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 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.

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Race and the Enlightenment

I wrote a preamble to this piece relating it to a recent debate over postmodernism and Enlightenment. Since it got a bit overlong, I decided to repost as a standalone entry. But you can still read Goldner’s excellent essay on “Race and the Enlightenment” below.

Race and the Enlightenment

Loren Goldner
Race Traitor
August 1997

Part one
Pre-En­light­en­ment phase: Spain, Jews, and In­di­ans1

It is not of­ten re­cog­nized that, pri­or to the sev­en­teenth and eight­eenth cen­tur­ies, the peri­od which West­ern his­tory calls the En­light­en­ment, the concept of race did not ex­ist.

It is still less of­ten re­cog­nized that the ori­gin of the concept of race, in the last quarter of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, in very spe­cif­ic so­cial cir­cum­stances, was pre­ceded by cen­tur­ies of a very dif­fer­ent vis­ion of Afric­ans2 and New World In­di­ans, which had to be erad­ic­ated be­fore the concept of race could be in­ven­ted, ex­press­ing a new so­cial prac­tice in new so­cial re­la­tions.

In the cur­rent cli­mate, in which the En­light­en­ment is un­der at­tack from many spe­cious view­points, it is im­port­ant to make it clear from the out­set that the thes­is of this art­icle is em­phat­ic­ally not that the En­light­en­ment was “ra­cist,” still less that it has valid­ity only for “white European males.” It is rather that the concept of race was not ac­ci­dent­ally born sim­ul­tan­eously with the En­light­en­ment, and that the En­light­en­ment’s “on­to­logy,” rooted in the new sci­ence of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, cre­ated a vis­ion of hu­man be­ings in nature which in­ad­vert­ently provided weapons to a new race-based ideo­logy which would have been im­possible without the En­light­en­ment. Pri­or to the En­light­en­ment, Europeans gen­er­ally di­vided the known world between Chris­ti­ans, Jews, Muslims, and “hea­thens”;3 be­gin­ning around the 1670s, they began to speak of race, and col­or-coded hier­arch­ies of races.

What was this al­tern­at­ive “epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al grid” through which, pri­or to the 1670s, the West en­countered the “Oth­er”?

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Lenin on the bourgeois revolutions

Contra the “Leninists”

Image: Jacques Louis-David,
The Tennis Court Oath (1793)

Introduction: Against leftist senility

I am posting this here because of the widespread incredulity witnessed recently on the part of self-declared “Marxists” toward the historical legacy of the bourgeois revolutions. This is, I contend, the flipside to the tendency of leftists to claim all manner of backwater populists like
Chavez or Allende — their tendency to disclaim truly revolutionary figures who come out of the bourgeois tradition, Jacobins like Jefferson or Danton and radical Republicans like Lincoln. Since they’ve had so few notable political leaders and organizers in recent decades, leftists have lionized sheepish socialists and reformists of all sorts while denigrating the accomplishments of bourgeois revolutionaries. Engels, addressing a crowd gathered in 1845 to mark the “festival of nations,” commemorated the protagonists of the great bourgeois revolutions, adding that “[i]f that mighty epoch, these iron characters, did not still tower over our mercenary world, then humanity must indeed despair.”

Needless to say, this goes double in a time such as ours. Despite the admirable efforts of historians like Neil Davidson, whose recent book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? takes explicit aim at such blatant revisionism, neo-Stalinist academics like Domenico Losurdo insist that the category of “bourgeois revolution”

is at once too narrow and too broad. As regards the first aspect, it is difficult to subsume under the category of bourgeois revolution the Glorious Revolution and the parliamentary revolt that preceded the upheavals that began in France in 1789, not to mention the struggles against monarchical absolutism, explicitly led by the liberal nobility, which developed in Switzerland and other countries. On the other hand, the category of bourgeois revolution is too broad: it subsumes both the American Revolution that sealed the advent of a racial state and the French Revolution and the San Domingo Revolution, which involved complete emancipation of black slaves. (Liberalism: A Counter-History, pg. 321)

In an interview I conducted with him over a year ago, the Italian theorist expanded on this point with reference to bourgeois revolutions, faulting Marx himself. “I criticize Marx because he treats the bourgeois revolutions one-dimensionally, as an expression of political emancipation,” he told me. “I don’t accept this one-sided definition of political emancipation, because it implied the continuation and worsening of slavery…We have numerous U.S. historians who consider the American Revolution to be, in fact, a counter-revolution. The opinion of Marx in this case is one-sided.” (Losurdo conveniently forgets it was Engels — the “late” Engels of Anti-Dühring, no less, not a piece juvenilia penned by a supposedly “young” Marx — who maintained: “What the American Revolution had begun the French Revolution completed”). Continue reading

Memories of the future

After Krzhizhanovskii

Image: Recent picture of
Dom Narkomfin (2011)


Today it is well known that the future has become a thing of the past.

Gone are the days when humanity dreamt of a different tomorrow. All that remains of that hope is a distant memory. Indeed, most of what is hoped for these days is no more than some slightly modified version of the present, if not simply the return to a status quo ante — i.e., to a present that only recently became deceased. This is the utopia of normality, evinced by the drive to “get everything running back to normal” (back to the prosperity of the Clinton years, etc.). In this heroically banal vision of the world, all the upheaval and instability of the last few years must necessarily appear as just a fluke or bizarre aberration. A minor hiccup, that’s all. Once society gets itself back on track, the argument goes, it’ll be safe to resume the usual routine.

Those for whom the present of just a short time ago already seemed to be charting a disastrous course, however, are compelled to imagine a still more remote past: a past that humanity might someday revisit, after completing its long journey through the wilderness of modernity. Having lost its way some centuries back — around the start of the Industrial Revolution — this would signal an end to the hubristic conceit that society can ever achieve self-mastery. Humanity’s homecoming, in this model, is much like that of the prodigal son’s. Never again will it wander too far afield. From this time forward, it’ll stick to the straight and narrow.

Neither of these temporalities, whether oriented toward the present or the past, is entirely what it seems, however. How so?

For one thing, the present (at least, the present of the last two hundred or so years) is never fully present. It’s always getting ahead of itself, lunging headlong into the future, outstripping every prognosis and expectation. But no sooner has its velocity increased than it finds itself right back where it started. Just as swiftly as the present speeds itself up, it feels the ground beneath it begin to shift: a cyclolinear running in place, as it were. The ceaseless proliferation of the new now presents itself as the eternal return of the same old, same old. Novelty today has become quotidian, if not wholly antique. It should thus hardly come as a shock that Marxian theorists like Moishe Postone have described a peculiar treadmill effect that occurs under capitalism.[1] History of late may be going nowhere,[2] but it’s going nowhere faster.

The idea of a prelapsarian past, of the “good old days” before everything went wrong, proves just as problematic. Not by chance does the imagery used to depict this past recall biblical overtones. Make no mistake of it: this is Eden before the Fall, the paradise of a blinkered naïveté — those carefree days before humanity dared to taste the fruit of knowledge. Trying to locate the precise moment at which things took a turn for the worse is trickier than it looks, however. As suggested earlier, this past stands at a far greater remove from the present than the chain of presents that expired not too long ago.[3] Its reality recedes into the mists of prehistory. Continue reading

A critique of Asad Haider’s and Salar Mohandesi’s article for Jacobin, “Is there a future for socialism?”

Toussaint Louverture

The following is a brief critique of Asad Haider’s and Salar Mohandesi’s co-written article for Jacobin, “Is there a future for socialism?” The authors present a forceful argument, but in the final analysis I must take issue with many of their conclusions — not least of which is the relationship of “socialism” to “communism.”  Though it may seem superfluous, or even slightly disingenuous, to praise the authors I am about to criticize, I will preface my remarks by saying that I greatly enjoy many of the things they’ve published for their own publication, Viewpoint Magazine.  Especially excellent is Ben Lear’s review of Berardi’s After the Future, which appeared recently on their blog.  I thought the exchange on Lenin they hosted a few months back was also clarifying.  Salar’s historical analysis, “On the Black Bloc,” is also excellent.

All these gestures at diplomacy aside, however, I must take issue with the following historical characterization:

The Erfurt synthesis, which made some sense [questionable] in non-revolutionary situations like the one which gave birth to it, quickly proved ineffective when a new cycle of struggle took shape in the decade before the First World War. The party, failing to register this changed situation, stuck to the old line — it misunderstood the growing militancy of the rank and file because its institutional structure had so dangerously exacerbated the distance between an increasingly bureaucratized party apparatus and the everyday lives of workers. A socialist subculture had been the foundation of class solidarity, based on grassroots practices of self-reliance, ranging from cooperative shopping associations (also known as “potato clubs”) to horseplay on the shop floor. But the SPD leadership increasingly tried to measure up to respectable bourgeois standards, with patriarchal families, ‘high culture,’ and patriotism, which immediately set them against the militancy of migrant workers in the Ruhr mines, and the wildcat strikes of female textile workers. “Women don’t want to know about politics and organization,” said one male socialist. “They appreciate a May Day festival, with singing and speeches and dancing…but they don’t appreciate political and trade union meetings.”

Dovetailing on Pham Binh’s quite correct remarks regarding the problem of legality vs. illegality, I would like to reiterate that the problem with the German Social Democrats was not that they had “lost touch” with the party’s working-class membership and constituency. Contrary to widespread belief, there is nothing inherently revolutionary about the working class. Marx’s entire argument regarding the proletariat was that it is the only potentially revolutionary class in modern society. This is because of its status as the only actually “universal” class in modern society (an inversion from of Hegel’s argument about the bureaucracy being the only “universal” class). The proletariat, at a sociological and empirical level, is “universal” insofar as it is both constitutive of and constituted by capital through the wage-relationship. It is unclear to me, however, whether it is all forms of universalism that the authors reject, or only the selective universalism of colonial rule. Universal suffrage is, of course, a form of universalism. Presumably this kind of universalism would meet with their approval.

Of course, when Marx was writing Capital, proletarian labor — defined as participating in the production and circulation of commodities, as well as through sale of its own labor as a commodity — was still mostly unique to the most advanced capitalist countries of the West. Since that time, the relationship of wage-labor has only become further generalized, resulting in nearly global proletarianization, at least at an objective level. That is to say, at the level of individuals’ objective relationship to the means of production.  Perhaps the most important lesson of the twentieth century is that the political tendencies of a given social stratum are by no means guaranteed.  Haider and Mohandesi gesture at this in their rejection of inevitabilism, but this does not itself go beyond the inevitabilism they ascribe to the Bernsteinians and Kautskyites.  For whether or not a person is objectively (i.e., sociologically) a member of the working class, it cannot be assumed that subjectively (i.e., politically) the person has attained proletarian class-consciousness. “The proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing,” Marx wrote in 1871. His statement should be read as follows: until the proletariat is revolutionary, it remains nothing.  It just remains unrealized potential.

Moreover, the various practices of working-class self-organization (“grassroots practices of self-reliance, ranging from cooperative shopping associations…to horseplay on the shop floor”) were not at all more militant than the party’s actual line. It wasn’t as if the cooperative networks signaled a great radicalism on the workers’ behalf. In fact, one of the greatest advocates of workers’ cooperatives was the archrevisionist Eduard Bernstein, (see his Preconditions of Socialism) while one of their greatest detractors was of the cooperatives was the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (see her classic Reform or Revolution). The idea that the everyday practices operated to radicalize the workers in the factories perhaps have some incidental truth, but in general this kind of assertion (when made categorically) belongs only to the most boring kinds of “history from below,” a dreary form of Alltagsgeschichte. The failure of the SPD was not that it had become too elitist or “bourgeois.” What happened was a flagrant betrayal of what had before been agreed upon and passed as a guiding principle for the world war that everyone saw was on the horizon: namely, the 1907 Lenin-Luxemburg amendment, in which it was agreed that in the event of widespread international conflict, International Social Democracy would come out in firm opposition, and try to exploit the situation to foment world revolution.

Likewise, in decade or so after World War I, there was a general rightward lurch within the German proletariat. This is difficult to explain if one maintains that the working class or the “oppressed” in general are innately revolutionary. As Wilhelm Reich asked in 1933, while still a Marxist working in Austria as a volunteer psychoanalyst, providing services to working class families,

What produced the mass-psychological soil on which an imperialistic ideology could grow and could be put into practice, in strict contradiction to the peace-loving mentality of a German population uninterested in foreign politics? The “betrayal of the leaders of the Second International” is no satisfactory answer. Why, one must ask, did millions of workers, with a liberal and anti-imperialistic attitude, let themselves be betrayed? Fear of the consequences of refusal to take up arms could be the motive [18] only in a small minority. If one had witnessed the mobilization of 1914, one knew that the working population showed diverse attitudes. There was a conscious rejection on the part of a minority; a peculiar submission to fate or an indolence; and violent enthusiasm not only in the middle classes but also in masses of industrial workers.

Reich insightfully observed that the political orientation of the working class is ambivalent: “The discovery of the fact that the working individual is neither unequivocally reactionary nor unequivocally revolutionary but in a conflict between reactionary and revolutionary tendencies, must of necessity lead to a practical program which opposes the reactionary psychological forces with revolutionary forces.” As he goes on the point out, the erroneous belief that workers are somehow inherently more militant and revolutionary seemed to be materially disproven by the widespread support of the German working class for Nazism.

The authors also issue a harsh indictment of the Enlightenment and of bourgeois revolutions in general:

Those who equate political liberation with the flowering of the bourgeois individual often say that the French Revolution represented the Enlightenment’s point of culmination. What they leave out is that it was also its point of explosion. The slaves of Haiti — who watched their newly enlightened French masters continue to lop off their limbs, bury them to the neck, and burn their families alive — quickly learned that there was little difference between a master who read Rousseau and one who didn’t. The Enlightenment was just slavery under another name. So on August 21, 1791, while the noble revolutionaries in Paris tried to find the most effective way to keep the slaves tied down to the plantations of their most profitable colony, the Haitian slaves forced their own counter-Enlightenment by emancipating themselves through revolution. Inspired by their Caribbean comrades, almost exactly one year later, the same Parisian masses who seized the Bastille and held the king hostage stormed the Tuileries Palace, declared a Republic, and exploded the continuum of history, imposing an entirely new calendar to mark the birth of a new world.

Likewise, I fail to see how you can claim that Enlightenment was just “slavery under a different name,” or your implication that the thought of figures like Rousseau made no difference in the colonial world. Wasn’t Toussaint the same man whose revolutionary spirit was nurtured on the writings of Rousseau, Raynal, and Diderot? CLR James himself wrote that “Toussaint’s failure was the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness” (The Black Jacobins, pg. 288). Wasn’t Robespierre a disciple of Rousseau himself? Furthermore, it is difficult to characterize the Haitian Revolution as anything other than a bourgeois-liberal revolution. There was no attempt to overcome capital as the dominant form of social existence, as the oppressive character of capital had still not yet obviated itself in history. The Haitian Revolution was animated by ideas of liberty and equality, by republican ideals, and fought for the rights of individuals. In other terms, the Haitians fought against the slaveholders and foreign powers that surrounded them in order to establish an autonomous Rechtsstaat, which was still at that time by far the most revolutionary form of governance.  (This despite Toussaint’s occasional overtures toward royalism, a sad blemish on an otherwise consummately revolutionary, and for the most part staunchly republican, career).

This is why we’re pleased to enter into an exchange with Jacobin, whose logo recalls that we live in the world made by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Black Jacobins. The reverberations of their confrontation with the colonialist universalism of the so-called “bourgeois revolutions” would be felt throughout the 19th century — just as, in 1848, the Jacobinism of Blanqui would be challenged by the growth of working-class neighborhood clubs.

Here I think it would be appropriate to invert the authors’ use of scare quotes in the second sentence.  It is telling that today we hear talked of the “so-called” bourgeois revolutions, as if they were neither revolutionary nor bourgeois.  This is something that I elaborate upon in a forthcoming essay on the relation of liberalism to socialism, so I’ll leave this as more of an aside for now.

In the interview that Pam Nogales and I conducted with the Italian Marxist theorist Domenico Losurdo, we touched on the question of Toussaint, Haiti, and bourgeois revolution, if anyone’s interested.