As I read this article, I realised that it reminded me of a certain contemporary figure:
Few thinkers savaged Europe’s faith in progress with the ferocity of Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought that anything called ‘progress’ was a mere illusion – if there was even such a thing, he suggested, its flowering could only give way to dissolution. Nietzsche’s ideas were carried into the 20th century by Oswald Spengler, whose book The Decline of the West became the ur-text of declinism in the 1920s. About history, Spengler concluded: "I see no progress, no goal no path for humanity." Spengler’s pessimism squared nicely with the gloomy mood of Europe after the First World War. If his book appears now as a curious artefact of its time, it helped to establish a template of decline – and a rhetoric to evoke its inevitability – that endures today, a kind of civilisational pessimism that exists at all points among the ideological spectrum; the declinists of the left and right obsess over very different threats, but the essential dynamic transcends politics."
If the current recession can be described as a counterpart to the great depression, it’s hardly surprising that writers might respond to the times in a similar fashion to what is described above, which was why I found myself wondering whether John Gray might not count as our modern Spengler. Gray is in many ways the perfect embodiment of the spirit of our times; a self-styled contrarian whose arguments actually reflect an essentially mainstream view. Having had to live under a ‘third way’ government without any idea of political narrative and whose pragmatic approach to government resulted in little more than inconsistency, I do grow slightly weary of Gray tilting at windmills of Enlightenment political thinking. There were a couple of reasons why Gray came to mind when I read the above piece, of which this and this were the first:
Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to "Enlightenment values"."
There’s a great deal I agree with here, such as insistence that communism as an ideology was responsible for the crimes committed under it rather than any abuse of the political theory by its practitioners. Nonetheless, there are two particular aspects of the above that particularly irk me. Firstly, while Gray is certainly correct that communist denialists tend to exculpate their ideology by claiming the cultural revolution as an aberration, he comes quite close to some of Marx’s tactics in that last paragraph, suggesting that objections to his ideas represent a covert proof of them. Popper disdained that sort of circular argument in Freud and Marx and would doubtless take a similar view of the above. Even without that, it seems a little disingenuous to cite communism as an Enlightenment project without mentioning that the ideas of pluralism and democracy that opposed it had the same pedigree; those ideas being the ones that provide the normative basis against which Gray himself can critique Kant for racism or Comte for conservatism. More pressingly, it’s doubtful that the opponents that Gray is addressing here really exist in any meaningful form; believers in a Marxist or Hegelian conception of progress as a form of historical inevitability must be few and far between. His references to the Euston Manifesto ignore the problem that its signatories were a relatively small group without substantial influence; had they or like-minded individuals not existed recent historical events would have run exactly the same course. For all their references to democracy, it somewhat strains credulity to take the view that the political elites that instigated the Iraq war were especially motivated by ideals of progress rather than by religious faith or simple expediency. Certainly, if that was the case it left precious little trace on the domestic policies of either the British or American governments of that time.
While I tend to agree with Gray on the role of politics as a means of facilitating the co-existence of different groups and ideologies, the denial of any meliorist trend in politics is an essentially conservative or Hobbesian worldview. Susan Nieman’s recent articles make this point rather well:
As the figure whose work not only went beyond the static dualisms of German idealism, but sustained the left for many years, Karl Marx cannot but haunt a reading of a work like Moral Clarity. For he, above all others – including Hegel – sought to go beyond the ossified opposition of the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, by grasping reality as a process in which subject and object form a contradictory unity, in which the ‘ought’ inheres within the ‘is’. Where a dualistic perspective might render the conflicts of society as wrongs to be judged as such, Marx was able to grasp them as wrongs produced – and produced not by the labour of the concept, as with Hegel, but by the labour that produces not just use-values, but exchange value, too; that is, alienating labour, wage-labour. There was not simply a moral reason, there was also an actual reason, an actual possibility to change the world as it is.
In a sense, then, the collapse of not just the ideals but of the political movement underpinning Marx’s revolutionary perspective does seem to return us to a dualistic moment, a historical point in which the social world confronts a solitary individual. So does the dualism of Moral Clarity reflect the contemporary impasse? Neiman is resolute. The direction that Marx and Hegel took, she says, showed an impatience, a desire to force the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ to coincide. That Hegel’s absolute idealism led him rightwards, to make the ‘real rational’, and Marx’s materialism leftwards, is neither here nor there. Both sought to identify how things ought to be with necessity, whether historical or economic. Kantian idealism, however, is, as Neiman tells me, a grown-up idealism. It resists the violent utopianism of youth, but also the cynicism of youthful dreams disappointed. ‘You live with the dualism’, she says. ‘You always keep your eye on your actions and how you want the world to be. But you also need to be bound to a recognition, especially in political life, to the way that things are.’ … Neiman at her Kantian best does not diminish but rather defends the autonomy of the moral subject. It is all about growing up for Neiman, about teaching people to use their judgment, their reason: ‘The Enlightenment gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it.’"