Marxism, Spinoza, and the “Radical” Enlightenment

An argument for a dialectical and materialist approach to ideas, history, and struggles for emancipation.

June 1, 2022

Herr Heinzen imagines communism is a certain doctrine which proceeds from definite theoretical principles as its core and draws further conclusions from that. Herr Heinzen is very much mistaken. Communism is not a doctrine but a movement; it proceeds not from principles but from facts. The communists do not base themselves on this or that philosophy as their point of departure but on the whole course of previous history…Communism, insofar as it is a theory, is the theoretical expression of the position of the proletariat in this struggle and the theoretical summation of the conditions for the liberation of the proletariat.
—Friedrich Engels1Friedrich Engels, “The Communists and Karl Heinzen,” Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 6 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976) 303–04.

 

The elimination of feudal property relations and the foundation of modern bourgeois society were thus by no means the product of a particular doctrine based upon and elaborated from a specific principle as its core. It was much more the case that the principles and theories put forward…were nothing but the theoretical expression of a series of real events.
—Karl Marx2Karl Marx, “Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality. A Contribution to German Cultural History. Contra Karl Heinzen,” MECW, vol. 6, 337.

 

The Enlightenment has been receiving a bad rap on the Left for a good while. From Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment to the debunking of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now,3See for instance, Peter Harrison’s “The Enlightenment of Steven Pinker,” https://www.abc.net.au/religion/the-enlightenment-of-
steven-pinker/10094966 and Jennifer Szalai’s, “Steven Pinker Wants You to Know Humanity Is Doing Fine. Just Don’t Ask About Individual Humans,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/books/review-enlightenment-now-steven-pinker.html.
criticism of the Enlightenment’s dangerously unearned faith in bourgeois progress has become something of a starting point for radical commitments.4See for instance, Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim’s “Steven Pinker: False Friend of the Enlightenment,” https://jacobinmag.com/2018/10/steven-pinker-enlightenment-now-review. For some movement activists, an avowed faith in reason itself seems either beside the point or potentially conservative, while for others anything like faith in rational “progress” is downright juvenile.

There is a whiff of pessimism in the concern, magnified during times of electoral and Covid conspiratorialism, that reason itself is somehow an unfit tool for our most pressing political tasks. You can’t simply out-reason the emotional appeal offered by the confining comfort of cloistered echo chambers. The more darkly self-enclosed the irrational become, the less open they are to being enlightened.

Yet, against the widening suspicion that enlightened thinking is useless, some have cautioned against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is hope, so the thought goes, if we return to the principles of a radical Enlightenment. Firmly rooting ourselves in Baruch Spinoza’s most radical thinking can save those of us who think, work, and organize in the wake of the European Enlightenment not only from the self-defeating pessimism of the Horkheimers and Adornos, but also from the reactionary optimism of the Pinkers.

More than anyone, Jonathan Israel can take credit for opening this path. His magisterial research into the wide-ranging force of ideas in the early Enlightenment centered squarely on Spinoza.5Jonathan Israel, The Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). As an early spark for the intellectual and cultural movement, Spinoza’s commitment to the careful use of reason shed light amid so much metaphysical confusion. Spinoza’s commitments to a single substance (God isn’t some other, transcendent being), the idea that there is a striving within that single substance, and the will to use reason to realize human freedom in a democratic way are, when taken all together, highly promising. If the single substance is taken as matter, and striving can describe our work, then the pursuit of freedom through democratic self-determination is ripe for a radical outfitting. If all we needed were fine ideas, we’d be well on our way.

Even more, Marx’s demand that we organize productive relations so that we can freely satisfy our needs fits hand in glove with some of Spinoza’s core principles. And this strategy of tying Marx to the Enlightenment via Spinoza is highly appealing. It promises to distill a basic set of commitments—ones that could guide struggle. By starting with Spinoza, one could draw a line from a radical set of Enlightenment philosophical principles to the commitments that could help advance left politics today. In this view, the radical Enlightenment not only can but should be welcomed with open arms.

The advantages can be pushed even further because refusing to connect the dots between Spinoza and Marx might come with some serious disadvantages. Without a stable grounding in clear ideas, practical efforts today risk devoting themselves to half-measures, repeating historical dead ends, or falling into what might otherwise be easily recognizable traps. These kinds of mistakes, so the argument goes, can only be avoided by adopting the radical Enlightenment’s set of guiding principles.

Principles drawn from the history of ideas do not clarify the problems posed by our conjuncture, nor do they necessarily motivate struggles against it.

As appealing as this principled use of the radical Enlightenment appears, and it really is quite attractive, such an approach promises much more than it can deliver. This is because the grounding strategy it rests on—a return to the radical Enlightenment and Spinoza in particular—is far too abstract. Principles drawn from the history of ideas do not clarify the problems posed by our conjuncture, nor do they necessarily motivate struggles against it.

For that reason, it would be better to avoid trying to ground struggles in metaphysical principles which, in being transhistorical, move away from specific histories, property relations, and political forms. Much like Engels’ response to the moralist Karl Heinzen, and then Marx’s support of Engels in the epigraphs, I want to argue for principles emerging from struggle rather than radical struggle emerging from metaphysical principles. I’ll be arguing, in other words, that even putting “radical” Enlightenment principles first engages in a version of idealism that can look appealing to left intellectual historians but is far less promising for supporting struggles.6See Asad Haider, “The Paradox of Enlightenment,” Viewpoint Magazine, March 13, 2017.  This idealist approach should be replaced by a strategy of supporting and clarifying commitments drawn from struggles themselves.

 

The Conditions for “Radical” Ideals

Since Spinoza is the starting point of the radical Enlightenment for both Jonathan Israel, and recent Marxist attempts to rehabilitate its tradition in a communist way, it makes sense to turn to him.7See Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss’s “Radical Enlightenment 1: Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia,” and “Radical Enlightenment 2: Dialectical Enlightenment,” Against Professional Philosophy,
https://againstprofphil.org/2017/04/03/radical-enlightenment- 1-aliens-antisemitism-and-academia/ and
https://againstprofphil.org/2017/04/03/radical-enlightenment- 2-dialectical-enlightenment. More recently, see “Spinoza’s Radical Enlightenment,” the six-part series by Harrison Fluss and Dough Enaa Greene, Leftvoice, July 19, 2020.
Spinoza exhibited tremendous intellectual courage: he acknowledged the power of self-interested egoism but was nonetheless deeply committed to democracy at a time when monarchs still ruled via divine right. Further, given his heretical leanings, Spinoza was given the highest possible censure by his synagogue and excommunicated from his native Sephardic Jewish community.

Yet Spinoza was unbowed. Indeed, Spinoza’s commitments formed the bleeding political edge of an intellectual project that challenged not just religious but political orthodoxy. With a nascent intellectual culture open to new forms of thinking and organizing, this edge had to be carefully concealed or blunted even in his own time.

Despite his heroism, it would be a mistake for radicals today to take Spinoza on whole cloth. Doing so would require resituating the struggles and conditions that rendered the principles he first articulated three hundred and fifty years ago in our own, obviously quite different, conditions. In my view, such an operation is bound to prove more disorienting than clarifying. What Spinoza’s commitments to democracy and egoism amount to today cannot be brute facts corresponding to some transhistorical human nature. Like hunger, neither is simply “an object in general, but” historical objects that must be determined by production.8Marx, “Introduction to a Contribute to a Critique of Political Economy,” MECW, vol. 28 (1986), 29. Knowing that we seek our advantage, even that we ascribe values to objects instead of our own desires, does little if we lack the social and historical environment that allows us to make sense of the ways in which we do so, and the ways in which we might do so differently.

Spinoza’s thought is not politically irrelevant simply because it is old. Rather, and beyond our historically different conditions, the varying conditions and needs people have when interpreting his work makes the inheritance that can be drawn much more ambivalent than staunchly left-wing intellectual historians may wish to admit. How Spinoza’s principles get practically developed has much more to do with what practitioners bring to the table than the pure principles themselves. While Spinoza’s first principles may be consistent with radical anticapitalism today, they cannot guarantee moving anyone in that direction.

The quickest proof that Spinoza’s starting points aren’t necessarily the best for any revolutionary commitment is the historical record. First, the intellectual and historical promise of Spinoza’s principles have produced a tremendous diversity of developments, only some of which promoted a liberatory agenda. After all, Henry Kissinger, whose violently anticommunist statecraft murdered millions, claimed Spinoza as an intellectual influence no less than Moses Hess and Louis Althusser did.9See Kissinger’s rejection of Machiavellian influence, while claiming Spinoza in The New Republic, Dec. 16, 1972: 21. For Althusser, see in particular “The Only Materialist Tradition, Part 1: Spinoza,” in The New Spinoza, Warren Montag and Ted Stolze, eds. (Minneapolis: Minneapolis University Press, 1997), 3–19. For Hess’s strict Spinozism, see Warren Breckman, Marx, The Young Hegelians, and the Origins of Radical Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 192–95. For a classical account of Althusser’s Spinozism, see Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: New Left Books, 1976).  For a more sensitive and nuanced account stressing Spinoza as a productive “detour” for Althusser, see Peter D. Thomas, “Philosophical Strategies: Althusser and Spinoza,” Historical Materialism 10, no.3 (2002): 71–113. And second, there have been far more nonSpinozistic paths to truly revolutionary struggle than even the diversity of nonradical Spinozisms.

To be clear, this wide diversity in rendering Spinoza practical is not really an argument against his first principles. How they have been taken up and applied in reactionary ways cannot be taken as proof that they are somehow metaphysically untrue. Instead, I am simply arguing that even if metaphysically true, the historical record tells against the practical import of metaphysical truths today. By considering historical developments—and how radicals have and could further shape them—we can find a more reliable guide for developing and orienting radical commitments than metaphysics, and the first principles it articulates.

I am not, however, suggesting that we do away with metaphysics or the intellectual history that tracks such ideas. I am suggesting the more nuanced idea that we uncover whatever practical potentials can be drawn from intellectual history in light of human needs today. This approach is far from a new one. Reading the history of ideas through its relation to changing needs has been taken on board by many.10One early and clear instance is Condillac, A Treatise on Systems, in Philosophical Works of Etienne Bonnot Abbé de Condillac, vol. 1: “Man had needs, and he sought only the means for satisfying them. Only observation could reveal these means. And man observed because he was forced to … Therefore, man observed, that is, he noticed facts related to his needs,” 3. In The Holy Family, Marx and Engels praise Condillac’s materialism as a rejection of seventeenth century metaphysics, see MECW, vol. 4 (1975), 129.

What would such a reading mean for Spinoza and the “radical” Enlightenment? First and foremost, it would mean looking beyond even the different inheritances of Spinoza and recognizing that the radical Enlightenment is neither a single unified system nor a singular line of intellectual development. As a term, “radical Enlightenment” cobbles togethers a very wide range of beliefs and practical effects held by, and moving for, both Spinoza and those that took him up. Considering this breadth, the radicalness of any given set of ideas would need to be tied to the conditions which made it possible for them to be really gripping in their time and place.

As a consequence, it would become clear rather quickly that among the tremendous diversity of thinkers, circles, or positions to which the label, “Enlightenment,” might be attached, there is no straightforward chain of development that connects a single set of principles to what we might think of as a coherently radical politics. Any particular position also seems to find a repudiation. For every Immanuel Kant demanding we have the courage to know ourselves, there is a Jean-Jacques Rousseau denying even the possibility of self-knowledge. On religion, for every rational deist like Voltaire there is a Moses Mendelssohn attempting to square the difference between religion and faith. And when it comes to political power, for every Thomas Hobbes demanding a hyper-centralized sovereign with terrible power, there’s a Montesquieu or John Locke pushing the separation of powers and some liberal protections. For every promoter of imperialism like Francis Bacon, there is a Bartolomé de las Casas or a Denis Diderot condemning it.

Muddying the waters yet further, often the same thinker crossed lines. The conservative Edmund Burke, for instance, criticized imperialism no less than he criticized the radical revolution in France which, of course had its own imperialistic tendencies—often justified as if they were a natural extension of a radical Enlightenment.

And though the ratios are far from one-to-one, when we consider Spinoza’s misogyny, we can at least point to Olympe de Gouges’s declaration of women’s rights. Toussaint L’Ouverture actually attempted universal equality (for men) whereas slave owners like Thomas Jefferson merely mouthed it. Ultimately, those with better politics cannot be understood to have simply inherited more of, or to have adhered more rigorously to, Spinozism. Each thinker’s position and, more importantly, what they did and made doable with their ideas emerged in and through their practical commitments and the struggles they were committed to waging to achieve them.

 

The Possible Force of Ideas

Since the relationship between first principles and practical commitments is never as simple as a connect-the-dots exercise, are we left with nothing but a random, totally disjointed constellation? Are we to entirely deny the force of ideas in our practical engagements with the world? This would be going too far. With a historically sensitive appreciation of given conditions and struggles, we can indeed begin to trace some powerful connections between ideas and radical politics.

As a kind of case study in better methods, we can follow Michael Löwy’s classic exploration of Jewish radicalism.11Michael Löwy, Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe, trans. Hope Heaney (London: Verso Books, 2017). Löwy demonstrated that in the early twentieth century, Jewish messianism’s impulses to reconstitute a free condition combined with newly broadened political, economic, and social horizons. The result was that a certain kind of mysticism—one of the prime candidates for an opposition to the Enlightenment—became the basis for deeply radical commitments. Yet Löwy did not argue that radical commitments flowed directly from this Jewish mysticism.

This “elective affinities” approach can recognize the force of ideas without making ideas themselves the source or cause of any radical struggle. The latter approach would be a form of idealism.

Löwy instead suggested that we explore the “elective affinities” that transform intellectual principles into radical possibilities given local and material histories of their popular emergence. This “elective affinities” approach can recognize the force of ideas without making ideas themselves the source or cause of any radical struggle. The latter approach, for Löwy, would be too simple and too deterministic in its unidirectional pointing from intellectual cause to political effect. It would, in other words, be a form of idealism.12One that Spinoza himself warned against in his Ethics.

Löwy’s notion of elective affinities is far more valuable than the unidirectional idealist alternative. It permits the intellectual historian to track “a rich and meaningful internal relationship between two configurations,” which in turn “allows us to understand the processes of interaction which arise neither from direct causality nor from the ‘expressive’ relationship between form and content.”13Löwy, Redemption and Utopia, 9, 12. By grounding an always evolving set of ideas in their conditions of intellectual emergence and practical application, Löwy’s method enriches and complicates their causal force. Instead of imagining ideas pushing forward with some necessary force, this approach welcomes the more ambiguous but also more productive question: what can ideas help make possible?

If some elements of the Enlightenment can be a potential source of power for the Left today, they would, in this honest but murkier light of possibility, be due to the kinds of feedback mechanisms that would advance social struggle. Only a small subset of ideas is gripping enough to motivate action, and an even smaller subset do so in ways that meaningfully push struggle forward in increasingly radical ways. Before being put to practice, however, it is never entirely clear which ideas can have that kind of positive effect.

One thing is clear however: figuring out how to participate in this unfolding process would almost certainly require more than calling for a return to an ostensible purity of radical principles. In fact, such a call would be quite close to what could be considered a voluntarism of ideas.14To be fair, idealist voluntarism does not preclude revolutionary aims: Karl Heinzen himself was a militant in the 1848 revolution in France. While such a centering of ideas is no doubt tempting for intellectual historians on the Left, it would be better if substituted with the work that allows Löwy’s method to find its grip. Though difficult to develop, we would need to start first with an analysis of contemporary intellectual-composition and use that to ground a strategy responding to existing needs for ideas. Given the predominance of blinkered nationalisms, and the global economy’s early stages of reshaping itself into competing blocs, one can easily see the need for principled internationalism.

Yet even in hand, this kind of social and ideological analysis does nothing to guarantee the radical promise of principles. This is because it is far easier to see what one is against, harder to imagine the precise coordinates that would satisfy existing needs, but impossible to rely on a set of first principles to chart a course between the two. As we have seen with the inheritances of Spinoza himself, there is no single set of metaphysical truths that can provide the golden key to organizing struggle, let alone a communist future. This is because the ability of a set of ideas to advance struggle rests on the extent to which it both has ears for and speaks to broader social needs. This is not a deficit, but par for the course, and though it may seem bleak, it describes a course that is not without hope. Social needs always spark struggles which unavoidably turn their own energies to self-clarifying theoretical ends.

Perhaps paradoxically then, the first principle that can be used to open a radical relation to ideas is that there ought not be any first principles—they are much beside the point. Struggles have a strong tendency to develop their own theoretical self-understandings and justifications, without relying on any a priori determinations or first principles. Principles arrived at prior to or independent of social struggle are little more than lines in the definitional sands, themselves providing no firm basis for radical developments. To insist on putting metaphysical principles first is then to put the cart before the horse. Principles ought to be second because they prove their radical nature only as a result of helping those struggling to make sense of and communicate the center of their commitments.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with tracing ideas that guide struggles back to their deeper roots. And there is certainly nothing wrong with showing that such roots might, if propagated, prove themselves by bearing better fruit. Intellectual history and genealogy can be interesting projects to develop in their own rights. So is speculating about how effective beliefs would be if they were more widely or deeply held. But roots are always growths into a particular soil and a particular climate, both of which are always changing. At any given time and place, conditions are either more or less welcoming for different root systems to generate flourishing growths above the ground. To belabor the metaphor: determining the growth that roots might support requires attention to much more than the internal structure and direction of the root system. It requires greater awareness of an enveloping environment, its structures, and dynamics.

Following this view, the problem with Spinoza and the radical Enlightenment is not that what they produced is murkier than the already muddied waters; the problem is that the emerging power of colonial states and the nascent mercantilist systems comprised a seventeenth century environment nothing like today’s fracturing geopolitical environment with its ever-rightward trending late capitalisms. As Engels put it: “all social and political relations, all religious and legal systems, all theoretical conceptions which arise in the course of history can only be understood if the material conditions of life obtaining during the relevant epoch have been understood and the former are traced back to these material conditions.”15Engels, “Review of Marx’s ‘A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy,’” MECW, vol. 16 (1980), 469. Since the Enlightenment’s ground and conditions—however they are mapped—are so far from our own, the material conditions that made its problematics such live issues are, in almost every instance absent, surpassed, or completely reconfigured today.

The implications of this historic shift are far-reaching, and decisive. The materialisms that threw into question theological conservativism and served as a bulwark for resistance in the economically most advanced areas of pre-capitalist Europe, have largely spent their charge. In The Holy Family Marx and Engels wrote:

the downfall of seventeenth-century metaphysics can be explained by the materialistic theory of the eighteenth century only in so far as this theoretical movement itself is explained by the practical nature of French life at that time. This life was turned to the immediate present, to worldly interests, to the earthly world. Its anti-theological, anti-metaphysical, materialistic practices demanded anti-theological, anti-metaphysical, materialistic theories. Metaphysics had in practice lost all credit.16Marx and Engels, Holy Family, MECW, vol. 4 (1975), 126 (emphasis in original).

This kind of grounding operation is necessary but needs to be done with care. Approached too quickly one risks flattening out and reducing ideas to their immediate historical context. Any historical present is also a sedimentation of its past that is latent with possibilities for an unforetold future. Even Spinoza’s own work, which certainly responded to his immediate context, often did so by resting on a rich historical legacy.17See Warren Montag, “Spinoza and the Materialism of the Letter,” Crisis and Critique 8, no.1 (2021): 178–97, 180.

Spinoza’s ideas can then be weaponized for us today to the extent that there is a shared material ground or abiding subterranean history bridging his time and our own. To avoid being dogmatically idealist, a careful historical and comparative mapping of this ground and its depths must precede the application of any inherited set of ideas. Doing otherwise risks working with metaphysics unmoored from the only basis by which such ideas could be truly intelligible, let alone practically valuable. Intellectual historians on the Left, in other words, need to do more than cheerlead for Spinoza. To render practical results, we need to connect the force of ideas to the roles they play in the practical nature of life.18Not doing so risks repeating the failure that Hegel recognized in his critique of Robespierre: universalizing Enlightenment ideals without any social grounding risks aim-inhibiting, and counterproductive violence. See “Absolute Freedom and Terror” in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), §582ff.

Defenders of a principled Spinozism might object. Is it not the case that the very notion of a materialist conception of history used by Marx, Engels, and so many radicals today has its roots in the radical Enlightenment? Since a materialist method for historical, including intellectual-historical research has principles that can be traced back to radical Enlightenment roots, perhaps this radical Enlightenment is worth singling out, returning to, and rallying around. If a materialist conception of history orienting radical work today is at least one fruit of a highly grafted Enlightenment, why not extend this principle? What would be wrong with inferring the value and force of a progenitor from the value (and hopeful force) of its progeny?

Yet in pursuing this line of thinking we should guard against a common but dangerous logical error. Even though a materialist conception of history is used today, and even admitting that it is moved by a set of commitments with roots that can be traced as far back as Spinoza, we still do not have proof that it is either an expression of or caused by this origin. This is because, as Löwy can help us see, there are at least two different kinds of causation at play. One kind is strict—the causation, some may even hold a jointly metaphysical-political deduction, by which a set of principles engenders something beyond itself. This is the strict causation of logical necessity.

There is, however, another kind of causation. I have in mind the causation appropriate to how a set of ideas both historically emerges and plays some role in further history. After all, ideas do lend support to activity and, in being actualized, ideas themselves often change over time. The first kind of causation prioritizes origins and the way principles logically entail subsequent commitments. This is the strict causation of “one thing necessarily following another.” It is as deterministic as it is unidirectional.19Franco Venturi, Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment (London: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 2–3.

The second kind of causation is shorthand for the dynamics of socially mediated activity, intimately bound to and motivated by the satisfaction of needs. This second kind of causation really cannot be understood through the strict necessity of logic. The most we can point to is the possibility of causal force. This mode of thinking therefore relates to history not as fated or necessary, but as a problem, one that requires practical intervention. Though the historical tasks are no doubt hard, this is just another way of saying there is a possible, though never guaranteed, way that ideas can have material force.

To return to the question of Spinoza and the radical Enlightenment: at its best, historical research can explain the plural Enlightenments’ and their progenies’ diversity. These histories can trace the forces and relations situating metaphysical commitments that produced a range of political positions spanning from revolutionary socialism to ideological cover for extreme, reactionary violence. To make sense of how and why Spinoza could be claimed by Kissinger in one place and by Althusser in another, research would need to be location-specific and focus on the historically evolving and varying pressures on needs and their fulfillment.

In the final analysis there are really only two available options: research flowing from a materialist conception of history, or idealist epistemology.

In the final analysis, there are really only two available options: research flowing from a materialist conception of history, or idealist epistemology. The idealist conceives possibilities as if they are either constant and ahistorical, or deducible through the necessary unfolding of a self-sufficient idea. Indeed, the idealist insistence on Spinoza and the radical Enlightenment varyingly adopts one of those positions. When keyed to either idealism, political thinking cuts itself off from the root of the matter. Its results fail to be broadly gripping, and the most it can do is demand that reality strive towards thought.

The Tasks of the Intellectual Historian

The claim that in themselves Enlightenment principles are impotent for radical politics may seem extreme. But stated plainly, the intellectual and political project of the Left does not justify or receive its title from the likely intellectual-historical cherry-picking that would go into the project of recuperating a radical Enlightenment. Still, and beyond following Marx and Engels in their critical or negative step, and Löwy’s “elective affinities” approach, I want to offer a few more details that can help flesh out a better approach to the problem.

My proposal is that those interested in ideas on the Left measure our own powers, restrain from the understandable desire to claim political force through universally valid first principles, and instead try to better track, galvanize, and respond to actual social needs. After careful self-measurement, I think intellectual historians would be rather well suited to point to timely, meaningful political interventions. They would be able to pinpoint the background conditions of struggle today and could help by showing how similar constellations in the past made certain kinds of ideas more or less effective for revolutionaries. Intellectual historians can also identify struggles that share a common basis, might be better connected through shared aspirations and which could, through joining forces, grow organizational capacity to pursue ever more radical needs.

Tracking radical potencies with an aim to self-clarification, intellectual-historical work could point to the local conditions through which ideas gained some traction, coordinated forces, and achieved a degree of power.20I lean heavily on Hasana Sharp’s excellent account of ideas in Spinoza: “The Force of Ideas in Spinoza,” Political Theory 36, no. 6 (2003): 732–55. This work could trace what needs these ideas responded to, their duration, as well as the changing social grounds from which they grew and reproduced.21Jason Read, for instance, develops some strong parallels between Spinoza’s and Marx’s accounts of our ideological conditions, while both stressing the need for historical specificity and remaining oriented by the primacy of political struggle. See his “Preemptive Strike (of a Philosophical Variety): Marx and Spinoza,” Crisis and Critique 8, no. 1 (2021): 288–305. Some ideas would turn out to be demonstrably valuable for struggle while other ideas (in more than a few instances some of the very same ideas) would, in different conditions, facilitate reactionary, passive, or self-destructive tendencies. At the moment, such work is quite well suited to mark the way revanchist ideas are positioned to connect with needs today. Indeed, excellent work is being done to forewarn against the dangers of red-brown, and downright fascistic ideas today.

But radical intellectual historians are not reduced to warning against repeating historical catastrophes. They can also quite legitimately develop strategic suggestions, slogans, political interventions, and clarifications of what struggle is for. Following the young Marx, it would be wise to identify “with real struggles,” because:

then we shall confront the world not as doctrinaires with a new principle: ‘Here is the truth, bow down before it!’ We develop new principles to the world out of its own principles. We do not say to the world: ‘Stop fighting; your struggle is of no account. We want to shout the true slogan of the struggle at you.’ We only show the world what it is fighting for.22Marx, Letter to A. Ruge, Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 14–15.

Given existing conditions, the radical intellectual historian has one further, important task: to keep the idea of communism alive as both possible and valuable.23In this way, the “idea of communism” can preserve a possibility that, given existing conditions, is not at all co-extensive with the processes of “subjectivation” and “projection into History” which characterize Alain Badiou’s notion of the same. See his essay “The Idea of Communism,” The Idea of Communism, ed. Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Zizek (London: Verso, 2010), 1–15. This is especially pertinent as a rearguard responsibility. It is a labor to be performed when it feels as if too much is lost, when alienation and atomization seem impossible to overcome, and depoliticizing despair is widespread. There are hard circum- stances in which this flame can be kept alive through careful historical thinking more than many other forms of works. Historical work can hold onto diminished possibilities as beacons for the future and as guideposts for hopes that remain to be realized.

When revolution does not seem to be on the horizon, this kind of work can indeed become a bit ideal and abstract. It becomes more so the further revolutionary potencies recede. As a mere possibility of revolution is increasingly divorced from the struggles that might actualize it, intellectual work and historical memory increasingly refine and purify this mere possibility. And this can help us make more sense of why Spinoza and the radical Enlightenment seem so appealing. A decline in revolutionary possibilities increases, for those committed to it, the attractiveness of the idea that the revolution truly is necessary.

Still, Marxist intellectual historians know how to resist this temptation because for us the difference between mere possibility and actuality is never static. Precisely because we deal in the business of how ideas have both already changed and can radically change in the future, we can specialize in a radical version of hope.

At this point, I hope it’s clear that I am not suggesting that past ideas are like dead labor inertly dominating the present and, vampire-like sucking it dry. Far from it. My claim is rather that the force of ideas that proved so powerful in a prior epoch have mutated, transformed, and thus essentially changed in their form and potency. The challenge facing radical intellectual historians today is neither rearticulating Spinoza’s starting points nor using them to demand a return to a radical Enlightenment. It is to search for the conditions and commitments that generate the need for revolutionary ideas despite the fact that, at the moment, there are so few revolutionaries and revolutions capable of actualizing them.

  1. Friedrich Engels, “The Communists and Karl Heinzen,” Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 6 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976) 303–04.
  2. Karl Marx, “Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality. A Contribution to German Cultural History. Contra Karl Heinzen,” MECW, vol. 6, 337.
  3. See for instance, Peter Harrison’s “The Enlightenment of Steven Pinker,” https://www.abc.net.au/religion/the-enlightenment-of-
    steven-pinker/10094966 and Jennifer Szalai’s, “Steven Pinker Wants You to Know Humanity Is Doing Fine. Just Don’t Ask About Individual Humans,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/books/review-enlightenment-now-steven-pinker.html.
  4. See for instance, Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim’s “Steven Pinker: False Friend of the Enlightenment,” https://jacobinmag.com/2018/10/steven-pinker-enlightenment-now-review
  5. Jonathan Israel, The Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  6. See Asad Haider, “The Paradox of Enlightenment,” Viewpoint Magazine, March 13, 2017. 
  7. See Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss’s “Radical Enlightenment 1: Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia,” and “Radical Enlightenment 2: Dialectical Enlightenment,” Against Professional Philosophy,
    https://againstprofphil.org/2017/04/03/radical-enlightenment- 1-aliens-antisemitism-and-academia/ and
    https://againstprofphil.org/2017/04/03/radical-enlightenment- 2-dialectical-enlightenment. More recently, see “Spinoza’s Radical Enlightenment,” the six-part series by Harrison Fluss and Dough Enaa Greene, Leftvoice, July 19, 2020.
  8. Marx, “Introduction to a Contribute to a Critique of Political Economy,” MECW, vol. 28 (1986), 29. 
  9. See Kissinger’s rejection of Machiavellian influence, while claiming Spinoza in The New Republic, Dec. 16, 1972: 21. For Althusser, see in particular “The Only Materialist Tradition, Part 1: Spinoza,” in The New Spinoza, Warren Montag and Ted Stolze, eds. (Minneapolis: Minneapolis University Press, 1997), 3–19. For Hess’s strict Spinozism, see Warren Breckman, Marx, The Young Hegelians, and the Origins of Radical Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 192–95. For a classical account of Althusser’s Spinozism, see Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: New Left Books, 1976).  For a more sensitive and nuanced account stressing Spinoza as a productive “detour” for Althusser, see Peter D. Thomas, “Philosophical Strategies: Althusser and Spinoza,” Historical Materialism 10, no.3 (2002): 71–113.
  10. One early and clear instance is Condillac, A Treatise on Systems, in Philosophical Works of Etienne Bonnot Abbé de Condillac, vol. 1: “Man had needs, and he sought only the means for satisfying them. Only observation could reveal these means. And man observed because he was forced to … Therefore, man observed, that is, he noticed facts related to his needs,” 3. In The Holy Family, Marx and Engels praise Condillac’s materialism as a rejection of seventeenth century metaphysics, see MECW, vol. 4 (1975), 129.
  11. Michael Löwy, Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe, trans. Hope Heaney (London: Verso Books, 2017).
  12. One that Spinoza himself warned against in his Ethics.
  13. Löwy, Redemption and Utopia, 9, 12. 
  14. To be fair, idealist voluntarism does not preclude revolutionary aims: Karl Heinzen himself was a militant in the 1848 revolution in France.
  15. Engels, “Review of Marx’s ‘A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy,’” MECW, vol. 16 (1980), 469.
  16. Marx and Engels, Holy Family, MECW, vol. 4 (1975), 126 (emphasis in original).
  17. See Warren Montag, “Spinoza and the Materialism of the Letter,” Crisis and Critique 8, no.1 (2021): 178–97, 180.
  18. Not doing so risks repeating the failure that Hegel recognized in his critique of Robespierre: universalizing Enlightenment ideals without any social grounding risks aim-inhibiting, and counterproductive violence. See “Absolute Freedom and Terror” in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), §582ff.
  19. Franco Venturi, Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment (London: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 2–3.
  20. I lean heavily on Hasana Sharp’s excellent account of ideas in Spinoza: “The Force of Ideas in Spinoza,” Political Theory 36, no. 6 (2003): 732–55.
  21. Jason Read, for instance, develops some strong parallels between Spinoza’s and Marx’s accounts of our ideological conditions, while both stressing the need for historical specificity and remaining oriented by the primacy of political struggle. See his “Preemptive Strike (of a Philosophical Variety): Marx and Spinoza,” Crisis and Critique 8, no. 1 (2021): 288–305.
  22. Marx, Letter to A. Ruge, Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 14–15.
  23. In this way, the “idea of communism” can preserve a possibility that, given existing conditions, is not at all co-extensive with the processes of “subjectivation” and “projection into History” which characterize Alain Badiou’s notion of the same. See his essay “The Idea of Communism,” The Idea of Communism, ed. Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Zizek (London: Verso, 2010), 1–15.
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