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The Genius of Destruction

Jacob Taubes and the long march through the institutions

Jerry Muller
July 07, 2022
Ethan and Tania Taubes Collection
Jacob Taubes and Margherita von Brentano at homeEthan and Tania Taubes Collection
The following is an excerpt from Jerry Z. Muller’s “Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes”
The following is an excerpt from Jerry Z. Muller’s “Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes”

Radicalism Institutionalized: Fachbereich 11

In his most famous speech, delivered in February 1968 at the International Congress on Vietnam in Berlin, Rudi Dutschke argued for a “Long March through the Institutions.” This was an allusion to the “Long March” of the Chinese Communists under Mao, in which they retreated to the province of Yunan in an attempt to establish a base from which to conquer the rest of the country. “The aim of the long march,” Dutschke explained, “will be to build counter-institutions, liberated zones in bourgeois society.” Nowhere was the long march shorter than at the FU, and its Yunan was Fachbereich 11, whose first elected chairman (the equivalent of a dean) was Jacob Taubes.

1970 saw the establishment of a novel academic structure, with new units known as Fachbereiche (divisions). Fachbereich 11 (FB11; the number came from its designation in the course catalogue) was made up of philosophy and the social sciences. It was founded to overcome the fragmentation attributed to “bourgeois scholarship,” or what Taubes and his students called “the idiocy of academic disciplines” (Fachidiotentum). That was a laudable goal in theory; in practice the way in which fragmentation was avoided was through Marxism (and soon, Marxism-Leninism), which was supposed to provide a unified basis for philosophy, sociology, and other social sciences.

Alongside more conventional offerings in philosophy and the social sciences, the Fachbereich offered courses that reflected the ideological propensities of the New Left. In the first semester of its existence, for example, the professor of Protestant theology, Helmut Gollwitzer, taught a course on Political Implications of the Gospel (Christianity and Socialism), and another on Theology of Revolution. In the Department of Philosophy, Jacob’s spouse Margherita von Brentano taught a course on Theories of Fascism, while a team of junior faculty taught Karl Marx: Political Economy and Philosophy. Soon there were courses on Logical and Epistemological Inquiries into Karl Marx’s Capital, and ever more esoteric topics such as a seminar on Materialism and Empiriocriticism, for which a knowledge of Marx’s work up to Capital and Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism was a prerequisite.

In short order, Fachbereich 11 became a center of radical leftist teaching and pedagogy at the FU—and a lightning rod for opponents of the university’s radicalization, who saw it as a cradle of ideological indoctrination. In a memoir, Taubes’ younger colleague Wolf Lepenies recalled the ideological milieu: “Today it is hard to conceive the extent to which Marxist beliefs shaped the study of the social sciences in the sixties and well into the seventies, in Berlin and some other places ... For us, economics was political economy, ... history was historical materialism, and dialectical materialism was philosophy.” In 1970, a professor of psychology, Klaus Holzkamp, together with his students, founded an afternoon program for the children of workers (Arbeiterkinder) that was supposed to raise the working-class children to be anti-authoritarian and anticapitalist. Word got out to the larger public through the conservative newspaper Die Welt. The resulting outcry led the university’s psychologists to split into two groups: a pro-Marxist (indeed pro-East German) group around Holzkamp, which remained in Fachbereich 11, and a non-Marxist group that migrated to the division of education. In protest against the university’s decision to allow the non-Marxists to split off, Taubes resigned as chair (Vorsitzender) of FB11 and Lepenies resigned as assistant chair. They accused the Senator für Wissenschaft und Kunst (the Berlin equivalent of a minister of education), Werner Stein, a Social Democrat, of providing aid and comfort to “that party of counter-reform that denounces as a ‘red takeover’ or ‘sell-out of the freedom of scholarship’ every attempt to bring socialist orientations into the self-determination process.”

In 1971, the governing council (Fachbereichsrat) of FB11 tried to appoint the philosopher Hans Heinz Holz to the chair formerly occupied by Paul Feyerabend. A student of Ernst Bloch and a scholar of Leibniz, Holz was not merely a Marxist but a committed Communist. The proposed appointment met public opposition from the Emergency Association for a Free University (Notgemeinschaft für eine Freie Universität), an organization of professors who opposed the radical drift of the university (discussed in a section below). In one of its “Hammer and Sickle” reports, it characterized the Fachbereich’s Philosophy Seminar as an “Institute for Marxism-Leninism.” The appointment of Holz was also publicly opposed by Iring Fetscher, a professor of political theory and scholar of Marxism in Frankfurt. Wissenschaftssenator Stein, who had ultimate authority over appointments, took exception and refused to appoint Holz.

Taubes emerged as the spokesman for the Fachbereich leadership, bombarding Stein with letters and defending the proposed appointment of Holz in the name of methodological pluralism—though as critics pointed out, the Fachbereich was hardly bereft of Marxists. Taubes also published a defense of Holz and a diatribe against his critics in the EXTRA-Dienst, the weekly paper that catered to the radical left in West Berlin. (It was funded by the East Germans.) Stein’s favored candidate was Albrecht Wellmer—a student of Jürgen Habermas, whom Taubes himself had recommended for the post, despite (as he wrote to Senator Stein) the “anti-Frankfurt affect” of some of his colleagues in the Fachbereich and the left-wing students at the FU, for whom scholars associated with the Frankfurt School were far too moderate. Taubes’s stance for once put him on the same side as Gershom Scholem, who wrote to the University favoring Holz’s appointment. After Senator Stein’s rejection of Holz, Taubes traveled to the University of Marburg to campaign on behalf of Holz, who was successfully appointed there.

At the very time he was striving to appoint Holz to a chair of philosophy, Taubes undertook an even more radical initiative. Following a suggestion from his wife, Brentano, Taubes convinced the Fachbereich to extend an invitation for a guest professorship during the summer semester of 1971 to Angela Davis. A former student of Marcuse, Davis had spent two years as a student in Frankfurt studying with Adorno, Habermas, and others. By the time of the invitation from FB11, Davis was not only a declared Communist, but on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List, charged with having purchased the gun used by black militants to kill a judge during an attempted escape from a courtroom in California. (She was later acquitted by a jury.)
Another invitation was extended to Eldridge Cleaver, a leader of the revolutionary Black Panther Party. He was to lecture on a class analysis of the United States and on the educational activities of the Black Panthers. Cleaver, said the Fachbereich, would provide a materialist analysis, and thus correct the “one-sided preference given to bourgeois-positivist scholars from the US.”

When news of the invitation to Davis was published in the Tagesspiegel, a Berlin daily newspaper, the mayor of West Berlin, an enraged and agitated Klaus Schütz, phoned the FU’s president, Kreibich. (The East German-funded EXTRA, which reported these events, claimed that Schütz was responding to a request from the American occupation authorities.) The president then declared his willingness to invite Davis, but only after the charges against her had been resolved. Jacob and Margherita protested that the purpose of the invitation had been to demonstrate solidarity with Davis precisely because she was being unjustly prosecuted. In a letter he dashed off to Kreibich, Jacob called into question the president’s moral integrity, and likened Kreibich’s decision to approve Davis’s appointment only after her acquittal to a university president during the Nazi era deciding that an invitation to a persecuted academic would be extended only after the prisoner was freed from a concentration camp. Kreibich was dismayed by the comparison and by the aspersions on his moral integrity: he demanded an apology from Jacob, without which, he added, there was no possibility of further cooperation between them. Taubes stood his ground. Queried at a press conference about the invitation to Davis, Kreibich claimed that he had not approved it. Taubes claimed that Kreibich had approved it orally; Kreibich, that he had merely agreed to discuss it. In the end, a formal invitation to Davis was extended, signed by the relevant officer of the university, Vice-President Uwe Wesel, and sent to her care of Herbert Marcuse.

It was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory for Taubes, damaging his relationship with President Kreibich and exposing the university to terrible publicity in the eyes of the mayor. Shortly thereafter, Taubes was criticized by the Fachbereichsrat for his “frequent sensationalist actions,” and he resigned as acting chair.

Support and Ambivalence: Taubes and Lefèvre

As the student left moved toward ever-greater ideological radicalism, Taubes moved along with it, at least for a time. During the height of the rebellion, the leaflets of the radical student groups were reproduced using the mimeograph machines in the basement of Taubes’s Institute for Hermeneutics. He facilitated the long march through the institutions at the FU—until he reached the point where he rued the very transformations he had helped to bring about.

His support along with his ambivalence was exemplified in Taubes’s relationship to Wolfgang Lefèvre, who was among the most prominent figures in the political life of the FU. Lefèvre played an outsize role on the public stage, and Taubes’s support for him helped to shine the spotlight on Taubes himself.

In the early 1960s, Lefèvre was a student activist at the FU and a member of the left-wing student association at a time when its membership was still tiny. But the fact that the participation rate in student council (AStA) elections was below 50 percent made it possible for an ideologically motivated minority to exert disproportionate influence, and in 1965, he was elected as head of the student council. Lefèvre was voted out of office later that year, after he signed a petition for peace in Vietnam that originated from a communist group. Lefèvre was not simply an activist, but a theorist and tactician. As a contributor to the SDS periodical neue kritik, he laid out a strategy of escalation, of making demands that could be realized, or rejected by the establishment only by causing an uproar, then going on to the next demand. Demonstrations, he stressed, must be fun.

Lefèvre’s politics continued to drift leftward. In the summer of 1968, he attended an international camp in Cuba to school activists in revolutionary methods—an event reported on the front page of Die Welt, the flagship newspaper of the conservative Springer newspaper conglomerate. The next year, he led a group of students who stormed a meeting of the philosophical faculty, which led him to be charged with rioting, disturbing the peace, and criminal trespass.

In keeping with his strategy of trying to integrate the young radicals into the culture of the academy, Taubes worked to get Lefèvre a stipend to pursue doctoral research. By the spring of 1970, Lefèvre had completed his dissertation, “On the Historical Character and Historical Function of the Methods of Bourgeois Sociology—A Study of the Work of Max Weber.” After reading a draft, Taubes was sufficiently dissatisfied to suggest to Lefèvre that he undertake a fundamental revision of the work. Lefèvre did not follow his advice. By this time, one department after another at the FU was having its classes disrupted and its faculty members threatened by the Red Cells. It was becoming common for radical scholars to be awarded doctorates and even habilitation on the basis of highly ideological works. During that semester, three positions for tenured assistants (Assistentenstelle) of philosophy became available in the recently constituted Fachbereich 11. As per the new university law, the appointments were to be made by a selection committee (Auswahlkommission), comprised on the basis of triple parity of senior professors, junior staff, and students. The committee’s list of its three top choices was then to be forwarded to the Wissenschaftssenator, who had the ultimate decision in such matters. The selection committee drew up its list of the three most qualified candidates. But the Red Cells drew up their counterlist, which included Lefèvre, and threatened a campaign of disruption if the committee did not comply.

At its meeting in June 1970, the selection committee decided to place Lefèvre at the top of its list, together with two other young Marxists drawn from the junior faculty, despite what many saw as Lefèvre’s inferior qualifications for the post. That led to an outcry from a number of professors and junior staff. Heinrich Kleiner, the representative of the junior staff (Vertreter der Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) on the committee, sent a letter of protest to the Fachbereichsrat, in which he chastised the representatives of the faculty for voting in favor of Lefèvre despite their negative judgment of his scholarly quality. That, Kleiner thought, could only be explained by their fear that a decision against Lefèvre would have unpleasant consequences in terms of university politics. Several of the full professors—including Michael Landmann and Wilhelm Weischedel—also protested, contending that three of the four representatives of the professors on the appointment commission had voted in favor of Lefèvre despite their own best judgment. On November 26, Taubes, in his then capacity as acting chair of the Fachbereich, sent them a hectographed letter (which has not survived) rejecting their letter of protest. Landmann responded four days later, recalling a conversation over the summer in which Taubes had told him that the university ought to reward Lefèvre’s activity in the student movement with an assistant position. Landmann thought that Taubes was influenced by the agitation of the Red Cells, with whom he didn’t want to come into conflict.

Taubes’s formal evaluation of Lefèvre’s dissertation stretched for nineteen pages: that is to say, it was the longest of his compositions that year. It was a remarkable document, ambivalent and ambiguous, critical yet conciliatory, or perhaps cowardly. The evaluation raised doubts about the validity of Lefèvre’s method, noted that the chain of argument was often unclear, complained of the work’s polemical character, its interpretive distortions, and the extent to which its (Marxist) method governed its use of sources, which at one point Taubes deemed “catastrophic.” And yet, after eighteen pages of critique, Taubes ultimately praised the work as “imposing and worthy of consideration” and meriting an accolade of “cum laude.” He claimed that “the intellectual energy that has gone into its structure and execution” exceeded that of most dissertations.

Like some other professors at the FU alarmed at the transformation of the university, the opponents of Lefèvre’s appointment turned to the local press to air their discontent. On December 29, Die Welt ran an article about the affair, headlined “Assistant Post as Reward for Agitation,” which quoted from Landmann’s letter to Taubes, whom the article characterized as “the professor and Red-Cell-Sympathizer Jacob Taubes.”

From there, the story went national, when the liberal weekly magazine Der Spiegel published its own article on the controversy. It described the protagonists as “the liberal-conservative philosopher Michael Landmann, 57,” “the leftist sociologist of religion and hermeneuticist, Jacob Taubes, 47,” and “Wolfgang Lefèvre, erstwhile SDS ideologist and student leader in West Berlin, now an associate of the ‘Party-Initiative for a Proletarian Left.’” Taubes was quoted as saying that the left at the FU was being subjected to McCarthyism by the right. On the contrary, Landmann responded, Marxism was “penetrating through every pore,” leaving its “bourgeois” opponents with barely room to breathe. Der Spiegel noted that Taubes had approved of Lefèvre’s dissertation despite his expressed doubts. “The ‘Star-Philosopher’ (as the ultra-left ‘Red Cell Philosophy’ calls Taubes) insists that Lefèvre’s doctoral work should be judged not only according to scholarly criteria. According to Taubes, the dissertation represents ‘an attempt to give voice to the intentions of the student protest movement, which often expresses itself in inarticulate actions. A failure of the university to reward such an attempt would mean a negation of a piece of its history.’” The other four referees (Gutachtern) saw the thesis as characterized by “vulgar dogmatism” and requested a new committee, not comprised of Lefèvre’s supporters—a move that Taubes pledged to fight with all the legal means at his disposal.

After three hours of discussion, the Fachbereichsrat accepted Lefèvre’s dissertation. Shortly thereafter, the issue of Taubes’s behavior was raised once again in the Berlin senate by a representative from the Christian Democrats.

The Lefèvre dispute dragged on for years. In early 1979, when Lefèvre defended his habilitation, Taubes reported to a colleague that Lefèvre, now firmly established as a faculty member, showed himself to be a “primitiver DDR-nick,” that is, a loyal follower of the East German Communist party line.

But by then much had changed—including Jacob Taubes. As Fachbereich 11 attained a well-deserved reputation for ideological radicalism, it became harder and harder to attract distinguished scholars to its ranks. Invitations were extended to a number of leading philosophers to move to the FU, including Taubes’s friends Jürgen Habermas and Dieter Henrich. In July of 1970, Taubes sought to attract Habermas to head a new institute. Habermas, along with his wife, visited the FU, met with Lefèvre and Haug among others, and came away thinking that the scene at the FU was crazy (verrückt): Lefèvre and Haug told Habermas of their hopes that an attack by the New Left on the American armed forces in West Berlin might lead the Soviets to move in, unfreezing the Cold War. The next year, Dieter Henrich turned down a job offer as well.

Many professors around Taubes found the struggles within FB11 to be exhausting. But not Taubes. He thrived on conflict. He enjoyed not only a good fight, but a bad one.

Co-optation or Confrontation: Taubes vs. Habermas

In August 1969, Taubes journeyed to Frankfurt for the funeral of Theodor Adorno, who had passed away at the age of sixty-five after a series of traumatic confrontations with the student left. Among those in attendance were three senior figures who had influenced Taubes—Ernst Bloch, Max Horkheimer, Gershom Scholem—as well as Jürgen Habermas.

Through much of this tumultuous era, Taubes was in frequent contact with Habermas, who occupied a central but ambiguous role in the political battles of the period. In his books, Technique and Science as Ideology (1968), Protest Movement and University Reform (1969), and Theory and Practice (four editions, from 1963 to 1971), Habermas strove to both update the critique of technological forms of rationality formulated by Horkheimer and Adorno, and to direct and articulate the concerns of the New Left in philosophical and social scientific terms. In Legitimation Problems of Late Capitalism (1973), he embraced the term “late capitalism,” with its suggestion that capitalism was on its last legs, and (as his critic, Hermann Lübbe noted) thereby helped contribute to its delegitimation. Horkheimer and Adorno had engaged in critique without providing a model of what a better society would look like. Habermas tried to do so in Toward a Reconstruction of Historical Materialism (1976), drawing on linguistics and on American pragmatism to formulate a normative criterion of “communicative competence”—essentially, a society, economy, and polity in which all would have an equal ability to participate, and in which claims would be justified based on totally unprejudiced discussion, free from inequalities of power.

At the same time, Habermas emerged as a trenchant and public critic of some of the tactics of the student left. At an SDS conference in Hanover that followed the murder of Ohnesorg in June 1967, Habermas criticized Rudi Dutschke’s call for the formation of “action centers” throughout the country to engage in concerted actions. The New Left strategy of using violence to bring out the latent violence in existing institutions (that is the willingness and ability of such institutions to defend themselves) Habermas thought both impractical and dangerous. In 1968, he was skeptical of the “democratization” of the university in the form of triple parity (Drittelparität) when it came to matters of scholarship and appointments.

The most direct target of Habermas’s criticism was Hans-Jürgen Krahl, the counterpart in the Frankfurt SDS of Rudi Dutschke in Berlin. Like Dutschke, Krahl was a talented agitator and organizer, as well as a theoretician. Krahl had been a doctoral student under Adorno and had served as his teaching assistant.

Krahl and Dutschke had together developed a strained analysis of the economics and politics of the Federal Republic, according to which the forces of capital were increasingly intertwined with the state apparatus, and as the economy entered a period of crisis, the state would become ever more authoritarian. They interpreted the Notstandsgesetz—the law proposed by the coalition government in 1967 that provided the government with extraordinary powers in case of an emergency—in this light. The law was vociferously opposed by the SDS and its successor organization, the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (Ausser-Parliamentarische Opposition or APO). Krahl and Dutschke interpreted the law as evidence of their thesis, and organized a march calling for “resistance” (Widerstand) against the “authoritarian state.” The assumption of Dutschke and Krahl was that because it was capitalist, West Germany was prone to another round of fascism (it was characteristic of the German New Left in this period that it elided the distinction between fascism and Nazism). Thus the SDS and the APO were to engage in Widerstand—the resistance to fascism that had failed to occur during the 1930s. It was this purported parallel between the 1930s and the 1960s that led Dutschke and Krahl to draw upon Max Horkheimer’s work of the 1930s analyzing the Nazi regime.

Krahl argued that the scientific and technical intelligentsia—and the university students who aspired to that status—were most sensitive to the psychological immiseration brought about by contemporary capitalism. Hence they had to assume the role of the “collective theoreticians of the proletariat,” liberating the working class from false consciousness and convincing it that its real interests lay in overthrowing capitalism. (In short, he linked Marcuse’s analysis to Lukács’s argument in History and Class Consciousness.) Together with Dutschke, Krahl contended that since the consciousness of the masses was manipulated, parliamentary politics was no longer an effective form of radical transformation. Instead, the APO should transform itself into a decentralized movement of “urban guerrillas”—a concept that would soon serve as the theoretical justification for left-wing terrorism in the 1970s.

Habermas offered a series of withering critiques of the preferred tactics of Dutschke and Krahl—attention-grabbing actions intended to expose the latent violence of the state and raise revolutionary consciousness. He thought their analysis of contemporary circumstances far-fetched, and their emphasis on action tantamount to “left-wing fascism” (linken Faschismus)—a term he used in June 1967, and then again in June 1968, when he published “The Pseudo-Revolution and Its Children.”

The confrontation between Habermas and Krahl came to a head in January 1969, when the SDS faction headed by Krahl at the University of Frankfurt occupied the Institute for Social Research. Afraid the students would lay waste to the institute and its library, Adorno and Habermas called the police and had the demonstrators forcibly removed. The demonstrators, for their part, characterized Adorno and Habermas as “the bailiffs of the authoritarian state.” His lecture disrupted by students, Adorno retreated to Switzerland, where he died that summer. In an elegy for Adorno published in Die Zeit, Habermas chastised “one of Adorno’s students.” The unnamed student had criticized Adorno for continuing to adhere in his life to the very standards of bourgeois individuality that he had criticized in his work, rather than leaving bourgeois conventions behind and supporting the actions of the students. At the end of 1971, after years of disruptions of his seminars and lectures, Habermas left the university altogether, taking up the post of co-director of a new research institute in Starnberg.

Taubes regarded Habermas’s open critique of Krahl and company as a tragedy and a strategic error. He dispatched some unsolicited advice to Habermas, counseling him not to give up on Krahl, and to continue discussions. The tension between Habermas and Krahl ended only with the latter’s death in an automobile accident, on February 14, 1970. Thereafter, Taubes advised Habermas to be similarly conciliatory to Oskar Negt, an SDS activist and Habermas’s erstwhile assistant, who had attacked Habermas for his accusation of “left-wing fascism,” an accusation that Negt characterized as evidence of “the disintegration of liberal-bourgeois consciousness.”

The fact that Taubes showered Habermas with advice did not mean that Habermas paid it heed. But the contrast in their approach to Lefèvre and to Krahl—encouragement and appeasement in the case of Taubes and Lefèvre; confrontation in the case of Habermas and Krahl—demonstrates the difference in their strategies toward the New Left, and Taubes’s greater tolerance for radicalism. For his part, Habermas thought Taubes unreliable. Taubes would continue to hold Habermas’s critique of Krahl and of “left-wing fascism” against him.

The Terrorist Connection

Among the aspiring young intellectuals attracted to Taubes was Bernward Vesper. The son of a Nazi poet, Vesper had turned himself into a minor publisher of leftist literature, together with his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, the daughter of a Protestant pastor. In 1964, they moved to the FU, where Vesper chose to work with Taubes on a doctoral dissertation. Taubes got to know Ensslin as well. In 1966, Vesper launched a series of pamphlets and booklets, the “Voltaire Pamphlets,” written by spokesmen of the German student left as well as international figures such as Stokely Carmichael. Taubes attended the launch in Berlin, together with Brentano. In a booklet of photos and documents published the next year, Demonstrations: A Berlin Model, Vesper reprinted Taubes’s open letter to the mayor of Berlin protesting police brutality—requesting Taubes’s permission only after the fact. He later approached Taubes and Brentano about writing a critique of the term “left-wing fascism” (linker Faschismus), intended to demonstrate the incoherence of that epithet.

By then, Ensslin had left Vesper for her new love, Andreas Baader, a shadowy figure who popped up at the Republikaner Club, meetings of the SDS, and teach-ins at the FU. Together, they undertook to put into practice the suggestion of the Kommune 1 pamphlet that setting fire to a department store would be an effective form of radical protest. Their first attempt at arson, in a Frankfurt department store, failed, and Ennslin and Baader were arrested and put on trial—a trial at which Vesper condemned the German justice system. He then published a defense of Baader and Ennslin. On a trip to Rome to visit Rudi Dutschke, Vesper struck up a friendship with Ulrike Meinhof. She was a radical left-wing journalist who had been involved in the anti-atomic-bomb campaign, had taught courses at the FU, and had apparently studied with Brentano. (Brentano later mentioned this with pride.) Taubes knew her as well. Together with Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin would found the Red Army Faction, a formidable terrorist organization that haunted West German politics in the decade to come. Their lawyer was Horst Mahler, who had called upon Taubes’s expertise in his defense of the Kommune 1. When Palestinian terrorists murdered Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics in September 1972, Meinhof and Mahler hailed “the brave commando action and self-sacrifice of the members of Black September against the Israeli Olympic team.”

Vesper took his own life in May 1971. But the shadow of these associations would later fall upon Taubes and Brentano. For several years, plainclothes policemen were stationed outside their home, on the lookout for possible terrorists. At one point they broke in and conducted a surreptitious search of their papers.

Excerpted from “Professor of Apocalypse” by Jerry Muller. Copyright © 2022 by Princeton University Press

Jerry Z. Muller is professor emeritus of history at the Catholic University of America