Against the Grand Narrative: on postmodernism

The Magdalen Reading, Rogier Vander WeydenWithout recapitulating the entire history of postmodern thought, which beginning we can, for our purposes, anchor at the publication of Dialectic of Enlightenment, it is safe to summarise its development as stemming from a justified distrust of the liberal project, broadly understood as the effective redemption of man, through rational means, from the pre-modern fetters of mythical and religious thinking–which one could tendentiously regard as mediaeval vestiges–, and further extending it, with ever more questionable grounds, to all notions of progress, including Marxism, whence it grew. Whether this is to be blamed on or credited to Marxism is often disputed, though the stance that both movements are autonomous is not advanced often enough.

Whatever one thinks of it, postmodernism is an influential position in the academy, and its historical links to Marxism may lead comrades to believe that they must either familiarise themselves with it, or settle accounts, so to speak, by invalidating it. Far from the first effort in this line,1 and, I’m sure, farther even from being a definitive work, this article tries to bring forth the problematic in the postmodern critique of Marxism, and, inasmuch as it succeeds, to help refocus the Marxist analysis of superstructure–which has been taken hostage by the successors in interest of the Frankfurt school–on the firm materialist ground it should never have abandoned.

After the revolution of 1917 proved to be contained to Russia, its siblings quickly fizzling out in the “advanced countries”, and, particularly, Germany, a turn, as necessary as regretable, took place in Soviet policy. Making virtue of necessity, the slogan of “socialism in one country” was taken up to justify a nationalist resurgence in the Soviet Union, which, driven by considerations of Realpolitik, began to behave in a manner not too dissimilar to that of capitalist states, to advanced its interests often at the expense of workers’ movements abroad. Whatever one thinks of socialism in one country, it is unsurprising that many supporters of scientific socialism in other countries which had seen in 1917 a beacon of hope were called to reassess their circumstances. Adding to this the Great Depression, the increasing concentrations of capital into monopolies and trusts, and the Fascist movements’ successes in Europe, a certain pessimism regarding the Enlightenment and all it wrought might be expected. Such was the position taken up by Horkheimer and Adorno on their seminal work.

The focus of DoE was then placed on the failure of the Enlightenment project, focusing on phenomena such as mass culture. This is how postmodernism became essentially fixated on superstructural issues, divorced from the critique of political economy which lies at the core of Marxism. The manufacturing of mass culture through new media such as the radio, the success of myth-making projects especially obvious in the fascist countries, and the rather limited successes–if not failures–of Stalinism, led to a reappraisal of the very core of the Enlightenment, conceived as the deployment of instrumental rationality to increase utility. The attempts to expand the scope for human control of the environment, understood as the domination of nature–what we would call the development of the productive forces–were perceived as inseparably tainted by a totalising spirit. Hence the positions expressed by Koestler in Darkness at Noon, and, less remotely and more worryingly, in Marxist or anarchist currents which manifest themselves as sceptical about taking power, wary of centralisation or planning, hopeful in micropolitics, and so on.

It is important to note here that, contrary to the postmodern standpoint, locating Marxism within the Enlightenment project is itself problematic. This matter, which deserves its own treatment, is contentious within and without Marxist circles, but whatever else Marxism may be accused of, it cannot be understood as an apologetic stamp of approval on progress, and certainly not on progress as understood by liberals–linear and with a definite endpoint in the end of history, when men shall be free through the co-constitutive and benevolent intercession of scientific advance, positivist philosophy, free trade, and the republican form of government. There are many ways Marxism is not an advocate for this optimistic worldview of orthogenesis, in spite of its own debatable teleology. Perhaps some of the best examples can be found on Origins of the Family, and the comparisons between tribal and slave societies, often favourable to the former.

In possession of the public power and the right of taxation, the officials now present themselves as organs of society standing above society. The free, willing respect accorded to the organs of the gentile constitution is not enough for them, even if they could have it. Representatives of a power which estranges them from society, they have to be given prestige by means of special decrees, which invest them with a peculiar sanctity and inviolability. The lowest police officer of the civilized state has more “authority” than all the organs of gentile society put together; but the mightiest prince and the greatest statesman or general of civilization might envy the humblest of the gentile chiefs the unforced and unquestioned respect accorded to him. For the one stands in the midst of society; the other is forced to pose as something outside and above it.

Origins of the family, Chapter IX, by Marx and Engels.

However, the caricature of Marxism which would make it part of the Enlightenment project is all that such a position allows itself to engage, ignoring the fact that Marxism stands as a dialectical synthesis which transcends without discarding–sublates–what is good and genuinely progressive about the Enlightenment, without being per se of it.

Postmodernism is often reduced, aphoristically, to an opposition to all grand narratives: religion, liberalism, Hegel’s absolute spirit, Marx’s classless society, would all be projects of power, enimical to human freedom for their very totality; for their attempt to encompass all human life. Lacking any claim to be realised on the basis of reason, which is itself under suspicion as a particular handmaiden of such projects, postmodernism retreats into a self-referential and sterile preoccupation with discourse, understood extremely broadly: thus, Derrida’s notion of text and deconstruction, extending to all forms of meaning-bearing systems. This quietist abandonment of the field of battle where classes make history for the classroom, where the personal development and individuality of every person’s life project acquires a disproportionate notability, represents the intellectual disarmament–self-imposed!–of those thinkers who give the status quo the possession of the field by default, as pacifists who naïvely believe refusing battle will forever avoid the war.

This skittishness or failure of nerve is all the more ironic on the contemplation that a significant inspiration for the postmodern movement lies in Nietzsche’s ideas on transvaluation and the will to power. That, after refusing reason, postmodernists should refuse power as well, is the best evidence to the essential and unavoidable impotence of the project, an impotence which results so much from design as from circumstances. Without resorting to conspiracy theory–has postmodernism been used by the security state to facilitate the disarticulation of social justice and class struggle’s intellectual arm?–the simplest materialist analysis suggests how a movement forged for schools to withdraw from political life and to talk about the way they speak can never amount to anything more than warm–not even hot–air. It is no less amusing that, in attempting to dethrone all grand narratives, as well as boulstering really existing capitalism with its multitude of crimes, postmodern thinkers have also erected their own keystone, the centrality of narrative and discourse, as their foundational myth.

Considering the centrality of narrative to critical theory, I ask you to bear with me and let me then tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a university student. He was young, from a relatively wealthy background–but not the scion of capital–, and interested in justice, understood broadly and without clear definition. Our student could, and absent all other intervention probably would, end up as a liberal. After all, it is culturally appropriate, and the best of the liberal intelligentsia does genuinely have a care for the downtrodden of the world, even if it entirely lacks any programme to do anything else than extend their sympathies and hope that, one day, the market willing, they may be trampled by lighter, gentler feet. For whatever reason–perhaps liberalism is too transparent–our student looks left. What does he find? A disintegrating Stalinist pole, comprising assorted Maoist sects vying for the mantle of orthodoxy, official communists indistinguishable from social democrats, and the anti-stalinist left at eternal war against itself in a constant fission of trotskyist sects. Trotskyism may appeal, but perhaps it is turning to industry, or too busy eating itself up, and so our student gets their Marxist ABCs taught by a scholastic nullity, who prefers to drink from Freud than from Marx, and, if needs must, from the young Marx than from the old. What does our student, with their idealism and their petty bourgeois sensibilities, with their disdain for the old and stodgy stalinist formation as much as for the hyve-like discipline of Trotskyism, conclude about it all?

Not atypically, our student will conclude that all attempts to fix the world are hubris. That while liberalism may be intellectually exhausted and morally hypocritical, all attempts to surpass it are bound to degenerate into violence, disorder, and oppression. Much better to focus on escaping from the little tyrannies of daily life: the double standards of sexual mores, the constraints of a society oriented towards commerce, the numbing uniformity of thought, act and fashion imposed by a mass culture, and, in sum, all the small and insignificant ways that, in a manner of speaking, our student can identify themselves as oppressed under. Such is the stuff of the New Left, a movement so afraid to become a movement that it was stillborn and condemned to irrelevance. Such is what we may expect from a class standing concerned with abstract justice, ignorant of the constant but invisible alienation of wage labour, and yet hyper-aware of all the standards that a society, paternalistic and intolerant, like a surrogate father whose shadow seems to stain all the land up to the horizon, imposes on its young adults in the name of civilisation.

How apt that, all things considered, there may exist many grand narratives, but only truly one Grand Narrative: that which holds stories are at the centre of life, holding text to determine social relations. It is this grand narrative that must be deposed and discarded, through the exercise of “old age” materialist analysis. the triumph of postmodernism isn’t only a consequence of the strength of capital, and the peculiar sensibility it engenders on its intellectual operatives, but also a sad report on the left’s own weakness. Whether through surrender, capitulation, compromise or liquidation, the movement representing the working class, true revolutionary subject, has come to this: to lose against an empty story.

  1. For instance, href=””>In Defence of Grand Narratives attempts to grapple with this question from a different outlook.  
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About modulus

Modulus is an unaffiliated Marxist from South Western EU (Spanish state). He studied computer science and law, and is at present preparing for civil service exams for the Spanish administration. An avid IRC user, he enjoys arguments and will occasionally play devil's advocate. He regards himself as orthodox and is concerned about unscientific attitudes on the left on such things as nuclear energy, biotechnology, and so on. His support for the European Union as a platform to unify the class struggle across the continent has earned him plenty of strong opposition, and doubtless will continue to do so; until, that is, his view is vindicated by history.
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