Postmodernist philosophy is old
subjectivist wine in new bottles

by Tim Hall
editor of Struggle, a revolutionary working-class literary magazine

(from Communist Voice #15, October 25, 1997)

. Postmodernism has produced diverse offshoots and projects. It poses as a radical challenge to the capitalist establishment, but in reality its philosophy undermines resistance to the ruling class. Its essence is a subjective idealism which attacks human reason itself and the materialist world view of science, reserving particular vehemence for Marxist revolutionary theory. Its logic prevents a coherent analysis of the natural world and especially of capitalist social reality and undermines revolutionary theoretical and political struggle against capitalism. Pomo claims to be a radical opponent of the "totalizing" critiques it sees embodied in rationalism and Marxism, but its own positions imply a complete ("total") destruction of all but the most fragmentary opposition of the oppressed class, the proletariat, to the capitalist exploiters. In the end, only "deconstructive" word-play is considered resistance.

* One strand of postmodernism claims that "nothing exists outside the text", that is, outside of language, narratives, writing. (1) Language and the relationships within it are first set up as the model for analysis of social life; then, with Derrida's writings in the mid-'60's, language becomes posited as the sole reality and "discourse" becomes the club with which to beat materialism and Marxism. Material reality is denied; all science is junked; analysis of capitalist oppression becomes impossible; there is no interest in the testing of scientific or political truth by the criterion of experiment and practice. If language alone can create "truth," then everybody, every local area, every ethnic group has its own "truth. " This has enormously reactionary consequences, concealed behind a facade of concern for "the Other": for example, it leaves no basis for criticizing Hindu religious nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, Aryan Nation and Ku Klux Klan racism or even the "free market" rhetoric of the monopoly capitalists -- everyone has their own "truth. ". (In fact, "everyone-their-own-truth" denies the real benefits of diversity, which consist in the challenge of differing views contesting which are true. Instead, postmodernism patronizingly pats "the Other"on the head as if to say, "Whatever you say, my child. ")
* A closely related variety of pomo subjectivism is the view most associated with Michael Foucault and expressed succinctly in his phrase "regimes of truth. "(2) According to Foucault, truth is whatever the powerful say it is. (Yes, he actually argues this!) This concedes the concept of truth to the bourgeoisie and the rightists. If the bourgeoisie openly says that blacks are inferior, as they did in the days of Jim Crow and do today in such books as The Bell Curve, then Foucault's logic leaves no answer since it considers power to equal truth. The real scandal is that so many leftists have considered Foucault's view of knowledge progressive. The absurdity of Foucault's view is evaded by some who cite his claim that he regards power as not necessarily emanating from the state or the corporations but from what he calls "discursive formations," and that it can at times flow from below, be bottom-up power. However, these "formations" turn out on examination to be the various fields and professions of present-day society such as medicine, criminology, law, journalism, etc. , whose specific customs are now suddenly "discovered" by Foucault. And in a capitalist society all these disciplines without exception are dominated by the bourgeoisie, so the determination of truth by such "formations" is, indeed, determination by those whom we ordinary, non-Foucauldian, mortals regard as the powerful. Furthermore, this issue has been so atrociously muddled by the postmodernist trend that one must also add the fundamental reminder that truth is a mental category which is so called because it more or less correctly reflects the actual nature of something existing objectively, materially, outside the mind of the observer. Hence, no amount of power can ever determine actual truth. When power strays from an accurate representation of objective reality, power lies, as it habitually does to protect the class interests of the rich. Foucault's abject surrender of the struggle for truth based on material reality follows from postmodernism's loss of interest in the existence of the material world and the proof of truth by means of evidence, logic and practical experience. In fact truth is on the side of the oppressed since actual capitalist development is moving toward a proletarian revolution and actual science constantly reveals truths which can be used, especially after such a revolution, to improve the conditions of the planet.
* Postmodernism generally views philosophical reason -- which they think to discredit by calling it "instrumental" -- as possessing a basically fascist character. Typified by the views of Jean-Francois Lyotard, this viewpoint is another surrender by postmodernism of a basic weapon of thought and action to the right. According to pomo, concepts themselves are oppressive (all except their own!). This makes a mockery of all thought. It also mocks any championing of diversity, for there can be no understanding of diversity without knowledge of the essential differences between diverse entities, that is, without forming concepts for each unit of diversity. Politically this means abandoning rather than encouraging a careful analysis of real differences between various social classes, national groups, types of regimes, etc.
* Postmodernism lumps together nearly all previous Western philosophical trends and attacks them as "metaphysical," "rectilinear" and "logo-centric" (logic-centric) "modern" "products of the Enlightenment. " No distinction is made between the fundamentally opposed materialist and idealist views of reality or between mechanical and dialectical conceptions of motion. Marxist dialectics has long since demarcated itself from mechanical materialism, metaphysics and idealism of all types, but postmodernist philosophy ignores the rich history of struggle between these trends. In the name of a Nietzschean irrationality, any philosophical heritage for revolutionary thought is thrown out the window and replaced with a drunken speculation detached from history and material reality.
* Postmodernism justifies these positions by painting rationalism in general and Marxism in particular as "totalizing" philosophies, that is, as absolute, final systems suppressive of political or intellectual discovery and freedom. Postmodernism confuses the mobile, flexible dialectics of revolutionary Marxism with the static, mechanical views of the contemporary capitalist technology-freaks, the Stalinist revisers of Marxism and even the reactionary side of Hegel. Revolution is equated with oppression in language that echoes the Cold War anti-communist hysteria of the 1950's. Pomo's purpose in attacking "totalization" is not really to oppose universal viewpoints -- for it itself is one -- but to destroy the ability of the oppressed to reason, form concepts and grasp the internal laws of motion of nature and society.
* Postmodernism has a laundry list of related "sins" which it attacks in order to discredit Marxism and rationalism. These include "reductionism" (in social theory, giving primacy to the role of the economic base in history, as in "we must be careful not to reduce the motive for the destruction of the rain forest to the economic laws of capitalism"), "essentialism" (choosing certain characteristics of a thing and leaving out others in order to characterize it in a concept, as in the concept "apple," which leaves out "red," "ripe," "McIntosh," etc. ), the theory of the reflection of material reality in consciousness (which it misrepresents as being a theory of mirror-like, mechanically exact, "transparent" reflection), and the recognition of a coherent subject (such as the working class) which can act as an agent of revolutionary change.
* Despite its exaltation of language, postmodernist philosophy employs the most obscure, esoteric, inaccessible language which disarms both workers and intellectuals in the debate over revolutionary theory. Marxism itself is not always easy reading, but the difficult terms used by Marx, Engels and Lenin have precise, scientific meanings which cannot be replaced by a simpler terms, and these revolutionary Marxists supplemented their difficult analyses with vivid illustrations and evidence. Postmodernism neither meets these standards of evidence and illustration, nor is a truly new philosophy requiring a brand-new terminology. In fact, it is old subjectivist wine in new bottles.

. These characteristics show the class nature of postmodernist philosophy. In pomo terms, postmodernist philosophy "functions" to "totally" "deconstruct" the ability of the working class to "constitute" itself as the "centered," "self-conscious" "subject" --"agency" -- of change, to prevent the proletariat from becoming class-conscious through the experience of struggle and the assimilation of Marxism, which alone will allow it to overthrow capitalism. . Lenin wrote that "without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement." (3) Without rationality and without the recognition of the material world independent of the human mind, not only Marxism goes out the window but all possibility of scientific and intellectual development and of democratic decisions is lost. This is a theory of mental slavery to the bourgeoisie.

. In 1996 a serious debate over postmodernist theory broke out in academic circles. A physics professor, Alan Sokal, published a deliberately erroneous article cloaked in pomo gibberish in the postmodernist cultural journal Social Text, then revealed his hoax. The basic tenet of Sokal and his allies was to defend the scientific method of reasoning based on actual evidence gathered from the material world. Social Text's editors were so flattered by the pomo platitudes that they never checked any of the article's absurdities, then once the hoax was revealed they refused to consider its publication as revealing a grievously wrong orientation in their work. Social Text'sbehavior illustrated pomo's utter lack of interest in the material world.

The "totalization" charge Is a red herring

. Postmodernism has made a big hoopla over what it calls philosophical "totalization. " While this vague charge may seem to be aimed at capitalist dictatorship in its fascist form, or Soviet state-capitalism, or even the repressive bourgeois democracy of the West, actually it is just a red herring thrown out by the postmodernist philosophers to attack materialist rationalism and especially Marxism. Following in that good old bipartisan tradition of bourgeois anti-communism, the pomos charge that Marxism and (here they add) all rationalism are "totalizing" outlooks which claim to give an exhausting, all-encompassing picture of reality right down to the last detail and to deduce a causal connection, or determinism, for every last molecule. Concrete difference, diversity, variation, polymorphy, accident, contingency are all alleged to be suppressed by big bad Marxism and rationalism. This is, of course, a distorted picture of Marxism, hence the charge is a red herring. And the red herring is meant to distract us from noticing the complete dismissal of rational thought by the pomos.

. Reality, postmodernism holds, is too complex, too chaotic, too diverse, etc. , to be described by a "total" theory or by any theory claiming any degree of universality at all. Causality and determination are rendered questionable or impossible by this complexity. And since reality is too complex to describe by theory, the pomos claim that to try to do so is to carry out a coercive act of domination by general concepts over the multi-faceted, mobile details of life, a dictatorship of the universal over the particular. For example, conceiving a forest is called an act of conceptual (and anti-environmental!) violence against individual trees; conceiving "trees," in turn, would be conceptual violence against leaves; "leaves" would be violence against chlorophyll, etc. (And here the brave pomos ride to the rescue -- of the poor trees against the forest, the leaves against the trees, chlorophyll .  .  .  . ) By extension of this logic, the claims of Marxism and rationalism are looked upon merely as Nietzschean "wills-to-power," as desires to oppress, not as theoretical efforts toward emancipation, capable of objective testing and proof. Revolutionary Marxism is not "totalist" in this oppressive sense fantasized by the postmodernists,. But if any attempt at rational theory whatsoever is to be smeared as "totalist" (just two syllables away from the good old anti-communist shibboleth of "totalitarian"), then Marxism is resolutely totalist in its attempts to grasp the motion of the natural and social world in rational concepts.

. Let us look at how some of the main representatives of postmodernist philosophy express their anti-Marxist and anti-rationalist positions under the banner of opposing "totalization. " While these figures differ on secondary issues, they are united in their hostility to what they call "the great totalizing zero. "

Jean-Francois Lyotard asserts that the
universal holocausts the particular

. According to Jean-Francois Lyotard, a theorist who participated in the anarchist wing of the 1968 French worker-student revolt, "the desire for truth", which is expressed in theoretical study and work, "feeds terrorism in everyone." (4) Postmodernism here not only denies the work of theoretical cognition but picks up the Nietzschean weapon the bourgeoisie often uses against radicals: the accusation of a psychological desire to dominate. Lyotard explains his opposition to "totalization" as follows: "The notorious universality of knowledge, generally interpreted as an a priori condition of theoretical discourse in its communicability, is, understood in terms of drives (here is the psychological accusation again -- T. H. ), a mark of the destruction of personal identities." (5) Lyotard considers that the use of concepts "implies the denial of disparities, of heterogeneities, of transits and stases of energy, it implies the denial of polymorphy." (6)

. Lyotard realizes that the most powerful opponent of postmodernism's fragmentation of thinking is Marxism, so he goes after Marxism explicitly, writing "there is no exteriority (alternative -- T.H. ), no other of Kapital, which would be Nature, Socialism, Carnival, or what have you. .  .  ." (7)That is, no alternative to capitalism can be conceived of by the mind or brought into existence by revolution. Any attempt to formulate a theory which would lead to such a revolution betrays, he alleges, a fascist totalitarian psychology which he calls a "furious concentrationary impulse." (8)Even more explicitly attacking Marxist dialectics, Lyotard writes, "Every dialectical philosophy of the relations of knowledge and experience provides the subject-matter for a bureaucracy of the spirit, which presents itself as the organ, both visible and mysterious, in whose name the dialectic operates." (9)

. The equation of Marxism with fascist dictatorship is an old charge leveled by both anarchism and the bourgeoisie; it can only be answered by stating that revolutionary Marxism holds that only a proletarian dictatorship by the working class over the rich can create real freedom for the oppressed, and that the Soviet-Chinese-E. European-Cuban regimes were/are not examples of worker-states at all but of state-capitalist bureaucracies representing not the workers but a new bourgeoisie draping itself in red to fool the working class. This debate is not new, and the Marxist-Leninist trend now represented by Communist Voice has been making these points for nearly 30 years.

. What seems new in the postmodernist attack is its broader philosophical character: it charges that the philosophical outlook not only of Marxism but of all rationalism (and this would, of course, include natural science) is totalitarian, oppressive of freedom, destructive of individuality and complexity. This is childish; it is obvious to all that no thought whatsoever is possible without the formation of concepts which indicate something in common, an identity, between two or more objects (as in: these two objects are apples, they are green). But this simple act of cognition is attacked as repressive; the existence of the least universal is said automatically to destroy its particulars. Thought itself is therefore seen as essentially fascist (such a position ends up -- shamefully and ludicrously -- implying that the fascists are the only thinkers!).

. This is, furthermore, a non-dialectical, untrue view of the relationship between universal and particular. They are seen as opposites, but as mechanical, not dialectical, opposites, the one completely excluding and destroying the other: if you admit a universal "forest," say, then you are supposedly destroying the concept of trees. This is silly, of course, seen in this context, but silly becomes very political when you make the universal be "socialism" or "working class" and make the particular "James" or "Jacques" or "Francoise. " Then the postmodernist feels quite comfortable in asserting that the universal will automatically destroy the particular. However, the truth of the relationship between any universal and its particular is not that they entirely exclude each other, but that while they are opposites they actually also interpenetrate each other. As in all true opposites, there is always a little of the particular in the universal and there is always a little of the universal in the particular. Without this interpenetration you would not dream of calling one the universal of the other. There is working class in Francoise; there is Francoise in working class. It is a dialectical relationship, not because somebody read Hegel or Marx, but because life develops dialectically, through the unity and struggle of opposites, and a dialectical theory of change most clearly depicts the motion of the natural and social world.

. Lenin showed how dialectical relationships appear in the most basic concepts, even in the most simple connections: "To begin with what is the simplest, most ordinary, common, etc. , with any proposition: the leaves of a tree are green; John is a man; Fido is a dog, etc. Here already we have dialectics (as Hegel's genius recognized): the individual is the universal. . . .Consequently, the opposites (the individual is opposed to the universal) are identical: the individual exists only in the connection that leads to the universal. The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every individual is (in one way or another) a universal. Every universal is (a fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of) an individual. Every universal only approximately embraces all the individual objects. Every individual enters incompletely into the universal, etc. , etc." (10) The point is (that horrid Lenin again): "Nature is both concrete and abstract, bothphenomenon and essence, both moment and relation." (11)

. Concepts themselves are universals in relation to their particulars, but in turn they are particulars to larger concepts. Here the pomos have entangled themselves in an impossible contradiction. Concepts are inherent in language itself. "Tree" is a concept, a generalization. If there had to be a separate word for every individual tree in the world, language would be impossible, it would be completely meaningless. Language is an endless series of generalizations from particulars. By pomo logic, pomos should not be able to talk. Mr. Pomo mentions the tree in his back yard, naming it "A. " I have no idea what he is talking about because the trees I know of I have named "X," "Y," and "Z. " How completely absurd! The pomos wish to have the benefits of advanced industrial society, computers and modems, while denying their most fundamental components. And once a pomo concedes my point on words being concepts, the whole "structure" of her/his theory "deconstructs. " They deny concepts yet conduct philosophical controversies: how strange! Their anti-rational theory does not apply to themselves?!

. In spite of postmodernism's incessant talk of "diversity" it is actually impossible to recognize diversity and analyze it without concepts. You cannot tell the difference between two things unless you "essentialize" them. To recognize (not to mention celebrate) the diversity between apples and oranges you must first see the essential differences between them. And here it is precisely Marxism's superior ability to conceptualize ("essentialize") social formations that allows for the most concrete analysis of the differences among them. For example, most postmodernists (and most leftists) consider the Soviet Union to have been a socialist state, principally because its means of production were state-owned. But seen through the lens of revolutionary, anti-revisionist Marxism, this is a very fashionable rigidity which echoes the views of the bourgeoisie. Marxism, properly understood, recognizes a fundamental difference (diversity) between state ownership when the state is an organ of the capitalist class (as it was in the Soviet Union where a new bourgeoisie and not the workers held sway, and certainly in the many cases of state-owned industry in obviously capitalist countries), and state ownership when the state is an organ of the working class (which the Soviet state ceased to be in the 1920's).Postmodernism's denial of concepts, in this case the essential concepts of capitalism and socialism (or a society in transition to socialism) which hinge on which class holds political power, leaves it a million miles from answering this all-important political question. It just can't deal with diversity -- the differences between state-capitalism and socialism, between revisionism and genuine Marxism.

. In fact, it is Lyotard's conception, common to postmodernism as a whole, of the relations between universal and particular that is mechanical and "totalizing," not that of Marxist dialectics. In Lyotard's view the universal is automatically suppressive of the particular, and since you cannot think or write at all without employing universal concepts, he and the postmodernist trend, by writing and thinking, are themselves, by their own view, real "totalizers." Marxist dialectics, in contrast, recognizes immense diversity and complexity in a flexible and turbulent relationship with universals and general concepts, themselves also in flux.It is the postmodernists, not the Marxists, who are the real totalizers; it is they, not us, who holocaust the particular.

Can Foucault "Cause" Us to Abandon Causality?

. Let us now take another pomo majordomo, Michel Foucault. His general view of rationalism and Marxism is similar to Lyotard's. Famous for his phrase "regimes of truth" (Power/Knowledge, Brighton, England, 1980, p. 133), Foucault makes it clear that he is referring to what he believes is "the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal, and scientific discourse. " (Ibid, p. 85) Foucault, too, makes the anti-rational charge on a general philosophical level and links it to an attack on Marxism, accusing both of "the inhibiting effect of global, totalitarian theories. . . . " and referring to the "tyranny of global discourses with their hierarchy and all their privileges of a theoretical avant-garde. . . . " (Ibid pp. 80-81) This should make it clear that Foucault, as well, links his anti-rationalism to specific charges against Marxism. Once again we have the philosophical charge against Marxism and rationalism generally, with a special vehemence reserved for Marxism. Once again Marxism is identified with rationalism and an empty outcry against domination in general is linked with anti-rationalism.

. Foucault's outbursts against the "coercion" of "scientific discourse" are just hypocritical bluster. So long as discourse is discourse it cannot by itself coerce any but the feeble-minded, but every discourse, even Foucault's, is an attempt to cause a mental and physical change. If reality is so complex as to disallow "totalizing" or even "generalizing" theories, one might ask Foucault and his followers: how could anyone know if a given "totalizing" theory, or "totalizing" theories in general, will lead toward a fascist dictatorship? Such determinism! Such causality! Actually, the postmodernists are only against generalizations and determinations when made by rationalists and Marxists; when made by postmodernists themselves they are just fine. Foucault is especially hypocritical in this respect. Explanation, he explains, is impossible. Causality and determination, he determines, must be abandoned altogether and be replaced with merely noting and describing "a polymorphous cluster of correlations." (12) But every correlation, at any level, implies causation; the very concept of relation implies cause, as in "A and B are related -- why? -- because. . . . " Foucault himself admits this, in his concept of "dependencies" (same source), with which he brings causes back in by the back door, but in such a fractured, splintered condition that they lose all causal power.

. Surveying all this nonsense, a consistent postmodernist (of course, we are dealing with anti-rationalists here) would have to dismiss the master by saying: "Foucault's anti-causality theory cannot cause me to abandon causality. " Hypocritical -- and absurd! Some may say that Foucault does not deny causality, only refines it, and that his historical works are filled with causal assertions. This last point is true but this only reflects Foucault's confusion-mongering on the basic questions of philosophy. In his direct theorizing on causality, such as the quotation above, Foucault so bitterly attacks any straightforward causation and substitutes for it such an eclectic hash of variables that, for all practical purposes, causation is out of the picture. Foucault wants to have his causality when it suits him but get rid of the causality upheld by rationalism, science and especially the historical materialist theory of Marxism, which assigns to economic forces the fundamental causal role in social life. Foucault and the postmodernists want to engage in rational discourse about the impossibility of rational discourse; they want to keep their rational discourse and eliminate mine. They want to use their Packard-Bells on the Internet, that is, use products of high technology which have required countless conceptualizations of causation to produce, to prevent the working class from developing its revolutionary concepts, its revolutionary theory.

. As soon as you employ language you employ concepts, you engage in the process of linking universals with particulars. Every single word is a universal at some level. This is why Derrida is the most consistent postmodernist: he attacks language itself with his concept (ha!) of différance (in Derrida's use the French word indicates incommunicability, not its ordinary meaning of simple "difference"). Reader, please return to and re-read the long Lenin quotation above, where Lenin shows the presence of universals in the simplest expressions. Having pointed that out, Lenin continues, showing how the use of concepts reflecting material reality leads inevitably to the conception of causation, results, determination, necessity. "Every individual is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of individuals (things, phenomena, processes), etc. Here already we have the elements, the germs, the concepts of necessity, of objective connection in nature, etc. Here already we have the contingent and the necessary, the phenomenon and the essence; for when we say: John is a man, Fido is a dog, this is a leaf of a tree, etc. , we disregard a number of attributes as contingent; we separate the essence from the appearance and counter-pose the one to the other." (13)

. The point, for our present dispute with the postmodernists, is that all use of language implies concepts, concepts imply universals, the recognition of universals implies connections and connections imply laws, causes, something determining something else. All anti-rational phrases to the contrary, there is no escaping this, even for such a luminary as Michael Foucault. The issue is not to eliminate concepts and reason, but to improve their accuracy, to correct them, to eliminate false concepts and to deepen the truth of the most accurate ones -- via the scientific method. And since there is no escape from rationality, you might as well renounce muddle-headed hypocrisy and turn to the highest development of reason, the Marxist dialectic, to guide your social practice if you are a worker or a progressive intellectual and want to revolutionize the world.

. Postmodernism is a scandalously absurd attack on reason and Marxism. The emperor has no clothes. But many poor ex-radicals are too demoralized to see it.


(1) Derrida, Of Grammatology, 1974, p. 158. (Return to text.)

(2) Foucault, Power/Knowledge, Brighton, England, 1980, p. 133. (Text)

(3) Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, New York, 1943, p. 28. (Text)

(4) "Apathie dans la Theorie," in Rudimens Païens, Paris, 1977, p. 23, cited in Dews, Peter, Logics of Disintegration, London, 1987, p. 216. (Text)

(5) Économie Libidinale, Paris, 1974, p. 295, cited in Dews, p. 211. (Text)

(6) Économie Libidinale, p. 294, cited in Dews, p. 211. (Text)

(7) Des Dispositifs Pulsionnels, Paris, 1973, p. 18, cited in Dews, p. 137. (Text)

(8) Économie Libidinale, p. 94, cited in Dews, p. 137. (Text)

(9) Désire à Partir de Marx et Freud, Paris, 1973, p. 104, cited in Dews, p. 129. (Text)

(10) Lenin, "On the Question of Dialectics," Collected Works, Moscow, 1972, V. 38, p.361.(Text)

(11) "Conspectus of Hegel's Science of Logic," Collected Works, p. 208. (Text)

(12) "Politics and the Study of Discourse," Ideology and Consciousness, 3 (1978), pp. 7-26, cited in The Politics of Truth, Barrett, Michele, Stanford, 1991, p. 130. (Text)

(13) Lenin, p. 361. (Text)

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