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Politics without Vision
“An outstanding study of twentieth-century political thought, conceptually challenging but accessibly written. Strong's unmistakable voice is at once lyrical and sober, and Politics without Vision is erudite and illuminating at every turn”—Patchen Markell, University of Chicago

“This is an important book that has needed to be written, that Tracy Strong is perhaps uniquely positioned to write, and that some of us have been waiting for him to write for a long time. He does so expertly and knowledgeably with an astonishing grasp of a rich variety of texts.”—Joshua Foa Dienstag, University of California, Los Angeles


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The Introduction to
Politics Without Vision
Thinking Without a Banister in the Twentieth Century
by Tracy B. Strong
Everything goes past like a river and the changing taste and the various shapes of men make the whole game uncertain and delusive. Where do I find fixed points in nature, which cannot be moved by man, and where I can indicate the markers by the shore to which he ought to adhere?

–Marginal note to Immanuel Kant’s copy of Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime

He believes in banisters because he believes in his weakness and his fear.

–Friedrich Nietzsche, “Notes for Lou”

It might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the “truth” one could still barely endure.

–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil


DENKEN OHNE GELÄNDER (THINKING WITHOUT A BANISTER) IS THE phrase that Hannah Arendt used to describe the status of and demands on thought in the modern era. It meant for her that humans no longer could rely on any transcendental grounding to finalize their thinking—be that God, or nature, or history. She saw this as both fearful and an opening of possibilities previously shut down: for the first time in perhaps twenty-five hundred years, humans could think on the basis of thought alone. Indeed, to think authentically at all could be engaged in only without outside support. Th ought, she said, could be “absolutely and uncompromisingly of this world.”

That that hope and that possibility arise in the context of the revolutions in human affairs that mark the twentieth century is part of the story. Indeed, the First World War marks a coming into consciousness of developments that had long been taking more and more evident shape in the West. The events of that war brought home to an incredulous Europe and America that political and social events had a logic and a course of their own, with awful results, subject neither to the restraints that might have been imposed by the intentions of leaders nor to those that might derive from a preexistent moral community. A century that had started with a celebration of the possibility of the rational control of human events by human beings had transmogrified itself into the frightening pointlessness of the Battle of Verdun, where, during ten months in 1916, more than three- quarters of a million casualties were incurred in a struggle over a front line that never varied much more than two miles. An estimated forty million artillery shells were fired, and the ground was so poisoned by iron that little would grow there for several decades after. One might say that World War I marks the beginning of the full recognition that Western men and women lived increasingly in a time “aft er utopia” when the prospect of the rule of rationality over human affairs seemed to fade, persisting only as a mocking smile that reminded one of earlier hopes.

The century had only just begun. The 1920s were, on both sides of the Atlantic, a period of artistic and sensual flourishing, marked by sharp political conflicts between classes and interests. The surprising triumph and survival of the Bolshevik Revolution, the beginning of the end of colonialism, the eruption of the nationalist revolutions in China and elsewhere—all these and more mark a new place for politics in human affairs. In several texts, Friedrich Nietzsche had anticipated a transformation of the politics of the modern period into “great politics” and of their transformation into a Geisterkrieg— which might be translated as an ideological war but is better thought of as a war for the Geist. He writes with chillingly foresight: “The concept of politics has been completely subsumed in a Geisterkrieg, all understandings of power have been blown up into the air—there will be wars the like of which none has ever been on earth.” A war for the Geist is a war, one might say, for λόγος—for the lógos—a word that means not only “word” but also “that by which thought is expressed.” Nietzsche was here making a claim about the development of war in the century that was to come. Modern politics, as he pointed out, is characterized by the fact that the entire populace is involved. What is the relation of “great politics” to the Geisterkrieg? Great politics had brought all members of society into political conflict, inevitably political conflict with all members of other societies, a recognition that is, as we shall see, at the core of the thought of Carl Schmitt. Nietzsche had, perhaps, observed this firsthand in the Franco-Prussian War, where the Prussian victory had not only mobilized movements like the Paris Commune and cost France two of its provinces but also meant the imposition on the defeated country as a whole of reparations to the sum of five billion francs (a sum incidentally in the range that Nietzsche once spoke of as the cost of “great politics”). One way of expressing what Geisterkrieg means is to say that whereas in the past wars were fought of the distribution of what there was, in the future (that is to say, in our times) wars will be fought to determine what there is to distribute. The wars of the twentieth century have been, as Nietzsche predicted, wars for the dominion of the earth.

So Nietzsche’s prediction is that this developing kind of international politics (perhaps the first truly international politics: we forget how different the politics of the twentieth century were from those of, say, the eighteenth) will give rise to unprecedented wars, in part because of the involvement of the populace at large. There is much truth to this prediction. Arno Mayer, for instance, has carefully analyzed the way in which the politics pursued by Wilson and Lenin were not only remarkably like each other in their conception of what politics was about but also radically different from those pursued by Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and most of the other leaders at Versailles. Clemenceau and his friends wanted to make sure that war never got out of hand again, as the Great War clearly had. They wanted, therefore, to make sure that the waging of war remained in the hands of and for the purposes of the elite. Wilson and Lenin sought, rather, to remake the very stuff of politics—in Wilson’s famous phrase when asking Congress to declare war, to make “the world safe for democracy.” (Note the ambiguity.)

As world history developed, it favored Wilson and Lenin. The war had involved the population as a whole: it was total, as Raymond Aron was later to call it. (Note that the century of total war is also the century of totalitarianism.) For Wilson and Lenin, the purpose of war was to extend certain social relations, that is, to make concrete and universal dynamics potentially inherent in political and social developments since, say, the French Revolution. Nietzsche sees the same thing as Wilson and Lenin, but with much more anxiety. He writes in 1882: “Kriege über das Princip von Besser-Nichtsein-als-Sein [wars over the principle of better-not-to-be-than-to-be].” He means that, eventually, wars will not be fought to assert what one is, let alone to achieve it; rather, they will have no possible particular goal, precisely so as not to come to an end. (Here, one might ask oneself what has really ended with the “end” of the Cold War?) Arendt will see much of the same in her analysis of modern imperialism.

Such were the wars that were started with World War I and saw their fuller development with the rise of fascism and National Socialism. Since the defeat in 1945 of the Axis powers, much of the political thought in the West has been devoted to developing theory that would keep “it” from happening again. Many of the distinctions that political theorists and liberal thought in general have, after 1945, drawn between thinkers are, in the end, answers dependent on a tacit question: “What is the relation of this thought to the Nazis?” So stunning a book as Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, in which Carl Schorske lays out the various strands in thought and culture in that most modernist of cities in 1900, is, finally, tacitly controlled by the question of whether each strand of thought led to, resisted, or was too blithely ignorant of National Socialism. Judith Shklar can, thus, in a review of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, a book about the making of the modern “self,” suggest that a problem with the book is that it is instructive only to those “who fear skepticism more than evil.” In American political science, Robert Lane was only one of those who argued that too much participation is a bad thing for democracy and that to function properly the political realm requires, as Lane put it in Political Ideology, “a touch of anomie.” There is nothing wrong with reading the present through the past: doing so does, however, constitute a sorting device that places thinkers into anachronistic categories. (I do not deny that anachronisms have their important uses.) As we shall see, however, if we bracket, as I intend to in this book, the tacit “Nazism?” question, unexpected similarities begin to appear before 1933.

I do not suggest with this that we should forget that which I intend to bracket. Two of my authors were members of the Nazi Party; another was the often brutal leader of a revolutionary movement; some form of what we can too easily call elitism appears in almost all of them. It is, however, the conviction of this book that the focus on “prevention” has shaped most of the writing of political theory since the Second World War and that this focus has narrowed the possibilities for political thought in not always useful fashions. The thinkers I consider in this book are neither democrats nor liberals, at least in the Anglo-American sense of those terms (Arendt may be a partial exception on the first count). But it is also my conviction that, by examining their thought in a nonrejectionist manner, one can identify what I might call turning points—points of divergence at which they started down one of several possible paths. For some, perhaps because of the availability of apparently tempting paths, the choices were disastrous—Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt come most immediately to mind, but others are in their company. It is, however, to recover these turning points that I write, a desire to see whether there are roads not taken or, at least, less traveled by. I suggest, then, that, instead of writing to make sure “it” never happens again, we have to open some doors that have been closed down in order to explore paths that come aft er those doors but were not taken. This enterprise is not without its dangers—the paths that were taken sometimes have more appeal than is often allowed and not only to unthinking people: the seductions they offer are real, even if they should be refused. It is also the case that the notion of a turning point is misleading. If one was prevented from adhering to Nazism because one was Jewish (as might have been the case with men like Ernst Kantorowicz and Leo Strauss), was this a turning point or simply a piece of moral luck?

In 1960, Sheldon Wolin published a book he entitled Politics and Vision. It was both a history of Western political theory—designed in great part to counter the neopositivist orientation of George Sabine’s dominant A History of Political Theory—and an act of political theorizing. Wolin argued that the political theory of the West could be understood as a series of “visions,” the overall course of which manifested a progressive evanescence of the place of the political in human experience. The last chapter—“The Age of Organization and the Sublimation of Politics”—portrayed a victory of the organizational and bureaucratic realm over the political. The first edition stopped, as it would have had to, with the late 1950s: it retained the possibility of some hope for a future recovery of the political in human life.

The book was of enormous importance to the generation of political theorists who came of age in the 1960s and after. It showed what was wrong with academic political theory as it was mostly practiced in Anglophone countries; it offered hope and pointed at a way actually to begin to do political theory again without disappearing into overly refined analytic distinctions, or retreating into esotericism, or being smothered by historical context. It made real progress setting out a new path. And, indeed, for a few years, perhaps a decade, political life in America seemed to follow the path that Wolin had sketched out: the civil rights movement, the Free Speech Movement, the early anti–Vietnam War campaigns. The promise of the times, however, congealed and fractured—a cold wind was blowing against it. In 2006, Wolin brought forth a second expanded edition, close to double in length. The appearance of hope that remained a small but distinct light in the first had disappeared. The message was now that the elimination of politics from Western experience was all but accomplished and had been replaced by what he called inverted totalitarianism. Democracy as a form of human experience (and not as a form of government) was “fugitive,” a glimmer likely soon to be extinguished.

Notable in the second edition is the amount of time that Wolin spent on rejecting what he took to be the baleful post- 1960 influences of Marx and Nietzsche (neither of whom had played any significant role in the first edition). In addition, liberalism—mostly in its Rawlsian and Deweyite incarnations—was, for all its decency, dismissed as resting on too thin a reed of supposedly reasonable, supposedly shared doctrines. If the first book had held out hope and pointed at a way, the second was angry and despairing. Why so? (Not that there is not much to be angry at and much to despair of.) It is striking that Wolin paid little or no attention to many of those to be considered in this book: little or nothing on Arendt, Freud, Heidegger, Schmitt, or Weber. Lenin had been considered only in the last few pages of the first edition. Nietzsche, however, was now the subject of a whole chapter and is att acked as a pretotalitarian (even if partially unwitt ingly). Wolin had paid little attention to these writers because, I think, they do not rely on—indeed, they reject—the notion of a vision. Lacking a vision, they are, for Wolin, at best empty and more likely dangerous. His new attention to Nietzsche (and to Marx, in separate full chapters) was an attack on figures whom he saw as pretending to have a vision: they were doubly dangerous for him.

I have chosen in this book to write about precisely those figures in the twentieth century who reject the need for, and the possibility of, a “vision.” They think, or try to think, without a banister. A premise or claim of this book is that, if political theory is to attempt to be adequate to the politics of the twentieth (and now the twenty-first) century, it must think without a banister and without any nostalgia for one. The point of examining in this book those who do so (and there could have been others) is to gain some insight into and even lessons about how to think without a banister—and, since there are dangers here, also how not to. I thus think that, in the end (if only in the end), the vision texts of the political theory canon that ranges from Thucydides to sometime in the nineteenth century are, to some significant degree, incapable of taking into account the political developments of the twentieth century.

Whether or not there are “perennial” philosophical problems that have been with us since the Greeks, it seems to me important to realize that the past century brings to the forefront questions of a different order. My choice of thinkers here is governed by the hope and the presumption that the writers engaged here can provide us with the possibility of achieving the elements of an understanding of the too often awful politics of the last century. I do not mean that we must adopt their stance unquestioningly; I do mean that they are among those who sought to confront the actualities of the past century (and, thus, of this one). Finally, it is worth noting that three of those I consider in this book—Schmitt, Heidegger, and Arendt—live long enough to reflect on both world wars, the rise of fascism, the Cold War, the growth of Third World nationalism and anticolonialism, the Vietnam War, and to some degree the events we have come to call the Sixties.

It is, thus, also my conviction that the writers considered here share more than is often realized. This is not simply a matter of none of them being liberals. Rather, I find that they share common approaches to the understanding and analysis of political and social questions. To anticipate too much, they all seek a way to make available that which cannot be directly known; they are all concerned with what they see as the progressive mediocrity of the Western human condition (in this they are not alone: one thinks of Mill, Tocqueville, Emerson, Thoreau); they all place some degree of hope in the possibility of some form of leadership; they are all concerned with the effects of two thousand years of Christianity on human sensibility. They are disillusioned with the capacity of rationality and knowledge to resolve or solve the human condition they see around them. They all call on human beings to be capable of not living what Thoreau in Walden called “lives of quiet desperation.” And not without cause: this is not a case simply of disaffected individuals. When asked in 1980 about the impact of the First World War, Roger Baldwin (the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union), who was thirty at the outset of the war, replied: “It was the end of our faith in reason.”

In this introduction’s first epigraph, Kant reflected on the apparent lack of moorings that humans (now?) encounter. His philosophy was an attempt to provide such moorings on the basis of human capacities alone. In fact, such doubts and such seeking are generally associated with what is meant by modernity. I want now to look back at that development. What follows is an attempt to extract from a sketch of the genealogy of modernity a set of categories by which to interrogate the present and to set some terms for thinking in and of it. Marking the beginning of what we (Westerners, Anglo-American-European, mainly white, most often male) mean by modernity is not so much a hopeless task as it is an argument about what the most salient traits of that modernity would be. Hegel thought that Christianity and the advent of subjective freedom marked the transition between that which was not modern and the modern. We can say this, at least: to be modern means, first, to have the possibility of experiencing the world, or portions of it, as if it or they raised self-referential questions. A self- referential question is one that raises the question of what something (actually) is—it is a critical question. The (at least initial) experience of modern art characteristically raises the question, “Is that art?” and, thus, of what art is; that is, the secure knowledge of what art is had been called into question by, for example, Duchamp’s Fountain. One of the reasons that World War I can mark the beginning of the modern century is the experience that many had, both during and after those events, not just of “How can this be happening?” but even more of “What is it that is happening?”

To raise the question of what something actually is, one must forgo any sense that human action could be judged by a standard external and transcendent to it. Call this the necessity and the gift of skepticism. What is gained, however, is what modernity makes possible—a confrontation with the nature or essence or being of some activity. It is in the nature of modern art, modern music, as well as, I would argue, modern politics to raise the question, “Is that art [music, politics, etc.]?” So it is my contention that the thought of those considered here raises ontological questions, about politics, about art, and, indeed, about thinking, as Heidegger asked in a question that can be only ambiguously translated: “Was heisst denken?” (What is called, has the name of, means, thinking?). (Thus the question is raised, one hopes, about philosophy itself.)

When Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra first comes into a town, he goes to the marketplace and announces the arrival of the overman who will supplant the last men. The crowd responds: “Give us this last man…. Turn us into this last man. Then we shall make you a gift of the overman.” Zarathustra’s problem is, not that he is not understood, but that the understanding that people have of him is incorrigibly wrong: it mistakes everything. One would have to change the person for him or her to get it right. So do all the writers considered here—writing as they do without reliance on external authority and, thus, with reliance on their words alone—have a problem in convincing people. They have to provide, not only arguments, but also the framework in which those arguments make sense.

To elaborate this last claim: If to read someone or some text as a modern means to read it as raising the question of what something in its nature is, it thus, second, means to read someone or some text in relation to the Enlightenment. We might think of the Enlightenment as the origin and development of the critical tradition, a tradition that found its classical formulation in Kant’s philosophy, although it certainly did not spring fully grown from the last half of the eighteenth century. Kant sought to uncover the conditions that had to be the case for some human action (e.g., knowing) to be possible. Th e critical tradition—later to find its political and human expression in, inter alia, Marx’s “critique of political economy” (the subtitle of Capital) and Nietzsche’s and Freud’s turning of the critique back onto the self—sought to unmask and set forth the hidden world that made the world that appeared to us have the quality of appearing to be the case. The question of what something actually was, not in its appearance, but in its being, or in its essence, or in its nature, was a question that called for revealing that which had lain hidden.

To read something in relation to the Enlightenment—to read and think critically—means necessarily to raise the question of the relation of one’s thought to the past, to that which came before, to that by which one is shaped and from which one emerges. Thus, Marx could write in The XVIIIth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” and James Joyce would echo the feeling in Ulysses when Stephen Daedalus says that “the past is a nightmare” from which he is “trying to awake.” But how might one convey this sense of illegitimacy in relation to all pasts? Some of the writers considered in this book write in such a manner as to make it seem that they had read nothing, as if the ideas they put forth spring fully developed from their soul and body. Nietzsche is a prime example of this, but one finds something of the same in Freud, and the style is centrally characteristic of Wittgenstein’s thought. They do this, one assumes, because they feel it important that their thought strike the reader as completely fresh, as if the past had no testament. They are not the first to do this—much of Rousseau’s work is written in the same manner. Writing as if one had no antecedents derives from the wish that one’s words affect the reader at a level below assessment, such that they become part of assessment itself. Thus, these writers want to change the way in which the world is experienced: godlike, they do wish to make all things new. It is worth noting here that it is not the case that thinkers were, in fact, therefore genially content to pay no attention to the world of knowledge around them. Nietzsche is often read as if he knew Greek and Latin and not much else. While The Birth of Tragedy was, despite being the first publication of an anticipated major scholar, notoriously written without footnotes, recent work has shown that Nietzsche was, in fact, extensively acquainted with a wide range of the cutting edges of knowledge of his day. Wittgenstein is much the same, as any perusal of Garth Hallett ’s monumental A Companion to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations will demonstrate. The question must then be why they chose to write as they did. The answer—to be explored further below—is that these writers write for immediacy: as David Allison put it about Nietzsche, they write as if you, the reader, are their friend. They write “for you, not at you but for you.” They want their writing to strike you without intermediary so that it penetrates past assessment to become part of how you assess the world (and, thus, to change you).

Other writers—of those considered here, Weber, Lenin, and Heidegger are the most obvious—write in such a manner as to make it seem that they have read everything. If Weber’s learning is legendary—while the Birth of Tragedy was written without footnotes, The Protestant Ethic is buttressed by over one hundred pages of supporting material—it is also worn on his sleeve. Heidegger likewise writes as if he had read everything in Western thought (as he had, and he too lets you know it) and was, thus, able to engage it. Here, the writing acknowledges that weight of the past and implicitly argues that one can bear it or get rid of it—or at least accept as a guide someone who can bear it. The task here, as Heidegger urges us, is to read the authors of the past as if for the first time.

Both those who write as if there were no past and those who write as if they knew all the past write in such a manner as to separate themselves from it. They do so because they find bringing attention to that for which we do not have words centrally important to that which they want to accomplish. Thus, finally, a question raised by someone who works from or inside the critical tradition is a question to which there can never be an answer: “What is the quality of the world that is hidden from us?” What is most important is that one realize that nothing can count as an answer to this—as a last word, so to speak. For Kant, this was the noumenal realm, that realm of existence that, precisely because it was hidden, made knowledge and morality possible. The point of the noumenal realm was not so much to posit a realm of that which could not be known as to show that human understanding was not exhausted in the act of knowing. Knowing something that is, that is, can never be complete in itself. Approaching this problem, Stanley Cavell has written:
The problem with the notion of the “thing-in-itself ” is not, as it has been put, that Kant does not, or cannot, explain its relation to the objects we know, or that he oughtn’t to be able so much as to imagine its relation (because in his view the categories do not apply to it). The problem with the concept of the thing-in-itself is that it should have itself received a transcendental deduction, i.e., that it itself, or the concepts that go into it (e.g., externality; world (in which objects are met)), should have been seen as internal to the categories of the understanding, as part of our concept of an object in general.

Hence, to read as a modern means to open oneself up to the existence of that which is or has been hidden to—and by—us, a world for which, by definition, we can never have adequate words. Not to acknowledge the existence of such a world means that one reads other than as a modern. A “transcendental deduction” of the thing-in-itself will not and cannot be a kind of knowledge, but it can become one’s life. The paradigm of our stance in relation to the noumenal, I shall argue in the next chapter, is the aesthetic. I mean here, not that it is (only what is called) art, but that, as with art, an aesthetic relation occurs with the acknowledgment of the presence of the incomprehensible and the consequent recognition that what one says about it is necessarily in and only in one’s own voice. (In the next chapter, we will find Kant referring to this as maturity.) In turn, we will see over the course of the book and especially in relation to the thought of Hannah Arendt that a judgment expressed as authentically one’s own (what Kant calls public) necessarily opens and relates one to others making a judgment of their own.

For now, this may remain somewhat gnomic, but already there are important implications. To the degree that something essential to our being cannot in itself be an object of knowledge, the thinker who wishes to make use of this will not be able to rely on argumentation and logic, at least not on argumentation and logic alone. Rousseau, for instance, had already memorably asserted in the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences that philosophy will never do anything living as long as it advances claims to knowledge. His intention in that work was not so much to denigrate the knowledge humans had acquired over their history as to insist on its limitation if it was to be what it properly was. If we call what Rousseau thinks he does (real) philosophy, then philosophy should proceed by looking and seeing, by unmasking and unveiling, by making available. “Ce que j’ai montré [that which I have shown]” is Rousseau’s repeated claim. Philosophy is or should be about what human beings think about when they think about human things, that is, things they cannot help but think about because they are human beings. Such matters, Rousseau seems to be saying, (can) appear to us; they are not summoned by acts of knowledge. All the writers considered in this book want, albeit in different ways, to show as much as to argue, to be persuasive as much as to convince. It is as if the shared world that makes argument possible had itself been called into question.

The considerations above turn around six separate points:
  1. The so-called death of God (to be explored in the next chapter) refers not (simply) to the decay of Christianity but to a set of problems that develop over time and correspond to the gradual unavailability of authoritative foundations for human knowledge and action.
  2. This problem is conceptualized as the necessity of thinking without reliance on preexisting authority.
  3. In the course of such thought, the world is conceived of in terms that reflect a vision of art, a vision of the world revealed to humans precisely because it is an artifact.
  4. In the pursuit of this, knowledge on its own is understood to be insufficient to accomplish the construction of a new foundation or whatever might be understood in its stead.
  5. The political realm will, to the degree that it responds to these developments (to which it must respond over time), manifest the above qualities.
  6. Central attention will, therefore, be paid to the particular qualities that the agent must have in order to be the creator of a world and of an understanding.

If all the thinkers considered here share the above concerns to a greater or lesser extent, they also take different approaches to them. Three broad differences in focus appear, though these categories should not be considered rigid. Nietzsche, Weber, and Freud tend to or at least appear to foreground the individual—in different ways they each call for a new kind of human being, one not subject to the human-all-too-human neuroses of the present age. Lenin and Schmitt, on the other hand, find the focus of responsibility to lie in the group (the Party or the state): it is with them that decision making should and must lie. Finally, Heidegger and Arendt develop in different but related ways the concept of the pólis, which is neither a group nor the state and which carries with it a particular notion of the individual. I repeat that these categories are not airtight: one ignores Nietzsche’s concern with the social and political at one’s peril; Lenin, as we shall see, is centrally concerned with qualities of individual character. These categories should serve only as a very preliminary orientation.

Tracy B. Strong
© 2012, 424 pages , 7 halftones
Paper $31.00 ISBN: 9780226104294 Cloth $99.00 ISBN: 9780226777467 E-book $10.00 to $30.99 ISBN: 9780226777474

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