TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Review of Piccone and Kondylis

Panajotis Kondylis, Machtfragen. Ausgewählte Beiträge zu Politik und Gesellschaft, ed. Volker Gerhart (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006). Paul Piccone, Confronting the Crisis: Writings of Paul Piccone, ed. Gary Ulmen (New York: Telos Press, 2008).

There are two main reasons for pairing these posthumously published essays of Paul Piccone (1940–2004) with those of Panajotis Kondylis (1943–1998). One, both of these authors, who died in the last few years, were my friends, whose lives moved along much the same general trajectory as my own. None of us could be described as an academic luminary; although neither Paul, who mentored later successful professors, nor Panajotis, who called himself a “Privatgelehrter,” periodically associated with Heidelberg and the University of Athens, had as close an association as I’ve had with a long-term academic post. These brilliant social thinkers spent their lives on the edge of a university world that would have benefited greatly if they had been linked to it in appropriately high places.

This description would also apply to Gary Ulmen, who helped introduce me to these other friends. A distinguished Schmitt scholar and a onetime close associate of the famous Sinologist Karl A. Wittfogel, Gary was a longtime guiding spirit of Telos together with Paul and a small circle of their associates. He also edited and introduced this anthology as a tribute to his deceased friend, a gesture that he might also have performed for Kondylis, whom he got to know at Heidelberg. Although to my knowledge Gary has never belonged to the faculty at Columbia, he has lived for decades on Riverside Drive, near the university campus, when he is not in Europe. His apartment is in a building reserved for and largely inhabited by Columbia professors. No one has ever questioned Gary’s right to be there, as an extremely, productive, polyglot scholar, who may have published more than anyone else in his building.

Two, Piccone and Kondylis both represented a thankless persuasion but one that has imprinted my own thought and work. They were historicists, who focused on shifting power relations and on the way these relations were influenced by acts of human will. Neither thinker found much permanence in the flux of human events, except for the constant elements in human nature, and the possibility of unmasking political ideologies. Although both, and perhaps more defiantly the upper-class Greek Kondylis, who came from a strongly anti-Communist military family, had started out as Marxists, they each moved dramatically away from their early position and, perhaps without fully admitting it, toward the right. Both illustrate an observation that I had made long before knowing these figures, about James Burnham in The Search for Historical Meaning. There are some thinkers, e.g., Sidney Hook, who never left the Left but also never became real Marxists; there are also those, like James Burnham and to a lesser degree Will Herberg, who were never inwardly on the left but who once called themselves Marxist-Leninists.

Paul had been attracted to the Italian Hegelian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and one of the most absorbing essays in the anthology is his treatment of the Hegelian tradition in Italy, from Bertrando Spaventa and Francesco DeSanctis in the nineteenth century through the aesthetic and historical work of Benedetto Croce, down to Gramsci’s apparent departure from Croce’s liberal Hegelianism and toward something vaguely resembling Marxist materialism. Gramsci’s theory of social consciousness, as Piccone points out, never entirely lost its idealistic-Hegelian moorings. This was significant seeing that the Sardinian social theorist was one of the creators of Italian Communism. And even as late as his prison journals, Quaderni dal Carcere, composed while he was under house arrest during Mussolini’s regime, Piccone notes, Gramsci combined German and Italian idealist philosophy with favorable references to the Soviet experiment. His knowledge of what the Soviets were actually doing was entirely limited, for Gramsci never went to Russia, and what he knew about Soviet Communism came from what others told him.

Paul Piccone’s adventures on the American and European New Left, leading to his founding of Telos as an anti-Soviet but still avowedly Marxist journal, revealed the same degree of eclecticism as Gramsci’s tortuous road toward Marxism. In Paul’s case, this path also led in other directions, starting with his well-known preoccupation with the Frankfurt School. But Paul’s choice of Frankfurt School key texts was always highly selective, and in this sense he never became a real groupie, if such a hypothetical member is expected to embrace the antibourgeois, Marxist-Freudian stance of the interwar German school. Paul’s interests were sometimes markedly different, even when he was applying the language and concepts of Adorno and Horkheimer.

An essay, originally published in Telos in 1991, “Artificial Negativity as a Bureaucratic Tool,” might have been written by my late friend Sam Francis, who fervently admired Paul. This examination of how the managerial state begets false opposition to itself, in order to contain and neutralize its adversaries, was not unique to the founder of Telos. It should be familiar to anyone who has read my book After Liberalism or has browsed through Sam’s essays about the managerial revolution. The same perspective could already be found in Paul’s writings in Telos, going back to the 1970s, and as a lifetime critic of bureaucratic centralization, Paul arrived at his views about the present age by combining Gramsci’s notion of hegemonic ideology and Adorno’s analysis of “enlightened” administration with Herbert Marcuse’s occasional insights in One Dimensional Man.

What enhanced Paul’s use of such texts was his remarkable life, leading from his childhood in the Italian Abruzzi through study for his doctorate at the University of Buffalo, teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, and an intense involvement with Italian Hegelians, the social criticism of Adorno, German phenomenologists, the works of Carl Schmitt, and various American social thinkers. An essay in the anthology, originally from 1971, dealing with phenomenological Marxism, stopped me in my tracks, since I had not been previously aware of any conceptual link between the Marxists and the epistemological investigations of Edmund Husserl.

When I first saw this essay, I had to wonder whether the overlaps in question had not been shaped by a biographical fact, which is that Paul’s interests in phenomenology and neo-Marxism had been formed at about the same point in his life. But then I learned something else about Paul’s career, that he had introduced and edited the English edition of Enzo Paci’s The Future of the Sciences and the Meaning of Man, the work of a leading Italian historian of philosophy in the mid-twentieth century. Paci, whose books on Husserl, Nietzsche, and German historicism Paul had undoubtedly studied, was interested in the same task that Paul later took on, from a quasi-Marxist perspective, integrating phenomenology into a broader theory of historical epochs. (Paci’s best-known book, written after World War II, was appropriately named Existenzialismo e Storicismo.)

Paul also shifted the leftist focus of the Frankfurt School away from capitalist social oppression and diatribes against sexual inhibitions toward a more up-to-date and specifically political target, i.e., the role of the managerial state in destroying traditional communities and in undermining any social bond not “mediated” by the political class. Paul’s interest in Schmitt’s investigation of the nation-state and the reasons for its decline and his later fascination with such neglected social thinkers as Donald Warren, who wrote on “Middle American radicalism,” were both related to his emphasis on the antagonism between public administration and real communities.

The same interest also fed his passion for such political movements as the Lega Nord in his native Italy, which was organized to resist bureaucratic centralization from Rome and, later, from the EU. Paul fully accepted what Ulmen treated as Schmitt’s advance over Marx and Max Weber. Unlike earlier social thinkers, Schmitt appreciated power relations as the moving force in history, but he also brought them back to two vital reference points, the permanence of friend-enemy distinctions and the rise and fall of the historic state as it had existed into the twentieth century. The “state” for Schmitt and Piccone was not any form of administration but a particular time-bound phenomenon, one that was based on limiting violence within its own borders, representing the political will of a nation, and restricting the expansion of neighboring states. For Piccone and Schmitt, the rise of modern ideology as well as the advance of military technology and a global economy all worked to weaken such a ruling arrangement. Neither administration providing social welfare nor revolutionary doctrines such as Marxism and global democracy could restore the “European order” of historic nation states.

But this German legal thinker did present possible future alternatives, which Paul investigated at various times in his scholarly work. One was a division of the world into “spheres” controlled by various regional powers. The other, which Schmitt had warned against, was the march toward a global empire held together by a single ideology. This would not put an end to friend-enemy distinctions, but merely outlaw every society or individual who did not accept the universally proclaimed creed. In the global order it would be argued that only those who embraced the universal creed could be peaceful. Despite his traditionalist European background, and even during the Cold War, Schmitt seemed to fear American hegemony more than he did the economically backward Soviet Union. In Piccone’s work, however, Schmitt’s anti-American strain is entirely missing, and one notices instead an emphasis on the shared fate of Americans and Europeans in the late modern age.

A detailed account (in the anthology) of a conference, held at Elizabethtown in April 1991, on “Populism and the New Class,” revisits those debating points around which the Telos circle had once come together in “its post-New Left phase.” (I’m not sure this quarterly ever had an earlier phase unless Paul and Gary had changed their worldviews fundamentally before I got to know them.) At the 1991 gathering at my college, one that featured Christopher Lasch, Claes Ryn, and various historians of populism, beside his usual editorial crew, Paul raised certain themes that were then near and dear to his heart — the need for a Roman imperial model that is consistent with communal arrangements and the contrast between liberalism and democracy. The call for an imperial structure in the piece published in the anthology came in a period when Paul still believed that the EU could be made to accommodate post-national European communities. Paul also believed back then that populist forces, which he identified with the rising electoral fortunes of Pat Buchanan, could be made to serve “democratic ends.” This would take either the form of decentralization or a regional reconfiguration of our centralized American government, a process that Paul mistakenly thought in the 1990s was already taking place.

Paul’s attacks on liberalism as “the abstract formalities legitimating a managerial ethos,” which he placed in contrast to democratic “organic communities,” related to a point on which he and I had repeatedly disagreed. For years Paul had considered me “the resident liberal,” although we had actually agreed on both his harsh analysis of the administrative state and the danger of its human rights doctrines. While Paul viewed “liberal democracy” as a classical liberal distortion of “democracy,” which was to be understood as an organic communal way of life, my own interpretation differed then and afterward. In my view, “liberal democracy” is neither liberal in the bourgeois-constitutionalist sense nor democratic in the communal one. It is the name assigned to itself by a particular version of the modern managerial state. (This was also the view of the social theorist Robert Nisbet, but clearly not Paul’s.) For him, and for the traditionalist Catholic Jim Kalb, who soon entered this battle on Paul’s side, a more or less straight line could be drawn between the contractual theorists of the early modern period through later liberal constitutionalists down to the “democratic pluralists” and finally to multicultural advocates of the present age. According to Piccone and Kalb, the apparent rule of law was really a mask for social chaos, and the proliferation of managerial regulations reflected the need for increasing damage control once individuals had been cut loose from organic structures.

This process of dissolution had gone on for centuries, and according to this negative view of the post-medieval age, modern public administration was fully consistent with liberalism’s stress on individualism and the surrender to market forces. I shall leave it to the reader to judge this posthumous restatement of Paul’s historical view, which will soon be partially defended in a monograph by Jim Kalb. My alternative interpretation has been amply fleshed out in my last four books.

I should, however, mention in my defense of my now deceased friend and longtime debating partner that no matter how diligently I tried to uphold my side, he would always beat me by dint of his forensic energy. Paul held forth on the liberal tradition and its connection to bureaucracy not only in his written compositions and during formal discussions (to whatever extent Paul engaged in any discussion that could be thus described) but afterward as well, during dinner, while walking on the street, and in his automobile while driving foreign guests to or from one of the three New York airports. Although the anthology provides an accurate reproduction of his written works, there is no way it can do justice to the personal aspect of Paul’s thinking and style. Those who read his written words must simply add that dimension of its author’s life that no text can reproduce.

Kondylis’s last published thoughts, on the role of human will in the construction and defense of worldviews, may seem less accessible than do Piccone’s essays. What renders these particular reflections particularly inaccessible is the ponderous prose; and it is hard to see how the editor could characterize them as stylistically elegant. All the essays center on several interlocking arguments, which presuppose the same historicist outlook. Conceptual contents (Denkinhalte) supposedly have meaning only in the context of specific circumstances; and all intellectual encounters, whether scientific, theological, or philosophical, must be understood as confrontations in the guise of something else. In the clashes of ideas or principles, it is ultimately human wills that are coming into conflict. And in the struggle for power between contending sides, rival actors formulate their positions by focusing on real or assumed enemies. Kondylis does not explicitly say that there is no rational standard to which competing views or creeds can be submitted by mutual consent. Rather he applies Carl Schmitt’s “criterion of the political,” as the drawing of friend-enemy distinctions, to a never-ending battle waged among rival epistemological and ethical creeds.

It is of course possible to take Kondylis’s radical historicism seriously while only accepting its premises in a limited way. But as a preliminary step, one might do well to disencumber what he calls his “value-free decisionism” from certain surrounding questionable assumptions. For example, Kondylis offers this syllogism intended to make him appear like a skeptic while leaving intact his unproved premises: If a “view of the world that is based on relativism is true,” “it does not follow from this premise that the resulting position is false.” Furthermore: “That my theory like others is historically conditioned does not demonstrate its relativity, but merely confirms the principle of historical conditioning as a case in point.” But there are two obvious problems with this defense. First, Kondylis is not presenting here a “syllogism” but putting forth two premises, the second of which is a denial of the first. Second, he does not explain how “relativity” and exemplifying “historical conditioning” differ from each other as limiting conditions for his truth claims.

Moreover, his central essay, “Power and Decision in the Battle Lines of Spirit,” would seem to call into question the validity of human reasoning: “Rationalists happily structure their polemics in such a way as to allow them to tie their power-claims to something symbolic, which is what they call ‘Reason.’ Whatever rationalists happen to be arguing is made to appear to be a direct logical emanation of ‘Reason’.” Further: “Concrete questions that offer a scientific observation in the investigation of concrete situations really come down to the following: When is something likely to be viewed as rational or irrational; and who is likely to accept it as one or the other? With whose truth- or power-claim is what is designated as ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’ to be brought into line?” Finally, “the polemical intent in the structuring of theoretical patterns shows itself dramatically in the frequent situation in which the polemical implications overshadow the logical ones. At that point the striving to discredit one’s opponent comes to the fore, even at the price of overlooking or taking for granted the weakness in one’s own argument.”

Kondylis also tells us that certain contradictory positions are sometimes forced together into a single worldview in a way that allows partisans to triumph over their enemies. For example, Christian theologians included in their creeds a legend about man’s divine origin and inherent nobility together with the supposedly antithetical notion of human sinfulness. These apparently antipodal aspects of a specifically Christian worldview were pasted together to gain the edge in a protracted struggle against paganism. These views were also supposedly necessary to elevate the Church into a vehicle for restoring a fallen humanity to its divine potential.

All such statements betray a tendency toward overgeneralization. Certainly there are multiple examples of Kondylis’s targets, but his reductionist approach sometimes gets in the way of his arguments. Although those engaged in debate often organize facts to fit their non-intellectual purposes, it might be stretching a point to ascribe all discussions about ideas to a confrontation of wills. Surely it is possible to perceive intellectual curiosity or something other than a tendentious application of “Reason” in the sifting of hypotheses about why things occur or about the moral ends of human life. Kondylis also confuses the parts with the whole. Because there is an exercise of volition involved in the selecting of facts and because the assertion of statements often takes place in a dialectical fashion does not mean that the explanations and thoughts are reducible to exercises of will or power.

Kondylis might be showing the traces of his Marxist youth, by looking for a single cause or source to which he can push back human behavior and thought. Of course within the complex framework of circumstances in which intellectual historians have to do their work, looking for such a cause may be a fool’s errand. Already in the fifth century BC, Thucydides elucidated his approach to the events of the Peloponnesian War by distinguishing among such related concepts as sources, starting points, causes (actually grievances), and pretexts. Kondylis seems to have reduced this Thucydidean theory of causation to two motivational factors: an underlying source of action, which is human contentiousness, and a pretext, understood as theories or doctrines serving as vehicles for the will to power.

Kondylis also wedges into his decisionist framework predicates that do not necessarily follow from the operation of will in the forming of thoughts. Volition in his view entails “power claims” and the “the instinct of self-preservation,” neither of which must accompany “decision-making.” Making the argument that reflective judgments include among other things expressions of sentiments and will is different from treating “conceptual contents” as intrinsically irrational. Again, Kondylis is guilty of mistaking the part for the whole.

Equally relevant, he never exposes the antinomies in the worldviews that he identifies as weapons in his clashes of wills. The Christian attempt to make allowances for man’s divine origin as well as his sinfulness does not engender a contradiction but offers a view that acknowledges two different sides of human nature. Almost all traditional ethical and theological systems do the same and not necessarily because they are trying to prevail against other systems. They are simply taking into account the gulf between what humans might be or might have been and the condition in which they now find themselves. Kondylis’s supposed antinomy is as characteristic of the Enlightenment as of the Christian worldview that the rationalists tried to replace.

Kondylis must also deal in the end with the charge that his “value-free observations” are not what he ascribes to others, i.e., tools in a contest of wills in which his ideas as well as those of others are of secondary importance. Why shouldn’t we treat his interpretation, despite its “value-free” label, as just another demonstration of his theory? A careful reading of his final essay, “Value-Freedom and the Question of the Ought,” does not indicate to me that Kondylis has broken loose from the limits of his model. He too may exemplify the inherent contradiction of all forms of determinism that try to advance their own truth claims.

Despite these conceptual difficulties, I would nonetheless note that much of what Kondylis depicts as the power-driven formulation of thought fits the present age. His general theory of knowledge seems specifically made for our own late modernity, and especially for its opinion-making and academic class. One finds confirmation for this conclusion in Kondylis’s earlier work, and particularly in his sprawling volume on “the bourgeois form of thought,” which explores the correlation between bourgeois modes of thinking and cultural and social habits. What Kondylis treats as “bourgeois liberal” fact-gathering and reflection becomes in his posthumous essays the “normativist” and “rationalist” masks for power-seekers.

But surely the author would have to recognize a qualitative distinction, and one that bears on the credibility of what is asserted, between saying something in order to advance one’s political cause and making documentable statements, the truth of which the speaker fully accepts. Arguably even those who crave political control occasionally play by bourgeois rules of discourse. But what we are now seeing is a cultural revolution, one linked to a radical but often self-contradictory egalitarian ideology that has declared older rules of discourse and truth-demonstration to be obsolete and even oppressive.

One perspective that is omitted from Kondylis’s account, but which his other books supply, is how we arrived at our current situation. Certainly it was possible up until the last few decades to have relatively detached discussions about scientific and conceptual matters without one side calling the other “fascist” or “sexist.” In the bourgeois age, and even as far back as Plato’s dialogues, name-calling does not seem to have been a preferred mode of discourse. Should we then base our inferences about the communication and evaluation of knowledge by looking at what are deviant standards from the perspective of an earlier period?

How much about dialogues and scholarship in general, for example, could one derive from Amy Gutmann’s essay in Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition, which structures conversation around the ranking of victim groups? A University of Pennsylvania president, Guttmann is quite explicit about who is to be given the right to say what and to whom in her projected “multicultural society”: Those who would have to be muzzled include those who are guilty of “misogyny, racial and ethnic hatred, or rationalization of self-interest and group interest parading as historical or scientific knowledge.” Note Gutmann, like European “antifascist” politicians and journalists, does not yield to factual refutations. She would be delighted to shut people up who cite inconvenient facts. It is not that Kondylis is speaking specifically about these extreme cases when he sets up his premises. But they are the ones to which his premises would apply, namely, the struggle for recognition by rival claimants for victim status, understood as contenders for power. Not surprisingly, Gutmann presents herself as the bearer of preferential rights in discourse because of her Jewish ancestors and female gender. In short, she is a telling example, albeit far from the only one, of someone who presents ideas expressing her will to power.

Common to the posthumous publications of my two friends are signs of belonging to a thankless persuasion. Both were equally representative of the kind of historicism that is no longer in favor. Instead of relating gender, race, and class to a narrative featuring white, male oppression, they approached the task of contextualizing the modern age from the standpoint of plotting the rise and fall of the Western bourgeoisie and its worldview and political habits. Neither viewed the declension of this once dominant group as the waning of an oppressive era. Rather, they saw it as an occasion for the ascent of what Piccone, like James Burnham, designated as a managerial new class, and what Kondylis viewed as the prelude to a Hobbesian situation featuring a war of all against all.

Both men also doubted that “liberal democratic” administration could neutralize this conflict. But unlike Paul, who believed that the centralized state would give way to reestablished communities, Kondylis evoked a “coming age of global strife.” Contrary to his “value-free” perspective as a social historian, Kondylis showed genuine cultural and existential concern about the future of Europe, as a frequent contributor to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and as a columnist for newspapers in Athens. The global economy into which Europe had been swept, the “antifascist” intolerance in European universities, and the rising Islamic Fundamentalist presence in Western and Central Europe were all developments that Kondylis noted with alarm. Perhaps far more than his vivacious friend Paul Piccone, this Greek aristocrat personified what Swiss conservative political theorist Armin Mohler once described as the “Anti-Fukuyama.” His purpose was to underline not the end of history as conflict but something grimmer, the inescapability of friend-enemy distinctions as a permanent aspect of the human condition.

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