialisten are two reworked versions of his 1941 autobiography. Vermassung und Kulturverfall: Eine Diagnose unserer Zeit (1951). On 20 June 1953, his car stops “for unknown reasons” on the railroad tracks at an unguarded crossing near his home. He dies with his wife when the train arrives. It was, they say, slightly behind schedule. (Suicides and allegories of reading: some day we will have to talk about suicide in this history).

Collaboration can take many forms. Yet in the case of Paul and Hendrik de Man, it’s all in the family. “What’s the difference?” Archie Bunker’s question surfaces again. This time the difference in question is the difference between the uncle and his nephew, however, rather than the difference between lacing over and lacing under. Marx long ago demonstrated in his Eighteenth Brumaire that the uncle is superior to the nephew; Napoleon I is much grander than Napoleon III. If the story of Paul de Man today appears tragic, it is still farcical compared with the story of Hendrik.

Tragically, it is only on account of the social and political irrelevance of Marxism today that the nephew seems to possess a higher stature than the uncle. An avowed Marxist before, during, and immediately after the First World War, Hendrik was appointed to the Belgian Labor Board in 1920. Soon he won international acclaim, as the official pamphlet put out by the Moscow-based organization Proletkult (Proletarian culture) featured a quote from de Man on its cover. Its triplicate pronouncement read as follows:

  • When labor strikes, it says to its master: I will no longer work at your command.
  • When it votes for a party of its own, it says: I will no longer vote at your command.
  • When it creates its own classes and colleges: I will no longer think at your command.

Labor’s challenge to education is the most fundamental of the three.

Elsewhere in the pamphlet, philosophers like Henri Bergson were quoted. Needless to say, it was moment of revolutionary ferment embracing a wide array of disparate influences. Just a few years later, however, Hendrik would announce his break with Marxism tout court — not just with revolutionary or orthodox Marxism, but even with the blander reformist version propounded by Bernstein. This break took the form of a book, The Psychology of Socialism (1926), a 500-page diatribe against Marx and Marxism.

Describing Marxism as a form of “economic hedonism,” wherein the determining motive for all human action is naked material self-interest, de Man counterposed his own theory of “psychological reactions” which instead supposedly shaped behavior. Understandably, perhaps, the war was what led to his growing disaffection with Marxism:

The war, in which I participated as a Belgian volunteer, shook my Marxist faith to its foundations. It is wartime experience which entitles me to say that my book has been written with blood, though I cannot myself be certain that I have been able to transform that blood into spirit. The conflict of motives whose upshot was that I, an ardent antimilitarist and internationalist, felt it my duty to take up arms against Germany; my disillusionment at the collapse of the International; the daily demonstration of the instinctive nature of mass impulses thanks to which even socialist members of the working class had their minds poisoned with the virus of nationalist hatred; my growing estrangement from most of my erstwhile Marxist associates, who went over to the Bolshevik camp — thanks to all these influences conjoined, I was racked with doubts and scruples whose echoes will be heard in this book.

Hendrik later in the book condemned Marxian determinism. “The confident sense of security which this determinist faith instills into youthful movements during their missionary phase is, unfortunately, bought at the cost of psychological effects whose disastrous character becomes conspicuous in more advanced phases of the movement,” wrote de Man. “The belief in must gives rise to a feeling which weakens belief in ought. The sentiment has amoralised Marxism, and has thwarted the activity of ethical motives in the movements under Marxist dominance.”

Zeev Sternhell, an historian of European fascism, has characterized this turn within de Man’s thought as “The Idealist Revision of Marx.”

Most of Hendrik’s ire was directed against Marx, as the master thinker behind the movement, but Marx’s disciples also come in for abuse. Regarding the vaunted proletarian culture inspired by the teachings of Aleksandr Bogdanov, de Man wrote: “Henriette Roland-Holst, the Dutch poetess, has for years been elaborating an aesthetic based on Marxism along with her ultra-Marxist colleague Herman Gorter, have. By their socialist art, they have established new aesthetic rules for the whole literature of their country…Still, my own painful experience has taught me that the working class considers this art not only ‘highbrow,’ but absolutely incomprehensible and positively ugly.” On the issue of bourgeois or proletarian philosophy, de Man rejected all such distinctions as spurious. “If we are entitled to say that all philosophy, past and present, is bourgeois philosophy, surely we are no less entitled to say that all astronomy, past and present, is bourgeois astronomy?” he mused, rhetorically. “Yet we may doubt whether [Anton] Pannekoek, a professional astronomer, would agree that the mathematical formulae which he uses day after day in his observatory have a hidden antiproletarian significance. Why Marxist sociology itself has borrowed from the bourgeois philosophy of its day its general philosophical hypotheses, its theory of cognition, and its dialectic.”

Kautsky alone seems to have been spared from these wrathful and vainglorious pronouncements. De Man had no doubt that “Kautsky’s picture of Marx probably resembles the real Marx more closely than does the picture which Lenin has popularized among his disciples.” All the same, de Man believed Kautsky was misguided in seeking “scientific” assurances for the ethical conduct of individuals or the masses. “For my part, I would never entrust my purse to one who told me that he could substantiate his morality by scientific knowledge, as, for example, by Kautsky’s Ethik,” related de Man. “I should be afraid lest he would find scientific reasons for keeping it. Nevertheless, I should not hesitate for a moment to show my confidence in my revered friend Kautsky in this way, and to give a great many other proofs of my trust in him, for I know better than he does himself the strength of his moral instincts, which no materialist conception of history can possibly deduce from the evolution of the method of production.”

Against this screed, the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui wrote a Defense of Marxism (1928) from an ocean, a continent, and a hemisphere away. Mariátegui, who would go on to support Trotsky as a member of the Left Opposition within the Comintern, lambasted de Man for his moralizing platitudes:

When Henri de Man, reclaiming in socialism an ethical content, forces himself to show that class interest cannot be by itself a sufficient motor, it absolutely does not go “beyond Marxism,” nor repair things that have not been foreseen by revolutionary criticism. His revisionism attacks reformist syndicalism, wherein class interest is content with satisfying limited material aspirations. A producer’s morality, as Sorel conceives it and as Kautsky would conceive it, does not mechanically flow from economic interest: it forms in class struggle — liberated by heroic animus possessed of passionate will. It is absurd to look for the ethical sentiment of socialism in the bourgeoisified unions — in which a domesticated bureaucracy has debilitated class consciousness — or in the parliamentary groups, spiritually assimilated to the enemy through their combat through speeches and motions. Henri de Man says something perfectly useless when he affirms “class interest does not explain everything. It does not create ethical motives.” These affirmations can impress a certain type of nineteenth-century intellectuals who noisily ignore the history of class struggle. They, like Henri de Man, exceed the limits of Marx and his school. The ethic of socialism is formed in class struggle. In order that the proletariat fulfills its historic mission in regard to moral progress, it is necessary to assume its existing class interest, though class interest by itself is not enough. Long before Henri de Man, the Marxists have felt and understood it. It is precisely from this that they start their steeled criticisms against facile reformism. “Without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary action,” Lenin submitted, alluding to the yellow tendency to forget revolutionary finality by only paying attention to present circumstances.

In a subsequent installment of his Defense of Marxism, Mariátegui resumed his polemic:

All those, like Henri de Man, who preach and proclaim an ethical socialism based on humanitarian principles, instead of contributing in some way to the moral elevation of the proletariat, unconsciously and paradoxically work against its affirmation as a creative and heroic force, that is, against its civilizing role. By way of “moral” socialism and its anti-materialist conversations, one can only manage to fall back into the most sterile and lachrymose humanitarian romanticism, the most decadent, “pariah-like” apologetics, and the most sentimental and useless plagiarism of evangelical epigrams about the “poor in spirit.” And this is the equivalent of returning socialism to its romantic, utopian period, when its demands were, in grand part, nurtured by the sentiments and ramblings of this aristocracy that, after having entertained itself in an idyllic, eighteenth-century way by dressing as shepherds and shepherdesses and being converted to the Encyclopédie and liberalism, strangely dreamed of nobly leading a revolution of the shirtless and the helots. Obeying a tendency to sublimate one’s sentiments, this type of socialist — whose services no one thinks of denying, and among whom some extraordinary and admirable spirits rise to great heights — pulled from the gutter the sentimental clichés and demagogic images of the era of sans-culottes so as to inaugurate a paradisiacally Rousseauean age throughout the world. But, as we have known for some time, this was absolutely not the road to socialist revolution. Marx discovered and taught that one had to begin by understanding the necessity and, especially, the value of the capitalist stage. Socialism, beginning with Marx, appeared as the conception of a new class, as a theory and movement that had nothing in common with the romanticism of those who repudiated the work of capitalism as an abomination. The proletariat succeeded the bourgeoisie in the work of civilization. And it assumed this mission, conscious of its responsibility and capacity — gained in revolutionary activity and the capitalist factory — when the bourgeoisie, having fulfilled its destiny, ceased being a force for progress and culture.

For this reason, Marx’s work has a certain tone of admiration for the work of capitalism, and Capital, as it lays the bases for socialist science, is the best history of the epoch of capitalism (something that seemingly does not escape Henri de Man’s view, but which does in its deeper sense).

Ethical, pseudo-Christian, humanitarian socialism, which anachronistically tries to oppose itself to Marxist socialism, might be the more or less lyric and innocuous exercise of a tired and decadent bourgeoisie, but not the theory of a class that has reached its adulthood, overcoming the greatest objectives of the capitalist class. Marxism is completely foreign and contrary to these mediocre, altruistic, and philanthropic speculations. We Marxists do not believe that the job of creating a new social order, superior to the capitalist order, falls to an amorphous mass of oppressed pariahs guided by evangelical preachers of goodness. The revolutionary energy of socialism is not nurtured by compassion or envy. In the class struggle, where all the sublime and heroic elements of its ascent reside, the proletariat must elevate itself to a “producers’ morality,” quite distant and distinct from the “slave morality” that its gratuitous professors of morals, horrified by its materialism, officiously attempt to provide. A new civilization cannot arise from a sad and humiliated world of miserable helots with no greater merits or faculties than their servility and misery. The proletariat only enters history politically, as a social class, at the moment it discovers its mission to build a superior social order with elements gathered by human effort, whether moral or amoral, just or unjust. And it has not gained this ability miraculously. It has won it by situating itself solidly on the terrain of the economy, of production. Its class morale depends on the energy and heroism with which it operates on this terrain, and the amplitude with which it understands and masters the bourgeois economy.

From here Hendrik evolved an ideology of the plan, so-called “planism.” By means of a vast electoral coalition, de Man proposed to bring about a technocratic regime of rationalized production guided by specialists and experts. Parliamentary channels would be used to effect institutional reforms. Leon Trotsky mocked this proposal mercilessly in a 1934 article, “Revisionism and Planning”: “Just as de Man does not want a revolutionary struggle of the proletariat and tears a courageous opposition policy in parliament that could lead to a revolutionary struggle, so also does he not want a real struggle for the petty bourgeois masses. He understands that in its depths are hidden stores of protest, bitterness, and hatred which may turn into revolutionary passions and dangerous ‘excesses,’ that is into revolution. Instead de Man seeks parliamentary allies: shabby democrats, catholics, blood relations from the right who are needed by him as a bulwark.” De Man was still laying the groundwork for this plan on the eve of European war.

When the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, the ethical convictions of Hendrik de Man proved no match for the opportunistic temptations that arose shortly thereafter. Spinelessness and collusion were the order of the day, as the uncle asked the workers of Belgium to lay down their arms and vote for Belgian Labor Party (POB-BWP). He would be charged with administration and oversight of the country, working hand-in-glove with the occupiers to ensure everything ran smoothly. As for his nephew, Paul, he was vacationing in the south of France when his country was overrun. Upon his return, he was granted a cushy position by his uncle as an editor of and contributor to Le Soir.

Paul did not rely solely on nepotism in establishing his career, however. Befriending the Nazi officer in charge of Belgian cultural affairs, Lothar von Ballusek, the pair conspired to take over the major fascist publishing houses in the nation. Édouard Didier’s Editions de la Toison d’Or topped their list for prospective buyouts. After the coup failed, the nephew was punished by Didier and his allies. Fired from his job at Le Soir, Paul’s actions as a buyer and editor for Ageance Dechenne were investigated at the behest of Didier, leading to a termination there as well.

3 thoughts on “All in the family: Hendrik de Man and his nephew, Paul

  1. Kautsky’s reply: “De Man als Lehrer” is in nr.1,1927, pp. 62-77 of Die Gesellschaft: Internationale Revue für Sozialismus und Politik. This journal, edited by Hilferding and later Albert Salomon, was recently put online here:
    Marcuse was a frequent contributor.

    On Google Books I saw Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man compared once to de Man’s (post-WWII) Vermassung und Kulturverfall; eine Diagnose unserer Zeit (in French online:


    Have you checked yet the contents of Karl Niebyl’s Essays in dialectics, 1939 (2nd ed. 1945, p.418)
    or his
    An outline of the historical and material background of society today, for present day economic and political analysis, 1945, p. 423.

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