Professional Philosophy’s Failed Revolution. Reflections on Intellectual Dictatorship, Instrumental Reason, and Neo-Fascism

The German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin is often credited with the statement “behind every fascism is a failed revolution.”

Allegedly, Benjamin made this statement in his essay Theories of German Fascism: On the Collection of Essays War and Warrior, edited by Ernst Jünger, and was originally published in 1930.

Although the sentence seems not to be in the essay in its short, well-known form, Benjamin tackles in this essay what he viewed as a major cause of German fascism: the loss of the First World War was never recognized, but internalized and transformed as a first stage of an ‘eternal war’.

This war was the fate of Germany and of the German soldier: the idea of fascism was presented as a necessity, an inevitable reaction to the disastrous outcomes of the First World War.

Even worse, war was mystified and mythologized – the process of waging war was elevated to the level of intellectual discourse.

The close links between the Nazi party and the idea of the cultured European was not just an eccentricity of the fascism that took over in Nazi Germany – it was a deeply constitutive element of fascist ideology.

One of the most illustrious examples is that of Nazi-official Reinhard Heydrich, who liked to play Beethoven’s string quartets with his close friends.

One could be a barbarian during the day, and do the “necessary” ethnic cleansing, as long as one paid his dues to culture at the dinner party.

The degree to which this obsession with culture was constitutive to the Nazi elite has been described in detail in Hans Hellmut Kirst’s 1960 novel Fabrik der Offiziere (Officer Factory) set during WWII, in which the leading officers of a German training camp for new army officers spend their evening parties discussing the “character,” “mission,” and “loyalty” of the “true German soldier,” and how they try to construct a link between the “greatness” of the German people and the duty of the soldier to realize this ideal.

As one of the participants of these parties recounts:

You know, that Nordic spirit and the Asen and so on, touches my soul deeply – again and again, I read the Edda, and it gives me new courage – of course, I don’t want to imply that I would lose courage if I didn’t – but if we did not have the German spirit – completely decadent those French, no wonder we had them with their backs against the wall within five weeks – and then those Americans, gangsters, all of them, not to mention the Russians, those two makes a nice company together – the notion of the old-German clan, our ancestors, “Blut und Boden,” a piece of land, the earth – my husband tells me: if I inhale the smell of the German soil, I am not ashamed for my tears.[i]

Kirst was a literary master in showing the absolutely artificial structure of the mythologized past.

The themes in the passage cited here betray a kind of morbid obsession with the theme of German and Nordic culture, but also a naïve reading of the past – as if a heroic past is needed to counter the horrors of the present.

In addition, it shows an intellectual juvenility – the desire of an impotent, underdeveloped intellect to mythologize the world in order to take no responsibility, and to ascribe one’s actions with reference to a mythical destiny.

Max Horkheimer puts it as follows:

The superego, impotent in its own house, becomes the hangman in society. These individuals obtain the gratification of feeling themselves as champions of civilization simultaneously with letting loose their repressed desires.[ii]

Like the participants at the evening party Kirst describes, Heydrich could present his “cultured” face to society at large, and view himself as a defender of culture, as a dutiful instrument in the inevitable war.

Recently, the rise of Donald Trump as President of the United States as well as European nationalism has given the discussion surrounding the causes and nature of fascism renewed relevance.

A video of an Alt-Right conference in Washington DC in which Richard B. Spencer started his speech with “hail Trump,” and called for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” caused widespread reactions of disgust.[iii]

The emergence of such political visions has been analysed in the media, and various causes have been proposed: some blame economic differences, others blame globalization, or the education system, yet others point to the emergence of the “angry white man,” the disgruntled lower class, blue collar worker who feels he has been left behind.

Horkheimer’s observation of the superego in its public function as hangman became almost a physical reality at the Trump rallies, reported by some individuals to be frightening manifestations of old-fashioned fascism.

Some or all of these causes may or may not contribute to the rise of fascism in its new, 21st-century form. However, for the moment, I will temporarily ignore these causes and focus my argument on another cause that seems to me more fundamental, invisible, and therefore more insidious.

This cause is the failure of academia (and particularly of professional academic philosophy) to formulate future societal visions and address societal issues in ways that provide substantial alternatives for contemporary political thinking.

I think that this failure of professional academic philosophy is a “failed revolution” in Benjamin’s sense.

If we were to follow his logic to the end, we would have to say that the rise of contemporary fascism is a direct consequence of this intellectual failure.

This neo-fascism presents itself also as an inevitable consequence of today’s globalized world; as a last, necessary line of defence.

The focus on the history of individual European nations and Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” both point to the idea of a (divine) telos: the idea that nations have a life of their own, a destiny to be carved in time by its people.[iv]

The problem with this concept of destiny is that some “dirty work” has to be done before it is realized.

It might involve ethnic cleansing, oppressive policies, or extension of state authority mandated by a mythologized past to bring a brighter future about – indeed, the core tenets of neo-fascism.

In what follows, I defend the thesis that contemporary thinking has (unconsciously) set the stage for the return of neo-fascism.

Benjamin’s sharp critique might seem exaggerated, but I think he touches the essential point: once academic disciplines are not maintained, they disappear from the stage where they do the most important work: educating people in ways that allow them to think independently about values.

Once this critical, discursive skill is lost, one opens the door to the emergence of ersatz political visions that are uncritically accepted.

The reason for their acceptance is that no-one has the skill, interest or intellectual capacity to expose and refute them effectively.

The combination of what Z has called Enlightenment Lite and the over-emphasis on technical, instrumental reason in contemporary philosophy has led to a vicious cycle, gradually weakening real, serious philosophy.

I discuss these developments in more detail below.

Enlightenment Lite as modus operandi

This narrative stresses the influence of Western, universalist values on other cultures on the globe, and stresses the detrimental effects of this development.

In addition, its thematic focus is on postcolonial studies, multiculturalism, gender studies, egalitarian liberalism, the importance of non-Western viewpoints, and third-wave feminism. Its epistemology is largely relativist – any claim to objectivity is dismissed as Western hegemony or just being another “narrative,” or “discourse.”

In the meantime, notably, the academic left-liberal Establishment has concerned itself with issues of culture and identity: emancipation has been equated with cultural relativism and the promotion of diversity for its own sake.

Given this orientation, the contemporary phenomenon of Social Justice Warriors, aka SJWs, is not an isolated occurrence: it is the logical culmination of an intellectual development that has developed in academia over the last 30 years.

Once it is accepted that criticality is seen as hegemony, questioning the status quo becomes impossible.

This modus operandi has slowly generated academics that see themselves as Enlightened without having to do the critical thinking.

One accepts the prevalent dogmas of liberal egalitarianism, atheism, broadly liberal politics, with the occasional emphasis on identity politics thrown in for good measure without thinking about those issues from a critical vantage point.

Positivist Professionalism and Instrumental Reason

This narrative is, as it were, the ideological mirror image of Enlightenment Lite.

It stresses the instrumental, professional character of knowledge, and adheres to a more-or-less positivist conceptions of science.

In particular, it is inherently instrumental: problem-solving is the basis of its knowledge production, and knowledge production is the intellectual underpinning of industrial production. Critical thinking is useful when it leads to better solutions that can be commercialized.

As such, academia is the intellectual branch of corporations. Reason has given up its autonomous place, and it’s a servant of the market:

Having given up autonomy, reason has become an instrument, in the formalistic aspect of subjective reason, stressed by positivism; its unrelatedness to objective content is emphasized. (…) Reason has become completely harnessed to the social process. Its operational value, its role in the domination of men and nature has been made the sole criterion.[v]

Horkheimer draws the link between reason in its autonomous form and its servile form.

Reason as a tool or neutral means for problem solving has lost its autonomy, its possibility to be applied in different ways than as a means to solve problems.

Autonomous reason, as ever, is seen as dangerous.

It is not susceptible to the phenomenon of false consciousness or ideological framing of issues.

Fear and Trembling, Guilt, and Intellectual Dictatorship

Enlightenment Lite has influenced the debate in mainstream politics to such a degree that “Joe the Plumber” (or his European equivalent) is fed up with it, as he does not recognize what the leaders of his trusted political party represent.

In the worst case, he feels “talked down to,” only leading to an angry, defensive reaction, leaving him susceptible to talk about “eternal war” or “destiny.”

Critical thinking as instrumental reason cannot formulate an answer either.

Walter Benjamin notes perceptively that technical reason provides “minimal moral illumination.”[vi]

Even the most sophisticated, technically rigorous philosophy may still fail to shed light on fundamental moral questions.

Hyper-specialized disciplines have largely lost touch with the issues “on the ground,” as it is unlikely that specialists in epistemology or philosophy of mind will provide students with critical thinking skills on contemporary societal issues.

At APP, we have repeatedly discussed the danger of the fragmentation of philosophy: one consequence is the production of a certain type of intellectual who cannot think across disciplines any longer.

In particular, these new, specialized intellectuals have withdrawn from the public stage, and seem not interested in engaging with societal issues from a critical point of view.

Consequently, the formation of public opinion is left to the press, “opinion makers” of different stripes, and politicians.

Against this background, it is easily explainable why Trump won the 2016 US Presidential election: Clinton could not address the fears and preferences of a large share of the population that has no interest whatsoever in what happens beyond US borders – hence the erection of a wall between Mexico and the US.

The intended wall is almost the perfect spatial symbol and symptom of an ideological process of “see nothing, hear nothing’.

The lite version of Enlightenment, such as mainstream accounts of multiculturalism, tolerance and responsible consumerism cannot provide an adequate answer to current fear-mongering typical of the new right and the narrative of a political telos, enacted by playing one’s dutiful part in a cosmic destiny.

It is itself a commodity, an ideological attitude that has done away with critical thinking, and has replaced it with easy-to-accept, general maxims that no-one who belongs to the middle-class disagrees with.

The shallowness of this doctrine cannot even begin to formulate an answer to a gut reaction of fear that (unfortunately) has a much longer tradition:

This explains the tragic impotence of democratic arguments whenever they have had to compete with totalitarian methods. Under the Weimar Republic, for instance, the German people seemed loyal to the constitution and a democratic way of life as long as they believed these were backed by real power (…) Hitler appealed to the unconscious in his audience by hinting that he could forge a power in whose name the ban on repressed nature would be lifted.[vii]

Political correctness has turned European and American left liberals alike into self-blaming individuals who feel “white guilt,” fed by uncritical thinking, easy egalitarianism and a hesitation to confront their own past, or to think independently.

Together, these phenomena form an ideological unconsciousness that is not suitably equipped to critically assess the contemporary rise of fascism caused by the absence of any real alternative political vision.

Even worse, every critical thought that does not contribute to neat, controlled, efficiently managed Enlightenment Lite has to be exorcised in repeated and progressively harsh cycles of self-blame, penance, submission and promises of improvement, enforced through an intellectual dictatorship of hyper-disciplining.

This cycle of self-blaming is the perfect antidote for real thinking: it prescribes the coordinates in which one may think critically.

If one accepts this range of choices, one is fully victim of what Marx called a “false consciousness” – internalizing the ideas, concepts, norms and ideology of the oppressor without noticing it.

Hitler could play on such a false consciousness of the German nation just before the Second World War.

Contemporary neo-fascism can equally tap into essentially the same false consciousness so characteristic of Enlightenment Lite.

Partially, the mechanism of false consciousness explains the relative influence of the SJWs: if a generation of academics has been accustomed to the idea of Enlightenment Lite, it is unlikely that they will have a convincing or powerful answer to the absurd demands of SJW’s demanding “safe spaces,” ideological brainwashing, “trigger warnings,” and politically correct usage of language.

Horkheimer’s critical analysis is still relevant here.

The hegemony of Enlightenment Lite has enabled SJWs to gain considerable influence, especially in the contemporary professional academy.

Their way of conducting the debate signals an absence of critical, historically aware ways of philosophical thinking.

Against the background of the widely shared false consciousness of Enlightenment Lite left-liberalism,  the thesis of Institutional Amnesia[viii] and the idea of philosophy as technical problem-solving, this tragic absence of critical intellectual mass makes sense.

One cannot expect academics working within an ideological frame with largely pre-selected topics of inquiry, focused on multiculturalism, enlightened-lite atheism, and simplistic egalitarianism to provide sound political alternatives to contemporary demands.

After all, if this mainstream political theory is correct, such regresses should not occur.

No wonder that Enlightenment Lite left liberals, and especially professional academic philosophers,  have been completely bowled over by Trump’s election: regression to a neo-fascist dictatorship was not something that they ever even remotely anticipated.

By all their theories and political pronouncements, this was a virtual impossibility.

Likewise, the focus on trendy philosophical topics enforces Institutional Amnesia and the idea of philosophy as concerned with technicality for its own sake.

What is needed here is a bracing dose of historical awareness.

Horkheimer argued that reason is the capacity to think independently about values.

This capacity has been left out of academia during the past decades, as one cannot learn to think independently by rote-memorizing or group consensus.[ix]

The rise of neo-fascism signals a widespread inability of professional academic philosophy to think about values.

As such, the failure of professional philosophy is a failed revolution: a missed chance to promote critical thinking skills that are inherently combined with a morally substantive kind of political thinking, in a way that that could be directly beneficial to society.

By way of concluding, I will return to Immanuel Kant’s maxim that one should not allow for political decisions that negatively affect future generations: every decision to submit to dictatorship voluntarily (whether intellectual or not) cannot be overthrown by subsequent generations, and is therefore immoral.[x]

As a consequence, professional academic philosophy has a moral duty to change direction radically, because the absence of real, serious philosophy diminishes virtually to zero the chances of genuine political change or resistance against intellectual dictatorship in either of its politically correct or neo-fascist sub-species.


[i] Excerpt translated from Dutch by the author, from: Hans Hellmut Kirst, Fabriek van Officieren, transl. Cor Holst (Amsterdam: De Boekerij, 1980) p. 158.

[ii] Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (London: Bloombury Academic, 2013) p. 85.

[iii] See: <> [accessed 15 December 2016].

[iv] Horkheimer, 2013, p. 85.

[v] Horkheimer, 2013, p. 13.

[vi] Walter Benjamin, Theories of German Fascism: On the Collection of Essays War and Warrior, edited by Ernst Jünger, p. 120. English translation available at: <> [accessed 20 December 2016]. The German essay is available in Hella Tiedemann-Bartels (ed.) Gesammelte Schriften vol. 3 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1972) pp. 238-250.

[vii] Horkheimer, 2013, p. 84.

[viii] See also : <> and <> .

[ix] I argued this point here: <>.

[x] Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784) in Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (eds.) Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) p. 19-20.