It’s been decades now since the (neo/post) left academia tossed out a wide range of revolutionary strategies for abolishing capitalism and establishing socialism, a development in praxis that has likely also played a role in the ill success of whatever cultural-ideological revolution they’re now more interested in. Some of their trepidations stem from debates between anarchists and state socialists in the 19th and early 20th century; others are deeply liberal; others veer towards outright conservatism; and, I suppose, still others are more original.

Often, the rejection of certain revolutionary strategies like state or parliamentary revolution, working class or mass revolution, or even industrial or technological revolutions are born out of a fear of future action based on the consequences of past action, a past that might be sometimes misconstrued or imagined but in many cases is really what happened. (Neo/post) left fear, I argue, comes from (1) deterministic historical reasoning, and (2) something along the lines of an incomplete interpretation of Nietzsche and Foucault’s ‘power/knowledge’ concept and their critiques of Enlightenment thought and practice. I will reconsider these below.

Conservative fear – in the sense of being hypercautious – tends to stem from deterministic historical reasoning. It relies on implicit reasoning such as, ‘Since this happened once there and then, it will happen again here (now or in the future).’ It’s a logic that is used to dismiss the task of revolution. But this isn’t just a rightwing problem. This same fear guides much of the supposedly left academia. Fear of universal or mass politics, fear of state and centralized institutions, fear of technological and scientific revolution. Fear of what Foucault labeled ‘power/knowledge.’ Fear of transformative projects in the name of ‘the people’ or ‘the working class.’ Fear of cynical intentions coming from institutions or people who claim to represent others. Fear of something similar to the past happening. Fear of history repeating itself. Deterministic fear, then.

Such determinists point to historical examples like failed parliamentary and insurrectionary roads to socialism, or they denounce the many modes of domination that production, technology, knowledge institutions, and bureaucracies have allowed. In the wake of these faults, they demand de-growth and no mass transformations unless it’s of an absolutely decentralized, direct democratic nature, and preferably, one that’s organic and spontaneous.

Of course, in socialist politics, we want grassroots organization to be as direct as can be, and spontaneous at least in the sense of adaptable and opportune to revolutionary conditions of possibility in moments of political-economic crisis. But collective centralization with strong planning and leadership is precisely what makes a spontaneous revolution more successful. Lenin made this point clear when he was part of the Russian Social Democrats. As he recalled, “The spontaneous upsurge of the masses in Russia proceeded (and continues) with such rapidity that the young Social Democrats proved unprepared to meet these gigantic tasks. This unpreparedness is our common misfortune, the misfortune of all Russian Social-Democrats.”[i] The situation demands more rigor, more knowledge, more power, three things that the (neo/post) left fear.

Nietzsche and Foucault are known in left academic spaces as the generators of the power/knowledge thesis, which has three related ideas: (1) power is knowledge and knowledge is power, (2) knowledge is needed for power pursuits and power is needed for knowledge pursuits, (3), those in power tend to have the ability to establish valid or legitimate ‘truth’ much more easily than the non-powerful, and this plays a major role in maintaining systems of domination. Of course, the latter two points fall neatly in line with Marxist superstructural theory. And regarding (1), contrary to the genealogy that left academia tells itself regarding its critical bona fides (supposedly anti-enlightenment ones), one of the first major enlightenment figures, Francis Bacon, already insisted that “knowledge and power, a pair of twins, are really come to the same thing.”[ii]

Yes, Bacon’s value orientation for his power/knowledge pursuits was one of an empiricist and productivist instrumental rationality that was the inspiration for one of the most hegemonic institutions of the Enlightenment (the British Royal Society). So, this puts him more in line with what may be called the dominant Enlightenment, but an economic utilitarian obsession with productivity and efficiency were by no means the sole value-laden pursuits coming out of the broad enlightenment tradition.[iii]

For instance, anti-enlightenment attitudes among postmodern and postcolonial currents eschew the fact that central enlightenment values and conceptions of equality, liberty, freedom (and generally anti-domination) come not only from Europeans comparing their own relative, privileged freedom to the unfreedom of slaves or feminine subjects within their society – the main thesis put forward by feminist, critical race, and postcolonial scholars in academia – but also from comparing their own unfreedom to the freedom (and equality) of various indigenous communities. Recent research by David Graeber – in his last major published work before his death – revealed that the major enlightenment figures Montesquieu, Diderot, and Voltaire offered critiques of European civilization that stemmed in large part from their engagement with indigenous critiques; not merely the literary construction of imagined ‘savage others’ looking at Western society as bewildered outsiders, but also the use of direct accounts of late 17th century indigenous perceptions of the unfreedom, inequality, and brutality of Western Man and its structures of subordination.[iv] These indigenous critical discourses of Western unfreedom largely focused on perceptions of unfree gendered relations, religious dogmatism and servitude, and the rule of money and private property.

Generally, their critiques of the subjugated state of individuals in Western society anticipated the well-known Rousseau aphorism that ‘man is born free but everywhere is in chains.’ And of course, Rousseau’s influence on Foucault is well known, particularly as it relates to studying issues of normalization and (self)subjugation. As I’ve written elsewhere, Foucault – the archetype for power/knowledge theorizing and someone consistently interpellated in self-defined post/anti-modernist and post/anti-enlightenment discourses – engaged in his own kind of power/knowledge pursuit “that places an emphasis on critiquing and overcoming modern conditions, or at least, more consciously managing your experience of/with such conditions,” particularly via the excavation of what he called subjugated knowledges.[v]

But if this argument of placing Foucault in the enlightenment/modernist tradition is not convincing enough, one need only consider how his self-declared greatest influence, Nietzsche, is also neatly placed there. As Daniel White notes, Nietzsche’s “historical-artistic praxis consists in the aesthetic ‘appropriation’ of the past understood as a set of ‘potentialities’…This is the Übermensch, who is challenged to rise to full height by the very plurality of perspectives ‘past’ and ‘present.’”[vi] In other words, Nietzsche fits within the enlightenment/modernist ‘will to knowledge’ project, seeking to absorb the plurality of perspectives (as knowledges), in search for possibilities that catapult individuals beyond their present stuckness or ‘reactive nihilism.’

His embrace of power/knowledge pursuits is even more explicit in Daybreak, one of his most understudied books. Here, Nietzsche directly embraces a kind of enlightenment as the coming to a valuable truth.  He relates enlightenment to critical education, or more explicitly, to disillusionment, disenchantment, and the coming to reality after a time trapped in fantasy (sounds like Marxist Ideologiekritik, does it not?). The relevant passage is worth quoting at length:

“On the knowledge acquired through suffering. – The condition of sick people who suffer dreadful and protracted torment from their suffering and whose minds nonetheless remain undisturbed is not without value for the acquisition of knowledge- quite apart from the intellectual benefit which accompanies any profound solitude, any unexpected and permitted liberation from duties. He who suffers intensely looks out at things with a terrible coldness: all those little lying charms with which things are usually surrounded when the eye of the healthy regards them do not exist for him; indeed, he himself lies there before himself stripped of all colour and plumage. If until then he has been living in some perilous world of fantasy, this supreme sobering-up through pain is the means of extricating him from it: and perhaps the only means. (It is possible that this is what happened to the founder of Christianity on the cross: for the bitterest of all exclamations ‘my God, why hast thou forsaken me!’ contains, in its ultimate significance, evidence of a general disappointment and enlightenment over the delusion of his life; at the moment of supreme agony he acquired an insight into himself of the kind told by the poet of the poor dying Don Quixote.) The tremendous tension imparted to the intellect by its desire to oppose and counter pain makes him see everything he now beholds in a new light: and the unspeakable stimulus which any new light imparts to things is often sufficiently powerful to defy all temptation to self-destruction and to make continuing to live seem to the sufferer extremely desirable.”[vii]

Despite the fear of power/knowledge and anything resembling the Enlightenment experienced by academic leftists, their critical pursuits are a part of the same power/knowledge game projected by said Enlightenment, one that we cannot afford to evade through a politics of refusal. It takes no trouble to accept that theories of evolution and natural selection have been taken up by eugenicists and fascists, or that chemistry, physics, and engineering have been taken up by imperial militaries. We can acknowledge the same for the way that data and statistics are taken up by hegemonic apparatuses for the management of populations and subjectivities (biopolitics), or the way that ‘rationality’ in general is used to construct justifications for cultural imperialism against ‘irrational’ or ‘backwards’ societies.

Likewise, it is obvious that our so-called critical knowledges of capital, the state, political economy, liberal ideology, representative and universal politics, etc. get taken up by capital, the state, and their representatives (e.g., the phenomena of rainbow capitalism, woke militaries and corporations, the diversity equity and inclusion industry, or the justification of mass surveillance, warfare, and general global domination on progressive-humanitarian grounds). Even if our critical knowledges are intended for other things – the abolition of capitalism, the search for democratic material relations, higher levels of self-determination at both the individual and community level – it is hardly what the knowledge gets used for. As a discipline, critical humanities clearly serves a function for the capitalist state and neo-colonial/liberal world order, intended or otherwise. But is the answer to stop rational criticism or critical power/knowledge pursuits, for fear that it will simply be absorbed by the system? Of course not.

Unfortunately, the ‘game’ has to be played. Part of that game has to include a better understanding of the history of ideas, simply to avoid the simultaneously ignorant and arrogant mistake of framing your critiques of power, knowledge, science, or technology as radically anti-enlightenment or postmodern, even though the roots of your critique come right out of the most exciting sects of enlightenment or modernist thought. As Foucault once noted (again worth quoting at length):

“It seems philosophy has acquired a new dimension, or a certain task opened up which was ignored or not known before, and that is to tell us who we are, what our present is, what this is today. It’s a question that wouldn’t have had meaning to Descartes. It begins to mean something for Kant when he asks, ‘What is enlightenment?’ It is a question which has meaning for Hegel. And for Nietzsche as well. I think that among the different functions philosophy can and must have is to ask ourselves who we are at present in our current actuality. It is in this sense that I raise this question. And to this extent, I am Nietzschean, Hegelian, Kantian.” [viii]

Enlightenment and modernist theory start with examining the conditions of the present, determining problems, and desiring to overcome them. Such power/knowledge pursuits can be taken up in many ways, from hegemonic to counter-hegemonic, from individualist to collectivist. If you dislike the circumstances and situations wrought by hegemonic knowledge production since the enlightenment, it is precisely a power/knowledge pursuit that you must take up in order to combat it. As Foucault further insists, “I work, it’s true, in large part according to the circumstances, external demands, various situations.”[ix]


[i] Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done? Chris Russell ed., Tim Delaney trans., Marxists Internet Archive, 1902, 31.

[ii] Francis Bacon, Francis Bacon: The New Organon, Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne eds., Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[iii] Ellen M. Wood, “Capitalism or enlightenment?”, History of Political Thought, 21(3), 2000, 405-426.

[iv] David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

[v] Daniel Russo, “Foucault, the modernist?”, Journal of Modernism and Postmodernism Studies, 3(1), 2022, 178.

[vi] Daniel White, “Nietzsche, Aesthetics, and Modernity,” The European Legacy 8(1), 2003, 14-15.

[vii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, Maudemarie Clark, ed., Reginald John Hollingdale, trans., Cambridge University Press, 1997, 69-70. Also, in the same text (Book III, Aphorism 197, p. 118), Nietzsche defends a reinvigorated enlightenment:  [N]ewly aroused passion for feeling and knowledge one day assumed a new nature and now fly on the broadest wings above and beyond their former conjurers as new and stronger genii of that very Enlightenment against which they were first conjured up. This Enlightenment we must now carry further forward: let us not worry about the ‘great revolution’ and the ‘great reaction’ against it which have taken place – they are no more than the sporting of waves in comparison with the truly great flood which bears us along!

[viii] Michel Foucault, “Foucault Interview – What Is Our Present (1981),” Philosophy Overdose, YouTube, November 26, 2021.

[ix] Ibid.