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The Responsibility of the Intellectuals in Times of Political Crisis

Anti-liberal movements and populism from the far-right and far-left, fear of ‘strangers’ and the return of war in Europe. People are alienated, anxious and disenchanted. What is the responsibility of the intellectuals? Reading Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky and Hans J. Morgenthau helps. It is about critical scholarship, moral courage and defending democracy.

By Alex Reichwein from Justus-Liebig University Giessen

Arendt’s and Morgenthau’s backgrounds, in particular their life time and intellectual socialization in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, the growing anti-Semitism, nationalism and fascism in Europe, and the lessons both Jewish refugees had learned from history made these two distinguished figures of the 20th century into zoon politikon, to speak with the language of Aristotle. During their whole life and academic career in the US, both emigrants feared another failure and end of democracy like in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, and a new rising totalitarianism headed by a highly political and radical minority as a consequence of the disenchantment with politics in the Modernity. As a consequence, both thinkers, proponents of the Enlightenment and believers in humanity, progress and intelligentsia, pursued a critical and normative agenda, which is best summarized as rescuing liberalism and democracy from ideological, moralistic, self-righteous, half-hearted and xenophobic thought. In other words, both dialectic thinkers reflected on ‘the political’, the radical evil in human mankind, and the human condition of politics in times of dehumanization, technologization and bureaucratization in order to accomplish humanization, ethical universal standards of living together in a society and democracy.

Being a Public Critic and Defender of Democracy
“We are intellectual street-fighters. So if we don’t make clear on which side of the barricades we stand, we have failed.” (Morgenthau in a letter to Arendt, dated 5 June 1969; see Arendt-Papers No. 8721, Arendt-Center, Oldenburg/Germany)

Arendt and Morgenthau became two of the most prominent public critics and defenders of US democracy. On the one hand, both intellectuals warned against ideologization of the powerful elites, and depolitization of the powerless or uncritical, apolitical mass. Thereby, they presented a critical engagement with the nature of the modern state, with power, authority and leadership within the state. They also offered an elaborated critique of modernity and mass politics in Western democracies including nationalism, racism, social crisis, new forms of ‘feudalism’, ‘despotism’ and ‘totalitarianism’ in the Johnson and Nixon era in light of the Vietnam War, Watergate and race riots after Martin Luther King’s death. Both were concerned about (US) democracy and (Western) liberalism, but also its achievements, namely a relatively stable, peaceful wealthy and prosperous society in most of the democratic states.

On the other hand, Arendt and Morgenthau were keen and passionate defenders of US democracy and its basic constitutional principle, namely equality in freedom and social justice for all people regardless of citizenship and nationality, race/ethnos, culture, religion, and gender. Morgenthau was highly influenced by Hans Kelsen with whom he spent time together in exile in Geneva at the university between 1932 and 1935. Kelsen shaped Morgenthau’s understanding of the value of democracy. Some of Morgenthau’s lectures at the New School (New York City) in the 1970s on Aristotle and democracy were based on “Kelsen’s beautiful statements on democratic theory in his Vom Wesen und Wert der Demokratie” from 1929. Realizing this moral principle was what both called America’s moral and historical purpose.

Against all odds, and in spite of denunciation as “communists” by the government and Kissinger’s war cabinet, Arendt and Morgenthau didn’t get tired of encouraging people – may they be colleagues, students, or any other group within society – to show political activism and engagement, and civil courage in order to save democracy. And they didn’t desist from claiming political reforms in America to end racism, social inequality, and the erosion of democracy.

Critical Scholarship: Speaking Truth to Power
Arendt and Morgenthau claimed the role of a moral authority. And both were convinced to be ‘street-fighters’ and ‘dissidents’ speaking truth to power, namely the scheming and intrigues of the Johnson- and the Nixon- administrations. According to Morgenthau, speaking truth to power was another moral principle he had learned from Kelsen. In a lecture “Philosophy of International Relations” at Chicago University in July 1952 in Chicago, Morgenthau said to his students: “I am here to prevent you from going home with the same illusions with which you came. This is the purpose of teaching – to confront people with the truth”. And in a lecture in October 1967 at Columbia University, Morgenthau said to his students: “It is impossible for a man dealing in a theoretical and academic manner with politics to remain silent when those great issues are before the public and before the government”. Arendt and Morgenthau called for a critical, normative and political social science (as Morgenthau’s colleague in Frankfurt in the 1920s, Karl Mannheim, also did). For Arendt and Morgenthau, political science in general, and any theory in particular was not only an instrument to explain politics, but also normative compass and an intellectual weapon.

Resistance Against the Total Nemesis of Democracy
How can this attitude be explained? Why was it that Arendt and Morgenthau became public persons, and why did they permanently intervene in politics? For Morgenthau, three reasons can be offered. The first was Morgenthau’s search for meaning and orientation as an academic, his claim to be political, and his vision of the future, which becomes clear in his Autobiographical Fragment. The second reason was the missing positioning and the lack of willingness of German intellectuals in the Weimar Republic to stand upon one’s defence on the eve of Hitler’s Machtergreifung. Looking back to the 1920s and 1930s in his Autobiographical Fragment, Morgenthau speaks about a “total nemesis, physical and moral, which totalitarianism can cause“. The third reason was Morgenthau’s belief in moral courage. In Morgenthau’s Autobiography, you can find many examples of his deep disappointment and frustration about the fact that so many intellectuals such as Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer refused moral courage, and instead kept silent on anti-Semitism, injustice and the obvious moral and intellectual decline, and the rise of fascism following the apparent collapse of Weimar democracy. Others like Carl Schmitt were willing to collaborate with the Nazi Regime. In his Fragment, Morgenthau highlights the meaning of political engagement and moral courage to oppose social injustice within society and politics, and to raise one’s voice against authoritarian structures in society, at university, or within the state to prevent totalitarianism.

At the same time, Morgenthau didn’t hesitate to condemn those colleagues who, in his opinion, lacked any political engagement and moral courage, and instead allowed full bent to the development in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Germany:

“I was particularly struck and repelled by the contrast between the real political situation in Germany and the futile hairsplitting in which the ordinary members of the Institut of Sozialforschung engaged in. The Nazi enemy was standing at the gate, aided and abetted from within, and these intelligent and learned people, the natural enemies and designated victims of Nazism, found nothing better to do than search for the true meaning of one statement of Marx as over against another.” (Morgenthau, 1984: 14)

In Morgenthau’s view, the members of the so called ‘Red Castle’ (which was the nickname for the Institute of Sozialforschung at the University of Frankfurt), these ‘hairsplitting intellectuals’, neither had answers to the problems and political and social questions of that time, nor did they have the courage to use their prominence, and to resist. This is why Morgenthau was reserved to Adorno, Horkheimer, or Herbert Marcuse and any Marxist idea and visions of politics, and left-wing criticism of capitalism in his later career and life-time in the US.

For Morgenthau, only three persons did comply on his demand of moral courage and political engagement. One according to Morgenthau was Mannheim: “On the evening before I left Germany, I attended a lecture at the Institut of Sozialforschung – if memory serves, the speaker was Karl Mannheim – that was dedicated to the proposition of the decisive role ‘free-floating intelligence’ had to play in the struggle against Nazism”. The other was Max Weber, who was not only the rationalist social scientist, but also a political man who had been concerned about how to save Weimar, and who introduced the moral concept of the ethics of responsibility as one of the main characteristics of a politician. In his Fragment, Morgenthau writes: “Weber’s political thought possessed all the intellectual and moral qualities I had looked for in vain in the contemporary literature inside and outside the universities“. And Morgenthau was also impressed by one of Weber’s followers, Professor Karl Rothenbücher from Munich by whom young student Morgenthau had studied philosophy and sociology in the early 1920s. In 1923, Rothenbücher had published a letter in which he requested the Bavarian government not to collaborate with the rising NSDAP – at the expense of derision, hostilities through anti-Semitic and fascist students, and isolation within the university until his sudden death in 1934.

Arendt’s and Morgenthau’s Legacy
His whole life, Morgenthau was shocked about what had happened in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

“It is impossible to visualize the ignorance, confusion, meanness and general moral and intellectual degradation that dominated German public life and upon which the authority of great scholars bestowed a semblance of moral and intellectual legitimacy” (Morgenthau, 1984: 8/9).

But nevertheless, Morgenthau and also Arendt followed undeviatingly the principles of the responsibility of an intellectual, nearly obsessed by one maxim: Never again. Arendt’s and Morgenthau’s vote to be a responsible intellectual was a lifelong attempt, or purpose, to deal with and handle the experiences they had to make as Jews in Germany and Europe in the interwar period. But it can also be understood as a legacy for their successors: Be a political nature, show humanity and moral courage, and defend democracy against its enemies at the gate.



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Behr, Hartmut/Roesch, Felix (2012), Hans J. Morgenthau: The Concept of the Political. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chomsky, Noam (1967), ‘A Special Supplement: The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, in: The New York Review of Books 8 (3), February 23.

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Reichwein, Alex (2015), ‚Morgenthau, Vietnam und die Sorge um Amerika: Zum Staats- und Demokratieverständnis eines “ziemlich deutschen” liberalen Realisten‘, in: Troy, J./Rohde, C. (Hg.), Macht, Recht, Demokratie: Zum Staatsverständnis Hans J. Morgenthaus. Baden-Baden: Nomos (Reihe Staatsverständnisse), 95-139.

Reichwein, Alex (2013), Hans J. Morgenthau und die ‘Twenty Years’ Crisis’. Eine kontextualisierte Interpretation des realistischen Denkens in den Internationalen Beziehungen. Frankfurt am Main: Dissertation (eingereicht bei der Philosophischen Promotionskommission der Goethe Universität Frankfurt).

Roesch, Felix, (2013), ‘Realism as social criticism: The thinking partnership of Hannah Arendt and Hans Morgenthau’, in: International Politics 50 (6), 815-829.