“The rotting corpse of Polyneices will be a permanent reminder of what remains unburied and unmourned in every struggle for legitimacy. The task of modernity will be to explore this fissure… If the polis looked beautiful, this is because it was already artifice and artifact––the product of construction and as such susceptible to unmaking or deconstruction. Modernity begins with this corrosively denaturalizing insight.”
–Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness
In 1784 Immanuel Kant answered the question “what is Enlightenment?” with the claim that the European Enlightenment was “the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority.” (Kant, 1996: 17) Since Kant’s stated project was to enact a Copernican Revolution in philosophy the meaning of Enlightenment and modernity were essential to establish. In 1984, looking back on the Enlightenment project and the problematic of modernity, Michel Foucault asked the same question––what is Enlightenment?––so as to examine Enlightenment/modernity “as a set of political, economic, social, institutional, and cultural events on which we still depend in large part, [that] constitutes a privileged domain for analysis.” (Foucault, 1984: 42)
Between Kant’s early modern and Foucault’s post-modern expression of the question “what is Enlightenment?” lurks Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s critique where the Enlightenment is defined as that which “has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2001: 3) Now, and with this interim intervention in mind, it is becoming important for us to ask the question again but from a revolutionary Marxist perspective especially since Marxism’s emergence can be located at the end of the Enlightenment project and forms a key, though not dominant, part of the history of modernity. Every call to “return to Marx” in the face of decades of post-Marxist interventions (not that Marxism ever went away, to be clear) must reckon with the question of Enlightenment and modernity since its relationship to these is what placed it odds with those radical theories that have been militantly critical of the event of Enlightenment and the history of modernity.
Indeed, appeals made to the European Enlightenment and the emergence of modernity are common amongst reactionaries who imagine themselves the guardians of rationality. The so-called “New Atheist” movement, for example, cites the Enlightenment and modernity––and in fact proclaims them as essentially “European”––in its defense of science against fundamentalism. Much of this defense, however, is guided by a deep-seeded hatred of non-European religions (Christianity is still hated but not targeted because it is seen as “European” just as all of science is coded as primarily “European”), particularly Islam. Outside of xenophobic Christian Fundamentalism, the New Atheists have been instrumental in developing the modern phenomenon of Islamophobia, influencing both the “neo-reactionary” and “alt-right” in this regard. If it wasn’t for the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, the Islamophobic ravings of fascist groups such as PEGIDA and Identity Evropa wouldn’t have the pseudo-scientific justification of their hatred of Islam. Rightist thinkers such as Jordan Peterson use the Enlightenment and modernity to defend their reactionary nonsense according to a vague understanding of science.
On the other hand, and because of this mobilization of the Enlightenment, there is a persistent anti-modernism that affects the left. The classification of both the Enlightenment and modernity as being intrinsically “evil” because they are supposedly European is a common attitude amongst many anti-capitalist sectors. In response to the Islamophobia valorized by the New Atheists we discover very uncritical appreciations of Islam that play into the hands of Political Islam. A very strange pursuit of anti-modernism and mystification finds its home in the left, especially at the imperialist metropoles, in response to the European chauvinism that has claimed Enlightenment and modernity as its own. Thus, we must ask again the question “what is Enlightenment” to chart a course between the chauvinist appropriation of modernity and its anti-secular discontents. We can only do this by generating a historical materialist understanding of the problem, a revolutionary communist answer to the question of the Enlightenment’s meaning.
The contemporary revolutionary communist tradition, unfortunately, has often over-valorized the Enlightenment in response to “post-modernist” critiques of modernity (post-modernism meaning, here, anything from Foucault to Lyotard to Derrida to Deleuze and Guattari), particularly since these critiques also target Marxism. The general “post-modern” critique is that the Enlightenment’s claim to universalism, with humanity as central to making society and history, is intrinsic to murderous projects such as colonialism and capitalism; communism, and the claims made by every form of Marxism, are seen as cut from the same cloth. Hence it is tempting to respond to this anti-communist criticism by upholding the Enlightenment and modernity with mild qualifications. Such an attitude amongst Marxist-Leninists and Maoists is so commonplace that it is almost a cliche: anything that criticizes modernity, or is wary of dogmatic articulations of Marxism-Leninism, is suddenly branded “post-modernist”––a slur worse than “revisionist”, which is telling considering that modern revisionists like to throw it around.
The general thesis of this intervention can be summed up by this statement by Ajith, a detained Communist Party of India (Maoist) comrade:
We have noted that Marx and Engels were not totally free of Enlightmentalist [sic] influences. […] Today, compared to even Mao’s time, we are enriched with a new awareness of the contradictory essence of the Enlightenment and its scientific consciousness. […] The necessity to distinguish the emancipatory aspect of the Enlightenment from its overarching bourgeois, colonial nature and thrust is one important lesson we must derive. (Ajith, 2013: 71)
With the above statement in mind, I begin by agreeing with Horkheimer and Adorno that “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2001: 3) Our job is to pick through the ruins.
The Meaning of “Enlightenment” and Modernity
The Enlightenment Project was premised on the assumption that the demystification of nature was essential to human freedom. That is, by stripping the natural world of its mystic aura, by explaining natural phenomena according to natural rather than supernatural causes, would allow humans to understand the causal factors that had once masqueraded as the will of the gods, or unknowable laws of nature, and had thus functioned as dictates of destiny. Enlightenment and modernity is thus “the disenchantment of the world.” (Ibid.) If the natural causes of a drought or famine could be studied as natural causes, and not seen as the punishment of heaven, then humans would be able to approach a higher level of freedom. Such causes could be apprehended ahead of time, the factors producing them mapped out, and their negative effects be superseded. Sickness did not have to be mistaken as “sin” because it could possibly be treated without prayer. A flood was no longer the result of miasma since it could be understood as the result of multiple factors that could be avoided with dams and a better appreciation of water cycles and landscape. Such an understanding extended to the social and historical: one’s position in society was not the result of the great chain of being or the laws of heaven, those mystified categories of every tributary social formation, but an accident of birth intersecting with economic and political structures.
An understanding of natural necessity, as Marx and Engels emphasized following Hegel, was intrinsic to freedom. Not the imaginary and supernatural necessity of the sacred order that was now profaned––the necessity of being destined to be kings or peasants––but the profane order revealed by successive moments of demystification. Although anti-modernist and pseudo-progressive thought attempts to counterpose contingency to necessity, and claim that the former better explains freedom than the totalizing category of necessity, we should not be misled. If reality was truly contingent, and we could know nothing because anything could happen at any time, then we would indeed be living in a state of unfreedom because we would be victims of circumstance. Imagine a world where the laws of nature can never be known, where for example it is impossible to grasp that drinking water is necessary for survival because this could change at any moment. Not only should we realize that such a world does not exist (there are indeed facts of existence that are necessary to existence), we should also recognize that if reality was truly contingent we would be living in a state of unfreedom. In a world of chaos where anything could change at any time, and where nothing can be known, humans are just as much the victims of circumstance as they were under the mystified order of necessity.
To be clear, human history is filled with precursor Enlightenments. For example the Ionian Enlightenment that preceded Socrates and Plato, or the Arab/Islamic Enlightenment that preceded the Crusades, to cite two well-documented examples. That these precursors to modernity––and those like them that emerged sporadically across the entire globe––are not worthy of the name the Enlightenment is in large part due to the Eurocentric importance put on the process of modernity that emerged in Western Europe, but it is also the case that, like capitalism, there was something world historically significant about this modern sequence. Although the European Enlightenment shared the commitment to demystification with its precedents, the level of knowledge production and the rise of the bourgeois order provided it with an autonomy and strength that the other enlightenments were unable to achieve.1 Although this strength allowed for scientific reason to challenge the order of priests and kings, a large part of its world historical significance is that the demystification it unleashed was in the service of bourgeois ideology.
Hence the engagement with natural necessity, and the modernist impulse of demystifying existence, does not by itself guarantee freedom. The fact is that the Enlightenment happened in Europe during the long transition to capitalism according to the interrelated processes of: i) brutal colonial expansion; ii) violent commons enclosures. Moreover, part of the reason it could happen in Europe was largely driven by the knowledges stolen from nations encountered, plundered, invaded, occupied, and disarticulated by colonial expansion. Hence, the rationality of modern colonialism and emergent capitalism became part of modernity and in fact undermined the potential of European modernity. This colonial-capitalist rationale prevented the Enlightenment from being truly universal because of the various unscientific and anti-human logics it generated, injected into the heart of modernity itself. To understand necessity, to demystify nature, would thus become synonymous with mastery and exploitation. Colonial/capitalist logic was clear: that which would be known could also be transformed into exploitable property; knowledge of the natural world was only knowledge-qua-knowledge if it was instrumental in maintaining the hegemony of one group of people over many others and, most importantly, allowed the former to enrich themselves and consummate their dominance at the expense of most of the world. “Not content with the boundaries imposed by gravity, oceans, or ice,” writes Jodi Byrd, “Europeans sought possession of all their eyes could see.” (Byrd, 2011: 2.)
This is why Samir Amin talks about the importance of a “modernity critical of modernity,” (Amin: 2009, 17.) why Frantz Fanon concludes The Wretched of the Earth by declaring the need to establish a new Enlightenment that will be free from the predations of Europe “that murder men wherever they find them… in all the corners of the globe.” (Fanon, 1963: 311) The point, here, is not to pursue a “post-modern” ethos (which can mean anything from a “pre-modern” to a bland relativism that is suspicious of all claims to truth) but instead to push for a modernity beyond modernity, an alter-modernity. As mentioned above, both appeals to the mystified order and appeals to contingency have little to do with freedom.
Enlightenment as Intrinsic to Capitalism
There is a trend within Marxist historiography, best represented by the “Political Marxists”, that seeks to treat the European Enlightenment as separate from the emergence of capitalism. This trend appears to be progressive because it hopes to annex all of the good things that were produced by the Enlightenment (the new sciences and the chain of inventions they unleashed, the materialistic worldview and thus the criticism of the existing state of affairs) from capitalism. Against progressivist views of history that interpret capitalism as a step forward in human evolution––and which may in fact cite the Enlightenment as proof of this––this annexationist position seeks to keep the categories of good/bad separate. Enlightenment is good, capitalism is bad, and never the two should meet.
Annexationism is, perhaps, motivated by post-structuralist/post-modernist interpretations of modernity. Recognizing that modernity and capitalism-colonialism were bound together, the post-structuralist position goes further by declaring that modernity and the Enlightenment are intrinsically and thoroughly murderous. That, rather than being two interrelated categories they are a single category of monstrosity, united in the discursive patterns with which they stamp the subject of modernity.
Rather than accepting that the post-structuralist position is partially correct, the annexationist seeks to preserve modernity from its critics by arguing that the Enlightenment should not be confused with capitalism, that capitalism is in fact anti-Enlightenment, and that the correlation in time between the rise of the new sciences and the rise of bourgeois power is to evidence of an intrinsic relationship. The Political Marxists have had their own axe to grind with what they classify as “post-modernism”, and they have long provided only cosmetic critiques for this heterogeneous body of theory, just as they have had their own axe to grind with all challenges to a Eurocentric narrative of capitalist transition. Delinking the Enlightenment from capitalist development parallels a twin movement of delinking colonial primitive accumulation from transition: what appears to be progressive––classifying capitalism as thoroughly murderous and thus separate from any form of scientific or social progress––is in fact retrograde.
To annex modernity from capitalism is to declare that Western Europe was more culturally advanced than the rest of the world. What accounts for the explosion of the new sciences in Europe if not capitalism and the pre-capitalist processes of colonialism? A “historical quirk” is the most progressive sounding statement the annexationists can give us, but if they are historical materialists they should know better. If the necessary causes of the the Enlightenment were not found in the development of capitalist social relations, then where did they come from? If we cannot say capitalism––and if Political Marxists forbid us from even seeing colonialism as the foundation upon which modern capitalism was built––then we must say that the Enlightenment was the result of Europe’s unique cultural history. This is the argument of white cultural nationalism and, like every cultural nationalism, it is thoroughly anti-materialist.
The Enlightenment happened in Western Europe for two reasons: i) the development of capitalism that necessitated, as aforementioned, the demystification of the pre-capitalist ethos; ii) the scientific materials (think of the mathematical and astronomical concepts invented in the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas, and that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg) “discovered” through the colonial processes that, since 1492, were part of the transition to capitalism. Since annexationists of the Political Marxist bent reject the possibility that colonialism was necessary for the transition to capitalism it is easy (though extremely lamentable) for them to pretend that the second point is inadmissible. They have nothing useful to say about the first point except to ignore it altogether or mobilize straw-person arguments.
If we were to argue that capitalism’s emergence was unique to Europe because of Europe’s internal dynamics, and that it had nothing to do with external dynamics of European colonialism, then in order to save face we would have to annex modernity from capitalism. And this is precisely what Political Marxists such as Ellen Meiksins Wood does in her article that argues that she is not being Eurocentric for her claim that capitalism was something that could only develop in Europe: what is “Eurocentric”, she asserts, about claiming that a horrendous mode of production that produces nothing useful for humanity was unique to Europe; is it not “more Eurocentric” to say it could have also, if not for European colonialism disarticulating other pre-capitalist modes of production, emerged elsewhere?2 The anti-Eurocentric counterpart is clear: similar capitalist social relations could have emerged elsewhere but they emerged first in Western Europe because of the legacy of colonialism, which sped up the transition and destroyed all possible competitors, and the internal dynamics of underdeveloped pre-capitalist social relations.3
Even still, the empirical record of Enlightenment thinkers proves that the annexationist position is wrong. Enlightenment thought is not only deeply marked by colonial ideology, and thus cannot be separated cleanly from this history, it also reifies bourgeois relations. The demystification of the pre-capitalist world is accompanied by a remystification of capitalist ideology. As Samir Amin writes in Unequal Development:
In precapitalist modes, man is still alienated in nature, but social relations are obvious; hence the dominance of the ideological instance. Poverty confines men to a model of simple reproduction, but ideology provides a justification for this model through its “eternalist” vision of the world. This is why men build pyramids and cathedrals. The capitalist mode internalizes technical progress in the economic instance, and this makes possible rapid accumulation, and hence frees man from alienation in nature. But, at the same time, alienation is transferred to the social plane. For the price of this accumulation is the submission of society to the law of profit. This submission is expressed in terms of the degradation of man to mere labor power and disregard for the natural ecological environment. Capitalism has stopped building cathedrals without, for all that, liberating man. For the short time-prospect that it offers from the start is the root of the social problems over which it has no control. (Amin,1976: 376)
We should add, here, that this division between the “precapitalist” and “capitalist” is a division, and later a transition, experienced primarily by Western Europe. These categories are not experienced in the same way elsewhere in the world, particularly in the so-called “new world” where a different social dialectic was at play and where non-capitalist nations were not necessarily pre-capitalist in that they were not points of transition to a capitalist ethos. In this sense, these nations did not point towards a capitalist destiny because their social relations were not dominated by an ideological instance or constrained by poverty. Colonial contact, however, disarticulated whatever social dialectic they could have unleashed.
If the Enlightenment rupture is conceptualized as a large-scale demystification where natural phenomena is conceived according to natural explanations, human history is made by humans, and natural necessity is pursued, then the European Enlightenment did not go far enough. It was enough to profane the metaphysics of the ancien regime but only in the interests of the emerging capitalist order. It did not pursue this demystification to its logical conclusion: pre-capitalist and illiberal ideas persist as long as they also abide by commodity logic, and the ideology of bourgeois mastery turns modernity against itself.
If modernity, even the modernity contained by the limits of the European Enlightenment, followed through on its promises we wouldn’t be stuck with all of the reactionary and conservative anti-scientific claims that have become a part of life under capitalism. Despite their failings––their concessions to bourgeois property relations, the Eurocentric notions about civilization they inherited from modern colonialism––the original Enlightenment thinkers were pitiless in their opposition to superstition. But now, with the consummation of bourgeois rule, the defenders of Enlightenment thought are happy to shake hands with people who would have been their enemies during the Enlightenment––which again demonstrates that the Enlightenment was not autonomous from capitalism and its historical emergence through colonialism. There is even an Enlightenment doctrine that allows for this detente: the liberal doctrine of free speech, and its most committed defenders (i.e. the ACLU) believe that they are more enlightened than Nazis they defend because of this doctrine and the radical left that critiques them for defending Nazis. This is what modernity has become under capitalism, an atrophied anti-modern stasis: it is now preserving the existence of ideologies that originally forbid its emergence in the very name of modernity.
More significant, however, is the fact that modernity has been turned against itself through the ideology of bourgeois mastery. To become the “master” of the natural world is to enslave it, carving it up into property relations, which in fact places humanity in tension with the biosphere. Knowledge of food production is distorted by mechanisms that steal and control land, ruining the soil, the use of pestilent chemicals, and manic overproduction. Knowledge of mining results in horrendous operations that ruin millions of lives and encourage pollution. Knowledge of water cycles results in the commodification of water and the poisoning of water sources. Whereas knowledge of natural necessity should teach respect for the limitations of the natural world, and what can and cannot be done to the biosphere without harming both it and ourselves, the ideology of bourgeois mastery is no longer concerned with natural necessity and sometimes even employs ideologues to argue that the biosphere is not in danger and thus reject the concept of natural necessity altogether.
A common Eurocentric trope promulgated during the period of modern colonialism was that Indigenous populations were living in “savagery”, were thoroughly “immodern”, and were victims of the forces of nature. We find this trope repeated even by Engels who should have known better than to trust a colonial ethnographer but, as Robert Biel has indicated in Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement, Eurocentrism is a hell of a drug. (Engels: 1972, 115-130) The truth, however, is that many Indigenous populations had a far more sophisticated understanding of natural necessity, and thus their own counter-modernity, than that practised by the Europeans despite what their Enlightenment thinkers theorized. From what contemporary scholars who are not enamoured by colonial ideology (either Indigenous thinkers who immediately understand the importance to reject false doctrines of civilization, or non-Indigenous thinkers who have sifted through the half-truths of settlerist ethnography) have told us, there were many pre-contact civilizations that better understood, and we should say scientifically so, natural necessity in terms of our species’ relationship with the biosphere.
For example, George Manuel and Michael Posluns have examined the food technologies developed by numerous Indigenous nations that allowed for humans to generate enough food to feed themselves comfortably without undermining the biosphere. (Manuel and Posluns: 1974) The colonizers not only encountered these scientific developments regarding food production in the process of colonization, and expropriated and absorbed them into their own knowledge canon, but twisted them according to the logic of mastery and exploitation. Contemporary environmentalists and environmental scientists are now confirming what pre-Contact Indigenous scientists––and yes we should call them scientists because they figured out natural necessity and understood natural causes in this regard far better than their European conquerors––knew all along. You cannot over-exploit the earth, poison it in the name of profit, without undermining your own existence. Let us return to Amin’s statement in the last section about the shift from metaphysical to economic alienation: submission to the law of profit replaces submission to an eternalist vision of the world, and the former finds ways to expropriate and exploit all forms of logic into fluid chains of commodification.
There is, of course, a discourse that purports to be radical that opposes Enlightenment and modernity by claiming that logics outside of the so-called “West” were indeed anti-Enlightenment and anti-modern and that this was their strength. My contention, building upon the work of Amin and others, is that this gambit is not only self-defeating but is empirically wrong. It is self-defeating because it surrenders the category of “science” to Europeans when we know that many scientific categories of existence are correct and to claim otherwise is to court reactionism. It is empirically wrong because this category of “science” has been informed at every step of the way by knowledges stolen from colonial contact.
Due to the fact that the project of modernity is bound up with the projects of colonialism and capitalism, however, there are those who continue to argue that colonialism and capitalism were modernizing forces. Indeed, recently there have been multiple think-pieces––eerily identical to colonial apologetics of the 18th and 19th centuries––that have argued precisely this: the ravages of colonialism and the construction of world capitalism were ultimately “good” because they brought modernity to backwards nations.4 The truth, however, is that just as capitalism brought the developments of Enlightenment to bear against the working-class in the brutal enclosure of the commons and the ascendance of violent industrialism, colonialism brought the benefits of modernity only to the colonial masters and their lackeys while disarticulating Indigenous nations and immiserating their inhabitants. As Jonathan Saha has argued, in opposition to these recent valorizations of colonial “modernity”:
The claim that colonial rule did good because it “developed” colonized societies… rests on the implicit counter-factual that without imperial intervention these societies would not have participated in modernity. The assumption here is that pre-colonial polities were stagnant, static, and disconnected from wider historical changes. This is an assumption that work on pre-colonial histories have shown to be demonstrably false. […] Moreover, colonized people engaged with modern practices without direct instigation of the colonial regime, and sometimes in the face of imperial opposition. (Saha, 2018)
The fact is that modernity is the project of world history that has also been appropriated and exploited by European colonial-capitalism. In this vein we can understand two important facts: i) the logics of the European Enlightenment have been largely informed by colonial encounters, and the knowledges these encounters expropriated; ii) there are logics of colonized peoples that are more salient and meaningful than any capitalist-contained modernity because they better understand natural necessity. Moreover, there is nothing mystic or irrational about the latter and to pretend otherwise is to in fact court a mystified rejection of natural necessity.
My wager, here, is based on a different understanding of “Enlightenment” that locates its origin in historical materialism, precisely what Amin cognizes as a modernity opposed to modernity. Even still, there are problems with this methodology despite the fact that, as I have argued elsewhere, it is a science of history and revolution. Although the work of Marx and Engels represents an alter-Enlightenment trajectory since they recognized the need to carry the project of demystification into “a ruthless critique of all that exists,” thus initiating an oppositional modernity, this project is far from hegemonic. Even though its own scientific development provides it with the tools to criticize the Eurocentric aspects it has inherited––as Robert Biel’s Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement has thoroughly excavated––the fact that we are still living within a capitalist imaginary that has declared itself the end of history means that even the most anti-Eurocentric historical materialist trajectory lurks outside of “common sense”. Against the explicitly anti-Enlightenment ethos of resurgent fascism, when liberals and social democrats are not lapsing into confused post-modernist fantasies of their own they are usually raising the banner of the very Enlightenment thought that we need to supersede.
“Everything sacred is profaned…”
In conclusion, I want to return to Kant’s understanding of the Enlightenment project so as to demonstrate why such a project should be treated as suspicious by a “modernity critical of modernity.” The Kant who tried to answer the question “what is Enlightenment?” also proposed that he was leading a Copernican Revolution in philosophy––but this was far from the case. As Quentin Meillassoux convincingly argued in After Finitude, Kant was in fact performing the opposite of a Copernican Revolution in philosophy: whereas Copernicus claimed that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, Kant recentered philosophy upon humanity as the centre of the universe and thus performed “a Ptolemaic counter-revolution.” We can go further than Meillassoux and point out that Kant was placing a very particular conception of humanity at the centre of his Ptolemaic counter-revolution: the European capitalist subject.
Our understanding of Enlightenment is thus compromised: on the one hand it seeks to demystify human relations with the cosmos, on the other hand and in the name of Enlightenment it seeks to recentre a conception of humanity embedded in every capitulation to the state of affairs. Kant was no enemy of European colonialism and what would become the doctrine of capitalist mastery.5 If humanity had emerged from a “self-incurred infancy” then it was only a European humanity in the midst of other peoples conceived of as infantile, incapable of reason, and moreover it was European men. The Enlightenment was indeed locked within a very patriarchal conception of knowledge acquisition as even Horkheimer and Adorno recognized. (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2001: 4) If Kant was truly devoted to the potential of demystification of the Enlightenment mobilized he would have gone further and recognized that part of this “self-incurred infancy” was to disenchant class, nation, property, race, and gender. Over 200 years after Kant attempted to conceptualize the meaning of Enlightenment some of its worst proponents, who speak its name in order to justify conservative ideology, are still trapped in the 18th century with Kant, acting as if science and human reason haven’t changed since this period. For these thinkers––the Jordan Petersons and Sam Harrises––Enlightenment is a static concept, an especial European event that occurred two and a half centuries ago. This mythologizing of the European Enlightenment is thus entirely immodern.
Marx and Engels’ declaration of “everything sacred is profaned,” however, demonstrates a radical understanding of Enlightenment. They understood the opening presented by the modernity unleashed by capitalism and, with this understanding, pushed it towards its most radical expression: a modernity critical of modernity, and Enlightenment critical of Enlightenment. Although these bourgeois thinkers had torn asunder the veil of religious mystification they still had not gone far enough to demystify the social relations within which they were embedded. Enlightenment thus becomes the business of the oppressed masses, those who make history.
In the Preface to the second edition of Eurocentrism Samir Amin describes a dilemma produced by the modernity still determined by the European Enlightenment: either to accept the culturalism of European civilization and its descendants, which masquerades as universal, or a post-modernist position that rejects universalism for a multiplicity of particularities that are also culturalisms. In opposition to this dilemma Amin suggests “that we begin with a view of modernity as a still incomplete process, which will only be able to go beyond the mortal crisis it is now undergoing through the reinvention of universal values.” (Amin, 2009: 8-9) Hence, the solution to the impasse presented by the Eurocentric cantonment of modernity is not to seek bastion in culturalist mystification but, rather, to push the envelope of modernity. If the European Enlightenment could not finish the project of modernity because it was unwilling to demystify the foundations of imperialist capitalism, then we must go further. By profaning everything that is socially sacrosanct, whether it be Eurocentrism or some other pseudo-Enlightenment nonsense that reifies the ruling class, we will “turn over a new leaf… work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new [human].” (Fanon, 1963: 315)
1 For example, although the Ionian Enlightenment sought natural explanations for natural phenomena, the level of productive forces in the ancient world was such that the “naturalistic” explanations of Thales could never possess the scientific salience as those provided by Newton or Darwin. The Arab/Islamic Enlightenment (which included thinkers such as Ibn Khaldun, Tajik, and Ibn Sina), however, was a direct precursor to the European Enlightenment, particular since the knowledge taken from the former by the latter’s conquests would inform the development of modernity. The distinction between these two “Enlightenments”, though, was that the European variant was intertwined as it was with the rise of capitalism which gave it a strength and breadth that the Arab/Islamic Enlightenment lacked.
2 This is precisely the argument that Ellen Meiksins Wood puts forward in Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism (https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/993).
3 Samir Amin has provided the most thorough political economy in this area. Unequal Development and Class and Nation are his best works in this regard.
4 See, for example, the Guardian article “Can Colonialism Have Benefits? Look at Singapore” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/04/colonialism-work-singapore-postcolonial-british-empire).
5 For example, Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract (1997) draws attention to the Eurocentric chauvinism in Kant’s thought.