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CRS0010.1177/0896920513516023Critical SociologyCannon


Critical Sociology

Towards a Theory of Counter-

2016, Vol. 42(1) 4969
The Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permissions:
Modernity: Rethinking Zygmunt
DOI: 10.1177/0896920513516023
Baumans Holocaust Writings

Bob Cannon
University of East London, UK

This article defends the normative legitimacy of modernity from postmodern attempts to
implicate modernity in oppressive social practices; Zygmunt Baumans Holocaust writings are
an extreme example of such attempts. To discredit modernity Bauman renders the Holocaust
a rational enterprise analogous to a modern factory system, dispassionately perpetrated by
banal bureaucrats, such as Eichmann. Following Bauman, the identification of the Holocaust with
modern mass production has become a standard trope of mainstream sociology, culminating in its
identification with McDonalds. However, this obscures the sadistic brutality of the Holocaust, the
ideological zeal of perpetrators and the counter-modern norms that drove it. Although Bauman
is widely considered a progressive thinker, his Holocaust writings bear the stamp of Heideggers
regressive critique of modernity. A theory of counter-modernity not only provides a more
accurate account of the Holocaust; it also restores the legitimacy of modern norms upon which
a progressive critique of genocide rests.

Bauman, Holocaust, modernity, postmodernity, counter-modernity

Theorizing modernity both defines and divides sociology. Peter Wagner has written three books,
each of which aims to provide a sociology of modernity (Wagner, 1994, 2008, 2012). At their
heart resides the opposition between:

(1) discipline (domination, mastery, subjugation), and

(2) liberty (freedom, autonomy, democracy).

Corresponding author:
Bob Cannon, School of Social Sciences, University of East London, Docklands Campus, 46 University Way, London
E16 2RD, UK.
50 Critical Sociology 42(1)

The first in the series was written at the height of postmodernism. Consequently, it emphasizes the
oppressive over the emancipatory side of modernity (Wagner, 1994). To this end, Wagner endorses
Zygmunt Baumans view that the Holocaust was a modern phenomenon (Wagner, 1994: 13, 44).
However, with the decline of postmodernism, the emancipatory side of modernity acquires greater
significance in Wagners writings (Wagner, 2008). By the third book, he reverses the discrediting
verdict of postmodernism to identify modernity with liberty (Wagner, 2012: 4, 32), although he
continues to anomalously grant National Socialism a modern status (Wagner, 2012: 129).
The move from a sociology of modernity that primarily identifies it with subjugation to one that
primarily identifies it with emancipation reflects a profound struggle that has convulsed the social
sciences in recent years. Having previously been identified with a broadly progressive social
agenda, postmodernists (and postcolonialists) came to rethink modernity as an oppressive social
project (Habermas, 1987). Under the influence of poststructuralist writers such as Michel Foucault
(1977), prominent social scientists set about discrediting modernity from the left (Wolin, 2004).
Wagners three books reflect both the way the struggle over the legitimacy of modernity has fared
in recent years, and the way sociologists have tended to attribute the conflict between subjugation
and emancipation to a division within or dialectic of modernity (Wagner, 1994). Jeffrey Alexander
(2013) provides a variation on this theme, which argues that modernity possesses a light (progres-
sive) and a dark (regressive) side.
The problem with such formulations is that they fail to do justice to the existence of counter-
modern social forces. Indeed, they compound the problem by granting the latter a modern status,
which invites a series of theoretical inconsistences. This is evident in Wagners investiture of
National Socialism with a modern status, despite identifying modernity with liberty (Wagner,
2012). It is also evident in Alexanders assignment of homophobia, misogyny and racism to the
dark side of modernity, while describing them as shockingly antimodern events and qualities
(Alexander, 2013: 2). To avoid these inconsistences I propose to confront postmodernisms total
critique of modernity with a total defence of modernitys normative legitimacy (Habermas, 1987).
According to Ulrich Beck (1997), this means rethinking the oppressive social practices that post-
modernists attribute to modernity as counter-modern in source, substance and status. To this end,
Beck (1997) distinguishes between

(1) modernity as a normative project grounded in democracy, equality and humanism; and
(2) the modern age in which modernitys opposition to pre-modern social conditions is resisted
by counter-modern social movements, which promote the kind of oppressive social prac-
tices that Alexander (2013) erroneously attributes to modernitys dark side.

Unfortunately, Becks theory of counter-modernity has not achieved the prominence enjoyed by
his theory of risk society. This is evident in the failure of writers such as Wagner and Alexander
to systematically acknowledge the existence of counter-modern social forces. Consequently, the
postmodern tendency to identify modernity with oppressive social practices retains a powerful grip
on the discipline. This finds expression in Gurminder Bhambras otherwise impressive historical
overview of the entwinement of sociology and colonialism (Bhambra, 2008). Having failed to
acknowledge the existence of counter-modern social forces, apart from a passing reference to anti-
modernist understandings (Bhambra, 2008: 53), Bhambra proceeds to implicate modernity in the
barbarities of colonialism (Bhambra, 2008: 77).
In terms of a progressive critique of colonialism this approach is doubly problematic. It not only
disregards the existence of social forces opposed to modernity, it also discredits the modern norms
upon which a progressive critique of colonialism rests. If, as Bhambra suggests, modernity is a
constitutively colonizing project, then it cannot provide the normative resources for a critique of
Cannon 51

colonialism. This pitfall led a number of modernitys progressive detractors to repudiate postmod-
ernism in their later writings (Bauman, 2001; Foucault, 1984; Rorty, 1999). Having surrendered
modernity to oppressive social practices they found themselves lacking the normative means to
perform a progressive critique of such practices (Foucault, 1984). However, without a theory of
counter-modernity it is not possible to either rethink the complex conjunction of social forces that
characterize the modern age, or reaffirm the normative legitimacy of modernity. In support of
these twin claims I propose to revisit Baumans Holocaust writings.
I have decided to focus on Baumans Holocaust writings, partly because they represent one of
the most extreme examples of postmodernisms discrediting stance towards modernity and partly
because they continue to exert a profound and in my view deleterious influence upon contempo-
rary social theory despite Bauman (2000) having repudiated postmodernity in favour of liquid
modernity at the turn of the millennium. Although Bauman no longer seeks to discredit modernity
(in its liquid form), he continues to identify the Holocaust with modernity in its earlier solid form
(Bauman, 2000). As such, his rapprochement with (liquid) modernity is incomplete. To overcome
these deficiencies I propose to treat the Holocaust as a counter-modern event (Ray, 2007).
I shall argue that the evidence does not support Baumans central claim that the Holocaust was
a legitimate resident in the house of modernity (Bauman, 1989: 17). To this end, I engage with
some of the key debates in Holocaust scholarship: not least, the debate between the functionalist
school (upon which Bauman draws to identify modernity with genocide) and the intentionalist
school (upon which I shall draw to refute this identification). I shall also examine whether the
alternative conception of morality that Bauman evokes having implicated modern norms in the
Holocaust provides a progressive critique of the latter. This, in turn, raises the vexed question as
to whether postmodernism is itself a form of counter-modernity (Wolin, 2004). With this in mind,
I shall now examine the arguments Bauman advances in support of modernitys responsibility for
the Holocaust.

Rendering Modernity Responsible for the Holocaust

Bauman rejects the view that the Holocaust comprised an eruption of pre-modern (barbaric, irra-
tional) forces as yet insufficiently tamed or ineffectively suppressed by modernization (Bauman,
1991: 19). Indeed, any attempt to exonerate modernity in this fashion, argues Bauman, merely
serves to marginalize the crime. Instead, he reverses the modern stance towards pre-modern barba-
rism by arguing morality has pre-social origins, which modernity annuls (Bauman, 1989: 177).
To this end, Bauman argues modernity makes the Holocaust possible by neutralizing the primeval
moral drives that operated in pre-modern times (Bauman, 1989: 188).
In support of what I shall refer to as his demoralization thesis, Bauman draws upon Webers
writings on instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalitt) and Foucaults writings on disciplinary
practices (Bauman, 1989: 149). In the process, he allies himself with the functionalist school of
Holocaust scholarship, pioneered by Raul Hilberg (1961) and applied to the career and trial of
Adolf Eichmann by Hannah Arendt (1963).1 Of these writers, perhaps Arendt exerts the strongest
influence on Baumans Holocaust writings (Smith, 1999). In particular, her distinction between
pre-modern massacres of Jews (pogroms), which were driven by hatred and took a viscerally bar-
baric form, and modern massacres (genocides), which are perpetrated in an instrumentally efficient
fashion by banal bureaucrats (Arendt, 1963).2
For Arendt, the modernity of the Holocaust is epitomized by Adolf Eichmann: the man respon-
sible for overseeing the logistics of genocide. Attending his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 she expected
to find an anti-Semitic monster. Instead, she found herself in the presence of a modern bureaucrat;
in his unthinking obedience to orders, attention to detail and anodyne personality (Arendt, 1963:
52 Critical Sociology 42(1)

287). To make sense of Eichmanns banality, she argued that the Holocaust was perpetrated by
Schreibtischtter (desk-doers): impersonal bureaucrats performing administrative functions in an
instrumentally rational fashion, without regard to their moral consequences (Arendt, 1963: 288
289). It is this that makes the Holocaust a modern event for Arendt.
Bauman not only accepts Arendts depiction of perpetrators as banal bureaucrats, he also cites
the trial testimony of a Nazi war criminal in support of this thesis. When Otto Ohlendorf (the com-
mander of Einsatzgruppen D from June 1941 to June 1942) was asked at his trial why he obeyed
orders from a superior of which he claimed to disapprove, Bauman reports that Ohlendorf replied:
I do not think I am in a position to judge whether his orders were moral or immoral I surrender
my moral conscience to the fact I was a soldier, and therefore a cog in a relatively low position of
a great machine (Bauman, 1989: 22). This, argues Bauman, shows that the Holocaust was not
facilitated by hatred but indifference towards Jews on the part of perpetrators. This is because
modern authority structures illicit obedience from subordinates in ways that circumvent their moral
conscience. The result is a rational killing machine, which detaches perpetrators from the moral
consequences of their actions (Bauman, 1989: 138). In support of this argument, Bauman cites
Henry Feingolds depiction of Auschwitz as a:

mundane extension of the factory system. Rather than producing goods, the raw material was human
beings and the end-product was death, so many units per day marked carefully on the managers production
charts. The chimneys, the very symbol of the modern factory system, poured forth acrid smoke produced
by burning human flesh. The brilliantly organized railroad grid of modern Europe carried a new kind of
raw material to the factories. It did so in the same manner as with other cargo. In the gas chambers the
victims inhaled noxious gas generated by prussic acid pellets, which were produced by the advanced
chemical industry of Germany. Engineers designed the crematoria; managers designed the system of
bureaucracy that worked with a zest and efficiency more backward nations would envy. Even the overall
plan itself was a reflection of the modern scientific spirit gone awry. What we witnessed was nothing less
than a massive scheme of social engineering. (Feingold, cited in Bauman, 1989: 8)

Like Feingold, Bauman argues the modernity of the Holocaust resides in its use of modern factory
techniques to produce corpses from the raw material of living humans. Unlike pre-modern
pogroms that were inspired by passionate hatred and implemented in a brutal fashion, Bauman
argues that modern genocide tends to kill in a dull mechanical fashion with no human emotions
hatred included to enliven it (Bauman, 1989: 92).
In support of this argument, Bauman (1989) cites the experiments of Stanley Milgram in which
subjects (teachers) were encouraged by the experimenter to inflict what they thought were elec-
tric shocks on victims (learners). In reality, no pain was inflicted; the victims were merely actors
pretending to be hurt, to the point of screaming out in agony (Milgram, 1974). Nevertheless, under
the prompting of the experimenter, some 65 percent of subjects were prepared to inflict the maxi-
mum 450 volts on victims. According to Bauman, this demonstrates both the preparedness of
individuals to comply with the orders of modern (scientific) authority figures and the role of social
distance in weakening the empathy of subjects for victims. By enhancing bureaucratic authority
structures and social distance, modernity enhances the likelihood of genocidal events such as the
Holocaust. In keeping with the demoralization thesis, Bauman argues that moral inhibitions do not
act at a distance. They are inextricably tied to human proximity. Commitment of immoral acts, on
the contrary, becomes easier with every inch of social distance (Bauman, 1989: 192).
It is no coincidence that Milgrams experiments lend themselves to Baumans explanation for
the Holocaust, as they were also inspired by Arendts account of the Eichmann trial (Haslam and
Reicher, 2008). As Milgram reports, his experiments were designed to discover whether obedience
Cannon 53

to authority was capable of motivating Eichmann and his million accomplices to commit genocide.
He concluded that Arendts conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one
might dare imagine. The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation
an impression of his duties as a subject and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies
(Milgram, 1974: 6). In support of this stance, Bauman argues that Milgrams experiments show
how modern authority structures can reduce agents to a heteronomous state of obedience in which
they willingly inflict suffering on others (Bauman, 1989: 162). Bauman (1989) concludes that the
Holocaust was perpetrated by millions of little Eichmanns whose moral obligations, urges and
inhibitions were neutralized, silenced and suspended by modern authority structures.
This however assumes there is only one kind of morality: a good kind, which we inherit from
pre-modern times. It does not allow for the existence of many kinds of morality, some of which
justify genocide. As such, Baumans demoralization thesis fails to explain what motivated Nazis to
murder Jews in the first place. In tacit acknowledgement of this failing, Bauman provides a range of
alternative explanations for the Holocaust; including those that emphasize Hitlers personal hatred
of Jews (Bauman, 1989: 7677). Given there is no necessary connection between fascism and rac-
ism Bauman argues that, had Hitler not been driven by an exterminatory form of anti-Semitism, the
Holocaust might not have occurred (Bauman, 1989: 77). This, however, does not mean modernity
bears no responsibility for the Holocaust. On the contrary, modern bureaucratic procedures were
crucial to making Hitlers exterminatory antisemitism effective (Bauman, 1989: 77).
Nevertheless, the focus on Hitlers personal animosity towards Jews considerably weakens
Baumans discrediting stance towards modernity. Consequently, Bauman supplements his demor-
alization thesis with a heterophobia thesis, which treats modernity as constitutively hostile to
difference/otherness (Bauman, 1991: 104). In contrast to the demoralization thesis, which indicts
modernity for impeding morality; the modern heterophobia thesis indicts modernity for promoting
a murderous moral uniformity (Bauman, 1991: 30). To this end, Bauman argues that modernity
comprises a garden society, which cultivates a homogeneous social order. Those unwilling/una-
ble to conform to this uniform moral order are reduced to the status of weeds to be excluded or
eliminated as appropriate (Bauman, 1989: 92). As such, argues Bauman, the modern dream of a
uniform, harmonious order of society can be found behind every case of modern genocide
(Bauman, 1991: 30).
Baumans heterophobia thesis represents a more damning indictment of modernity than the
demoralization thesis. Although heterophobia begins life as a pre-modern disposition (despite it
contradicting his romanticized view of pre-modern moral solidarity), Bauman argues that it is
more common in the age of modernity (Bauman, 1989: 64). From this perspective, modernity
comprises a genocidal project in its own right, which was founded on genocide, and has proceeded
through more genocide (Bauman, 1993: 227, 1995: 182). Rather than betraying the spirit of
modernity, he argues that genocide is the most consistent and uninhibited expression of that
spirit (Bauman, 1989: 93). As such, the Holocaust comprised a legitimate resident in the house of
modernity; indeed, one who would not be at home in any other house (Bauman, 1989: 17). Only
by relegating modernity to the past, argues Bauman, can we avoid genocide in the future.
While the demoralization thesis plays a larger role in his indictment of modernity, the hetero-
phobia thesis provides an explanation for the normative motives of perpetrators. From this per-
spective, Judeophobia is merely a particular expression of modernitys general abhorrence of
difference, which Jews (for contingent historical reasons) came to exemplify in Nazi Germany
(Bauman, 1995: 216). Nevertheless, modernity cannot be coherently blamed for both inhibiting
pre-societal morality and producing its own anti-Semitic norms. Despite its damning indictment of
modernity, the heterophobia thesis has the merit of acknowledging different kinds of morality:
not just the good kind whose putative neutralization (by modernity) makes genocide possible. As
54 Critical Sociology 42(1)

such, Baumans demoralization thesis obscures the role morality (normativity) plays in motivat-
ing perpetrators: not least, Eichmann and Ohlendorf.

Modernity and the Banality of Genocide

Arendts phrase, the banality of evil, has passed into popular parlance since its first appearance in
1963. However, it remains a controversial term that was strongly criticized at the time. In opposi-
tion to Arendts claim that Eichmann was only motivated by personal advancement (Arendt, 1963:
287), Jacob Robinson (1965) argued that he was a man of extraordinary driving power, master in
the arts of cunning and deception, intelligent and competent in his field, single minded in his mis-
sion to make Europe free of Jews (Robinson, cited in Ezra, 2007: 157). Robinson also cites an
interview Eichmann gave in Argentina after the war in which he regrets not having killed all 11
million European Jews (Ezra, 2007: 157). In addition, Robinson cites the recollection of Rudolf
Hss (the camp commandant of Auschwitz) that Eichmann was obsessed with destroying every
Jew he could lay his hands on (Ezra, 2007: 158). Recent scholarship appears to support Robinsons
account of Eichmanns exterminatory anti-Semitism.
According to Yaacov Lozowick, Eichmann belonged to an inner circle of committed Nazi ideo-
logues that hated Jews and thought that getting rid of them would be to Germanys good
(Lozowick, 2003: 8). Similarly, David Cesarani argues that Eichmann was a radical anti-Semite for
whom Jews were a disease to be eradicated (Cesarani, 2004: 5657). Cesarani reminds us that
when asked at his trial whether he considered it a glorious act to destroy the Jews, Eichmann
replied that is correct, that I must admit (Cesarani, 2004: 157). Far from epitomizing unthinking
obedience to modern authority structures, Eichmann was motivated by a combination of anti-
Semitic and anti-humanistic norms. As Eichmann himself argues:

The achievement of equal rights has since the French Revolution been the way to penetrate all areas of the
German peoples lives, and we have witnessed how in a small number of decades the enemy has managed
to upset the nations life This activity has brought in reaction the rise of the antisemites, and to the acme
of National Socialism (Eichmann, cited in Lozowick, 2003: 32).

On trial for his life in Israel it is not surprising that Eichmann portrayed himself as a mundane
administrator, a mere cog in a bureaucratic machine, obediently following orders in an unthinking
fashion. More surprising is Arendts willingness to lend credence to Eichmanns self-exonerating
testimony (Wolin, 2001).
The same can be said of Baumans use of Ohlendorfs trial testimony to discredit modernity.
Except that Ohlendorf did not merely organize mass murder from behind a desk. He commanded
an Einsatzgruppen that hunted down and murdered every Jewish person they could find: men,
women, children, even babies (Ohlendorf, 1947).3 It is thought that Einsatzgruppen killed as many
as two million Jews in a viscerally brutal fashion (Wistrich, 1995). Ohlendorfs claim that he was
merely a small cog in a great machine that robbed him of moral responsibility was rejected by the
judges at his trial. Ohlendorf was sentenced to death as a willing party to racial genocide (Wistrich,
1995). Nor can Eichmann and Ohlendorfs motives be explained by Baumans heterophobia thesis.
Rather than pursuing a modern drive to uniformity, their anti-Semitism was bound up with their
antipathy towards modern human rights. The contention that Eichmann and Ohlendorf were moti-
vated by counter-modern norms finds support in Daniel Goldhagens study of the Holocaust
(Goldhagen, 1996).
In opposition to the functionalist school, Goldhagen argues that perpetrators were motivated by
a strong sense of moral righteousness, which was vehemently opposed to modern humanism. This
Cannon 55

helps explain aspects of the Holocaust that the functionalist school tends to obscure: namely, the
zeal of perpetrators and the cruel sadistic violence they visited upon Jews. Once these factors are
acknowledged, Goldhagen argues that the functionalist schools focus on rational bureaucratic
procedures no longer appears plausible.

In the face of the perpetrators voluntarism, their torture, their zeal and energy in killing Jews, their
celebrations to mark the deaths of Jews, and the testimony of the perpetrators themselves to all of these,
what do empty phrases like bureaucratic perfectionism have to do with the reality of the Holocaust?
(Goldhagen, 1998: 145).

The zeal and sadism that Goldhagen details undermines the distinction Bauman draws between the
hate-fuelled pogroms of pre-modernity (whose existence Bauman occasionally if inconsistently
acknowledges), and the rational killing machine that modernity putatively promotes (Bauman,
1989: 2).4 Rather than comprising a mundane extension of the modern factory system, Goldhagen
argues that: Suffering and torture in the concentration camps was not incidental, episodic, or a
violation of the rules, but central, ceaseless, and normative (Goldhagen, 1996: 457).5 Above all,
Goldhagen criticizes the functionalist schools claim epitomized by Baumans demoralization
thesis that the Holocaust was not normatively driven.

When people think about any other mass slaughter or genocide people naturally assume that the killers
believed that what they were doing was right The only perpetrators of genocide or mass slaughter about
whom people routinely assert the opposite are the German perpetrators of the Holocaust (Goldhagen,
1998: 1213).6

To this end, Goldhagen takes issue with Christopher Brownings account of the factors that led the
members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 to murder Jews (Browning, 1992).
Citing Milgrams work, Browning argues that the majority of Reserve Police Battalion 101
were motivated by obedience to Nazi authority structures and peer pressure rather than Nazi ideol-
ogy. According to Browning, these situational and organizational factors best explain how perpe-
trators came to murder Jews, often in opposition to their moral reservations (Browning, 1992).
Nevertheless, in a measured review of the Browning/Goldhagen debate, Nick Zangwill (2003)
argues that Browning places too much weight on modern authority structures to the detriment of
pre-modern normative factors. To this end, Zangwill criticizes Browning for treating Nazi author-
ity structures as merely a situational feature of the Holocaust. The fact that authority stood for
the right things conferred legitimacy on the authority. And the fact that the eliminationist anti-
Semitic policies they were executing were ordered by a legitimate authority conferred legitimacy
on the policy (Zangwill, 2003: 14).
This parallels Goldhagens argument against Milgram (and by extension Browning and
Bauman), that obedience depends on the degree to which an authority enjoys legitimacy and the
actions it commands are consistent with the prevailing moral order in which it operates (Goldhagen,
1996: 383). In short, Goldhagen argues that ordinary Germans (such as the men of Reserve Police
Battalion 101) were motivated by the exterminatory anti-Semitic norms promoted by the Nazi
state. Only then is it possible to account for the sadistic zeal exhibited by perpetrators. Having
rendered Jews despicable, no act was too despicable to perpetrate against them.
Eichmann fleetingly revealed this dimension of the Holocaust at his trial when he acknowl-
edged that he considered it glorious to destroy Jews (Cesarani, 2004: 157). But while this is not
consistent with Baumans depiction of the Holocaust as a modern bureaucratic project, it is consist-
ent with the view that the Holocaust comprised a continuation of pre-modern genocides (once we
56 Critical Sociology 42(1)

acknowledge their existence). In support of this thesis, Goldhagen argues that exterminatory anti-
Semitism had deep roots in German culture. By tapping into this well of historic hatred the Nazis
lent state authority to atavistic antipathies inherited from pre-modern times (Goldhagen, 1996: 74).
Nevertheless, while Bauman is wrong to deny the existence of pre-modern genocides, he is right to
argue that the Holocaust cannot be explained simply by pre-modern enmities.
The use of modern technology and organization clearly plays an important role in distinguishing
the Holocaust from pre-modern genocides, but it is not decisive. As Robert Wistrich notes, in oppo-
sition to writers that render the Holocaust synonymous with Auschwitz:

No high technology was required for the 40 per cent of Holocaust victims who died through malnutrition,
famine and disease in the ghettos, through being worked to death in labour camps, through deportations
late in the war that turned into horrific death marches; nor through the gruesome executions in pits,
trenches and ravines, using machine guns, rifles and revolvers (Wistrich, 2001: 228).

More decisive is the fact that the Nazis mobilized anti-Semitism in opposition to the modern norms
of democracy, equality and humanism (Vetlesen, 2005). Writing of Germany in the late 19th cen-
tury, Shulamit Volkov argues that anti-Semitism was by then strongly associated with everything
the conservatives stood for. It became increasingly inseparable from their anti-modernism (Volkov,
cited in Browning, 1992: 196).
As such, the Holocaust was neither a simple continuation of pre-modern genocides nor a spe-
cifically modern event. It was a modern age event that was executed in opposition to modernitys
humanistic norms. As Browning notes in relation to Nazi propaganda, The main threat to a healthy
awareness of the need for territorial expansion and racial purity came from doctrines propagating
the essential equality of mankind (Browning, 1992: 180). To this end, Hitler sought to create a
Judenfrei Volksgemeinschaft (Jewish-free peoples community) in opposition to the Weltbrgerlicher
Gesellschaft (cosmopolitan society) inaugurated by modernity (Hitler, 1992 [1925]: 59). For this
reason, Wistrich argues the Holocaust was driven by a millenarian, apocalyptic ideology of anni-
hilation that over-threw all the enlightened and pragmatic assumptions of liberal modernity
(Wistrich, 2001: 244).
In response to Goldhagen, the functionalist school historian Hans Mommsen argued that seri-
ous Holocaust research should avoid the portrayal of sadistic and gruesome violence (Mommsen,
1998: 194). While not denying that Jews were murdered in this fashion, Mommsen contends that
Goldhagens study is voyeuristic and contributes little to real explanation (Mommsen, 1998:
194). However, while Goldhagens account may make unpleasant reading, it is neither voyeuristic
nor lacking in explanatory power. Only by detailing the sadistic and gruesome violence of the
Holocaust is it possible to repudiate a modern bureaucratic explanation, in favour of a counter-
modern explanation, which treats the norms driving the Holocaust as the antithesis of
Enlightenment humanism those stupid, false, and unhealthy ideals of humanity, as Gring
called them (Goldhagen, 1996: 457).7
Although the Holocaust (like modern age genocides in general) was nourished by pre-modern
enmities, it comprised an affront to and an attack upon modern humanism. Consequently, the more
established modern humanism becomes the more genocide assumes a counter-modern guise (what-
ever its immediate social causes). This finds expression in the concept of crimes against human-
ity. Although the term gained prominence in the post-war trials of leading Nazis, it pre-dates this
usage by many decades. In 1860 the US Republican Party referred to the slave trade as a crime
against humanity (Republican Platform, 1860). Given this crime is only meaningful in the context
of modernitys humanistic norms; it therefore makes sense to regard the Holocaust as a counter-
modern event (Vetlesen, 2000). In which case, we need a theory of counter-modernity to make
sense of the Holocaust.
Cannon 57

Towards a Theory of Counter-Modernity

Bauman is not the first social theorist to implicate modernity in the Holocaust. Theodor Adorno
and Max Horkheimer in their 1944 work Dialectic of Enlightenment made a similar argument (see
Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979 [1944]). Nevertheless, as Moishe Postone notes, Bauman fails to
discuss the evident parallels between his position and theirs (Postone, 1992: 1523). This can be
explained by Baumans desire to both present himself as a pioneer, raising questions previously
neglected by sociology, and circumvent the pre-existing debate on modernitys complicity in geno-
cide (Bauman, 1989: 169170).8 Nevertheless, this debate is highly relevant to Baumans Holocaust
writings as can be seen from Jeffrey Herfs criticisms of Adorno and Horkheimer. In opposition to
them, Herf argued that: [Nazi] Germany did not suffer from too much Enlightenment, too much
reason, too much liberalism, but rather from not enough of any of them (Herf, 1986: 234).
Herf notes that the Nazis antipathy towards Jews was bound up with their antipathy towards
modernity; so that the elimination of one entailed the elimination of the other (Herf, 1986: 231).
Nevertheless, Herf does not regard the Nazis as a counter-modern movement. He argues they were
modern in at least two crucial respects. Firstly, they were technological modernizers that made full
use of the available scientific knowledge. Secondly, they promoted a Nietzschean re-valorization
of all values, which exalted the new (Herf, 1986: 12). The Nazis success, argues Herf, lay in their
capacity to incorporate technology into the symbolism of and language of Kultur community,
blood, will, self, form, productivity, and finally race by taking it out of the realm of Zivilisation
reason, intellect, internationalism, materialism, and finance (Herf, 1986: 16). To do justice to this
contradictory synthesis, Herf coins the term reactionary modernism and treats National Socialism
as an illiberal path toward modernity (Herf, 1986: 10). However, there are empirical, ethical and
theoretical difficulties with placing National Socialism on a modern pathway.
For one, the Nazis path to modernity was a spectacular failure. The Third Reich lasted a mere
12 years rather less than the thousand Hitler had envisaged. Although the Nazis took command
of what was then a modern society, the path they set Germany upon (towards war, occupation and
genocide) led to its widespread destruction. Undoubtedly, the Nazis saw themselves as competing
with the established empires of France and Britain, but there is no reason to confer a modern status
upon their colonial ambitions. Modernity inaugurates an alternative path towards global citizen-
ship, which Hitler openly repudiated in favour of fanatical anti-Semitism (Hitler, 1992 [1925]: 59).
However, the primary difficulty with Herfs analysis concerns his assertion that there is no such
thing as modernity in general (Herf, 1986: 1). If that is the case then it is not possible to treat
reactionary social movements as opposed to modernity. In the absence of a theory of modernity in
general, every modern age social movement warrants a modern status, irrespective of its reaction-
ary politics (Eisenstadt, 2002). To clarify this matter, modernitys defenders identify modernity
with a revolution in moral thinking, which distinguishes it from all previous epochs (Beck, 1992;
Blumenberg, 1985; Habermas, 1987; Israel, 2001).
Rather than allowing social forces opposed to its normative content to take up residence within
modernity, Habermas (1987) identifies modernity with the norm of ethical autonomy. From this
perspective, moral laws are only legitimate if freely agreed with by those to whom they apply
(Habermas, 1996a: 445446). Similarly, Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim identify the
transition to modernity with the transition from ascribed to achieved identities.

What is heralded, ultimately by [modernity] is the end of fixed, pre-defined images of man. The human
being becomes (in a radicalization of Sartres meaning) a choice among possibilities, homo optionis. Life,
death, gender, corporeality, identity, religion, marriage, parenthood, social ties all are becoming decidable
down to the small print; once fragmented into options, everything must be decided (Beck and Beck-
Gernsheim, 1996: 29).
58 Critical Sociology 42(1)

However, modernity is far from complete (Habermas, 1996b). The exercise of ethical autonomy
requires, to render it possible, a complex set of ideas, norms, practices, movements and institutions
which are generations in the making. Indeed, if Marx (1976 [1867]) is correct, the completion of
modernitys normative project will require the replacement of capitalism by socialism. Establishing
modernitys conditions of possibility not only means confronting the social relations that precede
modernity but also the counter-modern social forces that arise in response to modernity.
In their eagerness to render modernity complicit in oppressive social practices, modernitys
postmodern and postcolonial detractors disregard this ongoing historical struggle. They assume
modernity defines European societies from the outset of the modern age, so that every event that
occurs within the latter is attributable to and constitutive of the former. To this end, Enrique Dussel
(1995) argues that: Modernity dawned in 1492 and with it the myth of a special kind of sacrificial
violence which eventually eclipsed whatever was non-European (Dussel, 1995: 12). Dussel dates
modernitys dawning to 1492 in order to implicate it in the violent colonization of the Americas.
This allows him to argue that modernity came to birth in Europes confrontation with the Other:
by controlling, conquering, and violating the Other, Europe defined itself as discoverer, conquista-
dor, and colonizer of an alterity that was likewise constitutive of modernity (Dussel, 1995: 12).
However, a moments historical reflection casts doubt on Dussels attempt to render 15th cen-
tury Southern Europe the birthplace of modernity: two and a half centuries before the Enlightenment.
Far from being in the vanguard of modernity, Southern Europes transition to modernity has been
particularly long and difficult. Fascism lingered on the Iberian Peninsula long after it was banished
from Northern Europe. The claim that Columbus was an emissary of modernity not only disregards
the extensive social transformation required to make modernity possible but also the scale of the
opposition that it faced. In contrast, Beck (1992) argues that the transition to modernity is a com-
plex, contradictory and convoluted affair, which remains incomplete to this day.9 More than 500
years after Columbuss voyages, Beck argues that no such thing as a modern society exists
anywhere In so-called modern or industrial societies, we are always dealing with semi-modern
or partially modern societies, in the architecture and structure of which modern components are
combined and fused together with elements of a counter-modernity (Beck, 1997: 3233).10 This
then requires a radical rethink of modernitys temporality.
In contrast to those that argue we live in post or late modern times, Beck argues that we are
witnessing not the end but the beginning of modernity (Beck, 1992: 10). For this reason, Beck
argues that postmodernism profoundly misconstrues the transformation society is currently under-
going. Rather than leaving modernity behind, he argues that we are still in the early stages of
redeeming its normative promise. However, there is nothing automatic about this process. The
declarations that accompanied modernitys revolutionary inauguration remain mere promises
unless actualized by progressive social movements. This is evident from Martin Luther Kings I
Have a Dream Speech.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration
of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note
was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of
color are concerned. (King, 1963)

To redeem the normative promise of modernity, as expressed in the US Constitution and the
Declaration of Independence, the black civil rights movement not only confronted the atavistic
prejudices of pre-modern times, but also racist social movements, such as the Ku Klux Klan. In
common with National Socialism, the Ku Klux Klan is characterized by its racial opposition to the
Cannon 59

egalitarian norms of modern humanism. As such, they both comprise counter-modern social move-
ments. If, argues Robert Fine, we understand humanity as a modern achievement, then the holo-
caust may be understood as the ultimately failed attempt to undo this achievement both in means
and ends (Fine, 2000: 28).11 Similarly, Zeev Sternhell argues that:

Fascism was an extreme expression of the anti-Enlightenment tradition; Nazism was a total assault upon
the human race. Here one sees the significance that the rejection of universal values and humanism, that
cornerstone of Enlightenment thought, can have for a whole civilization. (Sternhell, 2010: 441)

For this reason, Beck argues that the racial doctrine of National Socialism is an extreme example
of counter-modernization which stages a masquerade of the past in order to push back the deca-
dent tendencies of modernity (Beck, 1997: 35).12 It follows that the Nazis were neither a pre-
modern nor a modern social movement but a counter-modern movement, which opportunistically
combined pre-modern ends and modern means to oppose modernitys progressive social agenda
(Healy, 1997). Perhaps nothing represents the contradictory hybridity of counter-modernity better
than the doctrine of scientific racism.
Race, as Beck (1997) notes, lent German nationalism a higher moral purpose and elevated
its deeds above realpolitik. Race informed every aspect of Nazi ideology and conferred upon
Hitler the right to lead the Herrenvolk (Longerich, 2010: 85). In order to implicate modernity in
slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust, postmodern and postcolonial writers portray modernity
as a racist project (Goldberg, 1993). It is therefore surprising to find that Bauman initially treats
racism as an anti-modern project; generated to forestall further advances of modernity
(Bauman, 1989: 61).

Race and Modernity

In the context of the challenge modernity posed to Germanys pre-modern structures, Bauman
argues that the Jews provided a natural lightning-rod to divert early discharges of anti-modernist
energy (Bauman, 1989: 46). To this end, Bauman provides a nuanced account of the capacity of
anti-modernism to combine pre-modern ends and modern means.

The irony of history would allow the anti-modernist phobias to be uploaded through the channels and
forms only modernity could develop. Europes inner demons were to be exorcised with the sophisticated
products of technology, scientific management and the concerted power of the state all modernitys
supreme achievements. (Bauman, 1989: 46)

In keeping with this analysis, Bauman argues that the Nazis came to power by identifying Jews
with modernity and mobilizing the victims of the latter against the former. Elimination of the Jews
was hence presented as a synonym of the rejection of modern order (Bauman, 1989: 61).13 To this
extent, Bauman views the Holocaust as a counter-modern event. However, this alternative analysis
soon gives way to a postmodern one, which identifies scientific racism with modernity.
By employing scientific principles to exclude Jews from German citizenship, Bauman argues
that the Nazis transformed race into a modern method of boundary-building (Bauman, 1989: 59).
From this Bauman concludes that racism is strictly a modern product (Bauman, 1989: 61).
However, it is one thing to argue that racism is a product of the modern age; it is another to argue
that modernity is a racial formation project (Winant, 2001: 20). While scientific racism owes its
existence to the modern age, Kenan Malik (1998) argues that it was created in opposition to the
modern Enlightenment concept of human equality.
60 Critical Sociology 42(1)

It was through the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment that racial ideology first found expression.
Romantics rejected what they saw as the abstract nature of Enlightenment universalism, and championed
instead particularist accounts of human difference. They considered every people to be unique, and that
such uniqueness was expressed through its volksgeist, the unchanging spirit of a people refined through
history At the root of modern racism, therefore, lie not Enlightenment concepts of universality but
Romantic visions of human differences. (Malik, 1998)

For Malik, racism is only modern in the sense that pre-modern ethnic antagonisms were lent a
scientific (biological) status by reactionary social movements. From this perspective, scientific
racism was not created to further but to thwart modernity. Above all, it was created to exclude vast
swathes of humanity from the modern promise of democracy, equality and humanism. As such,
scientific racism is best understood as a counter-modern response to the struggles of progressive
social movements to redeem modernitys normative promise (Malik, 1996). However, the identifi-
cation of modernity with genocide is not restricted to rendering racism a modern phenomenon. It
extends to identifying the modern norm of ethical autonomy with the Holocaust (Todorov, 1993).
For conservative writers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, the modern norm of ethical autonomy is
both hubristic and a recipe for moral disintegration (MacIntyre, 1985). To this end, MacIntyre fol-
lows Martin Heidegger in identifying this norm with Nietzsches will to power and by extension
the prophetic irrationalism of National Socialism (MacIntyre, 1985: 114). In this way, moderni-
tys detractors identify the norm upon which modernitys legitimacy rests with counter-modern
social movements that oppose modernitys normative content. This paradoxical logic finds expres-
sion in Peter Mullens claim that the totalitarian tyrannies of the 20th century, their gulags and
their genocides, were built on the very notion of Enlightenment and Progress. They were based on
the false belief that man is the origin of his own being and the arbiter of his own morality (Mullen,
Far from opposing modern humanism, modernitys detractors argue that Nazism rests on a
determination of humanitas, which is, in its eyes, more powerful, i.e., more effective than any
other (Lacoue-Labarthe, cited in Ferry and Renaut, 1990b: 2). In support of this thesis, the influ-
ential French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss argues that:

All the tragedies we have lived through, first with colonialism, then with Fascism, finally the concentration
camps, all this has taken shape not in opposition to or in contradiction with so-called humanism but I
would say almost as its natural continuation (Levi-Strauss, cited in Malik, 1996: 241).

This anti-humanistic stance finds expression in Baumans implication of ethical autonomy in the

Modernity, Morality and Autonomy

According to Bauman, a modern socially constructed conception of morality is too susceptible to
manipulation to provide an adequate condemnation of genocide. Without a pre-societal founda-
tion, he argues, morality merely reflects the interests of the dominant groups in society. In which
case, the post-war prosecution of Nazis for war crimes merely reflects the vengeance of the vic-
tors over the vanquished (Bauman, 1989: 177). To forestall this verdict, Bauman repudiates a
modern socially constructed conception in favour of a pre-modern supra-social conception of
morality, to which individuals can appeal against the lawful orders of their particular society
(Bauman, 1993: 183). To this end, Bauman sets out to invert the dominant sociological paradigm,
which identifies barbarism with our pre-societal nature and civilization with modern society
(Bauman, 1989: 177).
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With particular reference to Emile Durkheim, Bauman argues that genocide does not originate
in our pre-societal drives but in our modern civilized values (Bauman, 1989: 178). In contrast
to Durkheim, Bauman argues that it is not society that produces morality, but morality that pro-
duces society (Bauman, 1989: 183). Rather than celebrating modernitys capacity to place morality
at the disposal of social agents, Bauman laments modernitys capacity to dissolve the moral con-
straints that prevented genocide in the past. To this end, he argues a modern socially constructed
conception of morality merely treats as legitimate whatever form of moral behavior conforms to
the dominant forces in society. Acting on this principle, the Nazis constructed their own morality,
along with their own version of civilization and humanity (Bauman, 1989: 178). In the process,
morality was manipulated to conform to the Nazis domination of German society.
Having conceded the existence of rival moral systems, this raises the question as to how Bauman
can be certain that his supra-social version of morality is the true one.15 After all, the Nazis also
appealed to a pre-societal morality to privilege the natural hierarchy of race over a modern
socially constructed conception of human equality. Defining one's morality in naturalistic terms
does not render it legitimate. On the contrary, argues Richard Rorty (1999), anyone can invest their
values with a foundational status. Indeed, this is how dominant groups traditionally assert moral
authority in pre-modern societies. In which case, relativism cannot be overcome by simply claim-
ing a natural (pre-social) basis for ones values. In a world of competing moralities (each claiming
to be objective) we still have to decide which is legitimate. Fortunately, argues Habermas (1987),
modernity provides a procedural solution to this problem, which places uncoerced agreement at the
heart of the legitimation process.
From a modern perspective, the more moral rules/laws command intersubjectively mediated
consent, the more legitimate they appear (Habermas, 1987). In which case, Rorty (1999) is wrong
to argue that anyone Nazis and democrats alike can invest their values with an objective
(supra-social) status. Modern democrats cannot ground the legitimacy of moral rules/laws in a
supra-social state of affairs without violating the norm of ethical autonomy (Habermas, 1987).
Appeals to a supra-social morality appear invalid from a modern perspective because it contra-
venes the principle of uncoerced agreement upon which the legitimacy of moral rules/laws rests.
As such, Baumans repudiation of a modern in favour of a pre-societal (and hence pre-modern)
conception of morality appears authoritarian from a modern perspective (Bauman, 1989: 179
183). Despite claiming to criticize modernity from a post-modern perspective, Bauman reprises a
conservative critique of modernity, which condemns it for extinguishing the non-renewable moral
resources inherited from pre-modern times (Beck, 1999: 9).
This, argues Habermas (1996b), is no accident. Despite appointing itself modernitys temporal
successor, Habermas is concerned that postmodernism comprises a ruse for the revival of anti-
modernist attitudes, which have their proximate source in the writings of Martin Heidegger
(Habermas, 1996b: 54). To this end, Habermas (1987) makes a detailed (although disputed) study
of the influence that Heideggers discrediting stance towards modernity exerts upon key postmod-
ern (poststructuralist) thinkers, such as Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
This influence is also evident in Baumans Holocaust writing; raising the fraught question of the
relationship between postmodernism and counter-modernity.

Postmodernism and Counter-Modernity

The influence of Heidegger on postmodernism is widely acknowledged; as is his membership of
the Nazi Party (Rockmore, 1995). After the war, Heideggers Nazism prevented him from resum-
ing a teaching post in West Germany. However, with the help of his former student and lover
Arendt, he was rehabilitated in the 1950s. Arendt corroborated Heideggers claim that he had
62 Critical Sociology 42(1)

become disillusioned with the Nazis in 1934 and distanced himself from them thereafter (Wolin,
2001). This helped remove the taint of Nazism from Heideggers philosophical writings and facili-
tated their adoption by left-leaning poststructuralists in post-war France (Ferry and Renaut,
It was only with the publication of Victor Fariass Heidegger and Nazism in 1987 that the full
extent of Heideggers involvement with the Nazis began to emerge much to the consternation of
his poststructuralist supporters (Wolin, 1995). Rather than comprising a naive detour into right-
wing politics, otherwise unconnected to his philosophical writings, Farias argued that the political
agenda of National Socialism accorded with Heideggers philosophical confrontation with moder-
nity (Zimmerman, 1990). Although Heidegger became disillusioned with the Nazi leadership in
the 1930s (despite remaining a party member until 1945), this was because they failed in his eyes
to redeem the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism (Farias, 1987: 227). During the
1930s, Heidegger came to associate the modern (humanist) subject with the hubris of Nietzsches
will to power. At his post-war de-Nazification hearing Heidegger declared that everything stands
within this [Nietzschean] reality, whether it is called communism or fascism or world democracy
(Heidegger, cited in Wolin, 1990: 143144). From this perspective, Russian communism, German
fascism and American democracy are merely different expressions of the same modern
Enlightenment drive towards planetary imperialism.

Man as a rational being of the age of the Enlightenment is no less subject than is man who grasps himself
as a nation, wills himself as a people, fosters himself as a race, and finally empowers himself as lord of the
earth (Heidegger, 1977a: 152).

Heideggers mistake was not to realize soon enough that the Nazi Party was just another modern
(humanist) movement struggling for world domination. This meant that Heidegger was no more
implicated in the Holocaust than his modern detractors: less so, in that they continued to embrace
modernitys genocidal hubris.
Heideggers self-exonerating stance bears comparison with that of Eichmann and Ohlendorf
insofar as they also transfer responsibility for the Holocaust from the particularity of National
Socialism to general features of modernity (Heidegger, 1977b: 83). In Heideggers case, this takes
the form of identifying the Holocaust with modern techniques of mass production.

Agriculture is today a motorized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacture of corpses in gas
chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starvation of countries, the same as the
manufacture of atomic bombs. (Heidegger, cited in Marshman, 2008: 87).

This passage has been widely condemned for showing contempt for the Holocausts victims
(Keenan, 2010). Nevertheless, it is similar to Baumans identification of the Holocaust with the
mundaneness of the modern factory system.
Sophia Marshman (2008) is rare among sociologists in relating Heideggers comparison to
Baumans Holocaust writings. However, rather than noting the uneasy parallels between their
approaches, Marshman argues that Heideggers incredibly morally thoughtless and insensitive
reflections on the Holocaust are surely the embodiment of Baumans belief that in modernity cer-
tain people get cast out of the human/moral community to a degree whereby they are no longer
even deemed worthy of moral consideration when they die (Marshman, 2008: 87). In this way, she
sidesteps the similarities between Bauman and Heideggers comparison by rendering Heideggers
stance an expression of the callousness that Bauman identifies with modernity. This leaves her free
to affirm Peter Beilharzs reiteration of the Feingold-Bauman comparison of Auschwitz to a
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modern factory system, on the grounds that it reveals the normality and everydayness of modern
genocide (Marshman, 2008: 87).17 In this she is not alone.
Having acquired Baumans imprimatur, this comparison has become a standard trope of main-
stream sociology (Abercrombie, 2004: 116; Bilton et al., 2002: 3536; Blackshaw, 2005: 43;
Maleevi, 2010: 139). While Heidegger is widely condemned for his insensitive comparison,
sociologists commonly treat the Holocaust as a form of murderous Fordism, which anchors geno-
cide in modernity (Beilharz, 2000: 9192). It is then but a small step to comparing the production
of corpses at Auschwitz to the production of hamburgers at McDonalds (Ritzer, 1996). Citing
Bauman, George Ritzer justifies this comparison on three grounds:

First, the Holocaust was organized around the principles of formal rationality, relying extensively on the
paradigm of that type of rationality the bureaucracy. Second, the Holocaust was also linked to the factory
system, which was related to other precursors of McDonaldization. Finally, the spread of formal
rationality today, through the process of McDonaldization, supports Baumans view that something like
the Holocaust could happen again (Ritzer, 1996: 2223).

Setting aside its hideous substance, Ritzer argues that the Holocaust beautifully illustrates the
basic elements of formal rationality (Ritzer, 1996: 25, emphasis added). Like Baumans compari-
son of the Holocaust to car production, Ritzers comparison to hamburger production has not
occasioned the opprobrium leveled at Heidegger.18 In this respect, Beilharz (1999) is something of
an exception.
Although Beilharz endorses Baumans comparison of the Holocaust to mundane car produc-
tion (Beilharz, 2000: 91), he is concerned that Ritzers comparison to McDonalds is inappropriate
and trivializing. To this end, he notes that Jews were murdered rather than enslaved in the Holocaust,
whereas McDonaldization rests on the slavery of youthful, part-time wage labourers (Beilharz,
1999: 231). This suggests that it is more appropriate to compare McDonalds to slavery than to the
Holocaust. It is difficult though to see how this overcomes the objection that Ritzers comparison
trivializes a crime against humanity. For stronger condemnation of this comparison we have to go
outside sociology.
Having noted the baleful influence of Heidegger on postmodernism, Malik argues that the equa-
tion of mass extermination with the production of McDonalds hamburgers or of Ford escorts is
morally odious (Malik, 1996: 244). Similarly, John Engle argues that: Describing the process of
McDonaldization as something as horrendous as the Holocaust is to forget its significance and
horror (Engle, 2012: 121). But it is less a question of forgetting the horrors of the Holocaust than
of obscuring them in order to permit its identification with modernity. In this respect, Bauman and
Ritzers Left Heideggerian approach to the Holocaust is deeply problematic.19 To render the
Holocaust a modern event, they not only obscure the violent cruelty of its perpetration and the
resulting torment of victims, but also the counter-modern values that drove its perpetrators. As
such, this approach can be faulted on both empirical and ethical grounds.
There is no doubt that postmodern writers, such as Foucault (1977), Bauman (1989) and
Goldberg (1993) are opposed to racism, colonialism and genocide. However, by rendering moder-
nity responsible for them, they threaten to discredit the norms upon which a progressive critique of
racism, colonialism and genocide rests. As Richard Wolin notes, one of the peculiarities of our
times is that Counter-Enlightenment arguments once the exclusive prerogative of the political right
have attained a new lease of life among representatives of the cultural left (Wolin, 2004: 3).20 This
finds expression in Baumans identification of ethical autonomy with genocide. Having thereby
discredited the norms upon which the legitimacy of modernity rests, Bauman grounds his critique
of modernity in a pre-modern conception of morality, which was previously the prerogative of the
64 Critical Sociology 42(1)

political right. To his credit, Bauman has sought to distance himself from this discrediting stance
in his later writings.
With the new millennium, Bauman (2000) repudiated postmodernity in favour of liquid
modernity, arguing that the prime concern of sociology made to the measure of liquid modernity
needs to be the promotion of autonomy and freedom (Bauman, 2001: 213). Nevertheless, his
affirmative stance towards modernitys normative legitimacy does not prevent Bauman from
arguing that the grandiose plan of the Nazis was written into the project of modernity from
the start (Bauman, 2010: 102). Such inconsistencies are symptomatic of Baumans failure to
adopt a theory of counter-modernity. In this respect, Foucaults late rapprochement with moder-
nity is more successful than Baumans (Foucault, 1984). Rather than seeking to distinguish the
modern age from the premodern or postmodern, Foucault argues that it would be more
useful to try to find out how the attitude of modernity, ever since its formation, has found itself
struggling with attitudes of countermodernity (Foucault, 1984: 39). Foucault realizes that to
reaffirm modernitys normative legitimacy it is necessary to rethink the source of the oppressive
social practices previously attributed to modernity. Given their capacity to mobilize modern
ideological, organizational and technological resources, they cannot be dismissed as anachronis-
tic remnants of pre-modern times. A more complex explanation is required, to which a theory of
counter-modernity responds.
Some baulk at the term counter-modernity fearing it could lead to the politicization of aca-
demic discourse. Others view it as a subjective term, which merely attaches a pejorative label to
conservative ideas, values, practices, movements and institutions. I recognize these dangers and
share these fears. Counter-modernity is an imprecise term that comes in many guises: from the
perpetration of genocidal racism to the preservation of harmless traditions. Nevertheless, a
refusal to acknowledge the struggle between modern (progressive) and counter-modern (reac-
tionary) social forces does not make it disappear. On the contrary, it risks allowing counter-
modern attitudes to take up residence in progressive social theory, as postmodernism bears
witness (Bronner, 2004).
Although postmodern attempts to discredit modernity have not succeeded, neither have they
been fully defeated. For this a theory of counter-modernity is required: both to identify the (racist,
colonial and genocidal) social forces opposed to modernity and to explicate the antagonistic social
forces that constitute the modern age. This means treating oppressive social forces as contrary to
rather than constitutive of modernitys normative project. Winning back modernity from the dis-
crediting stance of postmodernism is vital to affirming the norms that render a progressive critique
of racism, colonialism and genocide possible. But this is not the only reason for disputing Baumans
claim that the Holocaust was a legitimate resident in the house of modernity analogous to modern
factory production. It is also a matter of doing justice to the sadistic brutality of the Holocaust, the
unimaginable suffering of victims and the reactionary norms that justified it. This means theorizing
National Socialism as a counter-modern movement utterly opposed to the norms of democracy,
equality and humanism upon which the legitimacy of modernity rests.

The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of this article for their insightful criticism and help-
ful suggestions.

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
Cannon 65

1. Though it is worth noting that Hilberg objected to Arendts use of his research without proper acknowl-
edgement and denied there was any banality to Eichmanns evil (Hilberg, 1996: 150).
2. Baumans claim that modernity makes the Holocaust possible by neutralizing the (pre-social) moral
constraints that prevailed in pre-modern times implies that genocide is specific to modernity. In contrast,
William D. Rubinstein (2004) argues that genocide was relatively common in pre-modern societies.
Steven Pinker makes a similar argument in The Better Angels of our Nature (2011). Arendt also refuses
to treat the Holocaust as unprecedented, arguing that massacres of whole peoples were the order of the
day in antiquity (Arendt, 1963: 288).
3. Over 90,000 murders are attributed to the Einsatzgruppen that Ohlendorf commanded, including
the Christmas 1941 massacre at Simferopol in which 14,300 people, mostly Jews, were massacred
(Musmanno, 1948).
4. Michael Mann also takes issue with Bauman for downplaying the suffering of victims, arguing that the
actual killings were not bureaucratic. In the death camps, screaming, naked, bloodied, defecating prison-
ers were beaten towards the gas chambers by drunken guards with whips and rifle butts, under a pall of
nauseous smoke (Mann, 2005: 242).
5. According to Josef Joffe, Goldhagen debunks the standard view of the Holocaust as a dehumanized
murder machine much like a modern car assembly line (Joffe, 1998: 218).
6. Peter Longerich (2010) argues that it is not possible to explain the different degrees to which Nazi racial
policies were implemented in countries allied to it or under Nazi occupation, without understanding the
degree to which local administrations and populations were ideologically committed to these policies.
7. The view that Auschwitz rendered mass murder a rational bureaucratic process, comparable to modern
car production, finds little support in Laurence Reess study. He reports how Nazis overseeing the killing
took sadistic pleasure in their work. To this end, Rees cites an eyewitness account of a Schutzstaffel (SS)
officer who would occasionally visit the crematorium, select seven or eight beautiful girls and tell them
to get undressed in front of the Sonderkommando. Then he would shoot them in their breasts or their
private parts so that they died right in front of them (Rees, 2005: 235). Rees also reminds us that Josef
Mengele was given free rein to torture and murder prisoners at Auschwitz, while the camp commandant
(Rudolf Hss) went to his death insisting the extermination process was morally right.
8. It is worth noting that the German translation of Modernity and the Holocaust places it in the context of
the Dialektik der Aufklrung by changing its title to Dialektic der Ordnung.
9. There are a number of incongruous references to late modernity in the English translation of Risk
Society (1992: 22). These, however, translate the German term entwickelten Moderne, which is better
rendered developed or advanced modernity (Beck, 1986: 25).
10. According to Beck: All the concepts that modernity dismantles, unmasks and delegitimates are sacred
to counter-modernity; of course this includes tradition and the cultivation, that is, invention of it, but
also nature, religion, the nation (Beck, 1997: 62).
11. Throughout Modernity and the Holocaust Bauman refers to the Holocaust as an inhuman event, despite
discrediting the norms upon which a modern conception of humanism rests (Bauman, 1989: 154155).
12. It would be wrong to simply identify counter-modernism with National Socialism. The term encom-
passes a wide range of ideas, values, practices, movements and institutions ranging from violent antipa-
thy towards modern norms through to ideological support for traditional ones.
13. Similarly, Arno Mayer argues that the Nazis antipathy towards Jews was related to the formers' identi-
fication of the latter with modern democratic, liberal, anticlerical, cosmopolitan, and pacifist principles
(Mayer, 1981: 291). To this end, Hitler (1922) sought to discredit democracy by identifying it with the
power of Jews to manipulate public opinion.
14. Pope John Paul II advances a similar argument to discredit ethical autonomy. If man can decide by
himself, without God, what is good and what is bad, he can also determine that a group of people is to
be annihilated. Decisions of this kind were taken, for example, by those who came to power in the Third
Reich by democratic means, only to misuse their power in order to implement the wicked programs of
National Socialist ideology based on racist principles (Pope John Paul II, 2005: 1).
66 Critical Sociology 42(1)

15. There is a controversial passage in the Old Testament that appears to condone genocide. This is what
the Lord Almighty says. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to
them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels
and donkeys (Samuel 15: 3, cited in Stewart, 2012).
16. Foucault writes that Heidegger has always been for me the essential philosopher My whole philo-
sophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger (Foucault, cited in Ferry and Renaut,
1990a: 68).
17. Though the inverted commas placed around everyday and normal suggest Marshman is reluctant to
fully endorse this proposition.
18. Rather than seeking to avoid the taint of Heideggers comparison, Deena and Michael Weinstein con-
gratulate Ritzer for demonstrating its correctness (Weinstein and Weinstein, 1999: 66).
19. Richard Wolin (2001) employs the term Left Heideggerianism to highlight the dangers that attend the
lefts embrace of Heideggers anti-modernism, which leads Fredric Jameson (at the risk of being misun-
derstood) to announce that he finds Heideggers attempt at political commitment to National Socialism
morally and aesthetically preferable to apolitical liberalism (Jameson, 1991: 256).
20. Having rendered modernity (and its historical traditions of civic and liberal humanism) complicit in
racism, colonialism and genocide Homi Bhabha appeals to a postcolonial form of contra-modernity
(Bhabha, 1994: 6, 175, 241). Similarly, Shamsul Alam repudiates a modernist discourse as logocentric
in favour of a countermodernist discourse of development (Alam, 2002: 75).

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