Philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels


Today it is fashionable in some quarters to dismiss Karl Marx because of his apparently “failed” theory of an inevitable revolution in which the lower classes, realizing their exploitation, would rebel against those who owned the means of production. Witnessing the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many said, “Marx was wrong.” This rather anachronistic judgment fails to take into account that Marx was not an economist but a philosopher and that he could not see into a future in which capitalism would create a dazzling world of commodities that would tempt the working class to become consumers, buying into the very system that enslaved them.

In many ways, Hegel established a way of analyzing the past and set up a method by which Nineteenth Century historians could work. Karl Marx adapted Hegel’s idea of the dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis into what he called “dialectical materialism.” Instead of appealing to ideas, Marx appealed to historical forces, a theory of history or a theory of things. In contrast to Hegel’s “absolute” synthesis of categories, Marx was critical of “ideas,” which are empty and produce ideology. Like Hegel, Marx claimed scientific precision for his philosophy with history as measurable record of clear progress. History, for Hegel, consisted of opposing forces: thesis and anti-thesis that over time would evolve into a synthesis that would, in its turn, become the new thesis. Through these colliding forces, new stages would be reached and progress would occur. Marx was deeply concerned with social process/progress. As a materialist, Marx’s ideas were phenomenological and not transcendental but he gave a great deal of attention to Hegel’s philosophy of history. As Marx commented,

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when men seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language…”

Marx was also aware of the ideas of Kant and knew that Kant’s Copernican Revolution needed to be taken into account. Kant, Hegel, and Marx were Determinists, that is, they all created philosophical systems that had a high explanatory value—each system could answer all the questions. The difference in the thinking of these philosophers rested upon what forces determined their particular structure. For Kant, the a priori workings of the human mind determined his system of knowledge, for Hegel it was the dialectic, and for Marx, it was the economic system. Marx asserted that people are not free to choose social relations but are constrained by material reality, which is determined by economic production.

The key to Marx’s system is dialectical materialism, and his dialectic was the class system created by the capitalist system. The creation of a privileged upper moneyed class and a dispossessed underclass resulted in a clash between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The basis of society or the skeleton of society is economics. Marx created a social model that distinguished between base and superstructure. The base is the mode of production, which in Marx’s time is capitalism; and the superstructure can be defined as the social structures produced by human consciousness. The superstructure is the laws and politics that define the form of social consciousness. Consisting of education, cultural customs, political and legal practices, the superstructure both produces and reinforces an ideology, which functions to legitimate the power of the ruling class.

Human consciousness is determined by the mode of production or the economic system. According to Marx, material relations between things are part of universal laws of history. Marx wrote of the fatal evolution of capitalism, which is characterized by the domination of the bourgeoisie or middle class society who owns the mode of production and its necessary exploitation of the lower classes who produce the wealth. The Bourgeoisie created a new social class, the urban poor, or the proletariat, that was collected into urban centers and concentrated in masses that could be exploited by the new system. In contrast to the previous system, feudalism, value-in-exchange, capitalism is an abstract system, based upon an abstract concept called “money” and is not attached to the external qualities of things. Feudalism was a system based upon barter and upon a system of responsibilities. Thing was exchanged for thing, obligation was exchanged for obligation. A peasant could exchange a cow for a pig and give a portion of the harvest to the feudal lord who, in turn would protect the peasant who took care of the land he owned.

Within capitalism, a thing, an object is priced abstractly on the open market and will be sold according to what “the market will bear,” or according to what people will pay for it. The end “value” of the object on the market has no relation to what those who own the means of producing the thing pay the workers for their labor. Human “labor” is embedded in goods and becomes abstracted. In capitalism, the worker is alienated from the object and the difference between what s/he is paid and what the object sells for creates “surplus value,” which is appropriated by owner of capital who has exploited the laborer’s lack of alternatives. The excessive supply of labor drives wages down. The minimum cost of making the product is covered by the laborer in a few hours, while the surplus or excess “value” goes to the employers. According to Engels, “The appropriation of unpaid labor is the basis of the capitalist mode of production and the exploitation of the worker….”

When the surplus value, created by the worker, is appropriated by the owner of capital, a dialectic is created between “labor and management,” and management’s exploitation of the helpless laborers leads to a class struggle. The competition among the capitalists functions according to the law of capital accumulation or the concentration of wealth in a few hands. The capitalist impulse is towards monopoly control of production, such as seen currently in the business model of Microsoft. The end result is that capital becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of the few, and unemployment grows as production becomes more technologically efficient. The result is overproduction and a crisis, such as seen in the American automotive industry.

The crisis of overproduction is resolved by opening new markets, which become new centers of production. The old markets are limited in ability to absorb goods, which increases stress on the producers who must sell commodities. Theoretically, the consumer needs only one television set but to resolve the stress a new and false need must be created, such as a television set for every member of the family. The problem of overproduction is solved by manufactured desires that engender new demands for the new commodities, which are absorbed into the community. Marx and Engels stated,

“…the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and with them all the relations of society…constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones…”

Marx and Engels wrote a theory of social causation or historical determinism and understood history to be a history of class struggles with every epoch having a prevailing mode of economic production and exchange. The human being and human consciousness and social organization necessarily followed from this basis of political and intellectual history.

Also read: “Late Nineteenth Century Philosophy” and “Marx, Engels, and Alienation”

and “Marx, Engels, and Property” and “Marx, Engels, and Capitalism” and “Marxism, Art and the Artist”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution

The English Invention

For the artist of the modern period, the most essential problem was how to depict the modern: as a new style, as new content, as a new attitude? Each generation would find its own answer, only to have the next generation find this answer inadequate. In the process of attempting to locate the “modern,” the role of art would change, the role of the artist would change, the role of the public would change, and ironically, the artist and the public would become completely separate. How did the artist become separated from the mass art audience? This estrangement was the result of significant social and economic changes that gradually changed the artist’s role in society. The condition of the avant-garde—that is, artists being “ahead” of the public’s taste and expectations—is closely linked to the development of the Industrial Revolution. This social and economic revolution in manufacturing was, perhaps, both the most sudden and swift and also the most complete and comprehensive revolution in history: it changed everything. But–and this is an important element of the revolution–the technological advances introduced the notion of change, interjected notions of novelty and progress into society, long before the actual industrial evolution had arrived.

The trend away from small scale artisanal or intimate domestic manufacture towards mass production began around 1740 in England and a bit later in America with the industrialization of the textile industry and the development of mining to find the coal to run the machines to run the textile mills. In England and America, these mills sprang up near rivers, a source of natural power and thousands of workers were pulled from the surrounding countryside to new factory towns, lining the river banks. Under the auspices of Josiah Wedgwood, the the first assembly line was set up for the mass production of fine pottery in a new factory at Etruria. Not to be confused with the moving conveyor belt deployed by Henry Ford more than a century later, Wedgewood’s establishment divided the production of a single vessel into segments in which the crafting of a single part was the sole task of a a worker. The potters of Etruria were therefore separated according to their assigned tasks and each focused on one aspect of the making of the object. This separation of labor into specific repetitive tasks and the “alienation”–as Karl Marx would have it–of the worker from the product would be the model for mass manufacturing for the Industrial Revolution.

Pre-revolutinary manufacture was in the hands of one maker who was the “designer” who made a unique hand made item from start to finish and was thus totally identified with this object. Whether this was a piece of luxurious jewelry for a courtier or a laboriously hewn wooden bowl handed down within a peasant family, the craftsperson was not separated from his or her own tools or from the resulting product. The industrial revolution was based upon separating the worker from the tools, which are owned by the factory, and from the completed object, which emerges fully formed at some point far away from most of the workers who contributed to its making. These separations are extremely efficient and allows depersonalized manufacture on a large scale of a mass number of consumer goods. Mass production meant mass profits for the owners. Thanks to the increasing importance of industry to the economy, the workplace moved from the home to an environment that was artificial, where there was no day and no night, only endless labor. The factory was among the first truly “modern” works of architecture, specifically designed for a designated purpose. The exterior was usually long and low with glazed walls, allowing for the maximum amount of light to pour into the long open workspaces inside. The machines could be placed row upon row, operated by low paid workers, supervised by the all seeing eyes of the overseers. This interior environment was based upon the relentless rhythms of the omnipresent machines that ruled those who worked for and with them, severing the workers from the outdoor world of nature and its eternal rhythms, and harnessing them to the mechanical demands of animated devices.

Beneath the earth, miners toiled in an equally artificial environment, in total darkness broken only by candles, in constant danger from escaping gases or cave-ins or flooding. Here in the mines, as in the factory, night and day had no meaning, time itself was unnatural, linked to the length of the “shift,” or the span of time one worked, not to the rising and setting of the sun or to the cycle of the seasons. Far from home, severed from the land, people–men, women and children–now worked long days, measured by carefully segmented time, in dangerous places for low pay. There was no concept of worker safety, of benefits to the laborers, of a living wage, because the alternatives for those formerly of the peasant class were few. In England, their way of life was effectively ended with the closure of the Commons, or lands that had been, through customs and practice, been set aside for centuries for the benefit of the lower class community. The owners of the land, the gentry had traditionally felt an obligation, noblesse oblige–inferred responsibility–to take care of the less fortunate. The medieval arrangement of mutual recognition between “master” and “servant” worked until a more profitable alternative presented itself, a shift that began to manifest itself in the early eighteenth century. Farming crops became less profitable than a combination of farming coupled with the raising of livestock on a large scale. Slowly the Commons closed: fences were erected, walls were built, people were shut out and forced to seek work in the factories that were springing up, conveniently, at the same time. Hungry peasants joined the growing army of industrial workers.


1860 view of Wedgwood’s Etruria Works

Labor in the factories, as was pointed out, was very different from the labor of the fields, and people had to be trained to the new demands of life in the enclosed factory and the dark and dank mines. One had to be taught to endure work that was hard and difficult, often deadly and dangerous. Humans were “disciplined,” as Michel Foucault explained, through time honored methods developed by monasteries and carried over to the military and to schools and finally into factories. In Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Foucault wrote,

Disciplinary control does not consist simply in teaching or imposing a series of particular gestures, it imposes the best relation between a gesture and the overall position of the body which is its condition of efficiency and speed. In the correct use of the body, which makes possible a correct use of time, nothing must remain idle or useless: everything must be called upon to form the support of the act required.

“Labor” became a new kind of concept, referring to a new kind of work regulated by the rhythm of the “shift” or the number of hours worked and, therefore, timed to the ticking of the clock. Time itself was sped up, cut, like the gestures of the body, into tiny pieces, and adapted to the needs of the task at hand. Work, too was speeded up and was equally divided into a segmented process. In dusty, noisy factories, absorbed in repetitive tasks, working like machines, the workers were also alienated from the end product, the result of a rational and an analytic process, which investigated and examined each aspect of manufacture, a mode of thinking that would, in the twentieth century be called “Fordism” or time and motion studies. The factory was a vast machine, and the workers mere cogs in the machine. The process and pace of manufacture ruled their lives and their deaths.

With the social and financial shift from landed wealth to industrial wealth, money and power were no longer solely dependent upon inherited position and were increasingly based upon new opportunities provided by trade and commerce and manufacture. The shift in social power also moved the site of culture from the aristocratic courts to urban centers, teaming with ambitious middle class individuals, all determined to take advantage of the opportunities capitalism promised. The medieval world, largely rural and ruled by the landed gentry and an unquestioned habitus, or habitual learned behavior, depended upon personal contacts consisting of mutual obligations, and this world simply disappeared. Money and the exchange of money could not recognize moral values and the profit motive ruled all actions. Not until well int the twentieth century were there any constraints on the actions of capitalism, a cultural force beyond the control of mere individuals. Nevertheless, people were shaped by the demands of capitalism, which in the eighteenth century was global and international. Newly rich middle class individuals created prosperity for themselves and controlled the new sources of wealth, whether through manufacture or trade, as completely as the now-deposed aristocrats had once ruled their domains. While the middle class rose, working conditions actually declined in quality for the lower class workers, regardless of age, who worked every day for well over ten hours a day under inhuman and unhealthy conditions.

Despite the unprecedented hardships on the workers, the Industrial Revolution allowed a new form of upward mobility. Any man (not women) with wit and foresight and a few good ideas could become wealthy and powerful, taking advantage of new prospects and horizons. Two hundred years ago, vast fortunes were made by the newly formed middle class, who had scrambled up the social ladder, eager to forget their humble origins. Coming from the lower classes, the peasants and the urban proletariat, the factory workers operated machines which fabricated products on a massive scale, making consumer goods available to the entire population, making the owners of the factories wealthy while raising the standard of living for everyone, even, by the twentieth century, for the laborers. Those who owned the manufacturing process—mining and making—enjoyed the fruits of what the Prussian philosopher, Karl Marx, called “surplus value,” meaning the difference what the worker was actually paid and what the object was actually sold for. Even today, the average worker, whether in a factory or field or a tech lab, is paid for about two hours a day, with the owner pocketing the other six hours as profit. This profit is usually shared with stockholders and not with the workers. Today, for example, the shareholders demand and end to labor, which is expensive, and ask the owners to increase returns by shifting to automation or by finding cheaper workers. During the eighteenth century, the middle class grew in social and political power and became their own investors, elevating each other as bankers, lawyers, and manufactures, participating in the new system of exchange and international trade. The profits were theoretically endless. Land is limited; farming is dependent upon weather; manufacturing, on the other hand, is limited only by demand and independent of anything but the marketplace, which was, as Karl Marx pointed out, driven by bourgeois desires for commodities. Later, Sigmund Freud would agree with Marx that a commodity was a mere symptom or a fetish, guaranteed to create, not to satisfy desire.

The manufacture of commodities necessitated the training of a new kind of individual, the consumer, who would be willing to purchase the new, the novel and the innovative. The consumer society was built on endless change and turnover of ever new objects to admire, desire and purchase. The spenders were, at first, the moneyed class, now defined, not by birth, but by ability to consume. Once acquired by the acquisitive class, the ephemeral commodity would “melt into air,” as Marx put it, only to be replaced by the next fad and the next novelty, the new desire. It is during the nineteenth century, that this system of “melting” would be formalized into a social practice called “fashion,” centering at first upon clothing. The creation of the web of commodities exploited the rights of the workers who were so blinded by their collective need to survive and make a living of sorts that they dared not complain. Caught up in a apparatus that was the vast economy, the worker was oppressed and was socially and cognitively conditions or disciplined to accept his or her fate. Writing the Communist Manifesto (1848) in exile in England, the Prussian philosopher imagined an uprising of the proletariat once the “veil” of ideology was torn from its eyes. The workers would recognize that their wages were stolen, that their souls were crushed, and that they had rights and power. Without them, the machines would stop as surely as if they had thrown their sabots into the gears. Under the spell of “consciousness raising,” the proletariat would seize the mode of production, and inaugurate the phase of the people’s ownership–“the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Witnessing the degradation of the workers on the eve of the Revolution of 1848, Marx waited in vain for the success of the workers’ uprising. But it was not to be. The Revolution which sprang up all over Europe was crushed by reactionary forces, the alliance of the governments with the owners of the modes of production. Another attempt was made to rise up in France in 1870 but once again, the lower classes were defeated and seemed to subside to the will of the ongoing Industrial Revolution.

It is important to note that only in England could Karl Marx had conceived of his economic and philosophical theories. The Industrial Revolution, which seemed so all-important in England and Scotland, actually spread very slowly to the continent. Decades after Marx completed his economic theories the industrial revolution and its effects began to alter France and then Germany. But in England, the shape of the Industrial Revolution and its effects on the construction of a new knot of human being, enmeshed in a new system of human relations, based upon reciprocal powers. The internal workings of the system were disguised by the beguiling array of commodities offered to the workers. Buttressed by capitalism, the Industrial Revolution offered more chances for social mobility than political revolution. If one worked hard, then one could join the class of consumers. Increasingly workers were seduced by the all-powerful commodity, which, as Marx noted, had the qualities of the fetish to arouse desire.

“Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The newfangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character. At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to have become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy.”

During the nineteenth century, burgeoning technology was buttressed by an unfettered optimism that the quality of life was improving, offering more opportunities for more people. It was an era when most people believed in Progress, not just of science and technology, but also for human beings themselves. It was an article of faith that industrialization had ushered in a better way of life, which, like the human beings who benefited from it, would develop and evolve in a positive direction. The world became defined by constant changes, some of which were good, but there was a dark side to the state of flux: upheaval and disequilibrium. Old worlds were destroyed and the new worlds were not easily reached by those who had been displaced off the farm and from the factory or out of the office. The alternative belief system was that of a sense of a Mastery of Nature. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, human beings seemed to be in control of the environment, capable of acting as designers of Nature itself. Although by the time the Industrial Revolution was fully in effect, the Enlightenment as a philosophical or social movement was long over, but the new economic system of capitalism still echoed some of the Enlightenment’s most cherished concepts: optimism and progress.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
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Revolution and Terror in France


The Revolution and Terror in France

When the American Revolutionary War was waged, the conflict was unpopular both in England and America. Only one third of the colonists supported and participated in the War. And yet the Revolution was won—astonishingly—by the upstart colonists; and suddenly America was on its own, as the “United States,” embarking on one of the most revolutionary governments of all time, a democracy. It cannot be exaggerated how experimental this new nation seemed to the Europeans. America was an unprecedented ideal realized and many observers predicted failure and chaos. It also cannot be exaggerated how much Europeans distrusted the very concept of “democracy,” or rule of the “mob.” “Government by the people, for the people,” as Lincoln said later, was a horrifying concept in Europe. And with good reason, from the perspective of the sober middle class, the “dangerous” lower classes were to be feared. Those fears were manifested in France, only a few years after the formation of the United States of America, when another Revolution erupted in 1789. All fears of the wrath of the lover classes were realized, and, in France, this revolution was bloody and violent, utterly without common sense or reason.

Unlike the American Revolution, as much as it was a revolution against a King ,the French Revolution was a civil war, a war between the classes. For centuries the lower classes had been repressed and kept under the delicate high heels of the aristocracy, which refused to part with any of its age old privileges. Those with titles lived in a world of the past, frozen in amber, clinging to a past, unaware of the dangers of the present. The middle class, literate and educated and ambitious were steeped in the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment. The real civil war in France was between the past and the future, with the Revolution as the blood midwife of the present, giving violent birth and presiding over gruesome death. The American Revolution pitted one restive nation against an oppressive parent nation, but the French went war with themselves as class fought class for survival and dominance. The reasons for the French rebelled against King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were quite different and more personal compared the the distant antagonism of the Americans to a far-away King George III, who suddenly tried to tax them. Their political cry–“no taxes without representation”–was a demand for equality, but the slogan fell on deaf ears. It was quite possible that if the Crown had negotiated with the colonists, an agreement might have been reached, but in France there was no possibility of reasoning with the angry proletariat. Although inspired by Enlightenment philosophy, the French Revolution began, not with the middle classes, but with the lower classes. The sans coulottes, or the proletariat, had suffered under the unbending rule of the aristocracy and were struggling with the impact of a change in climate, known as The Little Ice Age, which brought years of crop failure and famine. In addition to the lowering of temperatures, a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 resulted in devastated harvests. After years of dramatically cold winters and devastatingly hot summers, there was a significant shortage of grains and bread riots began in 1789. The starving proletariate demanded that the inert government act to protect its people.

The lower classes, the peasants, tired, overworked, and hungry, and they spontaneously rose up to protest their hardships. The proletariat was not inspired by ideas of their “natural rights;” they were starving. When the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers filtered down to them, these modern ideas were rejected by the lower classes, who felt threatened by modernity and its attack on a traditional way of life. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, it was the well-educated aristocrats in France and England supported the Revolution, acting from a moral and philosophical point of view, never thinking they would be in danger. Those of the upper class who were wealthy and prospering from new economic opportunities had everything to gain from establishing a constitutional monarchy along the lines of the arrangement in England. Although the heroes of the American Revolution, Washington and Lafayette, were greatly admired in France, the ultimate model for the French Revolutionaries was Britain, which had a constitutional monarchy and an established aristocracy. America was too democratic for French needs.

By 1788, France was in a crisis of confidence concerning the incompetent rulers, King Louis XVI and his Austrian Queen, Marie Antoinette. As if the bloodline of French royalty and thinned into this indifferent couple which was positively incontinent when it came to spending money. But it was not the extravagant Marie Antoinette and her famous diamond necklace which bankrupted France. The French monarch actually cost the French people half of what the British monarchy cost the English. Ironically, the nation’s financial troubles stemmed from its alliance with the American colonies in the War of Independence. The saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” could have been applied to the unhappy French royal family after America became independent. Not that the French were supporting democracy; the French were fighting England for continental and international dominance. The French had gone into debt to finance the Seven Years’ War with England and the desire for revenge had propelled them into another war, using America as their pawn. All the French wanted to do was to slow the dominance of the British Empire but the law of unintended consequences came into effect: as a result of supporting the American cause and humiliating the British, the nation was bankrupt and there were severe food shortages with no money to pay for imported food.

The war fought for American independence, told from the French perspective, is unrecognizable to an American: the powerful and competent French won the war for the incompetent and stalemated Americans, but great cost financially. The difficulty of recovering from a costly war is a also modern problem, and, even today, recovering from the expense of a war can easily take a decade. For example, it took America some twenty years to recover from the expense of the Vietnam War, hence the prosperity of the 1990s. But France was reeling from the impact of climate change, and the nation was a largely feudal nation faced with the coming of modern capitalism but still lacking the modern financial instruments to solve their problems. Then, as now, no one wanted to be taxed to pay for the war, even a war that was so full of celebrated and adored heroes, such as Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Layfayette. The war had to be paid for and the King was persuaded to call representatives of the people together to work out a workable tax system to pay for the war.

The philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau had taken such a hold on the imagination of the ruling class that the King was forced to bend to the logic of “natural law” and “natural rights.” An amateur watch maker, Louis XVI seemed to genuinely want to be the kind of good ruler demanded by the Enlightenment and he made he mistake of calling together the Estates General, a representative body with a medieval ancestry. The Estates General, which had not been called since 1616, consisted of the First Estate, the nobles, the Second Estate, the clergy, and the Third Estate, the middle class. The representatives were supposed to solve the problems of France by raising taxes on the people, but the men who gathered together began to imagine a new system of government entirely. The problem was that the three estates had equal votes and the first and second estates aligned themselves against the third estate. After six weeks of contention, the Third Estate pulled out and declared themselves the National Assembly, meeting on a tennis court, jeu de paume, to take an oath to stay together until, like the Americans, they wrote a Constitution. In the end, rather than helping the King solve the problems of the nation, this distaff group eventually deposed the monarchy. Once painter the the aristocrats, Jacques Louis David, depicted the dramatic moment of the oath taking, showing the excitement of runaway emotion and demonstrating his flexibility in the face of a changing client base.

Jacques-Louis David. The Tennis Court Oath (1791)

The word of the hour was “citizen,” which also meant patriot or someone who served the patrie or nation, not the King. Originally intended to be an inclusive term, it would later be an excluding term. While the aristocrats limited their revolutionary gestures to divesting themselves of their titles (not their lands or wealth) and privileges, the sans coulottes (who did not wear breeches and hose but the long trousers of the working class male) desperately needed help. It is one thing to be unhappy with your rulers; it is another thing entirely to be hungry with no prospects for change. The French Revolution began in 1789, the same year the Americans were writing a Constitution, opening dramatically on July 14 with the storming of the Bastille, an infamous but largely empty prison. From the start, the Revolution was an unstable entity, driven by mob anger, which led to the Terror of 1793-94. The transfer of power from the aristocrats to the middle class ended with the execution of the King and Queen and the annihilation of a large portion of the aristocratic class. Thousands of people, the wealthy, the well-born, and their servants died under the new invention, the guillotine, at the hands of a blood thirsty mob. Indeed, many of those titled men who had so passionately supported the Revolution lost their heads to a new invention, the guillotine, because, as aristocrats, they could never be “citizens.”

As though the regicide of the King loosened something in the French people, the year of the execution of Louis XVI opened the Reign of Terror under the auspices of the Revolutionary Tribunal over 30, 000 people perished under the blade of the guillotine. The instrument of Terror was the Committee of Safety, where the major leaders of the Revolution, Robespierre, Danton, and Sainte-Juste, took away all of the rights won by the early years of the Revolution and reinstalled all of the oppressive practices of the monarchy. The reasons for setting up this deadly tribunal were, according to Sophie Wahnich, was to turn the attentions of the French people from unruly vengeance to the task of defending the Revolution against the European powers threatening to invade France and end the Revolution. But there were enemies within as well who much be purged so that the people could see that the leaders were preventing “injustice.” As Wahnich wrote in 2012 In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution,

The Terror presupposed quick action so as to defeat the enemies before they destroyed the Revolution so that the people would not be disgusted by injustice, and wold not have to take up unheeding injury in their exercise of the sovereign exception, and to effectively restrain this founding sovereignty. The exercise of Terror was thus a race against time. It was undoubtedly here that the project became impossible:to give the expected justice a form that was at the same time controlled–and do so at lightening speed.

The French were unfortunate in their leaders, or rather, their lack of real leadership or moral or ethical guidance. This revolution thrust up rabble-rousers and demagogues, ambitious and unscrupulous men, all determined to ride the wave of revolution into greater power. In the end, they all wound up victims of the very rage they had stirred up. Although the notorious Committee of Safety was in charge, no one was in control. There were only those who aroused the mod, like Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, Georges Jacques Danton, and Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Juste. The result was that the Revolution ran wild as the lower classes vented their anger on the aristocrats and ordinary people, during the years known as the Terror from 1793 to 1795. As Robespierre thundered, “Softness to traitors will destroy us all.” Actually Robespierre was involved in an internal struggle among the revolutionaries over who would control the Revolution and he attempted to ride the tiger he set loose. As every demagogue finds out, it is dangerous to unleash the passions of the mod, because the same crowd that lifted him up can cast him down. Marat was assassinated, Robespierre and Saint-Juste, “the archangel of the Revolution,” were executed in the Thermidorian Reaction, Danton created the Committee of Public Safety and then warned that the Revolution was spiraling out of control, only to be executed by the Committee he founded.

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. Louis Antoine de Saint-Juste (1793)

The French Revolution degenerated into horror. Added to surveillance, spying and denunciation were massacres, mass executions and near genocide of a single class. In the end the leaders of the mob all went to that instrument of a human and “democratic” death, the guillotine. The question is when did the French Revolution end? Unlike the American Revolution, there was no moment of victory or surrender but a slow and disorderly internal struggle with in the new “government” formed in 1795, the Directory, to retain power among themselves and to keep the “mod,” still hungry and still angry and still powerless, under control. The “official” end, if there was one, was the Coup of Brumaire in 1799. Under the leadership of Director Emmanuel Joseph Sieyés, who installed an undefeated general, named Napoléon Bonaparte, he though was controllable and Pierre-Roger Ducos, who had supported him in the Coup. The three formed the Consulate and the military took control.

The rest, as they say, is history. The power vacuum left behind by the killing of the king was to be filled by a new leader, who could bring order out of chaos by protecting the French from the European armies, which were advancing towards the country to put an end to the savage rebellion and restore the monarchy. Napoléon Bonaparte waited politely for three years before he removed his fellow counsels and reinstalled the idea of total power being held by one man, ending the goals and the ideals of a Revolution gone wrong.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

The Enlightenment: Introduction


A Question of Philosophy

Like any great cultural change, the Enlightenment was long in gestation, but its range was short. The Enlightenment, a revolution in philosophy, was strictly a Western phenomenon, linked to Modernism in the sense that certain “modern” social and economic conditions propelled a new form of thinking. When these modern conditions did not exist, the Enlightenment or something like it did not emerge, simply because there was no need for a new epistemology. There was no Enlightenment in Africa, Asia or India, meaning that any discussion of the Enlightenment must acknowledge and deal with its limitations. For example, although the Enlightenment was confined to Europe and America, the philosophical systems it engendered were not extended to either women or people of color. By the eighteenth century, a critical mass of philosophical thinking and social custom had emerged, reflecting a newly capitalistic form of exchange and the consequent rise of a middle class. The Enlightenment can be understood precisely in terms of its entomology–that which sheds light: light into the darkness of religious “superstition,” a word that very precisely targeted religious thinking dependent upon the will of God. The principal conflict of the Enlightenment was the contest between established religious beliefs and a growing body of scientific knowledge that grounded knowledge, not in the mind of God, but in an exercise of empirical evidence. Upon this dialectic between faith and science, struggles for social, political, and economic parity would be launched and would last to this very day. The Enlightenment as a very particular way of thinking in the West resulted in the so-called “death of God” and the rise of science.

Once the social and political links with God were broken, slowly over a century a series of dominoes tumbled. First, the Enlightenment established new philosophical ideas concerning the grounds of knowledge–epistemology—that is the knowledge was based upon empirical observation and provable hypotheses. Second, the new economic system, capitalism was global by the eighteenth century and created new wealth for an emergent class, constructing itself in the space in between the aristocrats who inherited their power and the lower classes who were legally powerless. It was the desire of this new class to encroach upon the powers of kings and courtiers, that new ideals, such as “liberty, equality and fraternity,” “all men are created equal,” and the “inalienable right” of the “pursuit of happiness” would emerge. What were essentially political slogans, designed to delegitimize the ruling class, became, over time, ideals which would not be forgotten, but it would take time for the Enlightenment to become more than the concepts of speculative philosophers and the cant of aspiring politicians to become a gradually unfolding reality that would impact all people, not just white males with property.

A complex phenomenon, the Enlightenment was defined by one central question: how can life be lived and understood without God? If God was “dead,” as Friedrich Nietzsche proposed a century later, then the Deity was certainly an animated corpse, going to its demise, kicking and screaming, and becoming reanimated at unpredictable intervals. The Enlightenment was confronted with Counter-Enlightenments, such as Romanticism and Catholic revivals, but politics, society and economics continued their inexorable march down the secular the West. The twenty-first-century saw the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim communities of the Middle East and Asia as a direct counter response to the invasion of modernity from the West. Over time, Christianity came to occupy a smaller place in Western culture and ceased to be the basis for society’s belief system, while thriving in certain communities in segments of Europe and America. The new century would witness the reemergence of faith-based thought, resistant to science and to empirical testing. The question for the Enlightenment today would be are these vestigial reactions or a genuine pendulum swing against three centuries of being “enlightened?”

Once religious faith had permeated Western life and the answer to all questions was “God’s will.” It was God’s will that the king ruled the realm; it was God’s will that the duke in the castle should be respected. In other words, God’s will held up and reinforced the existing power structure, a truth that did not escape the revolutionaries of both the American and French revolutions.Unquestioning belief in God was challenged by two forces that proved to be critical to Enlightenment thinking. First, was the idea of “natural rights,” that is, the notion that people were created free and equal and had, as human beings, certain rights that could not be violated. The concept of “natural rights” would be articulated by Enlightenment philosophers, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Thomas Jefferson but it dated back to the Twelfth Century and was present in a nascent form during the Medieval era. The second crucial element in creating the Enlightenment was the explosion of scientific experimentation and results, such as the revelation of Copernicus that the earth revolved a around the sun, that shattered doctrines supported by the Church, such as the earth was the center of the universe. Although there were certain scientific discoveries that particularly irked the religious authorities, such as the findings of Galileo, the combined weight of empiricism and the scientific method undermined the ability of religion to insist upon unquestioning belief, once these beliefs had been scientifically disproven. Doubt entered into society.

Western culture shifted decisively towards secular questions and secular answers. The result of secularism was a ripple effect that questioned the validity of the “divine right to rule,” creating a question of how could society be governed without God. It was not just a question of government in the sense of whether or not to continue with Kings and Emperors but government in the sense of self-governance. Without religious edicts telling people what to do, what kind of system would take the place of God’s law? Just as scientists rewrote the knowledge of the universe, philosophers sought a new epistemology or ground for social relations. But even more urgent was the problem of knowledge. Without God, what was knowable and how? A new epistemology of knowledge had to be established. The profound secularization that is the Enlightenment has installed suspicion of authority, tradition, and divine right to rule in the West. Using the deductive and logical practices of science, rational thinking, and the powers of human reason, the Enlightenment set out to discover universal laws, to take the place of God. To the extent it was successful, the Enlightenment ended eighteen hundred years of spiritualized thinking. As Thomas Carlyle said, “Philosophers strove to sink the supernatural to the natural.” The concepts of “Nature” and “Natural Law” and “Natural Rights” and “Progress” could be used as powerful weapons against traditional powers that once ruled by “divine right.” The concept of “nature” or the “natural” could be used as powerful weapons to deny participation and power to those declared to be outside the confines of progress, such as women and people of color who were tied to Nature and therefore were beyond the forces of History and thus, the democratic fruits of the new social system.

Emmanuel Kant once stated, “If someone asks are we living in an Enlightened Age today? The answer would be, ‘No,’ but we are living in an age of Enlightenment.” The opening lines to his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment were,

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.

Although the Enlightenment could not guarantee fully enlightened thinking, but the alternative to the Enlightenment, with all of its a prorias was, as David Hume, remarked, “..stupidity, Christianity, and ignorance.” The men who made the new laws were bold, brave and even arrogant, quite capable of using “enlightened” modes of thinking to justify slavery and imperialism, all in the name of European superiority. Indeed in 1784 Moses Mendelsshon remarked in “On the Enlightening Mind,”

Where the enlightening and cultivation of mankind advance with equal pace, they become to each other the best security against corruption, and that civilization of any nation, which, according to the above definitions, consists of cultivation and an enlightened state of the public mind, is therefore the least liable to corruption. A civilized nation has no other internal danger to fear than the excess of its national happiness, which, like the most perfect health of the human body, may be called either in itself a disease, or at least a passage to it. A nation which has through civilization attained the highest pinnacle of national happiness, is for that very reason in danger of falling; whereas it cannot rise higher: but this would lead us too far from the question before us.

In his recent 2010 book, The Enlightenment: A Geneaology, the historian Dan Edelstein, suggested that the modern Enlightenment, apart from its early roots in the writings of English or Dutch philosophers, really began with the French philosophes of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. He credited this century of philosophers as creating not so much an epistemology as a compelling narrative of Enlightenment which explained the ideas of Reason and Natural Rights that would change the culture. It should be noted that there is a reason why the Enlightenment is as Charles W. J. Withers asserted that the philosophical revolution had a particular geographic location: Europe and its tributaries. In his 2007 book Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically About the Age of Reason, Withers stated that the “where” of the Enlightenment was as important as the “what?”


17th century London Coffee House

Although international in scope, the ideas of the Enlightenment circulated among the “spaces,” as Withers pointed out, of the coffee houses and salons and drawing rooms of European cities, where people spoke, read and wrote in a limited number of languages–German, French, English and Dutch, that could be translated and circulated within a relatively limited sphere. The geography of the Enlightenment mirrored the geography of the Industrial Revolution and of Imperialism and of urban centers. This demarcated geography put artists, educated young men drawn to cities to study and to make their mark, in the center of the change. The new philosophical system proposed a new society and a new form of knowledge that would have profound impact upon art and artists, creating new ways of defining both art and artist and developing an entirely new branch of philosophy called “aesthetics.” The idea of “artistic freedom” is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment introduction of the concept of the “individual.” The idea of the defiant artist, challenging the establishment and shocking the conservative public is an Enlightenment concept of rethinking received wisdom.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
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