[Marxism] Islamist, Socialist revolutions do not mix

David Picón Álvarez david at miradoiro.com
Thu Oct 11 09:59:38 MDT 2007


From: "Haines Brown" <brownh at hartford-hwp.com>
>> it appears to me that the Enlightenment and Marxism are very tightly
>> coupled.
>
> That may be a common view, and some do support it actively, but here
> I'm disagreeing. The issue is important, I believe, and I hope we can
> shed more light on it.

Right. Sorry for taking my time in replying, but this actually took some 
thought.

> There's an interesting issue here: what really defines the
> Enlightenment? I suspect we would have to engage in a lot of
> discussion to come to some agreement over that. But perhaps a basic
> difference is that I think of the Enlightenment as an ontology, a
> philosophy of science, while you are viewing it in terms of, say,
> historical development.

Well, it is not easy to define the Enlightenment in a way that makes sense. 
However, if I have to try, I see the Enlightenment as a point of departure 
in thought from a belief in revelation and intelligo ut credam towards a 
universalization of the application of reason, empiricism and distrust of 
intuition, faith and authority. Even at its most metaphysical, works like 
the Monadology try to explain the apparent state of the world through the 
use of a rational theory. Now, I don't subscribe to a simplistic philosophy 
of science, but I am not convinced that the Enlightenment did either. As a 
matter of fact, my suspicion is that Enlightenment thinking did not yet have 
a strictly coherent ontology or epistemology (the Newton/Leibniz dispute is 
interesting in relation to this) and the Discourse of the Method doesn't 
seem to me to have been uncritically accepted.

> 1. Perfectibility of man and the world. If this is a characteristic of
>   modern life, then socialism would share that feature with
>   Enlightenment Europe, not because Marxism inherited the idea from
>   the Enlightenment, but because the perfectibility of man and the
>   world is simply a characteristic of modern life thanks to
>   technological development.

But the conception of man and the world as 1) a potentially perfectable 
thing and 2) a desireably perfectable thing is, I think, Enlightenment in 
provenance. Also note that the Enlightenment has the advantage when 
confronted to, say, the City of God, the fact that such perfection is bound 
with liberty, and is not determined a priori but to be decided by constant 
reassessment of the facts.

>   Everything inherits something from the past, and so it is
>   inevitable that late 19th century working-class ideology will
>   inherit from Enlightenment ideology. But your "tight coupling"
>   seems to imply more than that, that Marxism is an instance or
>   development of Enlightenment thought, and it is this with which I
>   disagree. That is, while it inherits much, I feel it is also a
>   break with the Enlightenment at a fundamental level, and I don't
>   even much care if Marx himself didn't realize it ;-)

I think the best case you can make for this, is that Enlightenment thought 
(or subsets of it) has a reductionistic and individualist character, in 
which agents are atomized and contract freely with each other without 
friction, whereas Marxism is more holistic and collectivist (although I 
think collectivism is a matter of approach, I'd argue that Marxism is 
defensible on individualist grounds).

>   To be more specific, to illustrate more than to develop the point,
>   the Enlightenment "man" was a generic social atom, and it develops
>   because the totality of individuals develop through their making
>   optimal (rational) choices ("rational" was understood in
>   instrumentalist terms: a rational choice is defined as one that
>   results in an increase of one's own "talents", and it has nothing
>   to do with logic). In Marxism, there is no generic man, but a
>   "social being". While the development of society implies the
>   development of the _individual_, it does not imply the development
>   of _generic_ "man". Individuals develop because they are social
>   beings, not social atoms; the concrete individual develops because
>   concrete society is part of his being, and his innate powers are
>   actualized and developed by society.

There is (as I noted above) a case to make that the Enlightenment is 
inherently individualistic. However, I think this is an accidental 
characteristic of most of Enlightenment thought, and not an essential 
characteristic of Enlightenment thought as such. Theories of the social 
contract such as Rousseau's, seem to open the way towards an assessment of 
society and collective optimization. BTW, in spite of the fact that utility 
and rational choice and the like are really hard to pin down, I don't 
consider them necessarily incompatible with Marxism. A decision theory can 
apply to planning as well as to a market agent.

> 2. Reason as source of truth. Yes, this is an Enlightenment notion,
>   but it has collapsed in terms of recent philosophy of science. This
>   is richly discussed in many places, but I just received a book in
>   the mail yesterday that happens to discuss it as well (also
>   mathematics): Peter T. Manicas, A Realist Philosophy of Social
>   Science: Explanation and Understanding (Cambridge, 2006). I'm not
>   venturing to recommend this (implicitly Marxist, I believe) book,
>   for I've just started reading it. Since the collapse of logical
>   positivism, we tend to see reason as a tool, not a source of truth.

Well, perhaps the word source is overly strong. Certainly reason is the 
primary tool to find out truth. Nothing can historically compete with it, 
whether in the guise of logic or in its dialectical manifestations, in my 
view. This is something of the Enlightenment I would much rather keep. My 
knowledge of philosophy of science is limited. I've read _Two Dogmas of 
Empiricism" by Quine, and while I admit that on that light logical 
positivism or other naïve notions are not tenable, I don't know how much new 
ideas like that really help methodologically. They undermine the confidence 
we might place in the scientific enterprise, but they do not replace it with 
anything more useful, as far as I have seen. I'm a bit of a mathematical 
platonist (which is the only deviation from materialism I allow myself) 
though, so perhaps my emphasis on reason is misplaced.

> 3. Planification. Again, it is often said that by the 17th century,
>   human capacities had developed to the point that for the first time
>   (and in Europe, of course) an ability to shape the future had
>   become a practical reality, and so planning now made
>   sense. However, it's doubtful the Enlightenment really initiated
>   the idea or that it is peculiar to Europe, and in fact all three of
>   your points to some extent have broader historical precedent. If
>   true, this means these elements in Marxism may not be explicitly
>   European or Enlightenment.

Even if so (I'm not taking a position on whether these elements existed at 
the same time and to the same extent elsewhere or elsewhen) it is clear that 
Marxism took them from Enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment is part of our 
heritage and even to the extent that we disagree with Enlightenment position 
of individual atomization, we do so in an Enlightenment way. The things that 
have value for us, human development, substantive freedom, material 
progress, those things we took from the Enlightenment.

>   This point skates a bit on thin ice, so let me be more specific by
>   referencing the example of the Carolingian Renaissance of the 9th
>   century. Alcuin and others spoke of a "renovatio" of mind, body and
>   spirit. Each of these three levels of development were
>   interdependent. The means for development of the spirit was
>   "devotio", prayer; the means for development of the mind was
>   "eruditio", education; the means for the development of the body
>   was "disciplina", constraint. The idea was that the development of
>   the physical world (coastal lighthouse system, Rhine-Danube canal,
>   monetary reforms; rationalized bureaucratic organization, peaceful
>   political relations, etc.) was a necessary precondition for the
>   development of the mind (using the palace school as a catalyst for
>   setting up of cathedral schools throughout Francia, monastic reform
>   that would mandate education, the import of scholars from abroad,
>   etc.), which was a precondition for the development of the spirit,
>   which allowed you to participate in god's creative (inventive)
>   power. Although tenuous in practice, the idea of planification was
>   very much present. If one concludes that is it much a part of
>   European culture since the 9th century, then why attribute that
>   element specifically to the Enlightenment?

Because the Enlightenment actually took the idea seriously enough to 
implement, and, more importantly, because in the Enlightenment we have 
materialist planning, as opposed to an idealist attempt to transcend 
(instead of radically alter) reality.

> What I'm getting at is that looking to the Enlightenment roots of
> Marxism, we are in danger of being Eurocentric and insensitive to the
> longer sweep of history. In other words, we would have to show that
> the the traits are really peculiar to the Enlightenment and also
> fundamental to it, that these ideas were imported into Marxism without
> significant change (there is danger of hypostatizing ideas that are
> independent of profound historical change), and that these ideas are
> essential to Marxism, rather than merely accidentals.

On your first point, I think it is clear that those ideas are a fundamental 
part of the Enlightenment, and I am not convinced to what extent we must 
demonstrate that they are peculiar to it. Even if they exist in other 
manifestations in history, that's where marxism imported them from, not 
Islamic thinking or some other non-European source (marxism is a European 
idea, in provenance if not in application and vocation, like it or not). On 
your second point, I think that many ideas and values of Enlightenment 
thinking were imported perhaps not intact but in recognizable forms into 
marxist thinking. Sure, the dialectic is a twist on reason, but it is still 
recognizable. On your third point, I don't see how those ideas or values 
could be detached from marxism, and, more importantly, I don't see what good 
it would do to try to detach them. If they're not essential (which I would 
argue they are) at least they form an important element of marxism as it is 
known, and I cannot envision a marxism that lacks them.

> Yes, agreed, but the term "post-modern" has been used in various
> ways. I get the feeling (perhaps wrong) that the term is shedding its
> (unfortunate) role as a kind of literary criticism popular in certain
> academic circles, amd is coming essentially to mean a broadly
> post-Enlightenment mode of thinking, particularly in the philosophy of
> science.

Could you clarify this a bit? Also, in your view, is it possible to preserve 
marxism's essential nature while placing it over a different epistemology?

> Post-modernism may indeed imply a rejection of planification, but
> perhaps in the less problematic sense of it being a critique of
> optimal decision theory. That is, Enlightenment planification may
> presume a powerful individual being in a position to shape the course
> of events in response to his idea of future possibility. Both of these
> presumptions today are considered problematic, not only in Marxism,
> but also the philosophy of science.

Optimal decision theory does not bring with it a requirement that an 
individual has to foresee the future alone and choose an option that 
maximizes his utility. It's just a formalism that can be applied to 
different modes of thinking about agents conducting themselves in a knowable 
world.

> Yes, perhaps so. But I hope we might steal the term post-modern from
> literary academics and put it to better use.

I don't know to what extent the suggestion is serious, but why would we want 
the term? What good does it do us, especially considering the association it 
has already gained as an antiprogramatic, antiobjective, antiscientific, 
antiprogress, antitruth philosophical viewpoint espoused by people who can't 
do maths?

--David.




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