Socialist Worker

An antidote to postmodernism

The second column in our series on challenges to Marxism looks at postmodernism

Issue No. 2247

All kinds of cultural expressions have had the term “postmodern” hooked on them—from architecture, literature and art to lifestyle. But postmodernism is also the ideological bedrock central to most universities.

An ironic, detached attitude towards reality was the property of a small number of intellectuals at the birth of modernism at the turn of the 19th century.

With postmodernism, it has become a mass produced way of coping with a world that can neither be changed nor uncritically endorsed.

The problem came with the intellectual and philosophical theories it brought to the fore.

The thinking of Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault were particularly significant.

Postmodernists say that we can be only be sure of our own interpretation of events and that “every discourse is valid”.

This means that, when studying history for instance, the past is an argument between different narratives and we can never truly know what happened.

Some postmodernists, like Foucault, did confront bourgeois ideas about the history of sex, mental illness and prisons.

But overall, postmodernism was an intellectual disaster.

Postmodernists developed themes that rejected the Enlightenment—the intellectual project based on the idea that human reason could understand and control the social and natural world.

Karl Marx was, critically and with important differences, part of this project.

In postmodernism reason and truth are illusions and the desire to know is, as Foucault put it, merely a “will to power”.

Reality is a chaotic collection of fragments dominated by an endless battle for power that shapes society and nature. Human beings lack coherence or control over themselves.

Lyotard counterposed this to what he called “the collapse of grand narratives”.

This meant that Hegel and Marx’s argument that there is a comprehensive theory that will enable us to understand and change the world and emancipate ourselves, is redundant.

Central to postmodernism is the idea that we are in a new social and economic age—a post-industrial society where manufacturing industry has disappeared and been replaced by the “knowledge economy”.

Death

This “postmodern” world is characterised by insecurity, weaker states, new technology and media.

Postmodernism took for granted the death of the working class. But these ideas are neither true nor new.

Marx said that under capitalism the way we work and the way that capitalists take profit from workers is always changing.

He said, “All old established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed... dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question.”

Postmodernists also argue that language constructs reality.

Language is an important part of our world that can perpetuate and reinforce sexism, racism and homophobia.

But language doesn’t cause oppressions—the institutions and structures of capitalist society do.

The popularity of postmodernism grew not due to the strength of its ideas, but with the dominance of right wing ideas after the rebellions of the late 1960s.

Neoliberalism had its intellectual shadow in postmodernism.

It bolstered an intellectual climate where talk of revolution or working class self-emancipation seemed unreal.

At the same time higher education absorbed a considerable number of activists influenced by the battles of 1968—just as the struggle went into decline.

The divorce of theory from practice often became extreme—denying the possibility of using theory to grasp the real world.

Its stranglehold has loosened in recent years, but its paralysing effects linger. Often “new” arguments against socialism are simply old arguments regurgitated.

But there is an important creative job for Marxist theory—new trends in capitalism to analyse and new forms of resistance to be generalised.

Postmodernism is a block to that.

Marxist critic and literary theorist Terry Eagleton once rightly denounced postmodernism as “a sick joke”.

We live in an epoch of wars and revolution. We don’t need postmodern irony, but rather the grand narrative of Marxism to transform the world.


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