TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Politics in Telos: an Exchange

The following is an email exchange initially between Ernest Sternberg, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo, and Maria Piccone, publisher of Telos. The exchange then continues between Sternberg and Russell Berman, editor of Telos.

October 2, 2007

Hi Mary,

As I promised, I’m now searching for a periodical for which to review Matthias Küntzel’s book, Jihad and Jew Hatred [published by Telos Press].

The back-story is in itself notable: that Telos is publishing the book. I remember as a grad student that my favorite professor had a shelf of Telos issues. This led me to read it on occasion, to recognize it as a very good journal, and to understand it as being closely associated with the Frankfurt School.

In recent years as my own politics have shifted, I have found with some interest that Telos has shifted to some extent as well, though it remains a broad forum. (I’m now a subscriber.) Is there a piece that has been written, perhaps by the editor, that has told the story of the political evolution at Telos? That very fact might place Matthias’s book in an interesting light.


October 2, 2007

Dear Ernie Sternberg,

Mary Piccone forwarded to me your recent email to her about Telos.

Thanks for your interest in the journal and our publication of Matthias Küntzel’s book. And especially thanks for your recollections and comments on the journal, its past and future.

You ask about a piece relating the political evolution of the journal. It has yet to be written. It’s definitely a good idea. Maybe I’ll get to it, but running the journal (not to mention the rest of life) keeps me pretty busy. For now, a few thoughts will have to suffice.

The shift you mention is, presumably, what is sometimes described as (or, more typically, denounced as) a move to the right. In fact, it’s always more complex than a simple linear scale can measure. There is in any case no shame in rethinking (except for those who consider thinking shameful); and there is certainly nothing wrong with rethinking in the face of new experience or new knowledge. How could Communists not rethink, for example, in light of Khrushchev’s revelations—well, some did, and some didn’t. Surely some mental flexibility is preferable to dogmatic immobility.

But this question of cognitive capacities ought to be thought through as well in terms of a longer-term political history. The Left has often been the home of emancipatory values, or at least it starts out that way. It has however—I’m thinking of the long period since the eighteenth century—also demonstrated an ability for internal repression, an insistence on the obedience and loyalty of its members, and has therefore often regarded skeptical thinking as a sign of betrayal. This is what the Frankfurt School might have seen as another instance of the dialectic of enlightenment: enlightenment against the old order is the progressive program, but enlightenment refuses its own self-reflection, refuses to inquire into itself and invites a return of the repressive past in modernized guise. So critics of the Left—especially those acting in the spirit of the enlightenment—are denounced as renegades, as traitors, as “moving to the right.” Perhaps some have moved to the right, others may have just insisted on free thinking and—this is the truly pessimistic account—some may have done nothing at all, but they are targeted for denunciation (and worse) nonetheless, because the “movement” is always in need of victims to sacrifice in order to shore up group loyalty.

That said, what about Telos? Founded in 1968, it began in the field of the New Left but, asking philosophical questions, it came into conflict with the dogmatic belief structure that rapidly took over the New Left. If the “new” in “New Left” originally meant a break with orthodox Marxism, by the mid-70s most of that movement had effectively reproduced the authoritarianism of the old guard. Because Telos, in contrast, found a connection to the traditions of the democratic, anti-Communist Left, it was soon denounced as having “moved to the right.” For what? Well, for example, for siding with East European dissidents at a time when the “Left” was in love with the appeasement strategies of detente. For the record, that Left has yet to engage in any critical self-reflection of the way it accepted, sometimes celebrated and certainly never criticized the Communist regimes. Venceremos.

Under Paul Piccone’s editorial leadership, the journal initiated important new discussions about religion—the Left regarded that as nuts: today, though, everyone sees the centrality in politics of religion—about traditions, about federalism, about the work of Carl Schmitt (not that we endorse him in toto—hardly—but we aren’t scared by taboos about discussions). And all this took place, in a context in which many of the old delineations between Left and Right were breaking down—except for dogmatists in both camps.

I suppose there is one further particular point to mention: a key element emerging from the journal’s early engagement with both phenomenology and with the Frankfurt School was the critique of a (for Husserl) naturalist reduction or (for Adorno) bureaucratic administration. Both seemed inimical to human creativity. The originally Weberian critique of bureaucracy in capitalism was redirected initially at Soviet-style regimes but, in the spirit of the Frankfurt School, expanded to a critique of aspects of western societies as well. So a critique of the East became a critique of the West, and this anti-bureaucratic stance “converged” with elements of neo-liberal deregulation thinking. The Right sought alternatives to the state: for some it was pure market, for others it was conservative values. Most of the Left continued to place all its trust in the State with a capital S. For Telos, the State was not going to be the answer, so our discussion of religion, traditions, and so forth ends up akin to but very differently nuanced than some conservative positions.

Küntzel’s book makes lots of sense for us. He emerges from the best of the German Left, that inherited part of the Critical Theory tradition—this shows up in some side comments in the book; he is often arguing with the dogmatic Left which is prepared to jettison nearly all its emancipatory legacy in order to stake out an “anti-imperialist position”: for example, the opportunism of those feminists who support Hezbollah, prepared to compromise on the status of women as long as they can feel cozily at home in the anti-Israel camp. After all, Küntzel analyzes the major form of repressive anti-modernism in our world today. Critical Theory, historically, focused similarly on a critique of Nazism and fascism and, implicitly, Stalinism. Küntzel takes apart the contemporary iteration of that repression. Telos‘s book publications typically brought “dissident” leftists before an American public—Baudrillard’s critique of Marxism, for example, or Lucien Goldmann or Antonio Gramsci or Gustav Landauer—to the chagrin of much of our orthodox interlocutors who typically are willing to sacrifice freedom, even their own, at the altar of obedience. Our publication of Küntzel’s book is very much in the spirit of our original project. In that sense, there is at least as much continuity as change in our positions.

Perhaps we’ll have a chance to cross paths.

For now, best wishes,


October 9, 2007

Dear Russell,

I’ve been thinking for a while about how to respond to your letter, in which you kindly took time to give your thoughts on the evolution of Telos‘s politics in the past few years. Yes, you had me right: I did indeed mean the shift that some would have taken and—I have no doubt—denounced as a move to the right.

Since you don’t know me, let me please take up your time with a few autobiographical paragraphs. I promise that it does lead back to Telos: to why its intellectual shift could make it the most important forum for those like me who are deeply disturbed by contemporary trends in so-called progressive thought.

After undergrad and master’s degrees studies in which I wandered among theory courses in various social sciences, I decided I should take up a professional field, and fell under John Forester’s wing at Cornell. He is the one I had in mind when in my first email I fondly recalled a professor with a shelf-full of Telos issues. He is probably the foremost planning theorist in the US and by far the most important advocate of Habermas’s thought among urban planners and policy analysts. (Not all to the good; John did, without intending, trigger in planning journals the publishing of much treacle about nice communication and contributed to the field’s boundless trust in community participation.)

From John’s classes I became somewhat conversant with Habermas, though I suspect that I understood far less than I thought I did. Whatever acuity I achieved in Critical Theory has slipped considerably over the years, but I can say that, whether it was intellectually well-warranted or not, I drew some lasting lessons from Habermas. One was that seemingly inexorable change in society (example: the growing domination of the automobile over modern life) occurs because powerful, though often contending, forces drive society without coherent, human oversight. Second, that open investigation and democratic deliberation should be the basis on which we direct ourselves as communities—indeed this capacity for deliberation about futures was what an enlightened planning discipline should strive for. (In the tendency of academic disciplines to find the self-definition that gives them broadest scope and stature; this sweeping role for planning certainly did so for us, even if no one else appreciated it.) Third, the search for good argument, guided by theories of argumentation, became the means by which to assess contending claims about what is good and what should be done.

The whole theoretical package positioned us as well-meaning theorists who, along with the planning practitioners we had taught, would contribute to social progress. This put me more or less firmly in the progressive camp. Despite its many faults, especially its dogmatism and its blindness toward communism (as an immigrant and Hungarian speaker, I knew quite a bit from family experience about the ugly underbelly), the Left could, I thought, be trusted to be a force toward human betterment.

Much happens in one’s intellectual development, some of it hard to trace, and no one has reason to be interested in mine. In short, the last few years have overturned my trust in progressivism. Not only did I lose this trust but came to believe that large segments of the Left have become apologists for repression and genocide-provocation and that they are allied with the destruction of enlightenment values. I will stick to two decisive incidents.

Through an emerging interest in urban disaster after 9/11, I wound up reading about potentials for biological terrorism. I read the revelations about the Biopreparat research archipelago in the USSR, where in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention (with which the US fully complied) secret Soviet plants produced weaponized pathogens, including plague in rusting barrels. Bioengineering capabilities have expanded plenty since then.

The day is not far off when a terrorist will be able produce a biological arsenal in a basement and carry it in a shirt pocket or in his body through self-infection. An acquaintance, a microbiologist who is a specialist in communicable viral diseases and has no political axe to grind, easily spins horror scenarios by which a purposefully self-infected person could, while still showing no signs of the disease, spread a virus that would replicate, pass ferociously upon human contact, and produce symptoms that are stomach-churning for the observer and worse for the victim. I recall the Australian scientists who in 2001 demonstrated in their lab that they could turn mousepox, which is harmless to humans, into a vaccine-resistant strain, raising the specter of similar genetic alterations on smallpox. I won’t belabor the scenarios about fanatical groups using biotechnology to gain political leverage and war-making capacity.

If anything, the delusional Left’s response to WMD prospects has resembled the obtuse Right’s treatment of global warming threats, each outdoing the other as spreaders of wishful thinking and ignorance. Under threat of war, decisions have to be made and allegiances clarified. It may turn out that, when push comes to shove, there may be in Empire much to pine for, say the western intellectual tradition, nasty and contentious but still open debate, ridiculous pop culture amalgamated with unprecedented efflorescence of the arts, power that is no doubt inequitable but still decentralized among institutions, and lots of personal freedom. Having built the US into such a monstrosity, the Left becomes unable to see when our internal disputes have to be put aside (abortion, gun control, progressive taxation, etc.) to defend the civilization that makes our disputes possible, and outside of which radical dissent has, as far as I can tell, no chance to exist. So that’s my first intellectual incident: the realization that the modes of thought to which I had subscribed gave no moral legitimacy, even under catastrophic scenarios, to defense.

The second is a discrete event, some four years ago: Norman Finkelstein lectured on my campus, brought in by a local Marxist-Leninist study group (since defunct), a local entity that labels itself a Peace Center, a church, and Arab and Muslim student groups. Finkelstein presented the usual distortions, accusations and slanders against Zionism, all without context, as expected. But he did more. He ridiculed Jewish writers about the Holocaust. He asserted that the two-thousand plus books about the Holocaust since 1967 were concocted by Jewish American leadership that wanted to excuse the exploitation of Palestinians. It remained mysterious how the authors and researchers got their marching orders—perhaps from the Elders of Zion. I asked him in front of the audience about a published statement of his that Israelis wanted to turn themselves into an Aryan race. He confirmed he had said it. I asked for his evidence. He referred the novel Exodus, whose lead character named Ari had blond hair and blue eyes, and, Finkelstein said in front of the crowd, “Ari stands for Aryan.”

That night I couldn’t sleep. Was he just a crackpot, or did he represent something larger? Yes, as internet search readily revealed, there are many others, yes in universities, like him. The popular blog called “Counterpunch” offers a representative array, including some others who slide between this ostensibly left-wing site and explicitly neo-Nazi and Holocaust-denying sites.

I came to understand that they weren’t just random crackpots. They represented a true Left Fascism: not as an epithet, not as a superficial convergence between totalitarianisms, but a true, systematic, theoretically consistent Left Fascism. What were its intellectual suppositions? What were the political forces that generated it? That question has preoccupied me for a while, and I have some tentative answers—but this letter is much too long already.

For my part, the conclusion I reached is that if Left Fascists are acceptable within contemporary progressive movements, I don’t want to be there. Since then it’s been a difficult intellectual journey. Aristotle, whom I had never read before, turned out to have a powerful effect on me. Oh, I also read conservatives, almost (with the exception of laissez-faire conservatives) for the first time in my life. They had far more diversity, beauty, and dignity to offer than I ever imagined. But rather than being won over, I became intellectually homeless. Maybe it’s healthier to be have lost dogma, but it does make intellectual life difficult. I can no longer fall back on a theoretical algorithm to figure out where I stand.

That’s what leads me back to Telos. I very much hope you will continue to take Telos in the direction in which I think you and Mary have started to lead it: making it into a forum for intellectuals—and by this I simply mean persons with some education in the history of ideas—made homeless by, and ready to engage new ideas because of, the bankruptcy of progressivism. With that identity, it will continue in its tradition as one of the most important and intriguing publications of out time.



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