Will the Alt-Right Make the Left embrace the Enlightenment?

By Stephen Hicks, Ph.D. | 13 March 2017

(Credit: Fibonacci Blue / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

Is a seismic change rumbling through Left-wing circles? In the hard-Left Jacobin magazine, two young philosophers bemoan their discovery that postmodern strategies have now been captured by the hateful and hated Alt-Right — and so in reaction they propose that socialists embrace the philosophy of the Enlightenment.[1]

President Donald Trump and chief strategist Steve Bannon are a politically disruptive force, but could their fellow-travelers among the Alt-Right — provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and philosopher Jason Reza Jorjani among them — disrupt the intellectual world?

Jacobin authors Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss situate their fears by noting a key fact about the contemporary academic world:

“Criticizing Enlightenment thought has become fashionable across the political spectrum. For the past several decades, more and more academics have called reason into question, especially the sort of rationalist worldview that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is especially true among left-leaning, postmodern, and post-structuralist thinkers.”

But a recent horrifying development has hit the Left — and it’s not only the persona of Donald Trump:

“one of the Alt-Right’s primary tactics [is] its appropriation of identity politics for its own chauvinist brand of white identity politics attests to this strategy’s success.”

Yikes, from the Leftists’ perspective. That means that now both much of the Left and the Alt-Right are using postmodernism as their philosophical and rhetorical framework. Strange bedfellows?

Perhaps. Some of us, ahem, have been arguing for a long time that for 200 years there has been no fundamental difference between Counter-Enlightenment Left (e.g., Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and Counter-Enlightenment Right (e.g., Friedrich Nietzsche).[2] Both were and are fundamentally anti-rational and anti-liberal — so it was only a matter of time before the internal logics of their philosophies manifested themselves in postmodern irrationalism and authoritarianism. The Left just got there a generation earlier.

But Frim and Fluss dislike the Left’s being in bed philosophically with the Alt-Right, so they urge that the Left abandon postmodernism to the Alt-Right:

“If the Left wants to resist the alt-right’s growing power, it needs to return to the roots of Enlightenment rationality.”

It’s about time. Our response to Frim and Fluss’s proposal should be some amusement and some hope.

The amusement comes from noting that the Left is now clearly the reactionary worldview, as follows:

1. The Enlightenment happens (starting late 1600s): Reason, individualism, liberalism and free-markets prevail for the most part.
2. But a Counter-Enlightenment emerges (starting around 1750), taking a reactionary-Right form and various Left forms.[4]
3. The Left forms goes through various iterations — Rousseauian, Marxist, etc. (1800s) — and in frustration increasingly goes postmodern (mid-1900s).
4. Now the Right, in its Alt-Right form, also embraces pomo rhetoric and strategy (early 2000s).
5. In reaction to finding themselves in bed with Alt-Righters, the Left says, Eewwwww, let’s give the Enlightenment another chance!

The hope comes from taking the Jacobin article as a sign that the Left is now more likely to see that postmodern Leftism is also a failure,[3] as the Alt-Right — and the Alt-anything — can use pomo strategies in the ensuing ugly all-against-all. Likely no amount of socialist failure will cause them to reject Leftism: the commitment to far-Left ideology has almost always been a young person’s semi-religious faith, and when Left theory and practice has crashed repeatedly and in every variation that has been tried, the response among Leftists has been merely to tweak the tactics but maintain the core strategic commitment.[5]

But if — as Frim and Fluss (and I) hope — the Left can make itself adopt the Enlightenment commitment to rationality, then we can at least again appeal to facts and logic in our arguments and have a chance at productive debates. What a nice change that would be.

[1] Landon Frim & Harrison Fluss, “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia,” Jacobin, March 11, 2017. Thanks to Professor R. Kevin Hill for the link.

[2] Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004).

[3] Chapter 5 discusses the 20th-century crisis of socialist thinking and how that fed into postmodern strategy.

[4] One odd historical claim in the Jacobin article is that Frim and Fluss state that “From its very inception, the Counter-Enlightenment belonged to the Right, quite often of the romantic, völkisch, and antisemitic Right.” Yet Rousseau is clearly a Counter-Enlightenment thinker and a man of the Left, as is the prominent strand of Left thinking he has inspired for the last 260 years.

[5] This “Evolution of Socialist Strategies” chart below schematizes the responses to failed versions of Left thought since classical Marxism.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Stephen HicksStephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and the Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (2010), and he is the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W.W. Norton and Co., second edition, 1998). He has also published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including Review of Metaphysics, The Journal of Private Enterprise, Teaching Philosophy, and The Wall Street Journal. You can follow his work at StephenHicks.org, and on Twitter.

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  1. I will freely admit that most of these debates are beyond me in some respects. However, the notion that Harrison Fluss is going to embrace the enlightenment is nuts. See "Lying About Jordan Peterson" by Robert Mariani. Quote from Robert Mariani.

    "Platitudes like “Enlightenment values are worth preserving” and “science is true even if when produces discomforting results” now qualify as bomb-throwing."

  2. Repeated crashing of left? That’s some really hollow philosophizing, doctor, capitalism isn’t an “enlightenment value” or some immutable foundation of society. And neither has leftism been crashing repeatedly. What has been crashing? Oh, like the severe economic market crashes of 2002 and 2008. It is foolish, unrestrained capitalism, the very ideology those neonazi idiots you call alt-right have been rooting for, that is crashing all around us, and only kept alive by the interventions to save banks.


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