The Politics of Unreason

The Frankfurt School and the Origins of Modern Antisemitism

By Lars Rensmann

Subjects: Philosophy, Critical Theory, Sociology, Intellectual History, Jewish Studies
Series: SUNY series, Philosophy and Race
Paperback : 9781438465944, 600 pages, July 2018
Hardcover : 9781438465937, 600 pages, September 2017

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Table of contents


1. Introduction
How the Frankfurt School Has Shaped the Study of Modern Antisemitism

2. From Odysseus to Postliberal Subjectivity
Revisiting Freud and the Civilizational Genesis of Social Domination

3. Loving to Hate
The Antidemocratic Syndrome and the Social Psychology of Modern Authoritarianism

4. Objectifying the Other
The Ideology of Antisemitism as False Projection

5. The Societal Origins of Modern Antisemitism
Judeophobia and Critical Social Theory after Marx and Weber

6. Power, Desolation, and the Failed Promise of Freedom
Rereading the “Elements of Antisemitism”

7. The Politics of Paranoia
From Totalitarian Antisemitism to Political Mobilizations of Judeophobia in Democracies

8. Guilt, Responsibility, and Post- Holocaust Democracy
Interpreting “Secondary” Antisemitism

9. Why Critical Theory Matters
Antisemitism, Authoritarian Politics, and Human Dignity in the Global Age


The first systematic analysis of the Frankfurt School’s research and theorizing on modern antisemitism.


Although the Frankfurt School represents one of the most influential intellectual traditions of the twentieth century, its multifaceted work on modern antisemitism has so far largely been neglected. The Politics of Unreason fills this gap, providing the first systematic study of the Frankfurt School's philosophical, psychological, political, and social research and theorizing on the problem of antisemitism. Examining the full range of these critical theorists' contributions, from major studies and prominent essays to seemingly marginal pieces and aphorisms, Lars Rensmann reconstructs how the Frankfurt School, faced with the catastrophe of the genocide against the European Jews, explains forms and causes of anti-Jewish politics of hate. The book also pays special attention to research on coded and "secondary" antisemitism after the Holocaust, and how resentments are politically mobilized under conditions of democracy. By revisiting and rereading the Frankfurt School's original work, this book challenges several misperceptions about critical theory's research, making the case that it provides an important source to better understand the social origins and politics of antisemitism, racism, and hate speech in the modern world.

Lars Rensmann is Professor of European Politics and Society at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. His books include Arendt and Adorno: Political and Philosophical Investigations (coedited with Samir Gandesha).


"…the insights of this project [are] essential reading not only for those interested in reflecting upon antisemitism, but also those interested in critical reflections upon authoritarianism and Critical Theory in general … In a period where the forces of authoritarianism and prejudice appear to be gaining ground, Rensmann's analyses and reflections on antisemitism are particularly timely and urgent." — Marx and Philosophy Review of Books

"Rensmann has produced a major book, and a study with substantial implications for subjects of vital import to contemporary political theory." — Contemporary Political Theory

"The Politics of Unreason is a compelling, intriguing, and well-written portrayal of Critical Theory. Its theoretical considerations, in particular, raise several issues that are worthy of further research. Indeed, with today's rise of right-wing populist parties and hate speech, and a resurgence of antisemitism, Rensmann's book provides a rich, illuminating, and—unfortunately still—very relevant contribution to the social psychology of the authoritarian character, without losing sight of the peculiarity and specific dangers of antisemitism." — H-Net Reviews (H-Antisemitism)

"The book's analysis and reassessment of the Frankfurt School are important contributions to its enduring significance, and they further our understanding of the Institute immeasurably … Highly recommended." — CHOICE

"…The Politics of Unreason is a much-needed work in both Frankfurt School and antisemitism scholarship." — Reading Religion

"The Frankfurt School's analysis of antisemitism, pathbreaking in so many respects, has been a curiously neglected aspect of its legacy. In his lucid and insightful book, Lars Rensmann helps to remedy this gap in critical theory's reception history. Thereby, he has produced a pioneering study, demonstrating convincingly how the theoretical and methodological framework developed by Adorno, Horkheimer, et al., remains, in many respects, more relevant than ever." — Richard Wolin, author of The Frankfurt School Revisited: And Other Essays on Politics and Society

"The Politics of Unreason is fascinating and richly written. Rensmann digs deeply into critical theory and its arguments. These arguments are spelled out in detail and with precision. He gives real insights into how critical theory approaches the whole issue of hate and unreason, and what critical theory develops as a critique of unreason and its pathological consequences." — James M. Glass, coeditor of Re-Imagining Public Space: The Frankfurt School in the 21st Century