Marxism and Enlightenment thought

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Dec 9 12:40:21 PST 1998

A couple of months ago I attended a talk at NYC's Brecht Forum on "Philosophy and Marxism" which is relevant to this discussion. The speaker was Guy Robinson, who taught philosophy in British universities for 25 years. He retired in 1982 and moved to Nicaragua where he worked with construction brigades. He now lived in Dublin and his new book "Philosophy and Mystification" had just been published by Routledge.

Robinson's main point was that modern philosophy evolved in order to meet the needs of the rising bourgeoisie. It aspires to be universal but conceals the very particular and historical needs of the class which was coming to power in the age of Descartes. One of the purposes of Marxism is to make this connection and expose the class bias of bourgeois philosophy.

One of the schools of thought that Marxism vies with in this project is post-structuralism or postmodernism. The pomos are also interested in showing that the claims of universality are specious. Robinson described the pomos in pithy terms, as "hunters of zeitgeists," who try to capture historical trends as if they were animal specimens to pin on the wall like trophies. In the process of debunking "universality," the pomos also trash history. This is where Marxists and pomos part company, as well as on the issue of class.

Marxism has an entirely different agenda. Robinson says that a plain way of describing its mission is to clarify things that we already know. Marx's description of this project is found in the preface to the German Ideology:

"Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and - existing reality will collapse."

Robinson gave an example of the clarifying function of Marxism. He said that the term "Artificial Intelligence" is a bourgeois mystification. It presumes that there is some sort of distinction between machines and intelligence, when in reality all machines exhibit some sort of intelligence. The source of it is the human labor which invests intelligence in the artifact to begin with. Positing some sort of duality between machine and intelligence is only possible in a society where a deep state of alienation exists between labor and the products of our labor.

Robinson then proceeded to knock bourgeois philosophy off its pedestal. Its whole purpose was to sanctify private property and the pursuit of profit. In order to do this, it was necessary to conduct ideological warfare against the feudal world view. John Locke's philosophy revolved around this project, especially in its promotion of the idea of the "social contract." Against the arbitrary rules of a Church-run society, the bourgeoisie needed rationality and individual rights. Without rationality and individual rights, capitalist property relations could not be safeguarded.

In order to diminish the role of the Church and the feudal aristocracy, a totally new view of the universe had to be constructed. Instrumental to this was a new view of nature, which was seen as transcendent and outside of humanity, but not sacred. Scientists would replace priests in this new world-view, since they alone had the ability to explain the natural order. Newton becomes a key figure in the general assault on the old order.

If nature is conscripted on behalf of the rising bourgeoisie, the natural tendency is toward what Robinson calls bourgeois materialism. Against this generally progressive philosophical current, he posits historical materialism. The difference between bourgeois and historical materialism is that the latter mode of thought does not see nature as transcendent but as something that society interacts with dialectically. Nature is always being transformed through labor. Furthermore, science in bourgeois society is always qualified by its social role, as Thomas Kuhn argues. The purpose of socialism is to liberate science from its class ties and make it available for the transformation of society.

Louis Proyect


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