Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Whose Enlightenment?

Distorting Marx

Seven years ago, Stephen Pinker, Professor of evolutionary psychology at Harvard University, wrote a highly contentious book, THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE (2011, which attempted to show that the 18th century Enlightenment promise of progress is alive and well in the 21st century. Pinker also tried, as a side-line, to denigrate the ideas of Marx. Pinker wrote:

Hitler read Marx in 1913, and although he detested Marxist socialism, his national socialism substituted races for classes in its ideology of a dialectical struggle towards utopias...” (P.412-3)

Marx was therefore condemned to stand outside the Enlightenment tradition in the political darkness with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and any other genocidal maniac over the last few centuries. What Pinker did not realise, (and it is doubtful if he really cared), was that Marx did not invent classes or the class struggle. What Marx did in fact do was to explain why the class struggle took place in capitalism through the application of his theory of history and theory of surplus value.

This is what Marx wrote:

.. And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic economy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production (historische Entwicklungsphasen der Production), (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

By “bourgeois historians” Marx meant laissez-faire liberals such as Guizot, Mignet, Comte, Dunoyer, and other early nineteenth-century French writers in the enlightenment tradition. In another letter written to Frederick Engels Karl (July 27, 1854), Marx referred to the historian Augustin Thierry, one of the editors of Le Censeur européen, as "the father of the ‘class struggle’ in French historiography". In this letter Marx mentions Thierry’s important work, ESSAY ON THE HISTORY OF THE FORMATION AND PROGRESS OF THE THIRD ESTATE (1853) in which he refuses to extend the class struggle to cover the antagonistic class relations between workers and capitalists. For Thierry there could only be class harmony in free markets an absurd idea which finds a life in the writing of today’s market anarchists.

These historians, who had described in length the class struggle between the Feudal order and the capitalist class long before Marx came on the scene, were working within the political idealism favoured by Pinker. Pinker’s comments on Marx, then, are not examples of detached scholarship, but instead, just crude and petty propaganda. And for producing ruling class ideas, Pinker draws a not inconsiderable salary as a Professor at one of the more prestigious universities in the US. Socialists pity his students.

In one respect, Marx did “influence” Hitler, though not in the way Pinker would want us to believe. Marx’s principle works – The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and DAS KAPITAL – were first banned by the Nazi State and then were burnt at the Opernplatzn Berlin on May 10th 1933 by students from the Wilhelm Humboldt University, all of them members of right-wing student organizations, watched by some 70,000 people. Ironically, it was Marx’s friend the poet, Heinrich Heine, who wrote some one hundred and ten years earlier:

Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings. ALMASOR: A TRAGEDY (1823), as translated in True Religion (2003) by Graham Ward, p. 142

Pinker’s book was rightly criticised for its poor scholarship, its reactionary ideology and its uncritical acceptance of the “benign” nature of US capitalism as a force for good. Another criticism was Pinker’s annoying habit of citing authors in copious footnotes which, when interrogated, gave a very dubious and questionable justification for his own assumptions and arguments. In other words, he used unconvincing sources for his assertions while totally ignoring contrary historical evidence and counter-arguments which would have undermined his own controversial thesis (see E.S Herman and D. Peterson, Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence).

Whose Enlightenment?

In an attempt to silence his critics, Professor Pinker has now returned to the theme of capitalism’s global historical progress in his latest book ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: THE CASE FOR REASON, SCIENCE, HUMANISM AND PROGRESS (2018). As a consequence of the Enlightenment ideal, established first in France but transposed to the United States with the publication of the Declaration of Independence (pp 12and 143), Pinker believes social life is slowly becoming better and better for the world’s population as a mixture of science, reason and free trade rids the world of poverty, war and environmental degradation. Pinker’s glass is not half full but brimming over in a flood of optimism. No mention is made by Pinker, though, of the fact that many of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence were slave owners including the leading Enlightenment thinker, Thomas Jefferson. Selective use of “evidence” to support his Pollyanna world-view of sweetness and light is Pinker’s trade-mark.

The Enlightenment, for Pinker is a movement in human history that began with the French Encyclopédistes – a group of mathematicians, scientists and philosophers, - led by d’Almbert and Diderot. The Enclopedia provided a theoretical attack against ecclesiastical and state institutions undermining Royal authority and its moral and religious justification such as the Divine Right of Kings and the theology and power of the Church.

The German Philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, for example, argued:

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage (immaturity). Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.

And Kant went on to believe, like William Cobden and Bright in England, that free trade and free markets would end war and conflict which he thought was caused by the actions of Tyrants and Monarchs. He said:

The spirit of trade cannot coexist with war, and sooner or later this spirit dominates every people. For among all those powers (or means) that belong to a nation, financial power may be the most reliable in forcing nations to pursue the noble cause of peace (though not from moral motives); and wherever in the world war threatens to break out, they will try to head it off through mediation, just as if they were permanently leagued for this purpose (PERPETUAL PEACE, 1785).

The Enlightenment, then, was a theoretical and ideological battering ram used by the revolutionary capitalist class and its intellectual out-riders against Feudalism and religion. And this is the tradition which informs the writings of Professor Pinker. For Pinker – a Dr Pangloss for the 21st century - we now live in the best of all possible worlds. And it can only get better.

However there is a serious political question which needs to be asked and that is: “whose Enlightenment”?

In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848) Marx summarised the role of the Enlightenment in the capitalist revolutions of the eighteenth century. He wrote:

When Christian ideas succumbed in the 18th century to rationalist ideas, feudal society fought its death battle with the then revolutionary bourgeoisie”’

Capitalism needed to free the power of independent rational thought to further the political interests of the capitalist class. Indeed, Marx and Engels recognised that in its formative years capitalism was a force for progress. They wrote:

It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life ... (and) created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations.

However reason is not the sole possession of a single class, and once it became apparent that a subject working class had the power to transform society in line with tworkers’ own class interests, the question inevitably arose of the further revolutionary transformation of society. Capitalist property relations increasingly became a “fetter” on the forces of production and the ideas and beliefs justifying the profit system became increasingly reactionary and dark.

As Marx and Engels went on to write:

The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself


But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians.

Fact-based evidence and critical reason: science and technology could be embraced and used politically by the working class for its own emancipation from capitalism. And they could also be used to resolve the economic and political problems the profit system caused to workers’ lives following the establishment of socialism. The forces of production, including co-operative and social labour, could be used to create a social system where production and distribution took place just to meet human needs. There would be no need for markets; free or otherwise. No wonder Pinker has such a political aversion to Marx and socialism.

Here is another of Pinker’s takes on Marx:

Marx adapted the idea (Hegel’s dialectic) to economic systems and prophesied that a progression of violent class conflicts would climax in a communist utopia” (p.165)

Pinker clearly forgets that three violent bourgeois revolutions had already taken place before Marx opened any book by Hegel; the English Civil War in the 17th century and the American War of Independence and the French Revolution in the 18th century. Two kings lost their heads and another lost his colonies. Marx did not have to “prophesise” anything: it is just a historical fact.

Nor did Marx conceive of Communism being established through “violent class conflict”. Marx considered that in countries like Britain, the US and Netherlands, violent revolution would not be necessary. Only four years after the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO Marx emphasised the point in an article in the NEW YORK TRIBUNE (25 August 1852):

"The carrying of universal suffrage in England would . . . be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent. It's inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class”.

And Marx’s fellow revolutionary, Frederick Engels later wrote:

The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO had already proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage, of democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat,” (Introduction of 1895 to Marx’s THE CLASS STRUGGLES IN FRANCE, SW1, Moscow, 1973, p. 195)

Marx was clearly a child of the Enlightenment and it is with the working class movement throughout the nineteenth century that real historical progress is to be found and explained by Marx’s interrelated theory of value, theory of history and political concept of the class struggle as the motor force of history. This analysis and critique of capitalism informed in n1904 the SPGB’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES. And it was the SPGB‘s development of Marx’s ideas which led the Party to state, as a matter of principle, that Socialism would be established by a socialist majority using the revolutionary vote, delegates and parliamentary action.

The establishment of socialism/communism (both words mean the same thing) would not be through street violence and barricades but through the capture of the machinery of government, including control of the armed forces by a socialist majority to ensure the peaceful and ordered transformation of capitalism to the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. – or, in the words of the SPGB’s sixth principle so it “may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic”.

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment

There is another problem with Pinker’s Enlightenment narrative and that is the huge chasm between the idealism he defends in his book and the reality of capitalism’s history as it has passed from one economic crisis to another and from one war to another over the last two to three hundred years. There is complete silence by Pinker on the Enlightenment’s dark side; something highlighted by one of his most trenchant critics, John Gray; someone who is neither a Marxist nor a socialist.

Pinker’s heroes are the 17th century philosopher, John Locke and the Eighteenth century philosophers Voltaire, Emmanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham, but Gray reminds us that:

John Locke denied America’s indigenous peoples any legal claim to the country’s “wild woods and uncultivated wastes” Voltaire promoted the “pre-Adamite” theory of human development according to which Jews were remnants of an earlier and inferior humanoid species; Kant maintained that Africans were innately inclined to the practice of slavery; the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham developed the project of an ideal penitentiary, the Panopticon, where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement under constant surveillance.

As we have noted, Pinker, like other defenders of capitalism, has tried in vain to show that Marx influenced Hitler. However it is the dark side of the Enlightenment that unleashed eugenics, first in Britain then in to the US. It was Hitler’s Germany that sent “scientists” to the US to study eugenic programmes. In fact, the Social Darwinism first put forward as a “scientific” discipline by the statistician and polymath, John Galton, at the end of the 19th century, was a precursor to socio-biology and the modern ‘evolutionary psychology’ of Stephen Pinker.

From the turn of the Twentieth century, German eugenicists formed academic and personal relationships with US eugenists, in particular with Charles Davenport, the pioneering founder of the Eugenics Record Office on Long Island, New York, which was backed by large donations from the Harriman railway fortune. A number of other charitable American bodies funded German race biology with hundreds of thousands of dollars, even after the depression of the 1930s had taken hold. German eugenicists closely followed US eugenic procedures for biological tribunals, forced sterilisation, detention for the socially inadequate and conferences on euthanasia attended by scientists in the Enlightenment tradition (see Stephan Kuhl, THE NAZI CONNECTION: EUGENICS, AMERICAN RACISM, AND GERMAN NATIONAL SOCIALISM (1994) and, more recently, HITLER'S AMERICAN MODEL (2018) by James Q Whitman).

Scientists, using eugenist ideas, also tried to prove the intellectual inferiority of Afro-Americans an idea discredited long ago but still being pursued today in such books as THE BELL CURVE (1994) by the psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and the political scientist Charles Murray, the bible of the white supremacists. Science is not neutral and scientists are not detached men and women independently pursuing the truth to the exclusion of what is going on in the rest of society. Scientists work within and are conditioned by capitalism, capitalist relations and ruling class ideas, some of which they manufacture as professors in universities.

It was Theodor Adorno, one of Pinker’s bête noirs, who remarked that the Enlightenment led to Auschwitz, and the gas chambers (see DIALECTICS OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT (1944) and NEGATIVE-DIALECTICS (1973)). Maybe a slight exaggeration, but since the advent of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, generations of men, women and children have endured three centuries of war, class exploitation and genocide on an industrial scale. And for what? Only to provide unearned income for a capitalist class to live a life of privilege and luxury: only to prevent all of society using the means of production and distribution to meet human needs: and only to enslave billions of people in the exploitive wages system. Is this really progress?

Pinker’s Crude Propaganda

Socialists demand Enlightenment Now! But only in respect to an enlightened working class comprehending the social system in which workers find themselves imprisoned within. Workers have to first understand and reject capitalism in order to consciously, politically and democratically organise for the abolition of the profit system and its replacement with socialism in which production would take place directly to meet human needs. Now that would be Enlightenment.

Pinker’s book is nothing more than a propaganda rallying cry for a liberal world view that is now in retreat from the sustained pressure from the rise of protectionism, fascism, nationalist popularlism and racist xenophobia in the US and Europe. Not that he is short of sycophantic praise whether it is from the utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer or media pundits like Andrew Marr. However, ENLIGHTENMENT NOW is a narrative with no intellectual substance. What Pinker and his liberal cheerleaders like the INDEPENDENT: “Better Angels is a great liberal landmark” and the GUARDIAN: “Brilliant, mind-altering...Everyone should read this astonishing book” cannot or refuse to understand is why the power, prestige and politics of liberalism have collapsed so quickly since its high tide of 1989 with the publication of Fukuyama’s “THE END OF HISTORY”.

What Pinker’s politics – and it is politics with a capital “P” - cannot grasp, is that the economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent economic and political repercussions it caused throughout the world has resulted in abject failure of the Enlightenment project set out in his book. 2008 saw not only an economic crash but the crash of the liberal utopia with its fanciful dream of a crisis-free “New Order” in which globalisation, free trade and free markets would not only last forever but would benefit everyone. The economic crisis was one of many crises since the advent of capitalism and it certainly will not be the last. The economic laws acting on the profit system periodically pricks the bubble of the pretensions of academics and politicians who believe you can have capitalism without the effects of capitalism. There are just too many losers. And no appeal to science, reason, humanism and free market capitalism will persuade the losers that Pinker’s liberalism has anything to offer them, either politically or economically: only socialism can do that.

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