Forgotten subversives

Issue: 106

Chris Harman

A review of Jonathan I Israel, Radical Enlightenment (Oxford, 2002), £20.99

Occasionally a book comes out which challenges established ideas about some important historical event. This is one.

The Enlightenment was the great intellectual challenge in the century and a half between the English Revolution and the French Revolution to the role of superstition, magic and religion in justifying existing society. But there are few general accounts of it. And they tend to see it as an attempt by a layer of intellectuals living in the absolute monarchies of western Europe to learn from the supposed civilised tolerance of the gentry-run constitutional monarchy set up by the ‘glorious’ English revolution from above of 1688.

The great forerunner of the Enlightenment is often then portrayed as being John Locke, especially by liberal columnists for the Guardian (who deliberately seem to ignore his support for and profiting from slavery, his backing for superstitious belief in miracles, and his denial of freedom of speech to atheists). Along with this view goes the claim that Spinoza, the most consistent materialist of the 17th century, had no influence during the Enlightenment decades.

Jonathan Israel destroys both these claims. He shows that there were two Enlightenments. Alongside and preceding the ‘Moderate Enlightenment’ of Locke and his heirs was a ‘Radical Enlightenment’ which challenged old prejudices and superstitions to the core. Its adherents risked the sack, imprisonment or even being condemned to death for their views.

Spinoza, writing in the third quarter of the 17th century and in the immediate aftermath of the Dutch and English revolutions, was far from being a marginal figure. He drew on the scientific discoveries of the previous century and a half (especially Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo) to develop an account of the world in which everything had a material cause.

Nature as a whole was like a great machine operating according to the newly discovered laws of physics, with human ideas as one expression of its operation. ‘God’ in the sense of an ever-present, all-knowing, self-caused entity could only be the machine itself, nature. There was no room for some divine being who would break the laws of nature to change things at the bidding of priests and prayers.

This was in reality a form of atheism (although Spinoza did not describe it as such) and was not only a challenge to superstition and witch-burning (against which it played an important role).

It also challenged the witchery of the established Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist religions that consecrated kings, justified social hierarchies and blamed the misery of much of humanity on original sin. And its logic was to move on from challenging religious superstition to challenging the social organisation within which religious superstition flourished.

Spinoza only went part of the way in this. He was a republican, but held that revolution did more harm than good, and some of his followers, coming from the upper classes themselves, held similar views. But others followed the logic through to the end, and laid the basis for a critique not just of the absolutist societies of continental Europe at the time, but of all class societies.

Spinozism then became, like Marxism in the 20th century, something the moderates were continually reacting against while claiming not to take it seriously. But its influence persisted as the real core of the Enlightenment challenge to the existing order. And in the diluted form in which it appeared in the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau it inspired those who took to the barricades between 1789 and 1794. The product of one wave of revolutions helped inspire the next.

Nor was that the end of the matter. The wave of reaction after the French Revolution nearly buried the Enlightenment even in its moderate form as the victorious bourgeoisie preferred the obscurantism of the old order to the threat of insurrection in the streets. But the ideas of the Radical Enlightenment were still able to spur a new generation of intellectual revolt. Karl Marx’s doctoral thesis was on the ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus who influenced Spinoza, and he admired the mainstream Enlightenment philosophers most in the Spinoza tradition, Holbach and Helvetius.

Postmodern and postcolonial theories of recent years have been disparaging about the Enlightenment, blaming it for the dehumanisation of capitalism or even for totalitarianism. And it is true that some Moderate Enlightenment thinkers were complicit in oppression and racism. But Jonathan Israel shows the Radical Enlightenment as a project of courageous people aiming to further human emancipation.

This is an important book, even if, like the author’s previous history of the Dutch Republic, somewhat long (I tired sometimes towards the end of the 800 pages). Anyone who is interested in the history of ideas in the age of revolutions should read at least its early chapters.