The Relevance of the Enlightenment

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

Samuel Farber

CYNTHIA YOUNG’S COMMENT on my book Social Decay and Transformation: A View from the Left (ATC 97) presents legitimate disagreements and criticisms. It also includes some distortions of my views, however, particularly when it amalgamates my point of view with those of authors with whom I sharply disagree.

Legacy of the Enlightenment

Professor Young is correct in pointing out the racist elements found among Enlightenment thinkers. I can add some additional problems of Enlightenment thought, such as its individualistic tendencies and naïve belief that education by itself, was the panacea for the radical improvement of the human condition.

This in turn, is related to the general Enlightenment political approach in seeing improvement coming from above, instead of from below.

On balance, however, the Enlightenment constituted a huge step forward for humanity. It helped to fundamentally break the stranglehold of medieval and ecclesiastical obscurantism and the formidable barriers to rational and scientific thought.

It made the revolutionary assertion of the universal equality of everyone, against the previously dominant assumption of natural hierarchy.

In doing so, the Enlightenment was by no means totally freed of those older modes of thought. Yet the Enlightenment also constituted the basis for new ideas and practices that transcended it, in search of a higher rationality, in the context of a working class emancipatory struggle from below against the nineteenth-century capitalist juggernaut.

Classical Marxism primarily drew from three sources: British political economy, German philosophy and French revolutionary politics. Each one of those three sources was profoundly rooted in the Enlightenment tradition.

That doesn’t mean that classical Marxism was entirely free of flaws such as a certain degree of ethnocentrism. However, to develop an overall characterization of either Marxism or the Enlightenment on the basis of these flaws and limitations is to grossly caricature these traditions instead of seriously studying them in a critical spirit.

Enlightenment and Revolutionaries

It is therefore easy to understand why the Bolshevik revolutionaries, in the early revolutionary period, had no problem naming the Commissariat of Education as the Commissariat of Enlightenment.

In my country, practically all of the leaders of the Cuban struggle for independence identified with the traditions of the Enlightenment, as witnessed by their usual membership in Masonic lodges (which had a substantially different political content than Free Masonry in the United States).

The same was true for Cuban Black leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as Antonio Maceo, Juan Gualberto Gomez and Evaristo Estenoz, the leader of the Partido Independiente de Color, the Cuban Black Party that was brutally suppressed in 1912. These three Cuban Black leaders did not have the same positions on the question of race, but were all nonetheless well within the Enlightenment political tradition.

In this context, I think it is wrong to say, as Professor Young does, that the Haitian revolutionaries of the early nineteenth century “successfully wield[ed] the Master’s tools against him,” as if the Haitian leaders’ adoption of the Enlightenment tradition was merely a tactical ploy, and not an authentic expression of their own worldview.

Toussaint himself was inspired by the radical anti-slavery Enlightenment writer Abbe Raynal. The race and nationality of the Haitian leaders did not preclude their sharing a political philosophy that originated in Europe. As C.L.R. James makes clear, Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot and the Encyclopedists themselves attacked slavery; many of them formed the Friends of the Negro to agitate for abolition.

In February 1794, the Jacobin National Convention, in obedience to Enlightenment egalitarian and democratic ideals, as well as the Parisian masses upon whom it depended, responded positively to the appeal made by the Haitian revolutionaries whom it invited to address it and became the first in the modern age to abolish slavery. This is not to say that the Haitian slaves could count on anyone but themselves to free them; the opposite was the case.

The Western Anti-Enlightenment Tradition

There has been a longstanding tendency among important sections of the left to develop a looking-backwards approach to the Enlightenment, and more broadly to capitalism itself, instead of posing a modern, forward looking, working-class based alternative to capitalism.

As I explained in detail in my first and, in many ways, my most important chapter titled “Social Decay and the Left,” which isn’t discussed in Professor Young’s comment, in the nineteenth century the opposition to capitalism often took the form of a glorification
of the Middle Ages.

This frequently ignored the unspeakable daily brutality, and the extremely harsh class oppression of medieval society. Such left-medievalism often expressed itself as an opposition to the city and modern life and as an uncritical praise of community, ignoring the authoritarianism and oppression that communities have
often entailed.

Similarly, in recent years the Enlightenment has been attacked from perspectives based on antirationalist and irrationalist currents, historically associated with the political right as in the case of the aristocratic elitism of Frederick Nietzsche.

“Western thought” has often been exclusively identified with the Enlightenment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Western thought has historically been characterized as much by anti-Enlightenment, anti-rationalist thought, as by an Enlightenment tradition broadly identified with one or another form of rationalism.

Many who claim to oppose the Western intellectual tradition by attacking the Enlightenment are doing so from the perspective of other, often reactionary, Western intellectual traditions. This is also the case of many contemporary analysts of modernity who, instead of engaging in the necessary and useful critique of the social organization of science and the uses of technology, have attacked science as such (leading to the kind of charlatanism and obscurantism of the journal “Social Text” exposed by Alan Sokal).

For all these reasons, given the nature and sources of the present attacks on the Enlightenment, it is necessary to affirm it, notwithstanding its obvious negative aspects and limitations.

This is no different from defending the legacy of the French Revolution against its revisionist right-wing critics, even though Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg had many good criticisms to make of Jacobinism and the French revolutionary tradition.

The same applies to current French governmental efforts to limit the rights of those born in France if their parents happen to be of foreign origin, which constitutes a direct repudiation of the French revolutionary idea that citizenship should be based on place of birth and not on “blood” ties.

My Criticism of Kelley

Suppose somebody was writing a book on the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism and had a section or chapter criticizing my views on the matter as put forward in my book Before Stalinism. Is that person obliged to also discuss my views on the Cuban Revolution, let alone those expressed in Social Decay and Transformation?

I think not. Thus, I am not persuaded by Professor Young’s criticism that my criticism of Robin D.G. Kelley’s Race Rebels did not discuss other aspects of Kelley’s work.

Professor Young also asserts that I criticize Kelley because he is a postmodernist. The problem is that such a criticism of Kelley is nowhere to be found in my book, for the simple reason that I don’t believe Robin Kelley is a postmodernist.

My criticism of Kelley is not even about Race Rebels as a whole, but about those parts of the book relevant to the issues treated in my book. In fact, I wrote almost a whole page (114) praising various positive aspects of this book.

My criticism is about one major and important feature of Kelley’s Race Rebels, namely its pronounced “romanticism,” which I describe as a tendency to idealize the behavior of oppressed groups, to perceive resistance and politics where they do not exist, and to convert mundane if not altogether negative things into admirable behavior.

I also added that this tendency is likely to thrive when the left is not doing well and there is a strong temptation to create good news at any price. (124) This aspect of Kelley’s thinking is directly pertinent to a major theme of my book that discusses how the left has historically addressed issues of social decay.

What is Resistance?

Specifically, I do take Robin Kelley to task for his unwitting trivializing of resistance. If pretty much everything the oppressed do is resistance, then it follows that no action the oppressed take is any more or less important than anything else they do.

Kelley could have avoided this problem had he followed his own favorable mention of what Raymond Williams called “alternative behavior,” as distinct from oppositional or resistance activity. A good example of Williams’ “alternative behavior is prostitution, which Kelley instead sees as “potentially empowering.”

Kelley’s description of the “hipster” behavior of African-American “zoot-suiters” in the forties also seems a lot closer to Williams’ “alternative” category than to the “oppositional” behavior that Kelley attributes to it.

Kelley’s approach is flawed not only because it distorts the historical truth, but also because of its practical political implications. If we do not at least attempt to distinguish what is resistance and whether it has a smaller or greater political character, then we are left without concrete guidelines for social and political action.

Such guidelines depend on reading as accurately as possible where oppressed people are at, in terms of their consciousness and even more important their willingness and readiness to fight back against their oppressors.

This is politically very important. In my own political and organizational experience, especially in the period from the late sixties to the late seventies, one of the important factors in demoralizing and driving seasoned left cadre to the right, or out of politics altogether, was the complete misreading of the radical possibilities in that period and the totally unrealistic expectations for radicalization of the American working class.

Thus, this is not an issue of dogmatic hair-splitting, pedantic academicism or of arrogant Marxists appropriating for themselves the right to grant the title of radical or revolutionary to the type of actions they prefer. We are talking instead about the maximum political clarity to guide our political orientation and action.

This is particularly important for those who live inside the United States, the most powerful capitalist country in the world.

Looking At Malcolm X

Nothing demonstrates more clearly my objections to Kelley’s romanticism than Kelley’s critique of Malcolm X (this important issue is again not discussed by Professor Young).

Kelley criticizes Malcolm’s account of his hustling teenage years as “a clich that obscures more than it reveals.” Kelley further criticizes Malcolm for “the sort of narrow, rigid criteria” that the latter used to judge the political meaning of his life.

Consistent with Kelley’s tendency to see opposition and resistance in acts that are, as I pointed out before, part of what Raymond Williams called “alternative behavior,” Kelley objects to Malcolm’s failure to perceive “the zoot suit, the conk, the lindy hop, and the language of the `hep cat’ [as] signifiers of a culture of opposition among black, mostly male, youth.”

Malcolm’s pride in having left the life of victimizing crime to fully dedicate himself to the liberation of his people is seen by Kelley as Malcolm being “ill-equipped to capture the significance of his youthful struggles to carve more time for leisure and pleasure, free himself from alienating wage labor, survive and transcend the racial and economic boundaries he confronted in everyday life.” (Robin D.G. Kelley, Race Rebels. Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class, New York: The Free Press, 1994; 162, 179)

But what were the politics of what Malcolm was actually saying in his Autobiography? He was suggesting that as he became a politically and socially conscious Black leader, and particularly after he left the Nation of Islam, his life had acquired a constructive goal and purpose and was thus a big advance over his previous life of crime.

It is worth emphasizing that Malcolm’s abandonment of his frequently exploitative hustling was not geared at all towards “respectability” and social mobility. Malcolm’s contempt for middle class Black careerists was legendary. Instead, all his efforts toward self-mastery and self-control were guided by the goal of how to best serve the cause of the liberation of his people.

As Malcolm overcame and grew out of his hustling and delinquent past, he felt no need to either idealize or express contempt for that past. He would not look down on those African-Americans who continued to live the way he used to. Unlike many upper- and middle-class reformers, he wanted to win over those sisters and brothers to a better way, not to condemn them from on high.

Malcolm’s finely honed moral and political sense also made it easy for him to discriminate among the various behaviors that mainstream society included under the all-inclusive, grab bag category of crime.

While it goes without saying that Malcolm would have no truck with drug pushers and muggers preying on the community, he attacked those who characterized looting by Black working people as criminal acts, as in mainstream press coverage of the 1964 Harlem riots.

Class and Temperance

Malcolm’s approach was the same one that radical working-class leaders have historically adopted towards the problems of social decay affecting their communities. As I clearly pointed out in my chapter on alcoholism and temperance, what distinguished working class movements from middle and upper class reformers was not that working-class movements approved or were indifferent to the alcoholism affecting working-class communities.

There was more to temperance movements than just opposition to alcoholic addiction. This opposition sometimes had a primarily upper- and middle-class ideological character, as was usually the case with single-issue temperance movements; but sometimes it had a primarily working-class character. In this latter case, there were varying motivations for working-class temperance and conflicting ideological and political approaches to the issue.

The key issue in these movements, as I emphasized in my book, was the distinction between the desire for middle-class respectability, which predominated in the upper- and middle-class movements, and the drive for workers’ dignity, pride and class independence which predominated
in the working-class temperance movements.

On a more ideological level, as I pointed out in my book, was the crucial question that often distinguished working class from other analyses of temperance, of whether alcoholism was seen as the cause or the result of working-class oppression, and whether abstinence by itself could solve the problem of workers. Middle- and upper-class reformers typically thought it would, while progressive workers movements typically thought it would not.

Argument vs. Amalgamation

The views expressed in my book were clearly identified with, and supported, the approaches taken by radical working class movements and by Malcolm X. In fact, I referred to The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a work in the best of Enlightenment traditions.

Unfortunately Professor Young instead identifies my views with those put forward by Cornel West, and by conservative NAACP leaders, which can be considered as varieties of “blaming the victims” analyses.

Yet I explicitly criticized Cornel West and his co-author Sylvia Ann Hewlett (90), for the same kind of reasons that Professor Young finds objectionable in West’s approach to the Black community. This is an instance of amalgamation, in which Professor Young attributes to me views that I clearly don’t have, but that are widely rejected by the audience being addressed.

Nowhere do I assert `that their “deficient” manners and morals impair the working class from throwing off their own shackles,’ a formulation that clearly suggests a “blaming the victim” approach.

With no claim whatsoever to originality, I affirm that class oppression and exploitation may lead to a process of atomization of the oppressed, and that this expresses itself in a variety of ways such as large-scale drug addiction, alcoholism, and many other ills that often constitute obstacles to self-organization and emancipation.

My analysis also shows that such processes don’t take place if the affected class or community actively organizes itself into unions, parties and community organizations.

Toward Self-Transformation

My book is not primarily concerned with the working class, or Black communities, but with the ideas and practices of what E. P. Thompson called the “politically active minority” within those communities.

In particular, I ask whether these politically active minorities are pointing toward the possibilities of people transforming themselves as they transform society — the case of nineteenth- and twentieth-century radical working-class leaders and of Malcolm X, particularly in his post-NOI period — or whether they idealize the negative and self-destructive behavior inevitably encouraged by exploitation and oppression.

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)