Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 23, 2007

Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 3:37 pm

Veteran Israeli leftist Reuven Kaminer wrote an interesting critique of Hannah Arendt recently. While reading it, I noticed a reference to her husband Heinrich Blücher and remembered that I had written about the two before as follows:

When I arrived at Bard College as a freshman in 1961, the worst excesses of the witch-hunt were already over. McCarthy had been repudiated and Kennedy was president. What had not come to an end was a very powerful anti-Marxist ideological consensus. Emblematic of that fact was the key role assigned to ex-OSS agent Heinrich Blücher, whose mandatory Common Course lectures at Bard were basically meant to indoctrinate students against Marxism.

Bard was one of a tiny constellation of American colleges back then which had pretensions of free thought. Along with Goddard, Antioch, Oberlin and the recently deceased Black Mountain College, Bard had a reputation for being bohemian and radical. Gossip columnist had tagged Bard as the “little Red whorehouse on the Hudson.” It was not Red.

Blücher’s lectures were steeped very heavily in the existentialist tradition, the postmodernism of its day. Because the USA was a much more reactionary place in 1961, there was very little need for anticommunist professors to even pay lip-service to Marx. Blücher basically regarded Marxism and fascism on the same level, as demented “essentialist” systems that would destroy individualism and freedom. The three key figures in this ideological offensive were Hannah Arendt, who was married to Blücher, Daniel Bell and Albert Camus.

Their arguments were heavily influenced by Heidegger and his prime influence, Nietzsche. Heidegger had been Arendt’s guru and lover. Arendt, who repudiated his anti-Semitism while never really disavowing the Nietzschean roots of the philosophy that had made collaboration with Hitler possible, was the towering figure in early 1960s liberal anticommunist consensus. Yale deconstructionist guru Paul De Man, who comes out of this same intellectual milieu, provoked a major scandal in the 1980s when it was revealed that he wrote for Nazi publications in occupied Belgium during WWII, a fact that legions of his deconstructionist and postmodernist acolytes worked overtime to rationalize.

In essence, 1950s existentialism and 1980s postmodernism can be explained as a rear guard action by Western intellectuals in imperialist nations to discredit the sole political force capable of eliminating the material basis for their privileges. As such, it is a reactionary ideology. (On Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk mailing list, Michael Hoover described postmodernism as being very “80s”. I would agree with him, but not on the century. It is 1880s, not 1980s.) The terms of the debate are very similar, but the terminology is different. Instead of “grand narratives” being the enemy, the 1950s thinkers railed against what they described as absolutist and essentialist tendencies in Western thought. Plato was identified as the father of this illegitimate child, but Hegel was really the arch-enemy. Hegel was blamed for Marx, who inspired Stalin to create a runaway, monstrous system. Nietzsche had his wrist slapped from time to time, but more often than not existentialist anti-Communists explained Nazism away as a mutant strain rather than the culmination of ideological currents in German society. Of course, neither Nazi Germany nor Stalin’s Russia could be blamed on 19th century existentialist thinkers or Ideas of any sort, but on the contradictions of the capitalist system itself.

Blücher was a powerful influence on me, both in what he had to say and in the kind of life he had led. A 5 foot, 4 inch barrelchested man, he chain smoked Camels and spoke with a deep German accent and could always be spotted in the coffee shop holding forth among admiring students. The main thing I learned from him was that ideas did matter and that defending them with passion was the most important thing in life.

I never knew much about his personal life except that he was married to Hannah Arendt and part of the German intellectual circle around Karl Jaspers and other Weimar figures. This morning I picked up David Laskin’s “Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals”, a book that is has been described as elevated gossip. That’s fine with me, since Vanity Fair and People magazines bore me and I like gossip just as much as the next person. Here’s Laskin’s portrait of Blücher, who comes across as a much more alive and charismatic figure than the postmodernist midgets of today:

Heinrich Blücher, the German gentile refugee with whom she fell in love in Paris in the spring of 1936 was emphatically not a jabbering, paralyzed intellectual, though he was certainly loud and fiercely engaged with ideas. Thirty-seven when they met at a public lecture (she was twenty-nine), the son of a laundress, a former Communist, twice married (in fact, still secretly married to his second wife), explosive in argument, self-taught, a compact but commanding physical presence, Blücher had come of age in the chaos of the German defeat in World War I and the upheavals of the Weimar Republic. Blücher lived life to the full in the heady bohemia of postwar Berlin. He participated in Communist demonstrations and street fighting in 1918 and 1919; he joined a Zionist youth organization, even though he was Protestant by birth; he befriended expressionist artists, filmmakers, and circus entertainers and mingled freely with them in cafés and clubs; he carried on numerous love affairs; and, whenever he had the money and time, he bought and devoured books. Blücher was every inch the self-made man, the man of the people, the outsider who thumbed his nose at received opinions as he beat a path to a higher, sturdier, strikingly original truth of his own manufacture. Alfred Kazin writes revealingly in his diary of his first impression of Blücher in New York:

[A]lways wound up, a bit rough in manner but intellectually “pure,” a prodigious autodidact and walking philosopher always trying to make up for his lack of university degree. . . . Blücher [sic] is an unstoppable mental creature, orates without stopping in his living room on any “great thinker” who has aroused his attention–from Heraclitus to Joachim of Floris… shouting philosophy at you in the sweetest kind of way. . . . Heinrich is given to fantasy and exaggeration, noble lies about his military knowledge. I am told that German Communists thought of Heinrich as their military expert.” But he is the kind of obsessively reflective, altogether human German I no longer expected to meet. My God, the Berlin he encountered in 1919 after the army! In the midst of revolution and counterrevolution, angry mobs all over the place, you could hear Wagner or Bach just by inserting a coin in a box standing on a street corner.

Kazin added more recently: Blücher was a fantastic talker with a hypnotic style, although you were not always sure what he said.” The German novelist Hermann Broch also remarked on Blücher’s unstoppable flow of oratory brilliance. “After Hannah had gone to bed Heinrich gave me a lecture until three in the morning,” Broch wrote his wife during a visit to Arendt and Blücher. “I did not interrupt his lecture at all. He doesn’t let himself be interrupted. It was probably the most enjoyable evening that I have had for months. The thinking of this man is of an uncorruptible clarity such as one finds only in geniuses. He really is a genius in this uncorruptibility.”

Arendt fell into intense, consuming conversation with Blücher in the cafes and cramped apartments of refugee Paris and then fell in love with him. “[F]or both of them intellectual argument was part and parcel of passion,” writes Young-Bruehl. In a sense their relationship was a never-ending conversation–an intellectual duet that sustained the two of them in a state of perpetual excitement and discovery. “They had a self-absorbed relationship,” recalls Kazin. “They were always talking, talking, talking.” Theirs was a heated, impassioned conversation, but also “a passion,” as Arendt’s friend Anne Weil put it. “It was a great love affair,” says Jerome Kohn–and evidently an intensely erotic love affair when it began, even though Arendt was not an especially physical person. A year after they met, Arendt wrote Blücher that because of him, “I … finally know what happiness is.. . . It still seems to me unbelievable, that I could achieve both–a great love, and a sense of identity with my own person. And yet I achieved the one only since I have the other.”

Part of Blücher’s appeal for Arendt was that he was not a conventional intellectual: the roughness, the bluster, the vehement rawness of his arguments aroused her in every sense. The fact that Blücher had some experience in the world, that he had tested and honed his political beliefs in the trenches of World War I and the streets of Berlin, gave him a charismatic authority that no one else in her circle possessed. Arendt, who had studied with Heidegger and Jaspers, who had secured a doctorate from the university at Heidelberg for her dissertation on the concept of love in Saint Augustine, absorbed everything she could from this self-taught dynamo, whom she began calling “Monsieur.” He was, as a friend put it, not only her husband and friend but “the last of her teachers.” They became intellectual partners-.—not equals, for Blücher lacked her discipline, refinement, and rigorous classical training, and though he spoke brilliantly he could not write. Yet in their own unevenly matched Way they were collaborators. Arendt once wrote that “in marriage, it is not always easy to tell the partners’ thoughts apart,” and that’s how it was with her and Blücher. When she published her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, in 1951, she dedicated it to Blücher and warmly acknowledged the critical role he had played in her writing. Their friend Kurt Blumenfeld notes that the book reflects “the unwritten political philosophy of the person to whom it is dedicated,” a view Arendt totally endorsed.

8 Comments »

  1. LOUIS,

    I started at Bard in ‘61, the same as you. I was a student of Heinrich Blucher–I wrote my senior paper on Heidigger. Today I would describe myself as a socialist in much the same way as you do. We are probably the only two people in the world who have given thought to Bluchers’ influence on our socialist politics. I am glad to find I am not alone.

    Bard was not “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson” in the early ‘sixties. Of course my girlfriend was a Red and lots of the girls, including my sister, were whores, but our political crowd was small compared to your arty crowd. For me the Bard years were political times. I had joined the YPSL in ‘62, and I attended the first anti Vietnam March in Washington in ‘62 and the ‘63 Civil Rights March with groups from Bard. And in ‘64 when I ran the speaker program I brought up several former Trotskyists (Max Shachtman, Dwight McDonald) as well as Mark Lane from the National Guardian.

    Knowing that I was a young socialist who at time did not know the differences between the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Internationals, Blucher and DeGre (my sociology teacher) tried to educate me in socialism as well as to warn me of the dangers of Marxism. One of them had me read Bernard Wolf’ THREE WHO MADE A REVOLUTION–a good choice, because afterwards I was always critical of the idea of a vanguard party.

    Blucher campaigned against all closed philosophical systems. In his senior seminar on “The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Thought and its Ramifications in Political Reality” (what a title for a class!) I had to defend Oswald Spengler. He didn’t get off any easier than Marx.

    For Blucher the basic flaw of modern thought was the belief in destiny: In Marx it was the idea that the revolution would happen inevitably. What is the point of dying for the revolution if it is going to happen anyway ? What we do has to matter, Blucher insisted.

    Marxists tend to dance around this issue. Reread Trotsky or Deutcher on the question: would there have been a revolution without Lenin?

    I asked Blucher to suggest a philosophy that wasn’t closed and had proper sense of our role in history, and he suggested I read James, Dewey and the pragmatists. I did and since then have always thought of myself a a pragmatists.

    Soon after I left Bard I was given a bootlegged reprint of Hooks’ TOWARD THE UNDERSTANDING OF KARL MARX which was being used by the YPSL to train new members in basic Marxism. It was a pragmatic interpretation of Marxism: dialectical materialism is defined at the interplay of thought and action. It made good sense to me.

    I left Bard for Madison Wisconsin in ‘64. I was a grad student in sociology, but mostly I was a activist caught up in new left politics. With my YPSL comrade, and allied with various anarchists and the SWP crowd, we battled the dominate CP nonsense such as the”AdHoc Committee against Extremism” that worked to elect Lyndon Johnson. In ‘68 when several of my friends were run out of town after the Dow riots, and with the draft after me, I headed back the the Hudson to teach sociology at New paltz. I went back to Bard hoping to talk to Blucher about my political experiences but he and everyone else was gone.

    My academic career went nowhere. I didn’t believe in sociology, at least not the kind of sociology you had to do to get a degree from Madison. My wife, the daughter of refugees from the Spanish war, threatened to get rid of me if I didn’t get out of academia. So we headed to California to start over doing something else.

    I got to San Francisco just when my comrades in the International Socialists had initiated their “industrialization” plan. Like Narodnicks the Berkeley socialists I so much admired were heading to the Midwest to take union jobs as Teamsters and Autoworkers.

    The IS had a truly pragmatic socialist program, and I was all for it. We were going to organize rank and file groups in several principle industries. We going to preach union democracy and a more militant brand unionism. We weren’t going to start with any fixed idea of how thing were supposed to happen. We would try things out, share our experiences, and try again. I got a blue collar union job as an building engineer and my wife, who thought the ISers were nuts, went to work as a waiter in the hotels.

    We are still there thirty years later. We have been involved in dozens of strikes and union elections. Most have ended in defeat. But I don’t complain. Being a rank and file worker beats teaching sociology, and while it is true that most of younger workers do not appreciate the efforts we have made for them over the years, the pay has been good. You quote Herkheimer to the effect that the life a socialist intellectual as being, miserable, poor, and unappreciated. There is an easy solution to the first two: get a job.

    Many of the ISers believed in the idea of a vanguard party. I was for the industrialization program but I never went along with thisTrotskyist idea. So when the IS took a crazy turn to the left somewhere around ‘75 they kicked me out. Lots of the comrades ousted with me went on to form Solidarity, and it looks to me from reading Against the Current that some of your old comrades are with them now. I consider myself only a fellow traveler to this tendency.

    I wouldn’t criticize Blucher as harshly as you do. He wasn’t a reactionary. He didn’t mind that I was a young socialist: he just wanted me to know what I was talking about and to think for myself.

    Paul Mueller
    Bard ‘64

    Comment by paul mueller — June 25, 2007 @ 7:54 pm

  2. Arendt, who criticized the nihilistic tendency of much existentialist thought (she would have exempted Jaspers’s work from this criticism) and would not have called herself an existentialist, was both anti-capitalist and anti-socialist, as is made very clear in her book THE HUMAN CONDITION. She very much objected to the then-burgeoning neo-conservative trend among New York intellectuals and wrote more than one article criticizing them. She was, incidentally, much encouraged in this by her husband. You can find her stating that capitalism is not the solution for socialism in an interview published on April 22, 1971 in the New York Review of Books under the title “Thoughts on Politics and Revolution,” available on that publication’s website. She certainly was not the reactionary you would like to make her into. The suggestion that her “privileges” at all influenced her anti-socialism is a very low blow and a completely irresponsible misrepresentation. One can take as a starting point for understanding her criticism of Marxism her (to my mind, very straightforward and sensible) view that a “dictatorship of the proletariat” is not a paradox but a contradiction — that any dictatorship will necessarily establish a political elite.

    Comment by Jay — May 23, 2008 @ 9:05 am

  3. What about the fact that, according to Christopher Hitchens, Arendt was a racist who opposed the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Leaving that aside, as a kid I could never get over Walter Cronkite’s voice over on the early-60s TV docu-series “20th Century” of a scene of Hitler petting his dog Blondi, with Arendt comment about the “banality of evil.” So Hitler was bad because he liked dogs or is liking dogs bad or are “German” sheppards bad or is evil banal but good never so. Sounds like a puffed up overblown pharisee to me.

    Comment by Sue Sponte — July 8, 2008 @ 7:56 pm

  4. Blucher learn mea few things but radical ones(sorry y wrote french and spanish better than inglish)the most important idea as far y am concern was that each single human being is involved in a triple relation to the world:
    a)to itself which in western culturesis we called philosophy
    b)to the other which in our western world means erotism
    c)to the others which since the grecs we call politics
    Y strongly believe that we are totally wrong in western world by trying to resolves all the problems humans are facing by the 3rd way only: politics and skipping the 2 first points blucher as pointed out. And the other german thinker who tries to solve this is the humanist Erich Fromm and the key of all HUMAN PROBLEMS are analized in the most important book y have read in my life (but not easy at all to understand): scape from freedom.
    Y am trying to teach that stuff to people in small seminars (7-10 persons no more)

    Comment by antonio martinez — January 1, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  5. “In essence, 1950s existentialism and 1980s postmodernism can be explained as a rear guard action by Western intellectuals in imperialist nations to discredit the sole political force capable of eliminating the material basis for their privileges.” Nice. This is why Marx as a religion is so dangerous, entire arguments can simply be swept away in a sentence without paying any attention to their substance. Absolutely ridiculous.

    Comment by SIMON — December 18, 2011 @ 6:40 am

  6. Arendt was no racist, and her disagreements with the U.S. civil rights movement were tactical. She thought that private discrimination in housing and employment was less important, as it involved only non-state actors. By the same token, she thought that interracial marriage was far more important, as it involved a direct denial by the state of individual rights, whereas the civil rights movement thought it was too controversial and left it to be settled by an individual court action, Loving v. Virginia.

    Comment by John Cowan — June 5, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

  7. Agree with #6, and should Hitchens be taken seriously? Although I have only read Arendt in a piecemeal fashion, except for all of Eichman inJerusalem, I see no evidence at all that she was a rascist or anti-semite. Her views on those subjects have current vitality. Apparently the most important idea for her was the difference between the political and the social (a difficult distinction for me) and one of her main objections to any theory was the confusion of those two realms. By the way, I went to Bard 1971-2 and was lucky to escape with my mind intact.

    Comment by Paul Maslen — June 24, 2012 @ 10:30 am

  8. […] [xiii] Louis Proyect, May 23, 2007, Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher, https://louisproyect.org/2007/05/23/heinrich-blucher-and-hannah-arendt/ […]

    Pingback by Tony Greenstein’s revenge | Socialist Fight — March 25, 2020 @ 2:27 pm


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