The Corner

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On Nazi Relativism and Other Kinds


I’m really grateful to Jonah for making a distinction Andrew Sullivan missed. Nazism and Communism may have had their own metaphysical pretenses, but they both treated the human being as a thing, as a means, as an instrument, and in important ways as a non-moral (and certainly non-spirited) material agent. In the human and moral sphere, in other words, they required the surrender of any “objective” moral compass, “natural law,” or allegiance to “God’s law”–all those bourgeois illusions–and in this task they were greatly aided in their preparatory work by the cult of “the absurd” among the intellectuals, the literary set, and students of the time.

Albert Camus found this out, for one, when (in a literary trope) he tried to persuade “a German friend” that he could not join the Nazis, and his friend sharply retorted: “And in a world where everything has lost its meaning, those who, like us young Germans, are lucky enough to find a meaning in the destiny of our nation must sacrifice everything else.” In a world in which everything has lost its meaning.

Camus, despite his own teaching on the absurd, had suddenly to find and to defend a meaning. This he did, in his Second Letter to this friend–but not very satisfactorily. It took partial explorations in a series of book until he found his way out of the nihilism he had described in The Stranger and in arguing the logic of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus.

But the most vivid example I had in mind is from real life. A Communist authority I met in Switzerland told me what had led him to break, at least inwardly, from Communism (for he was a Party member and government official still) had been a crisis for him in Africa. On his posting there, he was ordered to take part in some killings of a number of rivals of the Communist Party in that nation. He experienced deep revulsion and managed to slip out of the task. That was the first time he had come to a clear insight that there are some things he could not, morally, do. He had thought he had lost all such primitive sentiments. They now seemed to him more than sentiments, and more than primitive, and overriding. He was still looking for a way out.

A second example was not unlike it. Another friend of mind had a father high in the Party in another East Bloc state, who after one of Pope John Paul II’s visits to a neighboring country, would shut off the television in anger if he heard the word “God.” My friend explained that his father had felt highly compromised by many actions he had taken in his career–treatment of dissidents, “traitors,” dangers to the state–and could not bear the thought that there was a more humanistic standard of ethics than the needs of the Party. He had surrendered his personal moral code to the judgment of the Party. Nothing else counted morally. He had to keep things that way in the peace (or un-peace) of his own soul. What helps the Party is moral; what hurts it is immoral; any other moral principle is an illusion. Metaphysically, this is not nihilism, for at least the Party has ontological status as the dynamo of history and measure of moral progress. But for the participating individual it requires a relativizing of every other moral code. An emptying out of the moral individual, so that the Lie may occupy that place.

“If God is dead,” a brother Karamazov said, “everything is permitted.” Well, obviously there are atheists who have a strongly reasoned, and as they see it “objective” moral code based upon reason. They are not relativists. But there is now again, as there was in the 1930s, a spreading invisible gas of relativism, even among such atheists, not to mention among former believers in God. For growing numbers, it seems, ours is becoming again “a world in which everything has lost its meaning.” The academic fashion of Post-Modernism puts an ideology to this, and its roots seem to me much too like those that led up to the fashion for Fascism and Communism among “the Clerks.”

In a recent blog on the website of US News and World Report, an unimaginative professor at the University of Notre Dame failed to grasp that on certain occasions, in certain eras, arguing with Fascists or Communists involved one in a sort of lie. And one had to desist from it. For Fascist and Communist protagonists of violence did not believe in the same reason based upon evidence that, say, Albert Camus did. They believed, finally, in violence, and everything else was simply means to the moment of their triumph of will. As Albert Camus concluded early, at some crucial point those committed to liberty and justice and the very idea of truth must recognize that such enemies must be stopped, and combated to the death. For theirs is only a pretense of argument; they intend the systematic dehumanization of man.

It was just here that Camus drew the line of “resistance” and “rebellion,” even at the cost of “death.”

As Camus confesses, he and his fellows drew that line much too late, after much too much bloodshed and strutting violence. It had been better to nip the cult of the absurd far earlier. That is, to make some crucial distinctions.