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OpEdNews Op Eds    H5'ed 7/30/21

Not So Fast: Why the Enlightenment is Still a Foundation for Working-Class Liberation

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Radical Enlightenment
Radical Enlightenment
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By Bruce Lerro


Why should you care about a bunch of dead white guys?

To pull some lyrics from Sam Cooke's Wonderful World, the Yankee working class "don't know much about history, don't know much about geography". So why would they care at all about an intellectual movement that began 300 years ago in a country notorious for not liking Americans? This article attempts to answer this question.

I have a Facebook friend who is a mutualist, Will Schnack, who was posting about this topic recently, so I asked him to write an article on it. The article was longer than our site can accommodate and covered areas that, while very interesting to me, would likely be beyond the interest of the educated lay person. I have selected the most pertinent parts to share with you. I have added my own commentary from my knowledge of the Enlightenment which will support Will's article. I've also created a table to give you the big picture. Direct quotes from Will's article will be in italics. Will's article, Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment: Modernism, Postmodernism can be read in its entirety by clicking on the link.

What is the Enlightenment?

Beginning around 1715 and lasting for about a hundred years, there arose an intellectual movement in Europe, which began in Holland, then centered in France. It aimed to synthesize the fruits of the hard sciences and apply those lessons to the study of human history, human societies, human psychology and the arts. The 18th century had seen the beginnings of a science of history at the same time Europe was learning more about the variety of societies that existed around the world through its own colonial exploitation of these societies. Enlightenment philosophers hoped that these disciplines would find their own Galileos, Keplers and Newtons.

What the Enlightenment was instrumental in producing was a picture of humans evolving over time: from ignorance to knowledge; from superstition to reason; from instinct to education; from tyranny to republicanism. The philosophers of the Enlightenment confidently argued that humanity was gradually improving and given enough time, the light of reason would envelop the world. We would no longer need heaven in the afterlife because we could slowly build heaven right here on Earth. The overall direction of this movement was characterized as "progress".

By the 19th century, the process of industrialization, the Civil War in Yankeedom, the Gilded Age, labor strikes, social Darwinism and imperialism and an unstable capitalist economy closed out the 19th century. Are human societies really progressing? Maybe not. In the 20th century, the hopes of the Enlightenment were pounded again by World War I, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism, the world depression and then World War II. By the end of World War II, there was no longer a universal evolving sense of social evolution changing for the better. The pocket of hope for progress which remained for 20 years was the in United States between 1950 to 1970, and then in the socialist countries.

Meanwhile, in the West a New Left movement developed by the mid 1950s which did not identify with socialist countries. It rejected theories of progress, the importance of understanding the capitalist economy and the centrality of the working class in any revolutionary process. Gradually cultural movements like the Frankfurt School began to cast doubt on the value of science and attempted to give psychological explanations as to why the working class didn't rebel in the West, as Marx and Engels had predicted. This was followed by a revolution in language studies. Language theories based on structuralism and post-structuralism fetishized language and assumed that changing the vocabulary of social classes would shake the foundations of capitalist society. This culminated in a movement called "postmodernism". Postmodernism is what any working-class student lucky enough to get into an undergraduate program in a state university today has to deal with: obscure language, a politically correct police force led by professors and graduate students who have spent all, or most of their lives at the university.

Purpose of the article

The purpose of this article is to show that most of the postmodern criticism of the Enlightenment deals with only one part of the spectrum of the Enlightenment, the Moderate Enlightenment. There was also a Radical Enlightenment which most postmodernism ignores. This Radical Enlightenment is well worth preserving as an inspiration for working-class people.

The Radical Enlightenment

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, historians such as Margaret C. Jacob and Jonathan Israel, following scholars such as Isaiah Berlin have dissected the Enlightenment into Radical Enlightenment and Moderate Enlightenment and Counter-enlightenment factions.

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Barbara MacLean and Bruce Lerro are co-founders and organizers for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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