Georg Lukács Diagnosed the Irrationalism at the Heart of Right-Wing Thought

Socialist intellectual Georg Lukács was an astute critic of right-wing philosophy and its connections to fascism. For Lukács, philosophers of the Right were united by a reactionary disavowal of reason and justice.

Georg Lukács in 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission. Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak.

—Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom

The wave of right-wing populist victories that kicked off in 2016 surprised many of us. I’ll never forget hosting an election watch party with my friends, talking about how the incoming Hillary Clinton administration’s inevitable doubling down on neoliberalism would require a stiff response.

We all know what happened next. By 2018, virtually every major country on Earth was governed by a hard-right or hard-right-sympathetic government — the United States, Israel, India, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Britain, Turkey, Poland, and Hungary only being the most well known. While a rare-but-predictable combination of cruelty and incompetence led to the ouster of right-wing presidents in the United States, Brazil, and elsewhere, the future is unpredictably open in a way few could have predicted in the “end of history” era.

One upside of unforeseen historical events is that the inevitable soul-searching that results helps the Left recover insights that may have been forgotten. There has been, for instance, a surge of left-wing scholarly and activist interest in the intellectual right — such that many liberals and leftists are now as familiar with the ins and outs of “fusionism” and the distinction between postliberals and national conservatives as they are with the revolution/reform debate. There is the well-loved Know Your Enemy podcast, an array of scholarly and popular books by left-liberals and socialists (including yours truly), and a dizzying array of long-form explainers and critiques from journalists like John Ganz, Kathryn Joyce, and Rick Perlstein.

Lukács’s The Destruction of Reason

This resurgence has included the reintroduction of texts by classic leftist authors on conservatism, fascism, and the Right generally. In 2021, Verso stepped into the fray with new edition of Georg Lukács’s The Destruction of Reason. Lukács, one of the founding figures of “Western” Marxism, is best known for his strongly Hegelian development of Marxist philosophy in History and Class Consciousness. 

By contrast with that comparatively svelte collection of essays, The Destruction of Reason has to stand with Domenico Losurdo’s equally girthy Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel as one of the most voluminous analyses of the Right by a major Marxist thinker. But where Losurdo’s book is laser-focused on Friedrich Nietzsche’s enduring influence on the hard right, Lukács’s nine-hundred-page behemoth surveys huge swaths of reactionary and right-adjacent thinking, from the German idealists through Arthur Schopenhauer and Søren Kierkegaard to Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, as well as a host of lesser-known and intellectually vapid toadies for fascism and Nazism.

Originally published in 1952, Lukács’s book was intended to chart “Germany’s path to Hitler in the sphere of philosophy.” In some respects, this is an odd task for a resolutely orthodox Marxist to take on. From the standpoint of classical Marxism, the kinds of ideological struggles taking place in the “sphere of philosophy” are largely supposed to be secondary fronts.

They reflect in the “superstructure” changes and conflicts in the economic “base,” with the implication that debates in philosophy have minor causal relevance, if any, for major social changes. Lukács himself often gestures in the direction of this more orthodox view, stressing that he is “confining” himself to “portraying the most abstract part” of the rise of Adolf Hitler and by no means intends to imply “an overestimation of philosophy’s importance in the turbulent totality of concrete developments.”

This Marxist humility is quite refreshing, given the sheer volume of books by philosophers like Heidegger that suggest complicated historical developments are best explained by shifts in our metaphysical views. But it also means that Lukács sometimes leans on unconvincing ultra-Marxist assertions that, whatever a philosopher may have thought, what was really going on was a kind of class struggle carried over into epistemological or ontological doctrines. 

Lukács is more persuasive when he stresses that, whether or not a philosopher like Wilhelm Dilthey or Henri Bergson intended to have a reactionary impact, their work was taken up that way. To this day, plenty of interesting thinkers have had their work bastardized by far-right opportunists, à la Aleksandr Dugin’s vulgar appeals to postmodern thinkers like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.

But Lukács’s orthodox Marxist approach to the history of reactionary thought ultimately leads to a deeper problem. His consistent construal of anyone as an irrationalist to the extent they don’t conform to his interpretation of materialist dialectics is unconvincing.

Lukács’s triumphalist rhetoric about the Soviet Union embodying the apex of rationalist thought doesn’t help his case that anyone who deviates from the orthodox line is regressing into irrationalism — not least because Karl Marx’s own thinking was sufficiently rich to admit of a wide array of creative syntheses. This includes work by liberal, Christian, and Nietzschean authors who have demonstrated the virtues of a syncretic and undoctrinaire approach to Marxism. Indeed, Lukács’s own creative massaging of Marx’s work to bring out Hegelian themes in History and Class Consciousness demonstrates why a little irreverence can go a long way.

The Idol of Irrationalism

Despite these limitations, The Destruction of Reason is vital and often profound reading, offering a remarkable genealogy of reactionary and fascist thought. While Lukács’s understanding of reason is too narrowly constrained by his commitment to mid-century orthodox Marxism, there is no denying his claim that the origins of modern reactionary thinking lie in a rejection of the Enlightenment’s insistence on equality and liberty for all on the basis of our shared reason.

This is true of traditional conservatives like Edmund Burke, who lamented the dissolution of all “the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society” by “this new conquering empire of light and reason” advanced by the radical philosophers.

It is also true of ultrareactionaries like Joseph de Maistre, who insisted that we must treat traditional authorities with a dogmatic reverence because not “only is human reason, or what is ignorantly called philosophy, unable to replace those foundations ignorantly called superstitions, but philosophy is, on the contrary, an essentially destructive force.”

Lukács brilliantly explains how these irrationalist instincts mutated or even shed their forms while continuing to motivate radically hierarchical and anti-egalitarian outlooks. In an especially helpful section, he traces how, in An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, the bitterly racist Arthur de Gobineau developed a transparently speculative theory of human history based on race dynamics. The moral of the story was, of course, that the white “Aryan” race was from the beginning the more industrious and intelligent, but ever threatened by the prospect of miscegenation.

While critical liberals like Alexis de Tocqueville chastised de Gobineau for offering pure mythology instead of careful analysis, de Gobineau himself noted how his work was warmly received by American slavers eager to find intellectual defenses of the antebellum system. De Gobineau’s thinking was later adapted by German imperialists like H. S. Chamberlain and ultimately by the Nazis themselves, who sublimated crackpot racial mythologies into equally crackpot pseudoscience.

Lukács interestingly documents the extent to which some Nazis even acknowledged the absurdity of their own doctrines, cynically admitting its use as an ideological justification for imperialism on a vast scale. What mattered was less the “truth” of the Nazi race doctrine and more its capacity to “elevate” the German people. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it in Anti-Semite and Jew, one should never

believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. . . . They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.

The most complex sections of The Destruction of Reason are not those dealing with war criminals like Alfred Rosenberg, but those treating important philosophers like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Lukács feels the need to analyze these figures carefully, continuously stressing how the work of these philosophers operated at a far higher level then Nazi pseudo-intellectuals and fascists propogandists. He acknowledges that many of the thinkers he discusses, especially earlier in the book, were concerned with real problems emerging within bourgeois society. This is in sharp contrast to the mythologizing irrationalism of, say, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West or Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century. 

Nevertheless, Lukács is very critical of the major philosophers who he regards as laying the foundation for the rise of fascism. Lukács makes a compelling argument that, whatever their intentions, the retreat into existential pessimism and anti-worldliness proffered by Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard had negative effects.

In Schopenhauer’s hands, it had the effect of abetting a kind of romantic insularity even where he was arguing for self-renunciation. Kierkegaard of course denied the relevance of the ethical public sphere wholesale and insisted on becoming a singular individual before God. By denying the significance of political change and insisting that the most vital problems for humankind lay in inner transformation, their work contributed to the breakdown of solidaristic ambitions.

Nietzsche later responded to this same pessimism more actively, but in a decisively reactionary mode. He insisted that the only way to break from creeping nihilism was to emphatically reject Platonic notions of truth and reason and Christian emphases on the equality of all human beings, both of which were later picked up by liberalism and socialism.

What should replace them, Nietzsche argued, is a new kind of “aristocratic radicalism” in which the “blonde beasts” would bring into existence their own values, without regard for good and evil. Lukács insists this opened the door for the “most extreme egotism and every sort of cruelty and barbarity” but only for the

lords of the earth, but then it was only for them that Nietzsche wanted to provide a militant philosophy. Hence he wrote of eternal recurrence: “it is the great disciplinary idea — those races which cannot endure it are condemned, those that find it of the greatest benefit are destined for mastery.”

In many ways anticipating the work of philosophers like Losurdo and more recently Daniel Tutt, Lukács discusses how Nietzsche rejected rationalistic universalism and morality for an aristocratic epistemology and value system. For Nietzsche, socialism would constitute a denial of life through enabling the resentful “herd” to dominate and nihilistically devalue the culture.

Lukács characterizes Nietzsche as defined by his epic hostility to socialism — a point that has some credibility. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche asks, “Whom do I hate most heartily among the rabbles of today?” His answer is the “rabble of Socialists, the apostles to the Chandala, who undermine the workingman’s instincts, his pleasure, his feeling of contentment with his petty existence — who make him envious and teach him revenge.”

For Nietzsche, only the radical restoration or invention of a new and more cruel aristocracy could reverse the tide of egalitarian modernity embodied in the spread of liberalism, democracy, and socialism. While Lukács acknowledges Nietzsche never intended German nationalists to be the “lords of the earth,” his argument that aristocratic radicalism opened a major door for fascism is a powerful one.

The fascists mutilated Nietzsche by aligning him with forms of nationalism, antisemitism, and crude biological racism of the sort he held in contempt. But the idea that an aristocratic ruling class must legislate a new morality beyond good and evil to overcome the decadence of the masses was a siren song for many reactionaries.

The Left’s Enlightenment

It is striking how current the concerns of The Destruction of Reason feel. It has lessons not only for the Right but for the Left too.

In The Seduction of Unreason, contemporary philosopher Richard Wolin also stresses that figures like Nietzsche and Heidegger forcefully rejected reason and equality for the will to power and authoritarianism. His story is rather like Lukács’s, except he carries it considerably further. Wolin points out how, in the late twentieth century, liberals and leftists such as Foucault and Deleuze became enamored with these transparently reactionary thinkers, transplanting their skepticism of reason and emphasis on “difference” — in a right-wing sense, meaning justified differences in rank, status, and power — into the heart of progressive theory.

The result was a gradual deflation of theoretical ambition and a wariness of putting forward constructive visions of the future. The kind-hearted social democrat Richard Rorty captured the feeling well in his Philosophy and Social Hope, where he contrasts himself with conservative defenders of democracy:

Rightist thinkers don’t think that it is enough just to prefer democratic societies. One also has to believe that they are Objectively Good, that the institutions of such societies are grounded in Rational First Principles. . . . My own philosophical views — views I share with Nietzsche and John Dewey — forbid me to say this kind of thing.

The ubiquity of these sentiments led to an extraordinary inversion. Conservatives came to chastise leftists for being hip relativists and skeptics while claiming it was the Right that could be trusted to proudly advance the cause of liberty and democracy.

A key lesson of The Destruction of Reason is that, whether or not one thinks Lukács’s strict materialist dialectics offers the complete truth, the Left should not cede the terrain of reason and justice to the Right. Doing so is not only strategically unsound — too often the result of internalizing arguments that have their basis in reactionary thought — it also breaks with a long tradition of leftist critique that saw democracy, freedom, and equality as providing the rational basis for a better society. This is a tradition we can and should reclaim in a new millennium whose politics are once more defined by the spread of prejudice and hate.