Spinoza’s Radical Enlightenment


The Radical Enlightenment starts with Baruch Spinoza’s materialist philosophy. There is a direct line from Spinoza to Marx and Engels via the French Revolution.

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The bourgeoisie, in the hour of their greatness, did more for the possibility of human liberation than simply provide the material basis for future socialist development. I think here of the universalism of Enlightenment thought at its best.
— Neil Davidson

Why Spinoza?

Why does Jonathan Israel — and for that matter, many Marxists — consider Spinoza so central a philosopher? Why did the precursors of Marx, such as Feuerbach, call Spinoza, “the Moses of the modern free-thinkers and materialists,” and why did Heine even compare Spinoza to Christ?1 What accounts for all this celebration? It is that Spinoza’s philosophy represents the sharpest break with ancient and medieval worldviews, inaugurating a new beginning. Unlike the rationalism of René Descartes or Gottfried Leibniz, Spinoza’s was monistic; it rejected Descartes’s incomplete break with the Catholic Church, as well as Leibniz’s attempt to cloak theism in reason. The British empiricists, such as John Locke, likewise cut deals between knowledge and traditional faith. All these figures made concessions to God and throne. This was a shamefaced Enlightenment, ashamed of its own power of reason. Out of these early modern intellectuals, it was Spinoza who most clearly rejected all supernatural admixtures with reason. It is with him that philosophical modernity truly begins.

Israel explains that no other early modern thinker was as uncompromising as Spinoza in terms of secularism. As he writes, “It is primarily the unity, cohesion, and compelling power of his system, his ability to connect major elements of previous ‘atheistic’ thought into an unbroken chain of reasoning, rather than the novelty or force of any of his constituent concepts which explains his centrality in the evolution of the whole Radical Enlightenment.”2

Israel adds that Spinoza’s other contributions, such as his rationalist approach to the Bible and his concept of substance (i.e., that God and nature were one) also “exerted a vast international impact.”3 In Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (TTP), he criticizes the Bible, rejecting its talk of miracles and alleged divine authorship from the standpoint of reason, a standpoint that also grounds his political defense of freethinking and democracy. Spinoza wrote this book anonymously, and it proved to be the most scandalous political treatise of its time. As one horrified reviewer put it, the TTP was a “book forged in hell.”4

In his own introduction to the TTP, Israel argues that Spinoza’s biblical criticism and political philosophy are an application of his substance metaphysics, or his theory of reality. In his lifetime, Spinoza kept his system a mystery out of a fear of persecution, but this system was the foundation for his politics. Israel says, “Although a particular system of philosophy inspired and underpins the whole of the Theological-Political Treatise, it does so in most of the chapters unobtrusively and frequently in a hidden fashion.”5 Spinoza’s friends saw a few snippets of his philosophy, but never his entire system of pure reason. This system was released posthumously as Spinoza’s Ethics. There, Spinoza philosophically demonstrates the existence of substance, the unity of body and mind, and the meaning of human freedom. He abolishes a theistic God, miracles, so-called free will, and other authoritarian and supernatural beliefs.

Israel summarizes the results of Spinoza’s efforts as follows:

With his system Spinoza imparted shape, order, and unity to the entire tradition of radical thought, both retrospectively and its subsequent development, qualities it had lacked previously and were henceforth perhaps its strongest weapons in challenging prevailing structures of authority and received learning and combating the advancing moderate Enlightenment. It was a system which reached its fullest and most mature expression only with the completion of his Ethics in 1675, but which … was in essentials extant as early as 1660.6

Spinoza and French Materialism

The specter of Spinoza’s philosophy haunted Europe in a way that anticipated future fears of communism. To be called a Spinozist was tantamount to being called a communist in Joseph McCarthy’s America. For aristocrats, clerics, and other conservative forces (including a few liberal ones, such as members of the Moderate Enlightenment), Spinozism signified atheism, libertinage, revolt, and the destruction of civilization itself. Even King Frederick the Great, a friend of Voltaire, denounced Spinozism as a soulless philosophy of immorality. For Frederick, Spinoza’s philosophy was Machiavellianism taken to metaphysical heights.7

At least in Radical Enlightenment, Israel does not shy away from linking 18th-century fears about Spinozism to Cold War paranoia about Marxism:

By the early eighteenth century the widening perception of Spinozism as the prime and most ruthless antithesis and adversary of received authority, tradition, privilege, and Christianity had generated a psychological tension evident throughout the academic world and “Republic of Letters,” not unlike the intellectual and ideological paranoia regarding Marxism pervading western societies in the early and mid-twentieth century.8

Israel traces Spinoza and his circle’s influence all over Europe, where ideas about equality, freethinking, toleration, and democracy were gaining a foothold. Spinozism, and not just John Locke, had a strong influence on the French materialists. Israel makes the case that Spinozism can be found in the famous Encyclopédie, and that the concept of the “general will” as found in Diderot, Holbach — and even the early Rousseau — is broadly Spinozist. The Spinoza entry in the Encyclopédie is the largest of any philosopher of modern times.9 Even though Spinoza is denounced, this was more for the sake of the censors. As Israel puts it, “The entry sets about this task in such a strange fashion, recycling wholly out-of-date, irrelevant, and feeble theological arguments dredged up from the end of the last century, that to the discerning it was bound to look like yet another seditious ploy transmitting a half-concealed message to the aware.”10

Weishaupt and the Illuminati

Thus, the French materialists were Spinozists sub-rosa. But they were not the only ones to practice Spinozism in secret. Israel makes another significant contribution to the history of ideas in rehabilitating the philosophical and political legacy of Adam Weishaupt, the leader of the Bavarian Illuminati. Weishaupt’s Illuminati is one of the most misunderstood and maligned organizations in history; since its inception it has been attacked in the most vicious of ways, and today, it is a canard of right-wing conspiracy thinking.11 As part of its original intent, the Illuminati advocated world revolution, world government, the overthrow of all monarchies, and the establishment of universal freedom and equality.

Israel defends Weishaupt as a principled reformer and as one of the first professional revolutionaries. Teaching as professor of canon law in Bavaria’s backward and Jesuit-dominated city of Ingolstadt, Weishaupt started the Illuminati on May 1, 1776. He resorted to cloaking his Spinozistic materialism in the pomp and circumstance of Masonic ritual. As Israel writes in Democratic Enlightenment, the highest philosophical grade of Weishaupt’s initiation was the Spinozistic revelation that “everything that exists is matter, that God and the universe are one, that all organized religion is political deception devised by ambitious men.”12

The Illuminati organization did not survive political repression in Bavaria, but traces of its legacy can be found in the French revolutionary Cercle Social, which the early 20th-century historian Albert Mathiez compared to an Illuminati Lodge.13 The Illuminati vision for total world revolution also finds its way into Gracchus Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals and Philippe Buonarroti’s secret societies. In their early work The Holy Family, Marx and Engels confirm the link between the French Cercle Social and the socialist revolution: “The revolutionary movement which began in 1789 in the Cercle Social, which in the middle of its course had as its chief representatives Leclerc and Roux, and which finally with Babeuf’s conspiracy was temporarily defeated, gave rise to the communist idea which Babeuf’s friend Buonarroti re-introduced in France after the Revolution of 1830. This idea, consistently developed, is the idea of the new world order.”14

Thus, starting with Spinoza and ending with French socialism, we see a line of continuity in the Radical Enlightenment tradition. Of course, this does not mean that all these figures were orthodox Spinozists, but it does mean that many of the essentials of Spinoza’s thought were expressed in French materialism, providing ideological groundwork for the French Revolution.15

Plekhanov and French Materialism

Emphasizing the role of Spinozism in the Enlightenment is part of an older Marxist historiography found in the writings of Georgi Plekhanov. Even though Plekhanov never used the phrase “Radical Enlightenment,” the content of that thesis is well expressed in his writings on the history of ideas. Israel cites Plekhanov once in The Enlightenment That Failed, the last book in his Enlightenment series, but only as a passing reference point.16 The father of Russian Marxism remains a severely underrated intellectual historian.17 In polemicizing against Friedrich Lange’s History of Materialism, he elaborates his own Marxist framework for the Enlightenment and understands Spinozism as the alpha and omega of any modern materialism. For Plekhanov, Marxism is a variety of Spinozism, becoming aware of itself as dialectical materialism.18

Like Israel, Plekhanov sees French materialism as a revolutionary philosophy. But as a Marxist, Plekhanov goes further in seeing how class interest conditions consciousness, including the consciousness of philosophers. This materialist philosophy was a bourgeois philosophy, arising in the specific social conditions faced by the left-wing bourgeoisie’s struggle against the ancien régime. The fight that Holbach, Diderot, Rousseau, and Helvétius fought was not directly for democracy but for the liberation of their class from feudal backwardness and religious superstition:

It goes without saying that, in its struggle against an obsolete system, the bourgeoisie could have no respect for a world-outlook that was inherited from the past and hallowed that despised system. “Different times, different circumstances, a different philosophy,” as Diderot so excellently put it in his article on Hobbes in the Encyclopédie. The philosophers of the good old days, who tried to live in peace with the Church, had no objections to a morality which claimed revealed religion as its source. The philosophers of the new times wanted morals to be free of any alliance with “superstition.” 19

Plekhanov fervently admired the French materialists and considered himself a legatee of their philosophy. He embraces their fight for secularism and against prejudice. Repeating Marx’s critique of Feuerbach, however, Plekhanov understands bourgeois materialism to be only a halfway house toward historical materialism. When it comes to history itself, or social being, bourgeois materialists turn into vulgar idealists. This may seem paradoxical, but Plekhanov shows why this is the case in his essays on Baron Holbach and Helvétius.

Antinomies of Bourgeois Enlightenment

Like Marxists, the French materialists saw the social environment as determining social consciousness. But what determines the social environment for the French materialists? As Plekhanov shows for philosophers like Holbach and Helvétius, it is the force of “public opinion” (i.e., ideas) that determines the social environment. But what in turn shapes this public opinion? According to them, public opinion is shaped by active and conscious forces, that is, societal elites. Either these elites have good intentions, like the French materialists themselves, or these elites are villainous priests, plotting to always and forever ensnare and deceive the people.

Plekhanov argues that the bourgeois materialist is stuck in what he calls an unresolvable “antinomy.” This antinomy posits two mutually exclusive claims: either the social environment determines consciousness, or consciousness determines the social environment. This is a bad dialectic of the chicken and the egg; it is bad because it can never resolve its own contradiction, resting only as a paradox, or what Plekhanov here calls an antinomy.

The French materialists see themselves as the makers and shapers of history, treating the people (ironically) as “a dead and inert mass.” Nature may be governed by causality, but history happens ex nihilo: it is an act of human will. As Plekhanov puts it, “If history is made up of nothing but humanity’s conscious activities, then it is only ‘great men’ that are, of necessity, the cause of the historical movement. It will then follow that religion, morals and manners, customs, and the entire nature of a people are the creation of one or several great men, who have acted with definite aims in view.”20

If, however, the forces of enlightenment fail in their efforts to change the world, the philosopher can always blame the machinations of priests, or the eternal stupidity of the masses. These philosophers of the 18th century had no recourse to understanding history as a product not just of nefarious or enlightened wills but of material forces. In other words, they lacked any concept of social production, social relations, and class struggle. The good and the ill that come from a mode of production are metaphysically translated into an abstract contest between light and darkness.

The French materialists did not extend their secularism to the realm of history. Therefore, they promoted not a materialist but a semireligious or Manichean conception of history. As Plekhanov explained, “Religion is seen as the main driving force in history. What we have before us is Bossuet [a defender of absolutism and the divine right of kings] in reverse! The author of Discours sur l’histoire universelle was convinced that religion arranged all things in the best of fashions while Holbach thought that it brought all things down to the worst of conditions.”21

Plekhanov’s dialectical critique of Enlightenment not only foreshadows the contradictions of the late 20th-century new atheists, with their pseudo-secular view of history as a simpleminded morality tale of progress against superstition; as we shall see, Plekhanov’s critique also accounts for Jonathan Israel’s own limitations. A fully secular view of the world is incompatible with the illusions of class society, which include a superstitious view of the masses as an ignorant rabble. As Plekhanov points out, it was this fear of the masses that plagued Holbach; he viewed the struggle for equality as a struggle of the envious, and he looked toward elites — including Louis XVI — to solve the problems of Enlightenment. Plekhanov understood that Holbach’s social philosophy could not stomach the democratic Jacobin revolution that was to come: “Indeed, would Holbach’s behaviour have been any better after Augus 10? Would he have repeated at a Jacobin assembly ‘is not a tyrant the most odious creature that crime could beget?’”22 We have no information on this score, but it is more than probable that he would have had no truck with the “rabid” Republicans and would have regarded them also as tyrants and foes to the Fatherland, fanatics and political frauds.”23

Is it any wonder, then, that bourgeois Enlightenment from Holbach to Israel despairs when its ideals are taken seriously by the masses?

Part III of this series on the Enlightenment will appear next Sunday.


Notes   [ + ]

1. Georgi Plekhanov, “Fundamental Problems of Marxism,” 1907, Marxists Internet Archive; Heinrich Heine, Religion and Philosophy in Germany: A Fragment (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1891), 70.
2. Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 230.
3. Ibid.
4. Steven Nadler, “A Book Forged in Hell”: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), vi.
5. Jonathan Israel, introduction to Benedict de Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, ed. Jonathan Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), x.
6. Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 230.
7. “Machiavelli’s Prince is to morality what the work of Spinoza is to faith: Spinoza sapped the foundations of faith, and aimed at no less than to overthrow the edifice of religion; Machiavelli corrupted politics and undertook to destroy the precepts of sound morality.” King of Prussia Frederick II, The Refutation of Machiavelli’s Prince or, Anti-Machiavel (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981 [1740]), 31.
8. Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 436.
9. Israel, Democratic Enlightenment, 68.
10. Ibid., 69.
11. Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 39–64.
12. Israel, Democratic Enlightenment, 832.
13. “Ils ne prennent pas part à la direction du club qui reste aux mains d’un directoire secret, le Cercle social proprement dit, loge maçonnique dont Nicolas de Bonneville, esprit fumeux et hardi, est le grand chef. Le grand point est d’instruire, de préparer les esprits à des changements profonds qu’on se borne du reste à annoncer en termes voilés et mystérieux.” Albert Mathiez, Le Club des Cordeliers pendant la crise de Varennes, et le massacre du Champ de Mars (Paris: H. Champion, 1910), 5–6. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin also links the Jacobins to the Illuminati and Masonic lodges:

“It is known, indeed, from Louis Blanc, Henri Martin, and the excellent monograph of Professor Ernest Nys, that nearly all revolutionists of renown were freemasons — Mirabeau, Bailly, Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Condorcet, Brissot, Lalande, and many others were masonic brothers, and the Duke of Orleans (Philippe-Egalite) remained its national Grand Master down to May 13, 1793. On the other side, it is also known that Robespierre, Mirabeau, Lavoisier, and probably many more belonged to the lodges of the Illuminates, founded by Weishaupt, whose aim was ‘to free the nations from the tyranny of princes and priests, and as a first step, to free the peasants and the working men from serfdom, forced labour and guilds.’”

Peter Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution 1789–1793 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1909), 540.

14. The Holy Family, in MECW, vol. 4, 119.

James Billington also notes the Illuminati’s influence on Babeuf: “Occult — possibly Illuminist — influence is detectable in Babeuf’s first clear statement of his communist objectives early in 1795 — inviting a friend to ‘enter into the sacred mysteries of agrarianism’ and accepting fidelity from a chevalier de l’ordre des egaux. Babeuf’s subsequent first outline for his conspiracy spoke of a “circle of adherents” “advancing by degree” from les pays limotrophes to transform the world. Babeuf’s secret, hierarchical organization resembled that of the Illuminists and of Bonneville.” James Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 97.

15. For right-wing critics, what Israel calls the Radical Enlightenment was the philosophical premise to a revolutionary conclusion. As Augustin Cochin said, “Before the bloody terror of 1793, there was, from 1765 to 1780, a dry terror whose Committee of Public Safety was the Encyclopédie and whose Robespierre was d’Alembert.” Darrin McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 193.

For Joseph de Maistre, Spinoza’s ideological role in preparing the revolution to come is clear: “I know that philosophy, ashamed of its dreadful successes, has decided to disavow loudly the excesses [i.e., Jacobinism] which we are witnessing, but it cannot escape the criticisms of the wise like this. Happily for humanity, the same men seldom possess both fatal theories and the power to put them into practice. But what does it matter to me that Spinoza lived peacefully in a Dutch village?” Joseph de Maistre, The Generative Principle of Political Constitutions: Studies on Sovereignty, Religion, and Enlightenment (New York: Routledge, 2017), 111.

16. Israel, The Enlightenment that Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748-1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 898–99.
17. “Everything I knew about the Enlightenment came from Plekhanov,” Isaiah Berlin, quoted in Joshua L. Cherniss, A Mind and Its Time: The Development of Isaiah Berlin’s Political Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 31.

Unlike Israel, Berlin links Enlightenment doctrines to Marxism, even going so far as to think Marxism was the Enlightenment “gone wrong.” David Caute, Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 49.

18. Plekhanov, “Fundamental Problems of Marxism.”
19. Georgi Plekhanov, “Essays on the History of Materialism,” 1893, Marxists Internet Archive.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid.
22. “Augus 10” refers to August 10, 1792, when armed revolutionaries in Paris stormed the Tuileries Palace and the French monarchy was abolished.
23. Plekhanov, “Essays on the History of Materialism.”

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About author

Doug Enaa Greene

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