David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

Marxism and the Enlightenment

A principled approach to polemics requires that the arguments of an opponent be presented accurately. The fact that you are unable to do this, that you feel compelled to mislead and misrepresent—in effect, to lie—has, itself, serious and disturbing political implications. As Trotsky pointed out, the lie serves an essential function in political life: it is employed to conceal social interests and to cover over weaknesses and contradictions in a political position. In your case, the dishonest methods flow from your efforts to pose publicly as a Marxist, while having rejected—and not all that unconsciously—the theoretical and political foundations of Marxism. Your differences with the International Committee are not over isolated programmatic points, but rather over the most fundamental questions of philosophical world outlook, upon which the struggle for socialism is based.

Before you rise from your seat to protest this “slur” on your revolutionary honor, permit me to point out that your document includes passages that are totally alien to the world-historical outlook of Marxism. A particularly noteworthy example is your statement that my “critique of postmodernism is used to sanction an uncritical defense of the Enlightenment.”

The passage in my first lecture to which you are referring, but do not quote, appears in a section entitled “Historical consciousness versus postmodernism.” I said the following:

The conception of history that we uphold, which assigns to the knowledge and theoretical assimilation of historical experience such a critical role in the struggle for human liberation, is hostile to all prevailing trends of bourgeois thought. The political, economic and social decay of bourgeois society is mirrored in its intellectual degradation. In a period of political reaction, Trotsky once noted, ignorance bares its teeth.

The specific form of ignorance championed today by the most skilled and cynical academic representatives of bourgeois thought, the postmodernists, is ignorance of and contempt for history. The postmodernists’ rejection of the validity of history, and the central role assigned to it by all genuine progressive trends of social thought, is inextricably linked with another element of their theoretical conceptions—the denial and explicit repudiation of objective truth as a goal of philosophical inquiry.

What, then, is postmodernity? Professor Keith Jenkins, an exponent of this trend, explains:

“Today we live within the general condition of postmodernity. We do not have a choice about this. For postmodernity is not an ‘ideology’ or a position we can choose to subscribe to or not; postmodernity is precisely our condition: it is our fate. And this condition has arguably been caused by the general failure—a general failure which can now be picked out very clearly as the dust settles over the twentieth century—of that experiment in social living which we call modernity. It is a general failure, as measured in its own terms, of the attempt, from around the eighteenth century in Europe, to bring about through the application of reason, science and technology, a level of personal and social wellbeing within social formations which, legislating for an increasingly generous emancipation of their citizens/subjects, we might characterize by saying that they were trying, at best, to become ‘human rights communities.’

“… [T]here are not—and nor have there ever been—any ‘real’ foundations of the kind alleged to underpin the experiment of the modern…” (Keith Jenkins, On “What Is History?”: From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White [London and New York: Routledge, 1995], pp. 6–7.)

Allow me to “deconstruct” this passage. For more than two hundred years, stretching back into the eighteenth century, there were people, inspired by the science and philosophy of the Enlightenment, who believed in progress, in the possibility of human perfectibility, and who sought the revolutionary transformation of society on the basis of what they believed to be a scientific insight into the laws of history. There were Marxists who believed that History (with a capital H) is a law-governed process, determined by socioeconomic forces existing independently of the subjective consciousness of individuals, but which man could discover, understand and act upon in the interest of human progress.

But all such conceptions, declare the postmodernists, have been shown to be naïve illusions. We now know better: there is no History with a capital H. There is not even history with a small h, understood as an objective process. There are only subjective “narratives,” or “discourses,” with shifting vocabularies employed to achieve one or another subjectively-determined purpose, whatever that purpose might be.

From this standpoint, the very idea of deriving “lessons” from “history” is a futile project. There is nothing to be studied and nothing to be learned. As Jenkins insists:

“[W]e now just have to understand that we live amidst social formations which have no legitimizing ontological or epistemological or ethical grounds for our beliefs or actions beyond the status of an ultimately self-referencing (rhetorical) conversation... Consequently, we recognize today that there never has been, and that there never will be, any such thing as a past which is expressive of some sort of essence.” (ibid., pp. 7–9.)

Translated into comprehensible English, Jenkins is saying 1) the functioning of human societies, either past or present, cannot be understood in terms of laws that can be or are waiting to be discovered; and 2) there is no objective foundation underlying what people may think, say, or do about the society in which they live. People who call themselves historians may advance one or another interpretation of the past, but replacement of one interpretation with another does not express an advance toward something more objectively true than what was previously written—for there is no objective truth to get closer to. It is merely the replacement of one way of talking about the past with another way of talking about the past—for reasons suited to the subjectively-perceived uses of the historian.

The proponents of this outlook assert the demise of modernity, but refuse to examine the underlying historical and political judgments upon which their conclusions are premised. They do, of course, hold political positions that find expression in their theoretical views. Professor Hayden White, one of the leading exponents of postmodernism, has written:

“Now I am against revolutions, whether launched from ‘above’ or ‘below’ in the social hierarchy and whether directed by leaders who profess to possess a science of society and history or be celebrators of political ‘spontaneity.’” (Hayden V. White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990], p. 63.)

The legitimacy of a given philosophical conception is not automatically refuted by the politics of the individual by whom it is advanced. But the anti-Marxist and anti-socialist trajectory of postmodernism is so evident that it is impossible to disentangle its theoretical conceptions from its political perspective. [36]

You proceed to attack this analysis, writing in response:

Anyone defending the Enlightenment heritage of reason is progressive and anyone against is reactionary. But this crude dichotomy obscures the important truth that in the battle over reason Marxism has to fight on two fronts—against irrationalism (whether in the form of religious mysticism or the Nihilism of the Nietzsche-Heidegger line and its postmodern derivatives) but also against the much more pervasive “reason” of bourgeois society that rationalizes class domination (notably in the form of pragmatism and empiricism). In the latter sense Marxism represents a dialectical negation of the Enlightenment: Marx stripped away the “reason” of the Enlightenment philosophes and uncovered the rationalizations of a new form of class oppression.

This is a complete muddle. First of all, your use of the pronoun “anyone” is sufficiently obscure to prevent the reader from clearly identifying the tendencies to which you are referring. In the passage to which you object, I attacked the basic concept of postmodernism, which claims that the “modernist” project, based on the belief in the possibility of human progress—dating back to the Enlightenment and lasting through much of the twentieth century—ended in failure. Your response to this passage in my lecture can only signify that you identify with the positions that I am criticizing. However, you fail to state which defenders of the Enlightenment heritage of Reason and confidence in the possibility of human progress you consider reactionary, and which of its opponents you consider progressive. And, may I ask, in which of the writings of the great Marxists will one find either condemnation of Enlightenment thinkers or praise for their opponents?

In a manner that crudely suggests that the Reason of the Enlightenment thinkers merely provided rationalizations for class oppression, your passage conflates into one undifferentiated and ahistorical process the mighty theoretical struggles that laid the intellectual foundations for the great bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century, and the socioeconomic reality of the bourgeois-capitalistic societies that eventually emerged from those upheavals. However, whatever the historically-conditioned illusions of the Enlightenment thinkers—specifically, that the liberation of the “third estate” represented the liberation of all mankind—their theoretical work ultimately provided the intellectual and, one might add (though within certain limits), moral basis for the socialist assault on bourgeois society. The revolutionary thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries forged the weapons that were ultimately to be used by the new socialist movement, and emerging working class, against bourgeois society in the nineteenth century. It was the betrayal of the ideals of Reason by the bourgeoisie in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which provided so much of the theoretical impulse for the critique of bourgeois society. Moreover, your claim that the Enlightenment philosophers provided “rationalizations of a new form of class oppression” is grotesquely one-sided and basically false. You simply ignore the implicitly communist theories advanced by Enlightenment thinkers, and seem to be unaware that the materialist philosophy of the Enlightenment, notwithstanding its limitations, tended in the direction of the repudiation of property and inequality. As Marx pointed out in his commentary on French eighteenth century materialism in The Holy Family:

There is no need for any great penetration to see from the teaching of materialism on the original goodness and equal intellectual endowment of men, the omnipotence of experience, habit and education, and the influence of environment on man, the great significance of industry, the justification of enjoyment, etc., how necessarily materialism is connected with communism and socialism. [37]

Your reference to the “reason” of bourgeois society—which you call upon Marxists to fight—is confused and misleading. In the course of the historical development of bourgeois society and the growth of class antagonisms, the bourgeoisie tended more and more to abandon “Reason” in favor of increasingly subjective and irrationalist philosophies. The decline of Hegel’s stature, in the aftermath of the failed 1848–49 Revolutions, and his replacement by Schopenhauer and later Nietzsche as the towering figures of philosophy, represented the bourgeois repudiation of Reason. Thus, the great Marxists have always claimed to represent the revolutionary heritage of the Reason of the Enlightenment, understanding by that term the capacity of man, acting on the basis of scientific insight into the laws of nature and society, to put an end to exploitation, oppression and injustice. It is this heritage that Trotsky invoked at the conclusion of his great oration before the 1937 Commission of Inquiry, chaired by American philosopher John Dewey, into the Moscow Trial charges:

Esteemed Commissioners! The experience of my life, in which there has been no lack of successes or failures, has not only not destroyed my faith in the clear, bright future of mankind, but, on the contrary, has given it an indestructible temper. This faith in reason, in truth, in human solidarity, which at the age of eighteen I took with me into the workers’ quarters of the provincial Russian town of Nikolaiev—this faith I have preserved fully and completely. [38]

The tradition that you represent, in your strictures against the Enlightenment, traces its origins not to Marx, but to the demoralized petty-bourgeois theorists of the Frankfurt School—particularly, to the conceptions initially propounded by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. In this work, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century is held accountable for the catastrophes of the twentieth century. Human reason, science, technology and even social progress are listed as factors contributing to the triumph of fascism. The central arguments in Dialectic of Enlightenment were summed up in the lecture given last summer in Ann Arbor by Comrade Peter Schwarz. Your document makes no reference to his analysis. Throwing in terms like “dialectical negation” and “dialectical break” adds neither cogency nor profundity to your assault on the Enlightenment. Rather, it illustrates how you seek to exploit pseudo-Hegelian phraseology in the service of conceptions that are inimical to Marxism.


North, The Russian Revolution and the Unfinished Twentieth Century, pp. 159–162.


Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 4 (New York, International Publishers, 1975), p. 130.


The Case of Leon Trotsky (New York: Merit Publishers, 1969), pp. 584–85.