Jacobin published an article just over a week ago entitled “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia,” written by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss. “Alt-right conspiracy theorists have embraced postmodern philosophy,” the authors observe, and recommend that “the Left should return to the Enlightenment to oppose their irrational and hateful politics.” While the argument in the body of the text is a bit more nuanced, referring to the universalistic egalitarian “roots of Enlightenment rationality,” the two-sentence condensation above the byline at least has the virtue of bluntness. The rest of the piece is fairly mediocre, as per usual, a rather unobjectionable point delivered in a flat popular style. Fluss and Frim strike me as lying somewhere between Domenico Losurdo and Zerstörung der Vernunft-vintage Georg Lukács, minus the Stalinoid politics. But the general thrust of their article is sound, drawing attention to another, more original current of thought that arises from the same source as the irrationalist ideologies which oppose it — i.e., from capitalist modernity. Plus it includes some amusing tidbits about this Jason Reza Jorjani character they went to school with, whose ideas elicit a certain morbid fascination in me. Gossip is always fun.
Is it possible to “return to the Enlightenment,” however? Some say the past is never dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if bygone modes of thought survive into the present, embedded in its unconscious or enshrined in prominent constitutions and legal codes, this hardly means that the social conditions which brought them into existence still obtain. One may insist on untimely meditations that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, challenging its thought-taboos and received wisdom, but no one ever entirely escapes it. So it is with the Enlightenment, which now must seem a distant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nineteenth century was seen by many of his contemporaries as a composite of thinkers issuing from the Aufklärung. Moses Hess wrote enthusiastically to Berthold Auerbach about the young revolutionary from Trier: “You will meet in him the greatest — perhaps the only genuine — philosopher of our generation, who’ll give scholasticism and medieval theology their coup de grâce; he combines the deepest intellectual seriousness with the most biting wit. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine, and Hegel fused into one person (I say fused, not juxtaposed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the ancients, he was also a great admirer of modern poets and playwrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Diderot was Marx’s favorite political writer.
Certainly, Marx and his followers were heirs to the Enlightenment project of emancipation. Louis Menand has stressed the qualitative breakthrough he achieved, however, along with Engels and subsequent Marxists. According to Menand, “Marx and Engels were philosophes of a second Enlightenment.” What was it they discovered? Nothing less than History, in the emphatic sense:
In premodern societies, the ends of life are given at the beginning of life: people do things in their generation so that the same things will continue to be done in the next generation. Meaning is immanent in all the ordinary customs and practices of existence, since these are inherited from the past, and are therefore worth reproducing. The idea is to make the world go not forward, only around. In modern societies, the ends of life are not given at the beginning of life; they are thought to be created or discovered. The reproduction of the customs and practices of the group is no longer the chief purpose of existence; the idea is not to repeat, but to change, to move the world forward. Meaning is no longer immanent in the practices of ordinary life, since those practices are understood by everyone to be contingent and timebound. This is why death in modern societies is the great taboo, an absurdity, the worst thing one can imagine. For at the close of life people cannot look back and know that they have accomplished the task set for them at birth. This knowledge always lies up ahead, somewhere over history’s horizon. Modern societies don’t know what will count as valuable in the conduct of life in the long run, because they have no way of knowing what conduct the long run will find itself in a position to respect. The only certain knowledge death comes with is the knowledge that the values of one’s own time, the values one has tried to live by, are expungeable. Marxism gave a meaning to modernity. It said that, wittingly or not, the individual performs a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a trajectory, and that modernity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. Historical change is not arbitrary. It is generated by class conflict; it is faithful to an inner logic; it points toward an end, which is the establishment of the classless society.
Edmund Wilson likewise saw this drama in narrative terms. That is to say, he understood it as having a beginning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an account of this dramatic sequence in his 1940 masterpiece To the Finland Station, for which Menand wrote the above passage as a preface. It began in Paris in the last decade of the eighteenth century. (Perhaps a long prologue could also be included, involving murky subterranean forces that took shape under feudalism only to open up fissures that swallowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis personae take the stage. Loren Goldner explains that “it was not in France but rather in Germany over the next several decades that philosophers, above all Hegel, would theorize the actions of the Parisian masses into a new politics which went beyond the Enlightenment and laid the foundations for the communist movement later articulated by Marx… This realization of the Enlightenment, as the revolution ebbed, was at the same time the end of the Enlightenment. It could only be salvaged by figures such as Hegel and Marx.” Buried beneath reaction, the luminous dream of bourgeois society would have to endure the nightmare of industrialization before arriving with Lenin in Petrograd. Among Lenin’s first executive acts after the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 was to organize a Commissariat of Enlightenment [Комиссариат просвещения], where his sister Maria would work under his longtime friend and comrade Anatoly Lunacharsky.