YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 19, 2014

Thomas Carlyle, German Romanticism, and the double bind of modernity

thomascarlyle [Thomas Carlyle’s idea of politically correct sublimity:]…In Goethe’s mind, the first aspect that strikes us is its calmness, then its beauty; a deeper inspection reveals to us its vastness and unmeasured strength.  This man rules and is not ruled.  The stern and fiery energies of a most passionate soul lie silent in the centre of his being; a trembling sensibility has been inured to stand, without flinching or murmur, the sharpest trials.  Nothing outward, nothing inward, shall agitate or control him.  The brightest and most capricious fancy, the most piercing and inquisitive intellect, the wildest and deepest imagination; the highest thrills of joy, the bitterest pangs of sorrow: all these are his, he is not theirs.  While he moves every heart from its steadfastness, his own is firm and still: the words that search into the inmost recesses of our nature, he pronounces with a tone of coldness and equanimity; in the deepest pathos, he weeps not, or his tears are like water trickling from a rock of adamant.  He is king of himself and his world; nor does he rule it like a vulgar great man, like a Napoleon or Charles II, by the mere brute exertion of his will, grounded on no principle, or on a false one: his faculties and feelings are not fettered or prostrated under the iron sway of Passion, but led and guided in kindly union under the mild sway of Reason; as the fierce primeval elements of Nature were stilled at the coming of Light, and bound together, under its soft vesture, into a glorious and beneficent Creation.

[Carlyle, continued:] This is the true Rest of man; no stunted unbelieving callousness, no reckless surrender to blind Force, no opiate delusion; but the harmonious adjustment of Necessity and Accident, of what is changeable and what is unchangeable in our destiny; the calm supremacy of the spirit over its circumstances; the dim aim of every human soul, the full attainment of only a chosen few….[German Romance, Vol. IV, 17-18].

[Clare:] Historicizing the double-bind.  Since the inception of modernity (especially after the seventeenth century), conservative “liberal” institutions have placed their inhabitants in double-binds, transmitting libertarian ideals while simultaneously (and vaguely) delimiting the institutional transformation that would make these ideals fully realizable.  Treasured liberal virtues of free thought and tolerance of intellectual difference need to be shored up and reinforced by institutions that boldly imagine structures capable of systematically advancing and protecting autonomy; not only emancipation from the burden of the antidemocratic past, but informed participation in collective decision-making.  As moderns of course, we are supposed to be willing to dissolve conventional categories to follow the dynamics of change; we allow our minds freely to speculate and experiment, no matter who may be offended.

As social critics, we supposedly bring to the humanities and social sciences the same attention to minute empirical detail that a biochemist applies to the study of molecular structure.  Although every serious artist studies the world with the concentration of scientists and puts out, similarly darting habits of mind will be absent from academics who study each other for career cues then lapse into strategic silences.  Inattention to psychological nuance in primary source materials yields the field to practitioners of psychological warfare and other tireless propagandists who, like Thomas Carlyle, while apparently affirming the values of the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, have sought to undo the democratic momentum of the scientific revolution, attacking the self-confidence of newly empowered groups (the increasingly literate lower orders of the bourgeois democracies) with cautionary tales that stigmatize the questing, critical (Lockean) intellect that exposes “the ill designs of the rulers” as sources of social catastrophe.


The pseudo-moderate men make no sense: Carlyle, in one breath, denounces “the reckless surrender to blind force”; in almost the next he praises “the harmonious adjustment of Necessity and Accident.”  The “will,” we have already learned, is a “mere brute exertion,” ruled by “Passion,” unless led by “mild Reason”–madly defined as that “Rest” discerning what “is changeable and what is unchangeable in our destiny” as if the formulation of correct social policy (an intervention) is not only obvious to the quieted mind but not canceled by “destiny.”

In his sketch of Goethe, Carlyle has given us a rectified Wandering Jew recognizable now as a conservative psychoanalyst/academic, a “scientific” harmonizer at once promoting “the temper of a third party” (today called “the observing ego”) and the stoic adjustment to social forces that may be incomprehensible and certainly are not of his making.  History is marshaled to underline the inevitability of human weakness; coolness and kindness are attained when he objectively understands the power of the past “in the formation of his character and mode of thought.”  Here is the proof of superior self-control, a quality glaringly absent in the weeping, willful, defiant lower orders: masochism builds character.


I want to suggest why, even in the most exhaustive historical treatments of the Third Reich, the psychological aspects of “the National Socialist past” are the least developed and understood.[1]  We should look to the repressive character of academic politics since the late 1930s, intensified, but not initiated by “the Cold War.”  No societies, even those with robust Left intelligentsias, have formulated satisfactory explanations for popular support of authoritarian regimes and genocidal practices in this century.

The deficiencies of academe today may be partly traced to the eerie quiet that followed World War II regarding the nature of fascism, a richly controversial subject in the relatively wide-open 1930s.  One might think that “the Holocaust” would have provoked tireless efforts to decode the symbols and narratives that undermine democratic morale.  Instead we have been served a very few crude explanations, each interesting and perhaps useful, but too narrow and unempathic fully to explain Hitler’s mass appeal, even in the working class.[2]  Why do we not demand the teaching of competing systematic accounts of Nazi ideology, scrutinizing those features also found in the discourse and practice of  Progressive reform, or to Nazism’s corporatist precursors in Wilhelmine Germany and other hierarchical societies, Western and non-Western alike?

In my view, the reticences reflect the prestige of “holistic””structural-functionalism,”[3] the victorious counter-Enlightenment that purged the classical liberals, tending to legitimate only different varieties of conservatives and reactionaries: a coalition of “centrist” or “moderate” corporatist liberals, and “left-wing” romantic anticapitalists, defining themselves against “right-wing” or “fascist” laissez-faire conservatives.  Rallying its forces in the late 1930s, the new “non-élitist” cultural anthropology/”new historicism” tended to proscribe the critical tool of empiricism, employing an ostensibly more advanced, but arguably pseudo-modern, protofascist concept of “the individual-in-society” pursuing “equilibrium,” not enlightenment.[4]

Structural functionalists following Talcott Parsons have co-opted the terms and methods of science to mystify social structures and functions, substituting their “interdisciplinary” social science for the soul-less “economic determinism” ushered in by the Individualists: materialists such as Locke, Mandeville, and Smith who fixated upon relations between men and things, displacing the prior preoccupation with relations between men and men in that healthier world where economics and morality were fused.[5]  Hence all of American intellectual history could be organized around the “tension” between “individual and community,” suggesting that self-control, curbing our evil propensities, was the key to social cohesion, and this was a quality that rulers had or could display as they faced down and soothed screaming mobs and other self-interested parties.  (See Boas above and compare to Henry A. Murray’s “personology.”)  This idealist formulation dominates the profession of history today; current guides to upwardly-mobile youth include “pragmatists” William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty.



                [1] See Tim Mason, “Open Questions on Nazism,” People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981): 205-210.  Cf. Wolfgang Benz, “Warding Off The Past,” Hitler, The Holocaust, and the Historians’ Debate, ed. Peter Baldwin (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990): 198.  Benz wants the social psychological processes more fully explored, but does not acknowledge that social psychology was invented by antidemocratic social theorists.  I see “psychology” as coterminous with the recuperation of an accurate personal and social history/critical sociology, all institutional sources of coercion and duplicity in place.

                [2] Many conservative historians argue that fascism was rooted in the period between the wars and cannot be theorized.  But liberals and Marxists disagree.  For example, Marxists argue that fascism is always present in crisis-ridden late capitalism, its productive relations and capitalist forms in increasing irreconcilable conflict appearing as monopoly capitalism or “social democracy”; or, fascism is a response to capitalist crises, but crucially is a mobilization of the ruined middle-class that moves both against big capital and the revolutionary workers; or capitalism will produce cyclical downturns, but not necessarily crises (which are caused by bungling leaders and bad political decisions which then allowed the rise of crazy Hitler, a unique event); or Nazism was the product of crazy, cynical Hitler and his deluded German followers (the inheritors of German Romanticism lacking a developed pluralistic bourgeoisie, unlike Mussolini); or Hitler could not have existed without Stalin.  I prefer the approach of the German historian Fritz Fischer in Germany’s Aims in the First World War (Norton, 1967) which stresses the similarity in objectives between the German imperialism of the Wilhelmine and Nazi periods; hence the weight given to Hitler’s demonic personality and its aberrant hold over the duped masses is diminished by crucial archival evidence (retrieved by Fischer and unavailable until after the second world war) demonstrating that the German military and industrial élite stage-managed the diplomacy leading to the outbreak of hostilities in World War I to make Germany appear as innocent victim of the Entente powers.

There is an important debate between “intentionalists” and “functionalists” re the dynamics of the Final Solution; however the psychoanalytic model, ostensibly opposed to the instrumentalism of the functionalists is not an alternative.  Psychoanalytic theories of Nazi antisemitism are biologized and mirror the reform-or-ruin adjurations of post-French Revolution conservatives (and before that all antidemocratic “classical” theorists): overly repressive (aristocrats, fathers, superegos) should be reformed to prevent catastrophic revolts from below (the bloody, tyrannical People, Id merged with seductive Mothers); this may produce contradictions in the thought of its leading historians.  Saul Friedländer argues simultaneously that Germans in general were unenthusiastic about Jewish extermination during the late 1930s-early 1940s and that the same Germans liberalized family relations in succeeding generations to give us hope.  For a classic statement of the Stalinist 1930s view of fascism as capitalism in decay, see Joseph Freeman, “The Meaning of Fascism,” (favorable review of R. Palme Dutt, Fascism and Social Revolution), New Masses, 10/2/34, 34-36.  For a non-Marxist account of Hitler’s rise to power, then Third Reich business policies see David Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological change and industrial development in Western Europe from 1750 to the present (Cambridge U. P., 1969): 359-419.

For the second position (that “late capitalism”is not necessarily fascist), see Stephen Eric Bronner, Moments of Decision (N.Y.: Routledge, 1992).  For historiographical essays, see Peter Loewenberg, “Psychohistorical Perspectives on Modern German History,” Journal of Modern History 47 (1975): 229-279.  Also, Pierre Ayçoberry, The Nazi Question (Pantheon, 1981): Chapter 10 (for Freudian interpretations); Saul Friedländer, “From Anti-Semitism to Extermination: A Historiographical Study of Nazi Policies Toward The Jews and an Essay in Interpretation,” Yad Vashem Studies 16 (1984): 1-50.

The other (related) set of debates concerns whether or not fascism (or Nazism, which is not necessarily “fascist” because of the centrality of antisemitism to its ideology) is rooted and sui generis, or in any way comparable to tendencies in the “democratic” West, and most sensitively, whether or not “the Holocaust” can be compared with other forms of group violence.  See Tim Mason, “Intention and Explanation: A Current Controversy about the Interpretation of National Socialism,” The Führer State: Myth and Reality, ed. Gerhard Hirschfeld and Lothar Kettenacker (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981): 23-40; also Peter Baldwin, “Introduction,” Reworking The Past (Beacon, 1990) for a review of these issues insofar as they impact on “the historian’s debate” (Nolte vs. Habermas, et al, 1988 and after) regarding continuity and rupture in German history.  Conservatives seem to have set the agenda for postwar history of Germany, Nazis, and antisemitism; see Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? The Dispute About The Germans’ Understanding of History, trans. Knowlton and Cates (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1994): All these eminent scholars use the terms of enlightenment to “unmask” each other; no one reports the contours of Hitler’s antisemitism as it is revealed in the texts quoted in my essay, perhaps because their organicist assumptions would become apparent.

Deborah Lipstadt takes a similar line in Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (N.Y.: Free Press, 1993).  Though ostensibly defending the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Lipstadt discards any attempt at comparative analyses of twentieth-century genocides as right-wing relativism akin to Holocaust denying.  On Pol Pot and the sorely tried Khmer Rouge: “…what they did was quite different from the Nazis’ annihilation of the Jews, which was ‘a gratuitous act carried out by a prosperous, advanced, industrial nation at the height of its power’“ (212).  Nor does she correctly report a key point in Nazi propaganda and in their precursors: Referring to the conspiracy theory of the Illuminati, she claims “Those who unearthed this conspiracy were able to impose a logical coherence on the seeming irrational nature of their charges–bankers aiding communists–by arguing that the bankers anticipated that the communists would create a world government that they would then appropriate and control” (37).  This is the only time the book deals with the seemingly irrational claim that Jews were both capitalists and communists.  But it was Hitler’s contention that all Jews were materialists destroying normal racial harmony, and that the Bolsheviks were not communists but the secret representives of finance capital.  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion claimed that Jewish communists would swindle the masses into overthrowing their nationalist masters, then would turn the masses over to the bankers who would fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham and the Chosen People; i.e., the switch is missing from Lipstadt’s account.

                [3] See Barbara Heyl, “The Harvard “Pareto” Circle,”Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 4 (1968): 316-334.  Talcott Parsons changed his earlier (less organicist?) views perhaps as a result of the Pareto seminars organized by the charismatic physiologist Lawrence Henderson, an admirer of Mussolini, in the early 1930s; the Paretans were seen as fascists by their liberal opponents at Harvard.  Participants included Crane Brinton, Henry A. Murray, Clyde Kluckhohn, Joseph Schumpeter, Bernard De Voto, and Robert Merton  However, after sketching a horrifying picture of fascist social theory at Harvard the author concludes that we are finished with such ideas, thanks to the alliance with the Soviet Union during World War II.  Merton is a key figure in the history of science as presently constituted, relativistically emphasizing the shaping power of institutions against 19th century optimism and claims for science’s relative autonomy.  See Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science; The Merton Thesis, edited with Introduction by I. Bernard Cohen (Rutgers U.P., 1990): 1-111, for a glowing anticommunist account of Merton’s eye-opening salutary effect on a hitherto vaguely Marxist (hence, narrow, dogmatic, utopian) British-dominated discipline: “[Mentioning earlier works of the 1930s and 40s on science and society:] It is notable, however, that these works were all produced by socially-minded scientists and were not informed by considerations of professional sociologists [i.e., Durkheim], but exhibited instead a liberal or vague Marxism.  In fact [!] such writings–almost exclusively by British men of science–tended to be more concerned with the potentialities of science as a major molding force of a better society than with an analysis of the possible effects or influences of society on the course of science and its stages of development” (4-5).

                [4] See Carolyn F. Ware, The Cultural Approach to History, ed. for the American Historical Association (N.Y.: Columbia U.P., 1940): 3-16, also Introductory Note.  This source was recommended by Leo Marx at the American Studies Association meeting, November 1990, to demonstrate the links between his generation of scholars and the New Left: they were all pluralists, opposed to hegemony and élitism.  The élitism under assault by Progressives was “scientific history” which led the investigator into uncharted waters.  The “new social history” is drawn from this “centrist” and “bottoms up” ideological tendency.  See also the first issue of Commentary, 1945, which aligned itself with the Progressive movement.

                [5] E.g., Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx:The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology (University of Chicago Press, 1977).  This subtly antisemitic and overtly anti-materialist specimen of cultural anthropology follows Sombart, Weber, and Parsons; it was based on lectures delivered at Princeton in 1973.


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