The Great Divide:
The Enlightenment and its Critics

Stephen Eric Bronner

[from New Politics, vol. 5, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 19, Summer 1995]

Stephen Eric Bronner is a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of the New Politics(editorial board.


Max Weber already envisioned the spirit of Enlightenment "irretrievably fading" and a world in which there would remain only "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart."1 But he was bitter about this development, which places him in marked contrast to much of contemporary opinion. The Enlightenment, of course, always had its critics. Beginning with the Restoration of 1815 and the new philosophical reaction to the French Revolution, however, they were almost exclusively political -- if not necessarily cultural -- adherents of the right: intelligent conservatives committed to organic notions of development like Edmund Burke, elitists seeking a return to the sword and the robe like Joseph de Maistre, racists intent on viewing world history as a battle between aryans and Jews like Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and apocalyptics prophesying doom like Oswald Spengler.

Interestingly enough, however, a critique of the Enlightenment has now become part of the philosophical and polemical stock in trade of many on the left. It comes in various guises: post-modernists consider the Enlightenment as "essentialist," radical feminists view it as "male," advocates of former colonies often disparage it as "Eurocentric" or white. Communitarians condemn its individualism, religious zealots bemoan its skepticism, populists castigate its intellectualism, and traditionalists decry its rejection of experience as the criterion of truth. Dogmatic Marxists dismiss the Enlightenment as "bourgeois," anarchists are repelled by its emphasis on the state, and ecologists by its unwavering belief in science and technology. Even certain followers of the Frankfurt School still view the Enlightenment as the unwitting source of modern totalitarianism.


Left critics of the Enlightenment form a motley crew and, perhaps, this reflects the current disarray of progressive forces. But there is something that, ultimately, binds all of them: a basic rejection of what Carlo Rosselli, the great Italian martyr to anti- fascism, called "liberal socialism."2 And this is precisely where the problem emerges. The Enlightenment generated various paralyzing ideas of mechanical materialism and historical teleology. Many of its proponents identified the increase in scientific knowledge with progress per se while, arguably, others threw a representational straightjacket over art and literature. Even in the realm of political theory, which is the issue here, its emphasis on abstract universal precepts of "reason" and the egoistic individual along with not just the "right" to property, but the right to employ it without any regard to the public interest, has led to much disillusionment with the legacy of the Enlightenment in general and liberalism in particular. But, while criticisms are easy to make, none of the critics have been able to develop an alternative set of principles with which to inform a genuinely progressive politics. Indeed, there is hardly a single ideal of the left, which does not derive from the Enlightenment.

Political democracy, economic equality, and cultural internationalism are its legacy. Its philosophers informed every subsequent emancipatory movement of those whom Ernst Bloch called "the lowly and the insulted." Perhaps certain anti-Enlightenment philosophers influenced particular thinkers on the left and given Enlightenment ideas were employed by some conservative movement or another. But the world is not quite so "contingent" as the postmodernists would have it. Weber was correct when he spoke about the "elective affinity" existing between particular theories and given forms of practice. Enlightenment philosophy was, in fact, primarily embraced by the labor movement and those seeking liberal political reforms while its critics inspired the great movements of right-wing reaction.

Contemporary reactionaries understand all this better than the left -- and they are willing to draw the consequences. Stalinism and the failure of the Soviet experiment obviously leads them to call for the liquidation of Marxism tout court. But since the events of 1917 were based on the French Revolution, which itself was inspired by "Voltaire's bastards," they now find it necessary to contest the values of 1789 and the great critic of injustice as well. Even this, however, is not enough. For, insofar as these developments were informed by the American and the English Revolutions, it is also necessary to take the next step and transform the meaning of these events by identifying their real importance with laissez-faire capitalism and a society based on law and compromise. The result is, in keeping with the practical emergence of a new conservatism, a new ideological attack on the Enlightenment and the political legacy of what R.R. Palmer called the "age of the democratic revolution."

There is no contradiction in neo-conservative theory between the instrumental rationalism of its free-market assumptions, its social darwinism, and its willingness to exploit populist sentiments regarding "family values," "creationism," and various forms of prejudice. Atavism and a rejection of the radical implications generated by the Enlightenment legacy bind these tendencies of neo-conservatism together. If its irrational populism contrasts with the rationalist tenets of liberalism, for example, its employment of classical "liberal" political economy and social darwinism short-circuits the commitment to equality and tolerance. Thus, the conservative project evidences a coherence and sense of purpose sorely lacking on the contemporary left.

Talk about introducing what Richard Rorty has called a "new language" for the left has been going on for more than 25 years. But, especially with the introduction of notions like "ethno-solidarity," the promise loses its radical quality. The real issue is not the language anyway. It is rather what the left has to say: what aims it projects, what values it embraces, and whether it can render meaningful judgments on its enemies and itself.

Advocates of Enlightenment values may have to make compromises with movements willing to embrace reactionary assumptions about "experience" or racial particularism or anti-intellectual populism in any number of practical struggles. Religion offers a case in point. Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Jean-Baptiste Aristide, all used religious symbolism and institutions to further the fight for Enlightenment ideals. Theory never mechanically translates into practice and often, in the process, loses its coherence. But this does not make the quest for theoretical coherence any the less important. Quite the contrary. The past shows how important it is to recognize such contingent philosophical or political compromises for what they are rather than as "necessary" steps toward a utopian goal. It is a matter of the left becoming able to criticize its practical and theoretical shortcomings in relation to the ideals it projects. Nevertheless, this presupposes clarity about the cluster of political values informing liberalism and socialism.

The fights between "liberals" and "socialists" have, of course, often been bitter. But the three great issues of contention have essentially been overcome. Modern liberals have now generally embraced substantive notions of equality and mitigated their original views concerning the unqualified "private" character of property and the repressive nature of an activist state. For their part, especially with the added impetus of 1989, socialists now recognize more than ever the political value of the liberal inheritance and the dangers inherent in unaccountable forms of planning. Differences surely still exist regarding issues like class and the individual or the role of markets against the need for socialization. Nevertheless, these all pale in the face of what has become the most dramatic conservative offensive since McCarthyism.

A cluster of common ideological concerns underpin both progressive politics and the socialist project. The excesses created by privatization in the East and the introduction of what is perhaps best termed market populism in the West have drawn sharp political and ideological lines of division in practice. But theory has tended to ignore these developments. It has even become quite fashionable to talk about the obsolescence of "left" and "right."3 This is all the more unfortunate, of course, since such ideas are appearing precisely when the forces for liberal reform -- let alone socialist change -- are under siege as perhaps never before. And embracing right-wing ideas in order to further a left-wing project won't help either. Now, more than ever, political theory must distinguish left from right. Nevertheless, this is possible only by making reference to the core values deriving from what spawned the division between left and right in the first place: the Enlightenment.

The Liberal Inheritance

The Enlightenment is usually associated with France and especially its philosophes of the 18th century whose great names include Beaumarchais, Diderot, Laplace, Rousseau, and Voltaire. But this is mistaken. It began about a century earlier with figures like Descartes and Spinoza, and first coalesced in England around figures like Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. The new thinking, however, spread quickly. Its impact was felt in Scotland by David Hume and Adam Smith and in the American colonies by Jefferson, Franklin, and Thomas Paine. It travelled to the Germany of Lessing and Mendelssohn, Kant and Hegel, Schiller and Goethe. Even Spain, shrouded in the darkness of a feudal absolutism, experienced its effects through the remarkable group of intellectuals centering around the philosopher Olivares and the painter Goya.4 Its new values were spread in Latin America by Simon Bolivar and its spirit inspired Toussaint L'Ouverture.

The Enlightenment was, in short, a genuinely international phenomenon with a political and ideological dynamic whose core values derived from the burgeoning liberalism of the 17th century. Liberalism was connected with a revolutionary commitment to republicanism, tolerance, and experimentation. It gave the members of what would become the "third estate" a new sense of their rights and their dignity.5 Liberalism insisted on the separation of Church and state. It preoccupied itself, for this reason, with a secular response to the injustices suffered by the outsider and a new notion of ethical, rather than merely material progress. It sought to overcome prejudice and coercion in favor of a rational adjudication of grievances. Indeed, from the first, liberalism initiated the modern concern with constraining the arbitrary exercise of power on which any democratic form of socialism would have to build. Its presuppositions were generated in England by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. They initially identified the public realm with "political society" or the state and the private realm with the interplay of particular interests and personal property in "civil society." They looked neither to history nor to religious dogma in order to legitimate what soon would become a new political worldview. Instead, they made certain abstract assumptions about human nature, identified them with the rising bourgeoisie, and drew the consequences for politics.

Thomas Hobbes described the hypothetical "state of nature" as a "war of each against all" while John Locke conceived of it as a rather poorly ordered existence of relatively well-intentioned persons concerned with property. The difference in their views of human nature was decisive for the degree of authority they provided the state. Both saw, however, the need for a new political order whose character would become determined by the people themselves under the auspices of a hypothetical social contract. Thus, the state received a new importance in theory around the very time it was becoming the predominant form of political organization in practice.

Capitalism is inconceivable without an "impartial" political form predicated on consent and capable of enforcing contracts in a consistent manner, which logically calls upon the new "state" to divorce itself from civil society. So, for both Hobbes and Locke, the state was conceived as utilitarian insofar as its primary purpose lay in buttressing law through sanctions and regulating the ruthless competition of the market by self- interested if responsible individuals. The concept of raison d'état, perhaps best articulated by Machiavelli, was not lacking. Nevertheless, ever more surely, it came into conflict with the new liberal emphasis on the consent of the governed.

Sovereignty gradually became identified with the universal citizenry or "the people." It occurred first with Hobbes whose more authoritarian tendencies render his work less an expression of liberalism than a transition to the new philosophy. He recognized that the monarch was no better or worse than his subjects and that political legitimation could rest neither on God nor blood. Hobbes had no use for revelation or prophecy as the criterion of truth. The state would, for this reason, remain fully sovereign over religious authorities in the public arena. But Hobbes was content to legitimate the monarch only through a "social contract" in which everyone transferred all their rights to him. Thus, for all his support of absolutism, Leviathan was condemned precisely because it militated against the "divine right of kings" as well as the inherent superiority of the aristocrat.

Public now distinguishes itself from private existence. The state stands over and apart from the personal interests defining civil society while law becomes external to the individuals comprising the community. The possibility of impartial arbitration of grievances, in this way, presents itself. Anticipating Max Weber, the sovereign is depersonalized by Hobbes and identified with a "mechanism" or institution. Citizens surrender the right to punish offenses and to define the law as they arbitrarily see fit.6 But, in turn, they receive the security necessary in order to go about their business and preserve their lives from the imminent dangers associated with an ongoing condition of war. It was, for Hobbes, a rational exchange predicated on consent.

He saw the citizenry as calculating people who understood their own lives in the horrific state of nature as "nasty, poor, solitary, brutish, and short." It only made sense that they should consider the preservation of life, if not liberty, as their central concern. This meant obedience from the citizenry and the ability to command it by the state. Whether the state proved monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic was not the issue. Resistance could only prove legitimate if a person's life was directly in danger and revolution became valid only if the regime itself could no longer exercise authority to maintain the life of its citizens.

But, if only in the extreme instance, revolution gained legitimacy and the people their power. The first steps had been made. Hobbes, however, quickly tried to retreat. Anything which weakened the exercise of power became anathema to him and he opposed the ability of individuals to make claims against the state, the "division" of sovereignty or the separation of powers, the subjection of the sovereign to civil laws, and even the "absolute" right of private individuals to their property.7 Hobbes clearly wished to establish an identity between the sovereign and the source of sovereignty or, putting it in somewhat different terms, the representative of the people and the individuals of the community. Nevertheless, the self-interest of the individual understood in terms of self-preservation created the basis for undercutting this absolute identity just as the willingness of Hobbes to contest "experience" and tradition" opened the way for a new commitment to political experimentation.


Preserving this tension between identity and difference called for a new commitment to democratic experimentation. The question for the new liberalism of John Locke would now become how to maintain it in the face of traditional institutions, prejudice, and the power of vested interests without falling into the absolutism of Hobbes. The answer would come by an immanent criticism of the framework employed to justify the leviathan in the first place based on the recognition that the arbitrary power of the monarch ultimately undercuts the very security its citizens require.

The social contract was predicated on the idea that individuals have a rational stake in preserving order. The mistake Hobbes made, according to Locke, was in identifying this stake with self-preservation rather than property; thus, for example, lèse majesté serves as a constant and, in principle, unnecessary threat to the freedom of each. Locke believed that, so long as citizenship was based on property, rational individuals would have no interest in creating disorder so long as they were left in peace to go about their business. Such is the assumption on which he would base his view that the state should engage in only the most important tasks and essentially leave "civil society" to run its course. It is not necessary for individuals to transfer all their rights to the sovereign. They should retain their right to "life, liberty, and property," which would later receive a slightly different articulation in The Declaration of Independence as the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Absolutism was correctly understood by Locke as "inconsistent" with "civil society."8 Its prerequisites were seen as interfering with the instrumental pursuit of private interests and, for this reason, liberal theory could no longer remain content with merely noting that sovereignty resides in the people. It would now have to deal with the accountability of the sovereign, which presupposes the ability of private individuals to make claims against the public authority. Because few sanctions are possible against an all-powerful centralized authority, however, Locke was led to anticipate Montesquieu's idea of the "separation of powers" and emphasize the role of the legislature as well as the importance of a constitution wherein the various rights and duties of citizens are delineated.

Repression of individual opinion and the right to assembly lose their legitimacy. The liberal rule of law can now contest the arbitrary exercise of power by the state. Thus, Locke could write:

. . . Freedom of Men under Government, is, to have a standing Rule to live by, common to everyone of that Society, and made by the Legislative Power erected in it; A Liberty to follow my own will in all things where the Rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, Arbitrary will of another Man.9

Reciprocity becomes the prerequisite for a genuinely liberal order. Each must have equal claims upon the state, the universal becomes the anchor of the particular, and formal identity the condition for the exercise of substantive difference. A universal right to opinion and assembly, in this vein, becomes the presupposition for any particular citizen to press a grievance or experiment with new possibilities in the face of popular prejudices. Atheists and Catholics and women, for very different reasons, had no place in his vision. Here is an example of how liberals did not extend the immanent logic of their own universal principles.

But, for all that, tolerance assumes a value in its own right. This becomes clear in Locke's justly famous Letter on Toleration and not merely because it opposes dogmatism but also because tolerance is the only "prudent" way of dealing with the new pluralism born of markets as well as the ongoing contestation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation. Implicit in the liberal idea is that grievances of the weak and exploited demand rational adjudication and, should this not take place, revolution becomes legitimate. Indeed, the formal principle of reciprocity calls into question the limitations on its practical exercise.

Universals like the rule of law stand apart from private interests even as they ensure the possibility of pursuing them. A concern for the "common good" is generated along with an ethical imperative seeking to constrain the arbitrary power of the state. Concerns of this sort were part of the ideological, political and historical context in which Jean-Jacques Rousseau forged his idea of the "general will" with all its troubling contradictions.


The "general will," ideally, should identify the interests of citizens with those of the community. This occurs, quite obviously, when there is genuine unanimity. But Rousseau was aware of how rarely such unanimity is achieved and that, while respect for majority rule is necessary, the minority can often find itself in the position of representing the common good. The "general will" is a response to this problem even if its description, as the residue sifted from a free and open discussion among private individuals with their own particular wills, is obviously inadequate.

Rousseau demanded complete obedience from the private person, however, once the public decision concerning the "general will" was made. Also, in contrast to Locke, he refused to specify conditions in which individuals could make claims upon the sovereign. But few were as concerned as Rousseau with abolishing the unjustifiable privileges of the rich and the entitled. Implicitly aware of the alienation generated by bureaucratic institutions, including the organs of parliamentarism, he embraced the ideal of direct democracy and "le petit Jean-Jacques" was in turn embraced like virtually no other contemporary philosopher by the people -- "the simple souls" -- whose concerns for participation he sought to express. The "general will" remains a matter of contention. It is vague as a concept and, worse, it has provided the language for dogmatism in practice. But there is a self-evident sense in which any emancipatory response to authoritarianism must occur in the name of what Jurgen Habermas termed "generalizable interests" while any genuinely democratic ordering must prove capable of legitimating the public expression of minority sentiments. It thus probably best serves the radical democratic spirit of Rousseau's thought and -- above all -- its emancipatory relevance if the "general will" is understood more as an ethical guide for making public choices with an eye on maximizing the possibilities for participation than as a set of techniques or particular institutions for arriving at decisions. The essential point of Rousseau's enterprise, after all, was the practical project of generating public participation and fostering what Machiavelli originally termed "civic virtue."

Such a concern was, ironically, of particular importance in the less economically and ideologically developed nations of Germany and Russia. There the power of the crown blended most completely with the dogmatism of the church and the prejudices of the populace. It was precisely in the illiberal areas that liberal ethics were of the greatest practical relevance. Such was the context in which Moses Mendelssohn could write:

Hence, one of the state's principal efforts must be to govern men through morals and convictions. Now, there is no other way of improving the convictions, and thereby the morals, of men than through persuasion. Laws do not alter convictions; arbitrary punishments and rewards produce no principles, refine no morals. Fear and hope are no criteria of truth. Knowledge, reasoning, and persuasion alone can bring forth principles which, with the help of authority and example can pass into morals.10


Kant, in the same vein, called for an unimpeded "public" use of reason from any government. Perhaps Kant's concern with what in effect amounts to intellectual freedom from censorship stands at odds with his emphasis on the need to obey all contractual obligations in the hierarchical world of work constituting the "private" realm.11 The dichotomy is troubling. But it also generates a profound set of insights. These concern the responsibilities of government and the practical legitimation for revolution left unaddressed by Locke and Rousseau.

Late in life, such issues preoccupied Kant, who claimed any genuinely republican order must institutionally recognize the independence of each as a citizen with formal rights equal to those of all others. Even more importantly, however, such an order cannot force individuals to be happy in the way any single individual or institution conceives of the term; it must allow each to seek his or her "way of happiness" so long as this does not impinge on the ability of others to do the same or the freedom of all under a general law.12

Assumptions of this sort essentially identify democracy with the possibility of individuals participating in the public realm and pursuing their private interests as they see fit. Sex, race, and class, will -- in principle -- play no role. Kant's notion concerning the formal equality of all subjects, in fact, makes possible a criticism of any such barriers to the public exercise of reason as surely as recourse to the principles underpinning the liberal rule of law allows for the contestation of any regressive positive laws. Individuals are inherently seen by Kant as "responsible" (mündig) and capable of participating in public activities. Even in the most perfect constitutional order, however, the individual must choose to participate and make his or her beliefs known. Volition is the key and, in this sense, "Enlightenment" depends upon the "courage" of an individual to question rather than obey and, according to the famous words "leave behind his self-imposed immaturity."

Kant recognizes that this is far more difficult for any given individual to achieve than for the "public" at large.13 Critical thinking is seen as generated within a context and, for Kant, it becomes evident that the public right to criticism is the precondition for any genuine exercise of autonomy by the individual and also for maintaining at least the possibility of rectifying "errors" or the dogmatic claims of arbitrary power in the future. The need for free public disputation underpins his theory of right and also plays a profound role in his moral philosophy. Kant can, in fact, maintain that:

No age can swear an oath to commit its successors to a condition in which it would be impossible to extend knowledge, correct errors, and generally foster progress in Enlightenment. This would constitute a crime against human nature whose destiny initially consists in such progress."14

Cutting off the possibility of progress in the name of dogmatism justifies revolution and explains Kant's support for the events of 1789. Progress is created by the "asocial sociability" of people, which is principally fostered in commerce. If this mirrors the emphasis on what Adam Smith termed the "invisible hand" of the market, however, it also foreshadows what Hegel called "the cunning of reason." Not only will societies collapse when they constrain rather than foster the extension of universal freedom as incarnated in the Weltgeist, but power must merge with "right" or law in order for the state to adjudicate between the instrumental interests dominating the market and the sentimental forms of attachment to church and family all of which constitute civil society.

There is a precision in the thinking of Kant, however, lacking in his successor. "The owl of Minerva as only spreads its wings at dusk" and, for Hegel as for Hobbes, revolution is justified only post festum. For Kant, by way of contrast, the maintenance of an open future becomes the sole criterion for political action in the present. Action is seen as inherently requiring a speculative judgment rendered in a public forum. Or, putting the matter another way, freedom of expression serves as the precondition for all other freedoms. Thus, it becomes legitimate to interpret Kant in such a way that "the moment to rebel is the moment in which freedom of opinion is abolished."15

When freedom of opinion or expression is curtailed then correcting errors from the past and raising grievances in the present becomes impossible. Freedom of assembly and worship are also compromised once this basic freedom is violated. It is consequently no accident that these freedoms should have been seen as interconnected by the partisans of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. The struggle for civil liberties took place in the context of the broader struggle for a new "public sphere," which was necessary in order both to constrain the arbitrary exercise of power by authoritarian monarchies and vitalize a burgeoning set of republican institutions during the golden age of liberal theory.

Totalitarian Illusions I: The Enlightenment and Stalinism

The connection between liberalism and the Enlightenment is indisputable. Few would probably disagree about their connection with social democracy. But critics of the Enlightenment including postmodernists and "revisionist historians" usually fasten on its connection with Marxism, which is seen as inherently generating Leninism and then Stalinism. The polemical usage of this lineage has increased with the triumph of conservatism, but simply denying it is foolish. Progressives in general and Marxists in particular have an obligation to explain Stalinism, and it is profoundly ahistorical and "anti-Marxist" constantly to invoke what Marx "really" meant and then engage in a war of citations. Insecurity and defeat, however, have led many progressives to embrace conservative arguments intent on using Stalinism to discredit not only the contributions of the Russian Revolution and Marx, but the Enlightenment legacy as well. Such a stance only begs the question: if everything connected with the Enlightenment must fall under attack then what tradition should take its place?

The novum does not exist outside time and space. It always stands in a certain relation to the past. Marx and Engels were undoubtedly aware of this. They did not create their historical materialism out of thin air or some mish-mash of theories with mutually exclusive presuppositions. Historical materialism derived from a fusion of the most progressive insights culled from English political economy, French utopianism, and German idealism.16 That is fairly well known. But less recognized, especially by the critics, is the fact that one or more of these Enlightenment tendencies informed the worldview of virtually all of his major progressive opponents in the labor movement like Louis Blanc or Ferdinand Lassalle and -- insofar as the contrary was the case -- the result was a reactionary preoccupation with anti-Semitism as with Eugen Duhring, myth as with Georges Sorel, or the arbitrary exercise of power as with Benito Mussolini.

Socialism is a meaningless concept unless it makes reference to the Enlightenment and its liberal heritage. Conservative critics see a totalitarian lineage developing. But they have it backwards. It was the effort to turn socialism against the Enlightenment, which led to disaster. This becomes apparent in the sad history of the Soviet Union as well as the misadventures of so many experiments in "national self- determination." The idea of national self-determination, in fact, offers a case in point. It was intrinsically connected with republicanism and internationalism in the thinking of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.17 But that changed as surely as the notion of internationalism, which soon enough became the equivalent of Soviet national interest, in the hands of the Communists. They even perversely identified the notion of a republic with "people's republics" in which the very idea of institutional accountability was foreign. Indeed, this should give a clear indication of what will follow even if a somewhat more complicated historical analysis becomes necessary to disentangle the relation between Stalinism, Leninism, Marxism, and the Enlightenment.

Leninism is obviously indebted to the work of Marx. Just as it is mistaken to identify the Marxist notion of revolution with the legacy of 1789, however, so is it wrong to view Leninism as the only possible outcome of Marxism. Social democracy is as legitimate an heir of Marx as Leninism. Many orthodox Marxists and various theoreticians of European social democracy outside France, in fact, also looked with particular admiration at the English Revolution.18 Indeed, further research might even indicate how those socialists committed to republicanism and civil liberties in the more economically advanced nations looked across the English Channel while those in the less economically developed nations with more authoritarian tendencies embraced the "legend" of 1793.

Lenin viewed his Bolsheviks as "jacobins connected to the proletariat." But this does not justify current attempts to engage in a simplistic condemnation of both by collapsing one back into the other. Jacobinism inspired not only vanguardists like Louis-August Blanqui, but also genuine republican internationalists like Jean Jaures and Leon Blum. Jacobinism is not Leninism. Thus, even so pronounced an anti- Communist as Richard Lowenthal can note that:

. . . the dictatorial climax of the French Revolution was not, and could not be, a party dictatorship of the Jacobins, because the Jacobin Club never was the kind of disciplined, centralized, and ideologically homogeneous party that could have filled that role.19

Jacobinism, admittedly, gave fuel to the idea of a party dictatorship. But it was precisely in response to the "weaknesses" of Robespierre and his followers that Filip Buonarroti, a survivor of the Babeuf conspiracy, launched "the legend that Robespierre and the Jacobins had themselves set the example for that attempt."20 In fact, of course, the Jacobins had no need of doing so since they consistently held a majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Often forgotten, in this vein, is that democracy never recovered from the Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre. It was suspended in favor of first a new directorate and then Napoleon.

Liberal theory never posed the possibility of counter-revolution or how to deal with it and the Jacobins were the first to experience the consequences. This inadequacy was what Buonarroti initially sought to overcome with his idea of an "educational dictatorship," which was passed over to Blanqui, Peter Tkachev, and -- finally -- the Bolsheviks. The liberal republican tenets of Robespierre and the Jacobins degenerated in the face of the counter-revolution. But it was different with Babeuf and Buonorrotti. They were never liberals even though they were democrats at a time when democracy and socialism had not yet been differentiated. This is decisive since only liberalism can temper the potentially fanatical spirit of democracy or the dynamics which lead revolutions, like Saturn, to devour their children. In any event, however, the point becomes clear. Lenin's "dictatorship of the proletariat" was actually less a product of liberalism, Enlightenment politics, or even the Jacobins than a response to their perceived failings.


This is not the place to deal with matters of historical exigency or whether Stalinism was a necessary outcome of Leninism.21 But, for present purposes, it is important to consider that the Bolsheviks in power obviously rejected the progressive political inheritance of the bourgeoisie tout court. They quickly became contemptuous of "bourgeois" ethics, placed the state above the law, denied their citizens even the most basic civil liberties, and consistently chose to deal with their opponents by coercion rather than persuasion.

None of this, however, has anything to do with postmodern obsessions concerning the inherently totalitarian impetus deriving from Enlightenment ideas of teleology and determinism or its reliance on "grand narratives" and concepts like the "totality." Communists fell back on such notions when they were convenient in order to "excuse" or justify tactical blunders or authoritarian excesses. They were proudly cynical regarding universalistic claims, relativistic in their ethics and -- in the worst sense -- inspired by realpolitik.

Teleology and determinism, universalistic precepts and "grand narratives," were actually taken seriously not by the authoritarian Communists, but rather by the socialist labor movement whose partisans stood virtually alone in principled support of both liberal democracy and social justice throughout the 20th century. The totalitarian implications of ethical relativism and voluntarism are, in fact, probably stronger than those of teleology and determinism.

Lenin was consistently engaged in a battle with the social democratic partisans of orthodox Marxism, with their determinism and teleological insistence on the "necessity" of passing through a logical progression of historical stages -- the "grand narrative" -- before the revolution could occur. The first serious criticisms of the Bolshevik Revolution, in fact, were made by orthodox Marxists. Karl Kautsky warned against attempts to realize a socialist revolution in an economically undeveloped nation, and even Gramsci initially viewed the events of 1917 as a "revolution against Das Kapital,"22 while Rosa Luxemburg criticized the authoritarian ethos of the Bolsheviks and Leon Blum complained about their "moral incompatibility" with liberal socialists.

Despite its rejection of the liberal inheritance, of course, Leninism genuinely embraced any number of Enlightenment themes. The early years of the Russian Revolution involved a grand experiment with genuine international implications. There was a sense of progress, of hope, and the power of intellect. Leninism opposed the church, the aristocracy, and the other remnants of Russian feudalism with an ideology comprised of "science," the "people," and industrialism. The connection between Lenin and the Enlightenment is, for this reason, somewhat complicated. But that is not the case with Stalin.

There were, of course, many who embraced outworn teleological notions in which the end justifies the means or foolishly sought to identify the Stalin regime with a "dictatorship of reason."23 But there is no need to rehearse once again his litany of ideological crimes. Suffice it to say: whatever polemical use Stalin might have made of the Enlightenment heritage, especially in Europe during the Popular Front of the 1930s, Leszek Kolakowski is correct when he writes that:

Marxism under Stalin cannot be defined by any collection of statements, ideas, or concepts; it was not a question of propositions as such but of the fact that there existed an all- powerful authority competent to declare at any given moment what Marxism was and what it was not. 'Marxism' meant nothing more or less than the current pronouncement of the authority in question, i.e. Stalin himself.24

Leninism was the "wind from the East." It brought the pre- industrial colonial nations, comprising the vast majority of the world population, into the center of the socialist discourse. It was surely a force in fighting imperialist arrogance and racism. Its proponents were committed to modernization and the elimination of poverty, ignorance, and disease. Here, in fact, is where Hegel's "cunning of history" makes itself felt. The failure of the Russian Revolution, after all, ultimately stems from the attempt to create a bourgeois republic without a bourgeoisie in February and the subsequent attempt to produce a proletarian revolution without a proletariat in October. Or, putting it in somewhat different terms, the tragedy of 1917 and later revolutionary experiments in the once colonialized territories derive precisely from attempts to create a modern revolution in a pre-modern society by force of will alone.

Totalitarian Illusions II: The Enlightenment and Fascism

Dialectic of Enlightenment was perhaps the first great critical encounter with the philosophical legacy of modernity from the left.25 Completed in 1944, published in 1947, it is surely the most influential work of the Frankfurt School. The book, written in the context of totalitarianism and war, is a landmark in social theory. It radicalized the theory of alienation and "reification," initially inspired by Marx and developed by Georg Lukacs, and lamented the expulsion of freedom and subjectivity from the historical process through an increasing reliance on instrumental rationality. Its critique of the "culture industry" would profoundly influence an entire discourse. It provided one of the earliest attempts not only to link Marx with Freud, but also with Nietzsche, and called for a surrender of those optimistic assumptions about "civilization" which, in the era of totalitarianism and war, it was no longer possible to sustain. It contested dialectical orthodoxy by claiming that the price demanded by all teleological notions of progress is too high and, above all, placed the resurrection of an increasingly threatened subjectivity at the center of any radical project.

Enlightenment takes on two meanings in the thinking of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. It comprises both a historically specific scientific "theory of knowledge," which was developed in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries in contesting theological dogma, as well as an anthropological struggle with error and superstition.26 The two come together and, in this way, a genuine critique of the one implies a critique of the other. Thus, the radicalism of their undertaking: the critique of the Enlightenment becomes the critique of human history.

Scientific rationality is seen as the philosophical method of Enlightenment insofar as its "objective" or instrumental character can easily undermine the dogmas of religion and myth in the name of normative concerns like freedom and tolerance. But such rationality has its own dynamic and, gradually, its power turns against all non-scientific precepts including those emancipatory values which inspired the scientific project in the first place. Precisely to this extent, however, its ability to contest repression diminishes and becomes, in keeping with the prediction of David Hume, a "slave of the passions."

Deluded by assumptions of unilinear progress, the sentimentality of humanism,27 intoxicated by scientific rationality, complacent in their utilitarian domination of nature, the proponents of Enlightenment basically engendered precisely what they wished to suppress. Its rationality became identical with the "rationality of domination" and the irrational beliefs it sought to destroy reappeared as its own product. Thus, for Horkheimer and Adorno, fascism -- or the weaving of all realms into a seamless web of bureaucratic domination -- is seen as an outgrowth of the Enlightenment legacy and "the conditions that prevailed before its coming to power, not in a negative sense, but rather in their positive continuation."28

Myth had originally sought to control nature and now, in the age of fascism, Enlightenment simply made room for myth. Such is the real -- if unacknowledged -- legacy of the Enlightenment which, according to the authors, extends from Kant over Sade to Nietzsche. For, if Kant undercut the truth-claims of theology and all forms of metaphysics in the name of scientific objectivity, Sade took the next logical step and considered all subjects as instrumental means for his personal gratification even as Nietzsche, ruthless in the critical application of his skepticism, would see history as subordinate to the arbitrary preoccupation with furthering the "life instincts" of any given individual.

Commodity production "objectively" sustains this development and, insofar as its form of exchange value transforms qualitative differences into quantitative ones,29 necessarily turns technical rationality against all forms of metaphysics and normative concerns. The exercise of arbitrary power complements a process which subordinates individual wants and desires ever more surely to the mercy of objective market criteria and strips them of the capacity to make anything other than arbitrary or technical judgments. The apogee of this development is seen as lying in anti-Semitism and the gas chambers.30 But the dynamic exists just as surely in the conformist and profit-driven "culture industry," which seeks the "lowest common denominator" for its products, and subverts the very possibility of reflection or revolution. Thus:

. . . humans pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them.31


Horkheimer and Adorno identified "Enlightenment" with a debunking of what stands beyond the scientific domination over nature or what Kant called "pure reason." For this reason, however, they ultimately wound up engaging in the very form of dogmatic ahistorical philosophical inquiry that they initially wished to oppose. Their form of argumentation perverts history and obscures what is politically at stake.

Horkheimer and Adorno place the domination of nature at the center of emancipatory philosophical discourse. But they never take into account the actual movements with which the Enlightenment spirit and its critics were connected. They are unable to deal with its legacy for a progressive politics and, insofar as "the whole is false" (Adorno), their critique evidences a deeply indeterminate and abstract quality. Indeed, they never took to heart the insight from Nietzsche that: "to perceive resemblances everywhere, making everything alike, is a sign of weak eyesight."32

Their claim that fascism is a continuation of the "Enlightenment," according to either of their definitions, is empirically and normatively wrong. Neither from the standpoint of economic or political history, let alone class interests, does the interpretation offered by Horkheimer and Adorno make sense. Fascism was a self-conscious ideological response to the Revolution of 1848, whose democratic values derived from Lessing and the German Enlightenment,33 as well as the two great offspring of modernity. The mass base of the Nazis lay in precapitalist classes like the peasantry and the petty- bourgeoisie whose interests were directly threatened by the capitalist production process and its two dominant classes.34 Sections of the bourgeoisie and a great majority of the proletariat, for their part, identified respectively with an impotent set of parties embracing a continental form of liberalism and a social democratic party still formally embracing orthodox Marxism. These were the supporters of the Weimar Republic and the enemies of the Nazis who made war on them in word and deed.

Dialectic of Enlightenment casts real historical conflicts into an anthropological fog. The tale of Odysseus, wherein the destruction of subjectivity becomes the only way to preserve the subject, offers a case in point. Instrumental reason did not bring about fascism or even destroy the ability of individuals to make normative judgments. It was rather the product of a clash between real movements, whose members were quite capable of making diverse judgments concerning both their interests and their values, which resulted in the victory of the Nazis.

The attempt to unify qualitatively different phenomena under a single rubric can only produce pseudo-dialectical sophistry and political confusion.35 The decision to broaden the "Enlightenment" to include its greatest and most self-conscious critics -- Sade, Schopenhauer, Bergson and Nietzsche 36 -- offers a case in point. None of these thinkers had the least identification with Enlightenment political theory or the practice associated with it. They were anti-liberal, anti-socialist, anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian, anti- rationalist and anti-historical.

Adorno would later write that "not least among the tasks now confronting thought is that of placing all the reactionary arguments against Western culture in the service of progressive Enlightenment."37 As usual, however, this imperative was left hanging in the abstract. He never thought to consider the contradictions capable of arising from the attempt to merge right-wing ideology with left-wing practice.

The famous analysis of the culture industry suffers from the same exaggeration and lack of determinacy as their critique of instrumental rationality and modern forms of bureaucratic politics. Horkheimer and Adorno were content to highlight the repressive character of mass culture per se. They dismissed the idea that genuine works of art or important sources of information could appear in the mass media. They also ignored the manner in which even works of high culture have learned from the technology generated by attempts to produce popular culture. It was enough for Horkheimer to note that, if the culture industry comes to define the public realm, then the moment of emancipatory resistance will enter the tenuous domain of a private experience constantly threatened by the extension of instrumental rationality.38 Thus, interestingly enough, he was actually less sanguine about the emancipatory role of aesthetics than either Adorno or Marcuse in their later writings.

Talk about the "integration" of works, however, only begs the question of whether they were really rendered impotent or whether they actually helped change the "hegemonic" system and were only then turned into museum pieces. Questions of this sort, however, are never entertained in Dialectic of Enlightenment. The "whole" is what counts while attempts to transform it are never radical enough since either revolution or reform must, in some degree, make recourse to instrumental rationality.

But, for this very reason, the repressive conditions this form of critique claims to contest are left intact. Without making reference to institutions and movements, incapable of drawing qualitative distinctions between phenomena, the attempt to preserve subjectivity from the incursions of society turns into little more than an aesthetic exercise in what Thomas Mann initially called a "power-protected inwardness." Solidarity is treated either as an arbitrary sentiment or a demand for conformity while Enlightenment collapses into the "mass deception" of the culture industry. Critique has a different fate in store: it can now only talk itself into exhaustion.

The Enlightenment Spirit

1968 marked the beginnings of a change in the prevalent understandings of the Enlightenment. Conservatives had previously condemned it for generating a revolutionary rejection of tradition while critical theorists and the ultra-left emphasized the impotence of its ethical ideals relative to the repressive power of its commitment to instrumental rationality. Especially following the death of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, however, the situation changed. The earlier critique of instrumental rationality was retained by significant intellectual elements of the New Left and most notably by the ecology movement. Nevertheless, it became fused with a belief in the fundamentally repressive character of the Enlightenment in terms of both its political worldview and its normative assumptions.

Vietnam had symbolized the connection of liberalism and imperialism and many were led to question the "Eurocentric" character of the Enlightenment. A new sensitivity about the twin cancers of racism and sexism created a new concern about the "white" and "male" prejudices of its representatives as well as the manner in which minorities, women, and outsiders were unrepresented. New social movements began the preoccupation with "identity politics" and the emphasis on local struggles, or what Michel Foucault originally termed "micro-politics," even as they sought to overcome the organizational legacy of bureaucracy and hierarchy on the left.

Postmodernism reflected all of this and -- relying for its theoretical inspiration on political reactionaries like Nietzsche, Bergson, and Heidegger -- sought to present its insights in a matter which "would be simultaneously post-Marxist and post- liberal."39 Its proponents condemned "essentialism" as little more than a dogmatic striving for absolute truth. They castigated rationalism in favor of relativism and the centrality of "experience." They rejected historical materialism for its "totalistic" -- or totalitarian -- ambitions and use of "grand narratives." They criticized the use of universal categories for veiling one or another -- western, male, or white -- "master discourse." They chastized liberalism for fostering illusions about "rights," the equality of citizens, the political centrality of the state, and even cosmopolitanism for undermining any sense of the particular or "lived" identity.

The New Left made genuine contributions and undertook its critique in the name of a populist commitment to democracy.40 Many of its earlier advocates like Paul Goodman and Erich Fromm and Christian Bay were influenced by Enlightenment values and even the best postmodern thinkers took the bourgeois heritage seriously. They sought to contest its limitations and empower repressed groups with very different experiences of reality.41 But the "owl of Minerva" did not really spread its wings in the aftermath of the 1968s. The new philosophical movement of postmodernism was born of defeat. Its popularity grew concurrently with the rising conservative tide of the late 1970s and, especially in the United States, carried over into the present.

Perhaps, for this very reason, a problem presents itself with respect to the relation between theory and practice. For, whether explicitly or implicitly, the advocates of particularism always made reference to the moral obligations of others to support their cause and, in spite of all the talk about the inherently alienating character of the state, sought legislation in order to make their concerns concrete. Postmodern theorists were unconcerned. Illuminating this relationship in keeping with the philosophical idealism of Kant and Hegel or the historical materialism of Marx, after all, would necessarily lead them to contest the unqualified "contingency" of all "significations" and obviously involve them in some form of "grand narrative."

The effects of this situation on practice are becoming increasingly evident. The ideological emphasis on identity and particularism, relativism and various forms of historical reductionism, have fostered fragmentation and political confusion. It is becoming ever more difficult to deny that, whatever the achievements of the last 25 years, the new social movements have lost the moral high ground the left held during the civil rights movement and the early struggles against the Vietnam War.

Some have sought to face such matters directly. Judith Butler accepted the need for a notion of "contingent epistemology" without ontological grounding, for example, while Gayitri Spivak introduced the idea of "strategic essentialism." Neither is sufficient, however, to deal with the real issues at hand. Epistemology never had an ontological foundation in the first place, which was precisely the problem Fichte and Schelling and Hegel had with the "subjective idealism" of Kant, but it offered a way of thinking about what categories are necessary for which particular forms of inquiry and action. The new notion of "contingent epistemology" gives no clue when it is necessary to privilege universalistic against particularistic claims, however, and it is the same with the concept of "strategic essentialism."

Neither thinker considers how the employment of epistemological or essentialist categories necessarily generates the need for "grand narratives" along with "impartial" criteria for discriminating between particular interests and institutions. Nor is either theorist willing to develop the implications of such philosophical compromises for postmodern analysis or its validity. The relativism and emphasis on particular "experience," which originally gave the tendency its philosophical power, are neither denied nor embraced. They are simply left in a strange form of limbo.

Even more important, however, the basic issue still remains unresolved. The commitment to those universalistic assumptions underpinning republicanism, socialism, and internationalism is -- as Mendelssohn realized -- always one of conviction. It is not a tactical or "strategic" matter especially when the advocates of liberal and socialist programs are engaged in challenging an authoritarian regime. The new importance attributed to epistemology and essentialism can also only confuse adherents of those new social movements inspired by various forms of identity politics and particularist ideologies.

The contradiction between theory and practice now exists for postmodernism as surely as it did for the socialist labor movement when Eduard Bernstein chastized its leaders for preaching a revolutionary Marxist theory while engaging in a purely reformist practice. And the response to this current situation must take the same form. It is time to end the equivocations. Let the postmodern critics of Enlightenment values either keep their radically subjectivist form of theory and, in the manner of Nietzsche and Heidegger, transform the notion of praxis to meet their theoretical beliefs or come to grips with reality, recognize the needs of existing forms of progressive political action, and draw the theoretical consequences.

Postmodernism, of course, is not the only popular theory critical of the Enlightenment legacy. There is even a certain overlap with certain left proponents of the quite popular philosophical tendency known as "communitarianism" and thinkers like Richard Rorty or Chantal Mouffe are actually open to identification with either tendency. Communitarianism also rejects the universalism, cosmopolitanism, and emphasis on individual rights associated with the Enlightenment. Its proponents often enjoy referring to Rousseau's Draft for a Constitution of Poland and the manner in which it cautions Catherine the Great against making dramatic moves, which might contradict the traditions out of which a people organically formed.

Communitarians generally condemn the explosion of claims associated with "rights" as against "duties" for their fragmenting impact upon the national community. Thinkers like Amitai Etzioni also seek to shift government activities to the type of voluntary associations enthusiastically described by Alexis de Tocqueville. If the first concern surely exaggerates the corroding influence of the new social movements on the polity, as against the egoism generated by the new unleashing of market forces, the second idea is even more problematical given the increased time spent on work, the classification of nearly one-third of all workers as members of the "working poor," the impact of markets on "voluntary associations," and -- finally -- the fact that the various and complex programs undertaken by the state cannot simply be transferred into the nebulous sphere of non-institutionalized forces supposedly defined neither by the market nor the state.

Communitarians oppose the rationalism and universalism, the preoccupation with the state and its bureaucratic institutions, which derive from the Enlightenment. They prefer instead to base their political theory on the belief that it is necessary to begin with the customs and traditions carried over from the past. But there is no sense of the terms by which one tradition gains privilege over another and how to judge between them. Also, from this philosophical perspective, it is difficult to justify the condemnation of repressive traditions in a culture other than one's own.

Is the United States a "liberal" nation or a racist one? There is surely no definitive answer. Michael Walzer would suggest that "moral sentiment" alone can inform a judgment. The weakness of relying on intuition, however, is obvious. Also, even if a major left communitarian thinker like Charles Taylor should maintain that commitment to liberal values is necessary since liberalism is part of "our" European tradition, it will logically lack relevance for those suffering under theocratic or authoritarian nations devoid of a liberal legacy. Thus, in the name of opposing the abstract rationalism and "Eurocentrism" deriving from the Enlightenment, even the best communitarians will find themselves in a situation where the benefits of liberalism or social democracy can exist only for those nations already in the possession of them.

Nelson Mandela, of course, knew better. The fact of the matter is that the most successful and emancipatory movements of the oppressed were all inspired by a commitment to either the language of rights or universalist principles. These movements championed the power of reasoned dialogue, cultural cosmopolitanism, and what Jurgen Habermas has appropriately termed "constitutional patriotism" or a vision of the state predicated on the rule of law (Rechtsstaat). It has traditionally been movements of the right which have employed arguments about the inherent uniqueness of their constituency, privileged "experience" over reasoned dialogue, and identified with the organic community (Volksstaat). A basic choice of worldview is still with us and seeking to combine left-wing politics with right-wing assumptions can only lead to moral disillusionment and unprincipled compromise.

Nothing is more false or self-defeating for a progressive than to reduce the Enlightenment to the interests of white, male, bourgeois Europeans. This view, which is embraced by so many on the left, rests on the assumption that the value of an idea is reducible to the particular attributes of its author or the complex of interests dominant when the given work was produced. Such a stance is nothing other than a crude version of the sociology of knowledge, which was never particularly radical in the first place.


The value of the Enlightenment spirit lies precisely in its ability to jut beyond its historical context. Its commitment to tolerance and equality, its skepticism of religion and established tradition, reflect more than the interests of a white, male bourgeoisie on the rise. It projects an invigorated notion of the individual -- or the expansion of what Goethe termed the "personality" -- and a new respect for work beyond any market incentives. "Labor," wrote Adam Smith, is the "original price of everything." Indeed, "work makes the person," could have been a slogan of the Enlightenment.

Candide is a case in point. An early "educational novel" (Bildungsroman), it expresses the excitement of travel and new experiences. It condemns religious intolerance no less than the unwarranted optimism about this being "the best of all possible worlds." Rather than exhibiting a simplistic form of resignation, furthermore, its famous closing actually poses a challenge for the future. Voltaire wrote this work, after all, while building his ideologically progressive and economically successful community, which would serve as a refuge for many victims of religious intolerance, in political exile at Ferney. Indeed, the decision of Candide to "tend his garden" is nothing other than a recognition that the time has come to give up on metaphysical speculation and begin to do some work.

Perhaps the most powerful critique of the Enlightenment, for all that, derives from its emphasis on the domination over nature. Instrumental rationality employed without respect for the intricacies of various eco-systems has created an environmental nightmare. Pollution of the air, withering of the forests, des- poilation of the oceans, have profoundly altered any previous optimism connected with technological progress. The ecological movement, for all its problems, has opened the eyes of the world. But still, identifying technology or instrumental rationality with the domination of nature is a mistake. Ecology is not rigidly opposed to Enlightenment notions of science and technology. Coming to terms with the technological degradation of the environment, in fact, can only occur from the standpoint of technology itself. A return to the premodern past is no option. It is a matter of setting new priorities for technological development in the future and invigorating liberal and socialist values with ecological concerns.

Ecology offers new possibilities for linking the efforts of reason with the creation of a safer, better, and more beautiful world. Such a vision is only betrayed by the introduction of half-baked spiritualism, uncritical reliance on intuition, and naive ideas about some "golden age" hidden in the mists of the past. Modernity has had a progressive impact on social interaction and, in this vein, Ulrich Beck is completely correct when he writes that "the needle of Enlightenment is found in the haystack of relationships, not under the searchlight of theory."42

No major representative of the Enlightenment was an advocate of slavery and, in fact, modern racist philosophy begins with the reaction against its principles. It was also not Montesquieu alone in The Persian Letters who evidenced a profound interest in the wisdom of non-European peoples. The Magic Flute, Figaro and The Barber of Seville were stinging attacks on the very idea of privilege and paeans to the intelligence of everyday people. Rousseau, for all the fetishism surrounding him in the field of contemporary political theory, was similarly -- above all -- an advocate of "simple souls" against both the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Voltaire attacked the arbitrary power of the crown and the church in any number of instances and Beethoven's Fidelio has justice for the common man and the vision of equality for women as its themes.

Many Enlightenment figures were, of course, personally anti-Semitic and sexist and "Eurocentric." Holland and England were imperialist nations during the Enlightenment and the United States would commit one atrocity after another against the Indians. Voltaire and most of his friends were even supporters of "enlightened despotism." But to claim that their milieu and concerns were really no different than others is simply to remain stuck in Hegel's night where all cows are black. There is, however, something even more important. Contesting racism or sexism or the curtailment of civil liberties, in fact, always occurs by making reference to the egalitarian and universalist principles projected by the liberal rule of law.

The very idea that universal values somehow oppose the interests of the particular is preposterous. This kind of stance advocated by Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Derrida is inherently abstract and basically reactionary. It substitutes the ontological distinction between "identity and difference," which Martin Heidegger initially developed in response to the tradition of Kant and Hegel,43 for the political insight of liberalism that the rights of every individual are anchored in the universal and reciprocal assumptions underpinning the rule of law. The preoccupation of postmodernism with ontology and questions of grounding only betrays its definition by the philosophical or theological absolutism it opposes: either there is an absolute ground for knowledge and dogmatism or there is the chaos of relativism.

Political reality, however, militates against this kind of choice. Conviction and tolerance are not mutually exclusive, which becomes apparent in the various non- conformist religious sects whose leaders with Enlightenment values like Roger Williams and William Penn helped introduce modern notions of religious freedom and toleration. Religion is a problem for the enlightenment spirit only insofar as it strays beyond the private sphere and identifies its concerns with those of the state. The issue is always the degree to which the universalist precepts behind the liberal rule of law are institutionally denied since this is the point at which terror and arbitrary power take hold.

Bringing universalist principles to bear on ethical and political matters results far less in a repression of "difference" than its liberation. Philosophical absolutism and ethical relativism are not the only alternatives. Moses Mendelssohn may have been an "assimilationist," who called upon Jews to keep their religion "private," but he also defended his Jewish conviction against the provocations of his friend, the powerful pastor and phrenologist, Lavater in public and few were as effective in helping extend the rule of law to Jews. The modern assault on anti-Semitism begins, in fact, with Lessing's Nathan the Wise, whose main character is patterned after Mendelssohn, and perhaps it only makes sense that this largely forgotten playwright and advocate of tolerance should also have produced as emancipatory a pair of feminist works as Minna von Barnhelm and Emilia Galotti. Indeed, just as Lessing and Mendelssohn stressed the primary role of friendship, Kant could view cosmopolitanism as becoming concrete only in a condition of "hospitality" wherein each might feel at home everywhere.

The Enlightenment spirit opposes provincialism, intolerance, and any view seeking to place the "community" above the "state." It prizes individual responsibility and offers a certain ethical orientation, which can only aid a contemporary left in such ideological disarray. The Enlightenment spirit has nothing to do with denying the provisional character of freedom or a commitment to experimentation. Its primary aim is to constantly further the conditions in which the novum can glimmer. The honest and genuine striving for truth becomes more important than its possession and nowhere does this receive more eloquent articulation than in the famous words of Lessing: "if God held the truth in his right hand and in his clenched left fist the quest for it, along with all my future errors, and then told me to choose, I should point to the left and humbly say: 'Father give! The pure truth belongs to You alone.'"44


  1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism trans. Talcott Parsons (New York, 1958), pg. 182. return

  2. Carlo Rosselli, Liberal Socialism, ed. Nadia Urbinati and trans. William McCuaig (Princeton, 1994). return

  3. Ulrich Beck, Die Erfindung des Politischen (Frankfurt, 1993), pgs. 229ff. return

  4. Nowhere is the battle between the Enlightenment spirit and reaction more beautifully described than in the attempt to transform painting into a "universal idiom" by the hero of the great biographical novel by Lion Feuchtwanger, Goya (Frankfurt, 1977). return

  5. Cf. Ernst Bloch, Natural Law and Human Dignity trans. Dennis J. Schmidt (Cambridge: MA, 1986). return

  6. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan ed. C.B. Macpherson (Penguin Books: New York, 1968), pg. 324. return

  7. Ibid., 228ff, 363ff. return

  8. John Locke, "The Second Treatise: An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government" in The Two Treatises of Government ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1960), pg. 326. return

  9. Ibid., pg. 284. return

  10. Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem or on Religious Power and Judaism trans. Allan Arkush (Hanover, NH: 1983), pg. 43. return

  11. Immanuel Kant, "Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?" in Werkausgabe 12 Bde. hrsg. Wilhelm Weischedel (Frankfurt am Main, 1968) XI: 53ff. return

  12. Kant, "über den Gemeinspruch: Das Mag in der Theorie Richtig Sein, Taugt aber Nicht für die Praxis" in Werkausgabe XI: 145. return

  13. Kant, "Was ist Aufklarung?" pg. 54. return

  14. Ibid., pg. 57-8. return

  15. Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy ed. Ronald Beiner (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1982), pg. 48ff. return

  16. Frederick Engels, "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Selected Works 3 vols. (Moscow, 1970) 3:95ff. return

  17. Micheline Ishay, Internationalism and its Betrayal (Minneapolis, 1995), pgs. 61ff. return

  18. Karl Kautsky certainly preferred the English Revolution and a classic work on the topic was written by Eduard Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution trans. H.J. Stenning (New York, 1930). Even Rosa Luxemburg could write from her jail cell on 8/13/1917: " I am now reading [Francois] Mignet and [Heinrich] Cunow on the French Revolution. What an inexhaustible drama, which grips and entrances one again and again! Yet, I still find the English Revolution more powerful, splendid and full of imagination, even though it did run its course in such morose forms of Puritanism. I have already read (the history of the English Revolution by [Francois] Guizot three times; still I will take him up many times again in the future" in The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg ed. and trans. by Stephen Eric Bronner (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: 1993 ed), pg. 226. return

  19. Richard Lowenthal, Model or Ally? The Communist Powers and the Developing Countries (Oxford, 1977), pp. 52. return

  20. Ibid., pg. 54. return

  21. Note the discussion in Stephen Eric Bronner, "Leninism and Beyond" in Socialism Unbound (New York, 1990), pgs. 76ff. return

  22. Cf. Antonio Gramsci, "The Revolution against 'Capital'" in Selections from the Political Writings 1919-1920 ed. Quintin Hoare (New York, 1977), pgs. 34ff. return

  23. Note the appalling defense of Stalinism and the Bukharin trials by Lion Feuchtwanger, Moscow 1937: Ein Reiserbericht für meine Freunde (Berlin, 1993). return

  24. Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism 3 volumes trans. P.S. Falla (New York, 1978) 3:4. return

  25. Cf. Stephen Eric Bronner, Of Critical Theory and its Theorists (London, 1994), pgs. 72ff. and 180ff. return

  26. Cf. Max Horkheimer, "Die Aufklärung" in Gesammelte Werke (Frankfurt, 1989) 13:571. return

  27. "In the innermost recesses of humanism, as its very soul, there rages a frantic prisoner who, as a Fascist, turns the world into a prison." Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 89. return

  28. Helmut Dubiel, Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory (Cambridge, MA:, 1985) pg. 71. return

  29. Horkheimer's view thus comes down to the claim that: "Everything that is not reducible to numbers becomes illusion for the Enlightenment. This answer provides the unity from Parmenides to Russell. It stands on the destruction of the gods and qualitative differences." Predig Vranicki, Geschichte des Marxismus 2 Bde. (Frankfurt, 1974), pg. 831; Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, pg. 6ff. return

  30. "Anti-Semitic behavior is generated in situations where blinded men robbed of their subjectivity are set loose as subjects. For those involved, their actions are murderous and therefore senseless reflexes, as behaviorists note -- without providing an interpretation. Anti-Semitism is a deeply imprinted schema, a ritual of civilization; the pogroms are the true ritual murders. They demonstrate the impotence of sense, significance, and ultimately of truth -- which might hold them within bounds . . . Action becomes an autonomous end in itself and disguises its own purposelessness." Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment trans. John Cumming (New York, 1972), pgs. 171-2. return

  31. Ibid., pg. 9; also, pg. 87. return

  32. Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 74. return

  33. Note the classic study of 1893 by Franz Mehring, Die Lessing-Legende (Berlin, 1963). return

  34. The mass base of fascism was located in pre-capitalist classes like the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry whose anger was directed by the Nazis against the liberal bourgeoisie, whose Democratic Party was vanishing, and a proletariat predominantly identified with social democracy. Cf. Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism trans. Leila Vennewitz (New York, 1965); also, the philosophical argument, concerning the role of "non-synchronous contradictions" in analyzing fascism, by Ernst Bloch, Erbschaft dieser Zeit (Frankfurt, 1973), pgs. 45ff. return

  35. ". . . liberal theory is true as an idea. It contains the image of a society in which irrational anger no longer exists and seeks for outlets. But since the liberal theory assumes that unity among men is already in principle established, it serves as an apologia for existing circumstances." Horkheimer and Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, pg. 169. return

  36. Nietzsche will later be termed by Horkheimer "the most radical enlightenment figure in all of philosophy." And in the general indeterminate sense of the term "enlightenment," of course, that is arguable; in terms of the values and political ideas deriving from the specific movement of 1650-1830, however, it is obviously nonsense. Here, the unfortunate consequences of using one term in two ways becomes apparent. Cf. Horkheimer, "Die Aufklarung," pg. 574. return

  37. Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 192. return

  38. "Mass culture in its different branches," Horkheimer could write to Leo Lowenthal, "reflects the fact that the human being is cheated out of his own entity which Bergson so justly called "durée." Cited in Lowenthal, Critical Theory and Frankfurt School Theorists, pgs. 203-4; also cf. Horkheimer, "Art and Mass Culture," pg., 274-8. return

  39. Carl Boggs, Intellectuals and the Crisis of Modernity (Albany, 1993), pg. 5-6. return

  40. Cf. Stephen Eric Bronner, Moments of Decision Political History and the Crises of Radicalism (New York, 1992), pgs. 101ff. return

  41. Michel Foucault, "What Is Enlightenment?" in The Foucault Reader ed. Paul Rabinow (New York, 1984), pgs. 32-33. Such is also the obvious aim of his famous "genealogical" or historical studies like Discipline and Punish, Madness and Civilization, and The Birth of the Clinic. return

  42. Ulrich Beck, Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society trans. Mark A. Ritter (Atlantic Highlands, 1994), pg. 56. return

  43. Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York, 1969). return

  44. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, "Eine Duplik" in Theologische und Philosophische Schriften IV (Hildesheim, 1970), pg. 59. return

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Contents of No. 19

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