Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Left of Enlightenment

Israel, Jonathan. A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy. Princeton, 2010.

First, a proposition: take the ruthless historical categorizations of Jonathan Israel, add to them the apocalyptic perspective on recent world history taken by Mike Davis (in Planet of Slums), spice with a productivist reading of Marx—you will have the politico-intellectual framework of Hardt and Negri.

A Revolution of the Mind is ultimately an argument about the nature of the French Revolution and political modernity, drawn as a consequence of Israel’s massive multivolume history of the Enlightenment. Israel’s argument about the Enlightenment is refreshingly straightforward and world-historical (it also infuriates many scholars of the period—I won’t really go into these debates, see La Vopa’s review in Modern Intellectual History). There are not a multiplicity of regional or local Enlightenments, there are not ‘occult’ Enlightenments, there are not women’s and men’s Enlightenments. There are, says Israel, just two Enlightenments, one radical, and one moderate. They are divided on many issues, but it all comes down to a fundamental metaphysical disagreement that maps cleanly onto the profusion of political ones. On one side is Spinoza and monism, which means democracy and egalitarianism, on the other there are the many attempts to rescue dualism, which always becomes a defense of authority and hierarchy. Israel says, “The only thinker who seriously tried to bridge this antithesis conceptually, though even he does not really manage it, was Kant...the later post-1789 Kant, abandoning his earlier more conservative stance, stood firm with a foot in both camps, unfurling the banner of a pervasive liberalism” (12-13). The Revolution of the Mind to which Israel refers is the intellectual triumph of radical Enlightenment in the 1770s and 1780s that, in a word, caused the French Revolution. Israel takes a strong stance here,

The prevailing view about the French Revolution not being causes by books and ideas in the first place may be very widely influential but it is also, on the basis of the detailed evidence, totally indefensible. Indeed, without referring to Radical Enlightenment nothing about the French Revolution makes the slightest sense or can even begin to be provisionally explained. (224)

Radical Enlightenment ideas about democracy and equality officially organize our political world. They have never been more than very partially applied. Their surge before and during the Revolution was followed by a long struggle. In his preface, Israel stages it thus,

Not only scholars but also the general reading debating, and voting public need some awareness of the tremendous difficulty, struggle, and cost involved in propagating out core ideas in the face of the long-dominant monarchical, aristocratic, and religious ideologies, privileged oligarchies and elites, and in the face also of the various Counter-Enlightenment popular movements that so resolutely and vehemently combated egalitarian and democratic values from the mid-seventeenth century down to the crushing of Nazism, the supreme Counter-Enlightenment, in 1945. (x-xi)

Names are good shorthand for understanding how Israel divides up the Enlightenment, and will suggest some of the problems he has got to deal with. In the beginning was Spinoza, followed by Bayle, and then in the later period, Helvetius, Priestly, Diderot, d’Holbach, and others. Indeed, Diderot is the real hero of A Revolution of the Mind. Voltaire is the great representative of the moderate Enlightenment, together with Locke, Smith, and many others. The most importantly problematic figure for Israel is Rousseau. In fact, Israel’s narrative (very brief) of the Revolution itself is very much an exercise in la faute à Rousseau. Rousseau is seen as a sort of fallen radical, who with his turn toward sentiment and the metaphysics of the general will is indeed responsible for Robespierre and the Terror.

The very moral and intellectual clarity of Israel’s narrative renders it suspect. Perhaps this is a function of how short these lectures are, of their status as something like a ‘report and conclusion’ about research previously conducted. Still, the apparent ease with which Israel finds the political program most preferred by universalist progressive liberals today in the 18th century is unsettling. Over the space of a few pages, for instance, we learn that for the “radical enlighteners...only Enlightenment to enlighten others generates freedom,” that “liberty of thought and expression...benefits society,” that “only equity, reason, and freedom can ground just constitutional principles, rational laws, and upright government,” and that, “the consent of the governed is the only source of legitimacy in politics” (80-3). Israel even points out—and I imagine that during the lecture he was smiling as he said this—that his radicals argued that the best parts of Greek philosophy derived from Egyptian sources (204).

In short, everything that ‘we’ hold dear today flows from Spinoza, and has its metaphysical foundation in his monism. This is the source of modern notions of democracy, equality, liberty, justice, universalism, and revolution.

Again, it seems to me that Israel’s connection of Spinoza’s metaphysics to democratic egalitarianism, to the modern impulse toward justice and equality, would fit well into the genealogy that Hardt and Negri work out for themselves of ‘immanent-materialist’ philosophy (if memory serves) in Empire. Israel himself is for obvious reasons dismissive of Marxist historiography of the French Revolution, but he does not venture very far into the 19th century—only suggesting that Spinoza’s influence lived on, which indeed it did. I add Mike Davis to this contingently (I just the other day read Planet of Slums), but I do think the world he tells us about puts special pressure on Israel’s story of Enlightenment—particularly if we take it to be essentially a present political project rather than a historical one. Massive poverty has always been an effective tool of anti-democratic propaganda. Manifest material inequality makes it both more difficult and more necessary to assert equality as a political principle, while also exerting pressure to ‘transcendentalize’ it. I don’t know what Israel’s academic-political views are, and I imagine he would scorn without seriously engaging the contemporary universalist current of academic leftism (H&N, but also many others). But it isn’t a coincidence that they all take Spinoza as an intellectual hero. The parallels suggest that it might be worth asking what, exactly, constitutes radicalism, good and bad, today. Would Israel accuse the authors of Empire of repeating Rousseau’s mistakes? It seems likely.

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