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Book Review: 'The seduction of reason: The intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to postmodernism'

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 13 October 2004

When the famed postmodernist Jacques Derrida came to Australia in 1997 he managed to pack out the Sydney Town Hall. Academics, students and the curious listened intently as Derrida expounded his view of language and its broader societal context.

More fool them, according to Professor Richard Wolin, who teaches history at the Graduate Center of New York's City University.

Wolin's The Seduction of Reason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism published in May this year by Princeton University Press is a strident and polemical attack on a movement that has infused the literature, philosophy and history departments of thousands of universities and colleges in the US, UK and this country over the past 30 years.


The core idea of postmodernism - that we should accept as correct Friedrich Nietzsche's debunking of the idea that we can ground political and moral values in some form of objective truth - is offensive to Wolin. He argues that "postmodernism's hostility towards ‘reason’ and ‘truth’ is intellectually untenable and politically debilitating".

And what makes postmodernism all the more dangerous is the political actions and rhetoric of its progenitors in Germany and France.

The Enlightenment - that cradle of rationalism and liberal values - is under attack, according to Wolin, from the political right and the academic left. The former, represented by the likes of France's racist political leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, wants to replace the values of democracy with those of ethnicity. They propose a type of “parliamentary ethnic cleansing”. The latter, of whom Derrida is a leading exponent, argues that Enlightenment humanism, underpinned by Rene Descartes' "will to will" has inevitably caused genocide, nuclear war, environmental devastation and totalitarianism.

In wanting to shore up the Enlightenment's moorings, Wolin embarks on a systematic and forensic dissection of the post-modernist tradition, beginning naturally with that confounding German "giant", Friedreich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, Wolin correctly surmises, was delusional (he wrote to musician Carl Fuchs in 1888, "I shall be ruling the world from now on") and an enemy of democracy. He fought against democracy "...tooth and nail. His training as classicist convinced him that greatness was the province of elite and that a meritocracy was synonymous with mediocrity".

But of equal concern in political terms was Nietzsche's sympathy of "the annihilation of the weak", his toying with the idea of a master race and his contempt for the Jews. No wonder, as Wolin rather surprisingly reveals, that buffoonish Italian dictator Mussolini became a "Nietzsche connoisseur and admirer".


In short, for Wolin, Nietzsche is the arch-enemy of the Enlightenment. But running a close second in the race to claim that mantle is Carl Jung, so beloved of the "New Age" baby boomers in the developed world today.

Jung, unlike Sigmund Freud, who "proudly asserted his Enlightenment patrimony", denounced the failings of Western civilization. As Wolin notes, this antipathy to the Enlightenment's emphasis on scientific reason, makes Jung a popular figure today among those who seek "alternative" knowledge from myths and imagination.

The Jungian industry is a multi-million dollar business these days, with CG Jung Educational Centres flung across the four corners of the globe. Jungianism, according to Wolin, provides an antidote to the radical secularism of today's world and critically for its followers, allows for the promise of redemption.

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Published in The Australian on October 13, 2004.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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