Maxime Rodinson: Marxist, Orientalist, anti-Zionist, anti-Islamist

The French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson, whose Polish parents died in Auschwitz while he was serving in the French Institute in Damascus, was born on May 22, 1915. Some sources say Paris; others say Marseilles. A true iconoclast, he resigned from the French Communist Party in 1958 in the name of anti-authoritarianism. He opposed Zionism as imposing a false nationalism upon all Jews while forcing the displacement of Palestinians from their homeland, though he learned both Hebrew and Arabic. Yet he urged peaceful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and continually urged the Palestine Liberation Organization to renounce violence, terrorism, and their hope of a military victory over Israel. Rodinson was the first commentator to call Israel “a settler-colonial state,” and also coined the phrase “Islamic fascism” [le fascisme islamique] to describe the Iranian Revolution in 1979, taking Foucault to task for his uncritical enthusiasm and support of Khomeini. In 1961 he wrote Muhammad, a biography of the prophet of Islam that is still banned in parts of the Muslim world.

On political Islam’s potential duration, Rodinson wrote:

Islamic fundamentalism is a temporary, transitory movement, but it can last another thirty or fifty years — I don’t know how long. Where fundamentalism isn’t in power it will continue to be an ideal, as long as the basic frustration and discontent persist that lead people to take extreme positions. You need long experience with clericalism to finally get fed up with it — look how much time it took in Europe! Islamic fundamentalists will continue to dominate the period for a long time to come.

On Zionism as a form of nationalism, he wrote:

I am well aware that the designation “nationalist” for the Zionist movement often gives rise to protest on the part of Arab intellectuals. I have already come up against it. This is because in the Arab world, for reasons which are evident, the term “nationalism” has acquired a positive connotation, a sacred aureole. For the Arabs, nationalism is by definition a feeling, a passion, a duty, a praiseworthy (even admirable) movement. Zionism, being in their view something which is in its very essence bad, a perverse undertaking, cannot be nationalistic. It is a project of pure banditry, an operation planned by Satanic manipulators which sweeps along the deceived masses or individuals essentially just as evil.

In 1948, he became director of the Muslim section of the National Library in Paris. Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) praised Rodinson for his “extraordinary achievements” as well as his “methodological self-consciousness.” For Said, Rodinson was one of the exceptional few who proved “perfectly capable of freeing themselves from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines. In the endnotes of his book Europe and the Mystique of Islam (first published in French in 1980), he gave his opinion of Said’s Orientalism:

Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978) had a great and unexpected success. There are many valuable ideas in it. Its great merit, to my mind, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, to appeal to them (with questionable success) to consider the sources and the connections of their ideas, to cease to see them as a natural, unprejudiced conclusion of the facts, studied without any presupposition. But, as usual, his militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements. This problem is accentuated because as a specialist of English and comparative literature, he is inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists. It is too easy to choose, as he does, only English and French Orientalists as a target. By doing so, he takes aim only at representatives of huge colonial empires. But there was an Orientalism before the empires, and the pioneers of Orientalism were often subjects of other European countries, some without colonies. Much too often, Said falls into the same traps that we old Communist intellectuals fell into some forty years ago, as I will explain below. The growth of Orientalism was linked to the colonial expansion of Europe in a much more subtle and intrinsic way than he imagines. Moreover, his nationalistic tendencies have prevented him from considering, among others, the studies of Chinese or Indian civilization, which are ordinarily regarded as part of the field of Orientalism. For him, the Orient is restricted to his East, that is, the Middle East. Muslim countries outside the Arab world (after all, four Muslims in five are not Arabs), and even Arab nations in the West receive less than their due in his interpretation.

His books, available for download here, include:

  1. Mohammad (1961)
  2. Islam and Capitalism (1966)
  3. Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (1967)
  4. “On Zionism and the Palestine Problem Today” (1975)
  5. “Islam Resurgent?” (1979)
  6. “Khomeini and the ‘Primacy of the Spiritual'” (February 1979)
  7. The Arabs (1979)
  8. Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1980)
  9. Marxism and the Muslim World (1982)
  10. Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1984)
  11. “Mythology of a Conqueror: On Saddam Hussein” (1991)
  12. “Critique of Foucault on Iran” (1993)
  13. “Why Palestine?”
  14. “On Islamic ‘Fundamentalism’: An Interview with Gilbert Achcar” (2003)

An interview from 1986 follows the picture gallery below. Enjoy.


Rodinson looks back

Joan Mandell & Joe Stork
Middle East Review 269
November 15, 1986


Joan Mandell and Joe Stork spoke with Maxime Rodinson in April 1986, when he came to Washington for the celebration of MERIP’s fifteenth anniversary. We publish the interview here for the first time.

You represent a unique combination of someone who has a militant left political background as an activist and is at the same time a renowned scholar. What circumstances account for this?

I was born in 1915. The milieu of my parents was one in which we had no doubt that this combination was absolutely essential. We had no doubt at the time there could be contradictions between scientific work and a commitment to action. I learned a great deal from my old master and professor, Marcel Cohen, a Greek linguist and communist. He had great ideas about Semitic linguistics and on the side he felt the duty to be committed. He was a member of the French Communist Party from the beginning. He used to say that people who never change are fools, and I have asked myself whether I was a fool because I had been in the Party since the 1930s. I remember that at one time I had some disagreements with the Party, but some months after that I understood that the Party was right and I came back to it. So I am not a fool!

You wrote in the preface to one of your books how even when you first joined the Party early in your life you were conscious of the problem. You didn’t join naively or blindly and you were aware of the constraints that it would represent.

I understand now that there is a process. I couldn’t have understood it without the experience…. Once you are in an organization you are restricted. I remember just before joining and committing myself by adhering formally and signing papers, I was buffeted between two trends.

On one side there was the French primary school where I learned to be tolerant, democratic and respectful. This trend was supported by a man among the Jews who emigrated from Poland and Eastern Europe.

Did your family also migrate from Eastern Europe?

Yes. My father was from Byelorussia. He was educated in college in Smolensk, wrote poetry in Russian, read English, French and German. He came to Paris in 1885 and my mother in 1900 or 1901. They were the kind of people who came to France to pursue their studies but were forced to work to survive. My mother was less educated; she spoke Yiddish and a bit of Russian. She was very fond of things Russian…Poland was at that time part of Russia.

Were your parents already in the Communist Party when they came to France?

There was no Communist Party at that time. They were more or less socialist-minded. My mother had disgust for all things religious, and I inherited that. She spoke with horror of rabbis. When my father first came to Paris he was a Marxist, a syndicalist, one of the founders of Jewish trade unions. In 1905, there was a process of unification of many socialist parties in France. My father entered this new socialist party. He had a job — unpaid — as a keeper of a library. Many new people like Trotsky and Lenin went there.

In France, at the time of the revolution, to what extend did the Jewish workers work as a group? To what extent was there consciousness as Jews, and how did that intersect with the broader trade union movement?

It was a process of transition. Many of them were just coming from Russia, and spoke only Yiddish. On the side, they were concentrated in certain sectors like the garment trade. So naturally the trade union of workers who made raincoats were almost all Jews. At the time of the Russian revolution many went to Russia. I was born in Paris and perhaps my mother and father found this a great excuse to stay in France. My father understood how things were in Russia, while my mother and I were enthusiastic to go back. So she prepared to go back without my father. But her friends advised her not to leave her husband, and she stayed.

I was dispirited at the time because I was in primary school and had no prospect to go to university. But one of the things that upset me was that I did not know foreign languages. I was without culture. Then I discovered a marvelous thing: Esperanto. I understood that it was replacing all the languages; it was easy to learn. At that time it was encouraged by the Soviet Union, by trade unions, by the Communist Party. I studied it in evening lessons at the houses of trade unionists. I was assigned a correspondent in the Soviet Union, in the town of my father. I wrote asking, “What is the problem with Trotsky and Stalin?” and so on.

Continue reading

The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014

Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha

We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)

The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)

The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?


Preliminary remarks

Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

Reflections on resistance, reform, and revolution

The problematic forms of
contemporary anticapitalism

Image: Cover to Rosa Luxemburg’s
Sozialreform oder Revolution? (1899)


The following are the prepared remarks to a Platypus panel on “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance” with 1960s activist Todd Gitlin and WIL organizer Tom Trottier, held last March at NYU. A considerably expanded and improved version of this essay has been published by Upping the Anti (which I encourage everyone interested to buy):

Almost five years have passed since Platypus hosted its first panel on “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance.” At the time, many of us were trying to come to terms with the profound sense of disorientation we’d felt during our involvement in the antiwar movement, which was then in a process of rapid disintegration. We hoped to explore the relationship between these three categories, both to each other and to the greater project of human freedom, in order to determine whether an emancipatory politics was still even possible. How can the respective political modes of resistance, reform, and revolution be deployed to advance social and individual freedom? How might they reinforce each other on a reciprocal basis? Today, with the recent upsurge in global activism, we stand on the precipice of what promises to herald the rebirth of such a politics. These questions have acquired a renewed sense of urgency in this light. Now more than ever, they demand our attention if we are to forge a way forward without repeating the mistakes of the past.

Reform, revolution, and resistance — each of these concepts exercises a certain hold over the popular imagination of the Left. While they need not be conceived as mutually exclusive, the three have often sat in uneasy tension with one another over the course of the last century, however. The Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg famously counterposed the first two in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution?, written over a hundred years ago. In her view, this ultimately turned out to be a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, Luxemburg was addressing a real dilemma that had emerged along with the formation of the Second International and the development of mass working-class politics in the late nineteenth century. Even if she was able to conclude that reforms could still be pursued within the framework of a revolutionary program — that is, without falling into reformism — this was by no means an obvious position to take.

Still less should we consider the matter done and settled with respect to our current context, simply because a great figure like Luxemburg dealt with it in her own day. We do not have the luxury of resting on the accomplishments or insights of past thinkers. It is unclear whether the solution at which she arrived then holds true any longer. History can help us understand the momentum of the present carried over from the past, as well as possible futures toward which it may be tending. But it offers no prefabricated formulae for interpreting the present, no readymade guides to action. Continue reading

“Civilization”: On the history of a concept


Excerpted from a draft for my long-delayed essay (almost a small book now) on the relationship of revolutionary Marxism to revolutionary liberalism.

It is difficult to even mention the concept of civilization without conjuring up images of Occidental hauteur. One is immediately reminded of the so-called “civilizing mission” undertaken by the great colonial powers of Europe. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Nevertheless, the timing of its emergence in history cannot be thought a mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. According to the French semiotician Émile Benveniste, the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau.1 Though it derives more generally from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and legality, “civilization” in its modern sense dates only from the Enlightenment. In its post-1765 French usage, Benveniste observed that here “civilisation meant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisation as the state of civilized society.”2 From there, the concept was then imported to Great Britain by Scottish Enlightenment figures like Ferguson, Millar, and Smith. This most likely came through their interactions with the French physiocrats Quesnay, Necker, and Turgot.3 Freud’s suggestion in Civilization and Its Discontents — that the civilizing process of society in history resembles the maturation of the individual4 — was already largely anticipated by Ferguson in the introductory paragraph to his Essay on the History of Civil Society. There he asserted: “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.”5 For Millar, as it was for Smith, civilization was marked by the development of a complex division of labor, what he called “the distinctions of professions and of ranks.” With the further articulation of this system of distinctions, “the human mind is cultivated and expanded; and man rises to the highest pitch of civilization and refinement.”6 Smith reaffirmed Millar’s identification of civilized society as being one in which there was a highly-developed system of ranks. At one point, Smith clarified that whenever he used the term “civilized society,” what he really meant was just a “society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established.”7

Besides Benveniste, the German-Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias and his Austrian exegete Helmut Kuzmics also picked up on this civilizational theme of Mirabeau’s. One of Elias’ most interesting arguments centers on the transmission of certain conventions from pre-bourgeois European court life — an attention to good manners, etiquette, dress codes, and behavioral norms — to bourgeois civil society rising out of the collapse of the feudal order. Although later philosophers of moral sentiment like Hume and Smith did much to displace aristocratic “virtue” through their valorization of bourgeois self-love,8 these vestiges of courtly politesse in civic politeness9 account for the high premium that was placed on “courtesy” (courtoisie, cortesia) and “civility” (civilité, civiltà, Zivilität) in early bourgeois circles.10 Kuzmics is correct to add, however, that the carryover from courteous modes of conduct would have been more direct among members of the grande bourgeoisie.11 But this historical lineage passed down from medieval court society was only one part of what Elias and Kuzmics called “the civilizing process.” More broadly, what this process entailed was a transition from external restraints imposed from without to internal restraints imposed from within; one of the defining features of civilization for Elias was precisely this regime of self-restraint.12 Some have noted a similarity between Elias’ notion of “restraint” through the civilizing process and Foucault’s later concept of “discipline” through correct training,13 but this similarity is only apparent. Self-restraint for Elias has far more in common with Freud’s psychoanalytic category of repression.14 Apart from these aristocratic frills and ruffles adorning bourgeois civilization, there were several forms of self-restraint peculiar to the modern world. As Elias and Kuzmics each acknowledge, these usually had to do with vocational norms and expectations associated with the workplace (rather than the banquet hall, the baronial court, or the curia regis).15 The primary locus of modern civilization would thus seem to reside in labor.

Here, the meaning of “civilization” examined by Elias and Kuzmics reconnects with that of Benveniste, Lucien Febvre, and the political economists like Smith, Ferguson, and the physiocrats. Of the new behaviors inculcated as a result of the generalization of the wage-relationship — along with the progressive refinement of the social division of labor and the more precise measurement of the labor-time expended — moderation, diligence, expedience, and what E.P. Thompson called “time-discipline” were foremost. From the schoolyard to the factory floor, both children and adults now “entered the new universe of disciplined time.”16 Max Weber, commenting upon the utilitarian ethos of Benjamin Franklin’s advice in Poor Richard’s Almanack, recorded that for the modern bourgeoisie, “[h]onesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues.”17 Beyond these highly-valued bourgeois personality traits (or “civic virtues”), this civilizing process in modern society moves from the ethical domain of individual behavior to the political domain of liberal policies of governance. The old practices of government-controlled monopolies, tariffs, protectionism, and trade restrictions — in short, of French and British mercantilism and German cameralism — now appeared antiquated and barbaric. With respect to these more specifically bourgeois aspects of civilization, Kuzmics asserts:

From [the physiocrats] on, the French concept of civilization is wedded to the bourgeois notion of progress; knowledge turns into one of its central categories; the concept of “being civilized” is transferred from the behavior of individuals to the state, the constitution, the educational system (and access to that system by the populace) and to a penitentiary system which is seen to be barbaric. Social inequality, anchored in feudal barriers, appears as barbaric and unreasonable. The same perspective is brought to bear on the lack of economic freedom imposed by government trade restrictions. The refinement of manners and the pacification of civil society are supposed to be the consequence of civilization in this wider sense.18

That “civilization,” a concept born of the Enlightenment, should bear the imprint of the narrative of progress should not come as a shock to anyone. Indeed, the Swiss philologist and literary critic Jean Starobinski not long ago suggested that “[t]he word civilization, which denotes a process, entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of the word progress.”19 As such, it would appear that “civilization” is perhaps a distant cousin of the later concept of “modernization,” as a process implying progress or enhanced development over time, though Kuzmics warns against such interpretations.20 Already by 1775, Diderot was using the term in exactly this sense: “[C]ivilization follows from the inclination which leads every man to improve his situation.”21 Condorcet was even more wildly optimistic than Diderot when it came to the linkage between progress and civilization. It was while awaiting the guillotine, at the height of the Terror, that Condorcet penned his famous ode to progress, A Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind (1793), in which he asked:

Will all nations necessarily approach one day the state of civilization achieved by those peoples who are most enlightened, freest, and most emancipated from prejudice, such as the French and the Anglo-Americans? Will we necessarily see the gradual disappearance of that vast distance now separating these peoples from the servitude of nations subjected to kings, the barbarism of African tribes, the ignorance of savages? Are there regions of the globe where the inhabitants have been condemned by their environment never to enjoy liberty, never to exercise their reason? Do the differences in enlightenment, resources, or wealth so far observed between the different classes within civilized peoples — the inequality that the initial advances of society augmented and may even have produced — derive from the very nature of civilization or from the current imperfections of the social art? Must these differences continually diminish, giving way to the real equality that is the ultimate goal of the social art, that of reducing the very effects of natural differences in individual capacities while allowing for the continuation only of an inequality useful to the common interest because it will foster the progress of civilization, education, and industry without entailing dependence, humiliation, or impoverishment?22

The passage from Condorcet excerpted here above introduces a third meaning to the term “civilization,” besides its association with mannerly ennoblement and technical progress. This third meaning of “civilization” attains its significance only in contradistinction to its conceptual antipode, “barbarism.” Between these two poles one might find a spectrum of intermediate stages, ranging from conditions of relative civility to conditions of relative barbarity. Another term, “savagery,” enters in at times, as well. In most discussions of civilizational benchmarks during the Enlightenment, Foucault rightly noted, the “savage” suggests a pre- or non-civilized person living in a state of nature, whereas the “barbarian” suggests a person who is actively opposed to civilization, who is thus anti-civilizational, living in a state of general crudity and boorishness.23 This understanding corresponds, more or less, to the somewhat lacking categories established by Louis Morgan and later employed by Engels in his writings on The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State: 1.) savagery (hunger-gatherer, predominantly nomadic, or pre-historic society); 2.) barbarism (agrarian, predominantly rural, or traditional society); and 3.) civilization (commercial/industrial, predominantly urban, or modern society).24 Civilization would thus seem to presuppose widespread urbanization (or “citification”): “Before rusticus and rusticitas can be defined as antonyms of urbanus and urbanitas, there must be cities and people who live in cities.” According to these antinomic pairs, the civilization of the city was counterposed to the barbarism of the countryside. This opposition was reflected, as Starobinski points out, in dictionaries from the time. “Unlike the bourgeois, peasants are not civilized,” asserted Furetière’s Dictionnaire of 1694.25

Indeed, one of the commonest misunderstandings about the concept of “civilization” concerns its specific reference to the capitalist social formation. Building on the work of the French and British political economists, Marx and Engels used the term “civilization” as basically equivalent to modern bourgeois society. “[Capitalism] forces all nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production or go under,” they wrote in the Manifesto. “[I]t forces them to introduce so-called civilization amongst themselves, i.e., to become bourgeois.”26 This is a point Spencer Leonard brought home in a recent interview with Kevin Anderson, in combating charges of “Eurocentrism” and “Orientalism” that post-colonial theorists like Edward Said have recently leveled at Marxism.27 “Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization,” Leonard elucidates. “Rather, capitalist society is ‘civilization,’ per se…The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history…[W]hen he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.”28 Nor is this merely some sort of clever rhetorical flourish. Certain selections from Engels clearly seem to substantiate Leonard’s general equation of modern bourgeois society with civilization as a whole: “[C]ivilization is that stage of development of society at which division of labor, the resulting exchange between individuals, and commodity production, which combines the two, reach their full development and revolutionize the whole of hitherto existing society.”29 Already, Marx had on several occasions written of “the civilizing aspects of capital,” insofar as it helped to eradicate the forms of slavery and serfdom that preceded it.30 In his preparatory work on the Grundrisse, he had similarly praised “the civilizing influence of external trade.”31 But perhaps the most irrefutable proof that, for Marx, capitalist society is “civilization” can be found in his endorsement of John Wade’s provocative proposition that “Capital is only another name for civilization.”32 Marx, who did not think much of Wade’s original contributions to the study of political economy (accusing him at one point of plagiarism), still admitted that “Wade is…correct…insofar as he posits capital = civilization.”33

On this level, then, it appears that the commonplace objection to the identification of civilization with the capitalist West, an identity upheld by classical liberals and Marxists alike, commits a category mistake. The simultaneous birth of civilization and modernity in Europe, and along with it their exponential growth in productivity, has nothing at all to do with the supposedly innate “superiority” of Western peoples or cultural institutions. This is why the pseudo-radicalism of postmodern hermeneutics — which interprets the logic of capital to be somehow intrinsically white, Christian, European, male, etc. — is utterly inadequate to the understanding of civilization, qua bourgeois society. In fact, this view even tends to reinforce the chauvinist discourse that treats all the accomplishments of Western civilization as the outcome of the heroic feats of the industry, ingenuity, and spirit of innovation that supposedly characterize all white, Christian, European males. Such accounts overlook the practically ubiquitous stereotype of the peasant in medieval Europe, usually depicted as monumentally lazy, shiftless, and ignorant. Neither Marx nor Engels had much patience for the quaint customs and inoffensive, folksy conventions of traditional society, no matter where these traditions stemmed from. Nowhere was the authors’ disgust with reactionary traditionalism more evident than in Engels’ evaluation of “The Civil War in Switzerland” in the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung in 1847. Engels could not for an instant countenance sympathy with the stout resistance of these “Alpine shepherds” — whose favorite pastimes included acorn-eating, cheese-making, yodeling, and chastity.34 The fact that such unrelenting criticisms were directed as the traditions of a country in the heart of Europe should put to rest the notion that either Marx or Engels unconsciously harbored racist or Orientalist sentiments. Both were fairly ecumenical (or, to put it differently, “equal opportunity”) when it came to choosing objects to critique.35 The ruthless criticism of everything existing could leave no rock unturned.

Related to such objections to the concept of “civilization,” especially its normative or universalizing claims, is a tendency to prefer speaking of so many particular “cultures.” Sadly, this preference, like several others acquired during the postmodernist “cultural turn” — which sought relativize the hegemonic pretensions of the Western civilization — harkens back to reactionary antimodernist (even fascist) sources. The invidious contrast between “culture” and “civilization” goes back to the sociologist Alfred (brother of Max) Weber’s conservative and irrationalist drift following the German defeat in World War I. Typically, the distinction is this: Kultur is understood as authentic, concrete, and firmly rooted in real, organic community traditions; Zivilisation is understood as superficial and abstract, rootlessly trailing after imaginary, inorganic social trends. Weber was looking to separate out two distinct components of human social life that he believed had become rather carelessly intermingled. He thus fulminated against Hegelianism, and by extension Marxism, which he felt had indiscriminately united both the “intellectual” and “spiritual” dimensions of social existence.36 Much of the mischief, Weber surmised, arose from an ambiguity in the meaning of the German term Geist, which at once signifies both “mind” and “spirit.”37 “This [Hegelian] notion of objective spirit [Geist] bound up…intellectual elements (mastery of existence) with…elements of spiritual expression, thus…identifying intellect and soul, and hopelessly confusing civilization and culture,” recorded Weber.38 Civilization was the cerebral sphere of science, progress, technology, and rationalization in their universal unfolding — “the epitome of mankind’s increasing enlightenment.”39 Oppositely, culture was the spiritual sphere of art, religion, convention, and intuition of a particular life-world in its givenness40 — “simply the soul’s will and expression…of an ‘essence’ lying behind all intellectual mastery of existence.”41 The civilizational subject is the individual or ego who has developed his own outlook, worldview, or perspective.42 The cultural subject is the community — the family, church, or nation — with its own “yearnings,” desires, or “destiny.”43 Weber’s contemporary, the phenomenologist Max Scheler, associated civilization with a deep “hatred of the world.” This hatred originated, the philosopher conjectured, first with Judaism (following Sombart)44 and then later with Calvinism (following the elder Weber).45 “Everything can rise again in the area of pure, spiritual culture,” wrote Scheler in 1917. “But in the area of technical values,…values of utility, a renascence would be tantamount to ‘regress,’…because continuous progress and internationality belong to the cosmos of civilization [Zivilisationskosmos].”46

More temperate minds have in the past expressed some reservations at setting up such a rigid bifurcation between the concepts of “culture” and “civilization.” All the same, however, they also recognized that any attempt to privilege the former to the detriment of the latter would be a reactionary gesture. Some of them, like Elias, have acknowledged the partial legitimacy of distinguishing these terms, according to their normal usages. In his sociogenetic account of this distinction, Elias conveyed the progressive character of civilization: “‘Civilization’ describes a process or at least the result of a process. It refers to something which is constantly in motion, constantly moving ‘forward.’”47 Moreover, he highlighted its implicit internationalism. “[T]he concept of civilization plays down the national differences between peoples; it emphasizes what is common to all human beings,” he observed. “In contrast, the German concept of Kulturplaces special stress on national differences and the particular identity of groups.”48 Elias was, without a doubt, well-acquainted with the distinction between culture and civilization, having once trained with Alfred Weber and his erstwhile associate, Karl Mannheim (who defended Weber’s choice to disentwine the two terms).49 The Austrian modernist and critic Robert Musil had a more sardonic take on this conceptual division between culture and civilization. In his review of Spengler’s Decline of the West, Musil confessed that figuring out “[h]ow to distinguish between culture and civilization is to my way of thinking an old and really fruitless quarrel.” Despite his professed indifference, he could still discern of some of the finer points with either word. “Every civilization is characterized by a certain technical mastery over nature and a very complicated system of social relations,” Musil wrote in 1921, while mocking the pedantic tone of those who insisted on the opposite meanings of the two words. “An immediate relation to the essence of things is almost always ascribed to culture, a kind of fateful security of human demeanor and an assurance that is still instinctive, in comparison to which reason, the fundamental symptom of civilization, is supposed to possess a somewhat lamentable uncertainty and indirectness.”50 But it was without question Horkheimer and Adorno who most stringently criticized the tendency to exalt the “authenticity” of Kultur against the purported “inauthenticity” of civilisation. “In the name of culture,” declared Adorno, “civilization marches into barbarism.”51 Of the various theorists to treat this opposition, Adorno, Horkheimer, and other members of the Frankfurt School were again the ones best able to make out the connection between the industrial revolution and the onset of modern civilization.52 To bemoan the loss of organic forms of “culture” in the face of modernization’s steady onslaught, however, was useless and regressive. They thus warned:

Only that consciousness which despairs of creating a human world out of freedom and consciousness will arrive at the point of sharply separating culture, as the creation of the spiritual, from the externality of civilization, of setting up culture against the latter and rendering it absolute. And often enough in so doing it opens the gate to the true enemy, barbarism. Whoever glorifies culture at the expense of civilization today is more concerned with setting up cultural preserves than with humanity…It is not proper to invoke culture against civilization. The gesture of invocation itself, the exalting of culture at the expense of mass society, the devoted consumption of cultural values as a confirmation of one’s elevated internal spiritual equipment, these are inseparable from the decadent character of the civilization. The invocation of culture is powerless.53

But if barbarism is admitted to exist in backward, traditional, or premodern communities, as well as in the atavistic appeal to cultural practices lost in the process of civilization, then where is that recognition, so central to the Marxist critique, of “the ‘barbarism’ of bourgeois society” itself? As Losurdo rightly notes, this was one of Marx’s and Engels’ most original and devastating insights.54 After all, it was not only civilization that they discerned in liberal bourgeois society. Contained within these very same forms of social organization there also lurked the possibility of a new and untold barbarism. The issue at hand here is the one Adorno and Horkheimer dealt with as “the reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism.”55 Civilization itself, they maintained, had relapsed into a sort of barbaric state.56 Bourgeois society had mutated into what Adorno (and Lenin before him) called “civilized barbarism.”57 On the eve of the World War, in an article bearing the title of “Civilized Barbarism,” Lenin expressed his total astonishment at the way that “the civilized nations [especially France and Great Britain] have driven themselves into the position of barbarians.”58 Three decades earlier, Engels noticed this tendency of bourgeois society — that is, civilization — to increasingly move to conceal the traces of its own steady barbarization. “[T]he more civilization advances,” he asserted, “the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence.”59 But of all the variations on this theme in the annals of Marxist literature, none approaches the poetry of Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy:

Friedrich Engels once said, “Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism.” What does a “reversion to barbarism” mean at the present stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism…This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of culture and humanity. In this war imperialism has been victorious. Its sword of murder has dashed the scales, with overbearing brutality, down into the abyss of shame and misery. 60

The naked barbarity that was seen in the trenches of Europe in World War I was simply the homecoming of what post-1848 European liberalism hoped to confine to its colonies. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” commented Marx, in an 1853 article on India, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”61 Still, this inherent barbarism of bourgeois society did not first show its face in the colonies. It had actually emerged several years prior, as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”62


1 Benveniste, Émile. “Civilization: A Contribution to the Word’s History.” Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. Problems of General Linguistics. (University of Miami Press. New York, NY: 1971). Pg. 289.
2 Ibid., pg. 291.
3 Ibid., pg. 293.
4 “[T]he development of civilization is a special process, comparable to the normal maturation of the individual.” Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. (W.W. Norton & Co. New York, NY: 1962). Pgs. 44-45.
5 Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Pg. 7.
6 Millar, John. The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks. (Liberty Fund. Indianapolis, IN: 2006). Pg. 26.
7 Smith, Adam. An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1976). Pg. 315.
8 “I esteem the man, whose self-love, by whatever means, is so directed as to give him a concern for others, and render him serviceable to society.” Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Edited by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord. Moral Philosophy. (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN: 2006). Pgs. 268-280.
“Dr. [Francis] Hutcheson was so far from allowing self-love to be in any case a motive of virtuous actions, that even a regard to the pleasure of self-approbation, to the comfortable applause of our own consciences, according to him, diminished the merit of a benevolent action. This was a selfish motive, he thought, which, so far as it contributed to any action, demonstrated the weakness of that pure and disinterested benevolence which could alone stamp upon the conduct of man the character of virtue.” Smith, Adam. Theory of Moral Sentiments. Pg. 358. See also pgs. 17, 112-113, 158, 159, 184, 321, 322.
9 Klein, Lawrence E. “From Courtly Politesse to Civic Politeness in Early Modern England and France.” Halcyon: A Journal of the Humanities. (1992). Pgs. 171-181.
10 Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Blackwell Publishing. Oxford, England: 2000). Pgs. 87-88.
11 Kuzmics, Helmut. “The Civilizing Process.” Translated by Hans Georg Zilian. Civil Society and the State. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 1988). Pg. 172.
12 “[Civilized] restraint, like all others, is enforced less and less by direct physical force. It is cultivated in individuals from an early age as habitual self-restraint by the structure of social life, by the pressure of social institutions in general, and by certain executive organs of society (above all, the family) in particular. Correspondingly, the social commands and prohibitions become increasingly a part of the self, a strictly regulated superego.” Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 158.
13 “Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise.” Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1995). Pg. 170.
14 “[B]y this increased social proscription of many impulses, by their ‘repression’ from the surface both of social life and of consciousness, the distance between the personality structure and behavior of adults and children was necessarily increased.” Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 127.
15 “The pattern of self-restraint imposed on the people of bourgeois society through their occupational work was in many respects different from the pattern imposed on the emotional life by the functions of court society.” Ibid., pg. 156.
“Of course, the bourgeois workplace and bourgeois society were not entirely determined by their courtly legacy — the development of specifically bourgeois kinds of self-control occurs there.” Kuzmics, Helmut. “Civilization, State, and Bourgeois Society: The Theoretical Contribution of Norbert Elias.” Translated by Hans Georg Zilian. Theory, Culture, and Society. (Vol. 4, № 2: June 1987). Pg. 518-519.
16 Thompson, E.P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present. (№ 38: 1967). Pg. 84.
17 Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. (Routledge Classics. New York, NY: 2005). Pg. 17.
18 Kuzmics, “The Civilizing Process.” Pg. 152.
19 Starobinski, Jean. “The Word Civilization.” Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Blessings in Disguise; or the Morality of Evil. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 1993). Pg. 4.
20 “[One version of the concept] concerns ‘civilization’ as exhibited in the self-interpretation of Western elites, a self-conception demarcating itself from the ‘savage’ and the ‘barbarous,’ formed by agents within pragmatic contexts. This concept is obviously ethnocentric and in this aspect similar to a naïve conception of ‘modernization,’ which does justice only to the immediately visible material of the life-world.” Kuzmics, “Civilization, State, and Bourgeois Society.” Pg. 518.
21 Diderot, Histoire des Deux Indes. Pg. 178.
22 Condorcet, Nicolas de. A Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind: Tenth Epoch. Translated by Keith Michael Baker. Daedalus. (Volume 133, № 3: Summer 2004). Pgs. 66. Here Condorcet could be seen praising the liberal societies of England, France, and the United States as the pinnacles of freedom and civilization. Likewise, Diderot had written before him that “[i]n England, the love of freedom, which is so natural to the man who is conscious and thinks…sparked off in generous hearts the excessive hatred of unlimited authority.” Diderot, Histoire des Deux Indes. Pg. 189.
Such assertions would again seem to belie the strict division Losurdo tries to maintain between “liberalism” and “radicalism.” “Even when it criticized slavery, the liberal tradition did not question the identification of the West with civilization and of the colonial world with barbarism,” contends Losurdo. “Radicalism’s position was different: in the first instance, it identified and denounced barbarism in those responsible for, and complicit with, the most macroscopic violation of the rights and dignity of man.” Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 169. The Italian philosopher thus faults even those liberals who unconditionally opposed slavery — authors such as Young, Smith, and Millar — for “complacently depicting” Europe as “a tiny island of liberty and civilization in a tempestuous ocean of tyranny, slavery, and barbarism.” “In order to indulge in such self-celebration,” Losurdo continues, “Young, Smith, and Millar were…obliged to overlook a far from trivial detail: the slave trade, which involved the most brutal form of slavery — chattel slavery — and in which western Europe, starting precisely with liberal England, was engaged for centuries.” Ibid., pg. 165. Further: “[O]n the one hand, Adam Smith con­demns and criticizes slavery very harshly. But if we ask him what was in his eyes the freest country of his time, in the final judgment, Smith answers that it is England.” Losurdo, “Liberalism and Marx.” Pg. 3.
Diderot and Condorcet, by contrast, writers who Losurdo classifies as incipient “radicals,” are excused for passing such favorable judgments on England and the United States. On Diderot’s “radicalism”: Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, pgs. 134, 136-137, 138, 164, 168-169, 311, 314, 315. On Condorcet’s “radicalism”: Ibid., pgs. 16, 28, 30, 133-134, 137, 164, 167-168, 182. Losurdo does admit here and there that both were great admirers of England: “In the columns of the Encyclopédie, Diderot held up England as an example of ‘temperate monarchy,’ where ‘the sovereign is repository solely of executive power’…In Condorcet’s view, too, they had the merit of having realized, albeit to an inadequate extent, the principles of the limitation of royal power, freedom of the press, habeas corpus, and judicial independence.” Ibid., pgs. 127-128. Losurdo attempts to account for this lapse in judgment on the part of Condorcet by explaining the “evolution” or “maturation” of the French philosopher’s thought through his disillusionment with the British and United States models in the experience of the Revolution. Ibid., pgs. 143-145. Diderot and Condorcet, it is true, ought to be commended for their principled stance against the practice of slavery and the conditions of colonial exploitation — but so should free-trade abolitionists like Smith, Millar, and Tucker. It is clear from Diderot’s Histoire des Deux Indes and Condorcet’s Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind (according to Losurdo these thinkers’ most “radical” works, respectively) that both continued to speak highly of Anglo-American liberalism.
23 “The savage — noble or otherwise — is the natural man whom the jurists or theorists of right dreamed up, the natural man who existed before society existed, who existed in order to constitute society, and who was the element around which the social body could be constituted…The barbarian, in contrast, is someone who can be understood, characterized, and defined only in relation to a civilization, and by the fact that he exists outside it. There can be no barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he… and unless he fights it.” Foucault, Michel. “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Translated by David Macey. (Picador. New York, NY: 2003). Pgs. 194-195.
24 “Morgan’s periodization as follows: Savagery — the period in which the appropriation of natural products, ready for use, predominated; the things produced by man are, in the main, instruments that facilitate this appropriation. Barbarism — the period in which knowledge of cattle breeding and land cultivation is acquired, in which methods of increasing the yield of nature’s products through human activity are learnt. Civilization — the period in which knowledge of the further processing of nature’s products, of industry proper, and of art are acquired.” Engels, Friedrich. The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State: In the Light of the Researches by Louis H. Morgan. Translated by Alick West. Collected Works, Volume 26: 1882-1889. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1990). Pg. 139.
25 Starobinski, “The Word Civilization.” Pgs. 8-9.
26 Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pg. 5.
27 “Marx’s style pushes us right up against the difficulty of reconciling our natural repugnance as fellow creatures to the sufferings of Orientals while their society is being violently transformed with the historical necessity of these transformations…Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out, as Marx’s theoretical socio-economic views become submerged in this classically standard image.” Said, Edward. Orientalism. (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1979). Pgs. 153-154.
28 Leonard, Spencer. “Marx at the Margins: An Interview with Kevin Anderson.” The Platypus Review. (№ 44. March, 2012). Pg. 2.
29 Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Pg. 272. My emphases.
30 “It is one of the civilizing aspects of capital that it extorts this surplus labor in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.” Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 3. Translated by David Fernbach. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1991). Pg. 958.
31 Marx, Grundrisse. Pg. 256. Also, “the relation of capital and labor…is an essential civilizing moment.” Ibid., pg. 287. “[C]apital creates the bourgeois society…Hence the great civilizing influence of capital.” Ibid., pg. 409.
32 Ibid., pg. 585. Quoted also in Capital, Volume 1. Pg. 1057.
33 Marx, Grundrisse. Pg. 634.
34 “At last it has been revealed that the cradle of freedom is nothing but the center of barbarism and the nursery of Jesuits, that the grandsons of Tell and Winkelried can only be brought to reason by cannon-balls, and that the heroism at Sempach and Murten was nothing but the desperation of brutal and bigoted mountain tribes, obstinately resisting civilization and progress. It is really very fortunate that European democracy is finally getting rid of this Ur-Swiss, puritan, and reactionary ballast.” Engels, Friedrich. “The Civil War in Switzerland.” Translated by Jack Cohen. Collected Works, Volume 6: 1845-1848. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975). Pgs. 367-373.
35 Seymour’s passionate defense of “the example of Marx and Engels” in his recent book on The Liberal Defense of Murder is noble, but perhaps somewhat superfluous; its only flaw is to think that these authors need defending in the first place. That some would feel they do only highlights the poor state of academic research today, and it is indeed sad that Seymour would have to spend his time debunking it. It says more about the wretched state of academic research today, however, that such a defense needs to be mounted. Seymour, Richard. The Liberal Defense of Murder. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2008). Pgs. 36-39.
36 “It is not strange in the least that all these various theories of history and philosophies of culture, as different as they may be in their self-proclaimed principles (psychological, materialistic, positivistic, idealistic, etc.) are nevertheless so basically connected that on closer scrutiny one unexpectedly merges into the other; in fact, one is nothing but the obverse of the other. One instance of this is the affinity, nay, more, the far-reaching sociological identity between Hegelianism and Marxism.” Weber, Alfred. Fundamentals of Culture-Sociology: Social Process, Civilization Process, and Culture-Movement. Translated by G.H. Weltner and C.F. Hirshman. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1939). Pg. 134.
37 “The evolutionary, historico-philosophical approach to culture-movement has its origin in the confusion of the intellectual and spiritual spheres under the collective concept of ‘mind’ [Geist] and consequently in the confusion of civilizational process and culture-movement under the collective idea of ‘mental development,’ a confusion for which the 18th century paved the way and which German Idealism brought to its climax.” Ibid., pg. 132.
38 Ibid., pg. 126.
39 “[T]he civilizational cosmos is an intellectually formed cosmos of universally valid and necessary things which cohere internally and, considered in their practical aspect, are equally and universally useful (i.e., empirically true) for human ends and considered in their theoretic aspect, are equally inevitable (i.e., theoretically true) and in the illumination of world and ego, intuitively evident (i.e., true a priori)…Its disclosure proceeds by the laws of logical causality…And its disclosed and illumined objects bear the stamp of universal validity and necessity, and spread throughout the trafficked world for the very reason that they are pre-existent for all mankind.” Ibid., pg. 121.
Civilization thus describes “a unified process of enlightenment covering the whole history of humanity and leading to a definite goal: the total illumination of the pre-existent.” Ibid., pg. 123.
40 “[T]he religious and spiritual expression of culture usually arrays itself in ‘categories of intuition.’ It presents itself as ‘revelation,’ as ‘insight,’ as ‘certain (immediately intuited) conviction of things unseen’ and ‘knowledge of the invisible.’” Ibid., pg. 123.
41 Ibid., pg. 126.
42 The junior Weber, along with Heidegger, distrusted this “world-picture.” Compare: “The civilization cosmos is nothing but a ‘world-picture’ slowly constructed and illumined the basis of these categories, the aspect of nature ‘fabricated’ by them. This view of nature is eminently suited to the purpose of dominating nature and existence in general and creating the ‘external realm of domination,’ i.e., the civilizational apparatus.” Ibid., pg. 125.
With the following: “What is…a ‘world picture’?…[I]n an essential way, ‘world picture’ does not mean ‘picture of the world’ but, rather, the world grasped as picture. The world picture does not change from an earlier medieval to a modern one; rather, that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of modernity.” Heidegger, Martin. “The Age of the World Picture.” Translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes. Off the Beaten Path. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2002). Pgs. 67-68. Heidegger also talks about nature forced into prefabricated mathematical categories: “Every force is defined as…nothing but…its consequences as motion within the unity of time…Every natural event must be viewed in such a way that it fits into this ground-plan of nature.” Ibid., pg. 60.
43 Weber, Fundamentals of Culture-Sociology. Pg. 138.
44 “Modern technical civilization rests more on hatred than on love of the world…[P]resent-day economic civilization [is] a civilization in which values, purposes, and forms, have disappeared. The one people which, according to Sombart’s penetrating investigation, contributed most to economic civilization, was, beyond doubt, the Jewish people whose mentality of race lacks most, among all peoples, a love of the world.” Scheler, Max. “Exemplars of Persons and Leaders.” Translated by M.S. Frings. Person and Self-Value: Three Essays. (Kluwer Academic Publishers. Hingham, MA: 1987). Pg. 188.
45 “Christianity plays a part in the formation of the motivating forces that produced the mechanical civilization of our time. Modern technology and capitalist economy were…initiated by…the followers of Protestant denominations, especially those coming from Calvinism, who claimed that all the work being done on the world should be for the sake of transforming it for the glory of God and for the sake of fulfilling the ascetic, divine obligation.” Ibid., pg. 187.
46 Ibid., pg. 171.
In what is probably his most infamous contribution to the German Kriegsideologie, the novelist and Nazi fellow traveler Ernst Jünger seconded this distinction. He asked: “Who would deny that civilisation is more profoundly attached to progress than is Kultur; that its language is spoken in the large cities?” Jünger, Ernst. “Total Mobilization.” Translated by Richard Wolin. The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1998). Pg. 133.
47 Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 6.
48 Ibid., pg. 7.
49 “We can…see…the significance of Alfred Weber’s suggestion to distinguish between a process of ‘culture’ and a process of ‘civilization,’ and to treat the former in terms of a concrete Gestalt, the latter, however, as a rational and limitless progression allowing for the carryover of achievements made in one epoch into the following one…The ‘psychic-emotional’ phenomena, which make up what Weber calls ‘culture,’ can be adequately grasped only by methods of concrete intuition and representation stressing the Gestalt, and by a specific type of concept evolved for this purpose. ‘Civilization,’ in Weber’s sense, on the other hand, can be described by the rationalizing method of the philosophy of the Enlightenment which conceived of it as a continuous progress.” Mannheim, Karl. “Historicism.” Translated by Jean Floud and Paul Kecskemeti. Collected Works, Volume 5: Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. (Routledge, Kegan, & Paul. New York, NY: 2007). Pg. 114.
50 Musil, Robert. “Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who have Eluded the Decline of the West.” Translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft. Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1994). Pgs. 147-148.
51 Adorno, Theodor. “Aldous Huxley and Utopia.” Translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber. Prisms. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1997). Pg. 113.
52 “Modern civilization has been linked, first, to the extraordinary growth in population since the industrial revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the changes connected with this; then, to the dissolution of the traditional order of society by rationality [ratio].” The Frankfurt School. Aspects of Sociology. Translated by John Viertel. (Beacon Press. Boston, MA: 1972). Pg. 90.
53 Ibid., pg. 94.
54 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 169.
55 Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Pg. ⅹⅳ.
56 It was now faced with the “horror of relapsing into barbarism.” Ibid., pg. 67.
57 Adorno, Theodor. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” Translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber. Prisms. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1997). Pg. 24.
58 Lenin, Vladimir. “Civilized Barbarism.” Translated by George Hanna. Collected Works, Volume 19: March-December 1913. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1977). Pg. 388.
59 Engels, The Origin of Private Property, Family, and the State. Pg. 276.
60 Luxemburg, Rosa. The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in German Social Democracy. Translated by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. Pg. 321.
61 Marx, Karl. “The Future Results of the British Rule in India.” Collected Works, Volume 12: 1853-1854. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1979). Pg. 221.
62 Engels, Friedrich. “European War Inevitable.” Translated by W.L. Guttsman. Collected Works, Volume 8: 1848-1849. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1977). Pg. 457.

Friedrich Engels’ “The Civil War in Switzerland” (1847)

Engraving of William Tell

While I appreciate Said more than most of the subsequent post-colonial theorists, this article alone should dispel the myth of Marx’s and Engels’ alleged Eurocentrism or chauvinism, as supposedly evidenced in their writings on the traditional societies of India and Algiers. Here Engels writes with more scorn and contempt about traditional society in Switzerland, in the heart of Europe, than anything either of them wrote about non-European societies.

At last the ceaseless bombast about the “cradle of freedom,” about the “grandsons of William Tell and Winkelried,” about the heroic victors of Sempach and Murten is being brought to an end.  At last it has been revealed that the cradle of freedom is nothing but the centre of barbarism and the nursery of Jesuits, that the grandsons of Tell and Winkelried can only be brought to reason by cannon-balls, and that the heroism at Sempach and Murten was nothing but the desperation of brutal and bigoted mountain tribes, obstinately resisting civilization and progress.

It is really very fortunate that European democracy is finally getting rid of this Ur-Swiss, puritan, and reactionary ballast.  As long as the democrats concentrated on the virtue, the happiness, and the patriarchal simplicity of these Alpine shepherds, they themselves still appeared in a reactionary light.  Now that they are supporting the struggle of civilized, industrial, modern-democratic Switzerland against the crude, Christian-Germanic democracy of the primitive, cattle-breeding cantons, they represent progress everywhere, now the last reactionary glimmer disappears, now they show that they are learning to understand the meaning of democracy in the 19th century.

There are two regions in Europe where old Christian-Germanic barbarism has retained its most primitive form, almost down to acorn-eating — Norway and the High Alps, especially Ur-Switzerland.  Both Norway and Ur-Switzerland still provide us with genuine examples of that breed of men who once beat the Romans to death in good Westphalian style with clubs and flails in the Teutoburg Forest.  Both Norway and Ur-Switzerland are democratically organized. But there are many varieties of democracy and it is very necessary that the democrats of the civilized countries should at last decline responsibility for the Norwegian and Ur-Swiss forms of democracy.

The democratic movement in all civilized countries is, in the last analysis, striving for the political domination of the proletariat. It therefore presupposes that a proletariat exists, that a ruling bourgeoisie exists, that an industry exists which gives birth to the proletariat and which has brought the bourgeoisie to power.

There is nothing of all this either in Norway or in Ur-Switzerland. In Norway, we have the very famous peasant regiment (bonde-regimente); in Ur-Switzerland a number of rough shepherds who, despite their democratic constitution, are ruled by a few big landowners, Abyberg, etc., in patriarchal fashion. A bourgeoisie only exists in exceptional cases in Norway, and not at all inUr-Switzerland. The proletariat is practically non-existent.

The democracy prevailing in civilized countries, modern democracy, has thus nothing whatever in common with Norwegian or Ur-Swiss democracy. It does not wish to bring about the Norwegian and Ur-Swiss state of affairs but something absolutely different. Let us nevertheless look a little closer at this primitive-Germanic democracy and deal first with Ur-Switzerland, which is what above all concerns us here.

Is there a German philistine who does not rave about William Tell, the liberator of his Fatherland; a schoolmaster who does not celebrate Morgarten, Sempach, and Murten along with Marathon, Plataea, and Salamis; a hysterical old maid who does not go into raptures over the strong leg calves and sturdy thighs of the chaste Alpine youths? The glory of Ur-Swiss valor, freedom, skill, and strength has been endlessly praised in verse and prose from Aegidius Tschudi to Johannes von Müller, from Florian to Schiller.  The carbines and cannons of the twelve cantons now provide a commentary on these enthusiastic panegyrics.

The Ur-Swiss have drawn attention to themselves twice during the course of history. The first time, when they freed themselves gloriously from Austrian tyranny; the second at the present time, when they march off to fight in God’s name for the Jesuits and the Fatherland.

On closer examination, the glorious liberation from the talons of the Austrian eagle does not look at all good. The House of Austria was progressive just once in the whole of its career; this was at the beginning of its existence when it allied itself with the urban petty bourgeoisie against the nobility, and sought to found a German monarchy.  It was progressive in the most philistine of ways but it was progressive nonetheless.  And who opposed it most resolutely? The Ur-Swiss.  The struggle of the Ur-Swiss against Austria, the glorious oath on the Grütli, Tell’s heroic shot, the eternally memorable victory at Morgarten, all this was the struggle of stubborn shepherds against the onward march of historical development, the struggle of obstinate, rooted local interests against the interests of the whole nation, the struggle of crude ignorance against enlightenment, of barbarism against civilization.  They won their victory over the civilization of the time, and as a punishment they were excluded from all further civilization.

As if this were not enough, these simple, stiff-necked shepherds were soon punished in a quite different way.   They escaped the domination of the Austrian nobility only to come under the yoke of the petty bourgeois of Zurich, Lucerne, Berne, and Basel.  These had already noted that the Ur-Swiss were just as strong and as stupid as their oxen.  They agreed to join the Swiss Confederation and stayed peacefully at home behind their counters while the thick-headed Alpine shepherds fought out all their battles with the nobility and the princes for them.  This is what happened at Sempach, Granson, Murten, and Nancy.  In return, these people were allowed to arrange their internal affairs as they wished and so they remained in blissful ignorance of how they were being exploited by their dear fellow-Confederationists.

Since then nothing much has been heard of them.  They busied themselves in all piety and propriety with milking the cows, with cheese-making, chastity and yodeling.  From time to time they had folk assemblies at which they divided into horn-men, claw-men, and other animal-like groups, and these gatherings never ended without a hearty, Christian-Germanic fight.  They were poor but pure in heart, stupid but pious and well-pleasing to the Lord, brutal but broad-shouldered and had little brain but plenty of brawn. From time to time there were too many of them and then the young men went off on their “travels,” i.e., enlisted in foreign armies where they displayed the most steadfast loyalty to the flag no matter what happened.  One can only say of the Swiss that they let themselves be killed most conscientiously for their pay.

The greatest boast of these burly Ur-Swiss was that from time immemorial they had never deviated by a hair’s breadth from the customs of their forefathers, that they had retained the simple, chaste, upright, and virtuous customs of their fathers unsullied throughout the centuries. And this is true. Every attempt at civilization was defeated by the granite walls of their mountains and of their heads.  From the days when Winkelried’s first ancestor led his cow, with the inevitable little pastoral bell round its neck, on to the virgin pastures of the Vierwaldstätter Lake, up to the present day, when the latest descendant of Winkelried has his gun blessed by the priest, all houses have been built in the same way, all cows milked in the same way, all pigtails plaited in the same way, all cheeses prepared according to the same recipe, all children made in the same way.  Here, in the mountains, is Paradise, here the Fall of Man has not yet come to pass.  And should some innocent Alpine lad happen to find his way to the great outside world and allow himself to be tempted for a moment by the seductions of the big cities, by the artificial charms of a decadent civilization, by the vices of sinful countries, which have no mountains and where corn thrives — his innocence is so deep-rooted that he can never quite succumb.  A sound strikes his ear, just two of those notes of the Alpine cowherd’s call that sound like a dog’s howling, and he falls on his knees, weeping and overwhelmed with remorse, and at once tears himself from the arms of seduction and will not rest until he lies at the feet of his old father! “Father, I have sinned against my ancient mountains and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”

In recent times two invasions against these artless customs and primitive power have been attempted.  The first was by the French in 1798. But these French, who spread a little civilization everywhere else, failed with these Ur-Swiss.  No trace of their presence has remained, they were unable to eliminate one single jot of the old customs and virtues.  The second invasion took place about twenty years later and did at least bear a little fruit. This was the invasion of English travellers, of London lords and squires and the hordes of chandlers, soap-manufacturers, grocers and bone merchants who followed them.  This invasion at least ended the old hospitality and transformed the honest inhabitants of the Alpine huts, who previously hardly knew what money was, into the most mean and rascally swindlers anywhere to be found.  But this advance made no impact at all on the old simple customs.  This not so very virtuous chicanery fitted in perfectly with the patriarchal virtues of chastity, skill, probity, and loyalty.  Even their piety suffered no injury; the priests were delighted to give them absolution for all the deceptions practiced on British heretics.

But it now looks as if all this moral purity is about to be thoroughly stirred up.  It is to be hoped that the punitive detachments will do their best to finish off all the probity, primitive power, and simplicity. Then moan, you philistines! For there will be no more poor but contented shepherds whose carefree peace of mind you might wish for yourselves on Sundays after you have made your cut out of selling coffee made of chicory and tea made of sloe leaves during the other six days of the week.  Then weep, you schoolmasters, for there will be an end to your hopes for a new Sempach-Marathon and other classical feats.  Then mourn, you hysterical virgins over thirty, for those six-inch leg calves, the thought of which solaced your solitary dreams, will soon be gone — gone the Antinous-like beauty of the powerful “Swiss peasant lads,” gone the firm thighs and tight trousers which attract you so irresistibly to the Alps.  Then sigh, tender and anaemic boarding-school misses, who when reading Schiller’s works delighted in the chaste but oh so powerful love of the agile chamois hunters, for all your fond illusions are lost and now there is nothing left for you but to read the works of Henrik Steffens and fall for the frigid Norwegians.

But no more of that.  The Ur-Swiss must be fought with weapons quite different from mere ridicule.  Democracy has to settle accounts with them about matters quite different from their patriarchal virtues.

Who defended the Bastille on July 14, 1789 against the people who were storming it? Who shot down the workers of the Faubourg St. Antoine with grape-shot and rifle bullets from behind safe walls? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund, grandsons of Tell, Stauffacher and Winkelried.

Who defended the traitor Louis XVI on August 10, 1792 from the just wrath of the people, in the Louvre and the Tuileries? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who suppressed the Neapolitan revolution of 1798 with the help of Nelson? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who re-established the absolute monarchy in Naples — with the help of Austrians — in 1823? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who fought to the last on July 29, 1830, again for a treacherous king 10 and again shot Paris workers down from the windows and colonnades of the Louvre? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who suppressed the insurrections in Romagna in 1830 and 1831, again along with the Austrians, with a brutality which achieved world notoriety? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

In short, who holds the Italians down, to this day, forcing them to bow to the oppressive domination of their aristocrats, princes and priests; who was Austria’s right hand in Italy, who enables the bloodhound Ferdinand of Naples to keep a tight rein on his anguish-stricken people to this very moment, who has been acting as his executioners to this day carrying out the mass shootings he orders? Always, again and again, Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund, again and again, the grandsons of Tell, Stauffacher and Winkelried!

In one word, wherever and whenever a revolutionary movement broke out in France either directly or indirectly advantageous to democracy, it was always Ur-Swiss mercenaries who fought it to the last, with the utmost resolution.  And especially in Italy these Swiss mercenaries were always the most devoted servants and handy men of Austria.  A just punishment for the glorious liberation of Switzerland from the talons of the two-headed eagle!

One should not think that these mercenaries were the refuse of their country, or that they were disavowed by their fellow- countrymen.  Have not the people of Lucerne had a statue hewn out of the rock at their city gates by the pious Icelander Thorvaldsen, depicting a huge lion, bleeding from an arrow wound, covering the Bourbon fleur-de-lis with his paw, faithful unto death, in memory of the Swiss who died at the Louvre on August 10, 1792?  This is the way Sonderbund honors the venal loyalty of its sons.  It lives by the trade in human beings and glorifies it.

Can the English, French, and German democrats have had anything in common with this kind of democracy?

Through its industry, its commerce and its political institutions, the bourgeoisie is already working everywhere to drag the small, self-contained localities which only live for themselves out of their isolation, to bring them into contact with one another, to merge their interests, to expand their local horizons, to destroy their local habits, strivings and ways of thinking, and to build up a great nation with common interests, customs and ideas out of the many hitherto mutually independent localities and provinces.  The bourgeoisie is already carrying out considerable centralization.  The proletariat, far from suffering any disadvantage from this, will as a result rather be in a position to unite, to feel itself a class, to acquire a proper political point of view within the democracy, and finally to conquer the bourgeoisie.  The democratic proletariat not only needs the kind of centralization begun by the bourgeoisie but will have to extend it very much further.  During the short time when the proletariat was at the helm of state in the French Revolution, during the rule of the Mountain party, it used all means — including grape-shot and the guillotine — to effect centralization.  When the democratic proletariat again comes to power, it will not only have to centralize every country separately but will have to centralize all civilized countries together as soon as possible.

Ur-Switzerland, on the other hand, has never done anything but obstruct centralization; with really brutish obstinacy it has insisted on its isolation from the whole outside world, on its local customs, habits, prejudices, narrow-mindedness, and seclusion.  It has stood still in the centre of Europe at the level of its original barbarism, while all other nations, even the other Swiss, have gone forward.  It stands pat on cantonal sovereignty with all the obduracy of the crude primitive Germans, that is, on the right to be eternally stupid, bigoted, brutal, narrow-minded, recalcitrant and venal if it so wishes, whether its neighbors like it or not.  If their own brutish situation comes under discussion, they no longer recognize such things as majorities, agreements, or obligations.  But in the 19th century it is no longer possible for two parts of one and the same country to exist side by side without any mutual intercourse and influence.  The radical cantons affect the Sonderbund, the Sonderbund affects the radical cantons, where, too, very crude elements still exist here and there.  The radical cantons are, therefore, interested in getting the Sonderbund to abandon its bigotry, narrow-mindedness and obduracy, and if it won’t, then its self-will must be broken by force; and this is what is happening at this moment.

The civil war which has now broken out can only help the cause of democracy.  Even though there is still a great deal of primitive Germanic crudity to be found in the radical cantons, even though a peasant, or a bourgeois regiment, or a mixture of both is concealed behind their democracy, even though the most civilized cantons still lag behind the development of European civilization and really modern elements only rise to the top slowly here and there, this is no great help to the Sonderbund.  It is necessary, urgently necessary, that this last bastion of brutal, primitive Germanism, of barbarism, bigotry, patriarchal simplicity, and moral purity, of immobility, of loyalty unto death to the highest bidder, should at last be destroyed.  The more energetically the Swiss Diet sets to work and the more violently it shakes up this old nest of priests, the more claim it will have on the support of all really resolute democrats, and the more it will prove that it understands its position.  But of course the five great powers are there and the radicals themselves are afraid.

As far as the Sonderbund is concerned, it is significant that the true sons of William Tell have to beg the House of Austria, Switzerland’s hereditary foe, for help just when Austria is baser, viler, meaner, and more hateful than ever.  This is yet another part of the punishment for the glorious liberation of Switzerland from the talons of the two-headed eagle and the much boasting that went with it.  And for the cup of punishment to be filled to the brim Austria itself has to be in such a pass that it could not give William Tell’s sons any help whatever.

Written about November 10, 1847

First published in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung No. 91, November 14, 1847