The enlightenment and the struggle for rational thought
The rise of capitalism was accompanied by a bitter struggle against the religious obscurantism of feudal reaction. The rationalists, the empiricists and the French materialists struck blow after blow against the dominant ideology of the day. The struggle for rational and scientific thought was an indispensable weapon in the bourgeois revolution.
Today however, the capitalist class has turned into a counter-revolutionary and conservative force. It has taken up the banner of idealism and turned against the revolutionary materialism which it relied on in the struggle against feudalism. Today, the struggle to defend science, materialism and rational thought is an essential part of the struggle for socialism. While the old bourgeois schools of thought have degenerated into irrationalism and mysticism, Marxism has managed to rescue their revolutionary kernel and raise them to a higher level in the philosophy of scientific socialism: dialectical materialism.
Recommended Reading: History of Philosophy, “The Renaissance”, “Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz”
Yola: So, why are we talking about the period of Enlightenment? It’s because, nowadays, talking about truth and reason is belittled, or even viewed as suspicious. The world around us is chaotic and complex – especially when you don’t have the clear method of Marxism to analyse it – and moreover, all the institutions, the scientists, media, and politicians of the ruling class that claim the truth for themselves are so obviously lying that everyone can see it. They fail to give answers to pressing issues such as climate change, war and inequality, and only offer lies, corruption, scandals and incompetence. These are all symptoms of the decay of capitalism. The capitalist system is dying and with it comes a mood of scepticism and doubt.
This scepticism has found an ideological expression in postmodernist philosophy and other petty bourgeois ideologies. They even deny openly that there is such a thing as truth, or that objective reality and laws can be discovered at all; and with this, they also openly attack the age of Enlightenment. They see it as an outdated period where humanity naively believed in progress and truth. But in human history, the fight for truth and reason was an immensely progressive driving force for development; and actually, the rediscovery of a truth that does not come from the Bible – the rediscovery of materialism, of reason and of science – was not long ago at all.
It was precisely during the age of the Enlightenment, a period that roughly spans from the 17th to the 19th century; and in this period we saw a sheer explosion of development and progress in all spheres of life. The great thinkers of the time fought for new ideas, clearing the way for a rational understanding of the world. They wanted to show that there are laws to be discovered in all aspects of life. And the struggle for truth was also a philosophical struggle. It was a battle of ideas that coincided with the rise of capitalism. Just like today, it was a time where the old, feudal society was dying, and a new society was struggling to be born. And just like today, the battle of ideas – the battle for truth and a rational understanding of the world – was part of this struggle. The Marxist understanding of the world has a history, and it rests on the shoulders of giants. We must defend this heritage, which is our heritage. To defend our ideological heritage and learn the lessons from it is just as important as studying the history of revolutions and class struggle.
Now, in the 16th century, the old feudal order was starting to enter into a long crisis of rising contradictions. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels describe this ascent of the new capitalist class, the bourgeoisie. They write in the Communist Manifesto the following:
“The discovery of America [in 1492], the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.”
This was the basis on which intellectual life, philosophy and the arts also awoke after the long slumber that had been the Middle Ages. This awakening was not like rising from a comfortable, soft mattress. Even in the 17th century, the world was still a very fearful place in the eyes of most people. To them, the world was full of evil demons, the devil, and spirits that threatened their poor souls. The authority of the Church ruled with an iron fist over the minds and bodies of the people.
The Church not only instilled this fear – it profited off it, and pursued anyone who questioned their authority with extreme brutality. The authority of the church rested on a top-down hierarchy. The only truth that was accepted was the word of God, and the interpretation of the Bible was in the hands of priests and theologists. Common punishments for dissidents were excommunication from the Church, incarceration, or even burning at the stake. There were frequent raids of bookshops. Authors as well as publishers of critical writings were persecuted, and critical books were frequently burned in public. For example, when the mathematician and physicist Giordano Bruno published his views defending the Copernican, heliocentric universe – that is, that the Sun and not the Earth is the centre of the universe – he was tried by the Roman Inquisition and burned at the stake in 1600! So, just as today, no one is allowed to question the holy ideals of bourgeois democracy and private property. It was seen as a big crime to question the ideological pillars of the ruling order. It was a dangerous task to publicly defend “new” ideas; but there were courageous thinkers who did just that. This was the setting for the human mind breaking free and starting a battle against the old forces, also in the sphere of ideas.
An important step was taken by English Materialists, and the most famous ones are Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. Francis Bacon lived just before the English Revolution. He died in 1624. Bacon had a deep hatred for the theological scholastics of the Middle Ages that had dominated philosophy for centuries. In his view, the way science was done was completely wrong. He literally wrote, and I quote, “the present method of experiment is blind and stupid.” He complained that instead of looking at the real world, of conducting patient and thorough experiments and studying nature, they were just leading endless debates about abstract terms. In his view, it was necessary to go back to the basics: throw out all abstract, theological concepts and start with facts, observations, and empirical data. Bacon was still a religious man, but he pushed God and religion aside because he thought that nature itself works according to laws that can be discovered through thorough experiments. In this way, the materialists of the Enlightenment revived the materialism of the old Greek philosophers.
Another English materialist, Thomas Hobbes, lived a little after Bacon. He lived right in the middle of the stormy period of the English Revolution of 1642-1649. Hobbes systematised the ideas of Bacon, giving them a more stringent but also a more rigid form. Hobbes also believed in God; but to him, once God had created nature and its laws, he didn’t interfere with these laws anymore, which is called Deism. On the contrary, to Hobbes, only evil men constantly talked of wonders and witchcraft in order to scare people – when actually, the laws of nature are perfectly fine to explain the workings of the world. In effect, theology and science were sharply separated; and thus the way was cleared from religious rubble to look at the world through the eyes of reason.
For Hobbes, everything including ideas are matter, and, more precisely, matter that moves. He writes, “when a Body is once in motion, it moveth (unless something else hinder it) eternally.” So, to him, not only bodies, but also the mind and ideas, are material things that move. He explained that material objects move against our senses. They impress themselves onto our eyes, ears and so on. And then our body, or “heart” as he says, exerts a counter-pressure to these objects, and this friction creates sensations. Ideas, to him, are remnants of these sensations. It’s like when you pluck the string of a violin and the string continues to move and to vibrate in our brain. So these vibrations, to him, are ideas. With ongoing experience, we learn to add up these many sense-impressions and simple ideas and can create concepts.
What Hobbes presents here is a materialist explanation of ideas and the human mind; things that were previously explained by God-given intuition and a soul. Everything to him is a chain of cause and effect, and all causes can be found and explained materially. We can see how the new mechanical sciences of the day exerted a big influence on Hobbes and other philosophers of that time. They had a very strong focus on the quantitative side of things. To them, movement consists basically of fixed, unchanging objects crashing into each other. So even though they were materialists, they had a very passive and mechanical understanding of movement. Something had to get objects to move, and then they would just continue to bump into other objects and so on ad infinitum.
This was the age of mechanics. Isaac Newton published his Principles in 1687. Clearly, the sort of experiments and observations they conducted at that time were mostly mechanical observations. They didn’t yet penetrate deep inside certain phenomena, such as cells. And the measures and numbers they operated with were quantitative data: mass, length, movement from A to B, and so on. The only change Hobbes and also other mechanical materialists acknowledged was quantitative change. That is, adding and subtracting numbers.
To Hobbes, reason itself is only a mathematical operation. He writes the following, “[wherever] there is place for Addition and Subtraction, there also is place for Reason; and where these have no place, there Reason has nothing at all to do.” So, the thorough and clear materialist approach was an important step forward in philosophy, but it was also a one-sided exaggeration. First of all, this way of viewing things still left some room for God. God was seen as the one who set things in motion in the first place. He was like the “first cause” or the “first mover.” But also, with this purely quantitative concept of change, how can you explain the emergence of qualitatively new things? What they present is like playing with Lego. You put pieces together, but in the end you will still only have a pile of Lego. Out of adding Lego together, you can’t create an animal or a living thing. In short, this quantitative, mechanical form of materialism cannot explain that there are “leaps” where quantity changes into quality, which is something that Marxists do understand. For this, it is necessary to also look at the qualitative side of movement and to gain a deeper understanding of how things develop. This means you need a dialectical understanding of movement and development.
This task of developing dialectics was taken up and studied in depth by other, actually idealist philosophers, especially in the Netherlands and Germany. Now, roughly at the same time as Hobbes, in the Netherlands another bomb shook society. In 1637, the philosopher Rene Descartes published his famous “Discourse on the Method.” Descartes demanded that everything in the world, including the holy Bible, should be judged by reason. He had a profound impact on a strand of philosophy in continental Europe that spans from Spinoza to Leibniz to Kant, and ultimately led to the dialectics of Hegel. The mechanical approach of the English materialists was at a crossroads. They had developed the objective side, but put movement of matter in mechanical and quantitative terms. It was now these idealist philosophers who took a closer look at the qualitative and active side of things. They wanted to look at the big picture: the big principles of how things are and how they change.
The German philosopher Leibniz, who was born in 1646, posed the question like this. To him, the world was made up of things he called Monades. They can be understood as elementary substances similar to atoms. He said, and I quote, “there must be simple substances, since there are compounds; for a compound is nothing but a collection or aggregatum of simple things.” So he says, yes, quantitatively adding things up, compounding them, is one important aspect of development. But then he adds: “yet the Monads must have some qualities, otherwise they would not even be existing things. And if simple substances did not differ in quality, there would be absolutely no means of perceiving any change in things.”
What he is saying here is that if you just add more quantities of the same substance, all you will get is just more of the same. It’s like adding more water to water. This does not explain how all the qualitatively different things in the world can develop. So, to Leibniz, not only quantitative differences but also qualitative differences are necessary. His solution to this problem was to give his Monades infinitely many qualities. These qualities are hidden within the Monades as a potential or a germ, not yet fully developed. His Monades are constantly moving and changing, and when they interact with each other, they bring out or develop certain sides and qualities. Qualities that are at first only a potential or predisposition are thus developed.
Now, Leibniz did not have the profundity of Hegel in explaining the dialectics between quantity changing into quality and vice versa; but he still gave a valuable contribution on this question. One of the most interesting figures of this strand of philosophy is certainly Baruch de Spinoza. Spinoza was born in 1632, so he was about 15 years older than Leibniz. Actually, they even met once personally. Spinoza came from a Jewish family that had fled from Portugal to the Netherlands. At the age of 24, in 1656, he decided to break decisively with his current life and to dedicate himself to philosophy. He provoked an excommunication from his Jewish community and moved away from Amsterdam. Throughout his life he got offered sponsorship and professorships by different patrons, and they tried to convince him to give up his provocative ideas; but he refused everything but the bare minimum, earning his living by polishing and cutting optical lenses. He was an open defender of free speech and religious freedom, as well as an open republican and anti-monarchist. Even 150 years after his death, “Spinozism” was still used synonymously with atheism. Spinoza himself refused the label of atheism; but his philosophy, in effect, leaves no space for religion or God in the common sense of the word.
To him, there is only one substance in the world. He called it God, but it was not like any religious god. By God, he meant everything that exists in the real world. It is basically all of Nature. For Spinoza, there is no separate, spiritual realm besides this one substance. This substance, or God, is infinite, and it doesn’t have a beginning or end. It only knows constant change. To the mechanical materialist Hobbes, anything that didn’t have clear limits, with a beginning and an end, just meant that we didn’t understand it. To speak of infinity, to Hobbes, was a sign of weakness. But Spinoza recognised that if you assume the world was just created out of nowhere by God – without any logical cause – this is actually inconsistent and a weakness in your argumentation. So, for Spinoza, the one substance has always existed and will always exist, and will only change its many different forms. This substance, or nature, has clear laws that can be understood. Ideas and matter to him are only two sides of the same one substance. And since ideas are part of this nature, ideas can also understand this nature. Clear ideas to him mean a clear understanding of the laws that govern us. We can be free if we understand the laws in his view, and all laws in nature can be uncovered and understood. This is an important contribution to understand the connection between matter and idea and to understand also change.
Even though Spinoza, Leibniz and also Hegel were idealists in a way, they are nothing like today’s subjective idealists. They had a keen interest in natural sciences, and they themselves did many experiments. They wanted to truly understand the world. Thus, this school of thought paved the way for the dialectical approach: how do things progress? What are the laws of movement? How does human thought itself develop? This dialectical view was a necessary component for Marxism. It gave the key to overcoming the mechanical approach of the English materialists.
We are now entering the 18th century, and the most interesting place at that time was France. The crisis of the old, absolutist, and feudal order had increased. In France, the backlash of the catholic church after the reformation had been particularly strong. The church exercised vicious censorship and lorded over the lives of people. The absolute monarchy was a corrupt and parasitic monster that leeched on society, while the poor peasants lived in misery. For example, King Louis XV owned 3000 horses, 217 carriages, and had 30 personal doctors. In 1751, his household alone spent almost a quarter of the annual government income. Figures like these remind us of certain billionaires of today who spend fantastic amounts on private yachts or personal trips into space.
A striking document of the mood of that time is the testament of a parish priest. He was called Jean Meslier from the province of Champagne. When Jean Meslier died in 1733, he left a testament to his small congregation. It was a burning manifesto against the Church and against Jesus Christ, and it was in favour of atheism and a utopian version of communism. Meslier described Jesus as, and I quote, “a fanatic, a misanthrope that speaks to the wretched and preaches them to be poor, to fight nature and to hate pleasure.” The Christian God, he said, was “more evil than the evilest human,” and he rejected all religion in favour of materialism. Meslier writes, “I tell you that matter acts on its own account … leave the ‘first cause’ to the theologists, nature doesn’t need it to produce all the effects that you can witness.” As you can see, in the question of the “first cause” he even went further than Hobbes and others to open atheism. Actually, this testament was so radical that Voltaire didn’t dare to publish all of it even thirty years later. He only published excerpts.
The conditions in France really ripened for the old order to be overthrown. At private dinners and in the salons, revolution was already a hot topic of discussion. The 18th century was the age of the French “philosophes” as they called themselves: names such as Helvetius, Holbach, Diderot and Rousseau. These were the thinkers that inspired the French revolution of 1789. In the English revolution, not even a hundred years earlier, the different classes had still fought their battles under the guise of religion. All classes had fought in the name of God, and their respective interpretation of God’s will. The English materialist philosophers at that time had been revolutionaries in the sphere of human thought, but their ideas were no political weapons in the class battle of the English bourgeois revolution.
On the contrary, the English materialist Thomas Hobbes had even been in favour of absolute Monarchy. But not in France. The Church and the king were hated figures, and the French philosophers drank up the new ideas and focused them directly on society itself. The French philosophers were known figures. They were always in some trouble with the authorities. Many of them constantly moved around, fleeing from one government to the other. Their writings were frequently forbidden and publicly burned; but that just made them more attractive to the readers trying to get their hands on the books. Books were wiggled past censorship, smuggled into the country from Germany or the Netherlands, and often written in pseudonyms.
The French philosophers of the 18th century really had a mission: not only nature and human thought should bend to reason, but society itself must be understood rationally; and most of all, society should be modelled after reason. The ideas of the English Empiricists, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were immensely popular with these philosophers. To them, Man is a machine – a machine that can be logically explained in a materialist way. In their essays, they imagined what humans would be outside of society, in a natural, primal state. Here, every human machine is gifted with more or less the same abilities. But if all humans are more or less the same, why was there so much inequality in society, and why was society so morally rotten? They argued that as machines, we only follow our needs and what benefits us most. There is no absolute, God-given good or evil.
They concluded that it must be the laws and the education of society itself that are evil. These laws are so irrational that they make humans unreasonable, greedy, and harmful towards each other. For Hobbes, the natural state of humans was one of constant fear of others taking away your property. In fact, he’s supposed to have said: “when my mother gave birth, she gave birth to twins: me and fear.” The French philosophers, on the other hand, had mostly an extremely positive – even idyllic and idealistic – image of the “natural” state of humans. Bad laws and evil kings corrupted the natural goodness in humans. Therefore, laws and education must change for the true nature of humans to blossom.
In this way, they directed the new philosophical ideas toward society. However, the mechanical and ahistorical approach is still clearly visible in their writings. They didn’t look at society as a historical progress. Instead they always assumed society to be sort of a tabula rasa, an empty canvas that was the natural state, that could be then modelled at will with rational, good ideas and laws. This philosophy was in fact very suitable for the ascending capitalist class, because capitalists don’t plan production and society. They act somewhat like the machines that the materialists described: get profit, invest money, get more profit. If the legal framework and the government don’t permit you to do that, just change the constitution and change the government. But the more fundamental laws of society, that the capitalists themselves follow unconsciously, are a mystery to them. They don’t need to know them in order to make profits. And so the philosophers’ battle cries of liberty, equality and reason became political weapons for the bourgeois revolution. The French revolution of 1789 and the years after cleared away the biggest obstacle at that time: the feudal order with the absolute monarchy and the rule of the Church.
This actually allowed capitalism to develop faster. The class contradictions between the capitalists and the proletariat, that were only embryonic before, became more pronounced after the bourgeois revolutions. The French philosophers of the 18th century had imagined that society could be built after rational ideas. But after the bourgeois revolution, it became clear that they had been wrong. Education and laws were not the driving force of history; but, as Marx and Engels explained later, the development of the productive forces and class struggle are. Some thinkers, like Rousseau, or early utopian communists like Morelly and Mably, had already guessed that the root problem had something to do with private property. But they didn’t yet see why private property developed in history, so they wanted to battle it with better education. They thought that, if only humans were taught not to believe in private property, the evil would disappear. As Marxists, we understand that the development of the productive forces is the reason behind why private property emerged; which is also why classes and the class struggle emerged. All class societies up until capitalism had not yet developed the productive forces to a high enough level to abolish private property. If a society cannot produce enough for everyone – if it’s still a society of scarcity – then the conditions are not yet ripe to abolish private property.
What’s more, the French philosophers and the utopian communists at that time didn’t have the working class as a revolutionary subject to work with. That is why the utopian French communist Mably in the 18th century wrote the following about private property: “all evil can be traced back to this perfidious element, the wish to own property.” But then he said, “today, no human force is in the position to restore equality.” To them, the early proletarians that existed at that time were only poor lumpens. They were not yet a powerful force to change society. The power of the proletariat was not yet developed; which is why Mably, just like the later French utopian socialists, suggested the idealistic solution of educating humans to give up private property. It was Marxism that discovered the true laws of society and history. Marxism finally gives an explanation for how nature, human thought, and also society itself develop historically. Marxism explains that private property must be expropriated in a revolution, and can’t be “educated away”.
We have here some important key elements that were necessary for the emergence of Marxism. First, the materialist philosophy, resurrected by the English and French materialists. Secondly, dialectics – that is the laws of change and development – discovered by the idealist philosophers and especially Hegel. We say that ideas can change the world – and that is true – but this only works if the ideas consciously grasp the laws of nature and society. So why was Marxism able to find the laws that govern nature, thought, and society itself? It was the result of the progress of the Enlightenment period. Marxism allows us to use philosophy directly to change the world. It becomes a conscious weapon. With this, philosophy – as it was in the past – ends. Engels explained that the essential task of philosophy was to find the laws of development, and these laws then have to be applied to the world in practice: in science, as well as in the class struggle. Marxism understands how capitalism works; but of course, this understanding leads directly to the conclusion that capitalism has outlived its progressive phase. Just like the feudal order had to be overthrown to clear the way for the further development of society, it is now capitalism that has to be overthrown.
A truly rational insight into the world leaves no other option, and this is exactly why today’s ruling class rejects reason and truth. Today’s ruling class throws away these valuable lessons of history, because to take up this heritage and to continue on its road inevitably leads to arguing for their own downfall. But Marxism is the true heir of these courageous and revolutionary thinkers. Our task is to defend our heritage in the battle of ideas, and to use our ideas consciously to change the world. That is, to fight for a society without exploitation and for socialism. Thank you.
Hamid: Thank you very much, Yola, for that fantastic and very wide-ranging leadoff. I think that you are absolutely right that these brave fighters, revolutionaries, form a part of our heritage. At least their ideas do.
Now comrades, the philosopher Immanuel Kant once came up with a model for the Enlightenment, which he formulated as “dare to know,”; and he went on to say, “the officer says, ‘dont argue, drill.’ The tax-collector says, ‘don’t argue, pay.’ The pastor says, ‘don’t argue, believe.’” You see, the thinkers of the Enlightenment had the courage, in the words of Descartes, to doubt everything; to doubt all established beliefs, and to demand a rational explanation for them. Here we see the crucial role of the philosophical struggle – the struggle for ideas – in every revolution.
This was – like ours today – a time of extreme turbulence: of wars, civil wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. You had the rise of absolutism, the spiritual dictatorship of the Church, religious wars which killed millions of people. Tens of thousands were killed in witch trials. Scientists like Galileo were persecuted by the church inquisitors; and some of them, like Giordano Bruno, were burned at the stake. But this was also an age of rebellion and revolution. You had the Dutch revolution, the Dutch bourgeois revolution. Then you had the English revolution and civil war in the 1640s. The bourgeoisie was gaining strength everywhere. This also stimulated a revolution in science – and every step forward for science in turn disproved the dogmas of the Church and ushered in a revolution in philosophy. This, in turn, played a key role in compelling the bourgeois revolution.
One of the examples of this, one of the many remarkable people of this era, was Spinoza. Spinoza did speak of God, but his God was no real God at all. His God was just simply nature, which acts according to its own laws and without any supernatural involvement. And these laws, according to Spinoza, can only be understood – not via faith, not via prayers, not via preachers – but by the means of the scientific method. By means of observation, experimentation, and rational thinking. You can see how these ideas were developed along with the scientific revolution. In many ways, it was a form of materialism dressed in the language of idealism and religion.
On this basis, he launched a merciless criticism of official religion. He explained that superstition only arises when human beings cannot understand the laws of nature and the reasons behind their own misery and oppression. And he said that those in power use this superstition in order to control the masses. But in order for this lie to have the highest effect, they first dress up this superstition in all sorts of spectacular pomp and ceremony. In opulent buildings and dresses and ceremonies and traditions. And here’s what he writes: “it may indeed be the highest secret of monarchical government, and utterly essential to it, to keep men deceived and to disguise the fear that sways them with the specious name of religion, so that they will fight for their servitude as if they were fighting for their own deliverance, and they will not think it humiliating, but supremely glorious, to spill their blood and sacrifice their lives for the glorification of a single man.”
This philosophy was an open declaration of war against the monarchies and organised religions of Europe. He went through the Bible and the Torah methodically, and highlighted all of their contradictions. When it came to the prophets, he said that they did not have more perfect minds than others, but only a more vivid power of imagination; and therefore, “those who look in the books of the prophets for wisdom and knowledge of natural and spiritual things are completely on the wrong track.” He also said that miracles are just natural phenomena that people didn’t understand. So, he said that “a storm, back then, was called a rebuke from God, and thunder and lightning the arrows of God.” He says, “in this sense, therefore, the psalmists call the miracles of Egypt ‘powers of God,’ because they opened a path to safety for the Hebrews in their extreme danger when they were not expecting any exit to appear, and so they were totally amazed. Essentially, this is not a miracle, it’s just a gust of wind that they didn’t realise was coming.”
Now, this is dynamite in the 1670s. And these ideas spread like wildfire. They were taken up by radical Christian sects, scientists, atheistic revolutionary trends. Spinoza was immediately feared by the ruling classes in Europe. In the end, Spinoza concludes that “there’s nothing to learn from the Bible and the Torah except for moral values and social norms. And even those norms,” he says, “were only applicable to the social conditions at the time. With the exception of one or two,” which is “love thy neighbour,” basically, now, “the truth, in other words,” he says, “does not come from scripture of the Church, but from the study of nature.” From this, he went on to argue that the clergy should be stripped of all of its official powers, separated from the state, that freedom of speech and thought should be a universal right as a condition for a better society, and that, therefore, a republic was far more preferable than a monarchy.
For the time, these were very advanced ideas. And they show the revolutionary spirit of the men of the Enlightenment. This is the spirit that academics today sneer at. These were giants who played a key role in the bourgeois revolution. Their clarity and courage is a world of difference away from the so-called philosophies in universities today. And for us, they form a part of our heritage, the kernel of which we need to defend.
Ben Curry: Hello, comrades. As has been explained, there are two trends in Enlightenment thinking. There were the empiricists, who believed that we know the world purely through our senses; and their motto was “there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.” And opposed to them was the school of rationalism, which began with Descartes. They place emphasis on reason, rather than pure sensation, as the source of knowledge. Both contained an element of truth. Both were one-sided in their theories. But both made important contributions to philosophy.
Just as the capitalist class today represents an out-worn system, so the modern so-called philosophers in university campuses cling to the weakest sides of these great schools for philosophy. I want to say a word or two about the modern descendents of empiricism in particular, represented today by positivism.
The early empiricists, particularly Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke, were by-and-large materialist thinkers. They believed that all knowledge comes from the senses – but our senses are, for them, a window onto an objective, material world. Those that came later took the one-sided emphasis on experience and took it to an absurd conclusion. Hume and Bishop Berkeley in the eighteenth century treated the senses like a wall beyond which we can never see. They concluded that if all we have are our senses to know the world, how can we even know that they tell us anything about the material world that exists ‘out there’, independently of us? They ended up mired in scepticism. Hume and Berkeley denied that we can know anything exists beyond our own thoughts and sensations. We have our sensations, and we can’t know anything else.
In the form of positivism, these ideas continue to hold sway today, especially in the sciences. In the nineteenth century, a physicist named Ernst Mach rehashed these ideas with a new name. He called his philosophy empirio-criticism. You may have heard of it. For Mach, and for the positivists of the early twentieth century Vienna school – which he directly inspired – all we can say that exists are our sensations. So, when I see an apple, as a materialist, I understand that an apple is a material thing independent of the impressions it leaves on my senses. But, for Mach, all I can say is I have certain sensations. And these sensations just happen to correlate with one another. I see red, I see a round form, and I taste something sweet and crunchy, and I call this correlated complex of sensations an apple. But, if I want to speak of a material apple that exists independently of my sensations, the positivists would accuse me of metaphysics. Well, unfortunately, I’m recovering my sense of taste and smell after a bout of COVID, so, sadly, at the moment, apples no longer taste quite as sweet for me. So perhaps the whole of science should reassess exactly what an apple is because of that. Of course, I’m joking, but this is the absurd conclusion you arrive at if you take sensations, and not the objective world, as the object of science.
For the positivists, the goal of science isn’t to say something about the material world. It’s to describe the patterns of our sensations. It’s pure subjectivism. And these are not fringe ideas. This is what Stephen Hawking has to say: “if one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model.” So, for Hawking, we cannot say that time is an objective feature of nature. Now, these ideas have obtained a massive reach, and they even found an echo amongst the Bolsheviks after the defeat of the 1905 revolution. Only on the basis of a theoretical struggle was Lenin able to drive these ideas out of the party. And some, no doubt, found Lenin a little harsh. We Marxists are often accused of being a little harsh and a little hard on alien class ideas. I’ve no doubt that many people who try to mix Marxism with postmodernism or positivism are not necessarily conscious reactionaries, and they possibly feel a little hurt being accused of espousing reactionary views. But we should make no mistake: our enemies understand the usefulness of these ideas.
Let me quote another scientist and a member of the Nazi party called Pascual Jordan. He described positivism as an “antidote to the materialism of the Bolsheviks,” and, he said, “not only is the resultant liquidation of materialism an important enough result, but the positivist conception offers new possibilities of granting living space to religion without contradiction from scientific thought. Let us remember that positivism accepts experimental observation and experience as the sole ‘reality’ for the physicist. The emphasis on this concept leads us to the fact that there are experiences possible which are quite different from those observations and results.” He reported to the Nazis on a positivist conference, and he said the following, “it seems to be a significant sign of the times that the materialist worldview, viewed as a scientific theory, is being exposed as untenable and contrary to scientific knowledge precisely in those areas of science which since the Rennaisance have been considered its safest domain.”
These words, I think, are all the more valuable because they come from the mouth of an open Nazi. And they confirm precisely what Yola has talked about. The reactionary philosophical trends of the present day have as their goal precisely to restore religion and obscurantism to the place they enjoyed before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and to launch a counter-offensive against the ideas of that period. Today, it falls to us, the Marxists, to take up the defence of reason, rationality, and materialism against all these trendy ideas within philosophy.
Florian Keller: The Enlightenment represented an enormous step forward for humanity. As already explained by the comrades, the bourgeoisie took up the ideas of rational and scientific thought as a weapon in its progressive phase. It cannot let go of this weapon fully, even today in its stage of decrepit rot, as production in capitalism has been complicated to such an extent that it is impossible to exist without the systematic application of insights into natural sciences. But, as capitalism has become a fetter on the further development of humanity, it is inevitable that the weak side – the reactionary side – of these ideas is more and more pronounced. The mechanistic, empiricist, isolated side of these ideas of the Enlightenment. What was reason a few hundred years ago now becomes unreason in the hands of the bourgeoisie.
The most extreme expression of that mechanistic kind of thought was given by the 17th century English chemist Robert Boyle. He said, following up on the ideas of Hobbes who came before him, that the universe is like perfect clockwork; a clockwork which God made in such a way that, once he started it up, runs perfectly along the lines of divine providence, where everything happening afterwards is determined from the start. Today’s scientists will, most of the time, deny that they would adhere to such an openly religious worldview; but in dismissing dialectical materialism, many will still work with notions derived exactly from this mechanist, quasi-religious worldview, be it consciously or unconsciously. This worldview is still pushed on us through the media, and especially the universities and the schools, which makes it necessary for us to combat this. There are many aspects where this can be seen.
But, because of limits of time, I want to focus on the question of whether the universe is finite or infinite and what that means; because a clockwork-like universe only makes sense if it is finite. It has to have a definite starting point in time; a clock has to start at sometime. And it has to have definite limits on its expanse; a clock cannot be infinitely large. It has to be made up of things that are clearly defined and isolated from each other – different parts – and that are only connected through very narrow, mechanical, one-sided cause-and-effects, with movement not being dynamic, but in reality repetitions in an essentially unmoving universe. Hobbes understood that it would be absurd to accept that there could be something infinite inside the finite universe. So he tried to show that there’s no such thing as a real infinity, but only borders of our knowledge. For him, infinity is in essence a human error.
But, in reality, nothing can be understood without accepting the infinity of being as a whole, as even the developments in this period showed – with the development of infinitesimal calculus by Newton and Leibniz more or less at the same time, which spurred on mathematics. And, as has been explained, the findings of Spinoza and later especially Hegel. Marxism, standing on the shoulders of all of these developments, shows clearly that the universe is infinite and has no borders in time, space, and matter; which, in essence, are one and the same thing. This means that conceptions like the beginnings of time and matter like the Big Bang are idealist and can only lead back to Hobbes and to God as a creator. Even if people such as Stephen Hawking try to mask that with literary creations like, and I quote, “the beginning of the universe was a spontaneous creation without a god” – whatever that means.
That does not mean that with the acknowledgment of infinity we can get rid of contradictions, as Engels explained brilliantly in his book Anti-Dühring – which I would recommend to every comrade to study thoroughly, especially the section on philosophy. We know that development only takes place through contradictions. One such contradiction is that, on the one hand, everything in the universe has a clear causality and reality is governed by clear laws which arise by this interaction between everything. That means everything is objectively knowable – there is no such thing as something which can’t be known anywhere – and that everything is a necessity in a philosophical sense. And yet, at the same time, this causality is infinite, with reality being an infinitely complex single process where everything is interconnected. Which means it is not only subjectively, but objectively impossible to know everything, but that there is an objective basis for an accident in a philosophical sense.
Necessity and accident are two sides of the same coin, essentially. That means as Marxists we understood that there is no such place to search for the ‘final cause' or a world formula that explains everything, which many scientists still try to do. Rather, the task is to understand the infinitely complex process that is reality better and better, understanding the whole process better and better. Understand the laws of nature that are an expression of this process, and use that knowledge to shape reality. Engels explained in his brochure Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy the great basic thought that the world is not to be understood as a complex of ready-made things, but a complex of processes in which the things are apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads. The concepts go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away, in which – in spite of all seeming accidentality and all temporary retrogression – a progressive development asserts itself in the end. He goes on to say, “this great fundamental thought has, especially since the time of Hegel, so thoroughly permeated ordinary consciousness, that in this generality, it is now scarcely ever contradicted.” In reality, Engels spoke too soon here, as many of these things are constantly contradicted these days. Most importantly, the question of progressive development from the lower to the higher, which the bourgeoisie cannot accept.
So to do justice, not to the weaknesses, but to the strengths of the great thinkers of Enlightenment, we need to do away with this capitalist system which arbitrarily limits progress once and for all.
Martin Kohler: I’d like to speak about one of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant. More specifically, about his failed attempt to solve the contradiction between the two main strands of bourgeois Enlightenment philosophy.
On the one hand, you had the position of the empiricists. Empiricism was a weapon against the ideology of the medieval ruling class, against the dogmas and the idealist approach of the scholastic medieval philosophy. Empiricists stressed the need for experiment and knowledge through experience. Locke explained at the end of the seventeenth century that there are no innate ideas. All knowledge can get into our head only through our sense experience. It cannot be there before. There can be no so-called a priori ideas or notions that exist in the mind before human sensation and independently of it. Knowledge comes a posteriori, that is, after sense experience. This was an important blow against idealism. And it is the correct starting point for any materialist conception.
On the other hand, there were the rationalists. For them, reason was the principle means of understanding the world. And they did have a point. They opposed the narrow focus of the empiricist school by stressing reason and the ability of human thought to generalise. But they started from a wrong and idealist standpoint. That’s why they were ultimately unable to put their conception of human thought on a scientific basis.
Both of these main strands of bourgeois philosophy were essentially two inversely one-sided and mutually exclusive polar opposites. Where the empiricists over-stressed sense experience, the rationalists idolised pure reason. And for some centuries, bourgeois philosophy navigated in this contradiction, which is impossible to solve without dialectics.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant tried to bring these two sides together and fuse them into a new conception. Kant accepted both the main proposition of the empiricists and of the rationalists. Take causality for example, Kant was convinced of Hume’s argument that it is impossible to perceive causality empirically. From this empiricist standpoint, we can only know what we can perceive. We can see how a tree falls, and we can hear a noise when it hits the ground, but we cannot see or hear the causal relationship between the two events. Therefore, the argument goes, as we cannot perceive causality through our sensual experience, we cannot know causal relations. It is the radical conclusion of the argument of the empiricists, showing their weak side.
But as a true philosopher of Enlightenment, Kant was also convinced of the progress of scientific thinking. While he accepted Hume’s argument, he couldn’t accept his conclusion which is radically sceptical and hostile to scientific thinking. It’s why he tried to rescue causality by reintroducing it through a priori notions and thus falling back into idealism. This sounds very complicated, but what it means is quite simple. Knowledge requires concrete sense experience, the empirical material, but reason then has to bring order into this sense-data in order to understand causal relations that cannot be perceived directly. But how can reason establish causality from the sense-data in the mind? Kant’s answer: if causality cannot be perceived, it apparently can be understood. It must be because general categories and notions like causality already exist in the mind before sense experience. In other words, you can only know a causal relationship between the empirically perceptible objects because the notion of causality already exists in the human mind before sense experience. That is, a priori. Nobody can say how it is that a priori notions get into the minds of people. They are there simply because Kant declares them to be universal properties of reason. But again, nobody can say where reason came from and how it developed over time. So, Kant’s attempt to overcome the opposition between empiricism and rationalism isn’t a solution at all. It leads straight back to the kind of idealism that the empiricists rightly tried to overcome.
It was to the great merit of Kant to have posed the problem, but it’s only with dialectics that you can resolve these fixed polar opposites. Hegel gave the key for this with his dialectics, but of course Hegel was hindered himself by his own idealism. It was only really Marx, as a dialectical materialist, who was able to integrate the true kernel of both the one-sided approaches in a higher and fully materialist and scientific conception. Dialectics brings both sides into flux by seeing them as two sides of what is essentially a process. Through experience, humans generalise and develop notions and categories. And these categories, in turn, will help the humans to order new empirical material.
It is not necessary to resort to any a priori notions. Notions and theories which are basic preconditions for a scientific understanding are themselves the products of past collective experiences of mankind. Knowing this today, we could just say that Kant’s conception is stupid; but Kant, much like others of the bourgeois Enlightenment period, represents a necessary step in the progress towards the scientific conception of dialectical materialism, and we have to acknowledge his part in this.
By contrast, what really is stupid, and actually a scientific crime, is to fall back behind Marx and Hegel to Kant’s position today. It means falling back into the time of mysticism that could long ago have been overcome. And if you see how Kant is praised today, this tells you all you need to know about the state of bourgeois society. We have to defend Marxism’s rational and scientific approach against all mysticism.
Daniel Morley: We have had a few comrades mention in passing that today it’s fashionable to attack the Enlightenment. A very influential example of this idea comes from the Frankfurt school. The Frankfurt school are most famous for allegedly being Marxists who put forward the idea that it was now impossible for the working class to overthrow capitalism and emancipate humanity. What is less well known is that their foundation – what they base themselves on to reach that conclusion – is a thorough attack on the Enlightenment.
They say the following, and this is a quote from Adorno and Horkheimer: “We have no doubt that freedom in society is inseparable from Enlightenment thinking. We believe we have perceived with equal clarity, however, that the very concept of that thinking, the institutions of society with which it is intertwined, already contains the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today.” Why is this? They also tell us that, “Enlightenment is totalitarian,” and that, “Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator towards men,” and that, “the Enlightenment is as totalitarian as any system.” Now, clearly, for them, the Enlightenment isn’t an intellectual phenomenon of a few hundred years ago. Instead, Enlightenment is a thing: a sort of spiritual force with miraculous powers. By the way, this is basically the exact same position that the postmodernists have.
Clearly, this position is a completely idealist and anti-materialist one. And it is the centre of their theories. According to their worldview, human history is now governed by an all powerful idea – the Enlightenment – which, apparently, does not express the interests of a definite class that has appeared at a certain point in history with definite interests. Instead, it exists on its own account, and by virtue of its own characteristics can just “regress society” as they put it. The question is, and I think this is the same question you have to ask any idealist: why on earth did this horrible, evil idea come to dominate? If it does not represent the interests of a class – the material interests of a real class – how and why does this idea come to dominate at that particular point in history? This is never answered by any of them. They’ll simply tell us that the Enlightenment is an attempt to control and dominate nature; and that for some reason, eventually, this inevitably leads to the attempt to control and dominate other human beings. It is never specified which people are doing the dominating, and how they’ve managed to utilise Enlightenment in order to do that. It’s not even clear if this is supposed to be a class that’s using it, or some other clique of people. What we have is simply abstract man dominating abstract man. All thanks to the miraculous powers of abstract reason, or Enlightenment.
The link between this and their position on revolution and the working class is that in the 20th century, society is so scientifically dominated, so rationally organised, that inevitably what we’re doing is just administering and dominating people. We’re controlling everyone’s lives through scientific thinking. Essentially, they reduce all of history and all of the problems in history to a psychological profile. Their position is that the tendency to seek scientific answers to things is itself a kind of a drug or a disease; one that, once you’ve caught it, you can’t escape from. And this is not subject to any class’ interest. It’s simply the notion of ideas itself. Anybody who is too keen to find a definite explanation for any social, or any other, phenomenon is trying to control things, and that’s the problem. I think you must have come across this yourself when you argue with liberals and people of that sort. They always take issue with the fact that we’ve got answers, the fact that we seem to think that we know or we’re trying to explain why there are problems with society; that we’re getting to the root of the matter. “But that’s the problem, you see. You’re trying to control things and you’re too single-minded.”
People like that always like to say that the trouble with Marxists is they’re too single-minded, too dogmatic, too closed-minded etc. But it’s these people who propose to throw out all of the greatest conquests of human thought. All of it is just essentially so much rubbish. That is arrogance, and that is narrow-minded. Instead, we must base ourselves – it’s vital that Marxists, that revolutionaries base themselves – on the best aspects of the Enlightenment. In particular, it’s bold materialism, it’s clarity of thought, and it’s honesty, intellectual honesty; which I think is what the Enlightenment really is characterised by. It is only with that attitude and with those ideas that humanity can be liberated.
Yola: I think that was really an excellent discussion, and all the contributions helped to shine light on different aspects of this topic. Hamid and Martin both went into more depth about the revolutionary development of thought during the Enlightenment period. And we have seen, also from what Florian showed, that these questions they discuss are still relevant today.
If you’re interested in getting into the specific topic of the ideas of the Enlightenment, there are some very good, interesting, Marxist reads about it. Firstly, Friedrich Engels, with Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, including the excellent introduction to the English edition of this pamphlet. Also by Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, from which Florian quoted. Plekhanov’s The Development of the Monist View of History as well as Essays on the History of Materialism. And, of course, our new publication: The History of Philosophy: a Maxist Perspective by Alan Woods. I must also say, it’s not scary at all to read the original philosophers of that time. I’m personally a fan of the philosophical writings of the French materialist, Denis Diderot, which are very humoristic and light-hearted. And Engels mentions that in some of his writings Diderot manages to give quite a dialectical view on some topics.
What I want to emphasise is really that a historical view of the development of ideas is extremely important. It’s very easy from today’s point of view to dismiss these thoughts as old and outdated. But, first of all, it’s very childish to apply today’s knowledge on past ideas and say that they were wrong. This attitude comes from the idealistic notion that every progressive thought in history was just a stroke of genius out of nowhere. If it wasn’t discovered earlier, well, then there wasn’t a smart enough person to discover it at that time yet. But there is a historical process to the development of ideas. And this attitude I just described is the attitude of the so-called philosophers of today – who think that they are just the biggest geniuses of all, having discovered the best of thoughts. When in fact, they don’t even notice – or pretend not to notice – that all of their ideas are just a bad rehash of old ideas. As Lenin once said about the idealists of his day, “this is all the same old trash with a slightly refurbished or repainted signboard.”
But, even though there’s this condescending attitude towards the ideas of the Enlightenment today, these allegedly outdated ideas are, in many cases, still the dominant ideas. But not, however, the progressive and useful sides. These sides were incorporated into and developed by Marxism. It’s the weak sides that are then exaggerated and turned into completely reactionary ideas. I think this was very well put by the contributions of Ben and Florian and also Daniel. Postmodernist ideas reject the Enlightenment, and believe that their views are the most profound denial of truth and objective reality. The positivists and contemporary empiricists see themselves as the successors to the old empiricists – but both end up in the same reactionary dead-end of subjective idealism. Both reject, or at least severely doubt, objective reality. Both deny that truth can be known. And both reject Marxism, even if they pretend sometimes that they don’t.
But there is this idea in universities – and also within the so-called left – that if old philosophers were a bit one-sided or exaggerated or wrong, this must also be the case for Marxist philosophy, right? That there are weaknesses in Marxism – or maybe that Marxism is just the best we have now, but there’s certain room for enhancement. However, the people who believe that they can enhance Marxism always end up completely butchering the fundamentals; and there’s a reason why that is so, besides the bourgeois interests that often influence them.
Those who want to update Marxism have a false conception of what Marxism is. They see it as a closed system, a dogmatic accumulation of phrases. This is the way that many philosophers operated in the past. They created perfect closed systems, and declared their system was the best, the last one, the final one. Even Hegel himself also did this, even though his method, the dialectical method, is exactly in contradiction to such a system. But the point of Marxism is not to be a closed set of dogmas and phrases that can just be repeated.
It is first of all a method: a dialectical, materialist, and historical method. This is why Marx and Engels were of the opinion that philosophy ends with this method. This does not mean at all that from now there can never be new discoveries or ideas. That would be absurd because the world is constantly changing, and there are an infinite number of things that we do not know yet.
What they mean is that we’ve reached a point where we don’t need big philosophical systems anymore to further human knowledge. But we do need to apply the essence of philosophical thoughts – the method – to nature and to reality, and to deepen our understanding of the real world through practice. As a philosophical method, Marxism is about understanding change, and thus influencing and controlling change. Or, in the words of Karl Marx in his Thesis on Feuerbach, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it.” So it’s about understanding the laws of development, looking to find a concrete, inherent contradiction in any given phenomenon in order to find what the essence of this phenomenon is. This is the method Marx used to analyse capitalism.
But have there been no new insights gained for Marxists since the death of Marx? Of course there have been. There have been many valued experiences and contributions by Marxists such as Lenin, Trotsky, or Ted Grant – precisely because they used the method of Marxism. For example, Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet Union and of the degenerated workers’ states. This was a totally new phenomenon in history. Nothing like it had existed before. And, actually, there are a lot of philosophical insights from reading the brilliant works of Trotsky such as Revolution Betrayed or the History of the Russian Revolution.
Those people who complain that Marxism is unfinished and needs enhancement have not understood at all what Marxism actually is. They treat Marxism as sort of a perfect system that they want to improve but only end up in idealistic distortions and rubbish. With Marxism, philosophy has become a conscious tool that understands the connection between our ideas and our material surroundings. And this is important for the task of socialist revolution.
An important difference between the bourgeois revolution and the socialist revolution is precisely that the socialist revolution is a conscious act. The capitalist as a ruling class act more or less blindly and individually, each of them in competition with the other as owners of private property. But what is the task of the proletariat, the working class? The strength of the proletariat lies in the fact that it does not own property; but the workers of the world produce all the wealth there is. They do not own the factories and the land and so on. This means that the proletariat needs to cooperate and consciously expropriate the bourgeoisie. This is a very conscious act compared to bourgeois revolutions.
The reformation, as well as the English Revolution, were fought in the name of religion. The French Revolution was fought in the name of reason. But the Russian Revolution won because the Bolsheviks had a conscious understanding of the tasks that needed to be done. Their ideas were not a guise or an ideological veil. Their ideas were scientific insights into society, a scientific understanding of socialism – they had Marxism. This is why, to us at the IMT, theory is so important. So, let’s arm ourselves with the ideas of Marxism and overthrow capitalism.