One of the most common arguments advanced against materialism and the Enlightenment is that it led to the horrors and deaths of the French Revolution, Soviet Stalinism, and the Maoist Cultural Revolution. Given that no one with the possible exception of Zizek wishes to see a repeat of these sorts of events, many recoil from any endorsement of materialism or the Enlightenment, lest they be identified with cold-blooded mass murderers. Rhetorically this entails that the signifier “materialism” goes underground, living a subterranian life, and discussions that take it as foundational that inquiry should seek naturalistic explanations without positing any form of transcendence become more improbable in the public space. I find it interesting, of course, that this criticism seems to come most often from those who are politically oriented with rightwing forms of thought, neoliberals, and those who are defenders of religion. The motivation for religious hostility towards materialism is obvious, as materialism undermines precisely the sorts of myth-based explanations and superstitions that the many religious folk would like to embrace. The principles of the Enlightenment are a threat to conservative orthodoxy due to the anti-authoritarian nature of reason.

I would be delighted to see a discussion about this. To what degree is this criticism legitimate and true? Was it really materialism per se that caused these horrors? What are some effective counter-arguments against these claims? If materialism and the Enlightenment did, in fact, have something to do with these events– i.e., if there was something internal to this sequence of thought that led to these events –in what way must these forms of thought undergo critical re-evaluation without sacrificing the core of these commitments? I personally believe we sacrifice too much, both rhetorically and conceptually, by giving up these words.

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