Radical Enlightenment 2: Dialectical Enlightenment. Toward a Positive Research Program

Our recent article, “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia,” in Jacobin Magazine, has elicited a flurry of responses, running the gamut from enthusiastic to excoriating.

However, most of the critical replies have remained at the level of exegetics. That is, they have questioned whether our championing of the “Radical Enlightenment” tradition accurately reflects the whole body of Enlightenment literature. Further, they have questioned whether this tradition itself can truly take credit for the various emancipatory gains of the 19th and 20th centuries – from workers’ movements, to feminism, to anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles.

We believe that we are on firm empirical ground on both counts. Certainly, critics may legitimately point to the retrograde attitudes of some Enlightenment thinkers. However, reducing the Enlightenment to its worst aspects neglects its radical strain that deduced the need for an emancipatory politics of the oppressed. This tendency is what the Hegelian-Marxist C.L.R. James would call “universalism from below.” We clearly see this trait in Radical Enlightenment figures, from Denis Diderot to Toussaint Louverture, and from Gracchus Babeuf to Mary Wollstonecraft.

Yet exegetical thinking can only take us so far. It is not enough to name-drop, quote-monger, or cite historical minutiae to merely “problematize” a discourse. Beliefs, whether metaphysical or political, should be defended. One cannot support a set of convictions simply by citing the words of bygone philosophers, nor can one critique another’s convictions by complaining that they have not “read enough” of their own pet philosopher. The fact that professional philosophy is prone to this mode of discourse belies a certain authoritarian disposition, that is, a constant need to appeal to authority.

A consistent politics requires conceptual argumentation. The burden then is on us to prove that the central features of the rationalist worldview are wholly necessary to develop a coherent emancipatory program today. Such a project exceeds the scope of this one response. Nevertheless, we can begin to outline the likely contours of such a research project.

The culmination of this project must necessarily be practical. Thus, we want to show how political theory — especially Marxist political theory — is still relevant and applicable to contemporary struggles. Marx’s great advance over the political economy of his day was to understand more clearly capitalism’s laws of motion. But Marxist theory still needs a philosophical grounding. Marx was not as dismissive of philosophy as many contemporary Marxists take him to be; according to his correspondence with Joseph Dietzgen, he was even planning to write his own treatise on dialectics. While Marx had a strong interest in questions of epistemology, natural science, history, and human freedom, he died before he could author any singular philosophical system that could tie all of his major insights together.

Marx’s project not only criticizes the inhuman conditions of capitalism, arguing for international workers’ solidarity, but it also understands that the present crises of capitalism are in fact surmountable. These crises are not miraculous occurrences, but are rather the predictable results of economic tendencies inherent to the capitalist mode of production, specifically rooted in the drive for profit, competition, and exploitation.

Capitalism is just a system of human relations: it can be criticized and overcome. Marx’s naturalistic understanding of history puts human events back into the hands of ordinary people. It precludes defining history as driven by “great men,” individual genius, or alternatively, by acts of radical evil, divine intervention, and other mysterious and occult forces.

Nevertheless, Marx’s naturalistic philosophy is not thoroughly worked out by Marx and Engels themselves. The move towards a Marxist ontology is evident in some of Engels’ writings, such as Anti-Duhring and the Dialectics of Nature. These works, however insightful, remain underdeveloped in part because of Marx and Engels’ own reservations about systematic philosophy.

Our project demands going deeper than Marx or Engels. Marxism is a scientific worldview, and any coherent worldview requires an underlying metaphysics. Metaphysics today is a very unfashionable word. Even Hegel said in the 19th century that people reacted against metaphysics like they would the mention of a plague. People typically confuse metaphysics with dogmatism, i.e., the simple assertion of fundamental truths without argument.

Metaphysics must proceed dialectically if it is not to be mere dogmatism.  What does this mean?

As against the common view, dialectics does not simply mean that things are complicated, or worse, irreducibly complex. To the contrary, dialectics is a form of deduction — but it is deduction of a certain sort. For Hegel, it means deducing the inner dimensions of a thing such that this object becomes less abstract and more determinate to the mind. In other words, it becomes more intelligible, concrete, and multifaceted. Dialectics is the basis for achieving what has long been called the “unity of diversity and identity.” Moreover, it shows how contradictions within an object are not fixed and static, but are resolvable within the larger whole, giving this whole its determinate shape. Dialectics accordingly moves past the irresolvable antinomies of Kant, or the tragic “either/or” pessimism of Kierkegaardian existentialism. As opposed to passivity and fatalism, dialectical logic allows for an active politics.

It follows that class struggle is not Manichean; it is not an interminable battle between Good and Evil. The social contradiction of class society is a human problem which has a specific resolution in a future, classless society. The way we can conceive of the class struggle — indeed, the way we determine which side to support — is grounded in which side incarnates the universal interest. While not all individuals are part of the working class, the historical aim of the working class to abolish class society is that of the human race as such.

To speak of the universal interest entails some conception of universal human nature. Of course, humans are historical beings, and their specific behaviors, customs, and ways of socializing change with time and place. Ways of producing and consuming also undergo transformation, but acknowledging humans as historical beings does not condemn one to relativism. On the contrary, registering such changes presupposes something constant in the background: a universal human desire for safety, comfort, and overall well-being. There is an abiding imperative to self-preservation, and relatedly, there is the impetus to satisfy human needs through labor, as well as the social impulse to cooperate for this same end.

The concept of human nature, or what the young Marx called species-being, allows us to measure which circumstances are most conducive to human flourishing. These are the circumstances that would allow for greater welfare, prosperity, and peaceful cooperation. Only with a concept of human nature can we make sense of Marx’s statement that human existence has not yet caught up with its essence. Besides, without such a common essence, both the future classless society, and the international solidarity needed to achieve it, would be impossible to conceive; there has to be some positive basis for transcending local differences.

Dialectical reasoning in Marx and Hegel is premised upon even more fundamental metaphysical insights. A project such as ours that seeks to ground emancipatory politics in metaphysics will find its starting point in the Radical Enlightenment philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. Human history can only be intelligible if it is situated within a rational conception of nature as a whole. Spinoza’s metaphysical monism provides this conception.

Only if we conceive of the universe as a singular substance, defined equally by the attributes of thought and extension, can we come to the Hegelian conclusion that the real is rational and the rational real, and so engage in both understanding and changing the world. Hegel critically accepts Spinoza’s parallelism of thought and being, expressed in the latter’s proposition that “the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.”

The principal objection to this monism, and to Hegel’s dictum, is that if everything is rational, then how can there be any criticism at all? However, as Marx said, “reason has always existed, but not always in rational form.” Capitalism is an irrational system because it fails to meet the basic needs of people, and does not allow for the full realization of human nature. Yet the ways in which capitalism arose and how it functions is perfectly susceptible to rational analysis. To understand the laws of motion in capitalism is to understand capitalism’s inherent limitations and vulnerabilities. Indeed, it is only this rational analysis which gives us the keys to combat and abolish it.

Spinoza is the Enlightenment philosopher who most systematically draws the necessary connections between rational thought and activism. All human beings are egoistic, and desire their own welfare. Those who rationally perceive the means to increased welfare will pursue them, and so are called active. This is the basis not only for self-preservation, but also solidarity, through which our powers of action are greatly magnified. Those mired in ignorance, who do not clearly perceive what is in their interest, will instead be compelled by external forces, and so are called passive.  Spinoza’s main work is called the Ethics for a reason – it is not a work of idle speculation, but a guide to action.

The research agenda we propose is the philosophical reconstruction of Marxism as grounded in rationalist ontology. It is not an exercise in exegetics, but seeks to delineate those concepts necessary for an emancipatory politics today. None of this is to imply that ideas alone will move the world, but they are certainly necessary for changing it. A revolutionary program needs a revolutionary philosophy.