Monday, August 21, 2023

Warriors and Domestics: Plotting a New Course in Cinema


Che (2008 film) directed
by Steven Soderbergh.


"Just a short time ago it would have seemed like a Quixotic adventure in the colonised, neocolonised, or even the imperialist nations themselves to make any attempt to create films of decolonisation that turned their back on or actively opposed the System."

Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino
‘Towards a Third Cinema’

From the short black and white films of the Lumiére brothers to the technically superb blockbusters of today, cinema has been analysed from every kind of social and political perspective. Yet, it is still a relatively young art, and its technical and narrative forms have made it a rich source of discussion and speculation, and one has the feeling that we are still only grappling with a crude understanding of its complexity.


 ‘The director gets first cut’ is a well-known statement that shows the business interest of the investors in making a profit or, at the very least, getting their money back. The ever-growing costs involved in making films have been an influential factor in their form and content.


There is also no doubt that the realism of the reflected world in cinema fundamentally, consciously or unconsciously, reflects the class-based structures of society itself. This is not always obvious, and commentary can be added to explain what is not instantly apparent from what is, after all, a visual medium, unlike in literature for example, where underlying societal classes, hierarchies and structures can be explained as part of the narrative.


From a political perspective, the conservative forces that determine what films get made, publicised, and exhibited, also make it difficult to produce cinema that is opposed to the general status quo. Yet such films do get made from time to time. Gramsci was right - even though we can see that films generally reflect and legitimise the dominant order of society, there are also narratives that go beyond the conservative order to try and change it or, in some cases, even advocate overthrowing it.


The norm in visual art for centuries has been the representation of people who accept the class divisions and hierarchies in society. In general, over the years the forms change but the content remains the same, right up to today’s modern cinema. Attempts made to create a new type of radical narrative in cinema history have produced some memorable works, but they have not managed to compete with the commercial, popular, ‘bread and circuses’, action-based, globalised contemporary cinema.


Throughout the twentieth century the social realist films of Frank Capra during the 1930s and 1940s, Italian Neo-realism in the 1940s and 1950s, the Third cinema of the 1960s and 1970s were all attempts to go beyond the commercialisation of cinema and turn it into a force for social change.


The different ‘movements’ for change in cinema have tried to show the problem of class interests and who benefits from ‘the System'. The more radical films highlight problems of neo-colonialism and imperialism, and their aims range from exposing how elites operate and manipulate people, to producing ‘revolutionary cinema’ that seeks to inspire more profound change in society.


Why does cinema provide mass catharsis yet effect no real change in the multi-faceted problems of society? What kinds of films make us more class conscious, more aware of our socio-economic predicament and what could be done about it?


I will look at these questions about cinema from the perspective of class interests and elite manipulation of culture to maintain the status quo.



Linear action: ‘serving the Man’


Christ as Martyr and Master
Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych, c. 1430–1440
Jan van Eyck (1390–1441)

To refer back to the human predicament of slavery (in its different forms) I am using the same metaphor from my previous articles [see Origins of Violence and Resistance Culture] based on Jan van Eyck’s (c. 1390 – 1441) painting, Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych (c. 1430–1440) where we see Christ as ‘Martyr’ and ‘Master’:


“In Christianity the rulers had a religion that assured their objectives. The warring adventurism of the new rulers needed soldiers for their campaigns and slaves to produce their food and mine their metals for their armaments and wealth. Thus, Christ was portrayed as Martyr and Master. In his own crucifixion as Martyr he provided a brave example to the soldiers, and as Master he would reward or punish the slaves according to how well they had behaved.”


The ‘warriors’ and the ‘domestics’ are watched over by the ‘lord’ (the all-seeing eye). This basic scenario is common to much of cinema narratives from early cinema to today’s blockbusters. The ‘warrior’ is the active protagonist upon which the narrative is focused, while the domestics in general facilitate or impede the progress of the ‘warrior’ protagonist. The important point in this scenario is that the protagonist is ultimately working for the ruling class, the ‘man’, e.g., criminal gangs, mafia dons, the bourgeois government, the deep state, secret services etc. - to defend the state and existing class divisions, not to overthrow the social and political order.


His/her role has become more complex over time, and he/she is used to maintain or expand the dominant position of the ‘lord’, or the all-seeing eye that surveys and controls the action. The ultimate holders of power, the ruling class, are not necessarily present or seen but operate in the background controlling the action. The action contained within the film contains the range of sight of the ‘all-seeing eye’ but is presumed to ‘see’ before and after the film narrative. The action of the ‘warrior’ is linear because it does not change or threaten the position of the ‘lord’.



(1) Linear action
(Illustration by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)



Early cinema


An early example of such a structure is the Bataille de boules de neige (Snow Fight) recorded by the Lumiére brothers in 1896. It is believed that the people throwing the snowballs at each other were from the local factory. A cyclist comes upon the scene, cycles into the centre of the group and is knocked off his bicycle by the snowball throwers and his hat falls on the ground. He gets up, grabs his bike, and cycles off without his hat. This short scene has all the elements of a movie: documentary (people throwing snowballs) combined with a narrative/story (cyclist cycles into scene and leaves), combined with drama/action (cyclist falls off his bicycle, loses his hat).


Thus, in this scenario the cyclist is the ‘warrior’ and the people throwing the snowballs from the local factory are the ‘domestics’. There is the interplay of the two worlds of the ‘warrior’ and the ‘domestics’ as the cyclist protagonist enters and leaves again in this short ‘story’ (he arrives / he falls off / he leaves). The ‘lord’ is not included in the film (except as the all-seeing eye of the camera itself).



Bataille de boules de neige (Snow Fight) (1896)
short silent film produced by the Lumiére brothers.

(See video here)


Italian Neo-Realism

The same type of action is played out in the later Italian Neo-Realist film, The Bicycle Thieves (1948). The protagonist meets with his wife telling her he needs to get a bicycle to secure his new job offer. He marches on ahead of her, only stopping when his wife (who is carrying two buckets of water) needs help to walk down a small incline, and then marches off forcefully again. As the ‘warrior’, he engages with the ‘domestic’ only when his help/action is needed but he is mainly concerned with his problem of securing a bike so he can secure a wage and an income for his family. The drudgery of her ‘domestic’ role is in sharp contrast to the ‘action’ of his linear ‘warrior’ role.



Bicycle Thieves (Italian: Ladri di biciclette) (1948)

Italian neorealist drama film directed by Vittorio De Sica.


If a ‘domestic’ ever becomes active, he/she switches over to become a ‘warrior’ protagonist. Over time the ‘warriors’ expanded to include different ethnicities and sexualities. The ‘warriors’ are often alienated from the ‘domestics’ as they are often shown in cinema as a loner, undomesticated, and/or a whisky drinking hero. 

Fundamentally, the ‘warrior’ is active for himself or for the needs of the elites but is never threatening to the system itself. This basic format can be seen repeatedly in films from early cowboy movies, James Bond, Mission Impossible (Ethan Hunt), Jack Reacher, The Matrix (Neo), John Wick, etc.




Dialectical Action: ‘sticking it to the Man’

However, there are films where the ‘warrior’ narrative changes from a linear type of thinking to a dialectical consciousness whereby he/she slowly becomes aware of his/her entrapment, oppression, or enslavement. This awareness gradually develops until eventually the protagonist confronts the ‘lord’ and throws off his/her oppression. The power of the ‘all-seeing eye’ breaks down and the protagonist escapes or changes the world, while at the same time breaking the hold of the vanquished overlord.


(2) Dialectical Action
(Illustration by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)



The film The Truman Show (1998) depicts such a journey on a personal and philosophical level. As Truman Burbank becomes gradually aware of the limitations of his artificial world, the prospect of freedom is too powerful, and he decides to go through his dome door and leave the monitored world forever. He is given the opportunity to talk directly to the ‘all-seeing eye’, his ‘lord’, Christof (the show's creator and executive producer) but ultimately, he rejects Christof’s pleas to return to the ‘familiar’ world of total control. While this is not a political film, the dialectics of growing consciousness are well illustrated, in that returning to his previous unconscious state is an impossibility.


Over the years popular cinema has produced films of varying degrees of opposition to the boss, the lord, or the ‘the System', for example, Salt of the Earth (1954), Spartacus (1960), The Battle of Algiers (1966), Che (2008), The White Tiger (2021), etc. and wherein there is a profound change in the consciousness of the protagonist/s:


Salt of the Earth (1954)

In  Salt of the Earth (1954), the story of a mining community where the unionized workers go on strike, the miners wives take the place of their husbands on the picket line due to an injunction on the union. The wives face opposition from their menfolk who take conservative positions on the role of women in society. The ensuing arguments with their husbands and actions taken against them by the state create the dialectics in the narrative that result in a stronger community where the women's role is finally accepted. Ultimately the power of the company and the anti-union laws of the state are broken when the company admits defeat and plans to negotiate.

Spartacus (1960)
The film narrative is  based on the rebellious slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), "who had done only manual labour since childhood; his life changes when he is purchased and trained as a gladiator. Spartacus gradually comes to not only hate his own servitude but to despise the institution of slavery, and to see it as an offence against human dignity. A chance opportunity to escape leads to a massive slave revolt, one which threatened the significant power of Rome."

The Battle of Algiers (1966)
In this film about the Algerian war of the French colonists against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algiers, the narrative ranges from the growing consciousness of an individual like Ali La Pointe, who goes from being an informal gambler to FLN leader, to the growing politicization of the whole Arab community itself in their struggle against French colonialism which is eventually defeated.

Che (2008)

The dialectical process of transformation is clear in the change of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Benicio del Toro) from intellectual and doctor to a Latin America revolutionary. Che joined forces with Cuban exile Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) and starts a revolution that eventually brings an end to the Batista regime in Cuba.

The White Tiger (2021)

The writer of the original novel (The White Tiger, p254, 2008) Aravind Adiga, noted in the novel that:

“I won’t be saying anything new if I say that the history of the world is the history of a ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor. Each side is eternally trying to hoodwink the other side: and it has been this way since the start of time. The poor win a few battles (the peeing in the potted plants, the kicking of the pet dogs, etc.) but of course the rich have won the war for ten thousand years.”

Balram’s escape from slavery, his resistance to and eventual murder of his master, leads him to go to another city in India and set up his own taxi business but with a conscious workforce, not another set of workers with a slave mentality. He believes that he is a White Tiger, a symbol of freedom, because he escaped slavery and ultimately encourages his own employees to do the same.


Poster for the film Spartacus (1960)
directed by Stanley Kubrick.



First, Second and Third Cinema


The idea of using cinema raise class consciousness and to promote social change has been around for a long time. The social realism in the films of Frank Capra, or the cinema of the Italian Neo-Realists tend to represent the reality of poverty, but not necessarily the kind of social consciousness needed to question the hierarchy. In other words, they reflect the system but do not change it.


The Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (members of the Grupo Cine Liberación) reflected on these types of problems when they wrote their manifesto ‘Hacia un tercer cine’ (‘Toward a Third Cinema’) in the late 1960s:


“Solanas and Getino's manifesto considers 'First Cinema' to be the Hollywood production model that idealizes bourgeois values to a passive audience through escapist spectacle and individual characters. 'Second Cinema' is the European art film, which rejects Hollywood conventions but is centred on the individual expression of the auteur director. Third Cinema is meant to be non-commercialized, challenging Hollywood's model. Third Cinema rejects the view of cinema as a vehicle for personal expression, seeing the director instead as part of a collective; it appeals to the masses by presenting the truth and inspiring revolutionary activism.”


The aim of Third Cinema was to go straight for the jugular, and to try and unite ‘Third World’ peoples experiencing oppression by depicting subjects in such a way as to inspire critical thinking and a revolutionary attitude. Both form and content were affected by Third Cinema principles, by emphasizing the drama of everyday life over dramatic narratives, and by using amateur styles and not relying on expensive action set pieces.

Examples are:

Vidas Secas (A poor peasant family from the Northeast region of Brazil flees drought and famine. Long walks through the sertão ("hinterland" or "backcountry"), and struggles with the state are an ongoing metaphor for the trials of the peasant class in Brazil. The film ends in yet another search for fertile land as the sun beats down relentlessly. Brazil, 1963).

La Hora de Los Hornos (The Hour of Furnaces captures many of struggles and issues of the Argentinians, as well as the role of mass communication in either silencing or activating populations. The film is divided into two parts (88 and 120 minutes) and three sections: Notes and Testimonies on Neocolonialism, Violence and Liberation (Part I/section 1); Act for Liberation (Part II/section 2); and Violence and Liberation (Part II/ section 3). It is 208 minutes long and analyses many aspects of daily life in Latin America. In particular, sources of oppression are documented and discussed with the aim of transforming spectators into conscious historical subjects. Argentina, 1968).

Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Sergio, a wealthy bourgeois aspiring writer, decides to stay in Cuba even though his wife and friends flee to Miami. Sergio looks back over the changes in Cuba, from the Cuban Revolution to the missile crisis, the effect of living in what he calls an underdeveloped country, and his relations with his girlfriends Elena and Hanna. Cuba, 1968).

Antonio das Mortes (A group of impoverished peasant mystics (beatos) gathered around Dona Santa (Rosa Maria Penna), a female spiritual figure, join in veneration of Saint George with an obscure figure named Coirana (Lorival Pariz). Coirana claims to have restarted the cangaço and seeks to take the revenge of Lampião and other cangaceiro martyrs, presenting the tale of Saint George and the Dragon in a contemporary class conflict context. Brazil, 1969).

Blood of the Condor
(An indigenous Bolivian community receiving medical care from the Peace Corps-like American agency Cuerpo del Progreso ("Progress Corps") which is secretly sterilising local women. Bolivia, 1969).

Mandabi (Ibrahima faces numerous difficulties trying to obtain a money order. Not having an ID, Ibrahima must go through several levels of Senegalese bureaucracy to try to get one, only to fail after spending money he does not have. The film explores themes of neocolonialism, religion, corruption, and relationships in Senegalese society. Senegal, 1969).

México, la revolución congelada (An Argentine documentary film, which details the history and progress of the Mexican Revolution (1911-1917). Argentina, 1971).

As these films are written to be polemical and didactic (thought and revolution-provoking) the process of conscientization is a fundamental theme and important part of the narrative structure.





Cover of La Hora de Los Hornos (Argentina, 1968) 

 directed by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas.

However, if the aim is to depict a growing socio-political consciousness, resulting in radical or revolutionary change or even an attempt at such change, then the films of First and Second Cinema can be just as effective as the films of Third cinema. The heroic, dramatic style of Hollywood in Spartacus (1960) made for a popular, successful film. The difficulty lies with the conservative, elite control of an expensive medium, coupled with elite control of conservative content.


Second Cinema is often described as European art cinema, which in the case of socio-political content is perceived to blunt any political message. Yet, the ‘art’ effects used in The Battle of Algiers (1966) were perceived to add to its sense of historical authenticity:


“[The writer and director] Pontecorvo and cinematographer Marcello Gatti filmed [The Battle of Algiers] in black and white and experimented with various techniques to give the film the look of newsreel and documentary film. The effect was so convincing that American releases carried a notice that "not one foot" of newsreel was used.”



The Battle of Algiers (1966) Italian-Algerian war film
co-written and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.

U.S. theatrical release poster.


That authenticity added to its negative reception and temporary banning in France, yet acclaim among academics and continued popularity to this day.


The negative side of Second Cinema comes down to what Solanas and Getino described as its inability to go beyond being merely the 'progressive' wing of Establishment cinema. They write:


“The most daring attempts of those film-makers who strove to conquer the fortress of official cinema ended, as Jean-Luc Godard eloquently put it, with the filmmakers themselves 'trapped inside the fortress.'”


Thus, the strictures of Second Cinema were believed to have led to the concept of a militant new Third cinema that would develop new styles, forms and means of production and distribution that would break down the fortress walls. One could argue that the auteurs of Third Cinema had a Gramscian idea of a counter-hegemonic culture: if bourgeois values represented natural or normal values for society, then the working-class needed to develop a culture of its own. While Lenin would have argued that "culture was ancillary to political objectives", Gramsci saw "culture as fundamental to the attainment of power" and "that cultural hegemony be achieved first."


There is no doubt that the expense and control of distribution in the past led to the frustration of radical filmmakers and their desire to overcome these difficulties with various alternative models of filmmaking and distribution. However, times have changed and the rise of cheaper digital cameras, editing software, and the internet itself as a means of distribution have changed the accessibility of filmmaking and film viewing. Films can be made now using phones and viewed using phones. Life experience in the ‘system’ can be turned into art by almost anyone now. The question is: will such contemporary cinema simply supply more reflections of the status quo, or will it rise above the media cacophony and become a new cinematic force for radical change?


Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Life Lessons on the ‘Res’: War Pony (2022) A movie review

War pony is an extraordinary new film based around two young Lakota boys living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film shows the difficulties faced by Native Americans surrounded by poverty and drugs and their attempts to rise above the many social problems of their families.



Bill is a guy in his twenties with two children by two different mothers. One of them is in prison while the other is cynical of his attempts to try and make his, and by extension, her life better. He finds a poodle in his garden and subsequently decides to buy the dog so that he can make money from its puppies. Later he stops his car on the road to assist a breakdown. It turns out to be a white turkey farmer with one of many native girls he has been having affairs with. After helping the turkey farmer, Bill asks for a job and is soon shown around the facilities.

His boss has a Halloween fancy dress party which is attended by a white guy dressed up in native American costume and war paint. This transfixes Bill as he stares at the representation of his own culture, seemingly disturbed by it and yet attracted to its meaning at the same time, like a memory deep in his subconsciousness that is soon recalled before the end of the film. Another symbol from his past heritage, a buffalo, appears and disappears somewhat mysteriously throughout the film. The language issue is also marked as a significant part of his alienation from his own native culture and when he says to his relatives and friends: “I dont speak Lakota”.

In the meantime Matho, who is a 12-year-old boy who hangs out with his smoking and drinking friends, gets involved in selling some of his fathers drugs which ultimately has dire consequences for his father. He is kicked out of his father’s house and ends up moving from relatives to staying with drug-pushers as he tries to seek some basic stability in his life.

In one scene, Matho falls asleep with a figurine that is holding a tiny American flag, a scene symbolic of Matho’s desire to be part of the American Dream yet the size of the flag signifying the practical realities of the poverty and desperation in his young life and his growing distance from the benefits of American society.

Bill’s life is also affected by a growing distance from general society as his money-making scheme to breed poodles backfires when his white boss shoots the dog for worrying his flock of turkeys. Furthermore, he is sacked and his boss refuses to pay him for work done.

At this low point for Bill, he decides to get his revenge on the turkey farmer. He gathers up his friends and organises a raid of the turkey farm in the middle of the night. They steal turkey products and live turkeys which are then redistributed among the local people the next day.

This makes for an extraordinary ‘tableau vivant’ (living picture) scene with turkeys wandering slowly around in the snow along with a buffalo with a ‘res’ (reservation) house and its inhabitants in the background. The peace and purity of the snow contrasts with the film’s hectic, hot life of the two main protagonists, and combined with the turkeys and the buffalo, it has a timeless feel. A symbolic projection of nature back to an earlier pre-colonial time? Or to a post-revolutionary future with redistribution of wealth combined with nature respected and free from centuries of colonial oppression?

That timelessness is reflected in the quote attributed to Crazy Horse: “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.”

War Pony was directed and produced by Riley Keough and Gina Gammell with a screenplay by Keough, Gammell, Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy. Keough met Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, while filming in South Dakota in 2015 and introduced them to Gina Gammell.

The film then took shape “through writing workshops, improvisation sessions, and meeting hundreds of locals in the community, to make the story authentic. The group began discussing an idea for a film revolving around two indigenous locals growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. They began writing the script based upon Bob and Reddy’s life experiences and stories they had heard, ending up with too much material, and decided to split the story between two characters, and collaborated with local producer Willi White.”

While the style is realistic, even naturalistic in places, the close-up photography of many scenes gives the film an intimate feel. The mood is always hopeful despite the many difficulties and setbacks that both Bill and Matho face in their lives.

War Pony is a combination of two progressive aspects of culture (that I have written about before): resistance to slavery, and respect for nature. The raid on the turkey farm forms a type of symbolic resistance to capitalism and exploitation of nature as Bill engages in the ‘redistribution’ of the factory goods while at the same time letting the turkeys roam free.

Bill learns slowly that he is living in a system where the odds are stacked against him, but eventually takes an activist stance, not to get personal revenge, but to avenge his community for the expropriation of the practical and symbolic aspects of his people that left him and his friends constantly scrabbling around in the dirt to make a living. It is possible, too, that the ‘Red Indian’ costume and war paint from the party, triggered an ancient ‘memory’ in Bill of the dignity of his ancestors who fought desperate odds to try and retain their independence.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Counter-Enlightenment: the origin of conservative politics?

The Counter-Enlightenment is the name given to the oppositional forces that formed during the Enlightenment that fought against the philosophes' writings on democracy, republicanism and toleration. These forces were known as the anti-philosophes and sought to maintain the dominance of the monarchy and the church.

The philosophes (French for 'philosophers') were eighteenth century intellectuals who "applied reason to the study of many areas of learning, including philosophy, history, science, politics, economics and social issues." Most importantly, they believed in progress and tolerance and in many different ways sought to highlight injustice and seek ways of changing society for the better.

The anti-philosophes rose up to defend 'throne and altar' and over time many of the ideals of the anti-philosophes were taken over by Romanticism in the nineteenth century, and the conservative politics of the twentieth century, for example, in Western culture, "depending on the particular nation, conservatives seek to promote a range of social institutions such as the nuclear family, organized religion, the military, property rights, and monarchy."

Caricature of the Third Estate carrying the First Estate (clergy) and the Second Estate (nobility) on its back. "You should hope that this game will be over soon."

The origins of right-wing politics in Europe are often attributed to Edmund Burke (1729–1797), the Irish philosopher, who is seen as the philosophical father of modern conservatism. His book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, is a criticism of the French Revolution, which itself was partly fueled by the writings of the philosophes, thus setting up the dividing lines between the supporters of radical republicanism and revolution, in opposition to the supporters of the older monarchy and church of the ancien régime.

The idea of the Counter-Enlightenment is itself controversial as some academics argue that an organised force against the Enlightenment was non-existent, or at the very least, a complex debate. For example, Jeremy L. Caradonna ('There Was No Counter-Enlightenment') and Robert E. Norton ('The Myth of the Counter-Enlightenment') both look at contradictory aspects of the individuals called anti-philosophes. As has been noted the thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment "did not necessarily agree to a set of counter-doctrines but instead each challenged specific elements of Enlightenment thinking, such as the belief in progress, the rationality of all humans, liberal democracy, and the increasing secularisation of society."

It was Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), the Russian-British social and political theorist, philosopher, and historian of ideas who popularised the term in his essay 'The Counter-Enlightenment'. Berlin was critical of the irrationalism of the early conservative figures from the 1700s such as Joseph de Maistre, Giambattista Vico, and J. G. Hamann. He also examined the German reaction to the French Enlightenment and Revolution as the main source of reaction to the Enlightenment in general and which eventually led to the Romanticist movement. Berlin noted that:

"Such influential writers such as Voltaire, d'Alembert and Condorcet believed that the development of the arts and sciences was the most powerful human weapon in attaining these ends [e.g. satisfaction of basic physical and biological needs, peace, happiness, justice etc] and the sharpest weapon in the fight against ignorance, superstition, fanaticism, oppression and barbarism, which crippled human effort and frustrated man's search for truth and self-direction." [1]

Writers like Darrin M. McMahon have looked at the early opponents of the Enlightenment in pre-Revolutionary France, while Graeme Garrard has shown in detail the conservative counter-Enlightenment ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a very different perspective on one of the heroes of the French Revolution.

In this essay I will look at the individuals and groups who took a stand against the philosophes through their movements, books, and journals in support of the church and monarchy.

Early opposition to the Enlightenment

Opposition to the philosophes of the Enlightenment did not start with the French Revolution. According to McMahon in his book Enemies of the Enlightenment:

"Only recently have scholars begun to acknowledge that conservative salons existed in the eighteenth century in which the philosophes' ideas were regarded with horror..." [2]

Many writers in France mocked the progressive ideas of the philosophes in "a host of satirical plays, libels, and novels published in the late 1750s, 1760s and early 1770s". [3]  McMahon comments that: "It stands to reason that the reaction to the Enlightenment should also have occurred first in the place of its birth and been spearheaded by the very institution - the Catholic Church charged with maintaining the faith and morals of the realm". [4]

This can be seen, for example, in the Frontispiece to the physician Claude-Marie Giraud's Epistle from the Devil to M. Voltaire which chronicled Voltaire's 'traffic with Satan', and was republished over thirty times between 1760 and the outbreak of the Revolution.

"Frontispiece to the physician Claude-Marie Giraud's Epistle from the Devil to M. Voltaire. This brief work, chronicling Voltaire's traffic with Satan, was republished over thirty times between 1760 and the outbreak of the Revolution."
(Image: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Text: Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.20)

The adverse reaction to the ideas of the philosophes was evident in the hundreds of books, pamphlets, sermons, essays, and poems written against them, as well as becoming the raison d'être of journals such as the Anée littéraire, the Journal historique et littéraire, and the Journal ecclésiastique. [5] McMahon writes about how the enemies of 'throne and altar' and their 'treasonous' activities were perceived by the anti-philosophes :

"The anti-philosophes saw the philosophes as 'enemies of the state', 'evil citizens', 'declared adversaries of throne and altar', and unpatriotic subjects guilty of human and divine treason. [...] Thus, the anti-philosophes frequently accused their opponents of spreading "republican" and "democratic" ideas. The philosophes, they claimed, preached the sovereignty of the people, advocated "perfect equality," and spoke endlessly of "social contracts." They lauded the political institutions of the United Kingdom, spreading a contagious "Anglomania" that held up Parliament and the limitations placed on the powers of the English crown as models to be emulated in France. And they talked ad nauseum of "liberty and equality," natural rights and the "rights of the people" without ever mentioning duties and obligations." [6]

They even appealed to the new dauphin [The distinctive title (originally Dauphin of Viennois) of the eldest son of the king of France, from 1349 till the revolution of 1830] to be wary of the new anti-religious attitude that was being spread by the philosophes: "From this anarchy of the physical and moral universe results, necessarily, the overthrow of thrones, the extinction of sovereigns, and the dissolution of all societies. Oh Kings! Oh Sovereigns! Will you be strong enough to stay on your thrones if this principle ever prevails?" [7]

"The 1757 frontispiece to the first volume of Jean Soret and Jean-Nicolas-Hubert Hayer's anti-philosophe journal, La Religion vengée, ou Réfutation des auteurs impies. True philosophy, in possession of the keys to the church, presents a copy of the work to the dauphin, Louis Ferdinand, who looks on approvingly as religion and wisdom trample false philosophy under foot. The latter bears a sign which reads in Latin, "He said that there is no God."" 
(Image: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Text: Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.22)

The power of the philosophes' ideas could be seen in their influence on the French Revolution of 1789 and in particular on the human civil rights document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (French: Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen de 1789) which was adopted on the 26 of August 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly during the French Revolution.

Ultra-Royalist reaction

However, the Ultra-Royalist reaction, the nobility of high society who strongly supported Roman Catholicism as the state and only legal religion of France, as well as the Bourbon monarchy, initiated what became known as the Second White Terror, a counter-revolution against the French Revolution.

It provided an opportunity for the counter-Enlightenment conservatives to get their revenge on the revolutionaries, taking the form of militant struggle that resulted in bloody consequences. For example:

"the Ultra-Royalist assembly returned after the upheaval of the Hundred Days, this conservative revolution set out to cleanse France of the men and spirits of 1789. Throughout the country, exceptional courts and special jurisdictions tried and punished revolutionary criminals. In the civil service and royal administration as many as fifty thousand to eighty thousand former officials were stripped of their positions, and in the church, the army, and the universities, similar purges were encouraged, although on a smaller scale. In the provinces, particularly in the Midi, marauding gangs took matters into their own hands, hunting down revolutionary collaborators and settling old scores in a great bloodletting known as the White Terror." [8]

However, the Terror worried even the king himself as in 1816 Louis XVIII dissolved the chambre introuvable, to the great horror of the Catholic Right: "Louis feared its intransigent refusal to compromise with any vestige of the Revolution, its exaggerated religiosity, and its resolute efforts to exact retribution from the "criminals" who had sullied France." Thus the conservative pro-monarchy forces had become even more royalist than the king himself. [9]

The Chambre introuvable (French for "Unobtainable Chamber") was the first "Chamber of Deputies elected after the Second Bourbon Restoration in 1815. It was dominated by Ultra-royalists who completely refused to accept the results of the French Revolution."

The conservative ideas of the Ultras, for example, "the weight of history, the primacy of the social whole, the centrality of the family, the necessity of religion, and the dangers of tolerance" found their way into many right-wing and conservative ideologies of Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [10]

Rousseau's turn against reason and science

Similarly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's conservative turn laid the groundwork for the future irrationalist Romanticist movement. Despite  Rousseau's popularity as a philosopher of the French Revolution, Rousseau ultimately went against the rationalism and intellectualism of the eighteenth century and moved towards a philosophy based on emotion, imagination and religion.

"Flee, vile imposters, no longer sully this temple", the frontispiece to Pierre-Victor-Jean Berthre de Bourniseaux, Le Charlatanisme dans tous les âges dévoilé (Paris, 1807). Angels of the Lord banish the philosophes from the Temple of Truth. In the foreground, Voltaire, Rousseau, La Mettrie, Plato,and other philosophes flee in despair.
(Image: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Text: Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) book cover).

According to Graham Garrard in Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment:

"Rousseau's "unequivocal preference was for the "happy ignorance" of Sparta over Athens, that "fatherland of the Sciences and the Arts" the philosophes so much admired. He regarded virtue as much more important than knowledge or cognitive ability; a good heart is worth inestimable more than the possession of knowledge or a cultivated intellect, he thought" and concludes that "relying on reason - as philosophers do - "far from delivering me from my useless doubts, would only cause those which tormented me to multiply and would resolve none of them. Therefore, I took another guide, and I said to myself, 'Let us consult the inner light'"." [11]

Rousseau's inward looking attitude and distrust of reason resulted in a very different kind of politics than the philosophes had imagined, as Garrard writes:

"Unlike the foundation of political society envisaged by Hobbes and Locke, [Rousseau] stresses the need for a legislator who relies principally on religion and myth rather than reason, self interest, or fear to "bind the citizens to the fatherland and to one another." [...] For Rousseau, religion substitutes for reason as the cement of society and the means of inducing respect for the laws. [...] Rousseau's legislator is a prophet and (perhaps) a poet, whose "magic" produces a nation, rather than a philosopher who appeals to reason." [12]

For Rousseau the spread of knowledge was to be controlled and funnelled into localist communities and beliefs, away from modern conceptions of the nation state:

"Rousseau was opposed to the popularization of knowledge, not to knowledge per se. In his final reply to critics of his first Discourse, he clarifies position by stressing this distinction between knowledge and its dissemination. "[I]t is good for there to be Philosophers, "he writes, "provided that the People doesn't get mixed up in being Philosophers"." [13]

Leo Strauss's sentiments exactly! Knowledge as a set of myths that would keep the masses happy but not the kind of universalist knowledge that might lead them to revolt:

"The key to Rousseau's patriotic program is what he referred to as a "truly national education." Unlike the "party of humanity," [the philosophes] he called for education to be put entirely in the service of particular national communities in order to prevent the corrosive spread of universal ideas and beliefs. He rejected the view put forth by the philosophes that the universal arts and sciences are an adequate basis for political community." [14]

"The Despair of the philosophes. Frontispiece to the 1817 edition of the prolific anti-philosophe Élie Harel's Voltaire: Particularités curieuses de sa vie et de sa mort, new ed. (Paris, 1817). Christ reigns supreme over a fallen medusa, who vomits up the Encyclopédie, Rousseau's Émile, Voltaire's Dictionnaire philosophique, and other key Enlightenment texts."
(Text: Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.161)

Moreover, Rousseau advocated the use of catharsis and 'bread and circuses' to maintain loyalty to the patriotic fatherland (and thereby stymieing any type of burgeoning class consciousness):

"Rousseau also advised would-be legislators to establish "exclusive and national" religious ceremonies; games which "[keep] the Citizen frequently assembled;" exercises that increase their national "pride and self esteem;" and spectacles which, by reminding citizens of their glorious past, "stirred their hearts, fired them with a lively spirit of emulation, and strongly attached them to the fatherland with which they were being kept constantly occupied"." [15]

Rousseau opens one of his most famous books, The Social Contract, with the words 'Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains' yet this was a far cry from Marx's 'You have nothing to lose but your chains', as Rousseau refers to rising up against a tyrant, not rising up against one's own slavery. Especially not the 'respectable rights' of 'masters over their servants':

"The Protestant, republican Rousseau bristled with indignation at the thought of his hardy, virtuous Genevans watching the cynical comedies of Moliere who, "for the sake of multiplying his jokes, shakes the whole order of society; how scandalously he overturns all the most sacred relations on which it is founded; how ridiculous he makes the respectable rights of fathers over their children, of husbands over their wives, of masters over their servants!"" [16]

Rousseau's move away from enlightened humanism to authoritarianism can be seen in his attitude towards the state whereby any "attempt to liberate a prisoner, even if unjustly arrested, amounts to rebellion, which the state has a right to punish." [17]

If we compare this to Voltaire's involvement in L'affair Calas we see a very different attitude, as Voltaire fought in defence of a Huguenot merchant who was broken on the wheel for a crime that he had not committed. 

Furthermore, Rousseau believed that "The taste for letters, philosophy, and the fine arts softens bodies and souls. Work in the study renders men delicate, weakens their temperament, and the soul retains its vigour with difficulty when the body has lost its vigour. Study uses up the machine, consumes spirits, destroys strength, enervates courage. ... Study corrupts his morals, impairs his health, destroys his temperament, and often spoils his reason." [18]

The Enlightenment philosophes thought the opposite: "The less men reason, the more wicked they are," wrote the Baron d'Holbach. "Savages, princes, nobles and the dregs of the people, are commonly the worst of men, because they reason the least." [19]

The Counter-Enlightenment and Romanticist ideas today

The Enlightenment seems to get blamed for everything these days. In an article titled  'Enlightenment rationality is not enough: we need a new Romanticism', the author Jim Kozubek writes:

"From the use of GMO seeds and aquaculture to assert control over the food chain to military strategies for gene-engineering bioweapons, power is asserted through patents and financial control over basic aspects of life. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge (1976) referred to such advancements as ‘techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’."

Foucault does at least remark on a basic aspect of the problem: subjugation and control.

Kozubek comments that "science is exploited into dystopian realities – such fraught areas as neo-eugenics through gene engineering and unequal access to drugs and medical care" but notes that "The biggest tug-of-war is not between science and religious institutional power, but rather between the primal connection to nature and scientific institutional power."

Historically, the Enlightenment was a battle between the church and the new scientific approaches to knowledge in the 18th century. The philosophes wrote against the power of the church and the monarchies and developed progressive ideas about democracy and republicanism, torture and the death penalty, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

In the frontispiece to Voltaire's book on Newton's philosophy, Émilie du Châtelet appears as Voltaire's muse, reflecting Newton's heavenly insights down to Voltaire.

However, this universalising philosophy and writing against injustice of the Enlightenment philosophes is missing from modern analyses of Romanticism, that by the 19th century those battles had developed into the Romanticist 'primal connection to nature' versus capitalist technocracy. Yet, what the Romanticists and the technocrats did have in common was that neither questioned slavery: whether it be the slavery of feudalism (which the Romanticists liked to hark back to), or the wage slavery of modern capitalism (which the technocrats prefer to ignore).

In fact, the Romanticists and the technocrats helped each other in a reactionary symbiotic relationship that perpetuated the status quo: the Romanticists had always used technology (to indulge their fantasies, for example, train technology brought them to gaze in awe at the 'mystical' Alps), while the technocrats used Romanticism to create diversion and escapism for the masses (thereby avoiding mass uprisings and revolution). This can be seen in the almost wholly Romanticist culture of fantasy, terror, horror, superheroes etc that dominates global modern culture today in the era of global monopoly capitalism.

The Enlightenment and its opposing counter-Enlightenment, represented the main ideological battles of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but as people became less and less religious over the ensuing century, Romanticism took over from the irrationalism of the church as the main counter-progressive force in society.

This can be seen also in the 'suspicion of reason' contained in the definitions of the post-Romanticist ideologies of Modernism and Postmodernism, and the outright return to Romanticism of Metamodernism. Once the bourgeois revolutions of 'liberté, égalité, fraternité'  had been carried through, the universalist ideas of the philosophes were quietly dropped and the anti- (wage) slavery torch passed on to the revolutionary socialists.  

It seems that the role of Romanticist movements (including Modernism, Postmodernism, and Metamodernism) is to react to any burgeoning progressive movement, to suck the life blood out of it and while not necessarily killing it, to at least leave it extremely weakened and non-threatening.

Meanwhile, any obvious lack of consistency in Romanticist movements merely points to, and demonstrates its reactive nature. For example, Romanticist neo-Gothic is full of decoration, yet Romanticist (Modernist) Minimalism, in the form of Bauhaus, for example, is completely devoid of decoration.

McMahons description of the anti-philosophes confirms that reactive view:

"If the philosophes assailed religion, then the anti-philosophes must protect it. If the philosophes attacked the king, then his authority must be upheld. If the philosophes vaunted the individual, then the social whole must be defended. If the philosophes corrupted the family, then its importance must be reaffirmed. And if the philosophes advocated change, then the anti-philosophes must prevent it". [20]

While the Right may not be able to get away with arguments for the re-establishment of monarchies these days, their ideology is still rooted in organized religion and the social teachings of the church, (combined with the military, and property rights).

The philosophes were progressive thinkers who struggled for radical changes against the injustices of their time. Their universalist writings on liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state are just as important in the world today as they have ever been, especially in an era of increasing globalised poverty where one  billion people worldwide live in slums (and yet this figure is projected to grow to 2 billion by 2030) and which is exacerbated by rising inflation and the impacts of war. It is time now for new thinking that is not dominated by the selfish political and war agendas of the billionaire media machine.


[1] Isaiah Berlin,'The Counter-Enlightenment', Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (Pimlico, 1997) p.3
[2] Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.24
[3] Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.24
[4] Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.9
[5] Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.27
[6] Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.41/42
[7] Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.43
[8] Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.156
[9] Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.157
[10] Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.200
[11] Graeme Garrard, Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes, (SUNY, 2003) p.84
[12] Graeme Garrard, Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes, (SUNY, 2003) p.59
[13] Graeme Garrard, Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes, (SUNY, 2003) p.91
[14] Graeme Garrard, Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes, (SUNY, 2003) p.62
[15] Graeme Garrard, Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes, (SUNY, 2003) p.62
[16] Graeme Garrard, Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes, (SUNY, 2003) p.64
[17] Graeme Garrard, Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes, (SUNY, 2003) p.80
[18] Graeme Garrard, Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes, (SUNY, 2003) p.88
[19] Graeme Garrard, Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes, (SUNY, 2003) p.88
[20] Darren McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2002) p.53

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.