Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

Jac­obin pub­lished an art­icle just over a week ago en­titled “Ali­ens, An­ti­semit­ism, and Aca­de­mia,” writ­ten by Landon Frim and Har­ris­on Fluss. “Alt-right con­spir­acy the­or­ists have em­braced post­mod­ern philo­sophy,” the au­thors ob­serve, and re­com­mend that “the Left should re­turn to the En­light­en­ment to op­pose their ir­ra­tion­al and hate­ful polit­ics.” While the ar­gu­ment in the body of the text is a bit more nu­anced, re­fer­ring to the uni­ver­sal­ist­ic egal­it­ari­an “roots of En­light­en­ment ra­tion­al­ity,” the two-sen­tence con­dens­a­tion above the byline at least has the vir­tue of blunt­ness. The rest of the piece is fairly me­dio­cre, as per usu­al, a rather un­ob­jec­tion­able point de­livered in a flat pop­u­lar style. Fluss and Frim strike me as ly­ing some­where between Do­men­ico Los­urdo and Zer­stö­rung der Ver­nun­ft-vin­tage Georg Lukács, minus the Stal­in­oid polit­ics. But the gen­er­al thrust of their art­icle is sound, draw­ing at­ten­tion to an­oth­er, more ori­gin­al cur­rent of thought that arises from the same source as the ir­ra­tion­al­ist ideo­lo­gies which op­pose it — i.e., from cap­it­al­ist mod­ern­ity. Plus it in­cludes some amus­ing tid­bits about this Jason Reza Jor­jani char­ac­ter they went to school with, whose ideas eli­cit a certain mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion in me. Gos­sip is al­ways fun.

Is it pos­sible to “re­turn to the En­light­en­ment,” however? Some say the past is nev­er dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if by­gone modes of thought sur­vive in­to the present, em­bed­ded in its un­con­scious or en­shrined in prom­in­ent con­sti­tu­tions and leg­al codes, this hardly means that the so­cial con­di­tions which brought them in­to ex­ist­en­ce still ob­tain. One may in­sist on un­timely med­it­a­tions that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, chal­len­ging its thought-ta­boos and re­ceived wis­dom, but no one ever en­tirely es­capes it. So it is with the En­light­en­ment, which now must seem a dis­tant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury was seen by many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies as a com­pos­ite of thinkers is­su­ing from the Auf­klä­rung. Moses Hess wrote en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Ber­thold Auerbach about the young re­volu­tion­ary from Tri­er: “You will meet in him the greatest — per­haps the only genu­ine — philo­soph­er of our gen­er­a­tion, who’ll give schol­asti­cism and me­di­ev­al theo­logy their coup de grâce; he com­bines the deep­est in­tel­lec­tu­al ser­i­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Ima­gine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine, and Hegel fused in­to one per­son (I say fused, not jux­ta­posed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the an­cients, he was also a great ad­mirer of mod­ern po­ets and play­wrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Di­derot was Marx’s fa­vor­ite polit­ic­al writer.

Cer­tainly, Marx and his fol­low­ers were heirs to the En­light­en­ment project of eman­cip­a­tion. Louis Men­and has stressed the qual­it­at­ive break­through he achieved, however, along with En­gels and sub­se­quent Marx­ists. Ac­cord­ing to Men­and, “Marx and En­gels were phi­lo­sophes of a second En­light­en­ment.” What was it they dis­covered? Noth­ing less than His­tory, in the em­phat­ic sense:

In pre­mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life: people do things in their gen­er­a­tion so that the same things will con­tin­ue to be done in the next gen­er­a­tion. Mean­ing is im­man­ent in all the or­din­ary cus­toms and prac­tices of ex­ist­en­ce, since these are in­her­ited from the past, and are there­fore worth re­pro­du­cing. The idea is to make the world go not for­ward, only around. In mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are not giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life; they are thought to be cre­ated or dis­covered. The re­pro­duc­tion of the cus­toms and prac­tices of the group is no longer the chief pur­pose of ex­ist­en­ce; the idea is not to re­peat, but to change, to move the world for­ward. Mean­ing is no longer im­man­ent in the prac­tices of or­din­ary life, since those prac­tices are un­der­stood by every­one to be con­tin­gent and time­bound. This is why death in mod­ern so­ci­et­ies is the great ta­boo, an ab­surdity, the worst thing one can ima­gine. For at the close of life people can­not look back and know that they have ac­com­plished the task set for them at birth. This know­ledge al­ways lies up ahead, some­where over his­tory’s ho­ri­zon. Mod­ern so­ci­et­ies don’t know what will count as valu­able in the con­duct of life in the long run, be­cause they have no way of know­ing what con­duct the long run will find it­self in a po­s­i­tion to re­spect. The only cer­tain know­ledge death comes with is the know­ledge that the val­ues of one’s own time, the val­ues one has tried to live by, are ex­pun­ge­able. Marx­ism gave a mean­ing to mod­ern­ity. It said that, wit­tingly or not, the in­di­vidu­al per­forms a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a tra­ject­ory, and that mod­ern­ity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. His­tor­ic­al change is not ar­bit­rary. It is gen­er­ated by class con­flict; it is faith­ful to an in­ner lo­gic; it points to­ward an end, which is the es­tab­lish­ment of the class­less so­ci­ety.

Ed­mund Wilson like­wise saw this drama in nar­rat­ive terms. That is to say, he un­der­stood it as hav­ing a be­gin­ning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an ac­count of this dra­mat­ic se­quence in his 1940 mas­ter­piece To the Fin­land Sta­tion, for which Men­and wrote the above pas­sage as a pre­face. It began in Par­is in the last dec­ade of the eight­eenth cen­tury. (Per­haps a long pro­logue could also be in­cluded, in­volving murky sub­ter­ranean forces that took shape un­der feud­al­ism only to open up fis­sures that sw­al­lowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis per­sonae take the stage. Loren Gold­ner ex­plains that “it was not in France but rather in Ger­many over the next sev­er­al dec­ades that philo­soph­ers, above all Hegel, would the­or­ize the ac­tions of the Par­isi­an masses in­to a new polit­ics which went bey­ond the En­light­en­ment and laid the found­a­tions for the com­mun­ist move­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Marx… This real­iz­a­tion of the En­light­en­ment, as the re­volu­tion ebbed, was at the same time the end of the En­light­en­ment. It could only be salvaged by fig­ures such as Hegel and Marx.” Bur­ied be­neath re­ac­tion, the lu­min­ous dream of bour­geois so­ci­ety would have to en­dure the night­mare of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion be­fore ar­riv­ing with Len­in in Pet­ro­grad. Among Len­in’s first ex­ec­ut­ive acts after the Bolshev­ik seizure of power in Oc­to­ber 1917 was to or­gan­ize a Com­mis­sari­at of En­light­en­ment [Ко­мис­са­ри­ат про­све­ще­ния], where his sis­ter Maria would work un­der his long­time friend and com­rade Anato­ly Lun­acharsky.

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