Post-modernism – a marxist comment
By Prof. RANDHIR SINGH
The Soviet collapse has caused, however temporarily, a retreat from Marxism. Another consequence has been a resurgence of old and new alternative theories. All sorts of essentially Rightwing ideologies have come to flourish. Old orthodoxies have been resurrected and ancient prejudices and superstitions argued for in modern and supposedly scientific way. ‘Culture’ and ‘civilisation’ and their so-called ‘clashes’, are invoked to explain history rather than be explained by it and in an exercise of racial pseudo-science, not only is the reality of imperialism obscured but its crimes are justified as the product of cultural ‘incompatibility’. ‘Identity politics’ and ‘communitarianism’ are the new catchwords and obscuring the reality of iniquitous class structures within and around the identities or communities and the ‘mud of the times’ invariably carried by them-for example, ‘the coercions and inequities’, in Amartya Sen’s words, ‘that many traditional communities standardly impose on less privileged members (such as women, or female children, or those belonging to the lower tiers of the collectivity)’- they are so theorised as to persuade the victims of capitalism and imperialism to accept and stay happy with their ‘difference’ in place of equality and liberation that Marxist theory and practice seek. And so on. Of these supposed alternatives, there is one that I would like to take a quick notice of-the rather ‘infashion’ post-modernism which is particularly influential in the Left intellectual circles in the west and has acquired adherents worldwide. Loud in proclaiming the ‘end’ or ‘obsolescence’ of Marxism, it has even claimed to be a replacement of and advance over Marxism, (or ‘traditional Marxism’ as its ex-Marxist adherents would have it), and thus, to be the most advanced radical social theory of these, our post-modernist times. Critics from the other end have seen post-modernism as, in some ways, the most dangerous of the forces currently threatening the survival of the socialist project inasmuch as it threatens the project from within, given its origins, the nature of its criticism, and the significant ex-Marxist presence in it. Post-modernism’s rhetoric of rupture and discontinuity renders wrong everything you thought you ever knew and the accompanying fragmentation of time, space and historical experience is supposed to liberate us from the mistaken modernist notions of reason, knowledge, history, morals or progress, and above all, the dead hand of ‘meta-narratives’. The best or rather the worst, typical, representative of this mistaken ‘modernity’, they say, is Marxism and its socialist project. As it is traditionally trained, conditioned or persuaded, to under-reach themselves, in class-divided societies, people always had a had time seeing beyond their most immediately visible oppressors; post-modernist thinking, with its distrust of so-called ‘grand narratives’, simply reinforces such myopia. That is how, for post-modernism, capitalism is and socialism can never be…….
A point of interest here is that quite a few of the original or leading post-modernists, who have thus argued against Marxism or socialism, were once themselves Marxists or near-Marxists and believed in what they were willing to call socialism. This draws our attention to a certain psychological aspect to this post-modernist episode in the intellectual biography of the Western Left intelligentsia. Post-modernism has certainly a great deal to do with capitalism; scholars like Jameson and Harvey have seen it as a cultural expression of late capitalism and Hawkes-old fashioned enough to be still a believer in concepts like ‘false consciousness’-has even defined and dismissed post-modernism as ‘nothing more than the ideology of consumer capitalism’. But surely there is more than a grain of truth in the view, which taking cognisance of its noticeably significant French origins, has seen post-modernism as a passing, or somewhat more lasting, fad of French intellectuals, (typically the survivors of the ‘sixties generation’ and their students), who having lost their revolutionary faith, have taken refuge in a nihilistic scepticism rather than come to amicable terms with the bourgeois world in which they live and whose benefits they enjoy. Or perhaps, they have found it psychologically the most comforting way of coming to terms with this world and succumbing to it. But fad or whatever else originally, post-modernism is a significant mode of thought today. Much of ex-Marxism, often via post-Marxism, has found its way into post-modernism, and similarly disillusioned or otherwise complacent intellectuals everywhere, in the West as much as in the Third World, have flocked to it as the very latest in social theory. For the time being at least, post-modernism has spread so fast and far is a matter for social historians to explore. But the power of fashion apart, surely it has something to do with its animus against Marxism (however ambiguous it may be at time) and even more its unambiguous surrender to what is, that is, capitalism and its current triumphalism-a surrender made all the more attractive or comforting by the seemingly avant-garde sophistication of post-modernism. It only needs to be added that the success, such as it is, of the post-modernist theory is largely parasitical ‘because it rests on its proponents’ claims concerning the obsolescence of Marxism, and it is this which enables the post-modernists to position themselves as the most advanced radical social theorists?
THE language is abstruse and esoteric, almost incomprehensible, the ‘discourse’ inaccessible except to the initiates. Rhetoric of ‘discontinuity’ notwithstanding, there is continuity of assumption with the jargonised modernist thought that to be readable or comprehensible is to be superficial, to be not theoretical, certainly not theoretically profound. It is supposed to be a theory but there is no agreement among the proponents, let alone the critics, what precisely ‘post-modernism’ is. Its practitioners are in fact inclined to be rather disdainful of any such systemising or self-consistency seeking enterprise. Our difficulty in comprehending and assessing post-modernism critically is compounded by the fact that it has emerged generally, and as an influence on the Left, in almost inseparable association with a variety of other intellectual and political trends, including ‘post-Marxism’ and ‘post-structuralism’. But the basic thrust of post-modernism is sufficiently clear for us to take a quick look at it before we take another quick look at the themes secreted in its interstices, which themes, even as we reject post-modernism, must be the concern of any serious socialist today.
As the name itself suggests, the basic thrust of post-modernism is a ‘rupture’ or ‘discontinuity’ with the project of modernity which is seen to have its origins in the Enlightenment, though it came to fruition in the nineteenth century. ‘The so-called rationalism, techno centrism, the standardisation of knowledge and production, a belief in linear progress and universal, absolute truths.’ Post-modernism is supposed to be a reaction to, and the rejection of the project of modernity, its science or knowledge, its rationalism, universalism and humanism, and so on. The post-modernist interpretation of Enlightenment or so-called ‘project of modernity’ is not my concern here. There is undoubtedly a lot to be criticised in Enlightenment theories of history and progress, its view of science or technology, knowledge or truth, or reason itself whose excesses indeed spawned ‘some petrified and tyrannical versions’ as Feyeraband has described them. Its optimism or general hopefulness, however justified then or even now, could be charged with a certain lack of sensitivity to the complexity or dialectics of human situation and processes of social change. And so on. But more to the point is the fact that not only is all this only a small part of the story but that it soon came to be criticised from within, long before the arrival of post-modernism. Marx himself, for example, was profoundly aware of the limits or deficiencies of the theoretical baggage carried from Enlightenment. In other words, Enlightenment or ‘modernity’ so-called had within them a strong critical tradition which, over the year, questioned almost all the ‘evils’ now being ascribed to them by post-modernism. Aberrations, even serious aberrations, were there; but on the whole and at it a scientific scepticism if I may so call it, that helped improve our modes of getting things chosen and done. Post-modernism is, in its own way, rooted in this sceptical tradition within ‘modernism’, but what has now happened is that in its ‘new turn’ (as one of its leading lights, Laclau, has called it), scepticism has been pursued, dogmatically, to its ultimate nihilistic conclusions. Marxism seeks to find a perspective and purpose for human life by an inquiry into the foundations of human thought and action. Post-modernism, reminiscent of a philosophical aberration or two earlier, makes no such inquiry and says it cannot be made in a manner that at the end of it all the post-modernist view of life looks very much like what Shakespeare put in the mouth of Macbeth: ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.
POST-MODERNISM sees the world or social reality, when it is at all willing to see it, as essentially fragmented and indeterminate, a realm of the contingent, the ephemeral and the discontinuous where the only thing possible is delight in the chaos of life as if it were some kind of game. The social is not to be conceived either in terms of possessing unproblematically ‘real’ empirical characteristics, or in terms of constituting a structured totality. The very notion of structure or structural connections is denied. There is no such thing as a social whole or structured processes accessible to human knowledge and therefore to purposive human action, only a bricolage of difference, identity and social multiplicities, so diverse and flexible that it can be rearranged as you like by discursive construction. A dominant theme has been the denial of capitalism as a ‘structured’ and ‘totalising’ whole with its own systemic unity and ‘laws of motion’. The constitutive relations of capitalism are at best only one personal ‘identity’ among many others, no longer in any way ‘privileged’ by their historic centrality. Capitalism, therefore, is simply unamenable to any ‘causal analysis’. Structures and causes are all replaced by fragments and contingencies. There is an uncritical eclecticism that celebrates particularity and multiplicity for its own sake. What exists are only disconnected, anarchic and inexplicable differences or particularities. There are only so many different kinds of power, oppression, identity, etc. and of course, as many or more ‘discourses’ about them.
Causality, and therefore, the very possibility of causal analysis, is rejected. There can be no social science as it has been traditionally conceived-and in extreme cases perhaps, no science at all. What is deemed possible and advocated is a ‘deconstructed’, restless, indeterminacy of analysis. There is historicity of knowledge, but no historical knowledge or any objective truth. Marxism is ruled out and so is any other attempt at systematic explanation of social or historical conditions. Not only have we to give up any idea of intelligible historical processes or causality but along with it, evidently, any idea of ‘making history’. One distinctive feature of the post-modernist ‘new turn’ is its rather loud rejection of ‘totalising’ thought in all its forms, the so-called ‘meta-narratives’. And significantly enough, privileged for attack here are the universalistic, emancipatory ‘meta-narratives’, the projects for a general ‘human emancipation’, which are typically represented by Marxism and its project of socialism. It is argued that any broad movements for social change, general emancipatory struggles for equality and liberation, inevitably lead to new forms of repression and oppression. What is possible and permissible are only particular struggles, on particular issues or against particular oppressions, only a fragmented politics of ‘difference’, and ‘identity’.
The post-modernist ‘deconstructed’ indeterminacy of analysis is carried into the realm of morals with similar nihilistic or near nihilistic consequences. We cannot be sure of any rational values. We simply cannot or do not have any general moral principles, let alone ones that should be universally defended as between human beings, communities and traditions. There is an unequivocal denial of the possibility or the desirability of universal values, ambitions or aspiration. The irreducible historicity of values (as of knowledge), interpreted in terms of a theoretically most flawed relativism, is so emphasised by post-modernists that, their protests notwithstanding, the end result is, and on their argument can only be, an undeniable moral nihilism, where there is only multiplicity of values (as of truths) and no rational way of choosing or deciding between them.
POST-MODERNISM may be disdainful of confronting fundamental issues or evasive about its philosophical premises, but it has come to sport what can only be described as idealism, its own specifically new form of philosophical idealism, the idealism of ‘discourse’, and at one more remove, of ‘language’ that ‘discourse’ cannot do without and is therefore reducible to. An idealism of the subjective kind, it has an obvious flavour of solipsism about it.
As the argument proceeds, social reality, seen as fragmented and indeterminate, is soon dissolved into ‘discourse’. Since there are no historical conditions or connections, limits or possibilities, only arbitrary juxtapositions, conjunctures and contingencies, only discrete and isolated fragments or differences, if anything holds it all together, gives it meaning or coherence, it is only the logic of ‘discourse’. What is involved here is not merely a detaching of thought or ideology from any social basis, its autonomisation, but its self-sufficient independences, and as a consequence, social reality itself, is now constituted by thought or ‘discourse’. Reality is only a field of discursivity, nothing objective, only a discursively constructed idea about it. Indeed, language is all.
A long time back, in The German ideology, Marx and Engels had written:
Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent realm.
Philosophers have been at it, or preparing the ground for it, before, during and after Marx’s own time. Plato’s ‘theory of ideas’, as an exercise in ‘reification of concepts’ was a significant beginning, and Hegel’s massive act of reification was thus noticed by Marx:
To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the idea”, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurges of the real world, and the real world is only the external phenomenal form of “the idea”.
Of the more recent ‘Age of Analysis’, Barrows Dunham has written:
Whereas philosophers had once speculated boldly about the universe as a whole, they now preferred the safer latitudes of language. They began as sears, and they dwindled into grammarians.
Further cutting itself free from the material world, philosophy had its devotees who so focussed on language as to question the validity of social concepts and treat social problems as if these, too, were a matter of language and syntax, purely verbal, as if struggle against fascism. For example, involved no more than a definition of terms. It has been a long journey for such idealism in Western philosophy. But it can be said that the destination or denouement has been now reached with post-modernism-a slide down the road from reality to discourse, to language. The language is not merely an independent realm but an all-pervasive force, so omnipresent and dominant as to overwhelm and exhaust all that was supposed to be an objectively existing social reality. Language is all we can know about the world and we have access to no other reality, none whatsoever except language or discourse. Once again matter has disappeared, this time giving way to the immateriality of communication, were everything is discourse and discourse is everything. Our very being, our identities or ‘subjectivities’ are constituted through discourse or language. Our ‘language’ or ‘discourse’, or ‘text’-the jargon varies but not the message-defines and the limits what we are, what we see or know, what we can imagine or do. It is all a matter of the way in which we are positioned by words in relation to other words. Oppression and exploitation, things like rape or deaths in police lock-up and fake encounters are really a matter of the way in which they are defined, rather ‘constituted’, linguistically-this is the only reality they have, or can even hope to have. So goes this new idealism…. That this idealism serves the established order or the powers – that be, is obvious. But it is equally a self-serving philosophy for the intellectual whom it privileges against fellow human beings. He is the one who discourses, or can discourse in the best deconstructionist-solipsistic manner.
POST-MODERNISM is very much a la mode of the moment, the fashion in the academy and elite intellectual circles elsewhere. And the power of fashion is great. But to say this is not to be dismissive about it. For fashion, in philosophy or social theory at least, is never something merely frivolous or fortuitous. It is always a true and revealing thing. And post-modernism is truly revelatory of the disillusionment caused by the collapse of the socialist project in our time, the seeming failure of the long term promise of Enlightenment, and the consequent succumbing of the intellectual to the established order. But equally, indeed even more, it is a response to something real, the real situation as it has come to be in contemporary capitalism. For Jameson, for instance, as already noticed, post-modernity corresponds to ‘late capitalism’ or a new multinational ‘informational’ and ‘consumerist’ phase of capitalism. Others too have argued along same or similar lines. But this argument is not what I would like to pursue here. Important for my immediate purpose is the fact that post-modernism has, in its own way, raised questions that we need to consider and incorporate into any analysis of what is wrong with the world today, if we would find really adequate or effective answers to its problems. In other words, secreted in the interstices of the basic thrust of post-modernism are themes which, reflecting as they do the real conditions under contemporary capitalism, are therefore also the themes with which people on the socialist Left must come to terms. Here I can do no better than turn to Ellen Meiksins Wood. This is how she lists the more important of these themes especially as they have found expression on the ‘post-modern’ Left:
A focus on language, culture and “discourse”… to the exclusion of the Left’s traditional “economistic” concerns and the old pre-occupations of political economy; a rejection of “totalising” knowledge and of “universalistic” values (including Western conceptions of “rationality”, general ideas of equality, whether liberal or socialist, and the Marxist conception of general human emancipation), in favour of an emphasis on “difference”, on varied particular identities such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, on various particular and separate oppressions and struggles; an insistence on the fluid and fragmented nature of human self (the decentred subject), which makes our identities so variable, uncertain, and fragile that it is hard to see how we can develop the kind of consciousness that might form the basis of solidarity and collective action founded on a common social “identity”(such as class), a common experience, and common interests-a celebration of the “marginal”; and a repudiation of “grand narratives”, such as Western ideas of progress, including Marxist theories of history.
Post-modernists have tended to lump these themes together in a dismissal of Marxism, rather what they allege Marxism to be. But as Wood has insisted, Marxists do not need to deny the importance of at least quite a few of these themes:
For instance, the history of the twentieth century could hardly inspire confidence in traditional notions of progress, and those of us who profess to believe in some kind of “progressive” politics have to come to terms with all that has happened to undermine Enlightenment optimism. And who would want to deny the importance of “identities” other than class, of struggles against sexual and racial oppression, or the complexities of human experience in such a mobile and changeable world, with such fragile and shifting solidarities? At the same time, who can be oblivious to the resurgence of “identities” like nationalism as powerful, and often destructive, historical forces? Don’t we have to come to terms with the restructuring of capitalism, now more global and more “segmented” than ever before? For that matter, who is unaware of the structural changes that have transformed socialism, has ever been unconscious of the racial or sexual divisions within the working class? Who would want to subscribe to the kind of ideological and cultural imperialism that suppresses the multiplicity of human values and cultures? And how can we possibly deny the importance of language and cultural politics in a world so dominated by symbols, images, and “mass communication”, not to mention the “information superhighway”? Who would deny these things in a world of global capitalism so dependent on the manipulation of symbols and images in a culture of advertisement, where the “media” mediate our own most personal experiences, sometimes to the point where what we wee on television seems more real than our own lives, and where the terms of political debate are set-and narrowly constricted-by the dictates of capital in the most direct way, as knowledge and communication are increasingly in the hands of corporate giants?
But, most importantly, Wood immediately adds:
‘we don’t have to accept post-modernist assumptions in order to see all these things. On the contrary, these developments cry out for a materialist explanation. For that matter, there have been few cultural phenomena in human history whose material foundations are more glaringly obvious than those of post-modernism itself. There is, in fact, no better confirmation of historical materialism than the connection between post-modernist culture and a segmented, consumerist, and mobile global capitalism. Nor does a materialist approach mean that we have to devalue or denigrate the cultural dimensions of human experience. A materialist understanding is, instead, an essential step in liberating culture from the stranglehold of commodification.
If post-modernism does tell us something, in a distorted way, about the conditions of contemporary capitalism, the real trick is to figure out exactly what those conditions are, why they are, and where we go from here. The trick, in other words, is to suggest historical explanations for those conditions instead of just submitting to them and indulging in ideological adaptations. The trick is to identify the real problems to which the current intellectual fashions offer false-or no-solutions, and in so doing to challenge the limits they impose on action and resistance. The trick, therefore, is to respond to the conditions of the world today not as cheerful (or even miserable) robots but as critics.
And no theory provides better weapons for the needed critique and better solutions to the real problems involved than Marxism.
POST-MODERNISM, with its denial of objectivity and causality and overall explanatory agnosticism, its embrace of an indeterministic concept of complexity and ultra-relativism in matters of culture, truth and morals, its overriding historical cynicism and fear-laden contempt for modernist ‘meta narratives’, all of which really adds up to a rejection of everything that purports to offer anything resembling answers, can obviously provide no answers to the problems that the modern, or shall we say post-modern, world confronts. It claim to be a radical rupture with the past only betrays its lack of historical sensitivity which makes it sublimely oblivious of everything that has been said so many times in the past and condemns it to conscious or unconscious repetition of old themes. Even the epistemological scepticism, the assault on universal truths and values, which is so crucial a part of this current intellectual fashion, has a history as old as philosophy-post-modernism has only so pursued it as to reach altogether nihilistic conclusions. That science or morals are a social or historical product is turned into an argument that all theories or moral principles, thus conditioned, are equally invalid, and the categories involved valid only as objects of discourse. Concepts indispensable to any worthwhile social theory, ‘universalism’, ‘essentialism’, ‘functionalism’ and what they misdescribe as ‘reductionism’-of course, like all such concepts needing to be used with care and sophistication-are attacked and rejected as ‘the four methodological sins’ of modernism, and Marxism is the worst culprit. The uniqueness of things is used to deny the possibility of general theories about anything. Particularity is celebrated without realising that it is self-defeating because any account at the level of the given particular can be undercut by some more particularistic analysis. We can never actually know when any particular is particular enough, and in any case the smallest significant particulars you can think of-groups, selves, experiences, thoughts, words, events, actions-are themselves inevitable abstractions from countless further particulars. In fact, without a more general, universal theory it is impossible to tell when to stop or make sense of particularities. And these ‘universalising’ theories, all the time moving from the particular to the general, have embodied immense imagination and scientific capacities and helped us reach ever closer to the nature or truth of things. ‘Essentialism’ is considered a major methodological sin when it is simply indispensable to any realist thinking about complex entities and processes. Without some coherent notion of what is central, that is, essential to a thing which makes it, as a specific unity of parts and particulars, the thing and no other, and without which it would be literally unrecognisable as that type of thing it would be impossible even to speak of any particular thing (for example, an ‘identity’ that post-modernists are otherwise so loud about), or postulate anything explanatory about its being, behaviour or functioning. ‘Functionalism’ is questioned when, posting a certain kind of ‘why’ questions of its subject matter, ‘making sense’ of how things came to be what they are, explaining the emergence, persistence or rationale of the more concrete practices, institutional arrangements or ideological phenomena in terms of for example, the way in which they comply with the needs or logic of interests of classes in society, functional explanation has its intellectual validity and value and remains, not an all-purpose affair but a legitimate part of any adequate, reasonably comprehensive causal explanation of things. As ‘reductionism’ what is rejected is the act integral to any explanation where some things are picked out as important and given prominence over others in terms of their effects or influence-otherwise there is no explanation, only ‘disparate fragments’ or ‘aggregates’ and their descriptive statement. What is entailed here, as I have already argued earlier, is a failure to distinguish between explanation that is reductionist and explanation. These vital concepts are so interpreted or misinterpreted by post-modernists as to cover and reject not just simplistic or lazy explanations but any kind of serious causal analysis or general explanatory enterprise.
THAT this epistemological scepticism stops short of nihilism in practice only means that, at this level at least, it is impossible to wish away social reality and some knowledge to cope with it, however fragmented a view one takes of both; the fragments are yet the sites when human beings live and act. Thus the ‘fragmented knowledge’ of post-modernism has thus produced some keen insights well suited for narrowly defined specific types of tasks, even when any ‘big picture’ or ‘meta narrative’ is ruled out. This is welcome and to be acknowledged, but there is an interesting aspect to it which also cries out to be noticed. Its ‘rhetoric of ruptures’ notwithstanding, post-modernism here is too much like the modernist (mainstream or bourgeois) social science, governed as it has been by quantitative empiricism and mindless specialisation, where its narrow focus and piecemeal approach, and a distruct of generalised explanatory theory, have led it to study only relatively unrelated, particular parts, areas or problems of contemporary social and political life, and thus helped it avoid ‘big issues’ concerning the basic character of society as a whole and the general direction of its movement, and thereby also evade the issue of large scale social change. Neither modernist social scientists, nor post-modernists, however, would be willing to accept that in turning away from ‘grant theory’ in one case and ‘meta-narrative’ in the other they have both come to deal with ‘small potatoes’ only, and avoid the ‘big issues’. The former assume away the big issues do not exist or that they are impossible to understand. If modernist social science adjusts itself to existing social reality, that is, the established bourgeois social order in one way, post-modernism does it in another, its own post-modernist way.
This adjustment has been facilitated in both cases by their respective stances on the question of values. Bourgeois social science’s treatment of values as somehow beyond rational inquiry or validation (and the accompanying fetishisation of ‘value freedom’ or ‘ethical neutrality’) is paralleled by post-modernism’s ultra-relativism in matters moral or cultural. It should not be difficult to see that in both cases, notwithstanding their occasional expression of dissatisfaction, or disillusionment, with the current state of affairs, this in effect amounts to an endorsement of and submission to the currently dominant moral and cultural values of bourgeois society. The two, incidentally, also share in obscuring this adjustment and submission to bourgeois social order by their linguistic practices. Critical of unnecessary obscurity and jargon of modernist discourse, post-modernism has created a paralled obscurity of hermeneutics, deconstruction and textual nihilism. Once again triviality of content is often in sharp contrast to complexity of form, obscurity of presentation a substitute or compensation for the lack of substance. A critic has even spoken of ‘the more obscure, relativistic cant put out by post-modernism’, and as a recent example referred us to Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International.