Revisionism revisited: Ernst Nolte and Domenico Losurdo on the age of extremes

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“Revisionism” — Revisionismus, révisionnisme, ревизионизм — is a word of relatively recent vintage. Most etymologies date its origin to around 1903, when the revisionist dispute befell German Social Democracy. Its meaning has remained more or less constant since then: the term denotes an effort to revise or otherwise reenvision some prior doctrine or established consensus. Already in its short career, however, revisionism has managed to amass a range of historical referents. Given this polysemic quality, a bit of disentanglement seems in order to sort out the different phenomena it signifies.

Ernst Nolte’s death late last week, at the age of 93, offers a unique opportunity for such reflection. The controversial historian rose to international prominence, or at least achieved a certain notoriety, during the mid-1980s as part of the “historians’ quarrel” [Historikerstreit]. Beginning with an address he delivered in Munich in June 1980, entitled “Between Historical Legend and Revisionism?”, Nolte sought to place the Nazi genocide within the context of a global civil war [Weltbürgerkrieg] that lasted from the October Revolution in 1917 to the fall of Berlin in May 1945. He framed it as an unfortunate (but understandable) response to the horrific violence unleashed by the Bolsheviks in Russia:

Auschwitz was not primarily a result of traditional antisemitism, and not just one more case of “genocide.” It was a fear-borne reaction to acts of annihilation that took place during the Russian Revolution. While the fact that it was more irrational, terrible, and repulsive than its precursor provides a foundation for the notion of singularity, none of this alters that the so-called [!!!] annihilation of the Jews by the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original.

Six years later, in the editorial that sparked the controversy, Nolte again posed the question: “Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an ‘Asiatic’ deed merely because they considered themselves potential victims of an ‘Asiatic’ deed? Wasn’t the Gulag Archipelago primary to Auschwitz?” For Nolte, “the Bolsheviks’ murder of an entire class was the logical and factual prius of the ‘racial murder’ of National Socialism…” Yet, despite these supposed mitigating circumstances, Germany alone was trapped in “a past that will not pass.” Twisting the knife, he added, “talk about ‘the guilt of the Germans’ blithely overlooks the similarity to the talk about ‘the guilt of the Jews,’ which was a main argument of the National Socialists.” Predictably, Nolte’s provocations led to an uproar, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was flooded with angry letters.

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Jürgen Habermas was among those who sent a reply the summer of 1986. Immediately, this added a great deal of weight to the debate. At the time, Habermas was at the height of his powers, by far the country’s best-known intellectual. Heir apparent to Theodor Adorno, he represented the “second generation” of Frankfurt School critical theory. Nolte had been a follower of Martin Heidegger, the (in)famous Nazi philosopher against whom Adorno had tirelessly polemicized, so the ghosts of the Doktorväter were close at hand. This was evident from the outset, as Habermas inveighed against the apologetic tendencies at work “in what Nolte, the student of Heidegger, calls his ‘philosophical writing of history’.” Even statements downplaying the relevance of these forebears tacitly invoked their authority, as for example when Habermas declared that “it is not a matter of Popper versus Adorno, nor of scholarly differences of opinion, nor about questions of freedom from value judgments [Wertfreiheit]. Rather, it is about the public use of history.” Driving this point home, a few pages down, he reiterated: “After 1945… we read [Martin] Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and Hans Freyer, even Ernst Jünger, differently than before 1933.”

Looking back at this exchange now thirty years on, one wonders whether this is not the crux of the matter. Can an event be historicized without diminishing its singularity? Or does the very act of contextualization thereby render it mundane? Is it possible to simultaneously “comprehend and condemn,” as Christian Meier suggested in the title of his contribution to the debate? To compare two distinct objects is to relate them, if not relativize them as such. Hans Mommsen objected to claims made by Nolte and his attack dog, Joachim Fest, on the grounds that they surreptitiously aimed at “relativizing” Nazism through its comparison with Bolshevism. By insisting on their comparability, or “the permissibility of certain comparisons” (as Nolte put it), all talk of singularity swiftly goes out the window. François Furet, revisionist historian of the French Revolution and unabashed admirer of his German counterpart, one of Nolte’s greatest merits was to have “quickly gone beyond the prohibition against putting Bolshevism and Nazism in the same bag.” Paul Ricoeur noted in Memory, History, Forgetting, just a year before his death, “this massive use of comparison settles the fate of singularity or uniqueness, since this alone permits the identification of differences… As soon as the critical debate has been widened in this way, Nolte expects it will allow this past ‘to pass’ like any other and be appropriated.” Continue reading

The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014
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Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha
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We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)
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The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)
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The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?

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Preliminary remarks

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Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

Interview with Ross Wolfe of on #Occupy, the role of criticism in relation to theory and praxis, and the “return to Marx”

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Conducted by C. Derick Varn of
The Loyal Opposition to Modernity

Here’s Derick’s introduction to this interview:

Ross Wolfe introduced me to the Platypus Affiliated Society and is a member of my Aesthetics, Politics, and Theory: Red and/or Black (of which Symptomatic Redness is a project).  Ross Wolfe is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  The main focus of his work is in Russian history, but he is also interested in Central European history, Jewish studies, philosophy, and Marxism.  He writes primarily about the history of avant-garde architecture, contemporary political issues (activism, current events), and topics such as the environment, technology, utopianism, and the history of the Left.  He blogs at the Charnel-House.

More from Derick’s ongoing Marginalia on Radical Thinking series can be found hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, here, and here.

C. DERICK VARN: So you have been working with and critiquing Occupy Wall Street from your vantage point in New York.  How did you get involved?

ROSS WOLFE: I was first alerted to the #Occupy protests going on down at Liberty Plaza about one week after it began, by someone much further from the scene than I was — my good friend Steve McClellan, a graduate student in Central European history at Oregon State University.  At that point, the movement had barely made any sort of splash in the mainstream media, and mostly established itself through YouTube videos and other decentralized, user-based means.

So I decided to take a visit down to Zuccotti Park to try and get a better sense of what was going on there.  What I saw there (especially at this early point) was largely ideological incoherence.  The politics on display at Occupy Wall Street were symptomatic in very much the same way that they had been at the resurgent anti-globalization protests against the G-8 in Pittsburgh back in 2009 and the G-20 conference in Toronto in 2010.  Needless to say, my first reactions to the demonstration were fairly pessimistic.  This was reflected in my initial write-up of my experiences. Continue reading