Marxism and Postmodernism? Defining Some Important Terms

As a general rule I try to respond to current events and not to specific people. I do this partly because I am not looking to have some self-reinforcing ideological duel so I can make the dubious claim to have ‘destroyed’ my opponent and partly because I genuinely want to expand the level of conversation we use when discussing certain issues. This article is no exception to this rule. However, I do feel the need to make a short, general response aimed at the pseudo-intellectualism that is employed by some right leaning circles. Anyone who has spent enough time on the internet, and on social media in particular, will have encountered these people and has surely seen the phrase postmodern neo-Marxism used. This term, for reasons that will be made clear over the course of this article, is pure nonsense. It is nothing but a piece of gibberish used as a rhetorical feint to obfuscate. So rather than even attempt to try and tackle this absurd phrase, I want to define the two key terms that are confusingly merged and employed as a description for the philosophy of the left: Marxism and postmodernism. Most of the information associated with these terms can be easily accessed by simply viewing the Wikipedia articles for each, and I highly advise anyone interested in either of these two philosophical concepts to start their journey there, and so I will try to eschew simple defining in favouring of contextualizing these terms by examining the historical and philosophical currents and themes that underpin them.

I would imagine that virtually everyone has at least heard of Marxism and has a vague idea of what it means. However, that vague idea that most people have is based upon an association between Marxism and authoritarianism. This is a false association based on the fact that many countries who proclaim to be Marxist are themselves totalitarian, but this has little to do with actual Marxism. Though Marx does discuss the future state that is governed by a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, this is conceived as done only to dismantle the institutions of the bourgeois state so that true communism may be reached. This brings us to an important distinction that needs to be made: Marxism refers to two very distinct things. The first is what we might call political Marxism, which is a political movement which aims to empower workers and bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat. How this is achieved, beyond a vague reference to revolution, is rather vague. The development of political philosophies like Leninism and Maoism can be understood simply, and admittedly rather crudely, as attempts by people like Lenin and Mao to devise a road map of how precisely Marx’s communist utopia is to be reached. Moreover, speaking very generally, political Marxism is usually what these internet folks are referring to as it has, more often than not, spilled into a simple dictatorship in the states where it has been pursued. Though there is a counter point that can be offered as to why this has occurred (looking at the evolution of the Soviet Union from Leninism to Stalinism is instructional on this point), it is beside the point for this particular article. For our purposes, all we need to know is that there is this thing called political Marxism and it aims to create a state that is run by the working class. It is also very unpopular in the world today.

However, there is also a second and distinct type of Marxism: philosophical Marxism. Unlike political Marxism, philosophical Marxism is a purely (or close to pure anyways) critical theory. This means it is a tool of academic analysis. It is a way to look at and understand the world and, unlike political Marxism, it remains quite popular in many academic fields. For example, Marxism is still seen as a useful tool by which to understand history as Marx’s concept that history is defined by the struggle between classes can both be used as it is to examine class struggle over time to understand historic events or it can also be expanded to look at the relationships between two or more opposing variables (this makes it an effective tool when look at things like race or gender for example). Of course it is important to note that Marxist theory has evolved since the 19th century and there are a host of terms, things like Neo-Marxism and Post-Marxism and Feminist Marxism, that have popped up to describe the evolution of particular branches of Marxism. However, at their core, these theories all affirm the importance of specific material relationships between classes and/or societal groups as the prime mode by which to analyse society in general. So, in short, political Marxism is the idea that society ought to be governed by the proletariat and philosophical Marxism is a tool of analysis which stresses the importance of institutions and how they define relationships between two or more groups. The problem is that these two very different things are all too easily conflated with each other. In this confused context, discussing Marxists in academia quickly devolves into vapid accusations of being pro-totalitarian or being an apologist for the various pseudo-Communist states that proliferated in the 20th century. Merging these two quite separate ideas is both misleading, as it implies a certain overlap between the two when none need exist, and intellectually disingenuous, as it is all too often used to demonize a particular position in much the same way as accusations of “being a Nazi” are employed.

Believe it or not, that discussion on Marxism was the easy part. Postmodernism is an entirely different beast and one which, unfortunately, I cannot offer a good definition for. This is because it is itself not a single philosophy itself but rather a sort of wastebasket taxon (to borrow a phrase from biology) used to group a wide range of philosophical views that arose in the mid- to late 20th century. There are, however, some common facets that exist between all these ideas that we can use to loosely unite them. Firstly, they are virtually all critical theories that, as described above, offer us a specific tool by which to analyse the world. Secondly, they exist as a reaction to modernism — which is our secret third term that needs a brief description if we are to properly understand what postmodernism is. In short, modernism is, at its most basic, the idea that (1) society is made up of material institutions which have specific interactions with both other institutions and with people and (2) that history, itself defined by the evolution of institutions, has a specific direction to it, this direction stemming from the directional evolution of institutions, that is leading towards a more positive societal state. For example, adherents of liberalism, itself a modernist theory, have historically held that “the development of nations was unquestionably a phase in human evolution or progress from the small group to the larger, from family to tribe to region, to nation and, in the last instance, to the unified world of the future” (Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, p. 38). Postmodernism, on the other hand, can be understood as a rejection, or at least as a criticism, of these two main points. Beyond this rather general and vague assertion, though, it is virtually impossible to say much more about what postmodernists argue as, as has been mentioned, the category of postmodern itself is not really indicative of any single philosophy.

Though it is difficult to talk about postmodernists in general, we can offer some comments on particularly important postmodern thinkers to help contextualize what postmodernism is. One of the most important of these is Foucault, a man who somewhat ironically would reject the title of postmodernist, and his ideas are instructional as they have informed the arguments of many other thinkers who themselves have been grouped under this broad category. Moreover, I feel it necessary to address him as Foucault tends to be the focus of many of these social media pseudo-intellectuals and their interpretations of him tend to be, to put it kindly, flawed. Put succinctly, something the man himself was not always great at doing, Foucault’s thinking can be understood as a questioning of the nature of those institutions, and by extension the historical narrative, that modernism bases its arguments upon. Where modern theories holds that these institutions exist as material structures, Foucault argued that they were better understood as externalized narrative constructions that only exist in so far as people act in the contexts of their existence. This means that institutions are actually reified by people through discourse, that is through the process by which people think and communicate, but also had a sort of life of their own that is outside of the direction of any single individual. Therefore statements, though made by people, have internal workings all on to themselves that are alienated to the person or people who have made the statement. This theme of human’s lacking a pure sort of agency, since all humans act within a narrative framework that informs their actions, is actually fairly common within Foucault’s works, exemplified in his semi-rebuttal semi-agreement of Nietzsche’s ‘god is dead’ concept: “Discourse is not life: its time is not your time; in it, you will not be reconciled to death; you may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said; but you don’t imagine that, with all that you are saying, you will make a man that will live longer than he” (The Archaeology of Knowledge, p. 211). The important thing to take away from Foucault, however, is the idea that institutions are human made abstractions that (1) exist primarily in how we construct and interpret them and (2) have a specific power arrangement to them. This power arrangement aspect tends to focus on ontological notions of what is and what is not important or relevant to be discussed or examined (who makes those decisions? Who do those decisions benefit?). This is of course a massive simplification of Foucault’s body of work, but I have sought only to outline some key aspects of his thinking so as to provide an example of just one type of postmodern philosophy.

Now that those two pesky terms have been sufficiently examined, we can return to that bizarre and popular phrase: postmodern neo-Marxism. So what’s the problem with it? Well I am sure you have already guessed. If our conversation on modernism sounded rather familiar, it is because Marxism is itself a modernist philosophy! Therefore, the core issue with the term postmodern neo-Marxism is that it is an oxymoron. It is pure nonsense. After all, how can any theory belong to two mutually exclusive categories of thought? It can’t. Pure and simple. Both Marxism and Foucault’s brand of postmodernism may stress things like power relationships, but even their definitions of what power is are radically different. Marxism supposes that power exists in a material context, that is in the ‘real’ abilities of given groups to exert their wills, whereas Foucault’s postmodernism argues that if power exists in material contexts it is only because we have discursively constructed it in that way. The same goes for the institutions themselves: Marxism is based fundamentally on the idea that there are real things called classes (or, if you are applying a Marxist lens to other areas, genders or races) whereas Foucault’s postmodernism would instead argue that these are discursive monuments that, though alienated from people, are merely created and reified ideas (the best place to see just how dramatically different Marxism and Foucault’s brand of postmodernism actually are is by watching the 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault). This is the basis for much of Said’s arguments regarding Orientalism, as he argues that the colonial relationship is at its core a narrative one based upon how ‘the West’ has intellectually invented both itself and ‘the Orient’ as well as the power relationship between them. Marxism would be very unlikely to make the type of assertion that Said makes, given its focus on materialism — physical ‘stuff’. So, to say it again, postmodern neo-Marxism is fiction. The two terms may have a shared intellectual history, but they are inherently opposed to each other.

So why have I bothered writing all this? Simply put, if we are to discuss politics and society, specifically or generally, we need to do so on even ground. To discuss such important things with meaningless and disingenuous words is only going to lead us down a bad path.

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Brendan McKee

As both a political researcher and enthusiast, I write to unpack the complexities of current affairs and attempt to grow the conversation. Feel free to join me!