Democracy or apocalypse | Aeon

German troops march through Vienna on 15 March 1938, after Hitler had entered the city proclaiming Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty

German troops march through Vienna on 15 March 1938, after Hitler had entered the city proclaiming Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty


Democracy or apocalypse

Eric Voegelin and Hans Kelsen fled the Nazis. In the US, they clashed over the nature of modernity and government

by David Dyzenhaus + BIO

German troops march through Vienna on 15 March 1938, after Hitler had entered the city proclaiming Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty

In the 1930s, many European academics sought refuge in the United States, escaping the quickly deteriorating political situation in their home countries. Jewish scholars were ‘cleansed’ from the academy in Germany with the 1933 Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service and could sense that they were likely to lose more than their jobs if they stayed. Non-Jewish scholars of a liberal or Left persuasion also saw no future for themselves in Germany or Austria under Nazi occupation, and often had good reason to fear the same kind of fate that would befall the Jewish population of Europe.

Prominent in these vulnerable groups were philosophers, among them the majority of the Vienna Circle. It is no exaggeration to say that their transplantation to the US transformed philosophy in that country, making English the dominant language of international philosophical enquiry at the same time as depriving Germany and Austria of their best philosophical minds, with consequences for decades thereafter. There is reason for celebrating this European contribution to the academic culture of the US, as well as for mourning the loss to Europe.

It would, however, be a grave mistake to overlook that, within this migration to the US, there was a small minority of scholars who had a profoundly negative effect. They may have little influence on the academic discipline of philosophy, but they have disciples within departments of political science and in some of the most prominent law schools, including Harvard and Oxford. More important is that their influence extends far beyond the academy, and their impact is growing in the time of Brexit, Make America Great Again, Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin.

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was the most influential member of this group, which gravitated to the intellectual circle around William Buckley and his magazine National Review, and which laid the basis for the toxic and complex blend of militant Christian conservatism, libertarianism and anti-liberalism that drives the Republican Party in the Donald Trump era. Voegelin was German, but studied at the University of Vienna, where he became a professor in the Faculty of Law in 1929. In 1938, he escaped to Switzerland then left for the US. He spent much of his career at Louisiana State University, later at the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. The website of the Eric Voegelin Institute at Louisiana State claims him as ‘one of the most original and influential philosophers of our time’.

Voegelin was neither Jewish nor socialist. The intellectual historian Mark Lilla claims that Voegelin had to flee Austria because, in two books published in the early 1930s, he had attacked the ‘pseudoscientific works supporting the Nazis’ biological racism’. That made him ‘a choice target of Austrian Nazis, who authorised his arrest immediately after the Anschluss in 1938.’

Lilla’s claim is misleading. In his 1973 autobiography, Voegelin himself does not state that he feared arrest, only that he had been fired from his academic position and feared the confiscation of his passport, which would make emigration difficult. More important is that Lilla fails to situate his claim in the context in which Voegelin wrote these works, and says nothing about Voegelin’s own position at this time, thereby perpetuating the official view of Voegelin’s many admirers, which he himself was careful to encourage.

Voegelin was a prominent member of ‘Black Vienna’, intellectuals who embraced a fascist anti-scientific view

In his autobiography, Voegelin writes that his critique of biological theory as a basis for racism was ‘not quite compatible with National Socialism’ and that one of his first books on this topic ‘was withdrawn from circulation by the publisher and the remainder of the edition was destroyed’. However, Voegelin was an enthusiastic proponent of other equally racist theories, and he advanced a metaphysical and spiritual justification for them. He ends his second book, The History of the Race Idea (1933), with a hymn to race ‘not as a scientific concept but a tool for interpreting the meaning of one’s own life and the broader life of the community’. He continues:

It is not merely the creation of a passive attempt at ‘understanding’, but an instrument in service of the future shaping of the community; it is the idea of community as a bodily context as it is projected into the future by its members.

He differed from the Nazis only in that, as Aurel Kolnai put it in the first comprehensive study of Nazi and fascist ideology, The War Against the West (1938), he ‘always stayed at a certain refined distance from partisan scholarship’. And as Kolnai notes:

if this condemns Voegelin in Hitler’s eyes, it does not by any means acquit him in ours … In so far as he is on bad terms with official Naziism, he is not the only man to incur such misfortune through stating the Nazi Weltanschauung too intelligently.

In addition, Lilla ignores the fact that in the 1930s Voegelin was a prominent member of ‘Black Vienna’, the group of intellectuals who embraced a fascist anti-scientific view of the world against the liberal Left-leaning Vienna Circle sorts. The work that followed his two books extolling the race idea as the key to politics was The Authoritarian State: An Essay on the Problem of the Austrian State (1936). His claim there is not that authoritarianism is the problem of the Austrian state; rather, it is the cure for the political problems of the pluralistic state order in Austria, a cure that began when, in the midst of the political crisis of 1934, the fascist politician and federal chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss dissolved parliament and assumed dictatorial powers. The point of the book is how to make the Austrian state into as efficient an instrument of fascist rule as possible.

Voegelin is less reticent than his disciples in acknowledging what he was up to. In his autobiography, he remarks scornfully that

The Austrian veering toward Mussolini as a protection against the worst evil of Hitler apparently was beyond the comprehension of ardent Marxists, who could do nothing but yell ‘Fascism’.

He goes on to say that the book was his ‘first major attempt to … understand that an authoritarian state that would keep radical ideologists in check was the best possible defence of democracy.’

Voegelin went beyond words to action. He was a member of a secret committee of the community college Ottakring, which recommended and achieved the ‘political cleansing’ of its staff: that is, firing those academics whose views were opposed to the new state. And there was enough support in the early 1930s in Germany for Voegelin’s more academically refined kind of racism for him to try to get a position after Hitler’s seizure of power by sending his books on race along with supplicating letters to Nazi academics teaching at German institutions. He was rejected the first time because of his relationship with the philosopher of law Hans Kelsen, who had supervised his doctorate in the 1920s and was of Jewish ancestry. That prompted Voegelin to write a long letter proving his ‘Aryan’ purity and proclaiming his distance, both academically and in other respects, from Kelsen. He was again rejected. But that would not be the last of his dealings with Kelsen.

Kelsen was the leading philosopher of law of his time – perhaps of all time. But proximity to him was fatal to the job prospects of someone who wanted to join the Nazi academy. Kelsen had authored important works defending liberal democracy and the place of judicial review in upholding such a democracy with its commitment to the rule of law. He also had written the 1920 Austrian constitution, still in force today, in the process designing the world’s first dedicated constitutional court, and he sat as a judge on its first bench.

In 1930, Kelsen left Vienna for an academic position in Cologne because of Right-wing attacks on him for his role on the Court. In Cologne, he played an important part in the existentially important debates in late Weimar with his reactionary colleague Carl Schmitt about who should be considered the ‘guardian of the constitution’. In a work that is Voegelin’s principal point of reference in The Authoritarian State, Schmitt argued that the Weimar Constitution required that the president of the republic and not any court must decide high matters of constitutional politics. Kelsen responded that Schmitt’s argument had nothing to do with the law. It boiled down to the claim that only the head of the executive is capable of guaranteeing the substantive homogeneity of the people, which requires getting rid of parliamentary democracy and social pluralism, and that consequently all legal authority should be located in the head.

Because Kelsen was of Jewish ancestry, he was fired from his position in 1933 (Schmitt was the only colleague who refused to sign a letter of protest). Kelsen made his way via Geneva and Prague to the US and, in contrast to Voegelin, ended up an obscure and lonely figure in the Berkeley political science department.

Kelsen is one of Voegelin’s main targets in his books from the 1930s. In Race and State (1933), Voegelin identifies Kelsen’s theory of law as a prime example of the main problem with the German tradition of Staatslehre, which takes the abstract explanation of the nature of the modern state as the main task for academic enquiry in politics and law. Kelsen thinks that the task involves understanding the state in a value-neutral fashion as it manifests itself in any social or political context. He deliberately excludes moral, political and social considerations from his attempt to construct a scientific account of legal order as a system of norms, a theory of the authority of the modern legal state. For Voegelin, this attempt must fail since it ‘purges’ from enquiry consideration of the role of the ‘person and the community’. The racial theories that he lists in the book are, he thinks, on the right track at least in that they seek to be grounded in social and anthropological reality, where ‘anthropology’ means not the study of actual groups, so much as a philosophical theory of the person as a social being. He then elaborated this critique of Kelsen in a 50-page discussion in The Authoritarian State.

It was politically risky for Kelsen to publish such a defence of Marxism in the McCarthy era

However, there was no contact between the two until the early 1950s, when Voegelin wrote to Kelsen because he had learned that Kelsen was engaged in reviewing his book The New Science of Politics (1952). In the testy correspondence that followed, Voegelin attempted to assure Kelsen, who is not mentioned in the book, that he did not consider his former supervisor to be a target of his critiques. Kelsen was unconvinced and deeply troubled by what he took to be the political implications of Voegelin’s work. But both his original response and a longer version were published only posthumously because Kelsen withdrew his review twice after it had been accepted by different presses. (The second time around, he withdrew it at the galley proof stage and had to reimburse the press a large sum to cover its costs.) Why couldn’t Kelsen bring himself to publish?

The Hans Kelsen-Institut in Vienna, which oversaw the publication of Kelsen’s longer response, suggests that the answer may lie in the fact that Kelsen defended Marx’s critique of religion against Voegelin’s charge that Marxism is a secular religion and that it was politically risky to publish such a defence in the McCarthy era. In a detailed account of this saga, Bjørn Thomassen rejects this hypothesis. He diagnoses Kelsen’s bid to take down Voegelin as due to the offence of the Doktorvater – the evocative German term for supervisor – at the revolt of a former student. And he argues that Kelsen’s reluctance to publish was evidence of his inability to confront fully Voegelin’s critique of ‘Gnosticism’. While Voegelin himself was customarily vague about this idea, he seemed to suppose that it is the belief that, while God has vanished from the world, a select few have access to a vision of the transcendent divine, which they can bring to earth through some apocalypse. Voegelin applies the label ‘Gnosticism’ promiscuously to any political ideology that seeks to put into practice its vision of the ideal society. On this view, communism, Nazism and liberalism are equally gnostic, that is, secular religions.

Thomassen’s first claim can’t be right since Kelsen had ignored Voegelin for many years. But the second raises a puzzle well stated by Lilla. Lilla says that Voegelin was an ‘amateur historian’ of great range, so great that Lilla says he may seem like Mr Casaubon, the ‘obsessive polymath’ of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871-72), ‘whose search for the “key to all mythologies” left him only torsos of unfinished works’. Lilla finds that Voegelin’s trawls though the history of Western thought did indeed come up with a key of sorts: ‘guiding all Voegelin’s writing was a basic intuition about the relation between religion and politics, and how transformations in that relation could explain the cataclysms of modern history’. That intuition turns out to be a claim about ‘immanentising the eschaton’, advanced in The New Science of Politics: the history of ideas in the West, according to Voegelin, should be read as a clash between various ‘Gnostic’ ideologies.

The 1950s debate shows that Voegelin’s fascist and racist books from the 1930s cannot be brushed aside as a youthful indiscretion. Voegelin himself thought that they laid the basis for his postwar work, and they make explicit what in his postwar work became implicit, as Kelsen clearly discerned and in fact argued in print in ‘Foundations of Democracy’ (1955), a 101-page article that took up one whole issue of Ethics, a leading philosophy journal. It was this article that most likely obviated the need for Kelsen to publish his reviews of The New Science of Politics – his analysis was so devastating that there was little more to be said.

Perhaps because Voegelin’s name is to be found only in the footnotes, this article seems to have escaped the attention of many commentators, despite the fact that Kelsen devotes several pages close to the beginning to a sustained critique of ‘the new science of politics’. He begins by identifying the central problem of politics after the war as the threat posed by Soviet communism, because it fights ‘the democratic idea under the disguise of democratic terminology’ in presenting the dictatorship of the Party as the rule of the proletariat. Soon into the article, however, he turns to an analysis of a ‘quite similar pattern of thought’, using as the exemplar Voegelin’s book The New Science of Politics. He notes that it contains the distinction between an ‘elemental’ and an ‘existential’ type of representation. He then sets out the point of the distinction. The elemental type, that is, the institutions of representative democracy, is merely formal, lacking any ‘substance’. ‘Substance’ can be delivered only by the existential type, which Kelsen disinters from Voegelin’s obfuscations as amounting to the equivalent of a one-party state in which the leader represents the ‘society as a whole’, and which is identified with the state to the extent that the ‘state’ as a concept is not present in Voegelin’s reflections.

It is this bond between the leader and the people that Voegelin designates as ‘existential’, one that is corrupted if it is mediated by the institutions of representative democracy. Kelsen argues that the bond is ‘fascistic’ in nature, though he recognises that this is an implication rather than anything Voegelin directly states. And he makes it clear in a footnote that in his view there is no distance between Schmitt’s fascist theory of democracy advanced in late Weimar and Voegelin’s ‘science of politics’. Such a theory holds that only a strong leader unfettered by institutional constraints – a dictator – can existentially represent the group that counts authentically as ‘the people’.

Kelsen showed how shallow Voegelin’s knowledge was, despite his much-vaunted breadth

Kelsen’s book-length responses do, however, add something useful. For example, in The New Science of Politics, Voegelin closes his book with an analysis of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). He says that Hobbes saw the need to found the state on the basis of a civil faith, but did so by ‘throwing out anthropological and soteriological truth’, that is, respectively, the truth of the correct philosophical conception of the social individual, and the truth offered by religious doctrines of salvation. This leads, he claims, to what he calls the ‘destruction of the truth of the soul’ and the ‘fallacious immanentisation of the Christian eschaton’.

As Kelsen points out, this is a highly partial, one might say dishonest, interpretation of Hobbes. Hobbes explicitly rejected the idea that there could be a final stage of humankind. Rather, he wished to design a modern legal state in which people could live together peacefully, despite their very different conceptions of the good, and with rulers disabused of the idea that they are able to force belief in any idea of the soul or salvation. This, Hobbes realised, would be a fragile achievement, subject to all sorts of perils, and its design had to take into account and remain open to human experience and nothing more in seeking to build a stable and decent society for any given political community.

Hobbes, then, had no aim of creating a world without religion, nor indeed a civil faith beyond one that supposed that careful attention to human capacities to craft institutional solutions to the problem of how to live peacefully together suffices and will bear fruit, as long as we remain open to our collective experience as human beings in this world. When it comes to our common lives, all that transcends human experience is more of such experience, not anything that is claimed by some dreamer of the absolute to have been ‘revealed’ to them. Kelsen thus showed how shallow Voegelin’s knowledge was, despite his much-vaunted breadth.

Kelsen concluded the first draft of his response to Voegelin by noting the apparent irony in the fact that his closing observation in The New Science of Politics is that ‘there is a glimmer of hope’ in that ‘the American and English democracies which most solidly in their institutions represent the truth of the soul are, at the same time, existentially the strongest powers’. Kelsen failed to quote the next line: ‘But it will require all our efforts to kindle this glimmer into a flame by repressing Gnostic corruption and restoring the forces of civilisation’. However, he did comment on the implicit claim in it, saying that ‘[t]his is the – quite contradictory – truth of gnosticism as to the nature of modernity. It is in the end Voegelin’s gnostic dream.’

What then is the content of the dream? Written in 1951 for the Walgreen Lectures, and then revised and published in 1952, Voegelin’s concluding observations to The New Science of Politics were made at a time when one could view these two democracies as not only having triumphed over the Nazis, but also as superior in force to the communist bloc. Within the couple of pages that precede the observations, and which appear at first sight oddly tacked on to the body of the book, Voegelin suggests that what makes democracy distinctive is that it ‘preserved the institutional culture of aristocratic parlamentism as well as the mores of a Christian commonwealth, now sanctioned as national institutions.’ Similarly, while the American Revolution was ‘strongly affected by the psychology of the enlightenment’, it also ‘had the good fortune of coming to its close within the institutional and Christian climate of the ancien régime.’ These two democracies had not, as the French and German revolutions had done, brought about ‘modernity without restraint’, by which he meant liberalism run wild.

These pages are not as oddly tacked on as they might at first appear. As Kelsen discerned, the content of the dream is have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too. The substantive homogeneity of a majority Christian and white political community is in place, ruled over by an aristocratic elite who will remain in power because of the longstanding institutional arrangements in which people trust. The pages are then a somewhat disguised wink to the cognoscenti. The majority of the population think they have – and trust in – rule by the stable democratic institutions that make up the body politic of ‘we, the people’. But, in reality, they are living in the ‘Christian climate of the ancien régime’.

There is then, they suppose, no need to put in place fascism because illiberal democracy suffices

However, since the 1950s, the political climate has changed. For Voegelin’s disciples, it has become ‘modernity without restraint’, in the US, the era ushered in by the Civil Rights movement, the Warren Court, and feminism; the election of a Black president; the Me Too and the Defund the Police movements, and of trans rights. Like Voegelin, his disciples see liberalism as even more pernicious than explicitly authoritarian ideologies. It claims not only to be secular, but also neutral in that the only good it promotes is the good of a stable political order in which individuals can pursue their own conceptions of the good on peaceful terms. Like him, they argue that liberalism’s relegation of the pursuit of the good to the private sphere of individual life is deeply corrosive of many conceptions of the good, especially the authentically religious ones, and through such corrosion it promotes its own version of the millennium at the expense of all others.

Unlike Voegelin, they do not see the need to ‘veer towards Mussolini’ since they have learned a lesson about democracy that was unavailable to the likes of Voegelin and Schmitt in the 1930s. Their main teacher is Hungary’s Orbán, and he has taught that the political space need not exclude democracy as long as the version of democracy is ‘illiberal democracy’. This is a democracy whose institutions have been hollowed out or captured so that, first, the return of the ruler in periodic elections is guaranteed to the extent possible and, second, institutions such as parliaments and the judiciaries are disabled from mediating the promulgation of the common good by the ruler. There is then, they suppose, no need to put in place fascism because illiberal democracy suffices for what the US Senator Joshua Hawley, in a Voegelin-inspired essay, called ‘A Christian Vision for Kingdom Politics’.

It is because Kelsen saw clearly the content of that dream, as set out in his article in Ethics, that he was impelled to try to expose Voegelin’s agenda. As our world today tragically shows, he was all too prescient. The enemies of democracy are not just Russia’s Putin and wacky extremist groups. They have been for some time within our gates, indeed, the gates of our academies. They are the true gnostics. They are realistic enough to know that the return of theocratic rule according to the dictates of their own militant version of Christianity is not realisable in practice. So they make a pact with whatever anti-liberal forces share enough of the tenets of their ideology to make for some common ground; and they disguise their hatred of the achievements of liberal democracy under the pretext of saving us from the control of cosmopolitan, rootless elites, a rhetoric with a frightful past.

The only mistake Kelsen made was to suppose that his theory of the rule-of-law state is value neutral. As Volodymyr Zelensky is teaching us, the liberal democratic state with its commitment to the rule of law rests on profound value commitments, so profound that the people of Ukraine are dying to preserve them.

Thinkers and theoriesPolitical philosophyValues and beliefs

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