I’ve recently become an enormous fan of Dr. James Lindsay’s podcasts about Wokeism and its Marxist origins. They’re exceptionally well-researched and impressively brief for the span of content they cover (though still averaging between 1 and 3 hours per episode).
Lindsay, however, is a modernist — he is an enormous fan of the Enlightenment, and has written not one, not two, but three books critical of religion. Lindsay repeatedly cites one of my old favorite books — Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch — as “brilliant” and as an explanation for the knowledge we have today.
One lecture in particular — “The Woke Rejection of the Reasonable” — attempts to identify Marxism and its various iterations as a counter-Enlightenment ideology.
This conclusion is not just wrong, but backwards.
As a movement, the Enlightenment can be best understood as the rejection of myth as something superfluous and dangerous. The central belief of the Enlightenment is not of the necessity of reason (which was held before), but of the sufficiency of reason — reason alone is enough for man to thrive and to live in peace, and that any injection of myth is an unnecessary risk of division, stupidity, and harm.
But the “reason” of the Enlightenment is an equivocation. We hear “reason” and we think of the use of our prefrontal cortex to solve a problem, or thinking through logical axioms and trying to come to some emotionally neutral conclusion. In fact, what Enlightenment defenders call reason is a social phenomenon, not a cognitive one.
In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker describes reason this way:
Reason is nonnegotiable. As soon as you show up to discuss the question of what we should live for (or any other question), as long as you insist that your answers, whatever they are, are reasonable or justified or true and that therefore other people ought to believe them too, then you have committed yourself to reason, and to holding your beliefs accountable to objective standards.
This is not a description of logical or illogical thinking, but of an implicit social relationship. “Negotiation,” “insistence,” “other people ought to believe them too,” “accountability,” none of these have to do with clear thinking; they are terms of consensus and consensus-making.
In the much-lauded Kindly Inquisitors, Rauch argues that liberal science is not an epistemological theory as such, but “a way of organizing society and a way of behaving.” One might say it is an epistemology of consensus.
I may as well quote James Lindsay here, who summarizes the philosophy quite well even off the cuff:
We are prone to be irrational, to seek confirmation bias, so our scientific processes have to rely upon trying to knock down ideas that are incorrect, trying to disprove, rather than prove – although there are still of course existence projects, ‘does this particle exist?’ or whatever. But this is a very important thing that the Enlightenment period brought to the world is that we tend not to be the best, most precise, rational, fair-minded, objective thinkers, and so what we need to do is install systems that take that person out of the equation. So if you think of “liberalism” or what Jonathan Rauch in Kindly Inquisitors calls “liberal science” which is this rational process as a system, rather than as something an individual does, what you see is that you remove the person from the knowledge-making process.
Anyone who has followed my anti-science essays (1, 2, and 3) will recognize some of this.
But the key point here is the identification of Marxism with an “anti-Enlightenment” or “counter-Enlightenment” position.
As Lindsay points out, Marx (and Hegel) advanced their economic and historical theories as a kind of science. They thought that the dialectical progress of history was a rational playing out of historical forces, and as rational processes, could be known and predicted. The Marxist ideal of “social man” follows this scientific removal of the individual and replacing him with the collective “Man.”
Is there a distinction between Marx’s “false consciousness” and “myth,” in the context of frameworks of unreason? The Marxist urge to ceaselessly pursue power discrepancies and false narratives is simply to take this “social systems” approach to reason and to pursue objectivity more thoroughly. Is Marx really wrong to ask how a man can think objectively if he is thinking within a narrative framework (a myth) arrived at prior to reason?
If we withdraw from the Enlightenment social conception of reason and take something a little more reasonable — like, “using one’s frontal cortex” — the answer is actually “yes.” Reason is about logical consistency within a given set of axioms, and so it is entirely possible to be reasonable within the context of an initial mythic framework.
The only problem is that not everyone will agree with you.
Notice too Lindsay’s emphasis (which is also Pinker’s emphasis, Rauch’s emphasis, Popper’s emphasis, and Sagan’s emphasis) on criticism — or “disconfirmation,” “falsification,” whatever other term we want to call it. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this social affinity for criticism is the spiritual heart of Marxism. Marxism seeks to develop “critical consciousness,” which is the ability to perceive falsification in all ideologies (another Enlightenment aim) in order to free oneself from subjective systems that obscure clear, objective vision… and thereby to achieve freedom and “social man.”
Marxism is not a counter-Enlightenment movement. It is the culmination of Enlightenment objectivity, of the conflation of “reason” with “social consensus.” All of Marxist “praxis” movements are plays to hack consensus from whatever angles present themselves.
The reality is that the Enlightenment itself has a grounding myth, what we might call the “candle in the dark” myth after Carl Sagan — that prior to the “light of reason,” man lived in darkness and fear and distrust. But the light of reasons, however small, began to illuminate the world, and by understanding each other, we began to fear each other less, and trust each other more. Peace, prosperity, and hope become possible through reason.
The counterpart to this is that understanding can lead the way to hatred, as I argued in In Defense of Hatred:
Many people of the hatred-is-evil persuasion seem to believe that understanding is the solution to hatred (and therefore, hatred indicates either a lack of understanding or stupidity). It is often with this thought in mind that they’ll say that “education is the solution.” But while deeper understanding and empathy can sometimes remove false differences and opposition, it can just as often deepen the divide, and turn mere anger or incredulity into actual hatred.
A brief personal example: I did not “hate” the progressives whom we colloquially call “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs) for a very long time, even as I opposed them and their ideas in the college newspaper I worked for. I viewed their ideas as merely “wrong,” and the activists themselves likewise as “wrong,” They were not “enemies,” but people who were fundamentally on the same page, and had the same goals, but who had—for whatever reason—come to different conclusions. And while I had no illusions about the universal sanity of all politics, I at least thought that we all shared the value of “what is best for America.” I thought this bound us together, no matter what our differences of opinion were.
It was education and deeper understanding that separated me from the SJWs, rather than bringing me closer.
It is a bitter irony that so many modernists like James Lindsay are now fighting back so hard against the Marxists that have infiltrated and corrupted the liberal institutions they have held in such high esteem. And it is true — Marxists are abusing schools and courts and governments, but this abuse is only possible (and, indeed, inevitable) because of the underlying premises of liberalism. The objectivity held up by the Enlightenment leaves no grounds for exclusion from the conversation… or at least, no sufficiently precise basis for exclusion that prevents Marxists from infiltration. The delusional attack on myth, the conflation of reason with social consensus, the emphasis on criticism, and the belief that what is “objective” is ultimately what is true all unite Marxism with Enlightenment thought. One might even say Marxism is a kind of culmination — if not of the Enlightenment spirit, then at least of the axioms which emerged from its spirit.
To successfully defeat Marxism, one must reject modernism and the Enlightenment. This does not mean becoming a post-modernist — a person who sees the myth underlying modernism, and just rejects that myth too — but a pre-modernist — one who re-embraces myth. They must look to the origin myths of their culture with a kind of uncritical acceptance, in a similar manner to the way in which we uncritically accept the language that we use, and for the same reason, for myth is the origin of our ability to communicate with each other using language. Myth depicts deep values that otherwise defy simple explanation and permits us to connect, mentally and emotionally, and to use something as subjective and arbitrary as language to say something accurate about the objective world.
The attack on myth does not remove superfluous impediments to reason. It only removes the starting axioms that make logical consistency and reason meaningful, and which permit liars and intellectual frauds like Marxists equivocate more freely, because the mythic tethers that give meaning to words have been cut — “work” can refer simultaneously to the “working class” and to academics “doing the work” to reshape society with critical consciousness, despite these two designations being diametrically and — perhaps permanently — opposed. Work can also mean bringing an image in one’s own head into the world, but apparently it can also mean bringing about someone else’s vision, just like a wage-slave working for a capitalist… so long as the vision happens to belong to someone named Marx. All of this is made possible by the destruction of religion and myth, and the effect of that destruction upon our language, for — as a real counter-Enlightenment philosopher once argued — thought is language, and one cannot have a thought without language. Without their mythic bedrock, language is held up only by “operational definitions,” which do fall to the post-modern criticisms of Derrida and the like.
Reason is necessary, but — contra modernist optimism — it is not sufficient: for understanding, for connecting with others, for building a functioning society, or for fighting off evil movements like Marxism.
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marfinch3 Mar 2022
Nailed it. I have not been “impressed” by the enlightenment for a long time, and have a blog post of my own in mind for it (someday I may actually right it). Man needs myth, religion, fairy tales, etc. Nietzsche (whom I’m not a fan of) realized this. When he said God was dead, it can be taken not so much that an actual God was dead, but the concept of a God (or gods) was dead and therefore the world needs a new impetus to move forward if not just survive.
Great post, tons to make me think in there.