Jacobin published an article just over a week ago entitled “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia,” written by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss. “Alt-right conspiracy theorists have embraced postmodern philosophy,” the authors observe, and recommend that “the Left should return to the Enlightenment to oppose their irrational and hateful politics.” While the argument in the body of the text is a bit more nuanced, referring to the universalistic egalitarian “roots of Enlightenment rationality,” the two-sentence condensation above the byline at least has the virtue of bluntness. The rest of the piece is fairly mediocre, as per usual, a rather unobjectionable point delivered in a flat popular style. Fluss and Frim strike me as lying somewhere between Domenico Losurdo and Zerstörung der Vernunft-vintage Georg Lukács, minus the Stalinoid politics. But the general thrust of their article is sound, drawing attention to another, more original current of thought that arises from the same source as the irrationalist ideologies which oppose it — i.e., from capitalist modernity. Plus it includes some amusing tidbits about this Jason Reza Jorjani character they went to school with, whose ideas elicit a certain morbid fascination in me. Gossip is always fun.
Is it possible to “return to the Enlightenment,” however? Some say the past is never dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if bygone modes of thought survive into the present, embedded in its unconscious or enshrined in prominent constitutions and legal codes, this hardly means that the social conditions which brought them into existence still obtain. One may insist on untimely meditations that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, challenging its thought-taboos and received wisdom, but no one ever entirely escapes it. So it is with the Enlightenment, which now must seem a distant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nineteenth century was seen by many of his contemporaries as a composite of thinkers issuing from the Aufklärung. Moses Hess wrote enthusiastically to Berthold Auerbach about the young revolutionary from Trier: “You will meet in him the greatest — perhaps the only genuine — philosopher of our generation, who’ll give scholasticism and medieval theology their coup de grâce; he combines the deepest intellectual seriousness with the most biting wit. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine, and Hegel fused into one person (I say fused, not juxtaposed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the ancients, he was also a great admirer of modern poets and playwrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Diderot was Marx’s favorite political writer.
Certainly, Marx and his followers were heirs to the Enlightenment project of emancipation. Louis Menand has stressed the qualitative breakthrough he achieved, however, along with Engels and subsequent Marxists. According to Menand, “Marx and Engels were philosophes of a second Enlightenment.” What was it they discovered? Nothing less than History, in the emphatic sense:
In premodern societies, the ends of life are given at the beginning of life: people do things in their generation so that the same things will continue to be done in the next generation. Meaning is immanent in all the ordinary customs and practices of existence, since these are inherited from the past, and are therefore worth reproducing. The idea is to make the world go not forward, only around. In modern societies, the ends of life are not given at the beginning of life; they are thought to be created or discovered. The reproduction of the customs and practices of the group is no longer the chief purpose of existence; the idea is not to repeat, but to change, to move the world forward. Meaning is no longer immanent in the practices of ordinary life, since those practices are understood by everyone to be contingent and timebound. This is why death in modern societies is the great taboo, an absurdity, the worst thing one can imagine. For at the close of life people cannot look back and know that they have accomplished the task set for them at birth. This knowledge always lies up ahead, somewhere over history’s horizon. Modern societies don’t know what will count as valuable in the conduct of life in the long run, because they have no way of knowing what conduct the long run will find itself in a position to respect. The only certain knowledge death comes with is the knowledge that the values of one’s own time, the values one has tried to live by, are expungeable. Marxism gave a meaning to modernity. It said that, wittingly or not, the individual performs a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a trajectory, and that modernity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. Historical change is not arbitrary. It is generated by class conflict; it is faithful to an inner logic; it points toward an end, which is the establishment of the classless society.
Edmund Wilson likewise saw this drama in narrative terms. That is to say, he understood it as having a beginning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an account of this dramatic sequence in his 1940 masterpiece To the Finland Station, for which Menand wrote the above passage as a preface. It began in Paris in the last decade of the eighteenth century. (Perhaps a long prologue could also be included, involving murky subterranean forces that took shape under feudalism only to open up fissures that swallowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis personae take the stage. Loren Goldner explains that “it was not in France but rather in Germany over the next several decades that philosophers, above all Hegel, would theorize the actions of the Parisian masses into a new politics which went beyond the Enlightenment and laid the foundations for the communist movement later articulated by Marx… This realization of the Enlightenment, as the revolution ebbed, was at the same time the end of the Enlightenment. It could only be salvaged by figures such as Hegel and Marx.” Buried beneath reaction, the luminous dream of bourgeois society would have to endure the nightmare of industrialization before arriving with Lenin in Petrograd. Among Lenin’s first executive acts after the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 was to organize a Commissariat of Enlightenment [Комиссариат просвещения], where his sister Maria would work under his longtime friend and comrade Anatoly Lunacharsky.
Setbacks would occur along the way. Marx made clear that his vision of history was not some ineluctable linear path toward progress, as envisioned by Enlightened revolutionaries such as Condorcet: “Bourgeois revolutions such as those of the eighteenth century storm swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, but their results are short-lived… On the other hand, proletarian revolutions of the those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves, interrupting themselves in their own course, returning to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew. They deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible and conditions themselves call out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta!” Rosa Luxemburg quoted these lines some sixty years later, adding: “The modern proletariat comes out of historical tests differently [than the bourgeoisie]. Its tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow. Historical experience is its only schoolmistress, its thorny way to self-emancipation paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors… Its emancipation depends on whether the it can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement.”
Toward the end of his life, in 1965, Isaac Deutscher professed his continued belief in “the Marxian Weltanschauung.” He asked: “Is [ours] an age of the ascendancy of Marxism or its decline?” Despite everything, the great biographer of Trotsky maintained that “Marxism is not an intellectual, aesthetic, or philosophical fashion, no matter what the fashion-mongers imagine. After having been infatuated with it for a season or two, some might declare it to be obsolete. Marxism is a way of thinking, however, a generalization growing out of an immense historical development. So long as this historic phase in which we live has not been left far behind us, the doctrine may prove to be mistaken on points of detail or secondary points. But in its essence nothing has deprived it of its relevance, validity, and vital importance for the future.” Nevertheless, Deutscher could sense the decay all around him, the degeneration and vulgarization of Marxist thought. Victory no longer seemed assured. Conditions were by then overripe; the propitious moment had passed. It was precisely the collapse of Marxism’s “grand metanarrative” during the 1970s that led an ex-Marxist like Lyotard to herald the onset of the postmodern age: “Grand narratives have lost their credibility, regardless of whether it is a speculative [Hegelian] narrative or a [Marxist] narrative of emancipation… We no longer have recourse to the grand narratives. Neither the dialectic of Spirit nor even the emancipation of humanity can serve as validation for postmodern discourse.”
Fluss and Frim seek to beat back this scourge by appealing to the ghost of Enlightenment, or else by conjuring up its ideal premises. Asad Haider’s response in Viewpoint keys in on this central weakness in their exposition, all the more glaring in the work of the historian Jonathan Israel (whose influence on Fluss and Frim is obvious, if unacknowledged). In their arguments, the “Enlightenment principles of universal reason and equality” they champion seem to flow from the minds of philosophers rather than the social and historic conditions that surrounded them. Haider repeatedly criticizes the manner in which Israel, Fluss, and Frim assign causal efficacy to ideas, quipping that “for liberal and even socialist intellectuals today with a high opinion of their own ideas, idealist history serves as a soothing mantra.” Still, the apparent “paradox of an idealist history of materialism,” a phrase Haider borrows from Antoine Lilti, is anything but. Perhaps the most renowned Geschichte des Materialismus was the one compiled by Friedrich Albert Lange in 1866, in just such an idealist (specifically neo-Kantian) vein. Lange’s account of materialism may be symptomatic of the tendency to discount the philosophical content of Marxism, but there’s nothing paradoxical about it. There are plenty of elisions in Fluss and Frim’s piece that could be easily uncovered: for example, the naïve contrast they set up between Counterenlightenment figures like Jacobi and Hamann on the one hand — both of them “found something suspiciously Jewish about European rationalism” — and Hegel on the other. Jacobi and Hegel engaged in bitter polemics back in 1802, but were reconciled after the latter favorably reviewed volume three of the former’s collected works in 1816 (around the time Hegel appreciatively revisited the works of Hamann in several articles). None of these examples are raised by Haider, though to be fair he has Other fish to fry.
Disappointingly, moreover, Haider is otherwise content to rehash the postmodernist interlude of the last thirty or so odd years (as well as the “materialist” impulse to salvage it, for some unknown reason). Michel Foucault’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” is trotted out as somehow sufficient to resolve the whole debate, along with preemptive sideswipes against anyone who would question his anticapitalist credentials or compatibility with Marxism. I’m not sure why Heider thinks the fact Foucault was “a fellow traveler of seventies French Maoism” in any way recommends him. All the same, Haider’s point about the historical idealism of Israel, Fluss, and Frim stands. Even Ideologiekritik ought to be grounded in something more solid than Foucauldean discourse analysis or Derridean textual marginalia. What, then, is the material basis of Enlightenment? Or postmodernism, for that matter? For Marx, the emergence of this new legal and political superstructure corresponded to an historic shift in the social and economic base. Universal egalitarianism didn’t just express the class interests of the ascendant bourgeoisie, though it did this as well; it was also an ideal reflection of the real abstract equivalence of the commodity-form. Yet this fact remained obscure to the Aufklärers, who unwittingly assimilated the objectivity of exchange to the arbitrariness of archaic institutions. “This was the kind of explanation favored by the eighteenth century,” Marx explains in Capital. “In this way the Enlightenment endeavored, at least temporarily, to remove the appearance of strangeness from the mysterious shapes assumed by human relations whose origins they were unable to decipher.”
And what of postmodernism? Certainly there has been no shortage of Marxist studies devoted to an examination of its material basis. Perry Anderson traced its theorization through the literary essays of Ihan Hassab, the architectural treatises of Charles Jencks, and the epistemological reports of Jean-François Lyotard before triangulating its origin in the decline persistent holdovers of the ancien régime (especially the beaux-arts tradition within the academy), technological innovations (especially television), and political changes (especially the dissolution of communism). David Harvey connected the condition of postmodernity with the neoliberal economics of “flexible accumulation,” while Fredric Jameson diagnosed postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” More sharply, Terry Eagleton dissipated its various “illusions” — its ambivalences, fallacies, and contradictions — while Alex Callinicos denounced it tout court. Goldner launched his own blistering polemic against postmodernism and deconstruction back when both had considerably greater academic pull. He pinpointed Heidegger’s support for Nazism and Foucault’s support for Khomeinism as deriving from their attempt to recast historical non-identity as ontological difference. But it is the critical theorist Moishe Postone who offers the most profound insight into postmodernism’s ideological assertion of agency against the reality of structural domination. “The contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism,” Postone points out, “and instead serves to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.”
“Returning” to the Enlightenment may be a fool’s errand. Luckily, one does not have to adopt some false posture in order to defend its legacy. Crucial to its defense, however, is the the recognition that human activity can itself be conceived as objective, as Marx put it in his Theses on Feuerbach. This is the specific difference, by the way, which separates classical European Enlightenment thought from the “second Enlightenment” mentioned by Menand. Goldner explains that “for the Enlightenment, an object was merely a thing; for Hegel and above all for Marx, an object is a relationship, mediated by a thing.” Fluss and Frim are doubtless right that the Enlightenment is presently under attack by a host of both antimodernist and postmodernist ideologues, some even purporting to be from the Left (like the “unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect, who’s relinquished his previous support for Sokal in order to better crusade against the dastardly Vivek Chibber). A brilliant rebuttal to Proyect’s tendentious quotation of Kant’s anthropology, as well as the still more banal survey of Diderot, Voltaire, Holbach, Kant, and Hegel conducted over at Suburban Idiocies, is once again presented by Goldner: “Polling Enlightenment figures for their views on slavery and race is… is an extremely limited approach to the question, susceptible to the worst kind of anachronism. What was remarkable about the Enlightenment, in a world context, was not that some of its distinguished figures supported slavery and white supremacy but that significant numbers of them opposed both. Slavery as an institution flourished in the colorblind sixteenth-century Mediterranean slave pool. None of the participating societies, Christian or Muslim, European, Turkish, Arab or African, ever questioned it.”
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were also keenly aware of this “dialectic of enlightenment,” as they called it. “Reason itself has become merely an aid to the all-encompassing economic apparatus,” they wrote in their book of the same title, in 1944. Just a few years earlier Trotsky inveighed against Werner Sombart that, far from becoming more temperate or reasonable, “aging capitalism… is losing its last vestiges of reason.” In a society where consummately rational means are used to pursue ultimately irrational ends, Aufklärung is susceptible to inversion, transforming into its opposite. Fluss and Frim deride Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment for having “retained a tension between the Enlightenment ideas of emancipation, on the one hand, and the Nietzschean critique of reason, on the other” (a virtual paraphrase of Habermas’ critique in Philosophical Discourse of Modernity of “Horkheimer and Adorno’s ambiguous attempt to rescue enlightenment in a way that would satisfy Nietzsche’s radical critique of reason”). But it is within this very aporia that they locate the germ of modern antisemitism:
By assuming the unity of humanity to have been already realized in principle, the liberal thesis serves as an apology for the existing order. The attempt to avert the direst threat by minority policies and other democratic measures is ambiguous as is the defensive strategy of the last liberal citizens. Their powerlessness attracts the enemy of powerlessness. The mode of life and appearance of the Jews compromise the existing universal by deficient adaptation. Their inflexible adherence to their own order of life has placed them in an insecure relationship to the prevailing one. They expected to be sustained by that order without subscribing to it. Their relationship to the dominant nations was one of greed and fear. Yet whenever they sacrificed their difference to the prevailing mode, the successfully adapted Jews took on in exchange the cold, stoical character which existing society imposes on human beings. The dialectical intertwinement of enlightenment and power, the dual relationship of progress to both cruelty and liberation, which has been brought home to the Jews no less by the great exponents of enlightenment than by democratic popular movements, manifests itself in the makeup of the assimilated Jews themselves. The enlightened self-control with which adapted Jews effaced within themselves the painful scars of domination by others, a kind of second circumcision, made them forsake their own dilapidated community and wholeheartedly embrace the life of the modern bourgeoisie, which was already advancing ineluctably toward a reversion to pure oppression and reorganization into an exclusively racial entity. Race is not, as the racial nationalists claim, an immediate, natural peculiarity. Rather, it is a regression to nature as mere violence, to the hidebound particularism which, in the existing order, constitutes precisely the universal. Race today is the self-assertion of the bourgeois individual, integrated into the barbaric collective. The harmonious society to which the liberal Jews declared their allegiance has finally been granted to them in the form of the national community. They believed that only antisemitism disfigured this order, which in reality cannot exist without disfiguring human beings.
Goldner comes close to this formulation when he explores the “conundrum” posed by the figure of race and Enlightenment. “The Enlightenment was, as such, neither racist nor an ideology of relevance only to ‘white European males’,” he writes. “Nevertheless, it presents the following conundrum: On one hand, Western Enlightenment in its broad mainstream was indisputably universalist and egalitarian, and therefore created powerful weapons for the attack on any doctrine of racial supremacy; on the other hand, the Enlightenment just as indisputably gave birth to the very concept of race. Some of its illustrious representatives believed that whites were superior to all others, a problem that cannot be solved by lining up Enlightenment figures according to their views on slavery and white supremacy. Adam Smith, better known as the theoretician of the free market and apologist for the capitalist division of labor, attacked both, whereas Hobbes and Locke justified slavery, while such eminences as Thomas Jefferson, who favored abolition (however tepidly) and defended the French Revolution even in its Jacobin phase, firmly believed that blacks were biologically inferior to whites.”
Elsewhere, he explains that “the Western invention of the idea of race in the seventeenth century, at the beginning of the Enlightenment, was not merely a degradation of the peoples of color to whom it was applied. Such a degradation had to be preceded, and accompanied, by a comparable degradation of the view of man within Western culture itself. A society that sees the racial ‘Other’ in terms of animality must first experience that animality within itself.” I would maybe quibble with his claim that racialization was a uniquely Western phenomenon. There’s a book out in French by Tidiane N’Diaye provocatively titled The Veiled Genocide [Le génocide voilé]. He chronicles the “Arab-Muslim slave trade” [la traite négrière arabo-musulmane], which lasted roughly twelve centuries and perhaps represented the first racialized system of slavery (i.e., with black Africans congenitally treated as chattel). What this shows, importantly in my view, is that racism is not the deliberate invention of some “white devil,” but rather a dynamic tied to a social relationship unfolding historically in the process of primitive accumulation. Also, I’ve been assured by some who know Goldner personally that he’s since revised his low opinion of the Frankfurt School, so that’s good.