TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Horkheimer, “Militant Democracy,” and War

This talk was presented at the 2009 Telos Conference.

A few months ago at the German Studies Association Conference, the well-known leftist historian Geoff Eley opened his keynote address with a blistering attack on Theodor Adorno in 1968. In a mocking tone, he repeatedly referred to Adorno as “Teddy,” which elicited the expected sarcastic laughter from the audience. Eley’s purpose was to transform the memory of the 1968 student revolt from that of “failure” to that of the “great hope” for true democracy that was squandered by the SPD and other institutions. And Eley gave the Frankfurt School a prime position among those institutions inhibiting the radical student path to true democracy. As a symbolic example, Eley reiterated how Adorno had had his graduate student Hans-Jürgen Krahl, a prominent SDS leader, arrested and tried for occupying a building. Having stigmatized Adorno—personally, ethically, and politically—Eley then moved to the more substantive issue of Adorno’s split with Marcuse over an array of 1960s domestic and international positions. Basically, Adorno had defended the West German status quo, including Germany’s alignment with the United States’ anti-communist crusade. It was a position reinforced by Adorno’s sincere concern that the student movement might evolve into fascism. In Eley’s account, by July 1968, this fracture culminated in a full-scale “witch hunt” against Marcuse, in which Max Horkheimer now joined. In the mind of Marcuse and Eley, the students represented a new, necessary form, of “militant democracy” of the streets against the stagnant, inherently oppressive, Adorno-Horkheimer form of institutionalized parliamentary democracy.

Eley’s recent attack was just the latest in a decades-long tradition of criticism of the Frankfurt School’s supposed turn to conservatism after its return to postwar Germany. It had apparently become too institutionalized within the status quo of the Federal Republic, too elitist and undemocratic, and too academic. In some respects this dispute was directly related to the tension between theory and practice from the very inception of Critical Theory. And as Zoltan Tar has argued, “At decisive historic times, the theory-praxis issue often boils down to the problem of justifying the use of force.”

Among critical theorists, Horkheimer in particular stands out as a pivotal figure on the issues of force and violence precisely because of “his reluctance to condone and accept violence under any circumstances.” This remained a “permanent theme of his entire life.” Indeed, Tar argues that Horkheimer “could never bring himself to make an unequivocal decision about the moral dilemma over violence.” Therefore, Horkheimer remained a “pacifist with an uneasy conscience.” Likewise, Martin Jay has noted that by the mid-1940s Horkheimer had pessimistically abandoned hope for freedom in the face of persistent new forms of barbarism even if the current fascism was destroyed. Horkheimer had supposedly concluded that only the “life of the mind was becoming the last refuge of revolutionary praxis.” Nonetheless, it is quite clear that Horkheimer definitely condoned force and violence to resist fascist Germany because of the enormity of its immediate threat to culture and civilization. “The nations must fight against it,” he wrote, “there is no other way out.” Revelations of the Holocaust only added to the imperative of resisting fascism in the future. By the 1960s, Horkheimer had extended this position to an unequivocal defense of the Free-World West “against fascism of any variety, Hitlerite, Stalinist or other.” Jay’s interpretation of this transition to such an adamant Cold War stance makes it appear that critical theorists took this step quite reluctantly. Jay wrote, “The Cold War spirit that Horkheimer and the others struggled so hard to combat in the forties began gradually to filter into their pronouncements in the fifties and sixties.” One also gets the impression that Horkheimer’s anti-fascist stand was directed externally. That he saw the fight against fascism primarily in terms of the war against Nazi Germany and then a foreign and military policy of containment of the Soviet Union.

However, new evidence strongly suggests that Horkheimer had, by 1941, already quite clearly and forcefully articulated what Jay called the “Cold War spirit.” Rather than resisting such a spirit, Horkheimer had actually urged its realization in policy and implementation far beyond probably what most Americans at the time had even anticipated or might find acceptable. In fact, one of Horkheimer’s major concerns in 1941 was that Americans failed to understand the urgent need for such drastic political action that in a certain sense constituted nothing less than a domestic political purge. Horkheimer was embracing a new kind of “militant democracy.” But this form of “militant democracy” contrasted starkly with the populist version of the German student ’68s Eley holds in such high regard. Horkheimer’s “militant democracy” did not derive from the streets or rely upon the revolutionary masses. It actually emanated as a drastic and extensive action planned and executed by the democratic “state” under the direction of a strong centralized presidential government. And this action was directed not only at an external threat emanating from Nazi Germany but from a perceived domestic enemy as well.

Horkheimer took this stand during one of the bleakest periods for Jewish refugee intellectuals. A year earlier the West had been shocked by the swift Nazi conquest of France and catastrophic British retreat from the continent. Totally surprised by the quick French collapse, U.S. military and intelligence leaders were nothing less than panicked by such a German victory. The growing sense of an inevitable Nazi triumph in Europe was reinforced by summer and fall 1941 with the expected collapse of the Soviet Union as the German Blitzkrieg swept across Russia. There was by that point the real possibility of a permanent fascist domination of the European continent. Moreover, for Horkheimer, Roosevelt’s efforts to gradually involve the United States in the war were successfully thwarted by a growing nationalist isolationist movement.

Horkheimer’s 1941 position was stated in his response to a questionnaire on anti-Semitism requested by the Council for Democracy. That organization was headed by the Harvard political scientist Carl J. Friedrich and devoted to defending democracy and human dignity against threats such as fascism. It mounted this defense through publications, public forums, and media campaigns. In fall 1941, the Council composed a pamphlet entitled “Nazi Poison,” to counteract anti-Semitism within the United States. Following its usual methodology, the Council sent questionnaires to various experts, including several members of the Institute for Social Research at Columbia University. Since this request coincided with the Frankfurt School’s own research projects on anti-Semitism, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Neumann had already given the subject considerable thought. However, for today’s paper, it is not the Frankfurt School’s various positions on anti-Semitism that are relevant. Rather it is what Horkheimer revealed in answering one particular question: “How can anti-Semitism be combatted in the United States?”

Anti-Semitism, Horkheimer wrote, “is today immune from any intellectual critique. . . . Since its real psychological sources are unconscious, rational refutation of its contentions, useful though this may be in day-to-day politics, will not eradicate it.” The immediate problem was not anti-Semitism but fascism. Anti-Semitism could only be countered by decisively defeating the fascism through which it currently manifested itself. And it is Horkheimer’s final paragraph, expressing what needed to be done, that is the most revealing and worth quoting in its entirety. He wrote:

Fighting Anti-Semitism requires a militant policy opposed to fascism in all its forms within and without, and in all ways of life. We know that the defense of France collapsed because its democratic government had not succeeded in extirpating the fascist sympathies within the army and civil service, not to speak of the press and other important branches of public life. One of the means for preparing public opinion to demand such measures is to teach them that a strong central government able and willing to take effective action against fascism is not incompatible with democracy.

Quite striking in the context in which Horkheimer made this statement is that, of all the respondents to the questionnaire (native born and émigré, Jewish and non-Jewish), he is the only one to advocate such a policy of extreme militant action by the government.

Further analysis leads one to believe that Horkheimer had more than France in mind. At the time, and in some interpretations down to the present, the failure of the German Revolution of 1918 and ultimate collapse of the Weimar Republic could be attributed in large part to the persistence of anti-republican sentiments in the German army and civil service. Had these institutions been purged and democratized Weimar supposedly would not have been so easily undermined from within. Such thinking, of course, later conditioned U.S. denazification policies. However, Horkheimer’s proposal for current action relates neither to France nor Germany, but rather to the United States. It is truly extraordinary that Horkheimer “demands” such a purge within the American army and civil service. Not only that, but he extends this policy to the press and other unspecified areas of public life. And, he argues, one goal of opinion makers is to persuade the public to demand such measures by convincing them that this strong executive action against U.S. citizens is indeed democratic.

The political as well as practical implications of the demanded “militant policy” are naturally quite extensive and complex. Among other things, it assumes an ability to identify “fascist sympathies” among citizens in civil society and government. Unfortunately, I could not find any elaboration of this position by Horkheimer. But there do exist other contemporary indications of what such a militant policy might entail. One of the greatest advocates of “militant democracy” at the time was Karl Loewenstein, a fellow émigré intellectual and professor at Amherst College. In public lectures, publications, and proposed federal legislation, Loewenstein argued that civil liberties were “relative to the aim of a free society” and to the right of the state for self-preservation. Lowenstein stated:

I prefer to be hysterical now instead of being melancholy later. . . . I prefer dictatorship by democrats and decent people to permanent dictatorship by rogues and hooligans. We are at war, war demands emergency solutions. [It is] a risk and a gamble but we have no choice. The best defense is precaution.

The domestic enemies Loewenstein had in mind were not just the obvious Bundist and Communist organizations, but any ethnic groups, publications, organizations, or intellectuals he deemed “enemies of democracy.” He suspected large segments of those citizens of German and Italian descent, intellectuals such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and certain unspecified Catholic leaders. He actually proposed a federal law limiting fundamental rights of citizens during the emergency and enforcing loyalty oaths “towards the state.” There would be close surveillance and action against such groups and individuals. This included “Curbing the excessive use of the freedom of the public expression, when used with malicious intent, for disparaging democratic institutions, or for incitement of hatred and contempt of certain classes of the population (Jews, bankers, Freemasons, etc.).” It also involved “Close supervision of such press organs . . . which show bias in favor of anti-democratic policies.”

We do not know whether Horkheimer would endorse Loewenstein’s specific proposals. But they are quite compatible with the basic principles justifying Horkheimer’s position. They also reflect a similar proclivity toward certain kinds of thinking and action arising from fear in an emergency situation. Thus, no matter how one interprets Horkheimer generally, on this issue of a democratic war for survival, he certainly is not the anti-institutional critic of the state. He comes across instead as very much a “statist.” His position reflects tremendous faith in a central government endowed with such extraordinary executive power. It is a faith certainly more easily expressed with a progressive Democrat like Roosevelt holding the reins of power. One wonders what Horkheimer thought of similar action by a conservative Hindenburg trying to salvage the remnants of the German state faced with the dual threat of a Communist or Nazi seizure of power.

But no matter how Horkheimer might have viewed the role of presidential power in the collapse of Weimar, his perspective on American presidential power was quite clear. Moreover, we now see a definite continuity in his thinking from Roosevelt to Adenauer and into the Federal Republic of the 1960s. This was no slow, reluctant transition over decades, as Jay contends. The spirit of militant democracy, projected through state action, had long been an integral part of Horkheimer’s political thinking. Indeed, his stance against the ’68s pales in comparison to what he was advocating toward those Americans he perceived as harboring “fascist sympathies” in a wartime emergency.

Of course, according to the theme of this panel [“Old Wars, New Wars”], World War II and the Cold War were “Old Wars.” And one can only speculate on how Horkheimer might react to the “New War” against terrorism and other threats emanating from militant Islamic fundamentalism. Although I reject the concept of Islamofascism, I am not sure that Horkheimer would agree with me. If he could see the potential for fascism in 1960’s student radicals, he could easily perceive militant Islam similarly, especially since, like the fascists of the 1930s and 1940s, the movement had a strong anti-Semitic component. One wonders where Horkheimer would stand on the Patriot Act, Guantánamo, surveillance, preventive detention, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran’s nuclear potential. Would he perceive the self-proclaimed emergency presidential policies and actions of Bush/Cheney as a threat to democracy and fascistic in nature, as some contend? Or would Horkheimer view them as manifestations of “militant democracy” necessary for defending culture and civilization from the most modern version of anti-democratic threats. And if Horkheimer had to make such decisions, which aspects of his thought and character would prevail: his humanistic pacifism and anti-violence sentiments, or his militant anti-fascist statism?

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