Who Turned the Lights Off?

July 7, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The world today is in the grips of the irrational and anarchic system of global capitalism dominated by the United States and characterised by international economic and political disorders, wars, poverty and environmental destruction. In order to arrive at solutions to the problems facing humanity we will have to devise methods to overcome the capitalist system of irrationality and replace it by a rational international order based on the principles of democratic control rooted in a rational approach to solving the problems of war, economic inequality and environmental degradation by means of reason (logic and science).

It is important that those concerned with trying to bring about a transition from the unworkable present to a better future, which is not dominated by predatory capitalist superpowers and their hangers on, have a clear understanding of the most important historical movement before Marxism that attempted to bring about a better world and the lessons it has for us today.

This movement is known to history as the Enlightenment which dates, more or less, from the middle of the 17th Century (one could almost say from the writings of Spinoza and his heirs) until the mid-19th century when nationalism and class warfare turned the ruling elites against the Enlightenment’s values of social justice, equality, and human rights, and turned off the lights which had illuminated and revealed the problems facing humanity and their solutions. Lights that were reignited by the world socialist movement initiated by the works of Marx and Engels.

Today these values are again on the agenda, at least as far as lip service is concerned. This article will review the analysis of Anthony Pagden’s new book, “The Enlightenment and why it still matters,” by Jonathan Israel published in the TLS of June 21, 2013 (“How the light came in”).

Israel has some initial good things to say about this book but then he mounts some very strong objections to its view of the Enlightenment– so strong that I don’t think this book would be a good introduction to the importance of this historical period.

Israel begins by telling us the Enlightenment is much more significant in the creation of “modernity” than the Renaissance or the Reformation (as important as these other movements were). Pagden’s book is, he says, “one of the better surveys of the Enlightenment.” However, Israel gives the following negative evaluations.

First, he finds the book’s views on the beginnings of the Enlightenment and its “overall interpretation” to be “unsatisfactory.” Who would begin to study a 436 page history book based on this evaluation? What is the reason for this negative view? The book is too anglo-centric with respect to the origins of the early Enlightenment (late 17th to mid 18th centuries.) The stress is on Hobbes, Locke, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson “and other British and Irish thinkers.” In reality these figures were of minor importance compared to the Continental writers such as Leibniz, Wolff, Bayle, Thomasius and Spinoza and were rarely cited by them.

In fact, the really important early writings were in French (or Latin) but from a Dutch “milieu.” It was Holland, not England that in 1700 or so “counted internationally as the world’s foremost model of a tolerant, prosperous republican ethnic and religious melting pot.” Locke, for all his British acclaim, “was of practically no significance” to such major radical Enlightenment figures as Pierre Bayle and Denis Diderot. In fact, as Israel points out elsewhere, the most important thinker for the entire Enlightenment period, was Spinoza. One might also conclude that in the whole era between Descartes and Marx the two most outstanding philosophical giants were Spinoza and Hegel.

Israel considers it a “serious omission” that Pagden practically ignores the major role of the Dutch Republic in favor of Britain as the inspiration to Enlightenment thinkers favoring political reform and a republican form of government. The first big struggle for democracy in the modern world was not the American Revolution of 1776-83 (it was “not fully democratic”) but the Patriottenbeweging (Patriot movement) of 1780-87 in Holland which was referred to at least as often by the Enlighteners leading the French Revolution as were the English revolutions of the previous century.

The book’s greatest flaw is the failure to identify properly those Enlightenment figures responsible for the creation of “democratic modernity” which Pagden thinks was a principal achievement of the Enlightenment. Instead it concentrates on the traditional standbys of Anglo-American scholarship– Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Voltaire and Adam Smith– all of whom were “moderates” [Hume was an outright racist] “who made no particular contributions to furthering racial and gender equality, anti-colonialism, full freedom of thought and religion, press freedom, universal secular education or general emancipation.” They were the least revolutionary with respect to changing the status quo in a radical manner and so have become the most well known and taught in anglophone countries.

Besides a greatest flaw (Israel says “principal weakness”) there is a “key vulnerability” as well. This reveals itself in the last chapter on the role of the Enlightenment in the French Revolution. Pagden sees only two major phases in the Revolution: the first Enlightenment phase that reined in the monarchy in June 1789 and under the rule of the National Assembly created the constitution of 1791 and the second the Terror under Robespierre which, as Israel agrees, “denied the Enlightenment’s core values”.

There were, however, not two– but three revolutions according to Israel– there was a middle period between 1791 (the date of the “monarchist constitution” put forth by moderates led by the Marquis de Lafayette and other liberal monarchists, and the Terror. Pagden ignores this “tragic middle phase” led by the kind of radical philosophes favored by Israel and better known as the Girondins as opposed to Robespierre’s Jacobins.

Israel says the Girondins were radical democrats who wanted universal male suffrage, were opposed to slavery, and favored the rights of women, as well as universal toleration and an unrestricted free press. Israel also says Robespierre was completely opposed to these radical democrats and that after the Jacobins seized power in 1793 they instituted the Terror and went “all out to suppress the Enlightenment in government, social theory and education’.”

This may be a bit unfair to Robespierre and the Jacobins who thought the Revolution itself was on the verge being overthrown by reactionary counter-revolutionary forces and that Girondin polices were not forceful enough to prevent this. The Jacobins seized power not because they rejected Enlightenment ideas but because they thought a temporary people’s democratic dictatorship was required to save the Revolution and that the Girondins, by opposing them, had placed themselves on the side of counter-revolution whatever their subjective attitudes toward the Revolution might have been.

The Girondins did not trust the revolutionary masses and were against direct democracy and in favor of indirect representative democracy whereby the people’s elected representatives (educated and cultured folks such as the Girondins) would represent the real interests of the people who were too ignorant and uneducated to properly represent themselves. The Jacobins came to power by means of a direct democratic appeal to the revolutionary masses to save the Revolution and whatever the ultimate evaluation of the Terror may turn out to be, many, if not most, historians credit the Jacobins and Robespierre with reversing the counter-revolution and preventing the collapse of the Republic.

Under the Jacobins, Feudalism was abolished in France and a new democratic constitution was enacted in 1793. This Jacobin constitution was ratified by a vote which was undertaken with universal male suffrage and it was based on the 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” and it supported popular sovereignty and instituted rights for the French people such as the right of association, the right to work, to public welfare, to public education, the right to rebel against any government violation of the people’s rights. The Jacobins also abolished slavery throughout the territories governed by France.

This constitution shows that the values of the Enlightenment were not foreign to Robespierre and the Jacobins. However, despite coming up with this great progressive constitution supported by the revolutionary masses, the Jacobins also decided to postpone implementing it until the counter- revolutionary threat was over and the Terror was no longer necessary. The Jacobins were overthrown in 1794 by a milder counter-revolution than the one they had saved the country from so their constitution was never really implemented and was replaced by a less revolutionary one in 1795 which was nevertheless influenced by it.

Israel only half agrees with Pagden’s assertion that the Enlightenment was a reform movement not a revolutionary one that, in his words, “had in fact, always been identified with reform rather than revolution.” Pagden misses the point that there were really TWO Enlightenments– a moderate conservative and/or reformist one [e.g., Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Burke, Ferguson, Gibbon– just to mention anglophones], and a radical one [Bentham, John Jebb, Price, Thomas Paine, Priestley, Mary Wollenstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, Godwin, Barlow, Jefferson, Elihu Palmer]. This same split could also be found on the Continent where such “super” radicals as Diderot, d’Holbach, Helvétius, Lessing for example, faced off against moderates such as Voltaire, Leibniz, Wolff, and later Kant and their followers. The counter Enlightenment attacked both these Enlightenments sometimes confusing them as just one movement– which many counter Enlightenment intellectuals continue to do in our own day.

The “fundamental idea” of the radical Enlightenment was, according to Israel, “that the true human moral order is based not on divine revelation or intervention but exclusively on social utility, especially equality and secularism.” Moderate figures fudge these distinctions and reactionary counter Enlightenment thinkers (if thinkers they be) deny them completely.

The great rift created by the radical Enlightenment between those who appeal basically to reason (logic and science) to solve our problems and those who want to “balance” reason “with religion, existing institutions, the prevailing social order and tradition” still exists today and is at the heart of the political and social struggles that will shape the 21st century.


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This post was written by Thomas Riggins

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