Lenin, Mao, and the Enlightenment

Andrew Stuttaford debunks John Gray’s charges that Mao and Lenin were “disciples of an Enlightenment ideology”.

First Gray:

Equating fundamentalism with terrorism is loose thinking, but the biggest drawback is the loss of historical memory that making the parallel entails. Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to “Enlightenment values”.

Stuttaford’s retort:

To suggest that Lenin and Mao were  “disciples of an Enlightenment ideology” may be a familiar line of attack, but that doesn’t make it correct. In fact, their ideology (such as it was) was drenched in religious tradition, Messianic fervor and simple bloodlust. It is better seen not as part of the Enlightenment tradition, but as a romantic, irrational reaction against it. As for being “secular”, well, yes and no. Traditional gods were merely replaced by a mystical belief in historical determinism and cults of state and ‘the people’. These may have come with a (sometimes only nominal) rejection of the supernatural, but they are difficult to describe as truly secular – at least in any meaningful sense.

For my own remarks related to this piece, see How Atheists Can Avoid Other Fundamentalisms: By Focusing On Rationalism First And Foremost

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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