Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Heidegger's "Productive Dialogue with Marxism"

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Heidegger's "Productive Dialogue with Marxism"

Article excerpt

The title of this article cites Heidegger's "Brief über den 'Humanismus,'" his letter "concerning" or "over" humanism, sent in the autumn of 1946 in reply to a letter from Jean Beaufret, often referred to as the Humanismusbrief or "Humanism Letter."2 In the letter Heidegger mentions the possibility of "a productive dialogue with Marxism." In 1946, the question of the future of Europe, the West, indeed, of the future of the world, was everywhere, and, in many parts of Europe especially, either had already, or was taking, various forms of a Marxist face. In the East the Nazi terror was supplanted by Stalin's, gathering force as it reduced to tutelage nations who had (from 1918 to the arrival of Hitlerism ) tasted a precarious freedom. The nations of the Baltic, Hungary, the then Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania, all remained in ferment. In Britain, if not a Marxist, then the first majority socialist government was in its second year of power. Communism was a threatening (if not always victorious) force in Greece, Italy, even France, and across the Balkans. Germany was occupied, split between the Allied and Soviet powers that Heidegger had once spoken of as its pincers.3 China and her satellites were in disarray or torn by civil strife: Mao was on the offensive. Ours, it seems, is a very different world.

It is perhaps unsurprising, given Heidegger's political engagement, that there has been so little dialogue with Heidegger from among Marxists. After the publication of Being and Time, and before 1933, Herbert Marcuse had enthusiastically taken up much of Heidegger's terminology and analysis, in particular Heidegger's interpretation of the term Dasein, existence.4 Marcuse later said "we saw in Heidegger what we had first seen in Husserl, a new beginning, the first radical attempt to put philosophy on really concrete foundations-philosophy concerned with human existence, the human condition."5 If Marcuse's thought was never quite freed from the influence of the Heidegger of Sein und Zeit, his enthusiasm for the man and his later path of thinking certainly was.6 Others who might have entered such a dialogue moved away, not only from Heidegger, but from Marxism: Karl Löwith was one of these, of whom Heidegger was-it is reported-later quite dismissive. He is quoted as remarking that "in 1929 ... Löwith was the reddest Marxist-today he has turned himself Christian."7 Siegfried Landshut, editor of the first German edition of Marx's early writings, was another. It is impossible that not a few of these had put Heidegger in touch with Marxian scholarship before the Nazi debacle.

Apart from some masters theses, and a few doctoral dissertations across the years, and the occasional article in a journal,8 only Kostas Axelos (a Greek in close touch with the circle around Jean-Paul Sartre and Beaufret), who had met Heidegger at Jacques Lacan's country-house in 1955, and writing in French and German in the 1960s, ever attempted a full-scale dialogue with Heidegger's thought from a Marxist perspective.9 Outside Heidegger's sphere of influence, almost no interest stirred: at their kindest, Soviet ideologues dismissed Heidegger and those interested in him as "bourgeois philosophers."

If the Humanismusbrief speaks of "a productive dialogue with Marxism," seemingly, therefore, inviting that such a dialogue take place, in what sense, if any, can the letter itself be construed as that dialogue? Axelos offers us what has remained a truism of Heidegger scholarship, when he says that "Heidegger does not supply us with the basic outlines of a Marx-interpretation."10 Among the best known of Heidegger's comments on Marx is his critique and dismissal of the eleventh of Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, in Richard Wisser's 1969 television interview with Heidegger. The footage is not difficult to locate on electronic media, and a transcript his been in print for some years."

The interview shows Heidegger taking Marx's Theses on Feuerbach from a bookshelf adjacent to where he is seated, and (turning immediately to the refer- ence) reading aloud from the text:12 "The question of the demand for world change leads us back to Karl Marx's frequently quoted statement from his Theses on Feuerbach. …

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