I made a mistake yesterday, as people with a taste for smart-mouthery on the Internet often do, by responding too quickly to something. On Wednesday, the leftist social critic Marshall Berman died. On Thursday, the website Tablet published an appreciation of him and his life by Todd Gitlin. Gitlin is a good writer and Berman was his friend and it was a sweet piece. It was the headline that struck me. “Marxist Humanist Mensch,” the piece was called. My tweet read: “Imagine a tribute to a Nazi humanist mensch.”
The purpose of that tweet, if one must locate a purpose in a one-liner, was simple. Why, after the real-world manifestations of Marxism in the 20th century had led to (by some estimates) 60 million deaths, would it still be considered a positive thing to be described as a “Marxist”? No one on earth wishes to be described as a Nazi, because of the murderousness of that real-world political philosophy; why would this not be the same with Marxism?
This was a foolish thing to have done, because Berman had just died and my Tweet could easily be read as an effort to speak ill of the dead. It was not intended to be so, but after some minutes, I apologized for having put up the Tweet in the first place. I did not know Berman, but I certainly read him over the years, and did read his “Marxist humanist” tome, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which is (I will say to make up for the offense I gave) a very interesting book indeed, though not necessarily for the reasons Berman himself thought.
But as to the larger point, if a 140-character one-liner can be said to have a larger point? I was surprised to find myself criticized not so much for having done something rude and thoughtless but for likening Marxism to Nazism. This was, it would seem, beyond the intellectual pale.
Marx, one person said, wrote essays he loved. Somone likened the complexity of Marxism to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in denouncing me for being so limited in my understanding of the great intellectual tradition. And so on.
The ultimate point of contention was expressed by Marc A. Tracy of the New Republic. “I think one can be a Marxist in a defensible way that one can’t be a Nazi.”
That is evidently true, given that Marxism remains a respectable school of thought in America’s universities. And that is in part due to the fact that from Marx sprang that intellectual tradition so beloved of my Twitter correspondent, while there is no comparable Nazi tradition.
But here’s a hard truth: there is no Nazi tradition, or larger Fascist intellectual school, because Nazism and Fascism were literally extirpated as the result of a world war. By contrast, Marxism-Leninism survived and thrived throughout the 20th century.
It is not that there could not have been a Nazi intellectual tradition; oh, there certainly could have been.
Martin Heidegger is considered by many the foremost philosopher of the 20th century. And he was a Nazi. As Andrew Roberts pointed out in COMMENTARY in a review of Yvonne Sherratt’s recent book Hitler’s Philosophers:
With Heidegger…Hitler hoped that he might have a living German philosopher to take on all comers in the competitive global philosophy stakes.
Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in a blaze of publicity on May 1, 1933, which Sherratt somewhat tastelessly likens to the blaze of the 25,000 books written by Jews that were burned in Berlin nine days later. He immediately hailed the Third Reich as “the construction of a new intellectual and spiritual world for the German nation” and had the words to the “Horst Wessel Song” printed on the back of the program of events of his installation as rector of Freiburg University, where he gave the full Heil Hitler salute prior to his inaugural speech. Heidegger remained a member of the Nazi Party until 1945 and was never to express any public remorse or apology for his idealization of Hitler. When asked by a colleague how a man as coarse as Hitler could govern Germany, the philosopher replied, “culture is of no importance. Look at his marvelous hands!”
The book details the degree to which leading academics in Germany during the Nazi era became the regime’s apologists and handmaidens. Had Germany somehow prevailed in World War II, or had that war not been fought at all, Nazism would surely have become an intellectual tradition of its own.
My Tweet gave offense, and for that I’m sorry. But the mild controversy it provoked was instructive—and, I think, discouraging.