Philosophy and Dictatorship

A. James McAdams Nanovic Institute 211 Brownson Hall 631-5253

“Philosophy and Dictatorship”
A Seminar in Political Theory and Comparative Politics: PolS60443

A. James McAdams
Department of Political Science

This seminar is based upon a puzzle: Why did some of the great philosophers of the 20th century choose to align themselves with totalitarian regimes? In approaching this question, scholars typically begin with the political views of these thinkers.  In contrast, I start with their philosophical perspectives. I maintain that the way these thinkers responded to basic philosophical questions (about epistemology, morality, and human agency) can provide us with valuable insight into their political choices.

My approach to this seminar is shaped by two assumptions. First, I make the assumption that one can distinguish between responsible philosophizing and that which is potentially perverse and pathological. Second, I assume that there is something distinctive about the mindset of those philosophers who embraced totalitarian dictatorships in particular. In my view, the positions they espoused during the first half of the past century signified a fundamental break with conceptions of truth, goodness, and human dignity that had become commonplace since the era of the Enlightenment. Admittedly, both of my assumptions could be wrong, but I consider this a good thing. It means that there is room for argument about matters of great importance to all students of political theory and comparative politics.

To this end, I begin our seminar with a philosopher who can reasonably be associated with key aspects of Enlightenment thought, Immanuel Kant. Then, I turn to a twentieth-century philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, who rejected crucial elements of this tradition and became an avowed supporter of Italian fascism. After making this stark comparison, I interweave the arguments of three “responsible” respondents to Kantian thinking—G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche—with three of Gentile’s contemporaries, György Lukács, Carl Schmitt, and Martin Heidegger. Alas, these three thinkers, too, achieved notoriety for abandoning their scruples and championing totalitarian causes. But why did they take this path?

Required readings

I have sought to reduce the cost of your readings as much as possible by choosing either the cheapest editions or giving you alternate sources. For most of the primary sources below, you may use other editions if you already own them. The only exception is Nisbet’s translation of Hegel’s lectures on world history, which you must use. I have ensured that all but two of the readings in the Reader (Lukács and Heidegger) are covered by Fair Use, and thus free. Finally, you can find many of the required and recommended readings on electronic reserve or in hardcopy at the Hesburgh Reserve Desk. Nota Bene: In order to participate effectively, you must bring a physical copy of each of the required primary readings to class.

Immanuel Kant, On History. Introduction by Lewis White Beck (Bobbs-Merrill, 1963).

Georg W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Trans. by Hugh Barr Nisbet (Cambridge University Press, 1975).

Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Karl Marx, Selected Writings, edited by Lawrence H. Simon (Hacket Publishing, 1994).

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Introduced and Translated by R. J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics, 2003).

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, Preface by Tracy Strong, (University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Course Reader (available in the O’Shaghnessy Copy Office), with readings from Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Raymond Aron, Karl Popper, Richard Wolin, Stephen Holmes, and others.

Additional readings, electronic sources, articles and videos on the World Wide Web, and (eventually) class essays can be found on this page. We will communicate with each other by means of the course listserv: and its archives.

Course Structure

Over the course of this seminar, we will pose three questions about the perspectives of each of the eight philosophers above: 1) What is the argument? 2) What is the argument meant to do? and 3) What are its political implications? In the best of all possible worlds, it would be convenient if we didn’t have to worry about the first question since no single seminar can pretend to provide adequate coverage of all of these thinkers. Yet this class will only work if everyone is exposed to at least the rudiments of each philosopher’s position. We will put most of our energy into the second question which, for me, is the most important of all for the comparative purposes of this seminar. In my view, we can only understand the significance of each argument if we recognize an essential fact—each figure is writing in a specific historical context and is therefore responding to a particular strain of intellectual inquiry that transcends individual identity. Finally, to demonstrate the potential connection between philosophy and dictatorship, we will consider the political views of all four of our totalitarian enthusiasts.

The selection of reading assignments for this seminar has been challenging. In the following syllabus, I have sought to identify key sections of our eight philosophers’ works that I consider essential for understanding their respective positions. In addition, I have either required or suggested secondary accounts of their scholarship that will, I hope, provide useful shorthands to each of their agendas. This solution won’t satisfy the purist, but were I to take any other approach, I would be unable to offer a course that tests the customary boundaries between comparative politics and political theory.


Over the semester, graduate students will write one integrated paper. This will be based on three theorists from the course, at least one of whom will be taken from the pathological philosophies. I will advise you on the deadline for this paper later. At this point, grading for graduate students will be optional. The entire paper will be due before exam week.

Undergraduate students will write two separate papers, each of which will be drawn from one “responsible” philosopher and one perverse thinker. I still need to determine the deadline for the first paper. The other paper will be due before final exam week. Both of these papers will be graded.

Update (February 15, 2008)

Undergraduate Mid-term Essay

Graduate Student Essay

Participation will play a significant role in final course grades.


Week One:  A Puzzle – Philosophy and Dictatorship

A preliminary discussion: What is Enlightenment?

Week Two:  Philosophy and its Enemies

Agenda for Discussion

Political Wisdom from Star Wars

Hannah Arendt, “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought,” Social Research, v. 69, n. 2 (Summer 2002), only 273-287. (electronic reserve)
Hannah Arendt, “Heidegger the Fox,” in Essays in Understanding, 361-2 (Reader).
Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason, 1-7 (Reader) (entire book at Hsb. reserve desk).
Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, v. 1, “Introduction,” 1-5 (Reader) (Volumes 1 and 2 at Hesb. reserve desk).
Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals, 213-218 (Reader).
Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, 1-10 (Reader) (entire book at Hsb. reserve desk).

To prepare for our discussion on Kant, I strongly encourage you to read at least one of the sources in next week’s assignments, such as Beck, Taylor, Kolakowski, Krieger, or Baker. This will help you to absorb the primary sources to come.

Nietzsche’s “influence” (watch if you know French).
Heidegger and Hitler (watch).
Bernard Yack, The Longing for Total Revolution (Princeton, 1986) (book at Hsb. reserve desk).
J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (Mercury, 1971).
Mark Lilla, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics. (New York Review Books, 2001).
Leo Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity,” in Introduction to Political Philosophy (Wayne State Univ. Press, 1989), 81-98 (electronic reserve).

Week Three:  Immanuel Kant

Reading Philosophy

Agenda for Discussion

Kant’s Antinomies

Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”, “An Old Question Raised Anew,” and “Idea for a Universal History,” all in On History and read the Introduction by Lewis White Beck. This introduction is also at electronic reserve.
Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, 1-14.
Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism (Clarendon Press, 1978), 39-50 (electronic reserve).

Immanuel Kant, “Preface” to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (Norman Kemp Smith edition on electronic reserve).
Leonard Krieger, The German Idea of Freedom, 86-125 (electronic reserve).
Brief background to reading Kant, by Lyman A. Baker (read).
Wikipedia on the Enlightenment: (read).

Week Four:  Giovanni Gentile

Agenda for Discussion

Read in the Following Order:Giovanni Gentile, The Reform of Education, 3-109 (Reader).
Benito Mussolini (really Giovanni Gentile), “The Doctrine of Fascism,” Readings on Fascism and National Socialism (Swallow Press, n.d.)  (Reader) and, also available here (read).

Giovanni Gentile, “The Philosophical Basis of Fascism,” Foreign Affairs, v. 6, 290-304. (electronic reserve)
H. S. Harris, The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile (Univ. of Illinois, 1960).

Week Five:  G.W.F. Hegel I

Agenda for Discussion, and The Larger Issue Revisited!

G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Trans. by Hugh Barr Nisbet (Cambridge University Press, 1975), 25-43. Also read the introduction by Duncan Forbes, pp. vii-xxix. It will help you to understand the point and purpose of Hegel’s Lectures.
Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, read 69-72 first, then 14-52, 69-72.
Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism (Clarendon Press, 1978), 56-80 (electronic reserve).
Leonard Krieger, The German Idea of Freedom, 86-125 (electronic reserve).

A concrete manifestation of self-realization: Hegel on “Love”

Alexander Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (Cornell Press, 1969) (entire book at Hsb. reserve desk).
Hegel’s Berlin (watch)

Week Six:  G.W.F. Hegel II

Agenda for Discussion

G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 54-101.
G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, 228-240 (Reader).
Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, 73-134.
Stephen B. Smith,” The Critique of the Liberal Theory of Rights,” in Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism, pp. 57-61, 70-80 (electronic reserve).

Shlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge Press, 1972).

Week Seven:  Karl Marx I

Agenda for Discussion

Karl Marx, “Discovering Hegel,” in Robert Tucker, Marx-Engels Reader, 7-8 (electronic reserve).
Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” Selected Writings, 55-97. The chapters are: “Preface,” “Alienated Labor,” “Private Property and Communism, “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” and “Phenomenology.”
Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” especially Theses I, II, XI, Selected Writings, 98-101.
Hannah Arendt, “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought” (electronic reserve), read up to 298
Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, 135-154.
Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, in Robert Tucker, Marx-Engels Reader, 53-65 (especially p. 60) (electronic reserve).
Martin Heidegger comments on Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach (if you know German) (watch).
István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation (London : Merlin Press, 1975).

Week Eight:  Karl Marx II

Agenda for Discussion

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, only parts I, II, and IV.
Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” in Selected Writings, only chapter I.

Shlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge, 1968).
Andrzej Walicki, Marxism and the Leap into Freedom (Stanford, 1995) (electronic reserve).

Week Nine:  György Lukács I


Agenda for Discussion

György Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness, Chapter IV, 83-103, 111-136 (Reader) (the entire book is at Hsb. reserve desk).
Hanna Pitkin, “Rethinking Reification,” Theory and Society, 16, 1987 (JSTOR). This excellent, critical reflection on Lukács’ concept of “reification,” written by my former teacher, will help you in reading his chapter.

István Mézáros, Lukács’ Concept of the Dialectic (London, 1972).
Andrew Arato, “Georg Lukács: The Search for a Revolutionary Subject,” in D. Howard and K. Klare (New York, 1972).

Week Ten:  György Lukács II

Agenda for Discussion

György Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” Chapter IV, 149, 159-222 (Reader).
György Lukács, “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organization” (handout)

György Lukács, Lenin:  A Study of the Unity of His Thought (London, 1970).

Week Eleven:  Friedrich Nietzsche I

Agenda for Discussion

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, preface and parts I, II, V.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, aphorism 125 (Reader).
Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, 154-166.

Maudemarie Clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (Cambridge, 1990).
Peter Berkowitz, Nietzsche:  The Ethics of an Immoralist (Harvard, 1995).
Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton, 1975).
Peter Bergmann, Nietzsche:  The Last Antipolitical German (Bloomington, 1987).

Week Twelve:  Friedrich Nietzsche II

Agenda for Discussion

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, parts VI, VIII, IX, especially “What is Noble?”
Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, 154-166.
Ruth Abbey and F. Appel, “Nietzsche and the Will to Politics,” Review of Politics (Winter 1998), 83-114, (electronic reserve or go to E-Journals).

Nietzsche on his deathbed (watch).

Week Thirteen:  Carl Schmitt

Agenda for Discussion

Nietzsche in Discussion

Political Theology (entire) and the forward by Tracy Strong and introduction by George Schwab.
Karl Löwith, “The Occasional Decisionism of Carl Schmitt,” in Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, 137-159 (electronic reserve).

Stephen Holmes, “The Debility of Liberalism,” The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (Harvard, 1993), 37-60 (electronic reserve).
Telos, Special Issue, n. 72 (Summer 1987).  On Schmitt’s surprising popularity among the American Left, (read).
Was Schmitt as a Republican? (read)

Week Fourteen: Film about Stalinism in Action

The Interrogation

Location: Nanovic Institute for European Studies, 211 Brownson Hall

Week Fifteen: Reflections on Philosophy and Dictatorship

Dinner Discussion, Sunday, April 27 at 5:30 pm
Location: Nanovic Institute for European Studies, 211 Brownson Hall

Regrettably, time constraints prevent us from reaching that fascinating and enigmatic National Socialist-sympathizer, Martin Heidegger. I am including the assignments for him below should any of you someday have the opportunity to continue your investigations.

Martin Heidegger I

Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 40-54 (read this section first), and then read the entire chapter, 1-54 (Reader).
Hannah Arendt, “Heidegger the Fox,” re-read this essay.
Martin Heidegger, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” Heidegger’s notorious Rektoratsrede at Freiburg in 1933 (Reader).
“‘Schlageter,’ May 26, 1933,” in Richard Wolin, The Heidegger Controversy, 40-42 (Reader). Schlageter was a dramatized hero of the Nazi regime.  One line of the play famously reads:  “Whenever I hear of culture… I release the safety-catch of my Browning!”
Hannah Arendt, “What is existential philosophy?” Essays in Understanding, 163-187 (Reader).

Dana Villa, Arendt and Heidegger (Princeton, 1996) (the entire book is at the Hsb. reserve desk).
George Steiner, Heidegger (London, 1978) (the entire book is at Hsb. reserve desk).
Karsten Harries, “Heidegger as a Political Thinker,” in Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, ed., by Michael Murray (Yale, 1978). (Hesb. reserve desk).
Heidegger on the BBC, n. 3 (watch)

Martin Heidegger II

Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, Re-read 1-54 (Reader).

The Der Spiegel Interview (read)


A. James McAdams Nanovic Institute 211 Brownson Hall 631-5253