View from
The Center

Review: Waller Newell’s “Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger”

(Execution of Marie Antoinette, 16 October 1793. Executioner Charles-Henri Sanson shows her severed head to the crowd)

Beginning with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, proceeding through the luminaries of German Idealism and Romanticism—climaxing with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel—then marching beyond Hegel to Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger, Newell gives a reading of philosophy gone wrong. Horribly wrong.”

One of the great lies of modernity is that the ancient world was despotic, totalitarian, and authoritarian while we, by contrast, living in the afterglow of the Enlightenment (the greatest propaganda term ever invented), are freed from that ancient darkness and tyranny. The actual record of history calls this narrative into question. Modernity is witness to the “utopian genocides” of the last 200 years, beginning with the Terror of the French Revolution and proceeding with horrifying mass murderous regimes of the Bolsheviks, Nazis, Maoists, Khmer Rouge, ISIS, and others. Far from some glow of liberty, we live in the era of de-humanizing totalitarianism. How did we go from the noble humanism of the ancients and Christians to the de-humanizing tyranny and terror of the moderns?

This is the question that Waller Newell attempts to answer in his brilliant and provocatively insightful new book, Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger, which was released this past September. Beginning with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, proceeding through the luminaries of German Idealism and Romanticism—climaxing with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel—then marching beyond Hegel to Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger, Newell gives a reading of philosophy gone wrong. Horribly wrong. Or did it really go horribly wrong upon a second reading?

At first glance, Rousseau and the men and women inspired by him wanted freedom. Peter Neumann, in his recently translated work Jena 1800, called these men and women “free spirits,” who sought the liberation of the soul from what threatened to enslave it. As I noted in the conclusion of my review of that book, “ironically, their ideas have often ended up enslaving and tyrannizing billions more despite the promise of liberation and liberty they desired.” Most educational institutions and professors teach Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, even Nietzsche, and sometimes Heidegger as desiring a liberty denied by fraudulent bourgeois liberalism. I can recall from my first exposure to some of these philosophers (like Rousseau) in Advanced Placement European History as a high school student to my more immersive experience as a philosophy undergraduate that many of these philosophers were presented as champions of liberty. This is still the faulty and misleading presentation of them today which clouds our reading of them.

Newell offers a penetrating close and even sympathetic reading of these philosophers (especially Rousseau). But, in doing so, he also reveals the hate and venom at the core of their beliefs. It was not so much freedom that these men wanted, though they hid behind liberty’s rhetoric. They wanted war with groups of people they regarded as the corrupters of human innocence and happiness. Their call for liberty and liberation was a veiled expression for their hatred and desire for war and vengeance.

Rousseau, “the intellectual godfather of the French Revolution,” gave to the world the “loathsome vision” of the “bourgeois” man who is entirely self-centered, egoistical, and sentimentally apathetic or downright cruel. Today, that rhetoric is now commonplace. In Rousseau’s time, it was not. Rousseau’s incubation of hatred toward the commercially minded urban professional was then carried forward by subsequent philosophers, none more famous than Marx. More on him in a bit.

While Newell offers a sympathetically brilliant reading of Rousseau, in which Rousseau’s social contract is actually more limited and benign than the absolute and totalizing leviathan of Hobbes and the slow-growth totalitarianism of Locke’s parliamentarian commonwealth, the more notable thesis of the French philosopher (that bourgeois man is guilty of polluting the earth and corrupting humanity from an original happiness) was his darkest contribution to modern philosophy. It also proved to be the core tenet of his philosophy that gained posthumous traction among the intoxicated intellectual class. Someone was to blame for society’s many ills. And one group, the “bourgeois” of Rousseau’s imagination, was it. Thus, the bourgeois became the whipping boy, the people to be exterminated, in order to return to that original virtue and happiness lost by its corruption. 

Today’s conspiracies of an elite cabal destroying nations and entire races or today’s commonplace blame of white people for everything evil brings us on the verge of repeating the horrific mass genocides of the past century.

The French Revolutionaries, especially Robespierre, genuinely believed themselves following Rousseau’s teachings. For Newell, that should always take precedence when dealing with Rousseau despite his sympathetic reading of the eminent French philosopher. As Newell writes, “the Jacobins believed that they were returning the rest of France to the pristine condition of the Golden Age of the state of nature, incoherently blended with a collectivist republic, with no inequality of condition, a community of the virtuous and pure in which the individual would be totally submerged.” 

This spirit of bloodthirsty utopianism is what Newell terms “utopian genocide.” And it is at the root of all modernist tyranny regardless of the form it takes. The spirit behind this dark, insatiable, lust for tyrannical catharsis is from believing “if society can be ridded of its corrupt classes in a single massive blood-letting, then everyone will be released from the psychological torment of having to compete for property and status…We will live together in collective bliss and, the enemies of peace, justice. And freedom—the offending classes or races standing in the way of that collective bliss—having been wiped from the face of the earth, war, violence, and political exploitation and competitive strife will never arise again.” Today’s conspiracies of an elite cabal destroying nations and entire races or today’s commonplace blame of white people for everything evil brings us on the verge of repeating the horrific mass genocides of the past century. 

Rousseau’s contribution to modern tyranny and genocide, then, is through identifying a single group of people for all the world’s problems. Many contemporary political movements, even intellectuals and many university professors, share this putrid sentiment. One only need look through Twitter to see it. There is nothing new under the sun after all.

Fast forward to Hegel. Hegel, the greatest of the German Idealists and arguably the most influential philosopher who ever lived, is the next on the stage of Newell’s (unintentional) philosophical tyrants. Conceptualizing Hegel as a betrayer of freedom, though, is not new. Isaiah Berlin, more than half a century ago, articulated this same vision of Hegel.

Hegel’s grand contribution after Rousseau was to take the Rousseauian criticism of a bereft modernity and to confer onto it sanctification not by looking back to a lost golden age of love and happiness that politics would reclaim on behalf of the masses but by looking forward to the end of history. After a long and arduous bloodbath of struggle, this conflictual progress would bring the resolution of the tension between the individual and community, subject and object, freedom and duty. But that sanctification of modernity comes at the cost of blood, death, and destruction. There is no freedom and peace without destruction and war.

Newell’s reading of Hegel is a welcome corrective to the wrong-headed reading of Alexandre Kojève, who places too much emphasis on the master-slave dialectic and completely ignores the unhappy conscience that plays far more an important and essential role throughout The Phenomenology of Spirit. Newell also restores the theological profundity and implicit Platonism of Hegel to the fore of our understanding of him as a thinker. Yet, as Newell equally notes, we cannot ignore Hegel’s philosophy of progress emanating from terror, violence, and revolution. It is not rational debate and parliamentarian reforms that bring greater liberty and solidarity to people.

The notion that history and word unify over the course of time is the enduring contribution of Hegel to the philosophy of progress, which paves the way for an unintentional revolutionary tyranny of historical progressivism. The revised notion of “Heracleitan becoming” found in Hegel is through the “slaughter-bench” of the vicissitudes of history. Although Newell, as with Rousseau, gives a very important and sensitive reading of Hegel, we cannot ignore that Hegel does, in fact, argue that “nothing great can be accomplished in history without passion, self-interest and—frequently—violence.”

Hegel’s attempt to redeem modernity by offering a synthesis of the individual and community, subject and object, freedom and duty was carried forward by Marx. Marx shared with Rousseau the hatred of a corrupting class (the bourgeoisie). He also believed in the progressive fulfillment of freedom and happiness that history is unfolding, which he drew from Hegel. Marx combined the two with a vicious twist of materialism and historical struggle demanding the extermination of the corrupting class if that perfect freedom and happiness of history were to be consummated. Marx, therefore, takes the worst elements of Rousseau and Hegel and makes them the central aspect of his own philosophy of dialectical materialism and historicism.

A core aspect of Hegel’s political philosophy was the importance placed on organic community. The ultimate outcome of history is a community of happiness and freedom, wherein individuals find their dutiful fulfillment by participating in the rooted life the Spirit has bequeathed to them. While particular and nationalistic in Hegel, which becomes homogenous and universal in Marx, this belief in a community that History is working to bring freedom and happiness to is inherited and revised in Marx and serves as the basis for the universal community: the proletariat.

The proletariat is conceptualized by Marx as a “species-being” that is both communal and immanent, sharing the communitarian and eschatological spirit of Hegel. The immanent manifestation of this community of predestined freedom and happiness is through the vicissitudes of history and the struggle and conflict under capitalism, which will bring about revolution and the elimination of the corrupting class (the bourgeoisie) in order to arrive at that perfect state of existence at the end of history (at the end of the revolution). To belong to this community is the great forward-looking hope, an eschatological hope of transcendental freedom realized on earth.

Of course, one of the most significant problems with Marxism is not only that its many predictions failed to materialize but that “Marxism is notorious, especially in light of the Russian Revolution, for its lack of detail about kind of political institutions and constitutional safeguards should be established after the revolution.” All honest students of Marxism know that Marxism is properly anti-statist, which Newell constantly reminds the reader. At the end of the revolution, there is no more state because there are no more classes because the state is an expression of class power. But the transitionary phase between state capitalism to stateless communism is an empty wasteland in Marx, filled only with some vague mentions of the dictatorship of the proletariat and approval of revolutionary politics.

Furthermore, because Marxism identifies the bourgeois state and liberal constitutionalism as the arbiters of oppression and exploitation, Marxism necessarily thrives on an oppositional dialectic to the liberal constitutional state of modernity. Marxism needs this mythic evil to exist if it is to thrive. Marxism seeks to bury, if we can borrow from Khrushchev, the liberal state and its constitutional apparatus of rights because they are fraudulent lies from the Marxist perspective. 

These genocidal tyrants were not fake socialists but were genuinely trying to apply Marxist theory in the places where Marx left no blueprint for them to follow other than some vague utterances about approving of revolutionary politics.

Thus, as Newell correctly notes, the darker side of Marxism begins to appear: “Marxism’s goal is not the achievement of a good state to remedy the vices of an imperfect state. Its goal is the transcendence of all states through the transcendence of the final state, liberal democracy.” Marxism has always been, first and foremost, the enemy of liberalism and not fascism, traditionalism, or monarchy which are either backward remnants of historical progress yet unfulfilled (traditionalism and Monarchy) or manifestations of the liberal bourgeois ethos (fascism) that must be destroyed. Liberalism is the final enemy for Marxism to triumph against.

Once Marxism is understood as the self-messianic consciousness bringing about the extermination of the bourgeoisie and liberal constitutionalism, all bets are off, and it is easy to see how Marx’s antagonism toward liberalism, capitalism, and bourgeois democracy provided the spirit for the totalitarian terrors of socialist regimes in the 20th century that carried out their mass killings and revolutions against anyone deemed liberal, bourgeois, or capitalistic. These genocidal tyrants were not fake socialists but were genuinely trying to apply Marxist theory in the places where Marx left no blueprint for them to follow other than some vague utterances about approving of revolutionary politics.

What, then, was the real appeal of Marx? Newell writes, “the core of Marxism’s appeal is the yearning for wholeness, for an existence that unites personal and collective satisfaction.” In this way, Marx stands on the shoulders of Rousseau and Hegel, even as he equally flips both on their heads. Alienation, borrowed from Rousseau and others, alongside the vicious struggle of labor and labor’s alienation under capitalism (a radical revision of Hegel), causes the proletariat to yearn for a wholeness and happiness, which is denied to them by the liberal-capitalist state and its veil of lies over rights, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This new, and true, immanent community of the proletariat envisioned by Marxism will revolt and win its predestined promise. In this vision, anything goes to achieve that wholeness.

Marx’s assault on liberal modernity is then taken up by Nietzsche and Heidegger. As with his earlier readings, Newell offers a deeply insightful and paradigm-shifting analysis of the voluminous writings of Nietzsche. Contrary popular (mis)interpretation, though Nietzsche was a harsh critic of Platonism and Christianity, Newell shows how a careful reading of Nietzsche’s vast writings lends itself to nuance: Christianity, especially, embodied a form of self-overcoming with the saintly preoccupation with struggle against sin and one’s fallen nature to attain new life. This was, in fact, a great psychological leap forward, despite Christianity’s “slave morality.” The error of Christianity was in accepting a higher subjectivity and author of values beyond man—thus, the natural striving in Christianity invariably gave way to the ethic of compassion and providing comfort to the sick and dying, which provided the foundations for liberalism instead of saintly asceticism. Liberal compassion, as Nietzsche argued, was a mere and petty secularization of Christian ethics without Christian metaphysics. 

Nietzsche’s general contribution to terror and revolution, however, was through his rejection of modernity because it embodied a base and crude existence that was exterminating the noble and heroic spirit in man. This spirit was first nurtured by religion but now needed to be superseded by man as the creator of all things. Nietzsche’s rebellion against “egalitarian leveling” and his rejection of “socialism [as] every bit as much a symptom of base materialism and spiritual degradation as liberalism” is integral to his conceptualization of struggle against the modern world.

Thus, Nietzsche’s philosophy of struggle, which is the cornerstone of Selbstüberwindung, became the popularized inheritance he gave to his posthumous disciples. “There is no higher Platonic synthesis of the mind and the affects, Nietzsche is arguing, only a struggle,” Newell summarizes. This struggle against the corrupting and decadent bourgeois world, the spirit-crushing horror of communist-socialism, and the now exhausted (“God is dead”) Christian religion would necessitate the rise of the Overman (Übermensch), who would arise out of the ashes of modernity and bring new life to human existence. The Overman is the heroic individual who has achieved self-overcoming to bring new life into the dying bourgeois world, and the Overman is, by definition, a warrior against bourgeois modernity.

This struggle against the bourgeois world (Rousseau, Marx, and Nietzsche) and want for a perfect community (Hegel, most especially, but also Rousseau and Marx to lesser degrees) reached its final revolutionary climax in Heidegger.

Newell revisits Heidegger as a critic of technological tyranny, something deeply pertinent in the day we live. Today’s contemporary debates and nauseatingly shallow commentary on “free speech” over Twitter, censorship and algorithmic protocols on technology platforms, Bitcoin and cryptocurrency among other things are but surface excursions that do not state the obvious: We now live in a seemingly irreversible techno-digital world and have, in a sense, merged with that world in front of our eyes and at our fingertips. The fundamental question in this brave new world is whether we have submitted to technological enslavement or if technology can still serve Being and some degree of freedom.

Heidegger, long before the advent of the global Internet or enslaving social media applications, was attuned to the spiritual and humanistic danger that technology posed. Can humanity survive a technological apocalypse, or will humanity be enslaved to a catatonic state of existence not wholly dissimilar from the pathetic Last Man of Nietzsche’s prophetic warning? We must remember, here, that techno-tyranny is fundamentally a manifestation of bourgeois liberalism in its new pragmatism and that our struggle against it has to be communal if it is to have any salvific power. Heidegger, profound as he was, is still fighting the same battle as Rousseau more than 100 years later.

Heidegger, as Newell makes clear, does not believe in an apocalyptic rejection of technology. As Newell writes in assessment of Heidegger’s thought, we will either become “‘the Shepherd of Being’ [or suffer] absorption into technology’s standing reserve.” This is because technology springs from metaphysics. Nevertheless, because Heidegger represents “the furthest extreme yet in the denigration of historical progress” and has a greater urgency at this stage of history than those before, there is a “violent resoluteness to sweep away a world infected with the economistic and managerial politics of modern times.” It is no wonder that Heidegger embraced Nazism as a hope to free the West from its enslavement to Anglo-Saxon techno-economism. The all-or-nothing struggle envisioned by Heidegger for this freedom came from a fear of how techno-materialistic tyranny can easily end up cascading into destructive revolution.

I began by noting that these philosophers examined in Newell’s fantastic book are really philosophers of resentment. At least Nietzsche openly admitted it though it is not that hard to see it in Rousseau and Marx, when one is not poisoned by their acidic ideologies. Their liberty is premised on a hatred of the other, in whatever form and conjured-up image it takes: the bourgeois, the master, the capitalist, the parasitic materialist, the Christian, the Last Man, the technocratic modern. In that hatred of the other, the seed of tyranny and revolution was nurtured—not as a want for liberty but as a desire to punish those who had taken away some past or future birthright of freedom and happiness. The rhetoric we hear in today’s politics should give us pause as to whether we learned anything from the most brutal and bloody century in human existence. Newell’s heroic and important work reminds us that we are always, since Rousseau, on the precipice of terror, revolution, and tyranny: “But when we think of the words ‘populism’ and ‘global elite,’ everyone senses what those forces are and how the hostility between them is building toward who knows what outcome in the century ahead.”.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.