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Enlightenment Betrayed

The historian Jonathan Israel’s criticisms of Marx are not new. They have a long history in liberal Cold War anticommunism.

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Lamartine, before the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, rejects the Red Flag, February 25, 1848, Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815–1884). The red flag represents terror, blood, and a "party's republic," Lamartine told the crowd.

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In a lecture, Weber “refuted” socialist economics on the grounds that the “right to the full proceeds of labour” was an unattainable utopia. This great scholar, who would have died of shame if he had given a wrong date for an event in ancient Chinese history, was evidently quite unaware of the refutation of this Lassallean theory by Marx. He descends here to the level of the professional anti-Marxist, to the level of the philistine terrified by the “equality mongering” of the socialists.
— Georg Lukács1Georg Lukács, “Marx and the Problem of Ideological Decay,” in Essays on Realism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), 129.

The Dead Dog Marx

If someone else wrote about Spinoza the way Jonathan Israel writes about Marx, then Israel would be livid. This is a shame, since Israel has contributed so much to rehabilitating Spinoza and the Radical Enlightenment legacy. Once, Israel saw Marx as an organic part of this legacy. In Radical Enlightenment, the first book of his series, Israel does not separate Marx (young or old) from Spinozism: “Hence Spinoza’s conception of truth, and the criterion for judging what is true, is ‘mathematical logic,’ and mathematical rationality universally applied provides, from Spinoza to Marx, the essential link between the Scientific Revolution and the tradition of radical thought.”2Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 224. In Enlightenment Contested, the second volume, Israel again affirms that Marx’s philosophy is a legatee of Spinozism:

Indeed, it is arguable that from the “Philosophy the Interpreter of Scripture controversy” which erupted in the Dutch Republic in 1666 down to the 1848 revolutions across Europe, radical thought, defined as “philosophy” which eliminates all theological criteria, supernatural agency, tradition, magic, and racial and hierarchical conceptions of society, placing the whole of reality under the same set of rules, the question of whether to accept or oppose what the young Karl Marx later called a “consistent naturalism” unifying whatever is true in both idealism and materialism in a single system, remained uninterruptedly the supreme and basic issue in western intellectual debate. Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670–1752, 13.

What is astonishing is that Israel asserts the continuity of Marx’s 1844 Paris Manuscripts with Spinozism here in 2006, but in The Enlightenment That Failed, he reverses this claim, arguing that Marx broke with Spinozism in the same year that the Paris Manuscripts were written.

Israel also once compared the fear of Spinozism with Cold War fears about Marxism. In Radical Enlightenment, this analogy was offered to the reader as perfectly legitimate. But years have passed, and as Israel’s research approaches the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848, his response to Marx and Marxism becomes as hostile as his response to Robespierre and Jacobinism. While Israel’s sympathies are for the young Marx, whom he fashions as a Radical Enlightenment liberal, the old Marx is plagued with the sins of Jacobinism. But not only this: Marx is also accused of being a “determinist,” granting little credence to moral agency and free will. This is particularly odd, given that Spinoza was criticized in the same manner by the German Enlightenment of Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant, not to mention clericalists who wrote Spinoza off as an immoral charlatan. Israel threatens to treat Marx as a “dead dog,” just as Friedrich Jacobi and Mendelssohn once treated Spinoza.

Showing His Hand

With The Enlightenment That Failed, Israel puts all his anti-Marxist cards on the table. We are no longer treated to isolated passages or throwaway comments about how Marxism represents a dogmatic economic determinism. In the last chapter of this volume, Israel undertakes a more full-scale critique. But what one hoped to be a proper engagement with Marx (from a usually meticulous historian) turns into a superficial Cold War–style polemic. This style of criticism can already be found in Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), but it is in Isaiah Berlin’s biography of Marx (1939) that one comes across most of Israel’s recycled objections. In a way, Israel has done us a service, since in refuting his distorted picture of Marx, we have an opportunity to refute broader liberal stereotypes inherited from the Cold War.

Israel’s first passing criticisms of Marxism can be found in Enlightenment Contested. This is the start of a constant refrain, that Marxism is a historical fatalism. Along with his predecessors Berlin and Popper, Israel sees history as a fairly contingent process, not something that obeys determinate laws. When it comes to historical materialism, Israel asserts (without evidence) that the Marxist theory of “economic determinism” has been “discredited.”3Ibid., 20. We addressed Marx and Engels’ ideas in a previous chapter, but suffice it to say that one cannot account for the emergence of philosophical ideas without recourse to the production and reproduction of real life. This isn’t to say that ideas for Marx and Engels were unimportant. Rather, they emphasized that to understand the genesis of ideas, one must understand the mediations between them and social being. Economics was the determining factor “in the final analysis,” since ideas do not come from the sky but from the soil of material relations.4 “Engels to Bloch. 21-22 September 1890,” in MECW, vol. 49, 34. Historical materialism here is eminently Spinozistic, because it is determinist.

When attacking Marxism in The Enlightenment That Failed, Israel makes explicit his surprising retreat from Spinozist determinism: “By pushing determinism and materialism to the point that individual understanding of the world, individual agency, and moral responsibility are all curtailed, Marx did indeed create a new international movement, and an irreversible divergence from radical thought.”5Israel, The Enlightenment That Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748-1830, 921. These pre-Spinozistic (or perhaps post-Kantian) phrases, such as “individual agency” and “moral responsibility” prove and explain nothing historically. They are moralistic placeholders in want of a causal story. As Spinoza would say, such moralistic phraseology belongs to “the sanctuary of ignorance.”6Benedict de Spinoza, The Ethics, trans. R.H.M. Elwes (New York: Dover, 1955), 78. Against Israel, Marx upholds Spinoza in the realm of history; he does not moralistically condemn capitalism, or the bourgeoisie, but sees actions as conditioned by class society. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx writes: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”7The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in MECW, vol. 11, 103. We do not, therefore, understand human action without causal foundations; much less do we grasp historical events via the empty category of “free will.” Human action is based in necessity, either natural or historical, and one cannot explain the actions of capitalists and proletarians through the idealistic lens of “moral responsibility.”

Because Israel holds a hypervanguardist conception of revolutionary history, he does not understand Marx’s views on the French Revolution, nor Marx’s views on the revolutions of 1848. For Israel, Marx focuses too much on the masses and not enough on intellectuals. Hence, it is not a coincidence that when the masses try to take power into their own hands, Israel seems less like a “radical” and more akin to a Tocquevillean liberal.

1848 and All That

Regarding the June days of 1848 France, Israel sees Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin and Alphonse de Lamartine as the bulwark against social anarchy, while he condemns Louis Blanc and Louis-Auguste Blanqui as irresponsible socialists, drumming up mass resentment. Yet Ledru-Rollin deemed himself a staunch Jacobin and condoned the Terror; in fact, he even preferred to dress like Robespierre, the “Incorruptible” himself. Lamartine also had many fine things to say about Robespierre in his history of the Girondins, a history that influenced Blanqui’s views.8Doug Enaa Greene, Communist Insurgent: Blanqui’s Politics of Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 83. While Blanqui saw Lamartine’s history of the Girondins as anti-Jacobin, Lamartine was rather measured about Robespierre. See Douglas Moggach and Gareth Stedman Jones, ed., The 1848 Revolutions and European Political Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 18–20; George Armstrong Kelly, “Alphonse De Lamartine: The Poet in Politics,” Daedalus 116, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 157–80. Thus, Israel doesn’t seem to have a problem with these neo-Jacobins if they turn against the masses for the sake of social order. Because Ledru-Rollin sided with the Party of Order against popular demands, while Blanc championed those same demands, Israel praises the former and condemns the latter.9Israel does, however, have kind words to say about Blanc when he rallies to “constitutional government” against the June insurrection:

The catastrophe of the June Days has often unfairly been blamed on a republicanism and revolutionary tradition refusing to join the socialists. But the cause of the ferocious strife setting the poorest against the rest, and leading to the breakdown of the republic, in the process overthrowing the new freedom of the press and expression, was not a property-loving provincial bourgeoisie fighting the Parisian proletariat but a socialist revolt against a weak republican regime refusing to act unconstitutionally in the face of a conservative election victory. Blanc and others wavered; but in the end he and most radical and Left republicans realized they had to back the republic against the insurgents.

Israel, Expanding Blaze, 564–65. Besides the unscrupulous treatment of Marx in The Enlightenment That Failed, Israel is uncharacteristically sloppy when it comes to the facts about French radicals and socialists in 1848. In addition to the errors noted above, he mistakenly places Blanqui at the June barricades when he was already incarcerated. It seems that Israel’s furor polemicus against Jacobinism and socialism leads him to ignore certain facts and to invent others. Again, Israel would not tolerate this level of carelessness when it comes to Spinoza. “On 24 June, crowds of workers poured into the streets with Blanqui conspicuously to the fore, some armed.” Israel 2017, 564. Repression is fine if it is conducted by liberal Sullas, but not if it is implemented by socialist Mariuses.

Israel makes sweeping claims that pigeonhole Fourier, Proudhon, Blanc, Barbès, Marx, and Blanqui into one counter-Enlightenment bloc. They are — one and all — the representatives of antidemocratic authoritarianism.10“Plainly, French socialists in 1848 were not greatly interested in freedom of expression, education, or secularization. Rather, Fourier, Proudhon, Blanqui, Blanc, and Barbès disdained the philosophes and all they stood for. To them, cultivating an independent-minded, freethinking population exercising political rights within a democratic framework along with human rights, full toleration, and liberty of expression and to criticize was an essentially secondary affair largely irrelevant to their schemes to capture and transform the economic system.” Ibid., 588. For reasons of space, we cannot go into detail why this generalization is illegitimate, but Blanqui fervently admired the French materialists and considered himself a radical Enlightener. Blanqui is frequently characterized as an authoritarian putschist and man of action, one who cared nothing for democracy or ideas, fanatically striving for power. Israel does nothing to deflate these myths, and in his descriptions, one will find no meticulous treatment of Blanqui. Nor will one find the following lines quoted from the revolutionary:

The philosophy inaugurated by Diderot and d’Holbach in the eighteenth century, then affirmed and promulgated by the unanimous verdicts of science in the nineteenth century, is the sole basis for the future. The point has been proved by experience. The abandonment of this philosophy has been the cause of all the Revolution’s failures since 1789. One must choose between this philosophy and the Middle Ages. It will therefore be our flag.11Blanqui, “Commitment, Volition and Free Will,” in The Blanqui Reader: Political Writings, 1830–1880, ed. Philippe Le Goff and Peter Hallward (London: Verso, 2018), 137. For more on the relationship between Blanqui and the Enlightenment, see Doug Enaa Greene, “Blanqui and Communist Enlightenment,” Left Voice and Greene, 2017, 106–8.

From Liberalism to Bonapartism

Regarding Marx’s writings on the French Second Republic, Israel finds them particularly odd, and deems some passages simply inscrutable, such as when Marx writes that the liberal bourgeoisie in 1848 “fell back into royalism.”12Israel, Enlightenment That Failed, 590. But Marx is clear what he means in the full quotation from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung:

People may ask, why did the bourgeoisie fall back into royalism, if the February revolution brought bourgeois rule to its completion? The explanation is a simple one. The bourgeoisie would have liked to return to the period when it ruled without being responsible for its rule; when a puppet authority standing between the bourgeoisie and the people had to act for it and to serve it as a cloak. A period when it had, as it were, a crowned scapegoat, which the proletariat hit whenever it aimed at the bourgeoisie, and against which the bourgeoisie could join forces with the proletariat whenever that scapegoat became troublesome and attempted to establish itself as an authority in its own right. The bourgeoisie could use the King as a kind of lightning-conductor protecting it from the people, and the people as a lightning-conductor protecting it from the King.13“The Paris Réforme on the Situation in France,” in MECW, vol. 7, 494.

In the struggle with the proletariat, the bourgeoisie relied on aristocratic and preliberal norms to (re)assert its power. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx states that the more insurrectionary the masses became, the more the bourgeoisie was willing to sacrifice its own liberal traditions. In the utilization of democratic means for socialist ends, what the bourgeoisie once hailed as “freedom of the press” was now stigmatized as “socialist.”14Marx explains how the bourgeoisie betrays its own liberal Enlightenment in favor of reactionary dictatorship:

The bourgeoisie had a true insight into the fact that all the weapons it had forged against feudalism turned their points against itself, that all the means of education it had produced rebelled against its own civilization, that all the gods it had created had fallen away from it. It understood that all the so-called bourgeois liberties and organs of progress attacked and menaced its class rule at its social foundation and its political summit simultaneously, and had therefore become “socialistic.” … What the bourgeoisie did not grasp, however, was the logical conclusion that its own parliamentary regime, its political rule in general, was now also bound to meet with the general verdict of condemnation as being socialistic… Thus by now stigmatizing as ― socialistic what it had previously extolled as ―liberal, the bourgeoisie confesses that its own interests dictate that it should be delivered from the danger of its own rule… that in order to save its purse it must forfeit the crown, and the sword that is to safeguard it must at the same time be hung over its own head as a sword of Damocles.

Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, 141–43. If the proletariat could exploit these liberal freedoms for anti-capitalist ends, then the bourgeoisie could opt for Bonapartist solutions. Bonapartist dictatorship is possible, since even the most democratic capitalism is still underneath its surface a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, of one class exploiting another. It is a monarchy without a monarch. But in political and social crises, the bourgeoisie finds a new political religion, not in Enlightenment but in Bonapartism.

Toward Permanent Revolution

True to form, Israel depicts Marx’s role in the 1848 German revolution as undemocratic and authoritarian. Marx’s preaching of class warfare was, he claims, antithetical to the goals of Radical Enlightenment. But Marx and Engels saw Germany in 1848 as ripe not for a socialist revolution but for a bourgeois one along the lines of 1789.15Writing decades later, Engels admits that he and Marx’s strategic conceptions in 1848 were shaped by the French Revolution:

When the February Revolution broke out, we all of us, as far as our conception of the conditions and the course of revolutionary movements was concerned, were under the spell of previous historical experience, namely, that of France. It was, indeed, the latter which had dominated the whole of European history since 1789, and from which now once again the signal had gone forth for general revolutionary change. It was therefore natural and unavoidable that our conceptions of the nature and the path of the “social” revolution proclaimed in Paris in February 1848, of the revolution of the proletariat, were strongly colored by memories of the models of 1789–1830.

“Introduction to Karl Marx’s Class Struggles in France,” in MECW, vol. 27, 509. As they write in The Communist Manifesto: “The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation… and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.”16Manifesto of the Communist Party, in MECW, vol. 6, 519. For Marx and Engels, a bourgeois revolution meant the creation of a unified democratic Germany, one whose main task would be to establish a liberal constitution. This, they believed, was the bourgeoisie’s mission, which the proletariat should support. Both classes shared a common enemy in the aristocracy, and a bourgeois republic would create more favorable conditions for future socialist revolution. Hence, at least at this time, Marx and Engels saw the workers’ role as operating on the bourgeoisie’s extreme democratic left, pressuring them to carry out their historical mission.

In responding to the failure of the German 1848 revolution, Marx never disowned the tasks of democracy, but argued that the contemporary bourgeoisie was structurally incapable of fulfilling its own classic liberal revolution. Because of the proletariat’s growth, the bourgeoisie was frightened by revolutionary strategies, strategies that could be exploited by the workers to their left. For Marx, this meant that the proletariat would take the lead in the struggle for democracy, aligning itself with other oppressed groups. The workers would not wait for the bourgeoisie to establish democracy; instead, they would fight for socialism directly, making the revolution uninterrupted and “permanent.”17“Address of the Central Authority to the League,” in MECW, vol. 10, 287. For more on Marx and Engels during the 1848 revolutions, see Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (New York: Verso Books, 1981), 1–21; Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 2, The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 201–87; Richard Hunt, The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels I: Marxism and Totalitarian Democracy, 1818–1850 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974), 176–211; August Nimtz, Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 104–6. Three good biographical accounts of Marx in the 1848 revolution can be found in David Riazanov, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: An Introduction to Their Lives and Work (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 63–84; Franz Mehring, Karl Marx (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), 152–208; Oscar J. Hammen, The Red ’48ers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1969), 185–410. For Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, see The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978).

Marx and Friends

Nevertheless, Israel insists that by this time, Marx was infected with neo-Jacobin authoritarianism. Israel resurrects the ghosts of Arnold Ruge, Heinrich Heine, Wilhelm Weitling, Karl Heinzen, and Moses Hess to denounce Marx as a ruthless curmudgeon, who considered himself the only person worthy of leading his messianic revolution. But this overemphasis on squabbles with old colleagues amounts to so much schoolboy gossip. The personal pettiness Israel highlights obscures the political role of Marx’s old associates more than it illuminates.

First, although Ruge was an anticommunist, he was also a fan of the Jacobins, even approvingly calling Bruno Bauer the “Robespierre” of left Hegelianism. Second, Heine disagreed with Marx, but he did not abjure the Mountain. In 1848, Heine invoked the spirits of Danton and Robespierre as inspiration for the new revolutions. He even wrote that the Jacobin Mountain “is full of rousing slogans… slogans to raise the dead from their graves and send the living into mortal combat, slogans to make giants out of dwarfs and send giants crashing to the ground, slogans that cut through your power like a guillotine through the neck of a king.”18Heine, quoted in Georg Lukács, Essays on Realism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980), 111.

As for Weitling, he was no hero of Radical Enlightenment but a mystical elitist who turned a blind eye to slavery in America when he settled in New York during the 1850s.19“Wilhelm Weitling, who came to America the following year, 1847, started much agitation but gave little attention to slavery. He did not openly side with the slaveholder, as Kriege did; nevertheless, there was no condemnation of slavery in his paper. In the first German labor conference in Philadelphia, under Weitling in 1850, a series of resolutions were passed which did not mention slavery. Both Kriege and Weitling joined the Democratic party and numbers of other immigrant Germans did the same thing, and these workers, therefore, became practical defenders of slavery. Doubtless, the ‘Know-Nothing’ movement against the foreign-born forced many workers into the Democratic party, despite slavery.” W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935), 23. Marx’s entire struggle with Weitling was for the need of scientific politics against religious moralism. As Marx Spinozistically put it in the minutes of the Communist League’s discussions, “Ignorance never helped nor did anybody any good.”20Riazanov, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, 71.

Israel bizarrely champions Heinzen as a democrat and freethinker, but fails to alert the reader that Heinzen was also a fanatical admirer of Robespierre. According to Heinzen, in his scandalous book Murder and Liberty (1853), all Robespierre had to do to prevent Thermidor and establish freedom was kill more people. Such idealistic voluntarism and terroristic bravado was mocked by Marx and Engels. Against communism, Heinzen hid behind bombastic slogans and empty moralizing, while never seriously engaging Marx and Engels’ theories.

Speaking of moralizing criticism, this is what Israel appreciates most in Moses Hess. Despite Hess’s being a communist, Israel contrasts his sentimental rhetoric favorably with Marx’s supposed power-hungry Machiavellianism.21“Communism became a ‘power’ under the direction of Marx. Even so, it would be hard to claim that Marx ever matched Hess’s passion for human dignity, truth, freedom, and justice, or the insights of the radical enlighteners from whom Marx so abruptly broke away.” Israel, Enlightenment That Failed, 920. But, as we know from our previous chapter on Marx and Engels, this is a strawman. Marx was always committed to freedom, but he did not think moral commitments were any substitute for concrete analysis. The problem with “True Socialists” like Hess is that phraseology replaced science.22In Raoul Peck’s film Le jeune Marx, the young Engels says to the Communist League, “We need to know what we have gathered here for. Is it an abstract idea? A sentimental daydream? How far will that get us? We need to know what the [Communist] League wants, what it’s fighting for, for what society.” “Engels goes full communist on The League of the Just | The Young Karl Marx clip,” YouTube video, posted by “George Hegel,” December 20, 2018. Marx understood “science” not positivistically but in the Spinozistic-Hegelian way. Science for Marx did not mean separating what is from what ought to be. Rather, in grasping what is rational and real, scientific understanding shapes one’s ethical commitments.

According to Marx, empty phrases about “duty,” “right,” “morality,” and “justice” do little to guide concrete political practice. In drafting the rules of the First International in 1864, Marx was wary of such phrasemongering. 23“The Sub-Committee adopted all my proposals. I was, however, obliged to insert two sentences about ‘DUTY’ and ‘RIGHT,’ and ditto about ‘TRUTH, MORALITY AND JUSTICE’ in the preamble to the rules, but these are so placed that they can do no harm.” “Marx to Engels. 4 November 1864,” in MECW, vol. 42, 18. Yet in the same draft rules, Marx does advocate workers’ emancipation and the need for “equal rights and duties” in a future socialist society. Politics (and scientific research) were not “selfish pleasures;” as Marx told his future son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, “‘Those who have the good fortune to be able to devote themselves to scientific pursuits must be the first to place their knowledge at the service of humanity.’ One of [Marx’s] favourite sayings was: ‘Work for humanity.’”24Paul Lafargue, “Reminiscences of Marx” (September 1890), Marxists Internet Archive. The meaning of this anecdote of Lafargue’s is confirmed via a letter Marx sent to Siegfried Meyer in 1867: “I laugh at the so-called ‘practical’ men and their wisdom. If one wants to be an ox, one can easily turn one’s back on human suffering and look after one’s own skin.”25“Marx to Sigfrid Meyer. 30 April 1867,” in MECW, vol. 42, 366.

Coming back to Arnold Ruge, Israel notes that Marx’s former colleague thought communism was not an Enlightenment doctrine but a “secularized religion.” Here, Israel aligns himself with the New Atheists, according to whom Marxism is not a real philosophy or scientific view of history but a messianic cult.26In God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens laments that Marxism ended up as a secular religion:

“Marxism, I conceded, had its intellectual and philosophical and ethical glories, but they were in the past. Something of the heroic period might perhaps be retained, but the fact had to be faced: there was no longer any guide to the future. In addition, the very concept of a total solution had led to the most appalling human sacrifices, and to the invention of excuses for them. Those of us who had sought a rational alternative to religion had reached a terminus that was comparably dogmatic.” Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve Books, 2007), 153.
This is confirmed by Israel in Marx’s alleged historical fatalism, which treats history as something akin to an escalator. Communism is therefore seen as providentially inevitable, regardless of what human beings do. But one must separate the positive scientific statements in Marx from mere political rhetoric. Marx is clear in the Manifesto that either the workers will prevail or the class struggle will result “in the common ruin of the contending classes.”27 “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” 482. In other words, socialism is not inevitable, and a relapse into barbarism is perfectly conceivable.

Laws and Tendencies

Likewise, when Marx writes in Capital that socialism is capitalism’s “inexorable… negation of the negation,” this is his analysis of the main tendency within bourgeois society: that the forces of production, which are increasingly social, cannot peacefully coexist with narrow, bourgeois property relations. With all else being equal, socialism is the logical consequence of this. But Marx conceded that under specific circumstances, economic breakdown could be avoided; that there are “counteracting influences at work, which cross and annul the effect of the general law [of the rate of profit to fall]28Marx’s general law of political economy is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This is a controversial subject, but for Marx, it is inextricably related to the conflict between the increasing social forces of production and the narrow forms of bourgeois property. These property forms are geared toward maximizing profit. To put it crudely, as the productive forces grow — that is, as technological innovation reduces the need for workers — the mass of surplus value tends to shrink, and the rate of profit falls. It is impossible for the bourgeoisie to indefinitely keep up high rates of accumulation while making businesses more efficient for the sake of competition. The expansion of the productive forces is simultaneously what made capitalism hitherto the greatest economic system, according to Marx, but it is also responsible for capitalism’s decline and eventual death. Put otherwise, the limit of capitalism is capital accumulation itself. For a recent defense of this law, see Doug Enaa Greene’s introduction to Marxist economics, “Crisis and Breakdown,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, August 10, 2017; see also the economist Michael Roberts’s The Long Depression: Marxism and the Global Crisis of Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016). and which give it merely the characteristic of a tendency…”29Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 3, in MECW, vol. 37, 230. These countervailing tendencies include increasing the exploitation of the working class, lowering wages, foreign trade, the cheapening cost of machinery, the increase of stock capital, and relative overpopulation. Again, this shows that Marx was not the chiliastic or religious thinker that Israel, and New Atheist liberals like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, claim he is.

The attempt to rearticulate Marx as a romantic or messianic figure is meant to purge his name from the annals of Enlightenment. Again, Israel is happy to include the whole Marx (and not just the young Marx) in the ranks of Radical Enlightenment in earlier works. But — rather explicitly — Israel has joined the pantheon of liberal Cold Warriors who falsify Marx’s philosophical intentions. Such liberal Cold War historiography started in earnest with Jacob Talmon’s Totalitarian Democracy series, and finds its most vulgar expression in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. 30For Jacob Talmon, “totalitarian democracy” was a concept that linked radical currents of the Enlightenment such as Rousseauism to Jacobinism, Babouvism, Blanquism, and Marxism. Talmon defines totalitarian democracy as follows:

The totalitarian democratic school, on the other hand, is based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics. It may be called political Messianism in the sense that it postulates a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things, to which men are irresistibly driven, and at which they are bound to arrive. It recognizes ultimately only one plane of existence, the political. It widens the scope of politics to embrace the whole of human existence. It treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of political action. Its political ideas are not a set of pragmatic precepts or a body of devices applicable to a special branch of human endeavour. They are an integral part of an all-embracing and coherent philosophy. Politics is defined as the art of applying this philosophy to the organization of society, and the final purpose of politics is only achieved when this philosophy reigns supreme over all fields of life.

Jacob Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970), 1–2.

For a critique of Steven Pinker’s work on the Enlightenment, see Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss, “Steven Pinker: False Friend of the Enlightenment,” Jacobin, October 10, 2018. 

Dictatorship of the Proletariat

When it comes to this Cold War type of historiography, there is nothing more anathemized than Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” But this idea is cursed only in proportion to how little it is understood. Israel does not bother to explore the meaning of proletarian dictatorship in Marx, but is simply horrified by the very notion. Such outrage is unwarranted. Marx is clear that dictatorship is the political means for the proletariat to assert democratic rule over its exploiters. Hal Draper explains that the dictatorship of the proletariat possessed no special meaning or connotation beyond the need for the working class to take political power:

This [term] may be problematical if one thinks that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is a particular form of governmental structure or set of political methods or institutions. It is not problematical if we adopt the only meaning of the term that corresponds to the way Marx actually used it: a “dictatorship of the proletariat” is a state in which the proletariat exercises dominant political power — a “workers’ state,” the “rule of the proletariat.” No more, no less.31Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 3, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), 269.

In expanding democracy, or workers’ control over the means of production, the workers will have recourse to “despotic means” against those who want to maintain their oppression. As Marx and Engels point out in various works, proletarian dictatorship comes in the form of a democratic republic.32“If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown.” “A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891,” in MECW, vol. 27, 227. Proletarian dictatorship is not social and moral anarchy but the revolutionary establishment of socialist democracy. The key difference between the democratic republic of socialism and any form of capitalism (liberal or otherwise) is that the latter is always a form of bourgeois dictatorship, while the socialist republic is a proletarian one. As Marx said in 1871, right after the massacre of the Communards, the proletariat needs “dictatorial” methods to ensure its liberation.33“The last movement was the Commune, the greatest that had yet been made, and there could not be two opinions about it — the Commune was the conquest of the political power of the working classes. There was much misunderstanding about the Commune. The Commune could not found a new form of class government. In destroying the existing conditions of oppression by transferring all the means of labor to the productive laborer, and thereby compelling every able-bodied individual to work for a living, the only base for class rule and oppression would be removed. But before such a change could be effected a proletarian dictature would become necessary, and the first condition of that was a proletarian army. The working classes would have to conquer the right to emancipate themselves on the battlefield. The task of the International was to organize and combine the forces of labor for the coming struggle.” “Record of Marx’s Speech on the Seventh Anniversary of the International,” in MECW, vol. 22, 634. 

One of the earliest misinterpretations of Marx’s concept of dictatorship was advanced by the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Marx refutes this misinterpretation in his notes on Bakunin’s book Statehood and Anarchy. There, Marx writes that dictatorship, 

…implies that as long as the other classes, above all the capitalist class, still exist, and as long as the proletariat is still fighting against it (for when the proletariat obtains control of the government its enemies and the old organisation of society will not yet have disappeared), it must use forcible means, that is to say, governmental means; as long as it remains a class itself, and the economic conditions which give rise to the class struggle and the existence of classes have not vanished they must be removed or transformed by force, and the process of transforming them must be accelerated by force.34“Notes on Bakunin’s Statehood and Anarchy,” in MECW, vol. 24, 517. 

Marx is using the term dictatorship not as the antithesis of democracy but as the means for its implementation against those who want to keep the workers in chains. Thus, the term is used in a more colloquial sense than Israel gives Marx credit for. Dictatorship is merely a form of self-defense, and if the bourgeoisie, instead of violently suppressing the workers, would just renounce its right to exploit them, there would be no need for such “despotic” means. But if past experience is any guide, such as Chile in 1973, this is a near impossibility. The inevitably of bourgeois violence against the working class is almost as reliable as that of gravity itself. 35One of the best contemporary attempts to reconstruct Marx’s idea of proletarian dictatorship comes from Lea Ypi, “Democratic Dictatorship: Political Legitimacy in Marxist Perspective,” European Journal of Philosophy 28, no. 2 (June 2020): 277–91.

The Last Word

As we have seen, Israel’s fastidious early-modern scholarship turns into its polemical opposite with Marx. This is not a treatment of Marx worthy of a great scholar, but more suited to a professional red-baiter.36In the following quote, Israel dismisses Marx as a crude populist and uses the Nietzschean category of “resentment” to explain Marx’s politics: “Militant socialists, including Marx, later, while equally struck by the growth of inequality and how the triumph of British commerce and industry seemingly operated to the disadvantage of most, were often chiefly concerned to promote class awareness and mobilize the resentment of the underdog.” Israel, Enlightenment That Failed, 386.

This passage is particularly troubling for two reasons, one factual and one ideological. First, Marx wanted the proletariat to be armed with a theoretical perspective. He never wanted to “give in” to ephemeral moods or simply exploit what was “popular” at the time. Unlike vulgar democrats, as he put it famously in letters to Engels, Marx couldn’t care less about “popularity.” If this were true, he never would have devoted most of his adult life to writing Capital. Second, Israel’s invocation of resentment to talk about socialism has a long — and reactionary — pedigree, starting with Nietzsche and continuing with the Austrian school of economics. Nietzsche, in the end, a counter-Enlightenment thinker, did go through a “Enlightenment” phase. In his so-called middle period, particularly when writing Human, All-Too-Human (1878), he aligned himself with the elitist conception of Enlightenment represented by Voltaire, against the “democratic” resentment of Rousseau. Nietzsche, at least in this book, wanted to make Enlightenment safe from the masses. The more Israel attacks Marxism as a species of mass resentment, the more his polemical ardor resembles this Nietzschean critique of the Left. Here, the socialist Left is reduced to being a revolt of the envious against civilization’s betters. For Nietzsche’s aristocratic “Enlightenment,” see Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel: Intellectual Biography and Critical Balance-Sheet (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020).
Of course, Israel was never a Marxist to begin with, and one should never dismiss his work because of that. Israel has made great contributions in rehabilitating Spinoza and the Radical Enlightenment tradition. His later rejection of the Jacobin-Marxist legacy does not negate the value of his earlier work, especially his first book, Radical Enlightenment.

Israel, however, would like to stop Enlightenment progress in 1948, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.37Israel, Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy, viii-ix. He thus wants to halt the development of Enlightenment, identifying it with bourgeois reality. But any conflation of Enlightenment with capitalist exploitation per se is a philosophical and political travesty. Against such a conflation, Marxist scholars and activists have demonstrated that the Radical Enlightenment legacy is too important to leave to the liberal bourgeoisie. For revolutionary socialists, the logic of Radical Enlightenment goes further than this and contains the seeds of its own dialectical completion in the workers’ movement. The late Marxist historian Neil Davidson — to whose memory we dedicate this series — knew that defending the Enlightenment legacy was not separate from the struggle against capitalism. It is to him that we give the last word:

We therefore cannot simply reject the Enlightenment without depriving ourselves of some of the most important intellectual tools necessary for human liberation. But neither can we pretend that it had no limitations, or that there have been no positive intellectual developments since the early 19th century. The task for socialists is to identify elements of the Enlightenment particular to the capitalist economic and social conditions from which it initially emerged, and which are genuinely universal and consequently capable of being turned to different purposes. Since the Enlightenment those who claim to be its heirs have held opposing positions in relation to its social goals. One is that, to the extent that it is possible for them to be accomplished at all, this has been done in the heartlands of capitalism and now needs to be extended to those parts of the world still languishing in “pre-modernity.” Time has passed judgement on these claims: war, environmental catastrophe, increased impoverishment — these are the fruits of capitalist reason, capitalist progress and the rejection of universality. The other is simply this: Enlightenment social goals will only ever be partially attained under capitalist society and even these limited gains are constantly under threat. In these circumstances, only socialism is capable of “defending the Enlightenment,” but, more importantly, of completing it.38Neil Davidson, “Enlightenment and Anti-Capitalism,” International Socialism 2, no. 110 (Spring 2006), Marxists Internet Archive.


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Doug Enaa Greene

Doug is an independent communist historian, who is the author of Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution and a forthcoming biography of DSA founder Michael Harrington.

Harrison Fluss

Harrison is a philosophy professor who lives in Manhattan

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