Not So Fast: Why the Enlightenment is Still a Foundation for Working-Class Liberation


Why should you care about a bunch of dead white guys?

To pull some lyrics from Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World, the Yankee working class “don’t know much about history, don’t know much about geography”. So why would they care at all about an intellectual movement that began 300 years ago in a country notorious for not liking Americans? This article attempts to answer this question.

I have a Facebook friend who is a mutualist, Will Schnack, who was posting about this topic recently, so I asked him to write an article on it. The article was longer than our site can accommodate and covered areas that, while very interesting to me, would likely be beyond the interest of the educated lay person. I have selected the most pertinent parts to share with you. I have added my own commentary from my knowledge of the Enlightenment which will support Will’s article.  I’ve also created a table to give you the big picture. Direct quotes from Will’s article will be in italics. Will’s article, Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment: Modernism, Postmodernism can be read in its entirety by clicking on the link.

What is the Enlightenment?

Beginning around 1715 and lasting for about a hundred years, there arose an intellectual movement in Europe, which began in Holland, then centered in France. It aimed to synthesize the fruits of the hard sciences and apply those lessons to the study of human history, human societies, human psychology and the arts. The 18th century had seen the beginnings of a science of history at the same time Europe was learning more about the variety of societies that existed around the world through its own colonial exploitation of these societies. Enlightenment philosophers hoped that these disciplines would find their own Galileos, Keplers and Newtons.

What the Enlightenment was instrumental in producing was a picture of humans evolving over time: from ignorance to knowledge; from superstition to reason; from instinct to education; from tyranny to republicanism. The philosophers of the Enlightenment confidently argued that humanity was gradually improving and given enough time, the light of reason would envelop the world. We would no longer need heaven in the afterlife because we could slowly build heaven right here on Earth. The overall direction of this movement was characterized as “progress”.

By the 19th century, the process of industrialization, the Civil War in Yankeedom, the Gilded Age, labor strikes, social Darwinism and imperialism and an unstable capitalist economy closed out the 19th century. Are human societies really progressing? Maybe not. In the 20th century, the hopes of the Enlightenment were pounded again by World War I, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism, the world depression and then World War II. By the end of World War II, there was no longer a universal evolving sense of social evolution changing for the better. The pocket of hope for progress which remained for 20 years was the in United States between 1950 to 1970, and then in the socialist countries.

Meanwhile, in the West a New Left movement developed by the mid 1950s which did not identify with socialist countries. It rejected theories of progress, the importance of understanding the capitalist economy and the centrality of the working class in any revolutionary process. Gradually cultural movements like the Frankfurt School began to cast doubt on the value of science and attempted to give psychological explanations as to why the working class didn’t rebel in the West, as Marx and Engels had predicted. This was followed by a revolution in language studies. Language theories based on structuralism and post-structuralism fetishized language and assumed that changing the vocabulary of social classes would shake the foundations of capitalist society. This culminated in a movement called “postmodernism”. Postmodernism is what any working-class student lucky enough to get into an undergraduate program in a state university today has to deal with: obscure language, a politically correct police force led by professors and graduate students who have spent all, or most of their lives at the university.

Purpose of the article

The purpose of this article is to show that most of the postmodern criticism of the Enlightenment deals with only one part of the spectrum of the Enlightenment, the Moderate Enlightenment. There was also a Radical Enlightenment which most postmodernism ignores. This Radical Enlightenment is well worth preserving as an inspiration for working-class people.

The Radical Enlightenment

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, historians such as Margaret C. Jacob and Jonathan Israel, following scholars such as Isaiah Berlin have dissected the Enlightenment into Radical Enlightenment and Moderate Enlightenment and Counter-enlightenment factions.

The Moderate Enlightenment was the Enlightenment that we were all  familiarized with growing up, that was responsible for the American Revolution, and those that followed. This is the Enlightenment of Montesquieu, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. This Enlightenment, which had produced the oligarchic republics that we are familiar with today, had actually followed in the wake of a much more Radical Enlightenment that had pursued not only republicanism, but popular democracy, freedom of speech and religious tolerance, and so on.

It was this Radical Enlightenment (which had preceded and influenced the more aristocratic-styled Moderate Enlightenment) that is associated with core Enlightenment ideals with freethinking and heresy and democratic republicanism etc. by historians such as Jacob and Israel. This Radical Enlightenment is now being used by thinkers such as Jonathan Israel in the defense of the Enlightenment from more recent postmodern philosophy.

Whereas the Moderate Enlightenment had been largely informed by Protestantism and a mechanistic deism, the Radical Enlightenment had been about heretical organicist pantheism.

Nicholas of Cusa

The Enlightenment had followed after the introduction of modern (but not modern era) philosophy and the arrival of the Scientific Revolution. Perhaps the first modern philosopher, leading up to the Enlightenment, is the pantheist cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa, whose geometric logic had suggested that the more knowledge we can attain about existence the closer our approximation to God will be. God was, to Cusa, all that is, and so, to know God, we must know the natural world.  This would encourage a scientific reasoning that would culminate in the Scientific Revolution.


The Scientific Revolution followed after the Renaissance and proto- or Radical Reformation, had included pantheists such as Eriugena, Amalric of Bena, and David of Dinant, and Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, pantheists who adopted neo-Platonic and Hermetic beliefs about matter being infused with spirit.

The Cathars and the Hussites would come to represent leveling spiritual aspirations where mystical experience can be had without ecclesiastical chaperones.

 The pantheist Giordano Bruno would carry on the scientific pursuit of knowledge in his alchemical-magical practices, meanwhile proposing that the Universe was vast and infinitely filled with suns like our own, with planets like our own, having sentient beings on them like ours does. For his heresies he would burn at the stake.

Radical pantheists

Baruch Spinoza, Gerrard Winstanley and his Diggers, the Ranters, and John Toland would be among groups to carry on this radical pantheism that was often associated with propertied peasants, communal movements, and democratic republicanism, from the Scientific Revolution on into the Enlightenment.

This is where the Enlightenment and modernity ultimately come from, a long line of pantheistic reasoning informed by religion but grounded in natural philosophy. Jonathan Israel suggests, and to a limit I agree, that it was really Spinoza’s philosophy at the heart of the transition from the Scientific Revolution to the Enlightenment focus on politics. And this makes the Radical Enlightenment the first among all of the factions of the early modern time period to come to fruition. The repression of scientific advancement and the deeming heretical of new insights on religion had created much demand for a change in politics, a change that would allow for greater degrees of freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of association, as well as positive freedoms such as the freedom to participate in deliberation and democratic process, and sometimes to claim common access to property, especially natural resources like land. The political views of Spinoza, backed by rigorous and rational metaphysics, encapsulated all of these concerns, and provided a logical argument for how to eradicate monarchy and aristocratic rule. So, the Radical Enlightenment, foundations. Of the Enlightenment, moderates watered it down….

Spinoza as a working-class hero

Baruch or “Blessed” Spinoza had been born into a Sephardic Jewish family that had been crypto-Jews amidst religious repression in their home of Portugal. While living in Amsterdam during the Dutch Republic and the relative tolerance that persisted there, Baruch Spinoza’s books would be banned and burned by the Dutch authorities. He’d also be excommunicated by Jewish religious authority and his books were added to the Catholic Church’s list of forbidden books. The memory of Giordano Bruno was not so distant at this time, so Spinoza is perhaps lucky to have stayed alive!

 Spinoza’s philosophy was a rich compilation of rational mysticism, humanistic theology, moral philosophy, social psychology, naturalism, and political thought, and that probably does not cover all of it. According to Spinoza, God is Nature, the Bible contains the self-fulfilling prophecies of rulers, might makes right, we can find solace in accepting necessity, and mutuality is the source of political power. Like Nicholas of Cusa, Spinoza stressed that we should come to know as much as we can about God, which he identified with Nature. Spinoza believed that by coming to know the reasons for the hardships we face, by knowing our hardships as a part of God’s perfect necessity, that we can come to a Stoic abolition of our “passions” (strong emotions), become virtuous, and to have peace of mind, called blessedness. As we can never fully be free of our passions, Spinoza suggests we put our efforts to resolving the problems in our life in rational, loving ways. He was a democrat, with a small “d,” and a proto-Georgist who believed monarchy, aristocracy, and feudalism to rest on the ignorance and superstition of “the multitude,” those who have not succumbed yet to the force of reason. Spinoza’s manner of fighting this was the promotion of a clandestine democratic revolution, wherein collective reason pursued in deliberation and majority-rule would produce greater truths than those of individual humans.

Spinoza has been noted for a favorable disposition in the memory of his peers, and for having turned down prestigious university teaching positions in order to continue in his trade as a glass grinder, or oculist. Ocular science had long been entangled with the occult, perhaps since the time of Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics was passed around during the Islamic Golden Age, and ocular science was or would become an important avenue for clandestine Enlightenment of Spinoza’s time.  He probably had important and unspoken reasons to stay in the trade. Spinoza died at a relatively young age, however, said to be due to lung issues from breathing the glass particles in his profession.


Gerrard Winstanley, a contemporary of Spinoza’s, similarly held a pantheist worldview and republican political beliefs. Like the Stedinger— peasants who had homesteaded the swamps—, but perhaps more communally, Winstanley had led a group called the Diggers or the True Levelers to homestead—by means of squatting the enclosures— unused land for a commune of their own, an effort to restore the commons. His inspiration went as far back as the Peasant’s Revolt of Wat Tyler and John Ball. After the destruction of his commune by authorities, Winstanley retreated, but would continue to push for land reform, eventually joining the Friends (or Quaker) cause. Winstanley’s legacy would go on to influence other land reform radicals, likely including Thomas Spence and the famed Thomas Paine, though they would not join him in his communism.

Winstanley had connections to the very radical textile industry. This is important because it was in the textile industry that heresy, science, and radicalism had become especially connected, in part because of the influence of the Silk Road, but also because of the rapid changes that early industrial capitalism would bring about, with the textile industry especially affected. Surrounding the textile industry had been the Beguines and Beghards; many participants in Lollardy, the Waldensians, and the Hussites; and the Luddites, who’d taken to sabotaging the textile mills and factories. Abolitionism (of chattel slavery) would become especially strong among textile workers, who saw slave labor in America and elsewhere as competition that was driving their wages down while also being morally repugnant to their sentiments of freedom. Winstanley had been a tailor in a guild, and so had participated in this industry, likely becoming well-aware of the heresies saturating it. This same industry would also inspire utopian socialist, Robert Owen, to establish the modern cooperative movement.

John Toland

John Toland was a Spinozan radical who was the first to receive the label of “freethinker.” He is, perhaps, the first professional revolutionary as well. Believing in an organic geology, his philosophy suggested a living Earth in the spirit of Gaia. A republican and classical liberal, he opposed political and religious hierarchy and upheld the values of freedom, perhaps the first to support equal rights for Jews and their full participation in the body politic….

Diderot, d’Holbach and Helvetius

Richard Price, Joseph Priestly, Helvetius, the Baron d’Holbach, Diderot and Condorcet, were also foundation members, representatives of the Radical Enlightenment. They are characterized by various degrees of organicism in relation to nature, necessitarianism, substance monism, democratic reform, and Egalitarianism. Diderot, d’Holbach and Helvetius were great materialists and atheists. They hated the clergy and blamed “priest-craft” for the masses’ superstition. D’Holbach and Helvetius were determinists, denied free will and believed in public education as a way to reform society. They believed that human beings were not evil. We have universal needs, desires and simply the hope of avoiding pain and gaining pleasure.

Materialism, the masses and pantheism

Many years ago, Stephen Toulmin, in his book The Architecture of Matter pointed out there was a relationship between the attitude toward matter and the attitude toward the masses. In the 17th century mechanical materialists thought of matter as passive and needing an external push from the mechanical watchmaker, the deity. At the same time, masses of people were thought of as passive and incapable of managing social life without divine kings. One of the first to challenge this passive notion of matter was Julien la Mettrie who argued that matter was alive and self-organizing. Not soon after, the French Revolution showed that artisans and peasants were not just passive lumps of clay in the hands of kings, aristocrats and popes.

At the same time, there is a relationship between whether sacred sources are singular or plural and whether they are immanent or transcendental. Pantheism says that sacred sources are infinitely plural and are right here on earth. Transcendentalism argues that the sacred sources are singular and outside the world. It is no accident that those in the Radical Enlightenment championed pantheism and immanence because they were on the verge of supporting the democratic movement of masses of people. The transcendental god, on the other hand, sucks dry all power on earth and takes it to the beyond, hogging all power to itself. Transcendentalism as far back as back to Plato sees the material world as either less than or degraded compared to the stuck-up spirit in the sky. Transcendentalism is a spiritual projection of the rule of divine kings. Immanence and pantheism are projections of the masses of people’s collective creativity.

Where postmodernism misses the boat

Overall, it was the Radical Enlightenment that started the ball rolling. However, the Moderate Enlightenment that would win out and this is the Enlightenment that postmodernists criticize.

But defenders of Radical Enlightenment like Israel, suggest that postmodernist criticisms do not apply as easily to Radical Enlightenment participants, as to those of the more aristocratic-minded Moderate Enlightenment, which had had a decided role in giving direction to our modern societies. In other words, defenders of the Radical Enlightenment argue that modernity, as inherited from the Moderate Enlightenment, is not the entire picture of Enlightenment. There is an Enlightenment that is egalitarian, abolitionist, feminist, sexually-tolerant, and democratic, too. That was the Radical Enlightenment, which Israel also calls the “Democratic Enlightenment.” This Radical Enlightenment is not the one that gave rise to oligarchy, allowed for slavery, and produced corporatism, but something different. It gave rise to modernism.

Socialism as part of the Radical Enlightenment

Jonathan Israel excludes socialists from the radical Enlightenment but Margaret Jacob in her book Radical Enlightenmentthinks otherwise. Will Schnack says this tradition has plenty of room for libertarian socialists. The first philosophical anarchist William Godwin, in the cooperativist tradition of Owen and Fourier, Proudhon and the mutualists, Warren and the American individualist anarchists, and John Stuart Mill, fit very easily into the Radical Enlightenment. 

The Spectrum of the Enlightenment

Table A, the Spectrum of the Enlightenment, compares the Radical to the Moderate Enlightenment. I’ve left out a description of the Moderate Enlightenment in this article because it is well-known and because it is not on the main line of my argument. The Counter-Enlightenment is less well-known and interesting, but this is also not quite in line with the thrust of this article. Broadly speaking the Counter-Enlightenment is a movement of religious reactionaries who reject democracy, science and materialism.  The Radical Counter-Enlightenment are for most part the forces to the left contributing to the French Revolution, typified by Rousseau and Robespierre. As a liberal, Israel wants to exclude revolutionaries from the Radical Enlightenment, but this categorization is confusing and not worth trying to sort out here. Again, Margaret Jacob does a good job of straightening things out. But to travel with her would take too much time. The most important part of Israel’s implied categorization of the Radical Counter-Enlightenment is his claim that it is an early version of postmodernism. I’ve included some of the characteristics of postmodernism in the table (the leftmost column) even though the characteristics have not yet been discussed.


Postmodernism adopts what I would call a cynicism when it comes the modernism that came out of the Enlightenment. Modernism is assumed to be foundationally racist and sexist. Its attitude to the remaining tribal societies is that of a colonizer. This involves claims to scientific objectivity, the power of reason, universal claims to truth and morality, traditional institutions, meaning Christianity. Postmodernism has been very preoccupied with the power of language to control people. Ironically, many postmodernists have some of their roots in western Marxism and various strains of anarchists. It is telling that Jonathan Israel has placed them in a category of the CounterEnlightenment, linking them uneasily with conservative royalists who were also against the Enlightenment.

Among the earliest thinkers considered to be postmodern are the individualist anarchist Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom championed the individual against the pressures of science and capitalist. They were also connected to other movements in literary criticism like the symbolists. The values of post-modernist are relativity, diversity, subjectivity and the freedom of the individual “agency”. It criticizes most leftism but still genuflects before Marx while not showing the slightest interest in political economy or organizing the working class.

Will Schnack has this to say about the postmodernist luminaries:


Jorge Luis Borges is among the most prominent influences in postmodern literature, but it would be Jean-Francois Lyotard who would be the first to put postmodernism to philosophical use. Lyotard, a literary theorist, had defined postmodernism as a rejection of “metanarratives,” or the underlying stories and ideologies of modernity that assume the stability of concepts like “truth.” Lyotard wanted to promote a sort of skepticism toward universal conceptions, suggesting Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games” take the place of the notion of “truth.” He believed that language, particularly what he called the “differend,” was made impossibly difficult to communicate ideas within a thorough manner. His work would be “deconstructed” by another postmodernist, Jacques Derrida.


Derrida, like many postmodernists, had a strong interest in language, particularly semiotics, but considered himself to be a historian. His approach, called deconstruction, was an attempt to challenge what he saw as unfounded assumptions of Western culture. He opposed the Western search for transcendental meaning, which he considered to be “logocentric.”  


Michel Foucault was a literary critic who established a postmodern theory of power. He examined how language masked power relations which were then linked to knowledge systems.

The New Left and Postmodernism

Postmodern philosophy, in stressing subjectivity, has dovetailed nicely with the racial and identity politics of the New Left. Like the New Left it has abandoned the working class and any attempt at union organizing. At best, it has focused on single issues more of a cultural nature than political economy. Like the Frankfurt school, it has identified the university as the place where things happen. Like the New Left it has abandoned Marx’s call to develop the productive forces for the life of a “slacker”, more interested in preening and cultivating their “lifestyle”.

Here is Will’s conclusion:

Universities are now filled with lessons in postmodern philosophy. It is to the point that it has become state-sanctioned education. In response to postmodern indoctrination by the American managerial classes, Americans from all across the political spectrum are starting to push back against postmodernism, from anarcho-syndicalists, to paleo-conservatives (the Old Right), to Old Left Marxists, to alt-Right populists. It is unfortunate, but also true, that neo-reactionary postmodernism gave rise to Trump, a reaction to New Left postmodern hegemony. Trump appealed to paleo-conservative business interests and alt-Right populism in his push against New Left political correctness, capturing the interest of much of the now marginalized white working class, enabling white supremacy while it hadn’t gotten such a strong spotlight in decades.

The American populace is divided, and because that populace is divided, so too is its working class. Black and brown workers, yellow workers, and white workers are caught up in various divisive schemes. But instead of just racism dividing the workers, it is also anti-racist and anti-sexist efforts, which have assumed the worst of all white men, a good portion of the working class. White men, effectively told to shut up by the Newest Left sponsored by neo-liberalism, have lost interest in Leftism, but they haven’t stopped being exploited by capitalism, and they are well aware of that.

Yet, if the Left is again to be a powerful force of class collaboration, a remodern Left must be willing to endure these semantics, and work with estranged friends to re-establish class consciousness, and to re-organize labor. Socialists and classical liberals can find common ground in the values of the Radical Enlightenment, the likes of which postmodern critiques have fallen short of addressing. Even those class-conscious socialists who do not subscribe to Enlightenment rationality fall into the category of moderns, and so have a stake in dismantling postmodernity. Advocates of organized labor, which has been diminishing in the time of postmodernity, must reject the primacy of the forces that have been responsible for its decline, and rework the insights and display the courage to build and sustain a movement.

About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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