Two Vice-Chancellors: Heidegger and Makgoba

A comparison of the political thought of two professors, seventy years apart.

Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, Vice Chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and chairman of the university's Senate, is at the centre of what has been described as a "furious debate" over threats to academic freedom at the university, following his alleged refusal to allow discussion by the Senate of a document on academic freedom drawn up by the faculty of Science and Agriculture. Professor Nithaya Chetty, the professor of Physics, has resigned his position on the Senate and the University Council, alleging a propensity by Makgoba "to racialise and personalise debates as a means of suppressing dissent". The professor of Mathematics, Professor John van den Berg - member of a family which played a leading part fifty years ago in opposition to racism in Pretoria - was allegedly threatened with disciplinary action and labeled a racist by the Vice Chancellor. (See the Daily News March 6 2008)

This short essay will attempt to examine some of the language and categories in the revealing article "Wrath of dethroned white males" by Professor Makgoba, which appeared in the Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, on March 25 2005. I intend to note similarities in this article by Makgoba, printed below, and the thinking of the German existentialist philosofpher, Martin Heideggger (1889-1976), the author of Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927) and other philosophical works, who became Rector of the University of Freiburg shortly after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and who then resigned his post in 1934, living quietly afterwards in a wooded area of rural Bavaria.

Heidegger's rectoral address on his investiture at the University of Freiburg, Die Selbstbehauptung der deutschen Universitat (The self-affirmation of the German university, Freiburg-im-Breslau, Korn: 1933), is a seminal document setting out the thinking of one of the most eminent German academics and cultural figures who colluded with the totalitarian regime. In 1933 Heidegger had joined the Nazi Party and began making speeches for it. We know a good deal about Heidegger and his thinking at this time, partly because he had previously been both the teacher and the lover of the German Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt (who escaped the Holocaust, later writing On Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem) and he had taught the libertarian Marxist political philosopher Herbert Marcuse (also Jewish) from 1927 to 1932. Heidegger was also rector at Freiburg when the future professor of history at the New School for Social Research in New York and at the City University of New York, Henry M Pachter (born Heinz Pachter, also Jewish), was a student there.

In 1932 Heidegger rejected Marcuse's post-doctoral dissertation, substantially on ideological grounds. In his Herbert Marcuse and the crisis of Marxism (Macmillan, London, 1984), Professor Douglas Kellner noted that Pachter "said it would be strange if Marcuse found Heidegger's involvement with National Socialism surprising because: (1) Nazi students filled Heidegger's classes and enthusiastically clamoured around him; (2) Heidegger's wife was an enthusiastic member of the party and supporter of national socialism; (3) at the Davon debate with Ernst Cassirer [a German Jewish philosopher] in 1929, Nazi students supported Heidegger and shouted down Cassirer with slogans and insults; and (4) Heidegger's lifestyle and thinking were sympathetic to fascist volkisch ideology: he wore Bavarian peasant clothes and affected peasant manners; he spent as much time as possible in his mountain retreat in Todtnauberg; and he was becoming increasingly nationalistic and political in the 1930s (conversation with Henry Pachter, New York, June 1980). Jurgen Habermas concurred in this analysis (discussion in Starnberg, December 1980)" (Kellner, pp.406-407, Note 3 to Chapter 4: ‘Critical theory and the critique of fascism').

Concerning Heidegger's investiture speech at Freiburg, his former colleague, Karl Jaspers (professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, before being dismissed by the regime in 1937 for having a Jewish wife), commented later: "In form it was the typical academic speech, but in its content it represented neither more nor less than a Nazi programme for university reform". In relation to "the rapid development of the Nazi reality", Heidegger had told Jaspers, "one has to become involved". He addressed the assembled students at Freiburg unambiguously: "You should not allow axioms and ideas to regulate your lives.  The Fuhrer, and he alone, is the present and future reality and law of Germany" (cited in Valentino Gerratana, ‘Heidegger and Marx', New Left Review, London, issue 106, November-December 1977, p.52).

Perhaps the most trenchant analysis of the intellectual relation between Heidegger's philosophy and his Nazism, however, was made by the German-Jewish thinker Theodor Adorno (1903-69), like Marcuse a member of the Frankfurt School of Marxian-Freudian scholars, most of whom succeeded in emigrating to the United States . This appeared in a short study, Jargon der Eigentlichkeit. Zur deutschen Ideologie (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1964) first published in English in 1973 as The Jargon of Authenticity. (Adorno's original sub-title ‘On the German ideology' was omitted). In a foreword to the English translation by Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will, Trent Schroyer sums up Adorno's characterisation of Heidegger's philosophy as "an ideology of the simple" in which the lives of actual human beings and actual social relations are obscured in "the fetishisms of the jargon" and are made fixed and unreachable "in the jargon's pathos of archaic primalness" (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. pp. xiv, xvi). This is a key to the analysis of Makgoba's article.

Adorno notes that in Heidegger's thinking, and in the ideas of his followers, ‘primalness now has the same place in the philosophical atlas in which nature was once registered. ...Philosophical nature has to be regarded as history, and history as nature. ...These primal experiences were a warmed-over piece of expressionism. They were later made into a permanent institution by Heidegger, under the benediction of public opinion." As Adorno further explains, in this outlook "everything experienced in primary terms is culturally pre-formed. ...Philosophy involves itself all the more deeply in society as it more eagerly - reflecting on itself - pushes off from society.... It clawed itself firmly into its blindly social fate, which - in Heidegger's terminology - has thrown one into this and no other place. That was according to the taste of fascism. With the downfall of market liberalism, relationships of domination stepped nakedly into the foreground. The baldness of their order, the authentic law of the ‘needy time,' easily permits itself to be taken for something primal. That is how people could jaw about blood and soil, without a smile, during the excessively accumulating industrial capitalism of the Third Reich. The jargon of authenticity continues all that, less tangibly....' (pp. 98-100).

Adorno quotes Heidegger from Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens (From the experience of thinking, 1954) as stating: "The oldest element of the old comes up behind us in our thinking and yet meets us head on". Adorno's response is that: "The archaic is the expressive ideal of this language.... Heidegger insinuates a pre-established harmony between essential content and homey murmuring." He quotes Heidegger again: "One's own work's inner belonging, to the Black Forest and its people, comes from a century-long Germanic-Swabian rootedness, which is irreplaceable." He quotes Heidegger discussing an invitation - after Hitler! - to visit the University of Berlin , in which Heidegger states: "On such an occasion I leave the city and go back to my cabin. I hear what the mountains and woods and farmyards say. On the way I drop in on my old friend, a seventy-five-year-old farmer", who silently advises Heidegger not to go to Berlin , an injunction Heidegger follows "absolutely". Here Adorno comments on the "hollowness of the jargon", which asserts a "false eternity of agrarian conditions" in which philosophy, ashamed of its name, "needs the sixth-hand symbol of the farmer as the proof of its primalness" - what Adorno describes as "the falsity of rootedness" (pp.52-57).

As Adorno continues, this kind of talk "makes itself popular in the old-fashioned, half-timbered, gable-roof way," suggesting that the demands of a complex, modern, technological society can best be addressed with the peasant's rule of thumb. He argues further: "Allegedly hale life is opposed to damaged life.... Through the ingrained language form of the jargon, that hale life is equated with agrarian conditions, or at least with simple commodity economy, far from all social considerations. This life is in effect equated to something undivided, protectingly closed, which runs its course in a firm rhythm and unbroken continuity. The field of association here is a left-over of romanticism, and is transplanted without second thought into the contemporary situation...." We have here an argument claiming its roots in a "metaphysical-anthropological source". Adorno calls this the "advertising of the Blubo". Blubo here - derived from the German Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) - is explained in a note in the 1986 Routledge edition as a "catchword of the Nazi movement, emphasizing the interdependence of one's life with one's native soil" (pp.59-61).

It would be hard to be more Blubo than Makgoba, however. In the first sentence of his essay he explains that "A critical factor of human development and leadership is ‘our primate heritage'", a concept and a term he derives from Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership by Professor Howard Gardner, whom he describes as "Harvard University's distinguished psychologist and professor of education". Makgoba continues: "In the primate family, to which humankind belongs, there are certain heritage features which display ‘clear dominance relationships among members, and the proclivity to imitate'..." This leads Makgoba to thoughts about a repeated "variation cycle of hierarchy, domination and imitation", in which one dominant male - or one dominant social order, which he characterises as ‘male' - is overthrown and replaced by another: his own means of conceptualising the overthrow of a white-dominated social order in South Africa by what he considers to be a black-dominated order. In his interpretation, the "dethroned white male in South Africa is playing the same role as dethroned baboon troop leaders do".

Professor Makgoba acknowledges that racism is a "socially constructed phenomenon with no biological basis", yet he sees no problem in analysing a social group in South Africa of which he disapproves in terms of the baboon: a method of analysis it would be hard to imagine any South African white academic currently using to describe black African society. In this, Makgoba makes himself the beneficiary of a double standard: what A says about B may not be said by B about A.  Makgoba makes himself more Blubo even than Heidegger, whose "primalness" relates to a human social source: agrarian conditions, simple commodity economy, the undivided and "protectingly closed" isolated rural small community which "runs its course in a firm rhythm and unbroken continuity". This "volkisch" (or folksy) conception was elaborated by German nationalist and race thinkers into the doctrine of "Volksgemeinschaft": a theory of the integral unity of an ethnically "pure" German racial community, deriving from the supposed communal undividedness of pre-historic German tribal groupings, such as had defeated the colonising army of the Roman general Varro in the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Yet Heidegger's primalness, which was enough to bring him to the Nazi party, at least begins with humans. With Makgoba, our "primate heritage" - a phrase repeated four times in his essay - justifies the domination by one racial group of another by reference to baboons: though as he says in the final sentence (without a hint of condescension), "our white male group can and should do better than the baboon or the bonobo". It would be hard to find a more thorough-going "ideology of the simple".

A single word - "Ubuntu" - summarises for Makgoba the virtues of Heidegger's undivided and "protectingly closed" rural community, and is elevated by him into an ideology supposedly able to guide a complex, divided society into the 21st century. This concept in Makgoba is not far removed from the nebulous and mystical "heimisch" (or homey) concepts well loved by the Germans of Hitler's time. As employed by Makgoba, it means everything and nothing. He associates the phrase twice with the notion of reconciliation between the races, but only so that Ubuntu be regarded as subordinate to what he describes as a political condition of "African dominance". His language is the language of dominance. Such-and-such a group "must soon accept ABC", its members "should learn XYZ", so-and-so "should do better than the baboon or the bonobo".

One can understand how Marcuse came to consider his former teacher's view of human existence as a "highly repressive, highly oppressive interpretation". Reading through the categories of human existence explored by Heidegger in Sein und Zeit, he noted in an interview in 1977 that these categories play on the "fears and frustrations of men and women in a repressive society - a joyless existence - overshadowed by death and anxiety: human material for the authoritarian personality". He notes, tellingly, that "love is absent" from Heidegger's conception of humanity, an omission that appears also in Makgoba's derogation of human activity to "our primate heritage": something Marcuse regards in Heidegger as a "very powerful devaluation of life" [in Frederick Olafson, ‘Heidegger's politics: An interview with Herbert Marcuse' (1977), in Robert Pippin, Andrew Feenberg and Charles P Webel (eds), Marcuse. Critical Theory and the Promise of Utopia, Macmillan, 1988. p.99]. Marcuse's phrase ‘the authoritarian personality' here refers to The Authoritarian Personality (1950), a study founded on research done in the United States during the Second World War by Adorno, his exile colleague from the Frankfurt School, and other scholars.

It should be said that no leader in the struggle to liberate South Africa from the apartheid system, stretching across a very broad spectrum - individuals such as  Inkosi Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, Pixley kaIzaka Seme, Alan Paton, Walter Sisulu, Bantu Stephen Biko, Ruth First, Imam Abdullah Haroun, Govan Mbeki, Kenny Jordaan, John Nyathi Pokela, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, Isaac Bongani Tabata, Bram Fischer, MK Gandhi, OR Tambo, Helen Suzman, Cissie Gool, Zephaniah Mothopeng, Chris Hani, Mac Maharaj, or any other major leader - would or could have envisaged the liberation from apartheid in terms of a category such as ‘our primate heritage'. They would have regarded reference back to the baboons as too degrading, too close to the most demeaning conceptual structures of the advocates of the apartheid system. Coming from the Rector of a major South African university, it is deeply disconcerting.