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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Albert Mathiez on Robespierre and the cult of the Supreme Being

recently published an article by Harrison Fluss about the Robespierrist Cult of the Supreme Being, instituted 1794. An okay article, overall, useful for sharing an obscure bit of revolutionary history (if for no other reason). The piece is marred by several historical inaccuracies and theoretical assumptions, which I address in a piece that is forthcoming on a couple of websites. Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, informed me that Fluss’ essay was a bit of a departure from the stuff they usually publish, so they weren’t planning on running a response.

In any case, one of the main historiographical controversies I touch on toward the end of my response is the dispute between François-Alphonse Aulard and his former pupil Albert Mathiez. Both men were partisans of the French Revolution, defenders of its legacy, but where the former was more of an historian of the popular movement (an historian “from below,” as they say) the latter was more an historian of the revolutionary government (an historian “from above”). Mathiez is a bit blinded, at times, by his unwavering devotion to Robespierre, but he is right that Aulard unfairly adopts some of the Thermidorian rhetoric regarding the Incorruptible’s private ambitions to dictatorship, etc. He never provides an adequate response to Aulard’s central contention, however, that Robespierre counterposed his own Cult of the Supreme Being to the Cult of Reason proposed by Hébert. Nevertheless Mathiez raises a number of pertinent points here, in his usual lively polemical style.

Evaluations, overviews, and synopses of this crucial conflict of interpretations between Mathiez and Aulard are almost ubiquitous in the literature on this subject. Ferenc Fehér, Arno Mayer, R.R. Palmer, and Albert Soboul all dedicate several pages to an assessment of the debate. So I was somewhat flabbergasted to see it wasn’t mentioned at all by Fluss in his article. It is not a minor omission, especially if it concerns Robespierre and the Hébertists. The scholars Fluss cites instead are Lewis Feuer and Nick Nesbitt. While Feuer’s book on Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism is an otherwise excellent text, he’s mistaken to see a Spinozist influence in Robespierre’s doctrine of the Supreme Being. Robespierre insisted on the immortality of the soul, something Spinoza explicitly denied. Feuer admits as much: “Spinoza…held to a view which was tantamount to a denial of personal immortality.” Indeed, this was ostensibly the reason he was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter in 1656. Nesbitt, whose book Caribbean Critique I have read (despite Fluss’ allegations to the contrary) and whose name Fluss seems unable to spell (“Nisbett”), nowhere argues that Spinoza was a source of the civic religion proposed by Rousseau and actualized, albeit briefly, by Robespierre. Paul Vernière is the classical source of this line of inquiry. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy clearly would have been a more direct influence on Rousseau, who Robespierre took this idea from, particularly the chapters dealing with Roman religion. It surprises me that Fluss would be so enthusiastic about Robespierre’s Supreme Being, in any case, seeing as his philosophical master Hegel referred to it derisively in the Phenomenology (§586) as “the exhalation of a stale gas, of the vacuous l’Être Suprême.”

Anyway, Mathiez is an interesting character, a self-styled Jacobin and Robespierrist who, despite his chauvinist support of France during World War I, later sympathized with the Bolsheviks in Russia. There’s a lot of language praising the Jacobins’ patriotism, their love of Fatherland, etc. Below are some images of the Festival of the Supreme Being from the period, followed by the text. You can enlarge them and scroll through by clicking on them. Enjoy!

Robespierre and the cult
of the Supreme Being

Albert Mathiez
Annales révolutionnaires
April-June 1910

The figure of Robespierre has been so misrepresented during the last twenty years, even by republican historians, that to talk of the Incorruptible’s religious ideas nowadays may seem a rash undertaking.

Robespierre, it is proclaimed, was a narrow intelligence, a man of the ancien régime, a coldly ambitious nature who desired to reign over France by imposing upon the country, through the Terror, a counterfeit Catholicism, a deism glorified into a religion of State.

I cannot hope to study here the whole religious policy of Robespierre backed up by the documents and proofs.

It must suffice to choose one example; to examine precisely what part was played by Robespierre in the establishment of the Cult of the Supreme Being: especially since this is the usual butt of all his detractors.

What do the republican historians hostile to Robespierre say? They contrast the Cult of the Supreme Being with the Cult of Reason. The Cult of Reason, which they praise unreservedly, was, according to them, the Hébertist party’s own creation. It was, they say, a pantheistic or even atheistic cult, a means of intellectual emancipation. The Cult of the Supreme Being, on the contrary, they allege to have been invented by Robespierre, in all its details, for the satisfaction of his unbridled ambitions and mystical passions. It was, they say, an attempt at political enslavement and intellectual reaction.

Now, however generally accepted this contrast between the two revolutionary cults may be, it is nonetheless false. Far from having been the invention of a few men, Chaumette, Fouché, Hébert, and Cloots, or even of a party, the Cult of Reason was merely the culminating point in a series of civic festivals, the origin of which goes back to the great Feast of the Federation of July 14, 1790.1 The Festival of Reason resembled all the preceding ones. The same odes were sung, the same processions went through their evolutions, the same patriotic emotion stirred men’s hearts at the sight of the same republican symbols. The new feature of the 20th Brumaire, Year II, the day on which the Commune and the Convention glorified Reason in Notre-Dame de Paris, was not even the place chosen for the ceremony — a cathedral — for churches had already, witnessed similar scenes beneath their vaulted roofs. The new feature was this: that the fall of constitutional Catholicism, the secularization of the churches, and the abdication of the priests coincided with this festival.

But even the overthrow of the constitutional Church cannot be ascribed to the Hébertist party alone, for the Girondins themselves, such as Pierre Manuel, Guadet, and Vergniaud, had worked for it energetically since the days of the Legislative Assembly.

Nor was the solemn abdication of the Archbishop of Paris, Gobel, which gave an impulse to the dechristianizing movement, exclusively the work of the Hébertists; for it arose from the initiative of Pereira, Proli, and their friends, the party of the Enragés [extremists] which had its center in the people’s societies in the sections, and caused the Commune and Convention a moment’s alarm; and the initiative of the people’s societies was seconded by some notoriously moderate men, such as Thuriot, Basire, and Chabot,2 The truth is that the Hébertists, Chaumette, Cloots, and Hébert were merely falling into line with the obscure patriots of the sections, the nameless crowd of sans-culottes in the outlying parts of Paris. Continue reading