Marx's favourite writer Diderot: A subversive Enlightenment philosopher who opened new ideological fronts

Denis Diderot.

Diderot And the Art of Thinking Freely
Andrew S Curran
Other Press, 2019
520 pages
Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment
Robert Zaretsky
Harvard University Press, 2019
258 pages

Denis Diderot is now remembered, if at all, only as the name of a Metro railway station in an unfashionable neighbourhood of Paris. 

In his day, however, the 18th century Enlightenment philosopher was quite the subversive intellectual who parted the ideological fog of religious, moral and political backwardness for a view of the sunnier uplands of today’s society.

The biography of Diderot by Andrew Curran, a Wesleyan University Humanities professor in Connecticut, United States, vibrantly displays the radical arc of the life of the effervescent polymath. The son of a skilled cutler, Diderot, rather than take to honing knife blades for a livelihood, took to sharpening his mind on the whetstone of Reason instead.

As with many revolutionaries of that era, it all started with questioning Christianity. Diderot abandoned a Jesuit priesthood apprenticeship for sceptical writings on religion and society. A youthful poem in which Diderot looked forward to the day when the last king would be strangled with the intestines of the last priest was emblematic of the trouble Diderot was storing up.

Three months in prison duly came his way in 1749, with the threat of worse to come if he continued his freethinking ways — "the next time you find yourself here, you will never leave", threatened the Parisian chief of police. Prudently, Diderot heeded the warning but continued to write "for the bottom drawer", with one big exception: his co-editorship of, and prodigious writing for, the “supreme achievement of the French Enlightenment”, as Curran rightly calls the 28-volume Encyclopédie. Much more than being just a comprehensive dictionary of all knowledge, it was a “triumph of secularism and freedom of thought”.

In his article on Political Authority, for example, Diderot advanced the perilous idea that government legitimacy stems from the people, not God or dynastic succession. As well as challenging political aristocracy, the Encyclopédie opened an ideological front against the aristocracy of knowledge by treating the labour and skills of trades and craft workers in the same breath as religious dogma and superstition.

Although the Encyclopédie’s incendiary political properties were veiled in an allusive and indirect style to foil the vigilant but dim-witted censors, the project was shut down mid-alphabet by Versailles in 1759. The public prosecutor couldn’t quite pin it down, but he denounced the Encyclopédie anyway as a "conspiracy to propagate materialism, to destroy religion, to inspire a spirit of independence and to nourish the corruption of morals". Religious and royal harassment continued to dog the enterprise, and some contributors consequently found a new urgency in tending their gardens instead of their intellects. Yet the Encyclopédie soldiered on semi-clandestinely.

While Diderot was keeping his powder dry, however, he found support from a surprising source: Catherine II, Empress of All the Russias, the reigning Tsarist autocrat. As Robert Zaretsky, a University of Houston Humanities professor recounts, Catherine invited the 60-year-old Enlightenment icon to St Petersburg for philosophical discussions in 1773.

Diderot accepted because he believed Catherine was a different kind of ruler. As far as despots go, Catherine was, as she immodestly specified for her future tombstone inscription, "good-natured, easygoing, tolerant, broad-minded … with a republican spirit and a kind heart".  She was culturally accomplished (she wrote two dozen plays) and relatively humane (she disapproved of torture and corporal punishment).  Her censorship regime was relatively relaxed and she regarded the slave-like serfdom of Russia’s 10 million peasants as morally undesirable.

There were, however, red flags aplenty to question Catherine’s progressive bona fides. She used tens of thousands of serfs as payment to reward her loyal courtiers who supported her murderous coup against her husband, Tsar Peter the Great. When serfs in the Russian Urals took liberation into their own hands in a peasant uprising under the leadership of the Cossack Emelyan Pugachev, Catherine then took a page out of the despotism manual and ordered her generals to crush it. Pugachev was drawn-and-quartered and other leaders hanged or sent into Siberian exile. The liberal humanist in Catherine was agitated only enough to fret that her violent suppression of the revolt might play badly with enlightened "European opinion".

Nevertheless, to the practical question of how the goals of the Enlightenment could be delivered in a pre-democratic era of monarchy, Diderot turned to Catherine as the best bet. So, the provocatively wigless Diderot, whose plain black coat stood out ominously among the assembled Royal bling in the Winter Palace, rolled the dice on Catherine as the agent of change. He advanced proposals for progressive social and political reforms that the Empress should undertake.

Nothing, however, came of Diderot’s political courtship of Catherine. The Empress did not adopt any of Diderot's "great innovations", including for a more representative form of government. Diderot concluded that the fruitful cohabitation of Reason and Power was a naïve dream and that to pursue it risked turning philosophers into pampered pets in the parlours of the powerful.

"Men of letters are so easily corrupted: lots of warmth and attention, and a bit of money, does the trick," he warned. Diderot was personally aware of the co-option trap — he appreciated the $700,000 subsidy (in today’s money) he received over his lifetime from his royal patron, but he valued truth higher.

Diderot finally declared that "enlightened despotism" was an oxymoron because, no matter how well-intentioned or high-minded the individual ruler, the institution of elite rule necessarily violates the liberty, and political agency, of the ruled. Political sovereignty, he concluded, lies with the people and any right to govern can only be delegated by, or revoked by, the people. In a radical statement for the times, he declared: "There is no true sovereign except the nation; there can be no true legislator except the people."

Even more out there for a member of the privileged intelligentsia, Diderot advocated economic as well as political democracy. A politically powerful elite "wallowing in wealth" only do so at the expense of the labouring classes, he wrote. Wealth, too, derives from the people and they have every right to "revoke" the material inequality between the "two classes of citizens", he reasoned.    

Diderot’s philosophical, political and economic ideas helped to galvanise the subsequent French and American revolutions. Unsurprisingly, they also influenced Karl Marx, who cited Diderot as his favourite writer. 

Marx grasped the revolutionary nub of Diderot’s philosophy, as, in her own and opposite way, did Catherine. After she and Diderot had split, she sourly told the French ambassador that if the philosopher’s ideas were to become political practice "to suit Diderot’s taste, it would have meant turning the world upside down". 

Quite so, whether that be the antique despotism of Crown or the thoroughly modern version of the despotism of Capital.

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