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Red Theory: Marxism against postmodernism

By J. Sykes |
July 3, 2022
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In the ideological terrain today, Marxism must struggle against postmodernism. What is postmodernism? In The Postmodern Condition, the French philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard summed up the postmodern view as the rejection of “metanarratives.” By “metanarratives” Lyotard means any theory that claims to be able to explain the totality of social, historical and cultural phenomena. This includes the Enlightenment and Marxism. In other words, postmodernism opposes the idea that the world can or should be objectively and rationally understood. The idea that the world as a whole is rational and comprehensible is thus deemed “modern” and postmodernism claims to have gone beyond modernism.

Because it is opposed to these kinds of “totalizing discourse,” postmodernism can be hard to pin down. It concerns itself with literary theory, art and architecture, and similar cultural, ideological and superstructural ideas. These aren’t unimportant questions for revolutionaries to grasp, and, indeed, Marxism can, and should, address them. Postmodernism also deals with political questions, but it does so based on theories of “difference” and “power” that are separated from and opposed to any notions of class struggle. Here, postmodernism’s main theorists have been Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, among others. And while some on the far right would equate postmodernism with Marxism, they do so only to confuse people. Postmodernism and Marxism are fundamentally opposed to one another. 

Let’s begin with how postmodernism arose, ideologically, and why. There are two events that are of particular importance: first, the horror of the second World War, and second, the Cold War and the collapse of socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. First, in the aftermath of WWII, many philosophers in Europe took the view that it was rationalism and Enlightenment thinking itself that led to the rise of fascism and the holocaust. They correctly understood that fascism is an outgrowth of capitalism, but they also bought into the rampant anticommunism of the period and so saw no alternative way forward. They accepted the liberal bourgeois lie that fascism and communism were two sides of one “totalitarian” coin. Then, from the end of the war through the 1980s we have the Cold War, culminating in the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union in 1991 after decades of external imperialist pressure and internal revisionist degeneration. 

The postmodernists accepted the neoliberal lie that “there is no alternative” to capitalism. This fundamental pessimism arose from the failure to correctly analyze these historical events, and it led to the rejection, whole cloth, that reason could comprehend history and be used to drive social progress. 

This confusion was no accident, however. Postmodernism was, in fact, a CIA psychological operation. In her book Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders exposes the role of U.S. intelligence in funding and encouraging postmodernism. They spent millions of dollars promoting front organizations, museum exhibitions, literary and theoretical magazines, and other cultural fronts to promote postmodern ideas. They realized that they could further exacerbate and exploit the confusion within the left that was created by Nikita Khrushchev’s revisionist attack at the 20th Congress of the CPSU on Stalin. In this way they were able to turn a lot of influential intellectuals away from Marxism. Imperialism pursued this cultural cold war as part of a two-pronged strategy, while simultaneously financing and organizing counter-revolutionary movements, from the counter-revolutions in socialist Eastern Europe to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. In this way, postmodernism was an essential element and outgrowth of the imperialists overall cold war strategy against communism. 

Today, postmodern ideas are still tremendously influential, even among some on the left. Some further confuse people by calling themselves “post-Marxists” or “neo-Marxists.” They thus try to insert postmodernism into Marxism while actually rejecting and opposing Marxism. Postmodern theory is notoriously dense and academic, so we won’t get into the weeds of all of that here. Instead, let’s break down a few of the points that linger among the broader left. 

The central point is the rejection of rationality in favor of relativism and subjective idealism. For the postmodernist, truth is relative, contingent, subjective, and based upon language and “discourse” rather than objective material conditions. As stated in Post-Modernism Today, postmodernism “spreads a linguistic net to destroy the basis of all rational understanding and all experiences attained over centuries by mankind and arrogantly declares that we and our thoughts are the creations of language.” 

Postmodernism seeks to discredit Marxism by saying that any rational theory that attempts to understand and account for all social, historical, and cultural phenomena is destined for “totalitarianism.” It therefore champions the isolation and balkanization of all criticism of the current social order. Because “metanarratives” are rejected, every question is separated off into its own “discourse.” Every form of oppression is isolated from the dialectical and material relationships they have to one-another in a metaphysical and idealist way. And while each of these makes progressive contributions that we can learn from, their strategic power is stripped away.

Because they are isolated from one another in theory and practice, they are unable to develop a comprehensive program to address the principal contradiction of capitalism at the root of patriarchy and racist, national oppression. “Intersectional” attempts to bridge this gap fail in the same way, by seeing class exploitation as just another form of oppression among many, as the materialist reality of capitalism that ties oppression together is rejected. Attempts to define principal and secondary contradictions are discarded as “reductionist.” But without grasping which contradiction is the principal contradiction that determines the others none of them can be fundamentally resolved. 

As Anuradha Ghandy says in her important book, Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement, “To advocate organization according to [the postmodernist] understanding means to reproduce power - hierarchy, oppression.” Struggle is individualized, and so subjective experience rather than objective analysis takes over. In the final analysis, this metaphysical approach leads to confusion of who are our friends and who are our enemies. Without a dialectical and historical class analysis, postmodernism fails to resist the ideological pressure of ruling class interests within oppressed groups. In this way the postmodernist rejection of “metanarratives” in favor of “difference” hinders and obstructs the Marxist analysis necessary to unite these movements behind a strategic program for revolution, liberation, and socialism. 

We are Marxist-Leninists because we understand that Marxism-Leninism can provide us with the theoretical analysis, strategy, and tactics needed to end the exploitation and oppression of all people. Marxism has the tools that are required for women’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation and national liberation in the real world. Postmodernism is designed to fragment and isolate these struggles. We can and must unite them under the bright red banner of socialist revolution.