Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 13, 2017

Enlightenment values? No thanks

Filed under: philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

220px-kant_foto
“The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.”

An article on the Jacobin website titled “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia” by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss tries to explain how Reza Jorjani, a fellow PhD graduate of the State University of Stony Brook philosophy department, turned into a leader of the alt-right. Jorjani sounds like a real piece of work:

Jorjani’s writings, political activities, speeches, and media appearances have drawn charges of antisemitism and Islamophobia. In one instance, he suggested that Yahweh and Allah were actually space aliens who enslaved their believers and tricked them into committing genocide. He has openly characterized certain high-ranking Nazi officials as akin to supermen with psychic powers. While Jorjani has vehemently denied the charges of bigotry leveled against him, his public statements do make you wonder.

What caught my eye was how inconsistent at first blush his rightwing politics were with Stony Brook’s department:

Stony Brook’s philosophy department, famous for its pluralism and progressive politics, seems like an unlikely context for this scandal. Many of the department’s students and professors identify themselves as leftists and liberals. Their focus on Continental philosophy includes research on critical theory, feminism, post-colonialism, and queer and critical-race theories. It came as a great shock, then, that one of Stony Brook’s newest alums had become the self-appointed spokesperson for “Aryan Imperium.”

It seems that it was the department’s opposition to “Enlightenment values” that explains this one graduate’s cryptofascist beliefs. “While it seems surprising that someone like Jorjani would come out of a self-consciously progressive department, suspicion of Enlightenment rationalism has become endemic to liberal philosophy programs like the one at Stony Brook.” They argue:

By mid-century, an impatient and demoralized Left increasingly threw the Enlightenment baby out with the bourgeois bathwater.

Thinkers blamed universalism, determinism, and what appeared as a deadening mechanical worldview for the mass slaughter of two world wars, the atrocities of the Holocaust, the horror of the atomic bomb, and the misery of industrial capitalism.

Thus began what Georg Lukàcs called the marrying of “Left ethics with Right Epistemology,” a project that tried to derive progressive politics and notions like freedom, equality, and solidarity from a more traditional view of existence akin to the Counter-Enlightenment. Understanding trends in today’s academic Left requires recognizing this crucial shift.

Much of this contemporary thought reinstates an enchanted view of the world that is inherently pluralistic. Drawing on figures like Nietzsche and Heidegger, Left thinkers learned to be suspicious of the rationality that once belonged to them.

To cap it off, they credit Vivek Chibber for fighting a bloody but unbowed struggle against this viral anti-Enlightenment infection that has made it difficult for Marxists like him and presumably other professors writing for Jacobin like Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss to get a hearing. Yes, Lyotard and Baudrillard not only crowded them out but also paved the way for Reza Jorjani.

This does not exactly map to my own experience. Like Stony Brook, the New School graduate philosophy department was one of the few places in the USA where the Continental thinkers were dominant. I was there primarily to avoid the draft but did appreciate taking classes with men like Hans Jonas, who was very close to Hannah Arendt and was featured as a character in her biopic. I also studied with Aaron Gurwitsch, who was the world’s leading authority on Husserl.

Since Jorjani is described as a virtual disciple of Heidegger, it is worth considering some connections between my ostensibly anti-Enlightenment professors and the German author of the existentialist classic “Being and Time” as well as some openly Nazi tracts.

Heidegger dedicated “Being and Time” to Edmund Husserl, a Jew who he served as personal assistant from 1920 to 1923. While Husserl’s emphasis was on resolving the contradictions of Cartesian dualism within the framework of epistemology, he had an enormous influence on 20th century existentialism. Not only did his theory of intentionality reverberate in Heidegger’s writings; he was also a major influence on Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, two Communists.

Jonas’s relationship to Heidegger was even more complicated. In 1966 Jonas’s “Phenomenon of Life” was published, a work considered by many to be as important to the emergence of Green politics as anything written by Rudolf Bahro. It is widely recognized that Heidegger was a major influence on Jonas, who was his student alongside Hannah Arendt, also under his sway intellectually as well as his lover.

Heidegger supervised Jonas’s dissertation, while Husserl served as his adviser. For some, the Green values espoused in “Phenomenon of Life” were probably a worrisome sign that there has always been a dark undercurrent to ecological philosophy. Since much of Heidegger’s philosophy reflects a disenchantment with technology and industrial society, it is inevitable that some would make an amalgam between Heidegger, Nazism and the reactionary impulses that supposedly drive deep ecology.

Martin Durkin, called the Michael Moore of the right, connected the dots in a blog post titled “NAZI GREENS – An Inconvenient History”:

Heidegger argues against the ‘monstrous’ building of hydroelectric dams on the Rhine and sings the praises of wind power: ‘modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.  But does not this hold true for the old windmill as well?  No. Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock the energy from the air currents in order to store it.’

Durkin even manages to concur with Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss that this toxic brew of nature worship and Hitlerism has everything to do with a rejection of Enlightenment values. He argues that the Nazis were forerunners of today’s Green movement and Heidegger was its prophet. A “rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of the Enlightenment and its humanist values” was at the core of National Socialism that motivated men to “turn on the gas taps at Auschwitz”.

Although I never took the idea seriously that Heidegger’s philosophy led to Nazism, I had the same reaction to “anti-Enlightenment” intellectual trends twenty years ago when Alan Sokal’s hoax seemed tantamount to Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the church doors of Wittenberg. Fed up as I was at the time with Judith Butler’s unreadable prose and the notion that Marxism was guilty of imposing an oppressive “metanarrative” on social movements, I was ready to hoist Sokal on my shoulders. He was certainly skinny enough. In “Fashionable Nonsense”, a book co-authored with Jean Bricmont, Sokal sounds almost identical to Frim and Fluss:

Vast sectors of the humanities and the social sciences seem to have adopted a philosophy that we shall call, for want of a better term, “postmodernism”: an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a “narration”, a “myth” or a social construction among many others.

While there is little doubt that the Enlightenment was an improvement over the stranglehold that the Church had over feudal society, I don’t find much basis for counting Marx as an enlightenment thinker. To start with, most scholars would regard him as a post-Hegelian alongside Feuerbach, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

As I stated earlier, Aaron Gurwitsch considered Husserl to be the first philosopher to have transcended the dualism/monism dialectic that had begun with Descartes and reached a kind of climax with Immanuel Kant. Everything after Kant, including Hegel, reflected an impasse that could not resolve the mind-matter conundrum that was triggered by Descartes’s famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am” within conventional philosophical methodology. Kant’s categories supposedly created a synthesis of the ego and the surrounding, and for some unknowable, world.

If Kant is the pinnacle of Enlightenment thought, Marx somehow missed the point. In “German Ideology”, he was rudely dismissive of what he considered to be a bourgeois moralist:

The state of affairs in Germany at the end of the last century is fully reflected in Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason”. While the French bourgeoisie, by means of the most colossal revolution that history has ever known, was achieving domination and conquering the Continent of Europe, while the already politically emancipated English bourgeoisie was revolutionising industry and subjugating India politically, and all the rest of the world commercially, the impotent German burghers did not get any further than “good will”. Kant was satisfied with “good will” alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realisation of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond. Kant’s good will fully corresponds to the impotence, depression and wretchedness of the German burghers, whose petty interests were never capable of developing into the common, national interests of a class and who were, therefore, constantly exploited by the bourgeois of all other nations. These petty, local interests had as their counterpart, on the one hand, the truly local and provincial narrow-mindedness of the German burghers and, on the other hand, their cosmopolitan swollen-headedness.

In fact, the great Enlightenment that started with Descartes and came to a climax with Kant was pretty much a reflection of the state of bourgeois society at a given time. Probably the only good thing to come out of the Enlightenment was French materialism, a current that Marx paid tribute to in his early “The Holy Family”. For Marx, it “clearly expressed struggle against the metaphysics of the seventeenth century, and against all metaphysics, in particular that of Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz.” So, unlike Frim and Fluss who eulogize Spinoza as the virtual anti-Trump whose “universalism entailed that governments exercise tolerance toward minority communities and grant them political emancipation as citizens without requiring them to shed their particular religious and cultural identities”, Marx would have certainly considered him a banal moralist like Kant.

Speaking of Kant, I am not sure that he holds up well as a member of our Enlightenment values club considering what he wrote in his 1764 “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime”:

The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. [David] Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color. The religion of fetishes so wide-spread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature. A bird feather, a cow’s horn, a conch shell, or any other common object, as soon as it becomes consecrated by a few words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths. The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.

Yeah, so beautiful and sublime. I doubt that any words that came out of Heidegger’s mouth in a university classroom were as racist as this. Furthermore, if Reza Jorjani had been properly educated in Enlightenment values rather than relying on its critics, I doubt that it would have made much difference. After all, every Christian soldier who went on colonizing missions to tame the savages of Africa probably read the Sermon on the Mount before boarding a British or French ship. A lot of good that did.

My point is this. The history of ideas is a poor guide to understanding how someone like Reza Jorjani crops up. Or Ricardo Duchesne, the former PEN-L subscriber and tenured sociologist who started off as a critic of Robert Brenner just like Vivek Chibber and now is a leader of the Canadian alt-right.

It is a waste of time to blame Nietzsche for Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx for Stalin. Ideologues are reacting to pressures generated by the two main classes in society. In a time of crisis, such as has existed since the early 1970s, they are like the leaves on a tree fluttering as the winds of an approaching major storm. Some are blown to the right, others to the left. Our worry should be less with the ideologues than how to make a connection with the social class that can finally put ethics on a material basis, namely an end to the class system that generates greed, racism, homophobia, nativism and other forms of barbaric behavior. But to put an end to barbarism, it is necessary to transform the social system that feeds it. That is the task facing humanity as it hurdles toward oblivion.

12 Comments »

  1. “Yes, Lyotard and Baudrillard not only crowded them out but also paved the way for Reza Jorjani.”

    Well, Baudrillard certainly didn’t have that impact upon me.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 13, 2017 @ 6:26 pm

  2. Forgive the self-promotion but I wrote on Marx and postmodernism (and the Enlightenment) a few years ago:

    https://www.jacobinmag.com/2011/03/in-defense-of-grand-narratives/

    I don’t think my assessment is all that far from what you say here, Louis.

    Comment by jschulman — March 13, 2017 @ 8:34 pm

  3. While not directly related to Enlightenment philosophy this account of James Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa/New Zealand does have a certain edge to it since it involves the future Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, and Daniel Carlsson Solander of the British Museum pupil of Linnaeus (he invented the Solander Box used for storing loose MSS, prints etc) https://thenonplasticmaori.wordpress.com/2016/04/01/halitosis/ The author is Tina Ngatai who apart from campaigning against plastic pollution is a freelance provider of management services to several Maori entities

    Comment by Derek Bryant — March 13, 2017 @ 11:44 pm

  4. Marx’s work still provides, simultaneously, the only coherent critique of Enlightenment rationality with the notion that the Enlightenment was, in fact, a good thing.

    jschulman:

    I read your Jacobin piece with great interest and found it most enlightening.

    I do wonder–as something of an aside–whether the airy dismissal of “productivism” by the well-fed may not be in part and at times a function of privilege–there are cargo cults for those who have no cargo, ridiculous to the privileged–and then there are the cargo cults of the privileged, who are drowning in cargo and cannot see their own fetishism for what it is. (In Washington, DC,there is a former homeless shelter that has been converted into ultra-chic apartments for the rich, but retains an enormous lighted sign quoting Jesus: “Come Unto Me.” Nobody finds this in any way strange or offensive.)

    To my mind, the titanic productive energies–and uncontrollable destructive potential–of capitalism are very much front and center in any enlightened discussion of the current historical scene.

    As to “enlightenment philosophy” and its impact, surely the geist of the Enlightenment–however defined, and with all its monstrous contradictions–has to be seen in some way as distinct from the work of its notable representatives (eg Kant), just as “bourgeois revolution” remains a historical reality despite the presence of so many aristocrats on the revolutionary side and the uneven way in which the actual historical development occurred.

    The good legacy of the Enlightenment, to my crude mind, is science broadly defined and the useful productive and fine arts that have blossomed so remarkably along with it over the past couple of centuries, not primarily the work of Kant and his peers, or of Isaac Newton and his peers, or even of the various individual artists who have also flourished during that time. That legacy also includes the concept of a single human race that can lay just claim to the means of production and their fruits.

    To the extent that the current political crisis surrounding capitalism threatens to deprive most human beings of these things–and indeed to destroy the natural environment that makes the great productivity possible–that is what lends great urgency to the cause of socialism, however framed, and thus justifies at least some of the talk about Marxism stemming from the Enlightenment. Of course we should no more seek to perpetuate the Enlightenment tel quel than we should capitalism itself. If Marxism is in any way the legacy of the Enlightenment, it is also the legacy of capitalism–a contradiction that speaks for itself.

    The grotesque racism of the passage Louis quotes from Kant remains truly amazing and appalling. Kudos to L. for yet another erudite and thought-provoking article.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 14, 2017 @ 10:36 am

  5. Thanks Louis; I’ve been reading and enjoying your work on Counterpunch and more; i wrote to you before, about having been a neighbor of your family back in the day in Woodridge; my mother was a very close friend of Anne, you might remember her, Molly Rawich
    I’m nowhere near as informed as you, but my heart’s in the right, no, left place

    Comment by isabelle rawich — March 14, 2017 @ 12:44 pm

  6. I disagree with the materialist-economic determinist conclusion (one could think of consciousness in Adorno`s sense). Is there not a wider question about Voltaire (the father of Marx may say as much)? And if you want a sense of humanity in German philosophy I would recommend the anti-imperialism of Herder (Diderot and Rousseau were also not racist). I myself may have been too stupid to apply Jonas to my mediocre thesis on environmentalism and technology vis-a-vis Being and Time and confess my ivory-towered mind is still recovering from all the racist Zionistic cons in the academy with whom I studied. I think the Critique of Practical Reason is redeemable for better or for worse. Anyone defending rationalism is talking bull. I would add that in that banal German movie in which Hitler returns he decides he wants to join the Green Party. Merci. It was an excellent piece (and maybe Marxists want to think about the inanity of a system that wants to invest in constant capital and knows Trump is good for business because goodbye Arctic ice and how this can be complemented by Heidegger`s sense of technology as stock).

    Comment by Lawrence Donegan — March 14, 2017 @ 2:57 pm

  7. Vivek Chibber, who is not a cartoon character, is interviewed by Rania Khalek, who is also not a cartoon character, in this informative and entertaining podcast: http://unauthorizeddisclosure.libsyn.com/s3-episode-7-vivek-chibber

    Comment by David Green — March 14, 2017 @ 10:48 pm

  8. Neither of them are cartoon characters. Chibber’s Political Marxism, while wrong, is relatively harmless. Khalek’s amalgam of White Helmets and al-Qaeda is not. Thankfully, the podcast involves neither issue.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 14, 2017 @ 11:18 pm

  9. What kind of communist was Sartre? A Stalinist caricature who backed to brutal state capitalist dictatorships that shat all over the banner if communism.

    Along with “continental philosophy”. Marx said philosophers only interpreted the world when the point was to change it. He also said philosophy had the same relation to the real world as masturbating has to sex.

    Yet the universities still crawl with academic philosophers who claim to be “Marxists”.

    And now you know why Marx said he was no Marxist!

    Comment by Fuchu Tanaka — March 17, 2017 @ 4:17 am

  10. […] and post­mod­ern­ist ideo­logues, some even pur­port­ing to be from the Left (like the “un­re­pent­ant Marx­ist” Louis Proyect, who’s re­lin­quished his stra­tegic sup­port for Sokal in or­der to bet­ter cru­sade […]

    Pingback by Race and the Enlightenment | The Charnel-House — March 20, 2017 @ 1:36 am

  11. Sartre a “Stalinist caricature?” Ridiculous. The only caricature here is this glib and preposterous assessment. For a useful brief summary of the facts see Daniel Singer’s piece in (god help us) The Nation from the long-ago Year 2000 (https://www.thenation.com/article/sartres-roads-freedom/).

    Sartre is in the unenviable position of being a difficult author whose moment, at least in the U.S.,was entirely eclipsed by the so-called postmodernism–and even more difficult thinking–of the younger Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and related recently chic maitres a penser whose effect on the American academy has been so deeply problematic. There is no doubt in my mind that Sartre’s association with ‘sixties radicalism–which remains IMHO the bugbear of American politicians and academics alike, whatever may have been wrong with it–was the final reason for this. Foucault–while too easy for some to dismiss–is much safer.

    The eclipse of Sartre may prove permanent for a variety of reasons, but his having gotten his hands dirty politically isn’t a valid reason for it.

    As a graduate student at a certain overrated university from 1972 through 1978, I witnessed what was nothing short of a purge against anyone who bore any taint of ‘sixties Marxism, however slight. The slick and chichi little Foucault-mongers merely talked a little pious crap about teaching writing and sailed right on through to tenure, double-talk and all–such rebelliousness as they manifested was almost entirely directed at their contemporaries.

    Forty years on, it seems clear that this was part of a disaster the dimensions of which are only now becoming clear. Not that I personally didn’t deserve my fate, but that hardly alters the circumstances. Good old Sartre–would we had more of his quality (if not necessarily his philosophy) these days.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 20, 2017 @ 6:17 pm

  12. […] and post­mod­ern­ist ideo­logues, some even pur­port­ing to be from the Left (like the “un­re­pent­ant Marx­ist” Louis Proyect, who’s re­lin­quished his pre­vi­ous sup­port for Sokal in or­der to bet­ter cru­sade […]

    Pingback by Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment | The Charnel-House — March 21, 2017 @ 8:07 pm


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