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Political Philosophy

Marx and the Two Enlightenments

James Daly
The Queen's University of Belfast

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ABSTRACT: The claim to rationality is disputed by two rival enlightenments, which collided in the dispute between Plato, Socrates and the Sophists, and which Marx united critically. He criticizes the capitalist system immanently as restrictive of production, and its market as not a case of freedom or equality (justice). However, Marx is most concerned with ontological injustice, coerced alienation of the human into being a commodity. He retains Promethean Enlightenment values however: technology, creativity, democracy, which should be economic, participatory and international. Marx criticized Hegel’s rationalization, idealization, ‘transfiguration and glorification’ of private property and the market. But he retains key elements of the idealist notion of human nature: that human is a ‘universal, therefore free being.’ The proletariat, with no other class to exploit, is therefore the philosophical ‘universal class.’ Freedom is class emancipation, justice is common ownership. There is an unwarranted skepticism about the rationality of such values and ideals. Rawls for instance misrepresents them by putting them in the same category as wants or preferences. Ideals, values, and enlightenments can and should be rationally argued over, in dialogue.

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The Sophistic and the Platonic Enlightenments

The claim to rationality is disputed by two rival enlightenments. They collided in the dispute between Plato’s Socrates and the Sophists. On the one side was a secular, Promethean, in principle a-moral enlightenment in the technology of means to the ends of individual survival, pleasure and power, with an instrumental view of politics. On the other was a religiously oriented enlightenment about the dialectical ascent to moral and spiritual dimensions of reality. The first returned in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In my opinion Hegel’s idealist response failed to criticise or transcend it; that task was completed by Marx.

Marx’s thought could be seen as a critical appropriation of both the modern secular enlightenment, concerned with economic ‘Man’, and the dialectical enlightenment concerned with the spiritual element in the human being traditionally seen as shared with the divine, ‘Mind’. Subsequent Marxism has almost invariably defined itself as the final development of ‘the (unique) Enlightenment’. But Marx’s acknowledged debt to Aristotle, for instance, is becoming ever clearer. Habermas has defined as ‘an irreversible achievement of modernity’ the separation of morality, politics and economics. But Marx attacked that position in ‘On the Jewish Question’ as the very essence of what was wrong with bourgeois society. He defended Aristotle’s principle, that the human being is a zoon politikon by nature. He held a non-hedonist, non-agonistic concept of human nature as did Plato in opposition to the Sophists’ reductionism. He invoked old and new ideals together in the phrase ‘the nobility of man’ shining forth from the toil-worn bodies of the French communist workers.

The Sophists claimed that laws are man-made, to further individuals’ interests in survival and pleasure. They also claimed that there was no rational necessity for one person to be a slave and another a property owner, but simply human will expressed in conventions. By nature, (i.e. in terms of pure reason, without the arbitrary interference of will) all human beings are free and equal. This thinking away of will and convention to arrive at the possibility of universal thought grounding freedom and equality was an epoch-making philosophical turn. The Socratic/ Platonic/Aristotelian tradition’s response was a justification of laws by universal reason defining the natural good of natural kinds, such as the human, and challenging the Sophists’ conceptions of freedom and equality. This eventually developed into the Stoic theory of the law of nature, and later into the natural law theory as it was developed by Aquinas.

For the Sophists convention was a necessary renunciation of the infliction of harm, in the hope that in return one would not be harmed oneself. In this Hobbesian form it recurred in the seventeenth century, grounding the Enlightenment value of freedom as the ability without hindrance from others to pursue one’s pleasure. The other Enlightenment value, equality, was taken as meaning that no one had a greater right to control of resources than anyone else, and that in that area decisions would be a matter for war, unless the belligerents adopted more enlightened means, political bargaining. The outcome of that would be firstly the equality of formal, procedural, abstract universality—impartiality, equality under the law, fairness, like cases to be treated alike, as in Bentham’s ‘everyone to count for one and nobody for more than one’—and secondly, the equality of (fair) exchange, quid pro quo, which is also the measure of justice as desert.

The antithetical Platonic enlightenment identified the real with the rational, and the rational with the natural, the right, the proper and the due, the just, what ought to be. The nature of any being, for instance the human, is grasped only in a fully adequate, rich dialectical teleological concept. Freedom is the power to govern oneself by reason. For most in this tradition, justice as equality meant that all resources should belong equally to everyone as part of the community. For this tradition, philosophy is a spiritual way of life, an orientation to the infinitude of mind. It is a necessary human good which it is the moral and political responsibility of philosophical rulers to see that each member of the community shares in, according to ability, if only by being enabled to live according to laws which recreate the original ideal pattern. Ananke, crisis, may force the philosophers to take over government of the city; but they will do this by radically changing the community’s orientation, not by continuing in the instrumentally rational, pleasure/power-oriented politics which led to the crisis. Marx has a significantly similar approach to the need for a purifying change of heart, getting rid of the selfish ‘muck of ages’, if the proletarian revolution is to succeed.


The Anglo-French enlightenment which is the main driving force behind modern morality, economics, and politics replaced such newly-named ‘obscurantism’ with its enlightenment; empiricism, hedonism, the analytic method, and a mechanistic, causal-explanatory concept of science (knowledge) modelled, as was thought philosophically necessary, on Galilean physics —even, in the extreme case, reduced to it. The result was a position very like the Sophists’. For such scientism, reason is instrumental to desire or pleasure; ‘ought’ cannot (as it can in the Aristotelian concept of nature) be derived from ‘is’. The way to this had been prepared by Ockham. He rejected the Thomist theory of the rationality of the natural moral law and of the subjection of all human to natural law, and replaced it with the arbitrary will of God. This wide-spread position was later strengthened by the divorce of fact and value, of nature and reason, resulting from the Cartesian theory of nature as mechanism divorced from mind, without the traditional intermediate biological dimension.

In the Anglo-French ideology-critique the mechanism of an alleged measurable sensation of pleasure became the source of a new morality and politics. Laws had hitherto been the conspiracy of priests and kings to deceive and control ‘man’. There was no such thing as their pretended organic community, only a collection of individuals each mechanically determined by his or her own pleasure. In a claim to universality, ‘man’ must therefore be liberated to follow the laws of nature and reason, mainly the market. There the profit-seeking of rationally and fairly competing hedonistic egoists would ensure the only natural and rational human good, the greatest pleasure of the greatest number. Here ‘rationally’ means, in Hume’s thermodynamic metaphor, coolly calculating one’s interests, not being carried away by unprofitable heated passions. That however not only demotes reason, but raises selfish desires to a plane from which they had formerly been excluded; ‘the rational’ had been taken hitherto to mean the spiritual, and ‘the passions’ had included desires for the pleasant or the useful, however ‘cool’ they might be.

The mechanical view of nature entailed that the given is not the will of God, and ‘man’is freed to dominate and direct nature according to his will and pleasure, by his labour. The political and social are also to be mechanically understood and controlled. Pleasures are events in nature, morally neutral. The government’s task is a social engineering one; so to organise pleasure-seekers’ behaviour as to ensure that as many desires for pleasure as possible are fulfilled. The market, which is an exchange of pleasures, is a paradigm case of freedom and justice (or equality), the expression of economic ‘man’s’ will. ‘Man’ is pre- and a-social, (a condition graphically illustrated nowadays by the independent position of mobile global capital relative to any given state). Each individual is free and equal and competitive with others for pleasure, property in resources, and power. The idea of common ownership as natural and rational is rejected; even the traditional idea of ‘the common good’ as being required by the infinitude of reason is rejected in favour of finite, measurable utility.

Beginning with Rousseau, the religiously oriented romantic protest against this system was an element in German Idealism. Yet in Hegel that philosophy became the German version of the Whig interpretation of history, an accommodation to the modern bourgeois enlightenment. In strict accordance with his own conception of reason and of philosophy, Hegel’s thought must be its own self-interpretation by ‘a form of life grown old’—in fact, the principles of the Lutheran revolution in Christianity. The basis of Hegel’s philosophy of right was the security of the individual property-owner, in a community of individualists. It was an idyllic patrician burgher version of secular modernity, supervised by an aristocratic bureaucracy, and Hegel had no answer to the growing problem of incorporating the ‘rabble’ of propertyless proletarians in the emerging free capitalist market.

Marx Unites the Two Enlightenments Critically

Marx criticises Promethean justifications of the bourgeois mode of production, as not being Promethean enough. Its ethos, production for production’s sake, is indeed a potential source of true human wealth. But in actual fact the economic system, the need of money to buy, and of profit to sell, is restrictive of production, for instance in recessions and depressions due to unprofitability.

The bourgeoisie also justifies its markets (MCM’ and MM’) as the abolition of slavery and the means of attaining the chief enlightenment values, freedom and equality. But despite deceptive appearances, it is a new form of the age-old extraction of surplus labour, namely wage-slavery. It is not a case of the liberals’ ‘freedom, with equal freedom for others’. In its surface appearance it is that formally; the commodities labour-power and wages are freely and equivalently (in ideological terms ‘fairly’) exchanged. But labour-power is a unique commodity. It is used as labour, to create more value (money-wealth) than its own value (the subsistence wage required to reproduce it). The surplus is the property of the buyer,—and hence legitimate user—of the commodity, namely the capitalist, to be appropriated as profit, interest and rent. The labourer receives in wages the equivalent of the value produced by half of his day’s labour, which can therefore be considered paid. The other half is unpaid—and that exploitation is unavoidably coerced by the mode of production as a totality. It follows that the system is also not the liberals’ ‘freedom, but not to harm others’, since the capitalist is free precisely to exploit. Freedom, even for workers, to hold antinomian opinions can, however, be tolerated; significantly, agreement on ideals is unnecessary, since market discipline is sufficient for social control; while relativistically agreeing to differ over ideals helps baffle criticism.

The capitalist mode of production is also, as we have seen, not a case of equality (justice). In terms of distributive justice there is not equality of access to resources (means of production). Some have capital with which to exploit, others only labour-power with which to be exploited. That primary distribution also determines the secondary distribution, that of income: the capitalists get profit, interest and rent, the labourer wages. That form of distribution of income is also the reproduction of the exploitative capitalist relations of production; surplus value is appropriated as profit, and returns as capital to further exploit the labourer. Finally, since today’s wages come from yesterday’s profit, the worker in the final analysis works, not for an exchange of wages, but for nothing. This is nihil pro quo, the maximum of commutative injustice, of inequality of ‘exchange’.

However, Marx rises above narrow individualistic and moralistic concerns about injustice in piecemeal remuneration.. He is concerned with the ontological injustice of the system: the denial of humanity; the coerced alienation of human essential life-activity into becoming a commodity, competing with machines and other commodities; the deliberate prevention of a system of production for each other, one ‘worthy of their human nature’ (Capital III).

But Marx retains basic Promethean values: technology, creativity, change, including self-change, democracy. For Marx, however, democracy confined to a political sphere is a diversion from the real democracy of ownership and control of economic resources, which would need to be both participatory (at least delegational) and international—the unity of the living human race for-itself, not of an abstract undifferentiated ‘man’. He retains Feuerbach’s rejection as alienation of the projection of all human excellences on to God, and the treatment of ‘man’ as a ‘degraded, abandoned, contemptible being’, dependent on the arbitrary will of a tyrannical God. That however is by no means a universal religious or Christian ideal: according to Feuerbach, who claims his philosophy is ‘true religion’, the essence of Christianity is love.

Marx also criticised idealism but in some very particular ways. Idealism means, in its Platonic sense, judging imperfect empirical reality critically in the light of ideals, essences which are really real. The idealism Marx criticised was the exact opposite of that. It was Hegel’s rationalisation, idealisation, ‘transfiguration and glorification’ of empirical bourgeois ‘man’ and the world he had created, private property and the market. It also included the insistence on ‘self-consciousness’, the return of the intellectual I to the I. Feuerbach had criticised this and replaced it as the spiritual ideal with the love of the sensuous I for the Thou. Against both Cartesian distortions, the abstract materialism of Hobbesian, Benthamite man, and the abstract idealism of the I, with its Cartesian, Kantian, Stirnerian (later Sartrian) absolute freedom, Marx argued the other enlightenment position—what he called ‘materialism’, namely recognition of the causal influence (not determinism) of the environment (in Marx’s case principally class) on behaviour and thought. This does not rule out free-will (for instance that of the businessman Engels) in the sense of Aristotelian voluntariness, nor the criteria of validity for thought, or science.

But Marx retains key elements of the notion of human nature in the Platonic-Aristotelian idealist enlightenment. ‘Man’ is a ‘universal, therefore free being’, ‘understanding things according to the laws of their species’, and ‘creating according to the laws of beauty’. Whereas hitherto the pretended universality of reason had been distorted owing to the exploitative nature of class, the propertyless proletariat had no other class to exploit, and so could genuinely be the ‘universal class’ and attain pure rationality, free of ideology. Marx’s notions of the freedom and justice that the proletarian revolution of classlessness would bring about are basically those of the dialectical or idealist tradition updated to the modern world. Rational or positive freedom would be class emancipation, classless production, self-realisation (self-creation, though not ex nihilo), authenticity; there would no longer be any domination (rule by the stronger). Justice (obviously in both enlightenments closely intertwined with freedom as jointly the opposite of slavery) would be common ownership and control of resources, production for the common good according to ability, distribution according to need rationally and democratically agreed in institutionally encouraged good will; with the maximum of freedom within those limits, and an ever widening choice of goods and values—a perfectionist pluralism.

Conclusion: The Possibility of Perfectionism

Marx’s chief value, humanism, is participation in creative loving production. ‘Supposing we had produced in a human manner .... I would have realised that I am confirmed both in your thought and in your love’. Habermas’s settling for justice as abstract proceduralism, which explicitly rejects Marx’s perfectionist project, is motivated by an unwarranted scepticism about the rationality of such a value. The difficulties inherent in rational decisions about values are often exaggerated into claims of intrinsic general undecidability as in Satre’s famous case of the young Frenchman who had to choose between the resistance and caring for his mother; the preoccupation with hard cases also diverts attention from the wide agreements between values. The same scepticism led Isaiah Berlin to his unnecessary dichotomisation of liberty, and to the—again unnecessary—association of his notorious ‘positive’ freedom with totalitarianism, and thence to the option for the cold-war view that ‘negative’ freedom is the only freedom. Habermas, in somewhat parochial defence of Germany’s post-war American-style democracy, is too uncritical of the claim that anti-perfectionism and a ‘thin’ theory of the good are its necessary base and also that of liberalism; they are not found, for instance, even in John Stuart Mill, whose Benthanism was moderated by the idealism of Coleridge.

The justified concern with the liberal good of what Joseph Raz calls ‘personal autonomy’ does not require retreat to a politics which is basically one of Hobbesian confrontation. That is the posture of threatened war over ‘scarce resources’, not of the humanist enterprise of seeking the most ideal ideal. Disagreement over hard cases should not be allowed to engender bad laws. The view of the human good as pleasure, and ideals as pure loss, might arguably be best served by the market and majority voting. But Rawls argues that we must take a democratic approach also to ideals. This is surely to misrepresent ideals, putting them in the same category as preferences. That practice was encouraged by Hume’s calling them felt ‘sentiments’, but begun by Hobbes’s levelling ’whatever each man desires, that is it which he for his part calleth good’. That fundamental Enlightenment claim is factually false: human beings would not survive if they did not distinguish the pleasant from the good, the coating from the pill. MacIntyre’s ’Enlightenment project’ has been the impossible attempt to derive the good from the selfish pleasant, reason from will. Ideal differences, even the hardest cases such as those over the justice of the caste-system, are differences within the spiritual. Ideals and values such as nobility—or enlightenment—make claims to truth and goodness which must be verified not more geometrico, but by theoretical and practical reasoning, in dialogue. Otherwise they will be decided by war, or by the continuation of war in the economic or political market, contrary to their nature.

It should no longer be possible after Auschwicz to seriously consider arguments for relativism and ‘anti-perfectionism’ which depend for their validity on considering genocide as a possible human value. Inheritors of ‘the’ Enlightenment should not use such a Hobbesian concept of rationality against ‘perfectionist’ theories of rationality, of which Marx’s—as an inheritor of both enlightenments—was undoubtedly one.

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