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The current idea of the political left-wing features struggles by organized labour for greater benefits within investor-supremacist capitalism, raising working class consciousness about structural inequalities in wealth and power. Historically, that view of the meaning of the left developed from the Hegelian/ Marxist idea of economic determinism, the idea that social classes defined by economic conditions are the units of a pre-determined progression of human societies along a course of dialectical historical stages. The idea that there is a natural large-scale structure to change in human societies was profoundly appealing in the middle of the nineteenth century because disruption of traditional social hierarchy had become alarming, in a process that began soon after the launch of overseas European imperialism in the sixteenth century, with wealth looted from other peoples pouring into Europe to financial speculators and commercial and military opportunists. Previously, tradition and custom in Old Regime Europe, the fabric of its rural-agrarian system of wealth and power, kept popular patterns of thinking quite rigidly in thrall to monarchy, aristocracy, and Church. Notwithstanding the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, eighteenth century Europe was still a largely Christian institution, pervaded by patriarchal Christian control at all levels. Disruption of the old hierarchies of wealth, work, and circumstances of living resulted in struggles over power, and broke apart the “order” that had been sacred to the patriarchs of the Old Regime. In the shattering world of new money-wealth, lost attachment to land and locality, and desperate uncertainty for masses of people dependent on industrial employment, the old system of belief and ways of thinking lost contact with reality, and people generally needed new markers by which to reorient. There was a widespread sense that individuals were caught up in forces that were far beyond their powers to control or understand. The forces at play were in fact the competitive greed and racism of the leading factions of European society, expressing the macro-parasitism inherent in their patriarchal culture. Marx’s claim that there were scientific laws of historical change gave hope to a segment of Europe’s intelligentsia, the educated heirs of the Enlightenment era, who saw this claim as a message they might use to reorient the proletarian masses being treated on their native ground in the bestial and dehumanizing ways developed to maximize profits to investors from overseas imperialism and commercial exploitation. In Europe this was still novel and startling, engineered by newly powerful social factions, beyond any custom or tradition that might blend it into an appearance of natural order.

The idea of a predetermined pattern of social and cultural change, arcing inevitably toward justice, has lost all plausibility, especially since the collapse of Marxist regimes in eastern Europe, leaving a fatal ideological void for the most popular conception of a political left-wing. However, the collapse of that idea does not undermine entirely the force of left-wing politics because there was a previous and original “left” movement before the grandiose Hegelian metaphysics took hold. That original leftist movement was the party of philosophy itself rather than the party of organized labour. Specifically, it was the party of a secular philosophy of cultural Enlightenment, and it represented what had become known as the Republic of Letters, independent scholars of various backgrounds and nations publishing mainly outside institutions such as Church foundations and universities. The printing press, since its launch in the fifteenth century, had spread through private business ventures, free of immediate institutional control, and in combination with the graduating cohorts from Europe’s universities created a self-directing network of communication about ideas, and an expanding body of literature, much of it in Latin, the international language of eduction, marking an extraordinary flourishing of the scribal culture of ideality. It was the blogosphere of the late medieval/ early modern period. Philosophy was then, and not for the first time, the innovative force against ossified patterns of thinking, and as such it placed primary emphasis on the individual’s power of rationality, a message often difficult to sustain in the context of the vicious campaigns of race and class assault and propaganda that constituted European imperialism.

The Enlightenment

The core innovation of the Enlightenment was not so much an assertion of individualism as it was a secular concept of human nature which changed the meaning of the individual. In the still dominant Christian view, human nature had an absolute need of external sovereign supervision due to the inherent taint of original sin, declared inescapable by Church father Augustine of Hippo. Christianity reinforced Augustine’s idea with Aristotelian and Platonic metaphysics, both visions of top-down cosmic hierarchy, perfect models for supporting the Church in exercising the sovereignty it asserted to be necessary and beneficent. The radical rationalists of the Enlightenment countered patriarchal Christian ideology with two innovations (which eventually proved to be heading in incompatible directions). One replaced the cosmic hierarchy from Aristotle and Plato with an approach that flattened the basic cosmic structure, namely monistic materialism inspired by the metaphysics of Spinoza. More important, the left was the political party of philosophy because it brandished a secular view of human nature emphasizing innate rationality and excluding any inherent flaws and taints, and as such, a human nature not inherently dependent on any sovereign supervision. That was the crucial point, and it put the Enlightenment left in opposition to basic patriarchal cultural mythology, in which the strongest have the (divine/ natural) right of unlimited sovereignty, an assumption still discernible in the idea of ‘meritocracy’, and one that was asserted enthusiastically at the time to justify the most brutal imperialism. This stream of Enlightenment was already and always an anti-imperialist force, the foundation of claims for individual human dignity and rights, equality, secularism, and cosmopolitanism. In a world of people with no need of sovereign supervision, the patriarchal assertion of sovereign rights is naked human-on-human macro-parasitism, vicious and criminal.

European imperialism had given patriarchal dominance-culture unprecedented power both economic and cultural, especially in the hands of new commercial factions. The materialist side of Enlightenment was not a problem for them and in fact was a helpful frame of reference. Mechanistic materialism was making impressive advances in understanding objective nature and delivering new machines for the benefit of large scale industry and commerce. Under the banner ‘science’, claiming to represent strict mathematical rationality, it was acquiring ever-increasing prestige, at the same time realigning with patriarchal assumptions of natural hierarchies, and giving up any claim to flatten the fundamental structure of nature at large. This was the side of Enlightenment that rode the triumphant wave of imperialist wealth and power, but there remained a stubborn minority report: the basis of the political left.

The Enlightenment idea of human nature drew on a history of development that included the campaigns for universal literacy from the time of John Wycliffe (1331-1384), as well as the Lutheran emphasis on a personally interior relationship with divinity in a free act of faith. From that history, Enlightenment human nature was an inherent richness of individual interiority: curious, creative, empathic and sociable, and a rational learner and eager user of language (spoken, written, printed) in engagement with others, deriving fulfillment from mutual support and engagement with others. Cultures are crucial to individual human development, but cultures are bottom-up systems, as illustrated by ever-mutating language, not a gift from on-high, nor dependent on colonial masters or any other sovereign power. In the later part of the eighteenth century, within the milieux of Enlightenment culture which was already a force against imperialism, the philosopher Immanuel Kant worked out a sort of phenomenology of spirit (interiority) in which human individuals are understood as inherently self-legislating, and so, again, not dependent on outside sovereignty. This idea was the unacknowledged pinnacle of long centuries of cultural development in Europe, a minority report presenting an alternative vision for post-Christian society. It means that the decisive theme of western history, what makes the Euro-American cultural system interesting, is the contest playing out there over the legitimacy of sovereignty.

Kant’s philosophical work was arguably the best expression of Enlightenment ever produced, a considered advance beyond Spinoza’s materialist monism. There was room in Kant’s vision for both objective empirical science and for an individual interiority that was truly transcendent in its creative freedom. The problem was that, in the context of the mesmerizing frenzy of race and class violence in the era of high European imperialism, nobody was ready to digest the idea of human subjectivity free of an inherent dependency on sovereign power. In spite of that, the enriched conception of human nature had deep historical and cultural roots in this increasingly literate society, flourishing in the Republic of Letters and embryonically in Protestantism, far too embedded to be dismissed. This made a deeply divided cultural landscape that included patriarchal Christianity with its long-established ideology of sovereign power; newly triumphant money-wealth culture, heir apparent to patriarchal macro-parasitic top-dog-ism; scientific materialism as the servant of money-wealth culture; and a vision, contested by all those other cultural forces, of individual interiority as the fountain of creative freedom. The other cultural streams have strong and separate reasons for fearing and loathing the radical Enlightenment idea of the individual. Science can’t abide the existence of creative freedom as a transcendence beyond its laws of determinism; and even the new patriarchal hierarchies can’t abide the prospect of loosing their controlling grip on the work and consumption of the masses, a grip they conceive as power. Those forces have done their best to suppress the radical Enlightenment insight, and have had considerable success working cooperatively.

The Marxist conception of the political left is surely dying, but that is not a decisive loss for a politics of the left, and should be a benefit. Marx’s dialectical materialism and its laws of history show how materialism quickly goes to strict determinism, unfreedom, and the disappearance of transcendence into meaninglessness. In addition, the introduction of Marxist ideas in the nineteenth century revived, in a new form, the pre-Enlightenment assumption that collectives are the primary independent human entities exercising legitimate rights over individuals, traditionally by means of monarchy, aristocracy, and the hierarchy of the Church, but also by means of police, military service, civic pageantry, censorship, and mass propaganda. Marxist party leaders took over that fundamental idea of authoritarian sovereignty, and in doing so decisively deflected leftist development away from its original trajectory. Some philosophy consistent with the radical Enlightenment insight, a secular vision of rich individual interiority, transcendent in its creative freedom and as such the basis for community, cultural development, and fulfilling human interconnection, must be the perennial core of any politics of the left, its taproot as the party of philosophy.

Recommended

The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume I: The Complete Text, written by Alexis de Tocqueville, Edited and with an Introduction and Critical Apparatus by Francois Furet and Francoise Melonio, Translated by Alan S. Kahan, Published by University of Chicago Press (2004), ISBN: 0-226-80530-1.

Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790, written by Jonathan I. Israel, published by Oxford University Press (2011), ISBN 978-0-19-954820-0.

Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre, written by Jonathan Israel, published by Princeton University Press (2014), ISBN: 978-0-691-16971-2.

A History of Western Political Thought, written by  J. S. McClelland, Published by Routledge (1996), ISBN-10: 0415119626, ISBN-13: 978-0415119627.

Copyright © 2018 Sandy MacDonald.

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