Intellectuals and Authoritarianism

In the preceding post I quoted the German political theorist, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). The quotation is from a book published in 1926, seven years before Schmitt joined the Nazi Party. But Schmitt’s attraction to authoritarianism long predates his party membership. In 1921, according to Wikipedia,

Schmitt became a professor at the University of Greifswald, where he published his essay Die Diktatur (on dictatorship), in which he discussed the foundations of the newly established Weimar Republic, emphasising the office of the Reichspräsident. In this essay, Schmitt compared and contrasted what he saw as the effective and ineffective elements of the new constitution of his country. He saw the office of the president as a comparatively effective element, because of the power granted to the president to declare a state of exception (Ausnahmezustand). This power, which Schmitt discussed and implicitly praised as dictatorial,[21] was more in line with the underlying mentality of executive power than the comparatively slow and ineffective processes of legislative power reached through parliamentary discussion and compromise.

Shades of Woodrow Wilson, the holder of an earned doctorate and erstwhile academician who had recently been succeeded as president of the United States by Warren G. Harding. Wilson

believed the Constitution had a “radical defect” because it did not establish a branch of government that could “decide at once and with conclusive authority what shall be done.”…

He also wrote that charity efforts should be removed from the private domain and “made the imperative legal duty of the whole,” a position which, according to historian Robert M. Saunders, seemed to indicate that Wilson “was laying the groundwork for the modern welfare state.”

Another renowned German academic, the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), also became a Nazi in 1933. Whereas Schmitt never expressed regret or doubts about his membership in the party. Heidegger did, though perhaps not sincerely:

In his postwar thinking, Heidegger distanced himself from Nazism, but his critical comments about Nazism seem “scandalous” to some since they tend to equate the Nazi war atrocities with other inhumane practices related to rationalisation and industrialisation, including the treatment of animals by factory farming. For instance in a lecture delivered at Bremen in 1949, Heidegger said: “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”…

In [a 1966 interview for Der Spiegel], Heidegger defended his entanglement with National Socialism in two ways: first, he argued that there was no alternative, saying that he was trying to save the university (and science in general) from being politicized and thus had to compromise with the Nazi administration. Second, he admitted that he saw an “awakening” (Aufbruch) which might help to find a “new national and social approach,” but said that he changed his mind about this in 1934, largely prompted by the violence of the Night of the Long Knives.

In his interview Heidegger defended as double-speak his 1935 lecture describing the “inner truth and greatness of this movement.” He affirmed that Nazi informants who observed his lectures would understand that by “movement” he meant National Socialism. However, Heidegger asserted that his dedicated students would know this statement was no eulogy for the Nazi Party. Rather, he meant it as he expressed it in the parenthetical clarification later added to Introduction to Metaphysics (1953), namely, “the confrontation of planetary technology and modern humanity.”

The eyewitness account of Löwith from 1940 contradicts the account given in the Der Spiegel interview in two ways: that he did not make any decisive break with National Socialism in 1934, and that Heidegger was willing to entertain more profound relations between his philosophy and political involvement.

Schmitt and Heidegger were far from the only German intellectuals who were attracted to Nazism, whether out of philosophical conviction or expediency. More to the point, as presaged by my inclusion of Woodrow Wilson’s views, Schmitt and Heidegger were and are far from the only intellectual advocates of authoritarianism. Every academic, of any nation, who propounds government action that usurps the functions of private institutions is an authoritarian, whether or not he admits it to himself. Whether they are servants of an overtly totalitarian regime, like Schmitt and Heidegger, or of a formally libertarian one, like Wilson, they are all authoritarians under the skin.

Why? Because intellectualism is essentially rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains, a rationalist

never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. [“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays]

If you have everything “figured out”, what is more natural than the desire to make it so? It takes a truly deep thinker to understand that everything can’t be “figured out”, and that rationalism is bunk. That is why intellectuals of the caliber of Oakeshott, Friederich Hayek, and Thomas Sowell are found so rarely in academia, and why jackboot-lickers like Paul Krugman abound.

(See also “Academic Bias“, “Intellectuals and Capitalism“,”Intellectuals and Society: A Review“, and “Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge“.)