Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

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.

5 thoughts on “Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

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