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Review of Enlightenment Now (2018) by Steven Pinker (Part Two)

by Gerry Fitzpatrick

28 October 2018

Against The Banking Model

In part one of this review of Enlightenment Now (2018) by Steven Pinker, I questioned his Civics Class approach to history and education that he has adopted and the impact he thought it could have:

This approach clearly adheres to what author and educationalist Paulo Freire famously described as the “banking model” of teaching were facts and data are simply deposited into a presumed wrongly perceiving mind. Questions and the time allotted for them, just becomes another opportunity for the lecturer to demonstrate that the questioner has not fully perceived what the correct response should be to the lecture. Critical thinking, least of all self—critical thinking in this situation is rendered (politically) inert. Indeed when Pinker encounters those who are active on campus he fulminates in the book against the fact that there are no passive receivers to his left: “An axiom of progressive opinion especially in universities,” he writes, “is that we continue to live in a deeply racist, sexist and homophobic society—which would imply that progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing after decades of struggle.”

But Progress is not history’s self correcting mechanism. And if the 2016 US presidential election demonstrated anything it is the radical idea that the price of extending and maintaining human rights is active vigilance. Just because citizens believe in progress that is no guarantee that will be the outcome. And the same is true for any political movement that understands itself as embodying the progressive forces of history or modernity and that their desired political outcome will thereby follow. For Pinker the activism of the 1960s is and will, only remain after the fact and not something that demonstrates why social change happens and how.

Benjamin Marxism And Progress A Short History

Fifty years ago, the right and the not-so-liberal charge against the Left, was the opposite—that the Marxist and radical Socialist approach was always wrong because it saw history in terms of it being “a story of progress”. So what changed? The idea about Marxism being flawed because of its adherence to Historical Progress, began to loose ground in intellectual circles after the late 1960s for two main reasons.

The first was that the person who made it a common place of Cold-War and anti-marxist discourse—the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906—1975), had by the mid sixties completed most of her major work, which functioned as a conservative phenomenological critique of all major political categories and the assumptions based on them. This approach was in turn derived from the ideas and the philosophical system of her teacher—Martin Heidegger—who became infamous as Hitler’s chosen philosopher—these ideas were steadily being replaced in European and American intellectual life by those of Arendt’s former friend and distant cousin—Walter Benjamin (1892—1940).

Standing with Brecht against Hitler and Heidegger, Benjamin had decided not to join the German Communist Party (KPD) but choose to develop his own criticism of how the KPD’s politics were being reshaped by Stalin’s leadership of the Communist International. Following Chang Kai Shek’s coup in March 1926 and the mass slaughter of communists in China — it appeared to many independent socialists to be obvious common sense—that the Communist International should aid its own forces and not those of the anti-communist opposition. After Moscow none the less formed its second alliance with Chang—now confirmed as an anti—communist war lord—the acceptance by the (Russian) Left Opposition that Stalin was now the grave digger of revolutionaries was unavoidable. It should not be surprising then that what ignited Benjamin’s communism in 1927 was the defense of the Left Opposition and Trotsky’s resistance to the direction in which the International was now traveling. If opposition to fascism was to succeed, this vital stance and yet (un)common revolutionary sense—was the only logical place from which to start. And it was one—contrary to current histories—that the leadership of the German Communist movement under Werner Scholem (1895—1940) did accept (see link below).

After the KPD's expulsion of Scholem in late 1926 the possibility of implementing an effective political strategy that would succeed in defeating fascism was put in jeopardy. What replaced it was the simple belief in the power of social Progress. “First Hitler then us!” - went the now notorious KPD slogan. But Pinker's adherence to the idea of progress goes further than simply “First Trump then us” - besides their being no liberal “us” to replace Trumpism, there is also now no tradition of social democratic politics that can, or will be able to, govern in the way that was possible prior to the 2007-2008 economic crisis. The political programme of the Sanders movement and the Momentum movement in Britain is predicated on the belief that a revival of Social Democracy is possible and that a New New Deal can be implemented. It is the ruling class resistance to these programmes that is now reshaping politics.

For behind the social democratic ideal and the Enlightenment belief that ascendent economic value and growth will provide the substance of reform and social progress—there is one thing that will always trump economic value and that is imperial value. That is why no matter how well the world economy is doing there is always a war within capitalism to subordinate the producers of value to imperial value—the supremacy of one nation’s ruling class over another and one race—the white race, over others. This is the form and essence of the alt-right and Trumpism.

As with the previous severe economic crisis of the 1930s—all the previous decades of liberalizing modernity was simply reversed—its progenitors and beneficiaries eliminated. That was only possible when the majority of organized labour and its allies accepted that the institution of Social Democracy could and would guarantee political progress. Writing in 1940 and surveying the collapse and destruction of Social Democracy and the opposition to Hitler Benjamin wrote:

Thesis XIII

Every day our cause becomes clearer

and people get smarter.

Wilhelm Dietzgen, Die Religion der Sozialdemokratie

Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, have been formed by a conception of progress which did not adhere to reality but made dogmatic claims. Progress as pictured in the minds of Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men’s ability and knowledge). Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progress was regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course. Each of these predicates is controversial and open to criticism. However, when the chips are down, criticism must penetrate beyond these predicates and focus on something that they have in common. The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogenous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself. Walter Benjamin Theses XIII 1940
And its not surprising to find that Wilhelm Dietzgen's statement corresponds with Pinker's views on improving intelligence (p.233-246) and the Progress of Social Democratic government being predicated on the adherence to the American imperial system (p.200). Contra Pinker Benjamin’s Theses does not derive its power from academic orthodoxy but in the context from its relevance and political use. For Benjamin the Enlightenment and Marxism produced a Revolutionary Enlightenment not only in history but also in the understanding of political consciousness:

Thesis XV

The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action. The great revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical time-lapse camera. And, basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus the calendars do no measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness[.] Walter Benjamin Theses XV 1940
“The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode” is a statement that millions of women and men who took to the streets in the last two years in North America will recognize. But to become a truly revolutionary class the gaps in organisation and knowledge must close—between organized socialists and a newly active working class that is once again learning how to be a “class for itself” and not for Social Democracy which as we have seen is not the place to learn What Is Fascism and How To Fight it.

Notes & Links

What Is Fascism And How To Fight It:

Walter Benjamin Theses On The Philosophy Of History:

The Theses are a series of observations on history and class consciousness. Woven through with judaic themes that stand now as a memorial to Benjamin’s generation—Benjamin’s brother Georg and his close friends Gershom Scholem’s brother Werner were both leaders of the KPD and both were murdered by the Nazi’s see forth coming article Brecht Benjamin and The Fight Against Fascism in Germany.

On The Life of Werner Scholem the leader of the KPD and his opposition to Stalin and Stalinism, Hitler and Fascism:

Please note the film was made before the current rise of fascism and the growing opposition to it and the debate about how it should be opposed so the films concluding remarks are now unlike Werner Scholem views are very much out of date. Today this is how mainstream opinion views the threat of fascism.

In the final part of this review I will return to Enlightenment Now's reduction of the working class and the poor to consumers and how and why the dream world of the commodity is breaking down.

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