Marxism and postmodernism

Robert Day (July 21, 1999, Wednesday): I'm also frustrated by the contention between the Marxist/socialist left and postmodernists. However, I see little in postmodernism (incredulity toward meta-narratives, the micropolitics of power, the failure of the enlightenment and Cartesian subject/object thought, the arbitrariness of the sign, etc.) that is so offensive to radical thought, other than perhaps the grand Marxist narrative about the evolution of economic systems perhaps, something which I have a hard time taking seriously.


If you are talking about the kind of "marxist" (in fact, Kaustskite) grand narrative that makes one mode of production emerge from the other in an univocal, only-one-way stance, regardless of people's- and classes' - intentions, interests and conscious aims, I have a hard time taking that seriously too. I find much more credible the schema put forth in the *Grundisse*, wher Marx lumps together the different pre-capitalist modes of production as _communal societies_, where individual roles in society where tied to stakes in the division of the product of communal labour on the land, that is, to socially managed property relations, as opposed to the Capitalist mode, where property rights are justified solely on personal interest - thereby creating, at the same time, the necessity for capitalist competition - in order to ensure one's property right, one has to stay competitive, since one cannot have a social claim for property to ensure his proper position - and the preconditions for economic crisis.

That's is where Postmodernism begins to fail, since it assumes a multiplicity of interests and narratives, but doesn't see them as bound sometime to be integrated in a grand narrative out of economic necessity -e.g., the recurrence of ever-deeper economic crisis preparing the ground for an acceptance of the socialist programme as a kind of unified conscience (when the petty-bourgeoisie, for instance, forsakes its identification with bourgeois values in favour of a more proletarian frame of mind). In post-structuralist historiograph, for instances, there is always a great deal of investigation about "mentalities" - Foucault's investigation about modes of sexual regulation in antiquity, or Paul Veyne's analysis of strategies of political legitimation in the Roman Empire - but the grat problem is that these mentalities develop in a void that has nothing to do with the concrete world and concrete choices prompted by economic necessity. That's the reason why Neither Foucault nor Veyne can explain a lot about Antiquity, except for one thing - why Antiquity ended. As Engels said by Marx's grave, Marx discovered that, before making philosophy, humanity has first to think about eating, clothing, and housing.

BTW, by 1979, Foucault was a staunch supporter of the Ayatollah, and saw the 1979 Iranian revolution as an instance of an entire people taking its destiny in its own hands by mean of a change of its entire mentality... What would he say today about pro-democracy demos in Iran (which, of course, are prompted also by very real economic interests)- that mentalities change?

Carlos Rebello


I certainly understand why you feel that "traditional Marxism" tried to "reduce" everything to "simple economic factors." There are a lot of "Marxists" who approach things in just this way.

Yet, nothing, in my opinion, could be further from the real heart and soul of Marx and Engl.'s thinking. Marxism is profoundly humanistic. At its core, it seeks NOT the "elimination" of "class exploitation," but the liberation of humanity from class society. The Marxist "meta-narrative" is that by "negating" itself as an oppressed class and becoming the ruling class, the proletarians also negate their very condition as workers, negating all classes whatsoever. The dialectic is not of economic equalization, but of human realization.

There has been throughout the history of Marxism a constant debate between those who viewed the working class struggle as essentially an economic one, and those who, like Marx and Engels, viewed it, as an immediate political struggle and in world-historical terms, as essentially the liberation of humanity from class society.

You point out that recognizing that varied forms of oppression arise from class society does little to provide a program for revolution. You say it is necessary that "economics" and what you call "cultural" issues, be fought for together. I would go further. The struggle of working people should be a political and revolutionary struggle; and it can only be so by going BEYOND economic questions.

It is not true that there is a consensus among Marxists that oppression that does not take the form of vulgar economic exploitation or blatant political disenfranchisement, is not "legitimate" oppression. Beginning with Marx and Engels the most consistent Marxists have supported all movements by the oppressed against oppression.

To see just how far Marx and Engels were from the narrow, economist spirit, consider this passage, a reply to a Prussian functionary who had published an article urging the working people to ally with the feudal elite. The article had said:

"We can also save ourselves all this tedious talk of communism. If only those who have the vocation for it develop the social principles of Christianity, then the Communists will soon fall silent."

Marx came back with a striking reply:

* * *

The social principles of Christianity have now had eighteen hundred years to be developed, and need no further development....

The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the middle ages, and are capable, in case of need, of defending the oppression of the proletariat, even if with somewhat doleful grimaces.

The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and for the latter all they have to offer is the pious wish that the former may be charitable.

The social principles of Christianity place the ... compensation for all infamies in heaven, and thereby justify the continuation of these infamies on earth.

The social principles of Christianity declare all the vile acts of the oppressors against the oppressed to be either a just punishment for original sin and other sins, or trials which the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, ordains for the redeemed.

The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness, in short, all the qualities of the rabble, and the proletariat, which will not permit itself to be treated as rabble, needs its courage, its self-confidence, its pride and its sense of independence even more than its bread.

The social principles of Christianity are sneaking and hypocritical, and the proletariat is revolutionary.

So much for the social principles of Christianity.

* * * I like the passage so much because to me it speaks so directly to the way U.S. capitalism (and not just) often manages to have its victims internalize their oppression ("cowardice, self contempt, abasement, submissiveness...) and counterposes it to a call, not for struggling for higher wages and an improved pension plan, but to stand up and rebel, first and most of all, against what capital would have us be. Marx is totally explicit about this: the working class "needs its courage, its self confidence, its pride and its sense of independence even more that its bread."

Josť Perez

Robert Day: for some reason, there seems to be this consensus among Marxist circles that if oppression does not take the form of obvious and vulgar economic exploitation or blatantly political disfranchisement, it must not be legitimate oppression...

Not so for Lenin in 1901/2:

"The question arises, what should political education consist in? Can it be confined to the propaganda of *working-class* hostility against the autocracy? Of course not. It's not enough to explain workers that they are politically oppressed[...] Agitation must be conducted with regard to every concrete example of oppression(as we have begun to carry on agitation round concrete examples of economic oppression). Inasmuch as this oppression affects the most diverse classes of society, inasmuch as it manifests itself in the most varied spheres of life and activity-vocational, civic, personal, family, religious scientific, etc.etc.- it is not evident that _we shall not be fulfilling our task_ (Lenin's emphasis) of developing the political consciousness of the workers if we do not undertake the organisation of the _political exposure_ of the autocracy in _all its aspects_? (L's emphasis)" ("What is to be done?", *Collected Works*, v5, pps.400/401).

Of course, I believe that the Marxist discourse has nothing to do with economic exploitation *as such*, but with the idea of overcoming such exploitation in order to attain the *political empowerment* of the oppresed majority. One could imagine, for instance, a poor society where a grater degree of economic equality- based on better income distribution and egalitarian access to resources- would allow more people to participate meaningfully in political life, and that such a society would be preferable, in the eyes of a Marxist, to a wealthier society with worse income distribution; that's why a Marxist could, e.g., make a case for the Cuban economic model even when it were proved beyond a shadow of doubt to be grossly inefficient, provided one could prove that it allowed the vast majority of the Cuban people more of a say in political life than, say, the average Brazilian citizen (I believe that Lou's defence of Cuba refers exactly to that).

If we take Marxist discourse to be a discourse for empowered democracy (using an expression taken from non-Marxist Roberto Unger's lexicon) we could probably say that Marxism could be regarded as a kind of "homeopathic" Postmodernity, in that it would take Foucault's tag about the diffused nature of power discourses, and would oppose such discourse by means of *similia similibus curantur* [the similar healing the similar] by means of dispersing power and allowing more competition to flourish between various discourses - "Let a hundred flowers bloom , let a hundred schools compete with each other"(since I'm not such a Mao Zedong admirer, I may be misquoting).

I do believe that no Marxist could oppose the struggle against Sexism and Homophobia; but I do think that any Marxist would agree that one could, by way of granting women equal civil/political rights, or granting homosexuals the right of marriage and inheritance, only allow by such empowerment the emergence of new discourses, but not that any of these discourses - better, perhaps, narratives?- would someday prevail as common sense. I believe that, taken to its logical conclusion, perhaps the ultimate kind of empowerment would be the classless society, where the whole of Marxist theory would simply cease to apply.

But then we must think only that all libertarian discourses have a class side. Sexism and Homophobia notwithstanding, there were in the whole of known history instances of women and/or homosexuals from the ruling classes that where empowered enough to become highly political and to have a say in all practical matters of ruling, but, since they made politics *in the ruling class interest*, their political action could not possibly be taken as libertarian in any meaningful way. The fact that Madame de Pompadour made a lot of politics in Louis the XVth's reign didn't make feudal politics in late-XVIIIth century France any less oppressive. That, perhaps, is something that somehow Postmodernism fails to perceive. For instance: the fact that Iran in the time of the Shah was a dependent capitalist society and an oppressive political order that oppressed, among others, the Shiite clergy does not allow one to think of the politics of the Mullahs *only* (of course there was a strong progressive element in the 1979 Iranian Revolution) as a wonderful manifestation of a people "taking in hand its own destiny" (Foucault), as the Mullahs, I suspect had- and have- more property and wealth as the great majority of their congregations.

Carlos Rebello


I went off postmodernism quite quickly for the following reasons:

1. I found academic postmodernists (are there any other kinds?) to be smug and way too pleased with themselves. I think this is somehow connected with their rejection of almost everything that marxism commits itself to: realism, praxis, organisation, revolution. So they can pose as some kind of leftists without any of the stigma of marxism attaching.

2. Postmodernism can never break out of its academic and elitist origins because of what it is, a middle class intellectual pastime. This is why the 'difficulty' of the language never mattered - in fact it helped to keep the rabble out. By contrast, marxism can usually be translated into simpler language, provided it's done carefully! Try doing this with a postmodernist text - it either descends into banal common sense or it turns out to be impossible to do.

3. The structuralist linguistic theory, which provided the theoretical underpinnings of postmodernism, is just wrong. This is the source of the 'difficulty'. I mean why else are postmodernists so attached to an eighty year old linguistic theory, when linguists themselves hardly refer to Saussure anymore?

4. Explanation, which I believe (following Roy Bhaskar) to be at the heart of science, is impossible or incoherent from a postmodernist perspective.

5. On questions of gender, two books are probably worth more than the whole of postmodern output put together: Engels's The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex. (I even prefer Camille Paglia to virtually any postmodern text)

However, postmodernism has thrived by radically emphasising the areas that were relatively weakly developed in classical marxism: gender, ethnicity, culture, psychology, aesthetics, media, etc. For this reason many left leaning intellectuals seem to feel that they need to dip into postmodernism when dealing with these issues, which I find regrettable.

Tahir Wood