Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 9, 2009

Deserving a place among philosophers?

Filed under: philosophy,racism — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

Martin Heidegger

NY Times, November 9, 2009
An Ethical Question: Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?
By Patricia Cohen

For decades the German philosopher Martin Heidegger has been the subject of passionate debate. His critique of Western thought and technology has penetrated deeply into architecture, psychology and literary theory and inspired some of the most influential intellectual movements of the 20th century. Yet he was also a fervent Nazi.

Now a soon-to-be published book in English has revived the long-running debate about whether the man can be separated from his philosophy. Drawing on new evidence, the author, Emmanuel Faye, argues fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger’s theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy. As a result Mr. Faye declares, Heidegger’s works and the many fields built on them need to be re-examined lest they spread sinister ideas as dangerous to modern thought as “the Nazi movement was to the physical existence of the exterminated peoples.”

Full: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/09/books/09philosophy.htm


David Hume, “Of National Characters”:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.


John Locke, Constitution of Carolina:

“Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute authority over his Negro slaves, of what opinion or Religion so ever.”


John Stuart Mill, “Considerations on Representative Government?”:

When proper allowance has been made for geographical exigencies, another more purely moral and social consideration offers itself. Experience proves that it is possible for one nationality to merge and be absorbed in another: and when it was originally an inferior and more backward portion of the human race the absorption is greatly to its advantage.


Immanuel Kant, “From Physical Geography; On Countries That Are Known and Unknown To Europeans; Africa”:

When an Indian sees a European going somewhere, he thinks that he has something to accomplish. When he comes back, he thinks that he has already taken care of his business, but if he sees him going out a third time he thinks that he has lost his mind, as the European is going for a walk for pleasure, which no Indian does; he is only capable of imagining it. Indians are also indecisive, and both traits belong to the nations that live very far north. The weakening of their limbs is supposedly caused by brandy, tobacco, opium and other strong things. From their timidity comes superstition, particularly in regard to magic, and the same with jealousy. Their timidity makes them into slavish underlings when they have kings and evokes an idolatrous reverence in them, just as their laziness moves them rather to run around in the forest and suffer need than to be held to their labors by the orders of their masters.

Montesquieu is correct in his judgment that the weakheartedness that makes death so terrifying to the Indian or the Negro also makes him fear many things other than death that the European can withstand. The Negro slave from Guinea drowns himself if he is to be forced into slavery. The Indian women burn themselves. The Carib commits suicide at the slightest provocation. The Peruvian trembles in the face of an enemy, and when he is led to death, he is ambivalent, as though it means nothing. His awakened imagination, however, also makes him dare to do something, but the heat of the moment is soon past and timidity resumes its old place again…


Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia:

A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed.It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most of them indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society: yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad. The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.


  1. “News flash: Martin Heidegger, whom we previously thought to be really sympathetic to the Nazis, is now shown to be really REALLY sympathetic to the Nazis.”

    But why is this useful now? It will be used as another sally in the Eustonite attack on leftist-postmodernist-Islamofascist-Occidentophobia, as if Heidegger invented philosophical racism (Louis’s brief anthology is very good). I admit that I really like the epithet “Black Forest babbler,” but perhaps a more useful task at the moment is ending drone warfare on Afghanistan and Pakistans and, soon enough, you.


    Comment by JimHolstun — November 9, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

  2. Faye’s position strikes me as both extreme and too little too late. Heidegger’s influence on twentieth century thought across a vast swathe of domains has been simply enormous. Much of this legacy is also only partially acknowledged if at all. There is no putting this genie back in the bottle however much it would be nice to. What we need is a good and systematic left/Marxist engagement with Heidegger and his legacy. The closest thing to that that we have right now is the work of Richard Wolin, which is mentioned in the article and which I would recommend. The problem with most engagements with Heidegger (including from the ‘left’) is that they usually are subtle forms of apologia rather than genuine engagements. Academics covering their professional asses, more interested in obscuring their influences and intellectual trajectory than with a real coming to terms with a deeply problematic legacy. The issue with Heidegger is not (simply) that he happened to be a racist and a nazi. Louis quotes numerous other philosophers who wrote racist things. If we expurgated every philosopher who held a racist view (or a sexist view, etc) from the history of philosophy, it wouldn’t leave much left. This is obviously too narrow an approach. Kant for example, despite his racist views as evident in his ‘anthropology’, held an overall progressive view of the potential of humanity, he sympathized with the French revolution, his view of philosophy as expressed in the Prolegomena was that it should strive to become ‘rigorous science’. He was on the side of reason, light and humanity and things like his racist views exist in a certain inherent tension with this basic progressive instinct. The same could be said of many enlightenment figures and perhaps of the enlightenment itself. The enlightenment was a contradictory phenomena but still deserves our defense against its reactionary detractors, among whom we would have to count Heidegger a prominent member. Heidegger is the great twentieth century intellectual figure of anti-humanism, anti-enlightenment, he was an enemy of reason, a critic of science and progress, a defender of the provincial against the cosmopolitan, someone who attempted to mystify rather than shed light on the world, human life and experience. That someone with these views has had such an influence on the ‘left’ is indeed very troubling, but putting Heidegger in the nazi section of the library will neither undo that influence nor help us to understand it.

    Comment by dave x — November 9, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

  3. Second take – I wasn’t aware of the book by Faye until I saw Louis’s post. The more I read about it online the more eager I am to get my hands on a copy. Heidegger’s lecture courses of 33-35 are the real smoking guns that show how his entire later philosophy (that has been so influential on a generation of French thinkers and their US acolytes) was bound up in an attempt to give Nazism a philosophical basis. This has been known for a while but a real systematic appraisal of this material hadn’t appeared (with the partial exception of ‘Heidegger’s Volk’ by Philips). Faye’s book strikes me as doing a great service in bringing all this into general consciousness and stirring up a lot of shit that needs to be stirred up. So while Faye may go to far in certain respects, I think the thrust of the work is basically right on and very needed. That it has raised the reactionary hackles of so many academic Heideggerians is simply a pleasing bonus.

    Comment by dave x — November 9, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

  4. It has been years since I read Heidegger, but I was a student of Hans Jonas at the New School whose dissertation adviser was Martin Heidegger. Jonas, a Jew, was so troubled by Heideggers subsequent affiliation with the Nazi party that he considered leaving philosophy altogether. That being said, his writings are deeply influenced by Heidegger’s, particularly his last book “The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age”, which was regarded by German greens as a kind of foundation stone. Keep in mind that Heidegger’s hatred for industrial progress was shared by the Frankfurt School that had absorbed his ideas. I have to wonder if Faye’s attempt to prove that Heidegger’s philosophy was Nazi rests on the obvious bias against mechanization, urbanism and all the other bugaboos of German romanticism. Also, it has been a long time since I read “Being and Time” but I don’t remember a whisper of anything political in there. I have no doubt that Heidegger made terrible speeches as a Nazi official in academia but his philosophy operates on a different terrain, subject of course to an appropriate critique.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 9, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

  5. In 1862 Marx wrote to Engels, referring to Lassalle:

    “It is now perfectly clear to me that, as the shape of his head and the growth of his hair indicate, he is descended from the negroes who joined in the flight of Moses from Egypt (unless his mother or grandmother on the father’s side was crossed with a nigger). Now this union of Jewishness to Germanness on a negro basis was bound to produce an extraordinary hybrid. The importunity of the fellow is also niggerlike.”

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — November 9, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

  6. Of course. Marx and Engels’s letters did include racist, misogynist, and homophobic quips. As Tariq Ali once remarked in a talk at the Brecht Forum in NY, this was the only way that people could communicate before there were telephones. It is doubtful that they anticipated that these letters would end up as fodder for anti-Communist scholars.

    But the main point is that their public writings contained nothing like this at all. Perhaps some of Engels’s comments on the Irish in “Conditions of the Working Class in England” were questionable, but this was an early book prior to his philosophical and political maturation. But all the others I quoted said these things for public consumption.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 9, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

  7. From the reviews of Faye’s book (since I haven’t read it yet) it strikes me that a probable valid line of criticism is in regards to Heidegger’s ‘early philosophy’ (say pre-1931) including works like Being and Time. I think it is a real stretch to say that Being and Time or most of his 20’s lecture courses could be classified as nazi. Heidegger’s philosophy underwent some profound shifts in the early 1930’s. There are some common themes of course but I don’t think you can view it as an undivided whole (as Heidegger wished). His earlier philosophy was influential on the existentialists and his later on the postmodernists. There is no easy, blanket way to assess his legacy. Also, those who dismiss Heidegger as simply speaking nonsense are wrong (I think Abe Stone is on to something when he puts Heidegger and Carnap in dialogue in his very interesting article: http://people.ucsc.edu/~abestone/papers/uberwindung.pdf ). It would be much easier if that were true (I don’t get the impression that Faye says this however). The Frankfurt School is an interesting case as is the uptake of Heidegger in the green movement. The mass destruction of the second world war, the holocaust, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, the destruction of the environment (not to mention disillusionment with Soviet communism) seemed to make a total critique of modernity, the enlightenment, etc. very plausible in the middle of the twentieth century and this explains much of the reason for Heidegger’s uptake by the (especially new) left. However I think that this uptake was still largely mistaken even if seemingly well motivated (I don’t mean to simply dismiss it). The calamitous events of the middle of the twentieth century disoriented the left philosophically in some deep ways that are still very much being sorted out. An interesting study of how this played out in terms of the ‘vienna Circle’/Unified Science Movement is Reich’s book ‘How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science’ which I would recommend to all philosophically interested leftists.

    Comment by dave x — November 9, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

  8. This is a good collection. Reminds me of a book project Will Miller, UVM teacher and activist, said he wanted to pursue in his retirement. His untimely death to lung cancer cancelled that possibility. His idea was a critical history of philosophy. In particular, of the philosophers themselves who suffer from having ideological “blind-spots” or “blinders” (Will may have had another metaphor, I can’t recall) usually from their class, national, race, religious, gender, heterosexist or other position that made them short-sighted. The motivation was to show how these positions produced a philosophy that perpetuated social oppression, and also how the positions served as logical impediments to otherwise honest pursuits of universal truths. The moral was to avoid such mistakes in the future.

    I always thought it would become an entertaining read, but also a great text for philosophy students since the discipline too often treats its figures as patron saints rather than fallible mortals. I think Will was ably suited to skewer such assholes. Will was well-read, taught the pragmatism of Peirce and Dewey, but he was also an ardent Marxist.

    One always wishes that street fighters like Will had time to pursue their intellectual potential and write, since one always wonders what thought figures behinds such highly purposed and focused activity. Of course, if he hadn’t been a tireless opponent of imperialism or corporatized higher ed, then he wouldn’t have inspired students nor would there be a labor movement at the University of Vermont. The academy could never have enough of these “movement people” in my opinion, unfortunately there are few left.

    Comment by aaron — November 10, 2009 @ 5:17 am

  9. I don’t know anyone who drops racist quips on the telephone.

    Comment by purple — November 10, 2009 @ 7:49 am

  10. Reminds me of a book project Will Miller, UVM teacher and activist, said he wanted to pursue in his retirement.

    I had an idea along these lines myself. As far as I know, nobody has ever written a Marxist history of philosophy. It would, for example, try to explain why Descartes emerged at the time that he did, when the capitalist system began to take off. Or why Nietzsche emerged at a time when it was beginning to decay. Plus, there are all sorts of political connections that are not dealt with in the typical philosophy textbook, such as the post-Hegelians’ involvement with radical republicanism, etc. Maybe I’ll write it in between movie reviews.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 10, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  11. I don’t think the entirity of philosophy should be rejected just because of the racial utterences of these scholars.

    Comment by Jenny — November 10, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

  12. An interesting post I came accross on Marx, race and the working class, at this link:


    Comment by D_D — November 11, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

  13. It is amazing how acceptable the ‘n’ word was in recent history. In these parts anyway. There was little of the repulsion you now feel at the very sound of the word. Now it drips with hatred. It was used in ways that were only remotely or implicitly racist. Black dogs were often called N***** in the most affectionate way. I remember when I was three or four the kindest mother and daughter who lived in the upstairs flat in our Dublin inner city house, had a dog they loved called that name. Many’s the time I said, ‘here N*****!’ in order to pet it. I never remember being pulled up about it, though I expect my socialist Dad thought there would be no point, that name for a dog being so mainstream.

    Of course, gollywog dolls were common, and it was only years later we realised the gross racism of the name.

    The original Catholic Truth Society pamphlet (‘Socialism’, By Robert Kane, S.J., Catholic Truth Society) of the 1910 Lenten lectures by the Jesuit priest, which James Connnolly responded to in his classic ‘Labour, Nationality and Religion’ contained the ‘n’ word to refer to ‘primitive’ people. Connolly’s courteous but scathing reply to the lectures does not mention the use of the ‘n’ word. Possibly Connolly, anything but a racist, did not think it’s use such a great sin.

    The’Penny for the Back Babies’, now folklore, was a fundraising scheme for the Irish Catholic missions. As school children we would ask our parents for a ‘a penny for the black babies’. We brought it in to the nuns who often gave us a sweet in return. How sweet!

    This was all probably part of the ingrained low level racism that pervaded Irish society before the advent of immigration in Ireland led many to wonder where the new racism had come from! How innocently we watched the ‘Black and White Minstral Show’ as kids. There was also a low level ant-Semitism in Dublin too, when even the most enlightened could drop ‘humourous’ remarks. And, of course, the nomadic Traveller population were our very own outcasts. In later years they were bestowed with their own ‘n’ word, which was spelt with a ‘k’ at the beginning.

    Comment by D_D — November 12, 2009 @ 11:43 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: