The critic stands above the parties; his task is not to "destroy" but to "establish" the truth. He enters into competition with a rational State that sets itself above the religious groupings. Not that he creates a new order here and now; the reign of criticism is non-partisan only in an infinite process of renewal. Thus Bayle's critic also knows only one obligation: his duty towards a future in which truth is found only through the exercise of criticism. The claim to impartiality propelled the process to the same extent that its end was still not in sight. The self-assurance of criticism lay in the connection of the critic to the yet-to-be-discovered truth. Every error discovered, every hurdle overcome reveals fresh obstacles; thus the human compulsion to unravel finds ever more subtle methods to seize on evil and do away with the continuous flow of confusion, until finally there is nothing left for reason to do. Criticism transformed the future into a maelstrom that sucked out the present from under the feet of the critic. In these circumstances there was nothing left for the critic but to see progress as the temporal structure appropriate to his way of life. Progress became the modus vivendi of criticism even when--as in Bayle--it was not deemed a forward movement but one of destruction and decadence.Despite its Germanic bombast, Koselleck's argument is original and compelling, if only because it manages to turn the hoary Counter-Enlightenment narrative about conspiratorial Freemasons and seditious philosophes into something genuinely worthy of notice. In brief, he argues that the civil wars of the seventeenth century brought about the rise of a theory of politics (Hobbesianism) that divorced morality from the political and made obedience into the central duty of the individual. Unlike most scholars, however, he does not see this development as either lamentable (because it destroyed the organic bond between church and state) or praiseworthy (because it prefigured modern liberalism). Koselleck, you see, is a Schmittian--and so he needs only the amoral State for complete happiness.
In every instance the self-made link to the future enabled the rational judge to become a critic of the present. It made available a sphere of absolute freedom in the present to the executor of criticism.
- Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (1959)
Of course, the Hobbesian utopia couldn't last. The pesky philosophes, self-defined in contradistinction to the state, insisted on the primacy of the moral conscience. With the French Revolution, moral conscience actualized itself as a political force and destroyed any possibility of Hobbesian obedience forever. The rest, as they say, is history: the Cold War represents the inevitable return of civil war, based, as in the seventeenth century, on competing moral visions of politics. Koselleck lets the reader draw out the baneful consequences by herself.
He didn't know, of course, that the Cold War would end, and that history would end with it. This unexpected dénouement should undermine our faith in all such speculative metaphysical roadmaps of world history. The USSR, it turns out, was never an abstract ideological unity, but a deeply troubled regime that in many ways continued imperial traditions instead of overturning them. Plus, all in all, the end of history has had remarkably few substantive consequences for us. Under these circumstances we might even be able to say that the moral-conscience model of politics has borne itself out quite well.
That, of course, gives the lie to Koselleck's entire project. Like Hazard, like Adorno, he assumes as historically-absolute a despair that has turned out to be contingent. (Does anyone, even the most enthusiastic Adorno apologist, still believe that "after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric"?) If we are still reading these people, it is only because our lack of imagination prevents us from inventing a new despair proper to our own age. There was an attempt, fifteen years back or so, by Enzensberger. It is barely remembered.
In our quest for a new despair, we'd be wise to remember that Koselleck was right about one thing. Enlightenment criticism really was all about writing checks it could never cash. The bright future that loomed proleptically in all those books and pamphlets has still not arrived, which means the file on the Enlightenment Project will always remain open. Maybe this, at the very least, could make us despair again? Utopia, in at least one way, was closer to us then than it is now.