Sunday, 11 May 2014

Marxists Against Postmodernists

Postmodernism Won't Smash Capitalism!

Whatever the pros and cons of postmodernism, what matters to Marxists (as ever) is that it won't, as they often put it, “smash capitalism” or help produce a revolutionary situation. Thus it is more or less useless to the average dogmatic and monomaniacal Marxist.

Marxists want to smash capitalism through (violent) revolution. Postmodernists, on the whole, don't want to do that. Therefore Marxists believe that if postmodernism is not intent on smashing capitalism (or doesn't create a revolutionary situation), then it's either “neo-conservative” (Jürgen Habermas's word) or it's actually a part of the capitalist system which needs to be smashed.

Marxists traditionally saved most of their deepest hatred for fellow socialists and even for fellow Marxists. Today Marxists have the most profound hatred for postmodernists and other theoretical or philosophical 'counter-revolutionaries'.

You see Marxist dogmatism and zealotry doesn't just turn Marxists against “the far right” or conservatives: everyone who's not for Marxism and the revolution is an enemy. Thus the enemies of the average Marxist are legion and stretch from Tories and “reformist socialists” to postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard and  Jean-François Lyotard and even thinkers like Michele Foucault.

It is this kind of rigid, fundamentalist and zealous Marxist 'logic' (or thinking) which leads to the Gulag: not the purported “deviations” from Marxism such as Stalinism.

Marxists Against Pluralism

What Marxists are also fundamentally against is pluralism. Or, in the specific case of postmodernism, they are against the postmodernist championship of pluralities (or Slavoj Žižek's “hybrid entities”). What Marxists want, instead, is a single ideology (i.e., Marxism) which makes sense of that single most important aspect of politics and society: class. Thus pluralism not only encourages pluralities (or different “phrase regimes”, as Lyotard put it), it also ends up with a plurality of competing ideologies. And that, of course, is extremely unhelpful to Marxists because they see the Marxism-versus-capitalism ideological battle as being primary or even being the only Real (as pseuds like Slavoj Žižek put it) battle.

Terry Eagleton, for example, is very specific as to why he has a problem with pluralism. In his The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996) he writes that “for all its talk of difference, plurality, heterogeneity”, postmodernism still can't escape from the prison-house that capitalism has created for it. (This is the same argument of Slavoj Žižek.) More specifically, Eagleton believes that this postmodernist celebration of plurality is simply a predictable result of the fact that mass political movements (inspired and led by Marxists, of course) “have temporarily gone out of business” (as written in 1996).

As for these despised (by Marxists) pluralities, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argued that Marxists - rather than despising them, they should embrace them. In their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (1985), they argued that Marxists should align themselves with all the (politically-correct!) movements which were on offer to them: such as feminism, the Greens, ethnic and sexual minorities, etc. In actual fact, Trotskyists, for one, have always done this (though that has been even more the case in recent years). However, this alignment of Trotskyist Marxist parties, for example, and these pluralities might not have been what Laclau and Mouffe had in mind because such alignments have been and still are deeply cynical and opportunistic on the part of Trotskyist groups. In other words, what Trotskyist tend to do with these social movements is not to align with them; but either infiltrate them or quite literally take them over. And in that process Trotskyists attempt to impose their strict Marxist ideologies and modes of action on these otherwise disparate groups. So, basically,Trotskyists were, and still are, going against Laclau and Mouffe's intention. In other words, this isn't “socialist political pluralism”. It is, instead, Trotskyist parties infiltrating or taking over social movements for their own end: the white, middle-class Trotskyist revolution.

Marxists Against Postmodernists

Douglas Kellner

Douglas Kellner is a strong critic of postmodernism. 

The primary claim is that postmodernists are not really political at all. However, what Kellner really means is that they are no longer Marxists or socialist revolutionaries.

For example, he makes these crude Marxist generalisations about Jean Baudrillard and others:

I am not sure that we have now transcended and left behind modernity, class politics, labour and production, imperialism, fascism and the other phenomena described by classical and neo-Marxism...”

For a start, I doubt very much that any postmodernist has ever “left behind” class (or “class politics”), “labour”, “production”, etc. How on earth could they? Such things obviously exist. (Though this is not quite so clear when it comes to “modernity” and what Kellner takes to be “fascism” and “imperialism”.) What postmodernists have rejected are Marxist theories of class, labour, production and whatnot. Now that is a rejection of Marxism, not a a case of completely leaving behind the things which have been tackled by Marxists and others.

Kellner even extends his rigid Marxist critique to Michel Foucault - whom he sees fit to lump together with Baudrillard and Lyotard - when he says that Foucault “made a serious theoretical mistake in severing [his] work from the Marxian critique of capitalism” (166).

Here again the same error is made. Foucault most certainly did not “sever [his] work” from the “critique of capitalism”. He severed himself from the “Marxian critique of capitalism” - as Kellner, this time, explicitly puts it. And again, Kellner, being a fundamentalist Marxist, will believe that a severing oneself from a/the Marxist critique of capitalism is a severing oneself from the critique of capitalism itself – full stop.

Not only do Marxists like Kellner deem postmodernists to be part of Das System, they also question their status as “radicals”. Kellner says precisely that - if not explicitly - in the following:

Baudrillard is still read and received as a political radical, and those who are becoming increasingly attracted to his thought generally perceive themselves as 'radicals' of some sort.” (162)

Clearly, being a non-Marxist also means being a non-radical to Kellner and other Marxists (hence the scare quotes around “radicals”). And, just like non-Marxist critiques of capitalism are not really critiques of capitalism at all (according to Marxists), so non-Marxist radicals are not really radicals at all. Or as Kellner puts it:

Baudrillard is the latest example of critical criticism which criticises everything, but rarely affirms anything of much danger to the status quo.” (162)

However, there is some truth in what Kellner says above about Baudrillard. He is part of that French philosophical tradition of endless oneupmanship between French philosophers - or generations of philosophers - in which each new philosopher contrives to out-radicalise his predecessor. Or, as Kellner puts it, Baudrillard and others offer us “critical criticism which criticises everything”.

Nonetheless, that's precisely the view many take of many contemporary Marxists or revolutionaries: they criticise everything but offer nothing in its place. In addition, I would argue that Baudrillard can be deemed to be a radical – just not an outright Marxist radical.

I would also say that Marxist ways of thinking, and even specific Marxist theories, still motivated much of his thought (see later section on Lyotard). But, of course, being a self-conscious outreradical, he simply had to reject the tried, tested and boring Marxism of his day. After all, both Lyotard and Baudrillard, and many other postmodernists and post-structuralists, once belonged to Marxist groups.

Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos (of the Socialist Workers Party's Central Committee) also makes this error when he claims that postmodernists have forgotten about the nature of exploitation. No they haven't! Or at least not all postmodernists have. What they have done, as with the Kellner/Baudrillard case, is forgotten about, or rejected, all the stale and dogmatic Marxist theories about exploitation. That's a completely different thing entirely.

The Marxist logic here is very simply. As with Marx, the Soviet theoreticians, onwards, if you don't offer a Marxist analysis of exploitation, or of “class politics”, labour and production (in Kellner's case), etc., then, effectively, you aren't offering an analysis at all. Such is the arrogance of Marxists. (A Marxist arrogance which has run through the entire history of Marxism.)

Alex Callinicos is actually very specific about the problem with postmodernism.

In order to offer a true or correct analysis of exploitation, for example, the theorist simply must take account of the what Marx called “surplus value”. That is, the postmodernist must take account of how surplus value is creamed off by the capitalist. However, if as a postmodernist (or as anyone else) you don't accept the highly metaphysical theory of surplus value, then your analysis of exploitation, and so much more, will quite simply be false (or “counter-revolutionary”) – by Marxist definition.

And, again, by mindlessly simple Marxist logic, if the theorist or analyst of exploitation - or anything else - is not doing his theorizing through the tight and severely circumscribed lenses of Marxist theory, then, by Marxist definition, he must be a capitalist or, as Jürgen Habermas puts it, a “young conservative”. 

Fredric Jameson went further: he said that the whole of postmodernism simply expressed “the logic of late-capitalism”.

It's clear, then, that Marxists in the 1980s and beyond were as rigid and dogmatic as they had always been. And that rigidity and dogmatism always guaranteed that they would always fail from an intellectually standpoint (though not necessarily politically).

In the end, then, according to rigid and obdurate Marxists like Frederic Jameson, Alex Callinicos, Douglas Kellner and many others, the entirety of postmodernism was/is simply “symptomatic of the capitalist system in a particular phase of its development” (165).

The Postmodernist Critique of Marxism & Postmodernist Marxism

Jean-François Lyotard Turns Against Communist Parties

The specific historical context of Jean-François Lyotard's conversion to postmodernism (as it were) from Marxism can be easily traced.

It all happened roundabout 1968.

Lyotard was both shocked and disgusted by the French Communist Party's condemnation of the occupation of the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris by a student group which was led, at the time, by none other than Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

The French Communist Party supported the arrest of the student leaders involved in the occupation. Nonetheless, the French Communist Party wasn't on its own: the unions, the press, the university authorities were also against the occupation.

It's often also said that the students were also supported by the striking workers who were striking against government pay policy. Nonetheless, the students simply fused with the strikers and vice-versa (though some union activists would have supported the student Leftists).

Clearly, then, Lyotard's disgust at the French Communist Party, and his support for the students, was less a question of his rejecting Marxism and more a case of him thinking that the French Communist Party was not Marxist or revolutionary enough. In other words, Lyotard was taking a classic Trotskyist position - not a “postmodernist” one - against the communists and in support of the students. There was nothing in the least bit “postmodern” about his position and actions at this point.

Nonetheless, all this did indeed lead him in the direction of postmodernism, as it were. So much so that even in the 1980s Lyotard still regarded “May 1968” as the beginning of the end of old-style Marxism. In fact one of the well-known slogans of these Paris évènements included the word “bureaucrat”. And that, it seems, was a reference to, if not Marxism itself, then to communist political parties. Thus:

Comrades, humanity will never be happy until the last capitalist is hung on the guts of the last bureaucrat.”

Jean-François Lyotard's Postmodernist Marxism

The fact is that some – or most – postmodernists did offer both an analysis and a critique of capitalism – just not a completely Marxist one.

Take Lyotard in his well-known book, The Postmodern Condition. In that book he asks us what form capital takes in contemporary society. He asks questions about contemporary “means of production” and how they different from previous periods (in the classic Marxist manner). More relevantly, and more in line with Marxism, he asks how contemporary political reality reacts to contemporary forms of capital and means of production.

In fact Lyotard becomes even more explicitly Marxist when he analyses contemporary capital and the means of production.

Firstly, just like Marx, he tell us how capital has transformed itself from being primarily industrial to being what he calls “informational”; just as Marx detailed the change from 18th century mercantilism to 19th century capitalist industrialism.

Lyotard even applied Marxist modes of thought to the analysis of “informational capital”. That is, he talked in terms of computers maximizing the output of information from the minimum of human input; just as Marx claimed that capitalism maximized industrial/capital profit from the minimum of (paid) human input (or labour). In other words, every time time and labour are reduced to a minimum (when it comes to computer or informational output), the capitalist (or capitalism itself) makes a profit.

In fact this sounds very much like Lyotard's own version of Marx's theory of “surplus value”. However, Lyotard is not talking here about the maximum “exploitation” of labour or even the maximum exploitation of informational input; but of the minimum use of labour and the minimum use of time. That, in itself, is not simple exploitation in the classic Marxist manner. In fact to the extent that labour has become less relevant in our “informational age”, the less we can talk about exploitation at all. The only exploitation we can really talk about is the denial of work to to labour – work which may well lead to exploitation!

So in certain respects Lyotard retains Marxist categories (or ways of thinking) and jettisons others. And why not?

Phrase Regimes

Quite simply, Lyotard substituted Marx's idea of “class consciousness” (or class ideology) with his notion of a “phrase regime”; which was most fully enunciated in his book, The Differend (1983).

If anything, phrase regimes are very much like the “class ideas” or ideologies of each class within a capitalist society in that Lyotard argued - just like Marxists - that the aims and desires of each phrase regime are incommensurable. However, to Marxists, they are politically incommensurable; whereas Lyotard seemed to have believed they were also semantically incommensurable. (This is not unlike Thomas Kuhn's new and revolutionary scientific “paradigms” vis-a-vis their predecessors.) This is clearly is clearly Lyotard's re-spinning of Marxist theories about the classes of capitalist society and their (politically) incommensurable ideologies.

Indeed Lyotard cites an example of these incompatible (or incommensurable) phrase regimes that could have been taken straight out of any Marxist book at almost any time.

He writes about an exploited worker who can't do anything about her exploitation (in whichever form it manifests itself) because, in order to challenge her boss, she would have to do so in a court of law. And, in a pure Marxist spirit, Lyotard argues - with brutal simplicity - that she will fail simply because exploitation is, well, legal in a capitalist society. (Let's leave to the side what exactly Lyotard means by “exploitation” in this context.) Indeed the boss and the court belong to the same phrase regime (again, this is classic Marxism). And because of that, this female worker cannot help but fail or have her voice denied. (The fact that workers often don't fail - against their bosses and otherwise - in the courts is overlooked here.)

Lyotard moves on from this classic Marxist account of exploitation (as well as of the nature of the different ideologies and power-structures of phrase regimes) to provide an equally Marxist (partial) solution to this problem.

Whereas Marxists would talk about the 'revolutionary vanguard' articulating the demands of this worker, and even providing the solution to this mini-system of exploitation, Lyotard assigns that role to philosophers such as, well, himself (which amounts to almost the same thing as the Marxist 'vanguard'). Just as the middle-class Marxist vanguard scrubs away the false consciousness of workers, and provides them with revolutionary ideas, so Lyotard's philosophers also help the exploited find their voices. Or, more correctly, help workers find the voice of the philosopher (or vanguard) and then help them adopt it. Lyotard calls this “philosophical politics”. Marxists call it “revolutionary politics” (as enabled by a vanguard of middle-class revolutionaries).

In addition, just as Marx saw politics as everything and philosophy as nothing (“the point is to change the world”), so Lyotard believed that radical political phrase regimes were the greatest achievement of (postmodern) philosophy.

The Anomalous Case of Jacques Derrida

The idea that the postmodernists and post-structuralists completely broke away from Marxism is ridiculous. How could they? Of course they did when they were talking about esoteric philosophical matters which had no direct impact on political or social matters. Jacques Derrida, for example (although not a postmodernist as such), could only ever distance himself from Marxism when talking about the “transcendental signified” or “binary oppositions”. At all other times, he was still consumed with Marxist dreams and Marxist thought-processes.

For example, in response to to Francis Fukuyama's free market “triumphalism” (as Derrida put it), and Fukuyama's views that the free market usually - though not necessarily!- leads to political freedom, Derrida said, yes “and two world wars, the horrors of totalitarianism”.

Who but an outright Marxist could make such a bald statement?

For one, people, political movements and all sorts of other things led to the two world wars. As a philosopher who rejected necessity and essentialist thinking, how could Derrida possibly have believed that the free market alone - or indeed at all - led to totalitarianism and two world wars? The Nazis led the way to the Second World War; as well as ideology and human nature (not "fixed", but existent) – not the free market.

In addition, clearly when Derrida mentions “totalitarianism” he only had in mind Nazi totalitarianism, not Communist/Marxist totalitarianism: clearly the free market didn't lead to Stalin's foul reign.

In other words, Derrida's entire analysis of the two world wars and totalitarianism is Marxist from head to foot.

In other words, when Derrida wasn't playing philosophical games in his pretentious prose-style (as well as carrying out endless feats of French philosophical oneupmanship), he slipped backed into pretty mindless Marxism. And that perhaps explains why he kept away from explicitly political writings until his Specters of Marx (1993). After all, what could be more Marxist than blaming the two world wars and totalitarianism on the free market alone – let alone conveniently disregarding communist/Marxist totalitarianism?

Derrida was even more explicit elsewhere. In an interview in Radical Philosophy (1994) he said:

I have never gone along with these proclamations about the end of the great emancipatory and revolutionary discourses.”

I suppose it can be argued that all things “emancipatory” and “revolutionary” don't necessarily need to be squared with Marxism. However, because this quote is also part of Derrida's general dig at postmodernism, it's clear that (just as with Kellner, Callinicos, Slavoj Žižek and Frederic Jameson earlier), that he believed that the emancipatory and revolutionary simply couldn't exist separately from Marxism and its own project.

Basically, in strictly philosophical terms, Derrida was indeed a post-structuralist or a deconstructer (or whichever term is correct). Nonetheless, politically he was almost a full Marxist. Now whether or not that dichotomy is feasible I don't know. Perhaps Derrida was always fully aware that his philosophical exhibitionism was always secondary to - or at least separable from - his Marxist political dreams.

The Priest-Class of Marxist Revolutionaries

In a strong sense Marxists must be zealous and fundamentalist otherwise they wouldn't be Marxists at all. And Marxists show their fundamentalist traits when they accuse all non-Marxists - including postmodernists (even those who are actually critical of capitalism) - of being “complicit in the system [capitalism] they criticise”.

Thus, according to Marxists, the only true criticism of capitalism can come from Marxists.

Here, as always, Marxists (as the “vanguard”) hold themselves to be the priest-class of all legitimate and true criticism of capitalism.



1) See also my 'Baudrillard, the Postmodernist, was Still a Marxist' and 'Slavoj Žižek Against Postmodernist Counterrevolutionaries'. In addition, see my 'Michel Foucault's Critique of Marx'.

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