C.L.R. James on Descartes & the Division of Labor

To a society advancing in science and industry, Descartes gave a philosophy that expressed and released the readiness to adventure in every realm, including the realm of ideas. His philosophy was imbued with the conviction that every discovery contributed to the liberation of humanity. It inculcated freedom from national prejudice for all thinking men. This philosophy bore its name on its face—rationalism. 'I think, therefore I am,' said Descartes, and the world rejoiced at the perspective of the expansion of individual personality and human powers through the liberation of the intellect. This resting of self-certainty on man's own thought, and man's thought alone, was a revolutionary defiance of the medieval dogma which had derived certainty of self from God or the Church. Rationalism encouraged and developed an elite, the organizers of ideas, the organizers of industry, the discoverers in science. At that stage of human development they were needed. They cultivated the individual personality. It followed that they looked upon the masses of men as passive unthinking servants of the active organizing elite. Rationalism saw each human being as an individual, the natural leaders being the most able, the most energetic, the most far-seeing individuals. Its political form, as developed by Locke, if only as an ideal, was democracy, the transference of free individual competition into politics. It was invaluable in the conquest of nature, and under its banner reaction was driven steadily back and the modern world was created.

Today the tasks envisaged by Descartes, the great man of the Sixteenth Century and their followers in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth, are accomplished. The pressing need of society is no longer to conquer nature. The great and pressing need is to control, order, and reduce to human usefulness the mass of wealth and knowledge which has accumulated over the last four centuries. In human, in social terms, the problem of mankind has gone beyond the association of men in a natural environment to achieve control over nature. Today mankind is sharply divided into two camps within the social environment of production, the elite and the mass. But the trained, educated elite no longer represents the liberation of mankind. Its primary function is to suppress the social community which has developed inside the process of production. The elite must suppress the new social community because this community is today ready to control, order, and reduce to human usefulness the mass of accumulated wealth and knowledge. This antagonistic relation between an administrative elite and calculating and administering the needs of others, and people in a social community determining their own needs, this new world, our world, is a world which Descartes never knew or guessed at. As an actual liberating philosophy of life, rationalism is dead. It is rationalism which no longer commands the allegiance of men.


SOURCE: Facing Reality, by C.L.R. James, Grace C. Lee, Pierre Chaulieu [pseudonym of Cornelius Castoriadis] (Detroit: Bewick/Ed, 1974, orig. 1958), pp. 67-68.


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