What is postmodernism? Is it a problem? The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism. It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks (with support from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.)
Enlightenment and Darkness
- Intro: The Trouble with Zombies
- Part 1: Truth is Dead
- Part 2: Objectivity is Dead
- Part 3: Hegel’s Dialectic
- Part 4: Staring into the Abyss
- Part 5: Heidegger Knows Nothing
Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics
- Part 6: Rousseau’s Paradise Lost
- Part 7: Radicalization and Revolution
- Part 8: Fear, Paranoia, Reaction, War, and Betrayal
- Part 9: First Terror
- Part 10: A Farewell to Kings
- Part 11: Civil War
- Part 12: Rousseau’s Paradise Found
- Part 13: Napoleonic Stress Disorder
- Part 14: Kant Goes Medieval
- Part 15: Herder’s Volksgeist
- Part 16: Fichte’s School of Nationalism
- Part 17: Hegel – Freedom is Slavery
Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism. Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets. Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.
Postmodernism’s radical left politics don’t flow naturally from Heidegger’s subjectivist philosophy. Postmodernism’s leftist political philosophy is explained by twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe. Postmodernists took refuge in an earlier totalitarian collectivist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and gave rise to Napoleon.
Rousseau’s ideas (and Napoleon’s conquests) set the German Counter-Enlightenment on fire. Kant espoused a sort of feudalistic militarism. Johann Herder argued for multiculturalism, moral relativism, and nationalism. Johann Fichte argued for public education as indoctrination, and German nationalism and destiny. Hegel added to Rousseau his dialectical view of history, divine totalitarianism, and German supremacy.
This partly explains totalitarian collectivism (and German nationalism).
Now, we explain Left Collectivism (socialism) and its roots in romanticism and industrialization.
The Noble Monster
Romanticism was an artistic reaction to the Enlightenment. (The Counter-Enlightenment was a philosophical and political reaction to the Enlightenment.) Rousseau was inspirational to both and linked them together.
Rousseau appealed to sensibility (passion, unthinking emotion, especially sympathy). Sensibility assigned virtue to the poor and enshrined idyllic nature. Rousseau (an itinerant drifter) embodied this aesthetic.
The Romantic aesthetic favored the radical and dangerous (rejecting prudence and safety). It scorned money-grubbing industrial economics (as beneath us). It preferred violent emotion and stormy nature. Romantics yearned for an idyllic legendary (medieval) past.
German Sturm and Drang (associated with Herder) was an early romantic movement. It celebrated German myth and folklore. It expressed itself in music, art, literature, and philosophy.
Romanticism is a moral value system (not just an aesthetic). It values passion (love, hate, pride, jealousy, fury, contempt) and passionate action (violence, murder, revenge) irrespective of the social consequences. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an example. Her noble monster wants to be loved, but society rejects him, driving him to hatred and murder. The monster was above morality because his passion drove his murders. (We sympathize for the killer, not the victims.)
The romantic Lord Byron was an aristocratic rebel. He championed the rebellious anti-hero. He idolized Napoleon, lamenting his defeat. Byron had a profound impact on Germany. He inspired revolutionary heroism.
Byron was an aristocratic rebel. He felt shunned by an aristocratic society that he wasn’t born into. Byron inherited his estate (after a childhood in squalor) and came from a “bad family” (with a lawless reputation). He was self-conscious, limping from a foot deformity. Byron was bisexual and engaged in scandalous love affairs. He cultivated the persona of a great sinner (likening himself to Satan).
Byron championed the rebellious anti-hero. His heroes were rebels, vengeful villains, such as his pirate in “The Corsair”:
“He knew himself a villain – but he deem’d,
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the the bolder spirit plainly did.”
He rejected Christian morality. He fancied himself above contemptable mankind’s hypocritical morality.
Byron idolized Napoleon, lamenting his defeat. His “Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte” evoked Satanic imagery.
“’TIS done—but yesterday a King!
And arm’d with Kings to strive—
And now thou art a nameless thing:
So abject—yet alive!
Is this the man of thousand thrones,
Who strew’d our earth with hostile bones,
And can he thus survive?
Since he, miscalled the Morning Star,
Nor man nor fiend hath fallen so far.”
He likens Napoleon (who strewed the earth with bones) to Satan (the Morning Star).
“The Desolator desolate!
The Victor overthrown!
The Arbiter of others’ fate
A Suppliant for his own!
Is it some yet imperial hope
That with such change can calmly cope?
Or dread of death alone?
To die a prince—or live a slave—
Thy choice is most ignobly brave!”
He hero worships a Satanic vision of Napoleon (the Desolator), echoing Milton’s Paradise Lost (“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”).
Byron had a profound impact on Germany. Many Germans saw Napoleon as an Antichrist who threatened the German nation. Prussian Chancellor Bismarck saw Napoleon as an Antichrist to be imitated. Napoleon was Hegel’s “world-historical individual”. He was Nietzsche’s Superman. Byron helped infuse Germany with hero worship and amoral militarism.
Byron was a revolutionary. He is considered a hero of the Greek War for Independence against the Ottoman Empire. He raised money for the revolution, helped finance the war, and provided humanitarian aid; then, fell sick and died in Greece. Byron inspired future revolutionaries, including Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Byron was profoundly influential. He inspired the collectivist Left and Right. His admirers included the hero-worshiping Thomas Carlyle (who unwittingly inspired Nazi hero worship). Byron’s romantic aesthetic inspired revolutionaries. His romantic amorality and careless contempt for humanity inspired ideologies that caused terrible carnage.
Romanticism’s aesthetic has a stirring and enduring emotional appeal (especially to rebellious youth). Romantic morality seems appalling and absurd. Consider a hypothetical. Your neighbor, Byron, is an aristocratic rebel:
- It is okay to kill Byron because you are jealous of his fame.
- It is okay to kill Byron because you envy his wealth.
- It is not okay to kill Byron to steal his gold.
As an individual ethic, romantic morality might be appealing (rebellious adolescent fantasy, freedom from moral constraints to act with reckless abandon). As a community ethic, it has been catastrophe (anarchy, murder, rape, violence, societal collapse, economic collapse, famine, disease, untold suffering) – not in theory, but in historical fact.
First world anarchists (cozy and safe from such horrors) enjoy the luxury of fantasy. The present victims of such horrors wish for better. The past victims (men, women, children) did also.
Industrialization helps lead to socialism. Next: Part 19, Basic Economics.