Approximately 75 years ago, as Soviet and Allied armies were converging from opposite directions to crush the demonic dominion of Nazi Germany across Europe, two books were published that would anticipate in remarkable ways the predicament we encounter at the start of the third decade of the third millennium.
The first, The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Frankfurt School critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, is well-known and has garnered considerable attention on this site in recent months by New Polis general editor Roger Green. The second, Ernst Cassirer’s The Myth of the State, is widely known, albeit barely read, these days. Both books were trenchant and decidedly “prophetic” efforts to come to terms with the horrors that multiple fascist regimes had wrought on world populations at the time.
Yet both books remarkably were already far ahead of their times, peering far beyond an historical horizon within which the totalitarian threat had simply morphed from one of racist and ethno-nationalist militarism to a “cold war” in which diametrically divisive ideological systems had been pitched against each other with massive nuclear arsenals in a titanic struggle to delimit once and for all the connotations of the terms “democracy” and “freedom” for the masses of humanity.
The first book in its original version written in the early 1940s noted with irony that the historical struggle between “myth” and “enlightenment” did not have the outcome many had predicted. Rather, the history of the previous two centuries had been one that produces “tendencies which turn cultural progress into its opposite.” (xiii)
Fascism, in effect, had converted enlightenment back into myth. “For the Enlightenment,” Horkheimer and Adorno wrote, “only what can be encompassed by unity has the status of an existent or an event; its ideal is the system from which everything and anything follows.”(4) But German fascism had “mythologized” through the Nazification process that same principle in its declaration of Aryan supremacy and its policy of Gleichschaltung, the “consolidation” of everything cultural, social, political, associational, legal and institutional into the abstract ideal of ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer. The epicenter for this “consolidation” was an agency, created by Joseph Goebbels in 1933, with the mordant name of The Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which assumed control over all media, youth organizations, diplomacy, public assemblies, and ceremonies as well as every aspect of arts and culture.
Horkheimer and Adorno believed, however, that the victorious allies had imposed their own more subtle version of totalitarian Gleichschaltung on the masses through what they termed “the culture industry.” “Culture today,” they wrote, “is infecting everything with sameness. Film, radio, and magazines form a system. Each branch of culture is unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together.” (94). If under fascism the state had subsumed culture, under “democratic capitalism” culture – or corporatized and mediatized mass culture – and the state had become indistinguishable.
The starting point for Cassirer’s Myth of the State, completed just before he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1945, is in many ways similar to that of Horkheimer and Adorno – the permeability of the sliding boundaries between rationality and mythology. But Cassirer did not see the process as an ongoing “dialectic”. On the contrary, he opined in the opening paragraph of the book, “after a short and violent struggle mythical thought seemed to win a clear and definitive victory. How was this victory possible? How can we account for the new phenomenon that so suddenly appeared on our political horizon and in a sense seemed to reverse all our former ideas of the character of our intellectual and social life?”(3).
For Cassirer, the answer lay in an entirely new understanding of myth. Myth was not the conjugate of enlightenment. It was its very essence. The Age of Reason had propagated its own seductive mythology, especially when it came to politics. It was the myth of the rational state as simulacrum for “the intensity of the collective wish.”(280).
Within the history of nineteenth century philosophy Cassirer located this transposition in Arthur Schopenhauer’s reduction of Hegel’s notion of the state as the “power of reason actualizing itself as will” to the will as “blind and unconscious striving in the whole of unorganized nature.” The political rainmaker is much less a computational engineer than an outright conjurer who “alone is able to govern the magic word”(283). The black arts of politics is vested in a sorcery that manipulates language so that the “collective wish”, or what Rousseau dubbed the “general will”, manifests in a miraculous collective conjuration.
At the same time, modern political “magic” masks itself as a new form of rationality. “We have developed a much more refined and elaborate method of divination,” Cassirer contends, “a method that claims to be scientific and philosophical.” (289). Today we are quite familiar with such a “method.” It is the method that not only arrogates for itself extensive quantification of thinly sliced demographic data but a type of precision messaging that seems to “consolidate” vast and often heterogeneous constituencies through a vision of their future amalgamation by a mythical state power.
The organizing principle for this new strategy of Gleichschaltung is both the aggregation of a colossal amount of disjunctive data that carry the load of a given population’s inchoate and angry fantasies, all the while saturating it with emotionally charged word-memes that seem to signify some kind of imminent apocalyptic redemption. Donald Trump did it in 2016 with the phrase “make America great again.” Bernie Sanders in 2020 is mobilizing entirely new waves of deracinated and particularly young, highly educated but disaffected voters, echoing through the chambers of time from erstwhile and half-forgotten eras, with such shibboleths as “socialism” and “revolution.”
Analogies are too easily drawn with previous historical episodes, whether they be Europe in 1848, Russia in 1917, or Germany in 1933. They are intended mainly to draw false comparisons with political events and upheavals that turned out to be the opposite of what they initially claimed to be. Every era is different, and no outcome truly recapitulates what has gone before it.
Yet each upsurge is driven by a distinctive myth, a “storied” set of expectations configuring a future which true believers regard as both necessary and imminent. For Cassirer, all effective political movements view themselves as a cavalcades of “destiny”, as bearers of an aura of “inevitability”, even if they sorely disappoint their devotees the morning after they gain power. It is simply the master trope and the historical figurehead that matter.
But such “myths” conceal what is really happening in history, and that is the rousing of certain anguished, aimless, and disempowered groups of peoples from their historical torpor. The most brilliant analysis of the power of myth in politics was published in 1908 by French syndicalist theorist Georges Sorel in his Reflections on Violence.
Sorel, who is rarely read these days, was probably more of a real Marxist than most Marxists ever were during that period. Writing at a time when the Marxist revolutionary spirit of the late nineteenth century had been dampened and domesticated by parliamentary politics under the banner of “social democracy”, Sorel held that the technicalities of Marx’s economic theories did not ultimately matter. What mattered was the “myth”. “It is the myth in its entirety which is important.”(117).
It is the myth that compels decisive action through the threat of “violence.” What distinguished genuine revolutionary Marxism from parliamentarianism was the myth of a monumental and impending worker uprising throughout and against the capitalist system. Sorel referred to this figment as the “myth of the general strike.” Whether the strike actually came to pass was scarcely relevant. What counted was its power to motivate the working class to adopt a unified as well as its relentlessly committed posture once conditions became “ripe”, as the Marxists would say, for revolution and its capacity to frighten the ruling class into compliance once the upheaval got underway.
“Socialism”, Sorel wrote, was never a roadmap for formal governance, or set of instructions for the bureaucratic administration of an actual economy. Socialism was always the implicit principle resounding in the Jacobin cry for égalité throughout the turbulence of the French Revolution, and it was the driving force behind the “syndicalist” movement that gathered together the various trade unions and labor collectives during the Third Republic leading up to the World War I.
Syndicalism, which draws its name from the French word syndicat, or “trade union”, sought to mobilize worker affiliations into high-spirited and well-disciplined local collectives that would function in times of political crisis as what Marx had dubbed the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In that respect “syndicalism” referred to a highly co-ordinated structure of activist and like-minded local councils (the earliest version of Lenin’s “soviets”) who could be entrusted to pass control of economic systems of production to the workers rather than hand them over to some larger, more distant state apparatus.
Sorel rightly recognized that the Marx-Engels paradigm of revolution was way too vague and overly susceptible to a co-optation by a brutal state takeover of the workers movement itself, which happened during the Russian civil war with the death of Lenin and the accession of Stalin as well as the abolition of all real “socialist” elements by National Socialism through the triumph during the early 1930s of the Führer-Prinzip.
The real danger, not only for Sorel but also for Cassirer, lay in a confusion in the myth of revolution with the myth of the state. Once the state had crumbled and the statue of the autocrat thrown down, the myth-makers themselves must step aside and let the people govern. Unfortunately, that never happens. Instead the revolutionary leaders emerge as the new state power, reproducing the old oppressive apparatus while cynnically championing the familiar revolutionary myth.
That was the principal difference between the Stalinists and the Trotskyites in the 1920s. The latter sought to fashion an ongoing “internationale” that would continue to serve as agents of “permanent revolution” to challenge state power. The former, however, aimed to establish “socialism in a single country” through the solidification of state power, focusing less on promoting wider insurgencies abroad than on aiding military coup d’etats in select locations such as the Nazi-occupied countries of Eastern Europe immediately after 1945 followed by China in 1949 and Cuba in 1959.
The question of the legitimacy of a co-optation of revolutionary transformation by state machinations haunted Walter Benjamin when he wrote his well-known Critique of Violence (Zur Kritik der Gewalt) in 1921. Benjamin was preoccupied with the question of how violence might be “legitimated” in a revolutionary situation, or whether the handing down of decrees by revolutionary tribunals, including the execution of “enemies of the people”, could have the genuine “force of law.” The revolution in Russia at least at that point had gone helter-skelter and for the most part “lawless.”
Jacques Derrida took up the same problem in his lengthy and convoluted 1989 essay “Force of Law” where he argued that Benjamin’s distinction between a “mythical violence” that founds the state and its laws (rechtsetzende Gewalt) and the violence of the state in its enforcement of laws (rechterhaltende Gewalt) constitutes an “aporia” that can never be resolved through any system of jurisprudence per se. “Justice” cannot be conferred as an attribute of any act in the administration of the law, whether it be through the power of the state or as part of the revolutionary interregnum, because it remains “divine” or, as Benjamin would say, “messianic.” It is always a justice “to come”.
Thus the myth of the state and the myth of revolutionary violence as expressed in Sorel’s myth of the “general strike” must not by any measure be conflated with each other. The state always requires its own raison d’etat as contained in the laws. Once the gods who founded the state and ordained its laws have spoken, their words must be constantly interpreted by both clerics and jurists. The state, according to Benjamin, always functions in accordance with certain ordinances of logos or rationality based on “natural law.” The myth of the state is always that of Apollo, the law-giver.
But the violence of revolution is something altogether different. It is, in keeping with Nietzsche’s distinction, Dionysian. “For it is never reason that decides on the justification of means,” Benjamin writes, “and the justice of ends, but fate-imposed violence on the former and God on the latter”(294). Revolution must remain forever within the realm of myth, not of politics per se. Otherwise, “the revolution like Saturn devours its own children,” as Georges Danton is famously reported to have proclaimed during the horrors that he himself helped orchestrate in 1789.
As the global neoliberal regime dissolves before our very eyes and the revolutionary option grows increasingly tempting day by day, we must keep in focus this distinctive kind of Derridean “aporia.” Myth-charged terms like “socialism” or “populism” that fire the radical imagination in the thick of an increasingly chaotic global mise en scène can only be realized in the inauguration of a state power that brings an extended period of social upheaval to an end with a “law-preserving violence” that must be ultimately overturned by revolutionary violence down the road.
We must keep this historical truth carefully in mind when we become roused, if not “woke”, by a sloganeering politics that promises to turn the current state of affairs everywhere upside down and usher in a new age of “social justice.” That fact of history is not simply a “truth”; it is an iron law.
Hence, as Benjamin concludes his celebrated “reflections on violence,” the only signifier that “legitimates” the events of history is the “divine” power that manifests in the violence of history itself. That is the “eschatological” or “messianic” meaning of history itself, which remains always beyond history, as a transhistory that can never be captured in any political, let alone electoral, outcome of history.
Every attempt at a Gleichschaltung within the sphere of history is destined to shatter beneath the double-bladed sword of divine sovereignty, a sovereignty that does not guarantee the state, but the “sanctity of life”, as Benjamin says. The “dialectic of myth and enlightenment” invariably gives way to the revelation of the “living God” that guarantees the power of life, even the barest of “bare life” of the stateless homo sacer.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.