On the origins and development of postmodernism
Postmodernism is a weapon in the ideological arsenal of the capitalist ruling class. Like any ideology, postmodernism has a class basis, and arose as the result of particular historical conditions. It represents the thinking of the petit bourgeois intellectuals and exerts ideological pressure from the liberal petit bourgeoisie in the people’s movements. In this article we are going to look more closely at the origins of postmodern theory, its development, and its effects.
What is postmodernism? It is both a cultural and artistic movement and a trend in theory based in subjective idealism. It emphasizes relativism and contingency while rejecting any theory that claims to be able to explain reality from an objective, rational and universal standpoint. Postmodernism occupies a hazy theoretical terrain, where borders between one school of thought and another are obscure and bleed into one another. In this way, postmodernism likewise attempts to insert itself into Marxism, sometimes presenting itself as “post-Marxism” and “neo-Marxism.” Let’s look at how the postmodernists try to pull this off.
Postmodernism first arose from the world of art and literature as early as the 1930, from the writing of Federico de Onis. But later, postmodernism passed from being an aesthetic categorization to the realm of social theory. How can we understand this development?
On one hand, it is noteworthy that it is part of a broad cultural movement that was funded and encouraged by imperialist intelligence services. As Frances Stonor Saunders notes in her book Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, “During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government committed vast resources to a secret programme of cultural propaganda in western Europe.” The mission of this program, according to Saunders, “was to nudge the intelligentsia of western Europe away from its lingering fascination with Marxism and Communism towards a view more accommodating of ‘the American way’.” The CIA funded everything from cultural magazines to museums and symphonies, all in order to drive people away from Marxism. Because ideology exerts pressure on the material base of society, this “cultural cold war” helped to fertilize the soil in which the imperialists sowed the seeds of counterrevolution, which they approached more directly by funding and directing counterrevolutionary groups and organizing coups.
On the other hand, this ideological attack also relied upon contradictions within the international communist movement itself, and this “Cultural Cold War” was only able to gain traction as a result of these contradictions. By 1956, the international communist movement began to fracture around fault lines created by Nikita Khrushchev’s slanders of Stalin in his “secret speech” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev vilified Stalin in order to cast doubt on the historic experience upon which Marxism-Leninism is based. By casting doubt upon that experience, Khrushchev created an opening that allowed him to revise core elements of Marxism-Leninism, such as the proletarian class character of the USSR and CPSU, and the ultimate necessity of armed struggle in order to transition from capitalism to socialism.
Khrushchev’s speech also led many to deny the progressive historical character of socialism in the USSR and to abandon Marxism. This also led to major divisions within the communist movement. While the Communist Party of China and the Party of Labor of Albania correctly criticized Khrushchev’s attempts to revise and distort Marxism, a whole assortment of revisionists followed Khrushchev. They sought to cast aside the revolutionary essence of Marxism-Leninism in favor of all kinds of reformist, pessimist and class-conciliationist theories.
During this period of ideological disarray, the petit bourgeois intellectuals who led the charge in pulling the left away from Marxism relied on dissident and revisionist currents within Marxism to attack it from within, such as they had always done by promoting Trotsky in his struggle against Stalin and the Soviet Union. An important factor in the development of postmodernism, therefore, was the trend in philosophy known as “Western Marxism.” This group of philosophers, largely from western Europe, from Karl Korsch and György Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre, all largely carried out, in one way or another, a reversal of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, which demanded that theory’s source and aim was revolutionary practice.
Instead, these Western Marxists worked to divorce Marxism from the practical struggles of the working class and retreated into the academic ivory tower. Furthermore, as the Western Marxist academic Perry Anderson notes in his book In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, they each attempted to merge Marxism with elements of non-Marxist (metaphysical and idealist) philosophy, such as with Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics or with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories. The result was a muddle, and by the 1970s most of Western Marxism was engaged in self-obsessed navel-gazing or had become narrowly preoccupied with cultural criticism and aesthetics. No wonder this is the “Marxism” promoted in the universities of the imperialist countries.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, the sociologists Alain Touraine and Daniel Bell began to argue that we had entered a new “post-industrial” period of capitalism. Dazzled by consumerism, this misguided theory formed the theoretical foundation for the left’s retreat from the working class and the development of “post-Marxist” political theory. Practically, this period saw the rise of the “new left.” This left called itself “new” because, unlike the so-called “old” communist left, they were not oriented towards the working class. Indeed, as the revisionist communist parties failed to connect Marxism with the practical movements of the working class, the void was filled by groups like Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party. Both of these groups made important and lasting contributions, but because neither was able to connect meaningfully with the broader multinational working class, both eventually succumbed to their errors.
The New Communist Movement also developed from this context, with the intent of rebuilding the communist movement and bringing Marxism back to the working class. While the best elements of the New Communist Movement eventually united into the Freedom Road Socialist Organization in the 1980s, the rest eventually were consumed either by ultra-left errors or by social-democratic reformism.
This brings us to the postmodernists themselves. A significant theoretical trend in this period was the wave of post-structuralist theorists. Structuralism, broadly, argued that things had to be understood in terms of their structural interrelations. A core premise of structuralism is that “consciousness is structured like a language.” They believed that our thoughts and ideas weren’t a reflection of objective material reality, but rather that the “symbolic order” of language, along with all of its linguistic rules, stood in a mediator between reality and our conception of reality. This premise isn’t fundamentally opposed to Marxism. As Stalin said in “Marxism and Problems of Linguistics”, “Whatever thoughts arise in the human mind and at whatever moment, they can arise and exist only on the basis of the linguistic material, on the basis of language terms and phrases. Bare thoughts, free of the linguistic material, free of the ‘natural matter’ of language, do not exist.” Siraj explains in Post-modernism Today that the problem with the structuralist understanding is that “all aspects of the social world are shaped by the structure of language.” In other words, for the structuralists, it isn’t class struggle, but language that shapes society. Stalin’s main point was that language doesn’t act as a superstructure. The structuralists go into the realm of idealism by arguing that language is determinant.
Post-structuralism seeks to expand upon this by arguing that these linguistic structures are constituted by systems of power. These theorists, such as the French philosophers Michel Foucault, drifted into abstraction, relativism, and subjective idealism. The post-structuralists argued that we cannot criticize systems of power by relying on binary notions like exploiter and exploited that ground Marxist class analysis. Instead, they argued that we should use textual interpretation, drawing from linguistics, anthropology and psychology, to criticize power.
Furthermore, since reality is shaped by language and power, the postmodernists opposed any notion of objectivity and universalism as what Jean-François Lyotard called “meta-narratives.” These “meta-narratives,” they said, were just big stories, or overarching myths, that we tell in a futile attempt to make sense of a reality that we cannot ultimately comprehend. Historical necessity and universality therefore were discarded as everything is judged to be contingent and relative. As the postmodernists would have it, Marxism is mythology. Therefore, they subjected these “meta-narratives” to the same idealist linguistic criticism. Since we could only analyze language and not reality itself, language came to stand in for material reality. The post-structuralists, therefore, focused largely on critical analysis of art and literature, but the ideas they developed spread into the then largely petit bourgeois and student-led social movements. There, postmodern discourse based on difference, identity and language struggle to displace the centrality of class analysis and the universality of Marxism-Leninism as the ideology of the working class struggle against capitalist exploitation and oppression.
Michel Foucault was probably the most influential postmodern theorist, so we should examine his main ideas. He was a student of Althusser who devoted himself to developing the thought of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in a postmodern context. Foucault was originally drawn to Western Marxism, but later rejected Marxism completely. Nevertheless, he presents himself as a friend of the oppressed, focusing his work on the treatment and mistreatment of mental illness (in Madness and Civilization and The Birth of the Clinic), prisoners (in Discipline and Punish), and sexual repression (The History of Sexuality).
In his early works, Foucault bases his analysis on what he refers to as an “archaeological” method (which he details in his book, The Archaeology of Knowledge). This method basically says that systems of knowledge are governed by rules, of which we aren’t conscious, that define our conceptual framework and place boundaries on what we can think in any given period. For Foucault, this meant that in different periods people thought in ways that may seem completely alien to us from the point of view of our current period. This is the basis of the postmodern idea that truth isn’t objective, but rather, that truth is socially constructed. Furthermore, it also forms the basis for the postmodern idea that any given “discourse” should “stay in its lane” since it isn’t capable of understanding where the others are coming from. In other words, we have no universal, shared experience. This mentality leads to subjectivism and relativism, and an inability to strategically unite different struggles. Further, it makes it impossible to name any particular struggle as the principal contradiction that drives the process, which we could leverage to maximize our effectiveness across struggles.
Therefore, this archaeological method was silent on how one period transitioned to another. For this, Foucault adopted what he called a “genealogical” method, derived from Nietzsche. Foucault’s genealogy intended to argue that history was contingent, rather than the outcome of any sort of law governed historical process. Things happened by accident. Thus, Foucault’s theory is a direct attack on Marxist historical materialism, which holds that history is governed by knowable laws, and that we can interact with those laws in order to transform society.
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison represents the essence of Foucalt’s thinking on the question of power. Here he offers his critique of power as such, by looking at the prison system. According to Foucault, power does three things: it observes, it judges, and it disciplines. The purpose is to create “docile bodies,” to enforce normalized behavior, or, in other words, conformity.
Following Nietzsche, Foucault’s genealogy centers around “the body.” Power is exercised over bodies to make them work like cogs in machines that function within society. Thus, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault explains his theory of “biopower.” Unlike earlier, modern forms of power based on violence and expropriation, Foucault argues that biopower “endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply [life], subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.” In this sense, just like mental hospitals and prisons, everything from urban planning, medical care, and education exists for the scientific management and administration of bodies, to make those bodies function in a normalized, docile way, like cogs in a humming social machine.
This is a critique of power that many on the left find very appealing, especially petit bourgeois radicals and anarchists. Foucault, by critiquing power, may appear to be a friend to the powerless, but he is a false friend. In fact, he isn’t critiquing the power that is being wielded against working and oppressed people by the capitalist state, but power as such. Foucault rejects and opposes anything that would reproduce power, including the sorts of knowledge, authority, hierarchy and discipline that are essential to organizing a revolution and transforming society. Without power, the working class cannot reshape society to end exploitation and oppression. In this regard, Foucault leaves us with no real way out. For Foucault, knowledge and power are intertwined as power-knowledge. Rationality itself, for Foucault, is coercive. Nevertheless, only “discourse,” though limited and constrained by power, is left open by Foucault as a viable way to subvert power.
The recently declassified CIA report entitled “France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals” deals largely with the trajectory of this trend in theory and praises the “spirit of anti-Marxism … that will make it difficult for anyone to mobilize significant intellectual opposition to U.S. policies.” It goes on to say that “The wide acceptance of this more critical approach to Marxism and the Soviet Union has been accompanied by a general decline of intellectual life in France that has undermined the political involvement of leftist intellectuals.” In this report, the CIA credits Foucault with the “critical demolition of Marxist influence in the social sciences,” which it celebrates as a “profound contribution to modern scholarship.” Needless to say, if the CIA thinks something is good, then it certainly isn’t.
Like Western Marxism, these days postmodern theory mainly haunts the halls of university literature departments. But some “post-Marxist” hucksters like Slavoj Žižek still influence the petit bourgeois left. Žižek’s philosophy is a strange brew of Hegelian idealism, Western Marxism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis poured over an endless stream of pop culture references. In the article “Capitalism’s Court Jester,” Gabriel Rockhill writes about Žižek, saying “this Eastern European native informant increasingly presented his post-Marxism as nothing short of the most radical form of Marxism.” Indeed, this has always been one of their favorite tricks. From the time of Trotsky to today, what unites all of these petit bourgeois theorists is the conceit that they are “critiquing Marxism from the left.” Rockhill explains that “Žižek became a front man in the global theory industry by borrowing his most important insights from the Marxist tradition but subjecting them to a playful postmodern cultural mash-up to crush their substance…”
But Žižek doesn’t confine himself to academic matters. He’s made a name for himself critiquing movies and pop culture. He also loves to chime in on the political issues of the day. For example, in a recent article for The New Statesman from August 14, 2023, entitled “Ukraine must go to war with itself,” Žižek writes that “Ukraine itself is fighting at two fronts: against Russian aggression and for what sort of country Ukraine will be after the war. If Ukraine survives, will it be a nationalist fundamentalist country such as Poland or Hungary? Will it be a de facto colony of global capitalism, or something else?” This aloof, “critical” approach allows him to pretend like his support for the proxy war against Russia is coming “from the left,” while in actuality he is carrying water for the U.S. imperialists and NATO.
Postmodernism has always been a weapon of the bourgeoisie. It is a weapon aimed primarily at Marxism, while pretending to be an intellectual ally of the left. But postmodernism is no friend of the left. It is an ideological wedge meant to divide Marxism from the movements of working and oppressed people, and to displace proletarian ideology with the ideology of the petit bourgeoisie. As such, Marxists should give no ground to postmodernism, but should fight for the ideology of the working class as the only ideology that can guide the revolutionary transformation of society.
J. Sykes is the author of “The Revolutionary Science of Marxism-Leninism”. The book can be purchased by visiting tinyurl.com/revsciMLbook.