In an oddly predictable twist, the Enlightenment has become a rallying point for the right. In former times, the right was noteworthy for mounting a critique of Enlightenment thinking. Edmund Burke, the founder of British conservatism, developed a powerful criticism of the theories of abstract human rights propounded by Thomas Paine and the French philosophes. Later, Benjamin Disraeli attacked one of the central English expressions of Enlightenment thought - Benthamite utilitarianism - as excessively rationalistic and unhistorical in its view of ethics and politics. In the 20th century, we find a similar assault on Enlightenment rationalism in the writings of Michael Oakeshott. If conservative thinking retains any claim to our interest today, it is probably only in the insights it contains into the errors of the Enlightenment.
In recent decades, the conservative critique of the Enlightenment project has faded from view. Partly this has to do with the rise of the neoliberal right. Friedrich Hayek was unequivocally clear that an uncompromising commitment to the free market is actually incompatible with conservatism as traditionally understood, but most of his political disciples - including Margaret Thatcher - preferred to ignore this awkward truth. As a consequence, there is very little left of anything resembling traditional conservatism in the Tory party, which - like Tony Blair - is today wholeheartedly committed to globalisation and the free market. A more recent development is the emergence of neoconservatism. Though it has acquired a few European disciples, neoconservatism is quintessentially and ineffably American. Its guiding ideas are the supreme value of reason and the reality of progress - ideas that find their most complete embodiment, according to the neo-cons, in the United States of America. Anyone who expresses scepticism about these ideas is routinely written off as a raging reactionary or a wild postmodernist.
With the disappearance of traditional conservatism, political and intellectual boundaries have become rather blurred, and it would be a mistake to imagine that neoconservative ideas are found only among people who think of themselves as being on the right. On the contrary, they have been taken up by a number of old-left thinkers as part of a rancorous campaign against postmodernism. It seems a sort of moral panic has swept through sections of the left, finding expression in a pervasive nostalgia for the unquestioning belief in Enlightenment values they imagine existed some time in the past.
Richard Wolin's inquisitorial tirade appears to belong in this category. In The Seduction of Unreason, he insists that the catastrophes of the 20th century were the result of malicious intellectual attacks on the Enlightenment and the pervasive mood of doubt that ensued from them. The clear implication is that if only we had stuck to the truths of the Enlightenment, the worst horrors of the past century could have been avoided.
One problem with this thesis is that the worst regimes of the 20th century were shaped - largely or in part - by Enlightenment ideas. The Soviet Union was not dreamt up in a Russian monastery, nor Maoist China in a Taoist hermitage. They were genuine attempts to implement ideas drawn from the heart of the European Enlightenment. The crimes these regimes committed were not inspired by the writings of Joseph de Maistre or Friedrich Nietzsche - two names that recur time and again in Wolin's roll call of intellectual infamy. They were embodiments - distorted in many ways, no doubt, but still authentic - of an Enlightenment political theory that Karl Marx had developed using the works of other Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and Hegel. The simple fact - which Wolin somehow manages to avoid mentioning in the course of his catalogue of 20th-century intellectual villainy - is that the largest mass murders of the 20th century were done by regimes committed to Enlightenment ideas of progress.
Even in the case of the Nazis, it is demonstrably wrong to argue that their crimes emanated from a blanket rejection of the Enlightenment. Although they were certainly influenced by critics of the Enlightenment such as Herder, they at the same time drew heavily on ideas of "scientific racism" whose roots are in unequivocally Enlightenment thinkers such as Auguste Comte. It is true that the Nazis embraced a crude version of some of Nietzsche's ideas; but the Nietzsche they embraced was Nietzsche the Enlightenment thinker, who worshipped Voltaire and revered science, just as much as Nietzsche the counter-Enlightenment myth-maker (who also existed). Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno may have exaggerated when they wrote that there is an unbroken line stretching from the Enlightenment to the Gulag and the Holocaust, but they were not entirely mistaken.
Wolin passes over the Enlightenment roots of 20th-century totalitarianism in silence, and this is partly because if he had taken the trouble to examine it, he would have soon discovered that the Enlightenment was never the spotlessly liberal movement he nostalgically imagines. Many, if not most, Enlightenment thinkers were anti-liberals, and a good number were out-and-out racists. But these facts are really irrelevant to Wolin's purpose. His aim is not intellectual but nakedly political - to prosecute the postmodern left by representing its chief thinkers as lineal descendants of fascism and Nazism. He announces this himself in the book's very first line, when he writes: "This is a book about skeletons in the closet." As a result, much of the book is written in a style more appropriate to a police report than a contribution to the history of ideas. To be sure, not all of what Wolin reveals is without value. It is useful to know that in 1939 one of the leading figures in postmodernist thinking, Georges Bataille, delivered a lecture on "Hitler and the Teutonic Order". Fortunately for Bataille's admirers today, the text of the lecture has not survived, but if it is ever found it will very likely show that postmodern thinkers can be extremely silly and sometimes morally odious. In this, however, they are hardly alone. Think of Beatrice and Sidney Webb heaping praise on Stalinist Russia.
If a balanced history is ever produced, it will be found that 20th-century Enlightenment thinkers were as guilty as Wolin's postmodernists in kowtowing to tyrants. But once again, this is really not germane to Wolin's purpose. His concerns are narrowly political - and highly parochial. In the end, The Seduction of Reason is just another shot fired in the unending American culture wars. For me, as for most Europeans, such conflicts are without interest. Still, they can be unwittingly very funny. A magnificent example comes on the last page of the book when Wolin pronounces grimly: "Maistre and Herder were the first multiculturalists." Actually, Maistre and Herder had a rather unhealthy veneration for the "organic" societies of the past, and would have despised the cultural diversity we have today. What is really hilarious, however, is Wolin's attempt to use these fascinating, contradictory and in some ways genuinely profound thinkers to score points in a vapid American academic debate - a spectacle reminiscent of nothing so much as Monty Python's celebrated Proust-reading competition.
John Gray's Al-Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern is published in paperback by Faber & Faber