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 and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).