Jerry Z Muller on left and right-wing totalitarianism in the early 20th century

The choice of the proletariat rather than the Volk or nation reflected a deeper divergence between intellectuals of the left and right, a divergence whose origin lay in the eighteenth century. It hinged upon differing answers to the question What is the source of the purposes that men ought to hold in common, and of the institutions that embody those purposes?”

Those who believed that the ultimate source of such purposes lay in reason,” which was capable in principle of providing answers for men and women in all times and places, arrayed themselves as the party of Enlightenment. Despite great internal divergences, it was the universalist, cosmopolitan thrust of its thought that united what Peter Gay has called the party of humanity”-a designation that recaptures the self-understanding of the philosophes. Though it may have shifted the locus of reason in the direction of the methods of natural science, the Enlightenment maintained the far older belief in a rational universe with a necessary harmony of values accessible to human reason. The theory and practice of enlightened absolutism, revolutionary republicanism, and the application of the Code Napoleon to non-French nations within the Napoleonic empire all shared the premise that because men were fundamentally the same everywhere, there were universal goals and universalizable institutions for their pursuit. In its universalism–its commitment to a proletariat that was to know no fatherland and whose interests were held to be identical with those of humanity–Marxism and its totalitarian communist variant were intellectual descendants of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it was the premise and promise of universalism that made communism disproportionately attractive to intellectuals who sprang from ethnic and religious minorities.

The intellectuals who placed their hopes on totalitarian movements of the right usually descended from what Isaiah Berlin has termed the Counter-Enlightenment.” Its advocates formed no party; what they shared was a skepticism toward the central dogma of the Enlightenment,” the belief that the ultimate ends of all men at all times were identical and could be apprehended by universal reason. The orientation of the thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment was usually historicist and particularist. They regarded the attempt to discover universal standards of conduct as epistemologically flawed, and the attempt to impose such standards as a threat to the particular historical cultures from which individuals derived a sense of purpose and society a sense of cohesion. The thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment regarded the variety of existing historical cultures as both inescapable and intrinsically valuable and suggested that the multiplicity of historical cultures embodied values that were incommensurable or equally valid. For thinkers of the German Counter-Enlightenment such as Johann Gottfried von Herder and Justus Möser, cosmopolitanism was the shedding of all that makes one most human, most oneself. Although by no means uniform in their politics, they all resisted the attempt at a rational reorganization of society based upon purportedly universal and rationalist ideals

In countering the claims of the Enlightenment, the most original thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment enunciated claims that represented a major departure from the central stream of the Western tradition, which had held that problems of value were in principle soluble and soluble with finality. The Counter-Enlightenment, by contrast, maintained that the traditions which gave a group its identity and which were expressed in its culture were not themselves rationally grounded and could not always be rationally justified. The value of a culture or institution was conceived of as deriving from its history, from its role in the development of a particular group. Proponents of the Counter-Enlightenment such as Möser or Burke revived the argument of the Sophists that moral order was a product of convention that varied from group to group. To this they added the perception (pioneered by David Hume) that emotional attachment to an institution—what Burke called reverence”—was often a product of the institution’s longevity. This social-psychological perception lay at the heart of the argument for the functional value of continuity, a theme that provided the basis for numerous variations among later generations of conservative thinkers.

—The Other God That Failed (1988)

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