The Paradox of Enlightenment

Gor­don Parks, Invis­i­ble Man Retreat, Harlem 1952.

A curi­ous symp­tom of the resis­tance to the­o­ry on the Anglo-Amer­i­can left is a fix­a­tion on the Enlight­en­ment. The strik­ing para­dox of this fix­a­tion is the anti-intel­lec­tu­al appro­pri­a­tion of a trend of Euro­pean phi­los­o­phy, which is cred­it­ed with intro­duc­ing the now invi­o­lable stan­dards of sec­u­lar­ism, repub­li­can­ism, rights, free­doms, and equal­i­ty. The inter­pre­ta­tion of the Enlight­en­ment appears to take its most direct­ly polit­i­cal stakes in the inter­pre­ta­tion of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, a his­tor­i­cal episode rife with polit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions punc­tu­at­ed by the clang of the guil­lotine. In this con­text Jonathan Israel’s mag­is­te­ri­al his­to­ry of the “Rad­i­cal Enlight­en­ment,” cul­mi­nat­ing in a defense of the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas” which in his analy­sis were the pri­ma­ry cause of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, has entered direct­ly into polit­i­cal debate.

At a time when the mate­ri­al­ist analy­sis of his­to­ry is reemerg­ing as a viable stand­point, it is strik­ing to see the phi­los­o­phy of Enlight­en­ment – now reduced to the great key­words of uni­ver­sal­i­ty, ratio­nal­i­ty, and lib­er­ty – cred­it­ed with either the ini­ti­a­tion of a trend towards human free­dom, or the vio­lent impo­si­tion of West­ern pow­er. As Antoine Lilti points out in his 2009 review essay of the first two vol­umes of Israel’s opus, Israel’s claim that the French rev­o­lu­tion was the expres­sion of a mate­ri­al­ist and demo­c­ra­t­ic phi­los­o­phy presents us with “the para­dox of an ide­al­ist his­to­ry of mate­ri­al­ism.”

How­ev­er, for lib­er­al and even social­ist intel­lec­tu­als today with a high opin­ion of their own ideas, this ide­al­ist his­to­ry serves as a sooth­ing mantra. In an arti­cle for Jacobin, Lan­don Frim and Har­rison Fluss claim:

If the Left wants to resist the alt-right’s grow­ing pow­er, it needs to return to the roots of Enlight­en­ment ratio­nal­i­ty, which insists on the equal­i­ty of all peo­ple and pro­vides a strong the­o­ret­i­cal basis for social trans­for­ma­tion and uni­ver­sal eman­ci­pa­tion.

In an ear­lier arti­cle for The New Repub­lic, Frim and Fluss went as far as to make the star­tling claim that this Rad­i­cal Enlight­en­ment phi­los­o­phy was the miss­ing ele­ment of the Bernie Sanders cam­paign.

Admit­ted­ly, this leap of faith is admirable. Few would open­ly claim that an elec­toral campaign’s effec­tive­ness could be improved by the adop­tion of the prin­ci­ples of 18th cen­tu­ry philoso­phers, like Baron d’Holbach, who are not even read in most phi­los­o­phy depart­ments. And indeed, this leap of faith mir­rors Israel’s own, when he asserts that the “one-sub­stance monis­tic meta­physics” that is ini­ti­at­ed by Baruch Spin­oza and the “rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy and egal­i­tar­i­an­ism” promised by the French Rev­o­lu­tion are inex­tri­ca­bly linked.

In the con­text of the facile rejec­tion of uni­ver­sal­ism and the homog­e­niza­tion of the his­to­ry of Europe car­ried out by Amer­i­can aca­d­e­mic trends, Israel’s texts have per­formed an invalu­able ser­vice. He has shown how the influ­ence of the great rad­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist philoso­pher Spin­oza was foun­da­tion­al in the for­ma­tion of the Rad­i­cal Enlight­en­ment, a phi­los­o­phy of human eman­ci­pa­tion which must be opposed to the “mod­er­ate Enlight­en­ment” of Voltaire, John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, hith­er­to can­on­ized as Enlight­en­ment tout court in the Anglo­phone tra­di­tion. He has demon­strat­ed that the Enlight­en­ment was no uni­tary phe­nom­e­non, but one com­posed also of cur­rents across Europe that opposed slav­ery and the oppres­sion of wom­en. The eman­ci­pa­to­ry dimen­sion of the intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal tumult of mod­ern Europe is restored, again­st the essen­tial­ist obfus­ca­tion pop­u­lar­ized by Amer­i­can cul­tur­al stud­ies since the 1990s.

How­ev­er, despite the inar­guable val­ue of Israel’s research, his con­clu­sions have not effec­tive­ly weath­ered schol­ar­ly scruti­ny. Thus his claim for the rev­o­lu­tion­ary actu­al­i­ty of the Enlight­en­ment stands on a shaky foun­da­tion. As the his­to­ri­an of the French Rev­o­lu­tion Lynn Hunt point­ed out in The New Repub­lic, “A con­vinc­ing intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry of the French Rev­o­lu­tion would have to be less grandiose about the pow­er of ideas.” Set­ting aside the ques­tions of his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion, this prob­lem is also rel­e­vant to con­tem­po­rary attempts to rede­ploy the Enlight­en­ment polit­i­cal­ly. For those who rec­og­nize that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas of the French Rev­o­lu­tion were wrecked on the shoals of the cap­i­tal­ist regime of pri­vate prop­er­ty, Israel’s very cri­te­ria for their judg­ing their rev­o­lu­tion­ary char­ac­ter pose imme­di­ate prob­lems.

His denun­ci­a­tion of the most egal­i­tar­i­an trends of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, influ­enced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as antic­i­pa­tions of “fas­cism” may prove the most dif­fi­cult to swal­low. As Hunt points out: “In the speech­es given in the var­i­ous nation­al assem­blies between 1789 and 1793, all of them now search­able online, d’Holbach is nev­er men­tioned. Helvétius and Diderot come up only a hand­ful of times, and almost always in a list with oth­ers, most notably Rousseau. Rousseau, by con­trast, is every­where.” The con­ve­nient dec­la­ra­tion that today’s neo-fas­cists are in direct oppo­si­tion to the French Revolution’s Enlight­en­ment lega­cy runs into con­sid­er­able trou­ble if it tries to claim a ground­ing in Israel’s analy­sis.

This skep­ti­cal schol­ar­ly recep­tion of Israel’s con­clu­sions – in the pop­u­lar press one might also con­sid­er Samuel Moyn in The Nation and David A. Bell in The New Repub­lic and the New York Review of Books – fre­quent­ly cite Lilti’s review, and it is thus essen­tial for it to be tak­en more seri­ous­ly in the Anglo­phone con­ver­sa­tion. Lilti is a French his­to­ri­an known for his book The World of the Salons: Socia­bil­i­ty and World­li­ness in Eigh­teen­th-Cen­tu­ry Paris, which presents a mate­ri­al­ist analy­sis of the Enlight­en­ment by inves­ti­gat­ing the­se famous sites of elite lit­er­ary dis­cus­sion. His review of Israel applies this care­ful and crit­i­cal his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal approach to an eval­u­a­tion of Israel’s meth­ods and con­clu­sions, accom­pa­nied by Lilti’s own eru­di­tion as a schol­ar of the Enlight­en­ment.

Lilti shows that Israel oper­ates on the basis of a per­for­ma­tive con­tra­dic­tion which under­mi­nes his very project. The most pow­er­ful philo­soph­i­cal cri­tique of Carte­sian dual­ism (that of Spin­oza) is deployed in ser­vice of a his­to­ri­og­ra­phy which repro­duces this very dual­ism. Israel’s account sub­or­di­nates mate­ri­al his­tor­i­cal process­es to the ideas which are put for­ward in books, which, as Lilti points out, are now famous but were not always so. The works of d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Diderot can­not be assumed to be more influ­en­tial than oth­er texts, includ­ing clan­des­tine man­u­scripts, news­pa­pers, and speech­es, in the absence of a mate­ri­al his­to­ry which shows what was actu­al­ly pub­lished, dis­sem­i­nat­ed, and read by his­tor­i­cal actors from the 16th cen­tu­ry on.

Such eli­sions are the effect of Israel’s ide­al­ist his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, which Lilti diag­noses with pre­ci­sion. As his essay remains untrans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, it is worth quot­ing at length:

My objec­tive here is not to rehearse the old debates oppos­ing social his­to­ry and intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry. What appears more strik­ing, at the method­olog­i­cal lev­el, is that Israel stops here, at this affir­ma­tion of an intel­lec­tu­al change of which it is a mat­ter of retrac­ing the his­to­ry, in the form of the thwart­ed yet inex­orable pro­gres­sion of a coher­ent and com­bat­ive rad­i­cal­ism, struc­tured by Spin­ozism. He seems to be unaware of a whole oth­er cur­rent of intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, which insist­ed on the lim­its of the inter­pre­tive ges­ture, on the sub­terfuges of coher­ence, on the pro­found­ly unsta­ble dimen­sion of tex­tu­al sig­ni­fi­ca­tions. This approach, nour­ished by the work of Michel Fou­cault or by the warn­ings of Jacques Der­ri­da, then defend­ed by authors like Dominick LaCapra, could, how­ev­er, have cau­tioned Israel again­st the use of homo­ge­neous and coher­ent cat­e­gories like “Spin­ozism,” “Rad­i­cal Enlight­en­ment,” or “moder­ni­ty,” where it is impor­tant to be sen­si­tive to the slid­ing of sig­ni­fi­ca­tions, the ambi­gu­i­ty of texts, the per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty of philo­soph­i­cal utter­ances, and the inter­pre­tive oper­a­tions which are those of his­to­ri­ans. Even stay­ing with­in the frame­work of a more clas­si­cal intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry of the Enlight­en­ment, we might remem­ber Fran­co Venturi’s warn­ing again­st the ide­al­ist impasse of a his­to­ry of ideas attached to the recon­sti­tu­tion of the coher­ence of philo­soph­i­cal sys­tems, in com­plete con­tra­dic­tion with the pre­cise­ly non-sys­tem­at­ic dimen­sion of Enlight­en­ment thought.

Lilti’s essay is wide-rang­ing in its impli­ca­tions for schol­ars, but it is espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant to those of us who draw both the­o­ret­i­cal­ly and prac­ti­cal­ly on Marx­ist analy­sis. A mate­ri­al­ist analy­sis of the “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tions” shows not only that the­se his­tor­i­cal episodes have been incor­rect­ly equat­ed with the com­ing of demo­c­ra­t­ic rights (rights which were in fact only won by mass strug­gle again­st the enlight­ened bour­geoisie), but also that the very his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal con­cept of bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion mis­lead­ing­ly con­flates the emer­gence of cap­i­tal­ist prop­er­ty rela­tions with the world­view of a poor­ly defined “mid­dle class.” In this light, Israel’s read­ing of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, and his claim that its eman­ci­pa­to­ry lega­cy can be con­tin­ued today by embrac­ing and extend­ing its ideas, are impos­si­ble to accept.

For a mate­ri­al­ist under­stand­ing of his­to­ry it is obvi­ous that no idea can change a mate­ri­al ensem­ble of social rela­tions, unless it is tak­en up with­in mate­ri­al process­es of social and polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. Of course, this is by no means con­trary to an informed read­ing of the Enlight­en­ment and its con­se­quences. A vast lit­er­a­ture of Marx­ist schol­ar­ship on Spin­oza exists in Europe, rep­re­sent­ed by fig­ures like Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, Eti­en­ne Bal­ibar, Pier­re Macherey, Anto­nio Negri, and many oth­ers. Israel more or less ignores this schol­ar­ship, and explic­it­ly rejects its gen­er­al milieu – rep­re­sent­ed for him by Michel Fou­cault – as anti-Enlight­en­ment and there­fore regres­sive. Lilti, con­ver­sant in this lit­er­a­ture and sen­si­tive to its impor­tance, presents a crit­i­cal read­ing of Israel’s work which demol­ish­es the super­fi­cial and instru­men­tal use of the Enlight­en­ment in con­tem­po­rary intel­lec­tu­al debates. For an Anglo­phone left which has, to its eter­nal dis­cred­it, defined its the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive in oppo­si­tion to the­se con­ti­nen­tal cur­rents, Lilti issues an essen­tial chal­lenge.

What is at stake here is not only the restric­tive and lim­it­ing ide­ol­o­gy of Anglo­phone Marx­ism. It is also the pos­si­bil­i­ty of claim­ing and con­tin­u­ing the lega­cy of a tru­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary body of thought, which is sit­u­at­ed with­in process­es of mate­ri­al trans­for­ma­tion. To cred­it the idea of uni­ver­sal ratio­nal­i­ty with the trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety is a philo­soph­i­cal absur­di­ty for Spin­oza. His dev­as­tat­ing heresy, we must remem­ber, was to assert that mind and body are the same sub­stance. Super­sti­tion, then, is caused by the lim­its of bod­ies in their attempts to per­ceive and under­stand nature. This point was best under­stood by Althusser, whose famous essay on ide­ol­o­gy is essen­tial­ly an extend­ed Marx­ist com­men­tary on the appen­dix to book 1 of the Ethics.

Fur­ther­more, Spin­oza equates rea­son with the encoun­ters with oth­er bod­ies that increase a body’s pow­er of act­ing. The intel­lect is insep­a­ra­ble from con­crete prac­tice, and there­fore ratio­nal­i­ty is the effect of mate­ri­al rela­tions. It is sit­u­at­ed with­in the field of forces that shapes and lim­its its effec­tive­ness.

Spin­oza con­sid­ers “hope” to be an ulti­mate­ly pas­sive emo­tion, so we will not hope for any change in the out­look of Anglo­phone Marx­ist. Instead, we will sug­gest that Marx­ists are led by rea­son beyond the easy and mis­guid­ed invo­ca­tion of the Enlight­en­ment, to a prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy that car­ries on Spinoza’s sub­ter­ranean lega­cy for the present. As War­ren Mon­tag, whose Bod­ies, Mass­es, Pow­er serves as an ori­en­ta­tion in the Marx­ist rather than pos­i­tivist appro­pri­a­tion of Spin­oza, puts it in an inter­view with Sal­vage: “phi­los­o­phy must, before any­thing else, under­stand the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­junc­ture in which it exists in order to act effec­tive­ly, that is, it must con­front its own mate­ri­al exis­tence.”

And what of the Enlight­en­ment itself? Here we may draw on the inci­sive analy­sis of Michel Fou­cault in his 1978 lec­ture “What is Enlight­en­ment?” As Fou­cault point­ed out, the Enlight­en­ment, “as a set of polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, social, insti­tu­tion­al, and cul­tur­al events on which we still depend in large part, con­sti­tutes a priv­i­leged domain for analy­sis.” But per­form­ing this analy­sis “does not mean that one has to be ‘for’ or ‘again­st’ the Enlight­en­ment.” In fact, this is intel­lec­tu­al “black­mail,” which it is imper­a­tive to refuse:

It even means pre­cise­ly that one has to refuse every­thing that might present itself in the form of a sim­plis­tic and author­i­tar­i­an alter­na­tive: you either accept the Enlight­en­ment and remain with­in the tra­di­tion of its ratio­nal­ism (this is con­sid­ered a pos­i­tive term by some and used by oth­ers, on the con­trary, as a reproach); or else you crit­i­cize the Enlight­en­ment and then try to escape from its prin­ci­ples of ratio­nal­i­ty (which may be seen once again as good or bad). And we do not break free of this black­mail by intro­duc­ing “dialec­ti­cal” nuances while seek­ing to deter­mine what good and bad ele­ments there may have been in the Enlight­en­ment.

There are those who will balk at ref­er­ences to Fou­cault, since today this thinker is reviled by social democ­rats due to some per­ceived lack of piety for the wel­fare state. Of course, his super­fi­cial anti-Marx­ist pro­nounce­ments, tak­en far too seri­ous­ly by both adher­ents and detrac­tors, should not obscure for us the pro­duc­tive dia­logue he con­duct­ed with Marx­ist the­o­ry, but also with incar­cer­at­ed work­ers and the move­ment for abor­tion rights, all essen­tial to his polit­i­cal prac­tice as a fel­low trav­eller of 1970s French Mao­ism.

As for the now-fash­ion­able accu­sa­tion that Fou­cault was “soft” on neolib­er­al­ism, it must first of all be not­ed that to repeat ahis­tor­i­cal moral affir­ma­tions of the wel­fare state, as if they were the Lord’s Prayer, is not a sub­sti­tute for under­stand­ing how cap­i­tal­ist states came to adopt and even­tu­al­ly aban­don this con­fig­u­ra­tion. Fou­cault treat­ed neolib­er­al­ism with the same intel­lec­tu­al rig­or he applied to the Enlight­en­ment, aim­ing not to arrive at moral judg­ment but to write the his­to­ry of a par­tic­u­lar way of gov­ern­ing. As Johan­na Oksala writes in an astute com­men­tary on the debate over Fou­cault and neolib­er­al­ism:

Foucault’s approach… implies that neolib­er­al­ism and the state can­not be under­stood as sim­ply anti­thet­i­cal to each oth­er when they are under­stood to com­bine in the form of a ratio­nal­ly coor­di­nat­ed set of gov­ern­men­tal prac­tices. Hence, the polit­i­cal stakes do not come down to being for or again­st the state. Fou­cault was not suf­fer­ing from “state-pho­bia” and explic­it­ly warned the left again­st it. Our cur­rent prob­lem, on the oth­er hand, is not “the ero­sion of the state,” but its neolib­er­al reor­ga­ni­za­tion.

It is not too late, sure­ly, to set aside the leap of faith based on reduc­tive inter­pre­ta­tions of his­to­ry and take up the task Fou­cault described so well: a his­tor­i­cal inquiry into the way our con­tem­po­rary sub­jec­tiv­i­ty has been con­sti­tut­ed by the Enlight­en­ment. As we set off on this path, let us also adopt Foucault’s humil­i­ty: “I do not know whether it must be said today that the crit­i­cal task still entails faith in Enlight­en­ment; I con­tin­ue to think that this task requires work on our lim­its, that is, a patient labor giv­ing form to our impa­tience for lib­er­ty.”

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.