Wednesday, October 19, 2005

From the Enlightenment to Socialism?

I need to answer a question: "Was the Enlightenment the fertilizer for the seeds of socialism?" First we have to define the Enlightenment (disc. of European Enlightenment). Many different pointy headed intellectuals will argue about the pure source. But we are pragmatists, and turn quickly to the font of wisdom which is the Oxford dictionary. Now the first and obvious definition of enlightenment is to enlighten, as in bringing understanding to ones mind, or awareness in the spirit. But that is not what we are considering here. Here is the second definition of Enlightenment:

2. Sometimes used [after Ger. Aufklärung, Aufklärerei] to designate the spirit and aims of the French philosophers of the 18th c., or of others whom it is intended to associate with them in the implied charge of shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for tradition and authority, etc.

Ah, now we have a better understanding of what is meant. Shallow and pretentious intellectualism. Unreasonable contempt for tradition and authority. Why, we must still be in the age of Enlightenment! That describes my University quite well in terms of its political attitude. Now some would argue I am being quite harsh here, but prove me wrong. Lets designate three separate actualizations of enlightenment. We can clearly point to the reformation as the seminal influence behind each of the three socio-political formations and phisical locations. We will compare the Continent, the United Kingdom, and the New World.

The Reformation begins with the rejection of the control of ones spirituality by Rome. It begins with freedom for people from a corrupt and oppressive Church State that was Catholicism. Now on the continent this turns to religious wars. In merry England it progresses a bit more smoothly, as the monarchy did not want to answer to Rome either. Yet in America, it begins arguably with the assembly of those who were rejected from the two situations above. That is a oversimplification, yet the 'radical' ideas of the reformation that were unacceptable at times on the Continent and in England were firmly planted in the colonies.

Now that we have our three separate entities, lets look at resulting stable governance. First in England, a slow evolution of democracy takes place, with the Monarchy formally loosing it in the Bill of Rights (1689), as a result of complicated politics covered elsewhere. On the continent things are not good, and Kings and Queens, Lords and Ladies duke it out for quite a while. The colonies have their day with the Declaration of Independence and subsequent war with England. This is the interesting point in time, the late 18th century. Who influences who?

Pure Enlightenment pointy heads contend that the French philosophers, the pinnacle of which being Voltaire and Rousseau, form the model and basis for influencing the political philosophy of the day. A broader and more correct perspective includes many different minds of the day including Locke, Hume, Paine and others. What is interesting to pontificate on is how much of an influence are these philosophies on the formation of the United States, and how much did the revolution actually influence subsequent events? But, our heads are not pointy enough here, and we move on.

Its now the early 19th century, socialism's inception is upon us, Napoleons changed the face of the continent, and the fledgling representative republic that is the U.S. is stretching. Oh, did we miss one little detail? Yeah, the pinnacle expression of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution. Now we need not argue about this horrific affair. The plight of the people was ignored by the ruling class for certain, yet afterwords ignorance and stupidity ruled France, some say to this day. The pattern of disgruntlement is similar from the peasant in France to the growing urban disaffected in England.

My contention is that there is a clear connection to Enlightenment thought and the philosophy of socialism. However, the roots and structure of enlightened thinking are clearly freedom of the individual socially and spiritually. And central to that theme is capitalism. So, even though there is a connection, there is a divide. I would contend that socialism would appeal to Rousseau yet disgust Voltaire, or perhaps the other way around. And becoming enlightened is a good thing, but becoming one of the Enlightened, as per the Oxford definition, is not.


Anonymous said...


Carlos said...

Test what? Test to see if my hypothesis is accurate? Probably its a dream, and I lost it somewhere. Even comparing Enlightenment thought to a specific philosophy is not very tight argumentation. But who cares...