Review- Herf, “Reactionary Modernism”

Jeffrey Herf, “Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich” (1984) – Sometimes a book succeeds so well in getting its ideas across that in subsequent decades it doesn’t hold the fascination it might once have had. Historian Jeffrey Herf coined the phrase “reactionary modernism” to describe the combination of disdain for rationalism, yearning for the past, fascination with technology, and future-oriented vision that you saw in Nazi ideology. Arguably, he did so well that this is no longer really that odd-seeming to us. The idea that ideology can bend itself to include these seemingly paradoxical elements — like thinking that science disenchants the world but technology re-enchants it — doesn’t really seem that mind-blowing, especially when applied to people like the Nazis.

Herf was writing in the 1980s in a tradition of historical sociology steeped in functionalism. Functionalist history and sociology seemingly en bloc decided that the Nazis were a revolt against modernity, and that’s much of the reason they failed- their form (this whacked out mythologized racial imperialism) failed to correspond with functions (running a modern state). There was (is) much truth to this, but it was more complicated than that, as functionalists like Franz Neumann tried to illustrate. But functionalism came out of root-sociology: Weber, Durkheim, Simmel et all trying to figure out capital-M Modernity. Anti-modern modernism threw their inheritors for a loop.

Herf remains loyal to his roots, sticking with his framework for all its flaws and piously averring Marxist and Frankfurt School explanations, which, truth be told, don’t always get to the heart of the matter either. Needless to say, his methodological conservatism doesn’t get him anywhere close to post-structuralism or anything else that might break down the ideology-structure-function relationship. You have to figure the propagation of other ways of looking at the relationship between ideas and power probably helped get the meme of “reactionary modernism” across in the thirty years since this book came out, but Herf wasn’t having any of it.

But he does pretty good anyway. He methodically goes through a number of German intellectuals of the Weimar period — Ernst Junger, Werner Sombart, Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spengler, various others — and examines their attitudes towards different aspects of modernity. The rough lineaments of the “reactionary modernist” attitude he draws from them are like this: German “kultur” is about the superior truth of Life and Will against the technical but lame truth of facts and reason. “Real” worthwhile science (and politics and literature) etc engages this sense of life and defies rationality. The other, lame kind explains away and demystifies thing. The former is associated with Germans, the latter with Americans, French, and above all, you guessed it, the Jews. This creates a dyad of good, German aspects of modernity — technology (a lot of rhapsodizing the power of engines, the clean lines of skyscrapers etc), “productive” entrepreneurship, mechanized warfare — with their bad, vaguely Jewish opposites: abstract science, mere “circulatory” capitalism, parliamentary politics, and so on.

This scheme became widely popular in right-leaning circles in Germany during the Weimar period. It caught on especially well with engineers, who started feeling their political muscle at the time. It got more or less officially interwoven into the ideology of the Third Reich. Among its more famous results was the rejection of the “Jewish physics” of general and special relativity, which would come back to bite the Nazi regime pretty hard.

Sometimes you still get people — people who write about these things, people who should know better — scratching their heads at how avowed despisers of modernity embrace certain aspects of it, especially technology, so hard. This isn’t just the Nazis- the Confederacy, for all of its maudlin rural nostalgia, was very interested in modern capitalism and technological improvement. ISIS fighters may refuse to use toothbrushes, preferring the chewing twig the Prophet and his followers supposedly used, but nothing in their peculiar reading of the holy books says anything about not using social media to recruit more jihadis.

So this stuff shouldn’t surprise us, and Herf’s book has been an important part of helping us all get that. Ironically, people have probably taken it further than Herf himself would like. He got pretty close to being able to say that the relationship between ideology and social function maybe isn’t as tight as his school of historical sociology would have it, and maybe new methods of investigating these things are called for… but no such luck. Herf tried to dunk on both Marxists and the totalitarianism school by insisting that reactionary modernism was a purely German thing, and that proves that the German case of fascism was truly unique, etc. Well, the obvious applicability of the phrase to the contemporary altright, especially in the US, sort of gives the lie to that. Herf went on to become a liberal hawk, Iraq War booster, and his historical work has an increasingly rabid Zionist bent. But now the world has his concept, and we can use it how we like. ****

Review- Herf, “Reactionary Modernism”

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