[Marxism] Islamist, Socialist revolutions do not mix

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Fri Oct 12 11:39:04 MDT 2007

David, thanks for the interesting reply. I returned last night after
an absence, and reply to your message without first checking the
backlog of some 1300 messages.

> > 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.

I don't necessarily disagree with your comments, but only want to
suggest that maybe we need to step back and look at the problem (to
what extent is Marxism the heir of the Enlightenment) more broadly. I
suspect you might agree that the "Enlightenment" is a very complex
(i.e., not entirely coherent) intellectual movement and therefore can
be legitimately defined in a number of ways. I would suggest that
since the context here is the relation of Marxism to the
Enlightenment, and since Marxism is basically a working-class
ideology, to compare the two we must define the Enlightenment as
bourgeois ideology. So let me rephrase a rather obscure hurried point
I made before: In intellectual terms, Marx and everyone else was
necessarily heir of the Enlightenment, but to the extent Enlightenment
and Marxism are defined as class ideologies, we would see them as

I resist the best I can the pleasure of exploring the specific issues
(ideas), but permit me to mention briefly just one thing, for you
appear to make it central. You seem to define the Enlightenment as a
phase of intellectual history. As such you seem to stress something
you call a "rational theory", which in your view represents a break
with the past. I fear things are not so simple. True, during part of
the feudal era in Western Europe there was a rationalist intellectual
tradition named scholasticism, and one, although important, trend in
scholasticism suggested that faith was the precondition of an
understanding (of the world). For some obscure reason, this is not in
your view a "rational theory". It is worth exploring in what sense
scholasticism was not rational. Then we come to the very complicated
issue of the scientific revolution. One standard view is that it
represented a anti-aristocratic reversion to an earlier feudal
artisanry tradition. Another standard view is that it was made
possible thanks to the diffusion of platonic mysticism. Then there's
Bacon, who is credited with the scientific method of inductive
reasoning and the exclusion of "idols" (superstitions). All this is
pre-Enlightenment. So how did Enlightenment thinking differ? It
invented the term "rational," but this rationality had nothing to do
with philosophy or with reason, but with measurement, with "ratios".
It was what we could today call optional choice theory (that is, those
choices made among talents available in one's environment that result
in an increase in one's own "talents" are defined as rational choices
- as having the greatest return for what one initially invested.

Just to be sure I'm not diverting the thread, let me rephrase my
original concern. Marx lived in the second half of the 19th century,
so it is only natural that any thinker of Marx's time, including Marx
himself, will be deeply influenced by Enlightenment thought, such as
the rights of man and democracy. Only we today, I believe, are really
breaking with that intellectual late-feudal/Rensaisasnce/Enlightenment
tradition in fundamental ways. If this is so, do we a) transform
Marxism in a way that sloughs off its Renaissance/Enlightenment
baggage, or do we b) presume that this baggage is essential to Marxism
and proceed to develop a new working-class ideology that is more up to
date and does not carry the "Marxism" label?

That is, as you hint, defining the Enlightenment would be a
challenge. To decide whether the Enlightenment elements in Marx are
essential or accidental would, I'm sure you would agree, be another
very difficult task. Perhaps we should instead set out to define
working-class ideology today and make secondary the issue of what
extent to call it "Marxist" (and/or heir of the Enlightenment). I
suspect this would be the simplest and most constructive approach,
although obviously controversial. I know many informed people with the
best of intentions who embrace the Marxist label first and then try to
adjust the content of Marxism to our new circumstances. The danger is
being torn on one hand between a sterile dogmatism that is useless for
building a global working-class movement and on the other so
transforming Marxism that, like the Cheshire Cat, it slowly disappears
until all that's left is its smile. Because of the danger of being
caught between this Scylla and Charybdis, I suspect the only safe
thing to do is to define working-class ideology today as our primary
concern and call it Marxist, not because it mindlessly embraces all of
Marx's way of thinking or representing things, but because Marxism
marked the beginning of an ideology specific to the modern working

You make several points about the perfectibility of man. I would
suggest the idea is very old, and even its dependence on technology
arguably goes back to the 6th century (see Lynn White on this, for
example, although Al Gore disagrees with him sharply). As for Marx
himself, is it the perfectibility of the individual man or the
perfectibility of the social man (i.e, of society as actualized in the

> 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.

Yes, you are probably right here. But this "liberty" is not so much a
political form (such as democracy), but free choice in the market
place. I suspect this "liberty" goes back to optimal choice theory,
and thus to market liberalism, which I don't believe is part of
Marxism. That is, there's a difference between having power and having
free choice. I see little evidence the Enlightenment advocated the
former. For example, in the US, the property qualification for voting.

> 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).

I'd prefer the term "systemic", for I'm not sure just what you mean
here by holism and collectivism. I've no idea what you mean by
suggesting that collectivism is a matter of approach. And I'd sharply
disagree with you over "defensible on individualist grounds". However,
this point is important, for it explain why you see an affinity
between Marxism and the Enlightenment. I suspect to resolve this
difference, we would have to explore the notion of "social being" and
just what is implied by working-class solidarity.

> 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.

Your assumption that reason (logic, dialectical logic) is the primary
tool to discover truth is exactly what has been challenged since the
1980s (incidentally, not many Marxists today can mount an up to date
and realistic defense of dialectical materialism). Analytic philosophy
of science (Quine) has been roundly criticized as being entirely
unrealistic (as well as the so-called "scientific method" embedded in
old textbooks). Now, of course, my suggesting these things might sound
anti-intellectual, off-the-wall, or arrogant, but I believe that if
you were to explore the new consensus in the philosophy of science
(that is, since, say, 1990), you would find, I believe, that these
suggestions are neither irrational nor unrealistic, and arguably aim
to introduce greater realism into the philosophy of science. It's good
to keep in mind that there's no question but that Quine is an exponent
of bourgeois ideology in science.

> 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.

Yes, the Enlightenment was the intellectual prior stage in the
development of thought, and so Marxism is Enlightenment's direct
heir. But is this really so? Everyone seems to agree today that Marx
was a realist, and so by definition the opposite of Enlightenment
empiricism. Also, it is easily argued that Marx had a systems theory
in which wholes acquire properties or behaviors as a result of the
relation of its parts. Do you find a theory of emergent wholes in the
Enlightenment? Adam Smith, who was well placed to grasp that surplus
value was a system effect, just didn't get it. Marx was also a process
theorist (the centrality of contradictions being the prime example),
while the Enlightenment was capable of no more than Kant's real
oppositions. That is, in terms of ideas (an approach I don't
recommend), one could well argue that on the most fundamental matters,
Marx was alien to Enlightenment assumptions. However, this is not my
point, which is only that in terms of the history of ideas, one can
argue almost anything. That's why I would prefer the class-ideology
perspective instead.

> 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.

I've no idea to what you refer. Who implemented what? What kind of new
materialist planning? It is easy to show the origin of the
transformation of rather than merely transcendence of material reality
in the Benedictine Rule (which Lynn White makes much of), in the
Carolingian era, and much else. You seem to have a much broader notion
of the Enlightenment than I. If we are not careful, things are too
generalized to make much sense. For example, couldn't I just as well
argue that Marx was the product of Romanticism (the anti-Enlightenment
movement)? I'm not saying he was, but a solid argument could be
presented. Look at his gravestone and you are seeing a Romantic

> 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).

OK, I see what you are getting at. I didn't grasp your position very
well because I do not understand at all your concept of "importing
ideas". I take a rather different approach to acculturation, which is
that each person or era exists in a cultural milieu that exists in the
_present_, not something imported from the past, and from this milieu,
elements are selected and transformed into something fundamentally
new. That is, even if there are elements of continuity, to preserve
them is a creative choice, because much else is expunged and what is
preserved exists in a new framework.

> Sure, the dialectic is a twist on reason, but it is still
> recognizable.

Really? In terms of logic, it is impossible (except as a Kantian real
opposition). After all, one of the main tenants of logic is the law of
non-contradiction. The problem is that these lows of logic (and more
broadly the Enlightenment) see a static world of empirical facts, not
a world of processes (which looks back more to Romanticism). With
processes, contradictions are not only possible, but normal. This may
be a twist of _logic_, but hardly a twist of _reason_. There's nothing
at all unreasonable about a thermodynamic engine (environmental
dissipation driving a system toward lower entropy).

> 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.

The problem here is the project of distinguishing essential from
accidental ideas in Marxism. The search for essential traits is itself
philosophically problematic. What makes some features of a thing
"essential"? Why, their persistence in space-time. Why does
persistence in space-time elevate the significance or value of certain
traits? Only because to make a fetish of persistence is a result of
political conservatism and a reductionism. If, on the other hand, our
aim is change (revolution) and our outlook is systemically universal
(global working class), then change (process) is normal, and stability
(persistence) problematic. We start by assuming all is in flux, and
then try to understand the conditions that produce stability. What is
most fundamental to things is causal relation (process), not static
empirical traits (that is why class is defined as a relation of
production). So, if you will excuse the looseness of my presentation
here, one might have another reason to argue that Marxism is the very
opposite of Enlightenment thinking (but all I'm really arguing is that
the issue is not obvious).

> > 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?

I was afraid you'd ask me that ;-(. The term "modern" is often used to
refer to what is new, up to date, but that was not its original
meaning, and it may be changing. For example, up-to-date furniture
style is "contemporary", not "modern"; modern refers to a past style,
like Victorian. In art, modernism began late 19th century and was
superceded by post-modernism. My point is that there's no definition
of modernism carved in stone, and I get the sense that it is
gravitating to the equivalent of Enlightenment values. But what then
of Romanticism?

Post-modernism is also an ambivalent term, but seems to mean a
movement critical of modernism, bourgeois values, and positivism,
among other things. If we grant that post-modern is moving toward a
world view that is fundamentally different than the modern, then the
transition may be from World War II to the beginning of the 21st
century (again, I don't know if Romanticism should be considered an
anticipation of it). It seems from my perspective on things that it is
only incipiently coherent and so far primarily a rejection of
modernism, but that an important part of it is becoming identifiable
as Marxism (I don't know if anyone in the world would at all agree
with this, however).  In the philosophy of science, it seems to
consist basically of a rejection of positivism: a scientific realism
(rejection of positivist analytic empiricism), the development of a
neo-Kantian social constructivism (more in its Marxist sense than that
of Thomas Kuhn), the view that methods are intrinsically theory laden,
a rejection of foundationalism (of the idea that basic axioms are
autonomous), etc. In other words, I'd adopt the outrageous view that,
far from being Enlightenment, Marxism is an anticipation of
post-modernism and only now about to come into its own.

> 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.

You loose me. If our choices are evaluated in terms of their likely
outcome, is this not foreseeing the (near) future (in probabilistic

> > 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?

Well, I don't know to what extent it is serious, either. One
consideration might be that if "modernism" refers to the bourgeois
era, then anything "post-modern" has got to be a good thing
;-). Another consideration is whether we are so challenging
conventional meanings are to be whistling in the wind. I would have
said so in the 1990s, but today I'm not so sure.

Let me check with that great font of knowledge, wikipedia, to see what
the terms seem to imply today. On modernism, it suggests that it is a
term refers to the broad changes taking place in West European society
from the mid 19th century. It description of the term makes me think
of positivism. The Wikipedia might imply a distinction between
Enlightenment and modernism in that the former is bourgeois ideology
while the later is associated with industrial capital, but it does not
say so explicitly. It points out that some people see post modernism
after the Second World War as a continuation and phase of modernism,
while others see it as a rejection of modernism. In other words, the
Wikipedia article is not all that helpful, but it does seem to imply a
triumphalist industrial capitalism we associate with the term
positivism. I've seen the term modernism extended back to the
bourgeois revolution, but the Wikipedia article gives no support to
the idea.

Now, how about post-modernism? The ambiguity noted above persists when
it generally characterizes post-modernism as either emerging from, in
reaction to, or superseding, modernism. Obviously it is a term with a
variety of meanings. It also says that post-modernism tends to refer
to a cultural, intellectual, or artistic state lacking a clear central
hierarchy or organizing principle and embodying extreme complexity,
contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, and interconnectedness or
interreferentiality. This suggests that what is being termed
"post-modern" is also incipient, transitional, not yet fully

How about your concern that it is anti-rationalist? This seems to
refer more to the literary arena than other fields. Here the term is
closely linked with poststructuralism (Derrida) in terms of a
rejection of its bourgeois elitist culture. This often means a
rejection of Enlightenment norms, and any rejection of norms in theory
means opening the doors to anomie, and indifference to morality to
critical judgement, etc. But I don't believe this is the primary
understanding of post-modernism today. Nothing in the Wikipedia
article suggests that a hostility to reason is part and parcel of
post-modernism in the sense that it might apply to Romanticism. In
fact, in some areas of culture (architecture), post-modernism refers
to a return to traditional norms that were rejected in modernism. In
other words, the term is up for grabs. I'd like to appropriate it as a
term for post-bourgeois (Enlightenment) and post-positivist
(industrial capitalist) culture.

       Haines Brown, KB1GRM


More information about the Marxism mailing list