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"The Metamorphosis of <I>Telos</I>"

"The Metamorphosis of Telos:

A Splintered Journal Pokes Into Its Own Contradictions"

Danny Postel, In These Times (April 24-30, 1991)

Why would a journal that has described itself as "the philosophical conscience of the American left" and "a journal of radical thought" invite a senior contributing editor of The World & I — a publication of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times corporation—into its editorial circle? The journal is Telos, and its new comrade is Paul Gottfried, a self-described "reactionary" who has also written for such publications as Policy Review, the official magazine of the Heritage Foundation. Why would someone with Gottfried's politics be interested in a journal like Telos?Gottfried claims to detest the bureaucratic welfare state for its uprooting of the family and of traditional community. He thus feels comfortable with a group like Telos, whose critique of the capitalist welfare state (and of the former Soviet-style states) has, for two decades, been trenchant. The kind of community Gottfried is interested in preserving, by his own admission, is one fraught with traditional hierarchies. "I do believe in the inevitability of patriarchy," he says, while claiming to be "more afraid of the meddling bureaucrats in the Equality Opportunities Commission than in the recrudescence of Klan violence."


Heidegger — sidestep or goose step

Two recent events inside the pages of Telos illuminate the ideological changes the journal is undergoing. In a recent Telos book review, Gottfried plunges straight into the raging debate over the Nazism of the late German philosopher Martin Heidegger, disputing the claim of Victor Farias (author of the book Heidegger and Nazism) that Heidegger's philosophy is deeply contaminated with fascism. Farias called attention to such moments in Heidegger's career as his 1933 reference to "the glory and the greatness of the Hitler revolution," and to a speech to German students that same year in which Heidegger proclaimed: "Doctrine and 'ideas' shall no longer govern your existence. The Führer himself, and only he, is the current and future reality of Germany, and his word is your law."


Heidegger, in a 1948 letter to Herbert Marcuse, explained his attraction to Nazism in these words: "I expected from National Socialism a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety, a reconciliation of social antagonisms and a deliverance of Western Dasein from the dangers of communism."


"Should Heidegger," wrote Gottfried, "while trying to demonstrate his Nazi beliefs, have stressed disjunctions rather than links between his philosophy and his political career?" Gottfried concluded that "Heidegger's most inexcusable sin seems to have been that he challenged a still-dominant mindset. He dared to state that human fulfillment is not likely to be attained through an ever-expanding technology or in a managerial society, and that democratic individualism has resulted in the loss of cultural specificity and in delegitimating long-established community."


Telos editor Paul Piccone defends Gottfried's review, arguing that there is no connection between Heidegger's fascism and his philosophy. "Gottfried is right, and Farias is wrong," he claims. (This distances Piccone significantly from Jürgen Habermas, the German social theorist who has, with Farias, pointed to the important connections between Heidegger's political commitments and philosophical project. Habermas, once close to the Telos group — they put out a special issue on the occasion of his 50th birthday — has been the object of scathing attacks in the journal's pages in recent years.)

Dubious rehabilitations

Heidegger is not the only Nazi intellectual Telos has defended recently. In the summer of 1987 they published a "special issue" on Carl Schmitt, the German legal theorist and, in the words of Hannah Arendt, "convinced Nazi," who authored no fewer than five books and 35 tracts in support of Hitler's regime during the period of 1933-36.


According to historian Richard Wolin, "During this phase, there were few depths to which Schmitt would not sink: he penned an essay in support of the bloody SA purge of June 30, 1934 — the famous 'Night of the Long Knives' — with the ominous title "The Führer protects the law.'" The following year, Schmitt authored an article endorsing the Nuremberg anti-Semitic legislation of 1935. But, wrote Gary Ulmen, the main catalyst behind Telos' rehabilitation of Schmitt, "it is always a mistake to evaluate the significance of a thinker and judge his or her writings on the basis of personal political decision, good or bad."


In their joint introduction to the special issue on Schmitt, Ulmen and Piccone wrote frankly of the irony in their attempt to encourage a restored interest in Schmitt's work: "Carl Schmitt is an extremely controversial figure, compromised by his collusion with Nazism at the peak of his career and throughout his life a European conservative whose authoritarian political objectives have never been in doubt. So what is a nice leftist journal like Telos doing in a theoretical dive like this?"


"However one views the situation," they went on, "Schmitt's work — ranging all the way from political romanticism to guerrilla warfare — is clearly one of the most important contributions to 20th-century political theory and deserves to be seriously confronted."


Schmitt's central contention was that modern parliamentary liberalism as a political form is incompatible with democracy because the former inevitably degenerates into a system of fragmented interest-group conflicts and thereby undermines the "legitimacy" necessary to sustain the latter. Schmitt argued this case prolifically, authoring a series of influential books and essays, including The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. Although Schmitt's political commitments were clearly right-wing, his theories about liberal democracy were picked up by a number of European Leninists who joined Schmitt in feeling the need for an authoritarian structure (for them, the Communist Party) to provide the power necessary to run the state.


According to Wolin, what Schmitt longed after as a replacement for parliamentary democracy was a "Führer's democracy," a system in which the population submits to the authority of a ruler. "There is a terrifying degree of continuity," says Wolin, between Schmitt's "authoritarian political thought and his base servility under the Nazis. Schmitt's doctrines call for a leader to make decisions, and in Hitler he found his man."


Piccone and Ulmen argue, however, that "Schmitt's rigor, conditioned no doubt by his training in jurisprudence, compounded with his no-nonsense approach to concrete power relations, can provide a healthy corrective to the predominant leftist moralism, which more often than not clouds judgment to the point of precluding effective political analysis."




A long strange trip

Telos didn't start out on this ideological footing, however. It published the proceedings of its "First International Conference" as a book, Towards a New Marxism, in 1970. The collection included essays such as Piccone's "Phenomenological Marxism" and the late Raya Dunayevskaya's "Hegelian Leninism." Telos went on to publish books such as Gustav Landauer's For Socialism and Antonio Labriola's Socialism and Philosophy in 1980.


Although Telos had always been critical of orthodox Marxism, there was no question of its commitment to socialism — indeed, to some reconstructed version of Marxist theory. In Piccone's own (1987) words, Telos began with a "systematic effort to retrieve the lost and suppressed tradition of Western Marxism. ... Of course, at that time we had not yet realized that Western Marxism, in all its variations, would also turn out to be a dud, but it certainly seemed a worthwhile effort."

Today Telos stands ideological light-years away from its recent past. Piccone is a virulent anti-Marxist and eschews the terms "socialist" and "leftist." What could be behind the move he so quickly made from neo-Marxism to neo-Schmittianism?


In a 1987 issue of the editors' newsletter (the Telos Public Sphere), Piccone acknowledged a crisis at the journal — both organizational and theoretical: "Half of our editors have retired intellectually and burned out politically, the other half [are] rapidly becoming senile, cynical or purely careerist, while the rest are beset by a combination of both. ... What I think has happened is that, with the disappearance of any meaningful political 'movement' and the abandonment of the Marxist paradigm, we have scattered in many directions — not always necessarily compatible." He bluntly called on his fellow editors to ask, "What do we stand for, and what are we attempting to accomplish with Telos?"

He concluded candidly that, "in a nutshell, our relation to capitalism has become much more tolerant and nuanced than ever before, especially in light of the disasters associated with any kind of socialism or planned economies." He went on to lament that "lately Telos has not been flooded by much on the way of dynamite theoretical contributions. ... Either we move beyond this point or we are not going to be around very long."


In fact, it was precisely during this period that several Telos editors resigned (and shortly thereafter that such friends as Ulmen and Gottfried got involved with the journal). Among the reasons editors gave for leaving the journal were Piccone's "support of U.S. armed intervention in Nicaragua" and "an atmosphere [at the journal] that is not only sexist but is demeaning to all human beings." In response to criticisms that the journal lacked any feminist perspective, Piccone responded by suggesting that feminism "be kept in the kitchen." (Piccone's personality has been described as "vulgar" and "obnoxious" by several former editors.)


The right turn at Telos has appeared in its most obscene form, however, only recently. Piccone announced his criticism of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf just days before the war broke out by lamenting that George Bush had waited so long to bomb Iraq. Piccone wanted to see Saddam Hussein destroyed, even if it meant nuclear weapons being dropped in his country. Why? The Iraqi dictator's military ambitions and aggressive actions in the region made him an impediment to order and stability, Piccone explained.


Why would someone like Piccone be interested in preserving the kind of order and stability currently in place (i.e., the order of the world capitalist system)? Because, he explained, like it or not, it's the only system in the world and will remain so [his emphasis] for as long as we're around.


Left-wing cannibalism

According to Douglas Kellner, a philosopher and social critic who wrote for Telos before its turn to the right, "Telos represents the collapse of a certain segment of the left intelligentsia that renounced its leftism and moved to totally reactionary positions, and in so doing drove away all the intelligent and creative progressives who once formed the best of Telos. All that is left are a few embittered and alienated pseudo-intellectuals who focus their 'critique' on their former comrades while Reagan and Bush have destroyed American democracy and now the Middle East."

Ironically, it was Gottfried who, at Telos' 1990 conference (held in Elizabethtown, Pa., where Gottfried teaches political science and was thus able to persuade Elizabethtown College to finance a Telos weekend on its campus), suggested to his newfound colleagues that they were evading any discussion of what he perceived to be an ideological division within the group. He pointed out that there seemed to be two distinct positions on the editorial board: One, rooted in the critical tradition, has anti-authoritarian instincts and counter-establishment politics; the other, coming more from the tradition of organic conservatism, criticizes existing structures of power but values a return to more established traditions of order and authority. While the two camps are united on certain fronts, Gottfried argued, their profound differences should not be denied or belittled.

Gottfried's attempt to provoke discussion on this apparently touchy subject was met with hostile resistance from Gary Ulmen, whom Gottfried had named as being part of the second, more conservative, camp. Ulmen emphatically eschewed Gottfried's use of these ideological categories, shouting, "We simply reject them."


The journal recently advertised that its "Second Elizabethtown" conference would take "as its point of departure Christopher Lasch's new book, The True and Only Heaven." Among other things, Lasch (another ex-leftist with an interesting political pedigree) now argues that the "left"/"right" distinction has become obsolete. Perhaps denying the meaningfulness of "left" and "right" is Telos' way of moving from one to the other without admitting it.


I told Piccone that his new practice of refusing to employ such "meaningless" political vocabulary reminds me of the slogan of the New Age Greens: "We're neither left nor right — we're in front."


"No, no," he explained. "We're backwards."