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Tere Vadén
Aalto University, Aalto, Finland
Why did Martin Heidegger, the giant of continental philosophy, believe in 1933 that Hitler
is the future of Europe? And why does Slavoj Žižek, “the most dangerous philosopher in the
West”, support Heidegger’s right wing militancy?
Heidegger and Žižek are not only erudite thinkers on human being but also incorrigible
revolutionaries who even after the catastrophic failures of their favourite revolutions –
the October revolution for Žižek and the National Socialist revolution for Heidegger –
want to overcome capitalism; undemocratically, if necessary. The two share a spirited and
sophisticated rejection of the liberalist worldview and the social order based on it. The
problem is not that liberalism is factually wrong, but rather that it is ethically bad. Both
argue for building and educating a new collective based on human finitude and communality.
In the tradition of the Enlightenment, Žižek advocates a universalist revolution, whereas
Heidegger sees the transformation rooted in particular historical existence, inviting a
bewildering array of mutually exclusive criticisms and apologies of his view. The crisis that
Heidegger and Žižek want to address is still here, but their unquestioned Europocentrism
sets a dark cloud over the whole idea of revolution.
Heidegger, Žižek and Revolution
Heidegger, Žižek and Revolution
ISBN 978-94-6209-681-3
Tere Vadén
9.017 mm
Heidegger, Žižek and
Tere Vadén
Heidegger, Žižek and Revolution
Volume 1
Series Editor
Olli-Pekka Moisio, University of Jyväskylä, Finland
Advisory Board
Stephen Brookfield, University of St. Thomas Minneapolis, USA
Martin Jay, University of California at Berkeley, USA
Douglas Kellner, University of California at Los Angeles, USA
Michael A. Peters, University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), USA
Juha Suoranta, University of Tampere, Finland
Christiane Thompson, Martin-Luther-University at Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
This series maps the field of critical theory and its role in articulating the central
problems of education, schooling, culture, and human learning and development
in the current historical social, political, economical and global situation. It aspires
to build a consistent approach to philosophy and sociology of education from the
viewpoint of critical theory, as well as new openings for the future critical theory
of education. It will also examine examples of pedagogical experiments, new
utopian thinking, and educational policies with a strong accent on actual policies
and examples. Series will commission books on the Frankfurt School critical theory
in relation to the question of education and social settings of human learning and
development. It seeks authors who can demonstrate their understanding of the
history and systematical issues in the tradition of the Frankfurt School in the setting
of pedagogy, education and learning.
Heidegger, Žižek and Revolution
Tere Vadén
Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland
A C.I.P. record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.
ISBN: 978-94-6209-681-3 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-94-6209-682-0 (hardback)
ISBN: 978-94-6209-683-7 (e-book)
Published by: Sense Publishers,
P.O. Box 21858,
3001 AW Rotterdam,
The Netherlands
Printed on acid-free paper
All Rights Reserved © 2014 Sense Publishers
No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted
in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, microfilming,
recording or otherwise, without written permission from the Publisher, with the
exception of any material supplied specifically for the purpose of being entered and
executed on a computer system, for exclusive use by the purchaser of the work.
Chapter 1: Introduction
A Revolution, After All?
Radical Heidegger as the Starting Point
Chapter 2: Metaphysics is Politics
Truth is Not Neutral
Heidegger and Žižek in Everyday Politics
Heideggerian Marxism and Žižek as the New Marcuse?
The Problem with the Liberal Subject
Chapter 3: Heidegger on Revolution
The Subject, the Worker, the Polis
“Nur Noch Die Jugend Kann Uns Retten”
Heidegger’s Step and Its Direction
Chapter 4: What is Wrong in Heidegger’s Revolution?
A Small Man Living in Hard Times
The Liberal Criticism: Too Much Postmodernism
The French Critiques: Too Little Postmodernism
Nazism as Anticommunism
Nazism as Asubjective National Experience
The Typical Marxist Critique
Žižek’s Untypical Marxist Critique and Praise
Chapter 5: Industrial Agriculture and Concentration
Camps or the Will and Evil
Chapter 6: Žižek on a See-Saw
Chapter 7: Žižek and Heidegger Avec Means
The origin of this text is a course on Heidegger and Žižek in the University of
Tampere; I want to thank all participants for lively discussions. The writing itself
was made possible through a grant by the Finnish Association of Non-Fiction
Writers. Warmest thanks also to Juha Suoranta and Mika Hannula who gave crucial
comments and criticism on the manuscript along the way.
If the last century was characterised by the widening scope and deeper penetration
of capitalism, modernism, economic growth, mass culture and representational
democracy in nation states, it was also a century of revolutions against these
developments. The October revolution in 1917 in Russia and the National Socialist
revolution in 1933 in Germany were the most impressive challengers to liberal
capitalism in Europe. In their distinct ways, both revolutions tried to reinstate ideals
absent from bourgeois materially oriented civilization and to tackle the problem
of economic and social inequality. Both failed and in the process took their crown
jewels, “socialist man/woman” and “Aryan master-race”, to their graves. But
inequality has not disappeared, and even if postmodernism has put a wet blanket
on utopias and ideals, most people are not happy with the vile harvest provided by
individualistic capitalism—vile, it is often assumed, because of wrong values or a
lack of values altogether.
The responses that Slavoj Žižek (b. 1949) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
present in the face of the catastrophic failures of the revolutions they admire—
the socialist and the National Socialist—are similar. Both continue to insist that
revolutionary change is necessary, but at the same time emphasise the role of
careful and painstaking thought. The work of both thinkers is shot through with an
urgent awareness of crisis, propelling them to untiring and unyielding philosophical
resistance. In the 1950’s and 1960’s Heidegger speaks of the need to “be prepared
for being prepared” and hints that maybe we need to wait 300 years before a new
opening. Our contemporary Žižek is both more impatient and hesitant. At times
he predicts that capitalism will face a cliff very soon, at times he claims that the
20th century saw too much of the action urged by Marx (“Philosophers have only
interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”) and too little
calm and unhurried thought. Despite having once burnt their fingers and despite
the genuine care they want to take in matters of philosophy, both thinkers are set
alight by the idea of total upheaval: “If only we could think and enact a proper
Our proposal is that we spend some time attending to this hope for a genuine,
properly thought-out and enacted revolution. On one hand, we can agree about the
assessment of the situation. Really, things can not continue as they are. Heidegger’s
warnings about the dangers of technology and Žižek’s reminders of how exploitation
and injustice are a part and parcel of all types of capitalism hold true. A genuine
revolution? Why not! Why not a revolution, if it would stop the destruction of nature
and the subjugation of humans into resources for capitalism. On the other hand, there
is a nagging doubt, “what if…”, a fear that the promised revolution turns sour. The
doubt is based not only on the expectation of the return of previous disappointments
and failures, of the revolution devouring its children. A dark cloud can be detected
inside the idea of revolution itself. To borrow an interrogatory structure often
employed by Heidegger: who (or what) is demanding a revolution from whom (or
what)? In the name of whom is the demand made? Could it be that the demand is
made in the name of someone or something to whom a revolution can not be an
answer? What if revolution is the wrong answer to the right question? These two
poles—“why not!”, “what if… ”—provide the tension through which we approach
Heidegger’s and Žižek’s revolutions.
However, the two theorists will not be handled equally. Heidegger takes the
foreground, for three reasons. First, Heidegger has become common background
for nearly all contemporary critical philosophy, not the least for Žižek. Heidegger’s
philosophy of Dasein1, his critique of technology, and his narrative of the history
of Being pop up time and again when liberalism, capitalism and consumerism are
thoughtfully opposed. The reliance on Heidegger also creates a potential minefield,
because for Heidegger himself his philosophy consistently meant a rejection of liberal
democracy. When theorists relying on Heidegger want to deepen democracy and
strengthen individual rights, the upshot is a performative contradiction: either they
have not understood their Heidegger right or Heidegger himself was inconsistent. A
synthesis between genuine democracy and the deepest roots of Heideggerian thought
is still missing,2 even though, for instance, Jacques Derrida has stated that for him
and many others the goal is to democratise Heidegger’s thought and to vaccinate it
against “the worst.”3
Second, in a rare manner Heidegger was both a philosopher and an active, militant
revolutionary, who in addition to his work at the university took part in politics.
It must be remembered that Heidegger was an active participant in a successful
and actual revolution—successful in terms of overturning the previous government
and gaining power, if not in terms of all the goals of the revolutionary movement,
not to speak of Heidegger’s goals for it. After the Second World War, in public
Heidegger understandably tried to belittle his political activism. He was afraid that
the baby of his thought would go with the bathwater of Nazism. His attempts seem
to have worked relatively well, partly because many Heideggerian philosophers find
it easy to believe that philosophy is necessarily remote from day-to-day politics.
Heidegger’s critique of civilization is celebrated, his actions in politics not. One
of the almost unbearable ironies of the case is that many Heideggerian wannaberevolutionaries want to have their Heidegger without the dirty everyday struggle
of changing social structures, that is, without the revolutionary grassroots that they
themselves—but not Heidegger!—lack. Here Žižek is one crucial step ahead
of his postmodern colleagues, as he recognizes the philosophical importance of
Heidegger’s revolutionary political action.4
Third, Heidegger takes the foreground because Žižek formulates his thought
on revolution partly as a response to Heidegger. In addition to Hegel and Lacan,
Heidegger is one of the first tools that find their way to Žižek’s hands. Both
Žižek’s idea that truth is fundamentally partisan and his notion of the structure of a
revolutionary act are directly connected to Heidegger (more precisely Heidegger’s
notion of Werk): a revolutionary act creates ex nihilo a structure that before the act
was impossible.5
So the question is about revolution, especially Heidegger’s revolution. If the
picture Heidegger gives is, more or less, correct (technology as an epoch in the
history of Being, the impossibility of democratically challenging technology, the
fundamentally technological nature of Americanism, Bolshevism and, ultimately,
Nazism), why is his revolution wrong, wrong for nature, wrong for humans in
general and wrong for the workers, in particular? Juxtaposing Heidegger and
Žižek, we intend to use both as criticisms of each other.6 What, exactly, is wrong
in Heidegger’s revolution? Or is the leftist corrective, for instance, as presented by
Žižek, wrong? Or is the notion of revolution itself already flawed?
I will use the term Dasein without translation. However, if the word seems alien, one can always read
in its place “life”, as long as one remembers that life here does not mean a biological phenomenon
or the life of an individual but rather life as in the expressions “German life”, “cabin life”, “military
life”, “academic life” and so on (all of which, by the way, are Heidegger’s own expressions: “deutsche
Dasein”, “Hütte-Dasein”, and so on).
Pauli Pylkkö’s Aconceptual Mind. Heideggerian themes in holistic naturalism (1998) tries to cure the
anti-democracy of Dasein philosophy by a strong dose of non-classical natural science. The project
is promising, but very few philosophers steeped in so-called continental philosophy or critical theory
care enough about the natural sciences in order to follow. However, Arkady Plotnitsky (2002, 1994)
works along the same lines.
In the interview “’Eating Well’ or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida”
published in Cadava et al. (1991).
Repeatedly Žižek tells that he looks down on leftists that do not want to get their hands dirty. For the
same reason he does not regret his involvement in Slovenian politics at the time when Slovenia was
gaining independence from Yugoslavia and turning towards capitalism: “I despise abstract leftists who
don’t want to touch power because it is corrupting. No, power is there to be grabbed. I don’t have any
problem with that.” Boynton (1998).
The connections can easily bee seen by comparing, for instance, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes”
(GA5, 48, 62-63) and Žižek’s description of the act in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism (2002a,
The plot goes like this: the penultimate end will be a Heidegger corrected by Žižek, but the Žižek
used in the correction is first amended by a dose of Heidegger. Finally, we will have to leave also
Heidegger’s incorrigible Europocentrism behind.
Both Heidegger and Žižek want to burst the bubble of non-political philosophy.
Philosophy is action, doing, politics in its genuine sense, or it is not at all. Not
only is philosophy action, it is the most decisive kind of action. Heidegger and
Žižek claim that everything depends on thinking, and, moreover, right now.1
Philosophy as action is absolutely decisive, urgent and world-historical. Here we
find the most crucial connection between Heidegger and Žižek: for both, truth is
partisan. Truth is accessible only from a limited, engaged, and partial position that
has abandoned all safety nets. For instance, in his comments on Hölderlin—one of
the most sensitive topics for Heidegger—Heidegger insists that hearing the word
of the poet means risking a change, of being swept away so that all safety is lost.
Only from this vulnerable experience may truth grow. For Heidegger, experience
does not mean an accumulation of aesthetic and atmospheric snippets. Rather,
experience contains an overwhelming force that the experiencing subject may very
well feel as threatening:
To experience something, be it a thing, a person, a God, means that this
something happens to us, hits us, comes over us, turns us over and changes us.
(GA12, 149)2
The same goes, according to Heidegger, for the German revolution that should not
be treated as one fact or historical event amongst others. The revolution reveals its
truth and greatness only to human life that has been transformed by the revolutionary
Žižek often uses directly political terms in defining his notion of the non-neutrality
of truth. For instance, the truth of universal Christianity is not that “we” are Christians
and “they” are not, but rather that the gap between being a Christian and not being
a Christian is found inside all of “us” and “them” and that “[…] universal Truth is
accessible only from a partial engaged subjective position.” (2006a, 35)—that is,
from the point of the practising Christian. In this way, we are led to the political
nature of truth:
Yes, assuming the proletarian standpoint is exactly like making a leap of faith
and assuming a full subjective engagement for its Cause; yes, the “truth” of
Marxism is perceptible only to those who accomplish this leap, not to any
neutral observer. (Žižek 2004, no page numbers)
Consequently, Heidegger and Žižek have to be revolutionary. They see attempts
at alleviating the excesses of capitalism as futile or even counterproductive, as such
attempts only prop up the system. Neither Heidegger nor Žižek stand for slow, stepwise reformation. This revolutionary extremism is clear in Heidegger’s attitude
towards ecological questions. A technological delay of climate change (for instance,
through some kind of geo-engineering), will only deepen the real catastrophe, the
technological understanding of Being. Similarly, in politics, softening or covering-up
the nihilistic destruction caused by capitalism through various kinds of philosophies
of values, virtue ethics or religious charity gets Heidegger’s as well as Žižek’s scorn.3
Such cushioning, first, makes the destruction in terms of the subjugation of humans
even worse, and, second, muddles the truth:
The parallel with Bolsheviks is absolutely pertinent: what Heidegger shares
with revolutionary Marxists is the notion that the system’s truth emerges in its
excess—that is to say, for Heidegger, as well as for Marxists, Fascism is not a
simple aberration of the ‘normal’ development of capitalism but the necessary
outcome of its inner dynamics. (Žižek 2009c, 7)
Žižek’s details are a little hazy, but the insight is correct. Heidegger would not speak
of Fascism4 and would not think that it (or, rather, Nazism) is the truth of capitalism
only. Rather, Heidegger would insist that the wrong kind of Nazism, the kind that
eventually prevailed, is the truth of not only capitalism but also Bolshevism because
of the common foundation that they share: the technological understanding of Being.
But Žižek’s observation is crucial: in a Hegelian way Heidegger thinks that the
technological understanding of Being has to be completed, has to reach its fullest
bloom, before its truth can be discerned and overcome. This simply because truth
is a matter of experience. The technological understanding of Being is true. It is the
way in which technological human being really is in the world. Only experience that
grasps the roots of this technological experience in a new way may bring about change
and a new kind of life. In order to live differently, one has to experience differently,
and vice versa. Heidegger thinks that also the “neutral” truth that the rational subject
possesses is partial and partisan. “Objective scientific truth” is the experiential truth
of a metaphysics of subjectivity. Žižek does not speak about experientiality, but
emphasises the ideological nature of all objectivities and self-evidentialities, which in
itself means in Žižek’s Lacanian world that the subject is (libidinally, ideologically)
implicated in such “objectivities”. Because truth is partial also when seen as objective,
it hurts. Changing power relations, living differently and transforming the society—
that is, politics and philosophy—are not purely or mainly intellectual or cognitive
undertakings. They are based on experience. Another world means another experience.
For instance, Žižek points out how Francis Fukuyama’s famous thesis on the “objective”
“end of history” has already died twice, first politically in September 2001 and then
economically in September 2008. Both deaths were very traumatic. Here is another
crucial commonality: both Heidegger and Žižek think that experiences that are drastic
and undermine the subject’s control over her life are necessary for thought and action.
It is not hard to fathom that the liberalist notion of human being according to which
a person is (and should be!) a separate individual that rationally maximises her/his
benefit, by choosing both in the store and in the poll booth the alternative that she/
he likes most (or that maximizes her/his chances of survival, or economic position,
or social standing, or psychological well-being, or what have you), is distasteful to
Heidegger and Žižek. As a psychoanalyst, Žižek sees the rational individual as a
tip-of-the-iceberg manifestation of the deeper and more powerful forces that make
up a person, not as the true foundation or nucleus of personhood. We will return to
the differences between Heidegger’s and Žižek’s notions of the subject. For now, it
is enough to note that, following Heidegger, Žižek bases his notion of the subject on
the idea that the subject is possible only because it is incomplete, finite, broken. At
the same time, Heidegger’s long career with all of its twists and turns can be seen as a
single extended campaign against the liberalist notion of human being. His ontology,
epistemology, anthropology, social philosophy and philosophy of language are all
thoroughly anti-liberal and anti-individualistic.
What is it about liberal individualism that grates the nerves of Heidegger and Žižek?
Let us give the word to Heidegger with a long quotation, so that the impetus can unfold.
The quotation has to do with the nature of poetry.5 The topic is close to Heidegger’s
heart, and he uses all of his considerable skills in showing that poetry is not the public
linguistic expression of something individually and internally experienced:
The writer Kolbenheyer says: ‘Poetry is a necessary function of a people.’
It does not take much understanding to realise that so is digestion, at least
for a healthy people. When Spengler defines poetry as the expression of the
prevailing cultural soul, the definition includes the manufacture of bicycles
and cars. […] All of this is so hopelessly lame that we speak of it against our
will. But we must mention it. First, because this way of thinking concerns
not only poetry, but all that happens in human existence in all of its kinds
[…] Second, because the way of thinking does not arise from the fortuitous
lameness or incapacity of an individual thinker. Rather, it has its essential
ground in the mode of existence of humanity in the 19th century and of the
modern time, in general. If the much misused term ‘liberalistic’ can and should
be used to name something, then this way of thinking. For this way of thinking
sets itself axiomatically and beforehand outside what it thinks about, makes it
a mere object of its opinions. In this way poetry, too, is just an immediately
encountered phenomenon, that can completely meaninglessly be categorised
together with other phenomena as ‘expression’ of a soul bubbling somewhere
underneath. This way of thinking itself forms a completion of the precisely
definable ‘liberal’ human existence. Up till today, it has gained prominence in
countless forms and versions, because it is easy to assume, does not concern
anyone and is conveniently applicable on anything. (GA39, 27-28)6
The liberalist view of human being is mistaken simply because its sees a human
being as a self-sufficient and free-floating entity, relating to things and other humans
as it sees fit. Contrary to this, for Heidegger poetry, for instance, is a part of human
being. When poetry exists, it makes humans the way they are. To put it crudely:
poems tell us what it is to be human, what can be experienced, what can be expected,
what language is, how we can live together and so on. These experiences in turn are
what it is to be human. A human is human and the kind of human being that she or
he is, because poetry has opened a world to her or him (and the kind of world it has
opened). Only secondarily can a human being set herself or himself outside poetry
and to analyse it as if from a distance. This secondariness means also a certain kind of
thinness, flatness, thoughtlessness compared to the first-hand experience of poetry.
Heidegger’s descriptive term is noteworthy: liberalism does not concern (angehen)
anybody. Liberal views and opinions can be changed at will, without any deeper
consequences for one’s humanity. The liberal view of human being is both too thin
and flat and too diluted and distant. A liberal view does not present a duty, it does not
put its holder into an emergency, unlike poetry that lives as a part of human being.
What goes for poetry, goes for community: Heidegger sees community, Mitsein and
shared language as fundamental experiential fields that precede the individual, and
therefore have a claim on human being before and after the individual. His most
famous work, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, 1927) is one of the most erudite and
forceful expositions of the community-before-individuals view that the history of
philosophy has seen.
Even though Heidegger’s definition of liberalism is quite broad and unusual, it
functions as the basis for his own and for Žižek’s criticism. For both Heidegger and
Žižek the fundamental error of liberalism is in its philosophical anthropology and,
consequently, in its philosophical politics. Liberal politics is only a servant of liberal
philosophy, incapable of real thought (Heidegger)7 or critique of ideology (Žižek).
For this reason, neither Heidegger nor Žižek think of revolution as merely involving
a change in political power relations. For both, revolution means a transformation
of what it is to be human—a little bit like a religious rebirth, and not coincidentally,
since the partiality of truth is related to the Kierkegaardian leap of faith, done
without reason. For Heidegger, this transformation would mean the (re)birth of
some kind of new communal experience and life, maybe in terms of a new god or
at least something holy, which in time would make possible new meaning and new
livelihoods. For Žižek, the transformation would mean adulthood in a LacanianHegelian vein, the abandonment of ideological crutches and setting an autonomous
self-discipline in a communal project.
Even while most vigorously covering up his active involvement in the Nazi
revolution, Heidegger never denies that his intention was to revolutionise German
universities. This is no little goal, especially in the context of Heidegger’s bigger aim
of aiding the rebirth of European spiritual life—European, which Heidegger took to
mean Greek-German, because of the material and essential bloodline between the
two peoples (stamm- und wesensverwandten, GA16, 283). In this sense, Heidegger’s
overall project was intensely pedagogical. Like Heidegger himself puts it, the history
of German universities is the history of German Geist, which in turn contains the
history of Germany itself (GA16, 285). Heidegger never denies that his philosophy
was intended to bring about a total upheaval and rebirth of European man. Even in his
“philosophical testament”, the Spiegel-interview from 1966 titled “Only a God can
save us”, Heidegger insist that for him the decisive question is what kind of political
system our technological age needs.8 So the crucial question for Heidegger in the
1960’s is—according to himself—political. If Heidegger already in the 1930’s took
part in an actual honest-to-goodness political revolution, how much more weight
did the question of a political system carry in the 1960’s! Of course the situation
had drastically changed, and Heidegger did not anymore pin his hopes on a political
mass movement, but rather on preserving and nurturing the hope for change in some
kind of cells of resistance.9 Accordingly, he changed his own pedagogical mode of
operation. He quite consciously stopped lecturing to large audiences, and started
working by giving meticulously prepared seminars to small groups in thoughtfully
selected non-academic settings.10 But in each of the phases of his work, Heidegger
was a revolutionary thinker who did not step back from real political work when
he saw an opportunity for it. It is a truism that there is a certain distance between
Heidegger’s thinking and the ideas of the Nazi leaders; such a distance always exists
between the thinking of the leaders and what actually transpires (think of Trotsky,
Lenin, Stalin and the October revolution). This distance does nothing to prove that
Heidegger was “apolitical”. Quite the contrary. That the distance existed and that
Heidegger was aware of it11 and still chose to enter into revolutionary political work
only highlights how committed Heidegger was to revolution, in general, and the
Nazi revolution, in particular.
In a rare way, Heidegger was prepared to interpret contemporary and past events
as messages of Being-historical relevance, revealing tectonic shifts in Being itself
and the thinking connected to it (Fügung). Sometimes Heidegger comes across
almost as a pagan priest, reading the details of events as oracular prophesies. He
strongly believed that thinking in general and his own thinking in particular had a
(albeit indirect; more of this later) task in transforming everyday life and politics. His
belief even took the forms of a kind of hubris.12 Such belief is also the background
to Heidegger’s almost only show of remorse, the sentence “he who thinks great, errs
great”.13 In a letter to his wife Elfride on March 4., 1946, Martin in simple prose
analyses the phenomenon of erring (the topic being Martin’s poem “Tagwerk des
Denkens”, GA81, 24). The letter explains that thinking means bringing into truth,
i.e., into unconcealment. In other words, the more true your thinking, the more you
are bringing the concealed into the open, and the bigger the possibilities of error.
Only thoughtlessness guarantees no errors, and, conversely, the possibility of erring
is a genuine part of thinking (2005, 243).
The quote also shows that in Heidegger’s case the distance between thinking and
everyday political action is not the familiar distance between theory and its practical
application. In Heidegger, the distance is created by the genuine and irreducible
concealment and mystery (Geheimnis) of Being. Truth itself contains a dangerous
and irreducible tension between concealment and unconcealment, and therefore
thinking is “distanced” from a direct causal efficacy on reality. Thinking can not
cause and much less force anything to happen, simply because the truth embodied
in thinking is full of struggle, tension, and not the product or possession of humans
But the hubris and a peculiar take on thinking should not lead us astray. We
should not imagine that Heidegger was an otherworldly fool with either bad or good
intentions. Once more: unlike many radical thinkers and revolutionary theorists,
Heidegger worked for several years in preparing and then carrying out revolutionary
ideas, innovating and implementing structural reform, with his party membership
card in the uniform pocket.14 By taking up the rectorship of Freiburg University in
1933, Heidegger took the bull by the horns and chose the unthankful position of
spearheading National Socialist structural reform in the German universities. His
was the task of transforming lofty principles into everyday practice, and he took part
not only in implementing reforms imagined elsewhere but in innovating new ways
of giving educational flesh to National Socialist bones. Heidegger took this role not
only in his home university, but in the broader world of the whole German university
system. He not only planned, but carried out structural reforms that were by no
means universally accepted or lauded. We will return to the details, but for now it is
enough to remember that Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party from 1933 until
its dispersal, took for years active part in forming National Socialist educational
policy, implemented it in innovative ways in 1933-34 in Freiburg, and long after
leaving the rectorship continued to take part in the internal struggle about the nature
of National Socialist higher education.
In politics, only the best was enough for Heidegger. Only politics that aspired
to a total transformation of European life, of the re-evaluation of past values and
the rebirth of new human being was good enough for him. Politics as thought
(philosophy) and as action (praxis) were for him inseparable—as is only natural,
given the anthropology of Sein und Zeit. He was lucky, because in his lifetime a
political movement promising total transformation did appear on the German and
European stage, so that compromises were not needed. On the political map of
contemporary Europe Heidegger would not have found a movement measuring up
to his stringent criteria.
In contrast to Heidegger, Žižek’s political activity has been much more prone to
compromises, even to being “reasonable”. The best known is his run to be included
in the 4-person presidential council of Slovenia in 1990, as a part of the liberal
democrat ticket. Žižek, who calls himself a communist and a radical leftist, has
explained that the co-operation with liberal democrats was necessitated by the
situation15: the goal was to stall the advance of a coalition of nationalists and excommunists. A similar reasoned situation-awareness characterises Žižek’s actions
as a public intellectual. He is always provocative and uses cognitive dissonance as
a pedagogical tool, but often—for instance, while appearing on Al-Jazeera or the
BBC—he reins in his neurotic ticks, refrains from alienating the audience and is
quite polite.
As a political actor Žižek is two different things, one in the West and another
in his native Slovenia. In the West his role is that of a public intellectual. He gives
interviews, writes columns and opinion pieces, takes part in debates and makes
interventions in conferences, and frequently lends his support to political movements
and campaigns, such as the Occupy movement in New York or the Syriza coalition
in Greece. However, in the West he has not taken part in party politics, has not
run for office or aspired to political leadership, unlike in Slovenia. In Slovenia, the
public opinion sees him as a liberal suspected of hard-line communist sympathies.
In the West, the public perception is the opposite: Žižek is seen as a communist but
suspected of covert liberalism.
In Slovenia, Žižek’s role as a public intellectual started through writing for
the Mladina newspaper and through his participation in the radical art scene, for
instance, as part of the support for the Laibach collective.16 Žižek was further drawn
to action through Mladina in 1988, when four of its editors were accused of holding
secret military documents. Žižek supported the editors and founded the Council for
the Support of Human Rights. At the same time he left the communist party. After
Slovenia gained independence, Žižek supported first the liberal democratic party and
then the centre-left liberal Zares party that splintered off from the liberal democrats.
Underlining this attachment is Žižek’s friendship with the founder of Zares, Gregor
Golobic. Many leftist Slovenians have been irritated by Žižek’s support for the
liberal democrats, who in government were involved in corruption scandals, and
by his support for the “yes”-vote in the election on NATO membership. At the same
time, some have suspected that Žižek is a Trojan horse, carrying a Stalinist core
under the liberal veneer—a reputation that has tarnished also Golobic because of his
connection to Žižek.
When Žižek in the Western media insists that one good measure against global
capitalism is the collective ownership of the means of production, it is obvious that
his alliance with the liberal democrats that in Slovenia supported the privatisation of
nationalised industries seems odd. His reply is simple enough (from Lovink 1995,
no page numbers):
What the liberal democratic party did was a miracle. Five years ago we were the
remainder of the new social movements, like feminist and ecological groups.
At that time everybody thought that we would be vanishing mediators. We
made some solidly corrupted, but good moves and now we are the strongest
party. I think it was our party that saved Slovenia from the faith of the other
former Yugoslav republics, where they have the one-party model. Either right
wing like in Croatia or left wing like in Serbia, which hegemonised in the name
of the national interest. With us it’s a real diverse, pluralist scene, open towards
foreigners (of course there are some critical cases). But the changes [sic] of a
genuine pluralist society are not yet lost. […] The question is: will we become
just another small, stupid, nationalistic state or maintain this elementary,
pluralistic opening? And all compromises are worth for this goal.
Pluralism and multiculturalism are in practice more important than collective
ownership of the means of production, and avoiding virulent nationalism more
important than state socialism. So far so good! This should be kept in mind when
assessing the militancy of Žižek as a theorist: in practice, he is very committed to the
ideals of anti-racism and anti-nationalism. Even if he provokes audiences with the
ideas of totalitarianism, when push comes to shove he opts for a Popperian “open
This might be something of a disappointment. When it comes to everyday
politics, a big part of Žižek’s theoretical flair and flamboyance is lost and turns into
rather familiar progressivism: no decisive breaks, no once-and-for-all swipes, but
calculated choices for the lesser evil. This should be considered in combination with
the characteristic move Žižek makes at the decisive moments of his talks and texts. He
analyses, points out the antinomies and dead-ends, shows the hidden impossibilities,
but provides no answers. Rather, in the end, Žižek says: “I’m just pointing out that
we can not continue like this, but I don’t know what we should do!” Here, Žižek
is a much more traditional philosopher than Heidegger. Žižek is a gadfly, raising
questions and provoking problems, showing the limitations of our knowledge and
practices—but leaving the rest open. Maybe more precisely a psychoanalytic gadfly,
luring us into the thick of the problem, clarifying some obstacles, showing some
structural guidelines, and then disappearing and leaving us staring into the mirror.
The task of taking up the collective discipline that saves the world from rapacious
global capitalism is left to the reader, the listener, to us.
Contrary to still too prevalent prejudice, Heidegger’s phenomenology and Marxism
are not like oil and water. There are important areas of contact, common starting
points and shared concerns. Both Heidegger and Marx see work and everyday life
as ontologically and politically decisive. They agree, as well, on the essentially
historical nature of knowledge and existence.17 This means that meaningful change
has to happen collectively and practically. For both, the task of philosophy begins
with everyday life—and philosophy also has to end up being relevant to everyday
life in order to be worth its name. To be sure, there are decisive differences in the
analyses the two philosophers present, but the fact that Heidegger agreed that the
old bourgeois order had failed to solve the “worker question”18 and that liberalism
was not the answer, means that the two face at least one crucial problem in common:
how is social life to be organised in the industrialised and modern age, beyond the
confines of individualism, liberalism and purely calculative reason?
Consequently, there have been several attempts at building a “leftist Heidegger”.
This has often meant dissociating Heidegger’s phenomenology from what has
sometimes—and mistakenly—been seen as its coolly philosophical distance from
politics. For instance, most of the French reception laboured for decades under the
impression that a proper interpretation of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology was
by necessity leftist. In this context it is significant that one of the earliest and most
prominent synthesisers of Marx and Heidegger, Herbert Marcuse, who in the late
1920’s and early 1930’s wrote a series of articles that have been recently collected
under the title Heideggerian Marxism (Marcuse 2005), himself thought that no Nazi
sympathies were visible in Heidegger’s work before 1933 (Marcuse 2005, 169,
176). After 1933, however, Marcuse had no illusions with regard to Heidegger’s
politics, and quickly wound down the project of combining Heidegger with Marxism
(see Marcuse 2005, 159), even though it may be argued that phenomenological
insights continued to inform his later work. One indication of Marcuse’s thorough
disillusionment with Heidegger is his vigorous post-war effort towards getting
Heidegger to reflect on Nazism; an effort unparalleled by any of Heidegger’s
students or disciples.
Marcuse wanted to develop a more “concrete” Heideggerianism, in terms of an
analysis of the emptiness of bourgeois life and its overcoming through an active
relationship to life, which he finds better described in Marx, especially in his writings
on alienation. As Marcuse (2005, 165-166) himself puts it:
we saw in Heidegger […] a new beginning, the first radical attempt to put
philosophy on really concrete foundations—philosophy concerned with
human existence, the human condition, and not merely with abstract ideas and
Marcuse interprets Heidegger’s Dasein as a collective subjectivity that can act
historically in the Marxist sense. Here, in worldly Dasein, the otherwise crippling
distinction between subject and object can be overcome, and a processual and
historical existence becomes possible. However, for Marcuse, Heidegger’s mistake
was too much abstraction and “ontologisation” that rapidly increase after a promising
start in Being and Time. His final verdict is clear and merciless:
If you look at his principle [sic] concepts […] Dasein, das Man, Sein,
Seiendes, Existenz, they are “bad” abstracts in the sense that they are not
conceptual vehicles to comprehend the real concreteness in the apparent one.
They lead away. For example, Dasein is for Heidegger a sociologically and
even biologically ‘neutral’ category (sex differences don’t exist!); the Frage
nach dem Sein remains the ever unanswered but ever repeated question; the
distinction between fear and anxiety tends to transform very real fear into
pervasive and vague anxiety. Even his at first glance most concrete existential
category, death, is recognized as the most inexorable brute fact only to be
made into an insurpassable possibility. Heidegger’s existentialism is indeed
a transcendental idealism compared with which Husserl’s last writings […]
seem saturated with historical concreteness. (Marcuse 2005, 167-168)
In an important way Marcuse’s analysis is close to Heidegger’s self-criticism.
Heidegger came to see the attempt at fundamental ontology in Being and Time as
mistaken, precisely because it strove towards ahistorical and supposedly neutral
structural descriptions. From this perspective, Heidegger’s public political writings,
speeches and engagement in the 1930’s can be seen as a corrective against such
“transcendentalism”; the “right step”, as Žižek calls it. We will return to the issue
of Heidegger’s apparent withdrawal from politics after the Second World War. For
now, suffice it to remember that, as noted above, in the Spiegel interview Heidegger
emphasised that the crucial question for him was political. Marcuse’s summary of
Heidegger’s philosophy, written in 1934, illuminates the issue:
It should be noted that phenomenology’s radical move into the realm of
facticity would, on the one hand, soon be redirected toward the transcendental
and, on the other hand, lead immediately to the political ideology of racist
Germany. Already in Heidegger’s principal work, Being and Time, the radical
motifs are submerged beneath the transcendental currents. (2005, 159)
How could Heidegger’s phenomenology be split towards both transcendentalism and
immediate political action if it did not contain some of the promised concreteness
and historical acumen? Certainly, from Marcuse’s perspective Heidegger’s political
trajectory was wrong, “ideological” in the sense of containing false consciousness.
However, from Heidegger’s own perspective he was continuously struggling to
find the openings through which thinking is world-historical. The supposed “false
consciousness” of transcendentalism arises because Heidegger does not place the
driving force of history in economic questions and class antagonism like Marcuse.
However, as we will see below, this does not mean that Heidegger’s account of
history would be non-antagonistic or non-dynamic.
Indeed, the importance of concretely political openings in Heidegger’s thinking
can be made clearer through another obvious hinge in Heideggerian Marxism, the
proximity between Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness from 1923 and Being
and Time. We do not have to go as far as Lucien Goldmann (1977) who suggests
that Being and Time is in great part a reply to Lukács, to observe salient points of
contact. Again, like Žižek (2000, 107-108) notes, the shared background are the
themes of alienation and reification. The problem is seen in a similar light: the nature
of work and therefore of all everyday existence in modern (industrial, capitalist,
technological) civilisation leads towards alienation. Consequently, the solution is
seen in similar terms. Human action, praxis, is what overcomes the subject-object,
nature-consciousness division. For Lukács, the distinction is overcome in a praxis
led by experience saturated by class consciousness. Here, the world includes an actor,
the proletariat as a social class, that is historically rooted and at the same time able to
seize the moments when history can be changed. Žižek (2000) emphasises Lukács’
Leninism, his account of the voluntarist, active, and practical-engaged nature of
revolutionary commitment. These are all themes found in Being and Time, where the
road towards authentic historicity goes through a collective and engaged choosing
of destiny, and enacting that choice in lived practices. However, once again, for
Heidegger the crucial experience is not that of a social class, but rather of a people
that has grasped its Being-historical destiny. Schematically put, relieved from false
ideology authentic human experience is, for Lukács (and, consequently, for Marcuse
and other Western Marxists), class-historical and, for Heidegger, Being-historical.
This is a tension that persists between Heideggerian phenomenology and Marxism.
Marxism typically sees in Heidegger an ontology that tries to be too a-historical and
general. As Žižek (2000, 112), echoing Marcuse, puts it, the problem is losing the
specificity of historical events to ponderous generalisations (such as Heidegger’s
contention that Bolshevism and Americanism are essentially the same). Furthermore,
this neglect of concrete history can then be taken to mean an ideological perversion,
in the sense that Heidegger’s description of authenticity and inauthenticity concern a
particular type of bourgeois subjectivity. As Marcuse (2005, 29) argues, inauthenticity
is also tied to division of labour. From the Heideggerian perspective, in turn, it can
be claimed that the problem with Marxism is that it does not recognise how forms of
alienation arise also in non-Capitalist structures of production.19 We shall return to
this tension, but for now its existence can be taken to indicate that rather than strictly
contradicting or undermining each other, the Heideggerian and Marxist perspectives
can be seen as complementary.
Furthermore, the similarity between Marcuse’s and Žižek’s criticisms of
Heidegger’s ahistoricality points to deeper commonalities between the two. As several
writers (e.g., Sharpe 2004, 2005, Day 2004) have noted, there is an interesting parallel
between the historical context of Žižek’s work and the work of the first generation
of Frankfurt School thinkers. Sharpe (2004, 9-10) explains how both the Frankfurt
school in the 1930’s and Žižek in the late 1980’s and the 1990’s faced a situation in
which existing Marxist theory lacked purchase, where, generally speaking, the right
was ascendant and the left lacking both in power and ideas. Given this similarity
in context and the accompanying similarities in background—including Marxism,
psychoanalysis, and, up to a point, Heideggerian phenomenology—it is little wonder
that the Frankfurt School thinkers and Žižek also converge in seeing one of the
most important fields for philosophy in the critique of ideology and culture. If, as
Sharpe (2004, 10) puts it, “Žižek faces a contemporary analogue of the theoretical
impasse” that the Frankfurt School grappled with, the parallels between Freudian
Marxism and Lacanian Marxism as solutions are also considerable. The critique
of political economy, civilisational or cultural critique and critique of ideology are
the vital fields that receive various amounts of emphasis in the various stages of the
different thinkers, but together form a persistent focus.
In Sharpe’s (2004) analysis Marcuse is a kind of precursor to Žižek, up to the point
that Žižek’s conclusion—Sharpe calls the conclusion a dead-end: either a cynical
dismissal of politics or a leftist voluntarism—can already be found in Marcuse. The
fundamental problem Sharpe sees in both Marcuse and Žižek is connected to the way
in which they proceed with a critique of ideology. By analysing ideology as a total
phenomenon that saturates modern life, they end up in a position of “if I succeed, I
fail”. Through offering robust explanations of how revolutionary action has failed
and how capitalism is able to neutralise all subversion, Western Marxism at the
same time succeeds in pointing out how all resistance is futile. In a sense, if Lacan’s
explicitly apolitical and structuralist psychoanalysis does give to Žižek’s account
augmented powers of precision and sophistication, it at the same time threatens to
push the goalposts of actual political action even further away. As Sharpe (2004, 12,
see also 254) writes:
to the extent that one manages to map the totalistic systematicity of social
reproduction, one to the same extent flirts with ‘explaining away’ the possibility
of any futural transformative political agency.
Correspondingly, there is the continuing problem of pinpointing the agent of
revolutionary struggle in a way that would be at the same time theoretically grounded
and politically viable. It has been hard, both for the Frankfurt School and for Žižek
to find social groups, not to speak of a class, that would at the same time be in
the position of revolutionaries, as designated by the theory, and actually willing to
embrace a revolutionary consciousness. Žižek has repeatedly named the excluded,
such as slum-dwellers, forced to lead a “rootless existence, deprived of substantial
links” (2000, 140, see also 2005b) as the contemporary proletariat. Likewise,
Marcuse identified the revolutionary potential in marginal groups not yet integrated
into the one-dimensional society. However, as Sharpe points out, the position of
these groups does by no means automatically lead to proletarisation; quite the
contrary: “Abjection can lead to depoliticisation, or even the conservative desire just
‘to get one foot in the door’” (2004, 234). Consequently, Sharpe (2004, 12) sees both
Marcuse and Žižek in a vacillating position between resigned cynical determinism
and voluntarism. As we will see later, in Žižek this oscillation seems to be stabilising
towards an explicit embrace of voluntarism; also because he sees in Heidegger’s best
political philosophy a Lukácsian embrace of the need for decisive action that in itself
creates its own conditions of success.
Even the critics of Heidegger admit that one of his lasting contributions is the idea
that Being is historical. In other words, Being and time are connected in a way that
makes Being historical. Human being (Da-sein)20 is the place (Da) where Being is
unconcealed, unconcealed in general and unconcealed in a particular way as this or
that. It is unconcealed as humans bring about a world, not by doing or being busy
but by being in time, being in a way that is permeated with time. This is the only way
in which humans can be. Human being is always already historical, it is born and it
is mortal. Being has its history, unlike in traditional philosophy that saw the most
essential metaphysical categories as eternal. This description of the historical nature
of Being and the mortality of human being has saturated almost all of the 20th century
philosophy after Heidegger.
The fundamentally political nature of metaphysics (and all thinking and
philosophy) follows already from the connection between Being and time. However,
the inseparability of metaphysics and politics can be illustrated more clearly by
noticing how the history of Being also entails a certain locality of Being. If the
understandings of Being that humans have change according to the temporal history
of Being, they also change according to the spatial history of Being. In other words,
spatially separated kinds of Dasein that exist simultaneously in physical clock-time
contain different historical understandings of Being, for precisely the same reasons
that temporally separate kinds of Dasein that exist in the same physical coordinates
contain different historical understandings of Being. If, for instance, the understanding
of Being in classical Greek antiquity is different from the understanding of Being
in 18th century Europe (including Greece), so too (and for the same reason!) the
understanding of Being in 18th century Greenland is different from the understanding
of Being in 18th century Germany (not that either Greenland or Germany existed in
the 18th century). Heidegger would not use “Greenland” as an example. Rather, he
speaks of “Kaffirs”, “Semitic nomads” and “Russians” as examples of non-German
and non-European understandings of Being.21 Times have changed, and maybe it
would not be useful to contrast the “Greenlandic” and “German” understandings
of Being in the 19th or 20th centuries, simply because the European pressure on
Greenland has begun to bear fruit, unifying the lives and modes of being. The same
goes for “Russia”, “Kaffirs”, and so on. In any case, Heidegger leaves no room
for doubt about this spatial/local aspect of different understandings of Being. One
well-known example is his fascination with Far-Eastern traditions of thought,22 and
in the Spiegel-interview he uses this trope in establishing a special task for GermanEuropean thought in overcoming the metaphysics of subjectivity.
The historical and local nature of understandings of Being (of metaphysics in
general, of the questions “why is there something rather than nothing?”, “what is
(there)?”, “what is Being?”) mean for Heidegger that the subject-object distinction
that modern European rationality assumes as a universal hallmark of objectivity and
truth has to be discarded. Heidegger’s criticism of the metaphysics of subjectivity
is one with his criticism of liberalism. The first could be called the anthropological
and the second the political wing of the Heideggerian grand critique. For Heidegger,
to think of humans and to act as a human according to the view that to be human
is to be a subject that through her or his senses gains a view to a separate world,
gathers information about it and ultimately knowledge of separate objects, is only
one possible way among many others; a way that has a history in the sense that it
has not always existed and not always will.23 This is the first step. The subject-object
distinction is neither a universal truth (about human being, for instance) nor any kind
of (say, epistemic or scientific) necessity. The starting point for this Heideggerian
step is the obvious experiential fact that humans do live and experience without the
subject-object distinction (for instance, in anxiety). Subjects and objects do exist,
to be sure, since living according to the subject-object distinction is one human
possibility. The subject is something that can be created by living in a particular way.
A second, important step follows. The subject-object distinction contains a
necessary perversion, since the subject (or, more generally, the distinction) does not
do what it is supposed to do. The subject is a human possibility, but a bad one,
because it perverts human being. The reason for the perversion is again easy to see.
The subject contains a circularity that theories based on the subject-object distinction
are unable to acknowledge. Here we have to be precise. Heidegger does not object
to circularity, as such. In a famous way he makes circularity a positive part of the
hermeneutic method (Being and Time, §2). Rather, the problem is that the circularity
included in the subject-object distinction goes unnoticed, or, even worse, repressed,
and the distinction gets presented as a scientifically objective or philosophically
necessary starting point.
The problems following from the unacknowledged nature of the circularity can
be pointed out in many ways. Maybe one of the clearest is to start from a criticism of
natural science. Like his mentor Husserl24 before him, Heidegger insists throughout
his career that natural science is circular in a way that it itself is unable to recognise.
Natural science claims that the subject and the object are something discovered
in nature. It claims that nature consists of things (entities, objects) and that the
human doing science—or the scientific community, or the community of rational
beings, or any other subject of science—is also a thing, for instance, a brain, or a
mind, or something similar. However, in fact, the subject-object division has to be
presupposed for there to be natural science in the first place. Without the distinction
(typical)25 natural science is not possible (measurement is impossible, objects can
not be individuated, separated, categorised, the influence of the researcher on the
environment can not be controlled, etc.). So what happens is that features of the
silently presupposed subject-object distinction get mixed up with the supposedly
objective and non-circular results of science. Also the supposedly objective
knowledge about the distinction (or of subjectivity or of objectivity) itself is tainted
by the circularity. In a crude and absolutely binding way this is the reason for the
fact that natural science is unable to recognise the will to power and technological
manipulation inherent in its pursuit of objective knowledge. The subject, the object
and “thingness” are not discovered in nature, but presupposed in order for natural
science to be possible. Furthermore, for natural science to gain its authority, the
presupposition has to be denied. The result is a perversion of scientific activity and
of all knowledge based on the subject-object distinction.
In philosophy the unacknowledged nature of the circularity can be seen in the
view that philosophy should be about the maximally unambiguous communication
of propositional information between rational subjects. A particularly bad case of this
perversion Heidegger sees in Descartes, who in an unabashed way lays the foundation
of philosophy on a thinking (doubting) subject. Heidegger uses huge amounts of
time and pages in order to show that many philosophically interesting and decisive
moves have been made long before we are anywhere near this kind of self-conscious
ego, pondering the idea of a perfect God. At the same time the ego, the subject, is
only a tiny speck in the sea of human experience. For Heidegger, the Cartesian ego
is punctual, ahistoric and spiritless. In 1933 (GA36/37, 42-43), Heidegger groups
the things overlooked by Descartes into four different sets: action, decisiveness,
historicity and being-with (Handeln, Entschiedenheit, Geschichtlichkeit, Mitdasein).
It is noteworthy that all four have to do with the social and embodied, i.e., nonindividual and non-intellectual, aspects of human being. All of this comes before
the ego and forms part of the stuff from which the ego is formed, and all of this is
overlooked by Cartesian modern philosophy, and therefore continues to fester inside
the supposedly sanitised notion of subjectivity. Consequently, unwittingly and often
to its own considerable surprise such Cartesian thinking ends up as an errand-boy
for individualism and nihilism26, in the same way that supposedly neutral natural
science unwittingly and to its sometimes great consternation ends up supporting the
technological domination and destruction of nature.
Because this issue is so crucial, let us attend to another long quote from Heidegger.
Here he explicates the circularity point by point, this time in terms of “culture”, or,
as Žižek would call it, ideology. The topic is racist thinking—and here we at the
same time encounter the clear fact that Heidegger was not and could not have been
a biological racist27:
Racial breeding is a measure undertaken by power. It can be instigated and
stopped by power. It bases its proclamations and ways of operating on the
prevailing conditions of power and domination. Its is not in any way an ‘ideal’
as such, because as an ideal it should lead to an abandonment of claims to
power and to a preservation of ‘biological’ traits. So, strictly observed, in every
kind of racial thinking we see already an inbuilt thought of racial supremacy.
The supremacy is grounded in different ways, but always on something
that the ‘Race’ has achieved, when the achievements are measured by the
yardsticks of ‘culture’ or something similar. But how, when culture—in the
narrow sense of racial thinking itself—is itself a product of the Race? (The
circle of subjectivity). Here the circle of subjectivity, that has forgotten itself,
comes clearly to the fore, not as something that contains only the metaphysical
determination of the I, but as the determination of all human being in relation
to beings and to itself. (GA69, 70-71)28
Racial thinking can not think race objectively, neither as biological nor as cultural.
In biology, it sees traits to be avoided or eradicated, even though it should see
biological traits, in culture it sees achievement and degeneration through the lenses
of the culture doing the study. This because the idea of race contains the circularity
of the metaphysics of subjectivity. Race does science on race and tries to hide this
circularity. The race doing the study is already presupposed, even given a privileged
position, and therefore it muddles up all the ostensibly “neutral” results—in this case
impinging them with a will to power included in the idea of racial supremacy.
Like Heidegger points out, this is not a problem peculiar to racial thinking, but
rather a problem characterising all thinking based on the subject-object distinction.
The same circularity can be found in contemporary natural science that often
flatters itself by imagining it has left crudities like racial thinking behind. Often,
for instance, natural science explains human behaviour by genes, without realising
that here, again, genes are studying genes and explaining genes by genes, and
thereby silently smuggling ideas about what genes (humans) are into the ostensibly
neutral results on genes (typically, the ideas include a valorisation of survival, even
a commitment to the idea that survival is somehow “good”, and ideas about the
causality in nature).
If these are Heidegger’s philosophical reasons for objecting to a metaphysics of
subjectivity, he also has a set of more direct and existential grounds for disliking
the subject. For the kind of subject that freely chooses amongst a set of alternatives
(according to some rational, economic, hedonistic or similar set of preferences) is,
according to Heidegger, shallow and incapable of commitment. From here springs
the criticism on liberalism. The crux is the idea of free choice. Something freely
chosen can also be freely unchosen, discarded, forgotten. Nothing makes the liberal
individual responsible. The liberal individual is always ready to change its choices,
including changing itself, in a chameleon-like manner reflecting the freely available
circumstances. Against this, Heidegger holds that a deeper and truer human being is
rooted in a layer of (partly non-human) meanings that bind without the conscious or
intellectual part of an individual having any final veto on what the meanings make
us responsible to or responsible for. The kind of subject incapable of commitment
Heidegger calls freischwebende, free-floating, and neither as a philosopher nor as a
private person (sic) does he have anything good to say about modern individualism.
To be free of the bounds of responsibility towards the world and God, to be free of
the bottomless danger and horror of being mortal and being a people were, according
to Heidegger, simply signs of degeneration. The name for this degeneration is “freefloating and rationally choosing individual”. In philosophy the degeneration takes
the form of a safe and disengaged (ungefährliches und unverplichtetes) analysis of
any and all problems without any need or pressing emergency (Notwendigkeit und
Not, GA36/37, 6).29
What, then, do Heidegger and Žižek fear? They do not resist liberal capitalism and
individualism because they would be somehow illusory. On the contrary, liberalism is
a really existing phenomenon. When it comes to technology, Heidegger is not afraid
that technology would break down but rather that it works without a hitch. The same
goes for liberal capitalism: the problem is not that it wouldn’t work but rather that it
functions very well. Like Žižek repeatedly notes citing Frederic Jameson, today it is
easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.30 Heidegger’s and
Žižek’s enemy is precisely the self-evident ease with which liberalism reigns. That
is why we need a totally transformative experience—a revolution.
1 Žižek: “One is tempted to risk a hyperbole and to affirm that, in a sense, everything, from the fate of
so-called ‘Western civilization’ up to the survival of humanity in the ecological crisis, hangs on the
answer to this related question: is it possible today, apropos of the postmodern age of new sophists,
to repeat mutatis mutandis the Kantian gesture?” (1993, 5). Heidegger: “Nur wo das Sein sich im
Fragen eröffnet, geschieht Geschichte und damit jenes Sein des Menschen […]” (GA40, 152); “Only
where Being opens up as a problem, does history happen as history and humans exist as humans […]”
Another, even more revealing quote from Heidegger in 1933 shows how he experienced the National
Socialist revolution. Heidegger has just explained how the philosophy grounded by Plato gives a
completely new way of seeing the world: “We ourselves stand today—not only after a year or so but
after a number of years—in front of an even bigger decision in philosophy, a decision that is greater,
wider and deeper than the decision at Plato’s time. The question is expressed in my book Being and
Time. A change from the roots up. The question is whether our understanding of Being is transformed
from its ground up, or not. It will be a transformation that first gives the framework for the spiritual
history of our people. This can not be proven. It is a belief that must be shown to be true by history.”
“Wir selbst stehen heute, nicht etwa seit einem Jahr, sondern seit einer Reihe von Jahren, in einer
noch größeren Entscheidung der Philosophie, die an Größe und Weite und Tiefe noch weit über die
damalige Entscheidung hinausgeht. Sie ist in meinem Buch Sein und Zeit zum Ausdruck gebracht.
Eine Wandlung von Grund aus. Es handelt sich darum, ob das Verständnis des Seins sich von Grund
aus wandelt. Es wird eine Wandlung sein, die allererst den Rahmen darbieten wird für die Geistesgeschichte unseres Volkes. Dies kann nicht bewiesen werden, sondern ist ein Glaube, der durch die
Geschichte erwiesen werden muß.” (GA36/37, 255). Translations here and below by the author, unless
otherwise indicated.
2 Heidegger is talking about experiencing language and tells, furthermore, that experience is not something controlled by humans but something that is “sent” to them: “The purpose of [the three following
lectures] is to give us a possibility to have an experience of language. To experience something, be
it a thing, a person, a God, means that that something happens to us, hits us, comes over us, turns us
over and changes us. To talk about ‘having’ an experience does not here mean that we in some way
produce the experience; having means here: to go through, to suffer, to grasp what hits us, to receive,
so that we join ourselves with what comes at us. It happens, it sends itself, it joins to itself.”; “[Die
folgenden drei Vortrage] möchten uns vor eine Möglichkeit bringen, mit der Sprache eine Erfahrung
zu machen. Mit etwas, sei es ein Ding, ein Mensch, em Gott, eine Erfahrung machen heißt, daß es uns
widerfahrt, daß es uns trifft, über uns kommt, uns umwirft und verwandelt. Die Rede vom ‘machen’
meint in dieser Wendung gerade nicht, daß wir die Erfahrung durch uns bewerkstelligen; machen heißt
hier: durchmachen, erleiden, das uns Treffende vernehmend empfangen, annehmen, insofem wir uns
ihm fügen. Es macht sich etwas, es schickt sich, es fügt sich.” (GA12, 149).
It is interesting that Heidegger wants to talk about having or making an experience (“eine Erfahrung
zu machen”), even though, for instance, in Finnish it would be easier to talk directly about experiencing (“tarkoituksena on antaa mahdollisuus kielen kokemiseen, kokemukseen kielestä”), without any
“making” or “having”. In the same way the surrogate subject “Es” in the German and the “It” in the
English passive voice add something unnecessary and unwanted: the “it” does not refer to an experience of language (not: “the experience happens, the experience sends itself, etc.”), rather Heidegger is
talking of subjectless happening without entities (that could be rendered in Finnish without surrogate
subjects: “Tapahtuu, lähetetään, liitytään”). At most, the “subject” could be Being (Sein) or happening
(Ereignis) itself. However, according to Heidegger, these two do not exist, and therefore they can not
be the subjects of an action: they are action, not actors.
3 Here is Žižek (2006b): “We should have no illusions: liberal communists [Žižek means people like
George Soros and Bill Gates who advocate a combination of global capitalism and social and ecological responsibility] are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies—religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies—depend on contingent
local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the
global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system. It may
be necessary to enter into tactical alliances with liberal communists in order to fight racism, sexism
and religious obscurantism, but it’s important to remember exactly what they are up to.”
Žižek follows the leftist convention of using the term “Fascism” to denote all racist and totalitarian
systems, whether they are National Socialist or Fascists. However, Heidegger’s Nazism has very little
in common with Mussolini’s Fascism, and the catch-all term “Fascism” in not appropriate in this
It is typical that Heidegger comments on timely political issues in the midst of deep and abstract philosophical passages. For instance, while ruminating on how humans try to relate to their environment by
trying to form a picture of the world, Heidegger starts blaming publishers for too commercial concerns
and academic people for too much unnecessary travels to conferences (GA5, 98). The scandalous
claim—we will return to it below—that extermination camps are part of the same phenomenon as
industrial agriculture is made in the middle of a meditation of the essence of technology, knee-deep
in the etymologies of Greek, Latin and German terms. After Being and Time, the Contributions to
Philosophy (Beiträge zur Philosophie) is sometimes counted as Heidegger’s second major opus. It is,
on the whole, a rather esoteric and fragmentary work, but it is peppered with surprising quips on the
true nature of Bolshevism and the essence of Americanism (GA65, 54, 149). In the 1943 afterword to
the tour-de-force Was ist Metaphysik?, in which Heidegger brilliantly explains the importance of nothingness for thinking of Being, he rather abruptly starts talking about readiness for and the importance
of sacrifice (this immediately after the battle of Stalingrad). Most purist and orthodox Heideggerians
may pass by these kinds of sentences as “individual cases”, but the truth is that Heidegger almost always carried two threads throughout his lectures and writings: a linguistic and philosophical one, and
an acutely political and contemporary one. The glue keeping these two together is the third element:
“Der Schriftsteller Kolbenheyer sagt: ‘Dichtung is eine biologisch notwendige Funktion des Volkes’.
Es braucht nicht viel Verstand, um zu merken: das gilt auch von der Verdauung, auch sie ist eine biologisch notwendige Funktione eined Volkes, zumal eines gesunden. Wenn Spengler die Dichtung als
Ausdruck der jeweiligen Kulturseele faßt, dann gilt dies auch von der Herstellung von Fahrräden und
Automobilen. Das gilt von allem, d.h. es gilt gar nicht. […] Das alles ist so trostlos flach, daß wir nur
mit Widerwillen davon reden. Aber wir müssen darauf hinzeigen. Denn erstens betrifft diese Denkweise nicht nur die Dichtung, sondern alle Geschehnisse und Seinsweisen des menschlichen Daseins,
weshalb mit diesem Leitfaden leicht kulturphilosophische und Weltanschauungsgebäude errichtet
werden. Zweitens beruht diese Denkweise nicht auf der zufälligen Flachheit und dem Unvermögen
des Denkens Einzelner, sondern sie hat ihre wesentlichen Gründe in der Seinsart des Menschen des
19. Jahrhunderts und der Neuzeit überhaupt. Wenn etwas mit dem viel mißbrauchten Titel ‘liberalistisch’ belegt werden kann und muß, dann ist es diese Denkweise. Denn sie stellt sich grundsätzlich
und im vorhinein aus dem, was sie meint und denkt, heraus, macht es zum bloßen Gegenstand ihres
Meinens. Dichtung ist so eine unmittelbar antreffbare Erscheinung, die es unter anderem gibt und
welche Erscheinung, wie jede andere, dann durch die ebenso gleichgültige Bestimmung als ‘Ausdruckerscheinung’ der dahinter brodelden Seele aufgefaßt wird. Erscheinungen sind uns Ausdruck.
Ausdruck ist auch das Bellen des Hundes. Diese Denkweise ist in sich der Vollzug einer gar bestimmten Seinsweise des ‘liberalen’ Menschen. Sie hat sich bis auf dem heutigen Tag in einer Unzahl
von Abwandlungen und Gestalten in der Vorherrschaft gehalten, zumal sie leicht eingeht, niemanden
angeht und bequem überall zu gebrauchen ist.” (GA39, 27-28).
Heidegger writes on liberalism in philosophy: “Höningswald comes from the neo-Kantian school,
which advocates a philosophy that is tailored for liberalism. Here the essence of humans is dissolved into a free-floating consciousness that, in turn, is in the end diluted to a common and logical
World-Reason. In this way, through supposedly strictly philosophical reasons the gaze is averted from
the historical rootedness of humans and from the transmission of their national provenance based
on blood and homeland. To this was connected a conscious withdrawal from all metaphysical ques-
tioning, and humans were seen only as servants to a neutral, generic World-Culture.”; “Hönigswald
kommt aus der Schule des Neukantianismus, der eine Philosophie vertreten hat, die dem Liberalismus
auf dem Leib zugeschnitten ist. Das Wesen des Menschen wurde da abgelöst in ein freischwebendes
Bewußtsein überhaupt und dieses schließlich verdünnt zu einer allgemein logischen Weltvernunft.
Auf diesem Weg wurde unter scheinbar streng wissenschaftlicher philosophischer Begründung der
Blick abgelenkt vom Menschen in seiner geschichtlichen Verwurzelung und seiner volkhaften Überlieferung seiner Herkunft aus Boden und Blut. Damit Zusammen ging eine bewußte Zurückdrängung
jedes metaphyschischen Fragens, und der Mensch galt nur doch als Diener einer indifferenten, allgemeinen Weltkultur.” Heidegger’s letter to Einhäuser, 25. June 1933, quoted in Faye (2009, 37).
“Es ist für mich heute eine entscheidende Frage, wie dem technischen Zeitalter überhaupt ein—und
welchen—politisches System zugeordnet kann”. (Interview “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten”, Der
Spiegel, 1976, 206). Heidegger continues by noting that democracy does not seem to be the right kind
of system, because democracy sees technology as a human tool, “[etwas], was der Mensch in der Hand
hat” (ibid.). In contrast, Heidegger thinks that technology—like poetry!—is something that constitutes
humans, and therefore something that humans alone can not overcome.
“Against the unstoppable power of technology, ‘cells’ of resistance will be built, cells, which inconspicuously guard thinking and prepare for the turn […]”; “Gegen die unaufhaltsame Macht der Technik werden sich überall “Zellen” des Widerstands bilden, die unauffällig die Besinnung wachhalten
und die Umkehr vorbereiten […]” (Zollikoner Seminare 1987, 352).
Petzet (1993, chapter 3 and 77ff), Heidegger (2005, 267).
Heidegger took part in the internal power struggles of the National Socialist movement. Certainly,
he wasn’t one of the most adept tacticians or most hardened spin-doctors, but he knew the strategic
balance in its overall shape, tried to recognise right moments for action and knew also when he was
beaten. The descriptions of the details can be found in Ott (1993), Farias (1991) and Faye (2009).
Or what should we make of the fact that during the final months of the Second World War, Heidegger
planned a kind of time capsule, a bomb-proof metal container, filled with the best parts of Hölderlin’s
and his own writings, to be preserved in a castle tower along the banks of the Donau? (Heidegger
2005, 237) In his letters to Elfride in 1944-45 Heidegger returns several times to this theme: the only
meaningful task is to collect the most important of his writings so that future generations have at least
some seeds of thinking and plain language, so that the victory of mechanicalness and technology will
not be complete (2005, 225, 229, 233, 235-237). He fears that for one reason or another he will not be
able to work after the war and therefore the only hope lies in the texts that have already been written;
the texts that he together with his brother Fritz catalogues and edits on his mountain cabin and in
“Wer groß denkt, muß groß irren.” (1954, 17).
All the members of Heidegger’s immediate family were National Socialists. Elfride Heidegger was
active in several local National Socialist organisations and on the national level belonged to the circle
of Erica Semmler, the leader of NS-Frauenschaft. (Heidegger 2005, 193)
“Together with my friends I support the ‘Liberal Democratic Party’, which is more conservative than
I am myself. But it is the only center strength, and we want to prevent that here, as in the other countries of ex-Yugoslavia, there is only the one dangerous choice: old-style communism or nationalism.”
Kunisch (1999).
Žižek’s connection to radical performance art should not be forgotten. He is not just a fan and a
supporter, but commits practical jokes or mini-performances. He has, for instance, told that he has
faked official letters, documents and articles (Žižek & Daly 2004, 38). He has also been caught using
careless or made-up quotations (see, e.g., “Žižek on Chomsky: Black, white, and red all over” http://, and it is by no means clear how reliable his stories of his
own life are.
Famously, in the Letter on Humanism from 1946, Heidegger commends Marx for having reached
an essential understanding—superior to that by Husserl or Sartre—of history through the theme of
alienation (GA9, 339-340). Marcuse points out that Heidegger wrote the letter while Freiburg and
the surroundings were occupied by the French, and adds: “I don’t give much weight to this remark”
(2005, 167). Political calculations by both Beaufret and Heidegger certainly influenced the genesis of
the “Letter”. Still, there is little reason to doubt that Heidegger at least could have meant what he said.
Heidegger’s talks of Bismarck and the proletariat in a 1933-34 lecture series, cited in Faye (2009, 141,
Indeed, as Mikko Niemelä (2013, 217) has pointed out, Lukács’ later self-criticism towards History
and Class Consciousness can also be read as signalling that not all reification is reducible to a capitalist mode of production, thus opening a door for a wider, “Heideggerian” account of alienation. My
account of Heideggerian Marxism here relies heavily on Niemelä’s work.
Heidegger’s term Dasein does not mean an individual, a person, but a way of being shared and lived
by several humans. This has often been misunderstood, not the least because Heidegger in Being and
Time says that Dasein is always mine (je meines). However, he does not mean that for each individual there would be one Dasein (so that I, for instance, would own my Dasein which therefore would
be mine). Rather, the point is that Dasein exists only as engaged, as committed: a particular Dasein
is mine in the sense that a hero is my hero. Without this kind of commitment, without the fact that
someone lives/is a Dasein, that particular Dasein does not exits. Heidegger puts the same point also in
the following way: “That such a way of being human is always mine does not meant that this Being
becomes ‘subjectivised’, limited to a detached individual and defined through the individual.”: “Daß
solches Sein des Menschen je das meine ist, bedeutet nicht, dieses Sein werde ‘subjektiviert’, auf den
abgelösten Einzelnen beschränkt und von ihnen aus bestimmt.” cited in Faye (2009, 360)
Kaffirs (GA38, 81, 83), semitic nomads; Faye (2009, 144), Russians; Heidegger (1976).
Such as the Chinese Taoist tradition, see May (1996).
In the famous dialogue, “Zur Erörterung der Gelassenheit. Aus einem Feldweggespräch über das
Denken”, Heidegger puts the matter like this: “The relationship between me and the object, the often
mentioned subject-object relationship, that I [the speaker is the researcher, Forscher] see as the most
universal, is then only a historical transformation of the relationship between humans and things,
insofar as things can become objects […].” (GA13, 60): “Die Beziehung zwischen dem Ich und dem
Gegenstand, die oft genannte Subjekt-Objekt-Beziehung, die ich für die allgemeinste hielt, ist offenbar nur eine geschichtliche Abwandlung des Verhältnisses des Menschen zum Ding, insofern die
Dinge zu Gegenständen werden können […]”
Husserl’s short manifesto Philosophie als Strenge Wissenschaft (1911) is still unsurpassed in its concise criticism of the naivete and circularity in natural science and philosophical naturalism. With
regard to these themes Heidegger is always very close to Husserl. Even the quip “science does not
think” by the later Heidegger is well in line with the criticism presented several decades before by
But maybe non-classical natural science is possible: for instance, the thought based on complementarity that Niels Bohr advocated may be able to find ways of doing natural science without the naïve
subject-object distinction, see Plotnitsky (2002, 1994), Pylkkö (1998).
Nihilism, because finitude, mortality and historicality (features lacking in a Cartesian modern individual) are, according to Heidegger, necessary conditions for meaning—we will return to this below.
For Heidegger, biological racism or Darwinism is, naturally, a form of liberalism: “This way of thinking [liberal biologism] is in no fundamental way different from the psychoanalysis by Freud and
others. And not different from Marxism that sees the spiritual as a function of economic production
[…]”: “Grundsätzlich underscheidet sich diese Denkart [liberal Biologismus] in nichts von der Psychoanalyse von Freud und Konsorten. Grundsätzlich auch nicht von Marxismus, der das Geistige als
Funktion des wirtschaftlichen Produktionprozess nimmt […]” (GA36/37, 211).
“Rassen-pflege ist eine machtmäßige Maßnahme. Sie kann daher bald eingeschaltet bald zurückgesteltt
werden. Sie hängt in ihrer Handhabung und Verkündung ab von jeweiligen Herrschafts- und Machtlage. Sie ist keineswegs ein ‘Ideal’ an sich, denn sie müßte dann zum Verzicht auf Machtansprüche
führen und ein Geltenlassen jeder ‘biologischen’ Veranlagung betreiben. Daher ist streng gesehen in
jeder Rassenlehre bereits der Gedanke eines Rassevorrangs eingeschlossen. Der Vorrang gründet sich
verschiedenartig, aber immer auch solches, was die ‘Rasse’ geleistet hat welche Leistung den Maßstäben der ‘Kultur’ und dgl. Untersteht. Wie aber, wenn diese und zwar aus dem engen Gesichtskreis
des Rassendenkens her gerechnet nur Rasseprodukt übrhaupt ist? (Der Zirkel der Subjektivität.) Hier
kommt der selbstvergessene Zirkel aller Subjektivität zum Vorschein, der nicht eine metaphysische
Bestimmung des Ich, sondern des ganzen Menschenwesens in seiner Beziehung zum Seienden und zu
sich selbst enthält.” (GA69, 70-71)
29 Already in Being and Time (§7), Heidegger defines his phenomenology as the opposite of all kinds of
freischwebende philosophical views and “problems”.
30 For instance in “The Spectre of Ideology”, the introduction to Mapping Ideology (1995), edited by