A specter haunts the post-Cold War liberal order—the specter of radical spiritual malaise. This discontent with or downright opposition to the Western-originated, universalist claims of the broadly liberal cultural, economic, and political order takes diverse forms. One can detect it among Iranian revolutionary theocrats, Russian imperialist ideologues, white supremacist “Identitarians,” European neo-fascists, identity-politics partisans, and anti-foundationalist intellectuals of many stripes. But standing behind some of the leading intellectual and political figures in this mélange of counter-liberalism is one animating mind, that of Martin Heidegger.
Since the end of the Cold War, it has been an open question whether any organizing political principle could successfully vie with the liberal consensus of a secular state, limited by democratic accountability and the rule of law. To date, neither the remnants of Soviet-style communism, authoritarian capitalism, reactionary fascism, nor Islamic theocracy have achieved a successful combination of military strength and political legitimacy even among their own citizens, let alone among sympathizers in the world at large. But the political legacy of Martin Heidegger—if the strange and conflicting paths of his influence can be so termed—points to a combination that is sufficiently threatening to liberal democracy to be taken seriously, precisely because of the breadth of its evident appeal abroad and at home.
This is because Heidegger’s thought, while not lending itself to any politically cohesive opposition to the liberal West in a manner that characterized Marxism, recommends itself to virtually every variety of particularist opponent of Western universalism. For those inspired by Heidegger, the universalist claims upon which the liberal order is based are too thin, too weak, and too ignoble to provide tangible and meaningful sources of human identity.
This suggestion abrades the common academic view of Heidegger, which sees him as principally interested in apolitical, philosophic themes such as Being, phenomenology, and the history of philosophy. Variations on this understanding have been very influential throughout the humanities and social sciences. This view follows the depiction of Heidegger by his student and sometime paramour Hannah Arendt, who portrayed him as a rather naive provincial when it came to sophisticated political matters. This account functions, and may have been designed to function, to excuse Heidegger’s notorious involvement with National Socialism as merely a temporary perversion of his generally non-political orientation.
Such an anodyne presentation of Heidegger has proven incapable, however, of accounting for the series of “scandals” that continually surprise his academic followers, the latest of which concerns the anti-Semitism incontrovertibly on display in the so-called Black Notebooks. Year after year, generation after generation, these “scandals” reveal Heidegger’s interest in National Socialism to have been sincere, informed, and deeply connected to the central questions of his work.
The academic interpretation of Heidegger is only half the story, however. To understand Heidegger’s political influence, it helps to compare him to Marx. Heidegger does not stand as the organizing intellectual figure behind a coherent international political movement, as Marx does to Marxism. Heidegger never had a Lenin, but like Marx, he offers a comprehensive analysis of the dissatisfactions and alienations of late-modern life and points hopefully to their possible remedy. Whereas Marx traces the sources of dissatisfaction to the alienation of labor in the predominant economic system, Heidegger looks to the very character of human reason. This is the source of the anxiety, distress, boredom, and terror that characterize our time. According to Heidegger, rationalist philosophy in the West—and the more-or-less rationalist forms of communal life that followed in its wake—has blinded us to the deepest sources of authentic meaning in human existence. This view puts Heidegger in the odor of other German, volkishe romantics from Von Herder to Stefan Zweig, but with a twist: Heidegger was even more abstract than his forebears, never thought a return to medieval simplicity was possible, and obscured the historio-cultural lineage of this thought with a façade of neologism. This made his appeal over time less parochial, less Germanic.
For Heidegger, dissatisfaction with the prevailing order is the most valuable clue to an alternative, authentic communal existence. The political shape that such an authentic existence might take was left ultimately unclear by Heidegger, since he was disappointed by the insufficient radicalness of the Nazis. But it has since been filled in by his successors in various and alarming ways. Since the 1960s, opponents of the liberal West on both the Right and the Left, at home and around the globe, have drawn explicitly on Heidegger’s work to articulate their opposition. Today, two beneficiaries of his influence are especially important to understand: post-revolutionary Iran and post-communist Russia.
Several leading Iranian thinkers prior to and following the 1979 Revolution were formed by their understanding of Heidegger, drawing on his thought in both their diagnosis of the toxicity of Western civilization and their aspiration for a future-oriented, permanent revolution that would retrieve something of an Islamic past lost beneath the stomping boots of history.
It was the eclectic sociologist and activist Ali Shariati who first introduced Heidegger’s thought to Iran. Shariati encountered Heidegger’s work in the 1950s and 1960s in Paris, in the revolutionary intellectual milieu of Frantz Fanon’s Third World Marxism and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Maoist existentialism. In a self-conscious counterpoint to these Marxists, Shariati propounded an activist social theory that appealed to the “authentic” religion of the people of Iran.1 Shariati’s “Red Shi‘ism” stood for social justice and revolution, in opposition to the politically quietist “Black Shi‘ism” of the established Shi‘i clerisy. Shariati died in the custody of the Shah before the Ayatollah Khomeini made manifest his hopes for a retrieved and transformed political Shi‘ism. He is remembered today as a more benign, open-minded figure than the progenitors of the “official” Heideggerianism espoused by the intellectual organs of the Iranian regime.
The regime Heideggerians draw their intellectual inspiration from Ahmad Fardid, one of the most influential thinkers of the Revolution. Fardid, called “Iran’s Heidegger” by New York University Professor Ali Mirsepassi, taught at the University of Tehran for decades prior to and after the revolution.2 His lectures are legendary, though he never wrote, earning a reputation as an “oral philosopher.” He is the source of the influential concept of Gharbzadegi, though this was popularized in the writings of Jalal Al-e Ahmad. This concept transplants Heidegger’s critique of the rationalist West to the context of Iran.
Gharbzadegi has been variously translated as “Occidentosis,” “Westoxication,” or “Westitis.” In Fardid’s construction, it began with Greek rationality and culminated in the universalistic pretentions of Enlightenment secular, materialist humanism. Fardid identifies this spirit as the chief enemy of the authentic Islamic essence of the Iranian revolution and credits Heidegger for diagnosing this disease. In a 1979 lecture course, Fardid identified three lonely lights in the world otherwise condemned to absolute darkness: the Iranian Revolution itself; the thought of Martin Heidegger, who provided the intellectual means to diagnose Westoxication; and the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. Fardid was haunted, though, by the prospect that Westoxication would undermine the Iranian Revolution, dissolving its revolutionary fervor into the quotidian, bourgeois patterns of life. It was necessary that the revolution, therefore, be “permanent,” in order to keep Iran from returning to the Westoxic culture of the “modern cave” of “self-founded nihilism.”3 So, in a way, Fardid was to Heidegger what Trotsky was to Marx.
Fardid’s Heideggerianism has become something of the orthodox or official “philosophy” of the regime—buttressing the central premises of its theocracy and in particular the still-controversial doctrine of Vilayat-e Faqih. Its most prominent contemporary proponent is the president of the Iranian Academy of Science, Reza Davari Ardakani. Ardakani was Fardid’s student, and has further developed his teacher’s Heideggerian understanding of Gharbzadeghi in his analysis of the “West.” For Ardakani, the “West” is explicitly not a geographic or historical category but a permanent spiritual (that is, not merely political or economic) temptation. Like Fardid, Ardakani invokes Heidegger as having understood the “inner essence” of “the prison of the West.”4
The name of Aleksandr Dugin is well known among those concerned with the role of fascism in the developing political and military situation in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. Less well known is his reliance on the thought of Martin Heidegger to supply some intellectual ballast to the creation, or re-creation, of a distinctive Russian political and spiritual identity from the wreckage of the Soviet Union and the tumultuous flirtation with liberalism in the post-Soviet era. Dugin has conceived a post-communist political project of Eurasian Imperialism characterized by a Russian cultural, spiritual, and economic “revolution in archaic values.”
Dugin presents himself as a postmodern intellectual and political figure, at once a learned scholar and television pitchman, both a monk and a militant. An erstwhile professor at Moscow Lomonosov State University, he also professes to be close to numerous Kremlin figures, not least Vladimir Putin himself. Dugin’s relationship to Putin is fraught with all of the intrigue of a Byzantine court drama, but he remains the source of such notions as “Eurasianism,” which is emerging as the ideological veneer of Putin’s opposition to the European Union and the West.
Dugin attempts to use Heidegger’s notions of Dasein and Ereignis to retrieve a Russian identity, buried in the language of Orthodox Church Slavonic, that can rescue the spirit of the country from the damage inflicted by the collapse of international communism and the triumph of Atlanticist, liberal capitalism. He sees Russia as uniquely positioned to carry out the “metapolitical” confrontation between East and West that Heidegger called for in order to correct the errors of Western rationalism, though he never followed through on it himself. Russia would embody, then, a “fourth political theory,” repairing the failures of the three theories of the modern West: liberalism, communism, and fascism.
In concrete political terms, this means a Russian empire, purportedly respectful of the various ethnic identities of the captive peoples over whom it would rule. That is, it would respect these identities by sparing them from the homogenizing, leveling forces of Atlanticist universalism, but at the cost of placing them in their due rank, subject to Russian hegemony. This Russian empire would ally with other opponents of Western universalism to oppose the plutocratic, materialist, atheistic Atlanticist powers, chiefly the United States and its supposed proxy, the European Union.
In addition to providing the intellectual architecture for a revived Russian imperialism, Dugin aspires also to nourish global opposition to American, “Atlanticist” liberalism in whatever form it may come—secular, Islamic, Christian, Left, or Right. As such, he boasts of his influence in Iran, and has been linked to the Syriza Administration in Greece. In this connection, he has called for Greece to remain in the EU as an agent of destabilization within that body, weakening it in its struggle—as Dugin sees it—with the Eurasian dynamo to the east. Likewise, Dugin has been associated with “Identitarians” in the United States—a term of art for white supremacists. What unites these disparate connections, in Dugin’s mind, is their common opposition to American, Atlanticist liberalism and the international system of finance that it buttresses.
Like the Iranian Heideggerians, what Dugin draws from Heidegger is not his positive project—Heidegger, no one will be surprised to learn, had nothing to say about Eurasian imperialism or Iranian Shi‘i identity. Instead, they take the essence of his critique of rationalist Western universalism and the structure of his solution, which is to retrieve a lost, organic communal life not as a traditional inheritance, but through a revolutionary project.
Taking these two movements as representative examples of a certain strain of Heideggerian political influence, what stands out is, first, the comprehensive dissatisfaction with the rationalist order, in each case described as a Western, politically liberal, or capitalistic set of structures. Second, in this view, liberal universalism—including its insistence on human rights, rights of property and contract, and the attendant rule of law—stands for the thinnest, narrowest basis of community, and indeed represents the corruption of truer, thicker, particularist forms of communal existence. Third, the power of the established liberal order is sufficiently entrenched to warrant, even to require, violent force in order to disrupt it. And fourth, urgently required though it might be, the political form of that post-revolutionary order is apparently ambiguous.
In the case of Iran, an Islamic republic was indeed established, though the Heideggerians there are less committed to this as a goal (note again Fardid’s concern with the bourgeoification of the revolution). In the case of Dugin, the political consequence is Russian imperialism justified by a novel intellectual veneer. For both, the discrediting of rationalist universalism points to the revival of certain forms of religious order. The retrieved community is shaped by a purified religion, though the religion is different in each case: Russian Orthodox Christianity and Shi‘i Islam.
A thinker of Heidegger’s caliber can never be exhausted by the political influence he has had; by the same token, political events cannot simply be traced back to the ideas of any one thinker, not even Marx. The juxtaposition of Heidegger’s political influence with his own philosophical thought raises two questions: Why does Heidegger inspire these followers; and what continuing political resonances might Heidegger prove to have?
Like so many other European thinkers and artists at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Heidegger discerns a profound sense of alienation and dissatisfaction. In some respects, then, as already noted in passing, Heidegger seems to be just one in a long line of romantic critics of the Enlightenment project. He is distinctive, however, in his emphatic insistence on the importance of reason in shaping the contemporary world, but not just reason in its late-modern, scientific formation. Heidegger indicts reason as such, from its initial formulations among ancient Greek philosophers, as having led us astray from the deepest sources of our identity—namely, as beings open to and involved in the manifestation of Being. But he also insists that it is only thanks to the now evident failure of reason to provide the intellectual and practical satisfaction it has long promised that we are in a position to understand our situation. By following reason and building the world in its image, we have been led to a “forgetfulness of Being,” a condition he calls “nihilism.”
Contemporary life, as Heidegger understands it, is dominated by the “phenomena of nihilism”—this is how he abstractly refers to the cataclysms that beset Europe in the first part of the 20th century: World War I, the chaos of Weimar Germany, World War II and the Holocaust, the division of Germany, and the opening chapter of the atomic age. The characteristic moods of our time are anxiety, terror, distress—and boredom. He thinks these events and the onset of these moods announce the sunset of the West and life organized with reference to reason.
In Heidegger’s diagnosis, the source of the phenomena of nihilism is not strictly speaking reason, but our inclination to reason, our preference for reason over non-reason. We are inclined, according to Heidegger, to privilege reason as the main way we understand, navigate, and indeed shape the world. The source of this inclination in us is our very makeup, our Being: the distress and anxiety that alerts us to the limitations of reason is also what inclines us to it in the first place. That is, rationalism comes from a preference for comfort and stability in the face of finitude and impermanence.
In Heidegger’s analysis, two points about rationalism stand out: It becomes our privileged way of accessing the world and making sense of the things around us, to the exclusion of other ways of appreciating meaning: moods, our use of tools and other instruments, and our communal traditions captured in language. But the chief defect of this narrowed, receptive mode of rationalism is that it disguises from us our own essential practice of creating meaning in the world through our involvement and engagement with it. As a further result of this, our inclination to rationalism has led us throughout history to build the world, so to speak, in accordance with dimmed-down “reason.” But since reason doesn’t agree with our most fundamental essence as finite, engaged beings, the world we’ve built—starting with the ancient Greeks—is particularly hostile and unwelcoming: hence the destructive phenomena of nihilism as well as our own inherent anxiety about reason. Reason alienates us from our own essence as human beings, and it teases us into thinking, falsely, that the world is separate from our own acting and being within it.
Here we begin to appreciate some of the political consequences of rationalism. Our inclination to privilege the most reliable, stable aspect of the world means preferring the “publicly visible” aspect of things—for this reason, Heidegger sees that characteristic activities of Western political life—deliberation, public debate, and even legal “accusation” (kategorein)—as closely connected to our narrowed form of reasoning. These have consigned us to an individualistic, alienating form of social life that has cut us off from meaningful involvements with other people while at the same time enslaving us to their opinions about virtually everything. In the language of German sociology—especially Ferdinand Tönnies—of which Heidegger avails himself, we have built Gesellschaften (societies—aggregates of individuals) while deeply longing for the wholeness of the Gemeinschaft (community).
In Heidegger’s account, the universalizing claim of reason conceals its own particular beginning among the loquacious ancient Greeks (reason, logos, means speech in ancient Greek). What began, then, as a momentous achievement—the apprehension of Being as phusis by logos, which Heidegger refers to as the Anfang, the great inception or beginning—included nonetheless a small error. (To speak technically, Being was taken as what is present when what it really first meant was the presenting of beings from absence, and therefore included a sense of the absent or non-present. Logos from then on tended to concentrate on what was present and to overlook absence.) Over time, this error has established, as it were, the boundaries within which the West approaches and interrogates Being. And what began with a small error has now generated the near total alienation of human life from our real business, our real character, which is to be beings who are open to and aware of Being in the fullest sense.
A practice that began among a small people in the Mediterranean thousands of years ago now has global reach. Heidegger saw the history of the early 20th century as echoing that initial inception. It was, he stressed, a tremendous cataclysm in the relation between man and Being, a moment of strife where the “inception” of reason (logos) was tremendously forceful (gewaltsam). He identified the anxiety and distress of the present age—which provokes some to revisit the question of Being and drives others to distraction in frivolity and triviality—with the mood or passion that provoked the inquiries of the Greek philosophers. Moreover, the tremendous violence and destructiveness of contemporary Machenschaft, mechanized force and power, in its own way echoes the destructive power of the initial human attempts to wrest Being into appearance from absence in the “first” beginning. To wrest ourselves from the sway (Gewalt) of the first violent inception requires harnessing tremendous concealed force (Gewalt).
We can now begin to see why Heidegger’s politics are so ambiguous: This moment, the present time, is the moment of greatest peril as well as greatest promise. Heidegger quoted the poet Hölderlin to this effect in one of his most famous postwar essays, “The Question Concerning Technology”: “Where the danger lies/ there grows the saving power also.” Throughout his career, Heidegger was ambiguous about what form—political or not—this great promise might take. A comparison with Marx is again apt: Just as for Marx, the moment in which the capitalist mode of production has encircled the globe and virtually the entire mass of humanity belongs to the alienated proletariat is precisely the moment of greatest promise for the Communist Revolution. But what will follow the revolution is less clear, less “concrete” in Marx’s thought. We are encouraged to think of an existence that includes farming in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and philosophizing after dinner, but the details are sketchy, to say the least. The same is true of Heidegger: the very structure of our thought has been completely shaped by what is “actually existing,” and the revolution envisioned by both Marx and Heidegger is so totalizing that no one could be expected to capture its results. Our current conceptual vocabulary is too limited for the challenge.5 It is no surprise, then, that readers of both Marx and Heidegger tend to fall back on apocalyptic or messianic language to explain their political positions. The opposite of rationalism often kindles a kind of mysticism.
As we have seen, Heidegger is ambiguous about what political form the great promise of this unique moment might take. Nonetheless, through his intellectual career he did develop a few discrete positions.
First, he insisted from the beginning that he was not looking for a revival of culture (Kultur) as a means of reforming society because this would draw too directly but superficially on the past, without revolutionizing it. He sensed that the complete “destruction” of culture would be required to effect the philosophic and historical changes he envisioned.
Second, in Being and Time (1927) he sketches an authentic form of communal existence that would be instrumental to raising the question of Being, a Gemeinschaft of the Volk that engages in “struggle” (Kampf) and “communication” (Mitteilung). That work is incomplete, however, and Heidegger did not elaborate what he meant by these rather loaded terms.
Third, in the 1930–34 period, as the newly available Black Notebooks make clear, Heidegger hoped that the National Socialists in Germany would instigate a total revolution, allowing Germany to lead a world revolution inaugurating a “new beginning” in humanity’s relationship to Being by rooting philosophy in its service to the Volk, with the Volk rooting itself in wars against other peoples. In this proposition we see how Heidegger helped serve as a bridge, however distorted, from German romanticism to Hitler.
Fourth, Heidegger’s much lauded disaffection with actually existing National Socialism began in 1934 and continued through the rest of his life. Though Heidegger became profoundly disappointed with the Nazis, this does not mean he rejected the essence of National Socialism. His disaffection was based on his conclusion that the Nazis were insufficiently radical to fulfill his hopes. This remained Heidegger’s “political” position for the rest of his life: While the Nazis failed to fulfill his hopes, they nonetheless demonstrated the absolute hollowness of every possible political position and thus exposed the nihilism of the present moment. Again, as the Black Notebooks document, he found the Nazis incapable of truly distinguishing themselves from the nihilistic forces that already characterize their enemies, whom he identifies variously as “British parliamentary Bolshevism,” “the Jews,” “Bolsheviks,” and “America.” The only possible hope, then, must come from Being, not from anything we can do or say; so we await a new inception, a new dispensation from Being itself.
At this point, Heidegger’s position loses its last vestiges of any “political” character. Politics has vanished, replaced only with “technology,” meaning the final and universal triumph of rationalism. But Heidegger is not really a romantic who wishes simply to dispense with the fruits of rationalism. Technology’s promise, as he sees it, is that through its dominance it will reveal the truly and originally practical rather than merely theoretical character possessed by reason all along. That, in turn, might permit a new appreciation of the poetic character of phusis, that is, of Being. In his later years, Heidegger further explored the possibility that the language of poetry, rather than rationalist philosophy, might more authentically express our relationship to Being.
What, then, does Heidegger bequeath to his successor opponents of a universalist, purportedly rationalist political order such as the post-Cold War, liberal West?
In the first place, Heidegger offers a diagnosis of such an order that punctures its claims to benign universalism. The diagnosis holds that the widespread sense of alienation that characterizes “modern” or “bourgeois” life derives from an excessive and unwarranted emphasis on reason as a way of ordering and justifying our existence, and that this has resulted, further, in an orientation to others and the world that is excessively aggressive and violent. Heidegger understands “reason” not as a timeless, universal means by which humanity can rise above itself, but as a defective instrumentality born in violence at a specific moment in history. That instrument subsequently spread in such a fashion that it now expresses itself principally through technological forms of domination. It masks itself, but it is inherently hegemonic and dominating, distorting and excluding other modes of relating to the world and other ways individuals can relate to one another. Heidegger’s diagnosis is broadly felt and very influential, having been taken up by his Iranian and Russian followers—as Gharbzadegi in Iran and as the bankrupt “three political theories” by Dugin—as well as by his legatees in the academy.
Despite the inevitable variation in responses, Heidegger’s diagnosis is broadly shared. Heidegger prescribes the retrieval of a lost authentic communal existence from behind history, by means of a revolutionary and future-oriented struggle against the smothering, conformist forms of universalism—an atavistic futurism of sorts. His political epigones differ on the particulars of this retrieved community—neither Heidegger’s German poetry, nor the Islamic Shi‘i identity of the Iranian Heideggerians, nor Dugin’s “Holy Rus” are widely adopted goals—but the structure is similar in each case. This should not be confused with traditionalism or conservatism, though contemporary far-rightists in this orbit sometimes identify as “Traditionalists.” Rather, the future orientation of this radicalism aspires to retrieve a new form of particularist communal existence from a past to which even tradition is blind.
The lack of a common, general ideological content makes the Heideggerian pattern difficult to detect. For that reason, it is hard to imagine any practical Heideggerian political program being guided by the discipline and rigor that typified international communism in the 20th century. But these structures and their common polemical target, rationalist universalism, are plain to see. Heidegger’s influence is not limited to Russia or Iran, but its political features have matured sufficiently in these locales to give us a more developed sense of their character.
The radical discontent that Heidegger’s followers articulate poses a challenge that transcends the normal limits of Left and Right in the political life of mature liberal democracies. Even the extremes of normal political partisanship fall well within the target of Heidegger’s critique. Liberals should acknowledge the genuine, practical limits to universalism by drawing from the rich tradition of liberalism itself—Tocqueville and Montesquieu, to name only two. They should also draw from the deep wells of classical political rationalism that long predate liberalism in order to respond to the grievances raised by the Heideggerians. The post-Heideggerian political thought and activity of Václav Havel might provide an inspiring model for such a recovery. In doing so, however, liberals must insist on the dignity that derives from our common human nature, which is, indeed, foundational to the liberal order. This common nature is discerned, and its dignity confirmed, by our rational capacities.
Heideggerian challenges to the late-modern, Western political order will have to be met with the courage that liberal democracies have summoned in their own defense in the past. But they must be understood for what they are, and be met with good sense and prudence—hence the need for a reckoning with Heidegger’s thought.
1Shariati’s employment of the tropes of piety and social justice has been justifiably compared to the Liberation Theology of Latin America. See Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton University Press, 1982).
2Mirsepassi is the co-producer, with Hamed Yousefi, of the documentary, “The Fabulous Life and Thought of Ahmad Fardid” (2015).
3Farhand Rajaee, Islamism and Modernism: The Changing Discourse in Iran (University of Texas Press, 2007), p. 182
4Rajaee, Islamism and Modernism, pp. 188–9.
5Heidegger: “But an inception is not repeated when one shrinks back to it as something that once was, something that by now is familiar and is simply to be imitated, but rather when the inception is begun again more originally, and with all the strangeness, darkness, insecurity that a genuine inception brings with it” (Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt [Yale University Press, 2014], pp. 29–30).