From Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Pankaj Mishra – all those one-eyed judgments of history

Again and again the interpretation of history has been seduced by naive humanism, because the latter represents the voice of conscience without any ifs or buts. The castles in the air thus created are full of charm as they embody the noble ideal in the face of a reality which lacks such perfection.

Nevertheless, we are not allowed to idealize the past but must describe it without any embellishment if we want to assess our present time correctly and fairly. We have now reached a point where exactly this is possible, namely the comparison between a past where (due to the law of agricultural dependency) 95% of the population were nameless, impotent and regularly threatened in their very physical survival, and a fossil present in which this law is suspended for the first time in history.

Although their numbers have swollen many times over,

the masses, who used to be destined for the service of a minority, have freed themselves from their slave-like subjugation. Today they only exceptionally have to fear starvation; many of them attained rights their ancestors not even have dared to imagine. The sober numbers of this development have already been quoted: Life expectancy, health, access to education and the general standard of living improved steadily in the 19th to 20th centuries. Famines occurred only at the beginning of these two centuries (unfortunately that is by no means to say that they can’t recur in the future); murder and violent death declined, and the number of war victims – measured in proportions of the total population – was less than in many so-called primitive societies even in the bloody 20th century.

But why do we hear so much fewer complaints from the past and so much more at the present time?

I think, the reason is obvious. Had the oppressed masses acquired a voice in the past, world history would still echo from their terrible lamentations. But they had no voice; throughout the world the masses remained silent simply because they could neither read nor write. Scripture was for the first time invented in the fourth millennium B.C., but even in the late medieval England of 1530 with its population of about five million, only about 26,000 boys were instructed in the art of writing – that is no more than half a percent (Durant)! As a rule, this ability was all over the world limited to the upper ten thousand – rarely exceeding five percent of the population. In other words, it was restricted to a favored class at the top of society which had every reason to be satisfied with its position. For this and no other reason, the historiography of the past was largely painted on a background of gold, as it originated almost exclusively from the profiteers of that system.

However, this was to change abruptly,

when the fossil revolution for the first time in history miraculously liberated the lower 95% from their serving positions and their illiteracy. On a large scale, educational institutions were created that enabled almost everyone to read and write. And so happened what was to be expected: hardly had people learned to write when a chorus of lamentations could be heard, first in Europe itself, where the fossil revolution began, and finally in the entire globalized world, wherever European enlightenment spread its roots.

For until then the oppressed masses had kept quiet

because priests and princes had been able to persuade them that God or a divine order had willed them to be servants while granting their masters the grace of lordship. But now the Enlighteners, above all Voltaire, succeeded in questioning precisely this order and its divine origin. According to their message, the social hierarchy was all man-made and therefore a product of pure arbitrariness, which nobody should and needed to endure any longer. The French Revolution granted all people the same rights, while the English social philosopher Jeremy Bentham even promised them the same right to happiness.

An avalanche of resentment

The effect of this message was nothing less than explosive: it led to an increased awareness of personal misfortune. From then on, people who did not attain the position or the degree of happiness in their life to which they considered themselves entitled could no longer take comfort in the belief that the Lord Himself had decided their fate, instead they tended to make other people – often quite concrete persons – responsible for barring their way to personal happiness. The liberation of man from age-old subservience did not increase the overall amount of well-being, but set in motion an avalanche of resentment and envy. Previously, this was almost unthinkable. The envy of a simple peasant for someone higher placed like a prince was not only considered ridiculous, but even condemned as an outrage, so long as people believed that the one as well as the other was assigned his respective place by divine will. But now resentment and envy spread like wildfire: Every intelligent, aspiring man of the lower classes who had gained access to education in the new society tormented himself and his fellows with the question why others, often only because of inheritance or good luck, blocked his way to the top?

Breaking out of imposed immaturity

It was competition based on general education that allowed the lower 95% to break out of their imposed immaturity in the first place, but poison was mixed into this liberation from the very beginning. For in the rarest of cases, the individual was satisfied with the position he finally achieved through competition. People had bowed to the rule of God as if imposed by irresistible fate, but the very moment the Enlighteners had declared God a human illusion, the subordination to others and their rule suddenly seemed unbearable. Now people knew: Those others who ruled them were ordinary human beings like themselves. If they had attained their position by mere privilege, they were furthermore mere usurpers. Just listen to a philosopher and economist like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first who declared himself an „anarchist“ (i.e. the enemy of all dominion). In his „Confessions of a Revolutionary“ of 1849 he said: ‘Whoever lays a hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant.” For Proudhon, revolution consisted in the abolishment of any system of rule, be it that of the monarchy, the aristocracy, or even democracy in the name of the people, he would not accept any authority at all, not even popular rule over others.

Écrasez l‘infâme

With his ban on any rule of man over man, Proudhon expressed a demand that was characteristic of a fundamentally transformed relationship between the emerging masses and politics. However, since rulership was still a fact, many did not stop at mistrusting it, but demanded its violent elimination. “Identifying freedom with a joyful passion of destruction, Bakunin took to a new extreme the Romantic-liberal notion of individual autonomy.” And Richard Wagner, his contemporary, was not only a revolutionary in his proper field of music, he also wanted to assume this role as a politically active person. When in 1848 the fever of revolution again seized all of Europe, he wrote: „I desire to destroy the rule of the one over the other … I desire to shatter the power of the mighty, of the law, and of property.” Wagner was a highly sensitive man, so he found it all the more painful that he remained unknown and unrecognized during his stay in Paris, while a Jewish composer like Giacomo Meyerbeer stood in the limelight of public popularity. This offence was reflected in tirades of hatred, in which Wagner unmistakably expressed intense resentment and envy. To him Paris became the abiding epitome of personal failure, so much so that in 1850 he wrote the terrible line: „I no longer believe in any other revolution save that which begins with the burning down of Paris.“ And Wagner was also the man who wrote one of the most terrible inflammatory writings against the Jews. Such events should not be ignored, for they contain an important lesson. If even a celebrity like Richard Wagner was tempted to let personal dissatisfaction flare up in wild resentments, then it is easy to understand why the global literacy achieved from the 19th century onwards had the effect of unleashing a storm of resentment and envy.

Kassandras reviling the optimism of progress

In general, however, it was the opposite position that prevailed. From Voltaire to the encyclopedists, and then from Friedrich Hegel to Herbert Spencer, 19th-century Europe intoxicated itself with a progress that quickly made it the lord of the world – a position very few people at the time found reason to criticize. All in all, it was a minority that conjured up future disaster and impending decay. Among the Kassandras, apart from the German Romantics, we find above all Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, but also Giuseppe Mazzini in Italy and Alexander Herzen in Russia, as well as the aforementioned Bakunin. As early as the middle of the 19th century, Herzen predicted: “Europe is ‘approaching a terrible cataclysm … ‘The masses crushed by toil, weakened by hunger, dulled by ignorance’ had long been the ‘uninvited guests at the feast of life’, whose ‘suppression was a necessary condition’ of the privileged lives of a minority.” This diagnosis would have been completely correct with regard to the past, but Herzen wanted his statement to be related to the future.

Pankaj Mishra

It is the prerogative of outsiders to often look with a sharper eye at the mental and spiritual conditions of different cultures than the people living there. In his brilliantly written book „Age of Anger“ the Indian author Pankaj Mishra has presented a critique of the European Enlightenment and its counter-currents, the tenor of which is unequivocal: Mishra considers the project of the Enlightenment to have been a complete failure. This may come as a surprise, because the second half of the nineteenth century in particular was inspired by a true euphoria as to the belief in progress. Outside Western countries this belief has not completely vanished even at the beginning of the 21st century – think, for instance, of China, which is currently in a state of true progress frenzy. The book is all but silent on this topic; it only allows the voices of doubt, resistance and even destructiveness to come to the fore, i.e. voices that correspond to the current prevailing spiritual state of mostly Western readers.

 At first glance, Mishra’s arguments seem compelling

The losers of progress in the early nineteenth century suffered just as much as the latecomers in Asia or Africa do at the present time. But on closer inspection, the reader becomes more and more aware of the author’s one-sidedness as of the authorities he prefers to quote. In Europe, it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who first raised his voice against Enlightenment, accusing it of fraud and deception. „His ideal society was Sparta, small, harsh, self-sufficient, fiercely patriotic and defiantly uncosmopolitan and uncommercial.” So it was indeed, and this statement, against which Mishra raises no objections, reveals the completely unhistorical bias of Rousseau as well as that of most of his successors. After all, Sparta was the exploiting state par excellence, a state where a self-proclaimed master race of illiterates, the topfive percent, exercised one of the most merciless and brutal regiments of murder and extortion over 95% of the indigenous Helots they had formerly subjugated. Thanks to Plato and Thucydides, we know quite a lot about this vanishing minority, but the 95% of subjugated peasants were not worth talking about and remained as dumb as their brothers and sisters in all populous agrarian cultures as they could neither read nor write. But we should keep in mind that the only reason why they left us no testimony of their suffering was because they were illiterate and therefore unable to do so. And it was only for this very reason that historically blind theorists like Rousseau were able to transform brutal Sparta into the model of an ideal society.

When idealizing the peasantry,

anarchists like Alexander Herzen or Mikhail A. Bakunin blindly followed Rousseau’s example. They completely ignored that peasants refrained from complaining only because they were condemned to be silent right up to the threshold of modern times: „The peasant commune, self-sufficient and moral, could even show the world the correct path to a free and equal society … Russian writers from Herzen to Tolstoy repetitively denounced the Western bourgeois obsession with private property while holding up the Russian muzhik as an admirably altruistic figure.“ Leading writers such as Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, who actually should have known better, were also inclined to such idealization, even though in Russia the peasants were particularly oppressed by the nobility.

In spite of all the evidence, Rousseau even thought he could foresee that Human beings would eventually recoil from their alienation in the modern world into desperate pleadings to God to regain their ‘ignorance, innocence, and poverty, the only goods that can make for our happiness and that are precious in your sight’ because ‘insatiable ambition, the thirst of raising their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others, inspired all men with a vile propensity to injure one another.’”

How Naïve Humanism distorts history

Pankaj Mishra, to whom I owe the previous quotes, agrees with the opinion of his chief witnesses. He proclaims that „the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence.“ On the one hand, this view is entirely correct, because at no time have the past two centuries been free of war, hardship, social turmoil and economic setbacks. But, on the other hand, it is completely wrong as soon as one compares the past with the new fossil era. War, social turmoil and economic misery were endemic before the fossil epoch and their effects were incomparably greater and far more disastrous. Even after its closure to the outside world, i.e. after the unification of the warring states, China – the world’s most prosperous agrarian culture until the 18th century – was regularly devastated by famines, the victim of which, of course, was first and foremost the oppressed peasantry. Harmony was preached from above, but it never corresponded to reality.

Three examples: the devastation of India, Muhammad Tughlak and Rajasinghe II

Conditions in other major agrarian cultures were even worse than in China, as I would like to illustrate very briefly using three arbitrarily chosen examples. In „Mass and Power“ Elias Canetti described the situation at an Indian princely court of the 14th century based on the testimonies of two Muslim scholars of that time (Ibn Battuta and Ziauddin Barani). Under the rule of the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Tughlak, the Sultanate reached an expansion which it was only able to regain two hundred years later – under the Mogul ruler Akbar. The Sultan was an outstanding figure in that he was seen as a pattern of wide-ranging erudition combined with aesthetic subtlety, but at the same time he was no less than a beast in human shape, for his love of cruelty could hardly be surpassed. Anyone who visited him had to pass through piles of corpses, the victims of execution, that lined the path to the palace gate, where the bodies were visible for three days. Every day hundreds of people were brought before the sultan in chains, with their hands and feet tied. Some were executed, others tortured, others beaten. The constant revolt against the ruler was quite understandable, for like almost every prince before the dawn of modern times, Muhammad Tughlak considered it his God-given right to squeeze as much tax as possible out of his subjects. Taxes had already been very high at the time of his predecessors, but under him their burden was increased even further, and their collection was carried out with such ruthless cruelty that the peasants became beggars. Those among the Hindus who still possessed some land abandoned it and made their way into the jungle there to join the rebels, of whom there would soon be smaller or larger troops everywhere. The soil lay fallow, less and less grain was produced. There was a famine in the core provinces of the empire.

The devastation of India by Islam

This pattern of arbitrariness, directed especially at the masses of defenseless peasants, is significant because it was repeated all over the world. But this was not all. Ceaseless religious battles between the Muslim invaders, who had conquered the country since the 9th century, and the native Hindus devastated the country and its peoples. Today most people only recall the splendid architectural monuments bequeathed by Islam to India, or they think of the Mughal ruler Akbar the Great, one of the most admirable and humane princes of all times, but the mass murder committed in the name of the Koran during the first centuries of Muslim conquest, are mostly ignored. But in this respect, India provides a particularly sad example. „The Mohammedan Conquest of India,” saidthe great American historian Will Durant,“is probably the bloodiest story in history. It is a discouraging tale, for its evident moral is that civilization is a precarious thing, whose delicate complex of order and liberty, culture and peace may at any time be overthrown by barbarians invading from without or multiplying within.“ Muhammad Tughlak has already been mentioned. One of his successors, Sultan Ahmad Shah, is said to have “feasted for three days whenever the number of defenseless Hindus slain in his territories in one day reached twenty thousand.”

Conscience was even then never quite silent. There have been quite a few voices that appealed to the conscience of the rulers. But against the religious-ideological pseudo-conscience (see later) and the temptation of instant loot these voices had little chance. A Christian pope has apologized for the crimes of Christianity, but on the part of the highest representatives of Islam one still waits for a comparable statement. „Have we ever heard,“ asks the ancient historian David Engels, „that a director of the University of Al Azhar (the greatest authority among Sunnis) apologized in the name of Islam for the brutal oppression of Hinduism that struck India between 1000 and 1500, reducing the population there by 80 million – an event that is among the „bloodiest in world history“?

Robert Knox and Ceylon in the 17thcentury

Extreme arbitrariness in the exercise of power was a common feature of all great agrarian cultures before the fossil revolution, even where peaceful Buddhism set the tone, for example in Ceylon. In this case, too, we have the testimony of an observer who had no reason to play to the ruling power. In the 17th century, an Englishman named Robert Knox was captured by the King of Kandy Rajasinghe II and was forced to remain in the country between 1659 and 1678. As the king considered the whites, who had already built forts on the coast (first the Portuguese then the Dutch), to be people of a stronger stock, he had the prisoners fed by his subjects at their expense and assigned to them local women, so that they may produce as much offspring as possible for the purpose of improving the race. Knox did not give children to the country, but instead left posterity the very colorful painting of a highly developed agrarian culture before its conquest by the English. He describes a country where the women limited their number of children by appropriate practices, so that population pressure on available resources would not become too big a burden. „They often destroy New-born Infants, But seldom a First-born.” Society was strictly divided by caste barriers, with the farmers, like everywhere else, being responsible for feeding themselves and the top ten percent. Anyone who took out a loan that he could not repay was made a slave – as debts doubled after two years, this was not an infrequent case. Society did not allow the rise of individuals, for no one could leave the position assigned to him by the caste system. But the Buddhist king at the top of the social pyramid lived in constant fear of the turmoil and betrayal of his subjects, so he kept himself in power through cruelty and unpredictability, favoring those around him whom it was his intent to destroy – just as did Stalin much later. Various procedures of torture and trampling by elephants played a special role, but worse than even the cruelest form of death was the destruction of social status and dignity, when the king made the women or daughters of his victims the prey of the lowest class of beggars, so as to dishonor their families for all time to come (Knox 1681).

The blindness of Naive Humanists with regard to the past

We may well wonder whether Ceylonese people at that time were much worse off than the English of the 17th century, which was a time of bloody civil war. But in view of the extreme arbitrariness to which even the highest dignitaries under an absolute prince were exposed – not to mention the masses of the population – it is hard to understand why a highly educated author like Pankaj Mishra could simply conceal this past – in other words, why he blindly follows Rousseau and many other critics of modernity, when portraying our present time as if it had caused a degree of human suffering never experienced before. In obvious agreement he quotes the words of Michel Foucault, according to whom the capitalist West represents „the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine.”Such a statement must be rejected as a gross historical falsehood.

Contrary to what Pankaj Mishra claims,

the history of modernization is by and large accompanied by much less bloodshed and chaos than the history of the great agrarian cultures preceding the fossil revolution. This is all the more remarkable as the number of people threatens to increase tenfold in just three hundred years. The fact that the uncontrolled multiplication of our kind may represent one of the greatest dangers to the present and to future generations does not even come to the attention of these critics. Instead, they listen to the general wailing, for these billions can, as I said before, make themselves heard for the first time in history, as almost everyone can now read and write. In countless books, quite a few intellectuals, who personally live in secure circumstances, talk about grievances that in former times would not even have been worth mentioning at all.

The criticism of the promises made by Enlightenment

 is now as old as the Enlightenment itself, namely almost three hundred years. The extraordinary achievements that we owe to the prophets of reason is often ignored or even completely overlooked because they now seem so self-evident. Towards the beginning of the twentieth century almost all citizens – soon women too – had access to all the positions that a society could provide. This should have resulted in the first truly classless society. For the ideal, as the Enlighteners had conceived it, expressly stipulated that an individual’s performance alone should decide on his or her ability to hold a position. In principle, competition was to shuffle the cards anew in each successive generation, so that no one would be placed in a higher position because of his birth, for example because he had wealthy parents. However, it soon became apparent that the rich continued to provide their children with better jobs and became richer and richer just because their wealth offered them much better conditions. This, however, may not serve as an argument against the Enlightenment and its sense of justice, it only proves that the burden of the past has not been shaken off until today. It was not the Enlightenment that failed, but its realization.

Only one kind of development would have been even more radical

than that which enlightened reformers from Voltaire to Diderot and d’Alembert to Kant and Hegel had in mind, namely  the equal treatment of all people regardless of their abilities (which would do away with competition as well). Such treatment was probably the rule in the nuclear family since the beginning of human history: A mother loves her children, no matter whether they are strong or weak, stupid or intelligent. That was likewise the ideal that Karl Marx had in mind. In a classless society as he conceived it, „everyone gave according to his abilities and took according to his needs.”

 We know today that such family-like solidarity actually existed in many small societies, from hunters and gatherers to some early garden cultures such as that of the Zuni. However, due to the law of agrarian dependence this ideal was never realized in any of the great agrarian cultures – every experiment of this kind has so far been drowned in blood: with millions of deaths most recently in the Cultural Revolution, to which Mao had exposed about a billion Chinese in the ten years between 1966 and 1976. Even more unthinkable is strict egalitarianism in the era of Warring States, when every nation strives to increase its pool of talent and willpower to the possible maximum. In such times all achievements that promise an advantage in competition and the struggle for better survival are particularly emphasized and rewarded, i.e. above all economic ability and military inventiveness. Competition is then so intensified that it is no longer seen by many as an opportunity, but only as a fight of all against all. Today – just like the people of the Axis Period two thousand and five hundred years ago – we are once again living in such an era. This is the real problem and one of the main theses of this book but it was pushed aside or overlooked by most critics of modernity beginning with Rousseau to Pankaj Mishra.

This is an excerpt from my as yet unpublished book: „Auf der Suche nach Sinn und Ziel der Geschichte – Leben in der Ära der Streitenden Reiche“. English version available on the net ( “In Search of Meaning and Purpose in History„)