Date: Sunday 26th July
Time: 17:30 - 21:00 (London time)
Postmodernism is very popular on university campuses, and has also gained an echo in the workers’ movement. This school of thought denies the very idea of historical progress. It echoes Henry Ford, saying “history is just one damn thing after another”. Scientific truth is also sidelined in favour of a ‘subjective’ emphasis on language, experience and identity. Where do these ideas come from, and what does Marxism have to say about them? Our speaker, Daniel Morley, is a leading activist of Socialist Appeal, the British section of the IMT.
- Marxism, the State, and the Tributary Mode of Production
Daniel: So long as capitalism exists, there will be an ideological battle waged against Marxism on behalf of the capitalists. Whereas in the 19th century, the defense of capitalism was very direct; capitalism was described as the best system, it was liberating humanity, bringing about freedom and prosperity. By the 20th century, that was no longer really tenable. And so the main defenses, the different defenses of capitalism in the 20th century took a very indirect character – not only admitting the horrors of capitalism, but to a certain extent even emphasizing the oppression that capitalism produces, but in such a way as to give the impression that it was impossible to have a different kind of society or to understand the source of these oppressions.
And postmodernism is one of these trends in bourgeois philosophy, and these days it is the dominant one. And it is in reality directed chiefly against Marxism. Its basic ideas are the rejection of the possibility or even the desirability of progress for humanity, and the rejection of the possibility of objective knowledge, of the ability to describe the world as it really is or even whether there is such a world is rejected. And it is therefore an idealist philosophy. In other words, for postmodernism, consciousness is independent of the material world. Rather, the material world has no independence from consciousness. Whereas Marxism is thoroughly materialist; in other words, for us, the material world is the only world that exists, and human thought or consciousness is a particular expression of that material world and cannot be independent of it.
Now, the idealism of postmodernism fits into a broader trend, the same trend I’ve already been discussing, that we can call irrationalism. This is the dominant trend throughout the different trends of bourgeois philosophy in the 20th century, and we have many different schools of it. For example, in the United States, pragmatism. We have empirio-criticism that Lenin famously criticized, and we also have the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger. And these, postmodernism is in fundamental agreement with all of these, which essentially say that, is a kind of shame-based idealism. It masks its idealism by saying that the material world does exist. However, it’s just as consciousness is dependent upon the material world, which they admit; so the material world is dependent upon consciousness, and the two cannot be separated.
And this is a fundamentally idealist position, because it denies the independence of the material world. The main reason – well, there’s really two main reasons for this, which I’ll discuss.
The first main reason for this dominant trend in bourgeois philosophy in the 20th century is that by the 20th century, human knowledge had advanced to the point where the world was so complex and so contradictory that it baffled the typical bourgeois philosopher from their individualistic and ahistorical standpoints. Not only in natural science, but also the human sciences like archaeology, anthropology, all of these revealed the staggering complexity of nature and human society, the many-sided character of it, and as a result, many bourgeois philosophers and scientists just sort of gave up in a sense.
What was needed to understand this complexity and contradictoriness was a dialectical philosophy which embraces the ideas of contradiction, history, and change. But bourgeois philosophy stopped at that threshold. It turned back and it fell a very long way. It fell back into an individualism, but whereas before, the individualism of the early bourgeoisie was optimistic and based on the idea that the individual, through their selfishness, will help build a better, a richer world, the individualism instead of the 20th century was one of cynicism, pessimism, and decadence. And in particular, the bourgeoisie lost confidence in generalization, basically, in the ability to comprehend with one fundamental theory many different contradictory things.
But there was another reason, a political reason for this, this decline of bourgeois philosophy, which is the rise of the working class. By the early 20th century, the working class was increasingly organized and it had its own ideology, and this ideology, which is Marxism, it took up the mantle of science and the belief in progress and human emancipation. And because by the early 20th century it was too big a phenomenon for the reactionaries to ignore, they had to discredit it. So for them, the ideas of progress and science and materialism were tainted by association with Marxism.
And this is really the kind of equivalent process to in economics, where the bourgeoisie abandoned the labour theory of value because that too became too strongly associated with Marxism. And this need to discredit the idea of progress is perhaps best expressed with Nietzsche, who is an extremely reactionary philosopher and insisted that the bourgeoisie or the ruling class must crush the working class and crush any idea of equality. It’s very telling that he is possibly the most influential philosopher for the postmodernists, in particular for Foucault.
Now of course, most of the philosophers of if you like, or most of what we call bourgeois philosophers are in reality actually petty-bourgeois in their own personal background. And this social position makes them perfectly suited for this role of developing a deeply pessimistic philosophy, because in general, the petty bourgeoisie is acutely aware of the horrors of capitalism and they find its culture, they typically, especially petty-bourgeois intellectuals, they find capitalism’s culture crude and distasteful. But at the same time, unless they come over to the side of the working class, which of course some do, they view the working class with contempt and they view mass organizations as a kind of horrifying, because intellectual individuals such as themselves seem to be relatively insignificant in that world.
Now, I want to discuss the Frankfurt School briefly, because I think that they are very influential over postmodernism as well. Now, if you study Marxism at university, you’ll probably be told that the Frankfurt School are Marxist. But in reality, they are not Marxist at all, as I think I will explain. And although they are officially not considered postmodernists at all, the similarity in their ideas and in particular the main themes is really striking. And that’s important to emphasize, because I don’t think we should look at Postmodernism as just this sort of strict discipline of the few philosophers who are officially labeled Postmodernists. It’s part of a far broader trend in bourgeois society.
And the Frankfurt School also highlights one of the other major causes of Postmodernism, which is the horrors of capitalism in the 20th century and specifically the failure of various revolutions. So just as the failure of the German Revolution was hugely influential over the FRANKFURT SCHOOL, so the failure of revolutions such as those in ’68 are hugely influential for the Postmodernists.
Now, just like the postmodernists, the main theme of the Frankfurt group is extreme pessimism, a contempt for the working class, and basically a denial of the possibility of human emancipation. And this flows from their position in society, because the Frankfurt School, just like the postmodernists, is a purely academic phenomenon. They, at no point did any of the members of the Frankfurt School join a political party or participate in the struggle of the working class. Even though all of them were German and came of age in the middle of the German Revolution. The closest thing I could find is that Marcuse, who is one of its most famous members, briefly joined the SPD at the end of the German Revolution. In other words, he joined a reformist party precisely at the point when it had just betrayed the German working class.
About 4 or 5 years after the failure of the German Revolution, or rather its defeat, Horkheimer, who is one of the most prominent members of the Frankfurt School, wrote an article called The Impotence of the German Working Class. Now, you might expect that that article, being written only just after the German Revolution, would analyze the events of the German Revolution. It doesn’t say anything about what happened in the German Revolution. The only thing it says is that the German workers are inherently divided and are incapable of attaining to revolutionary consciousness - even though only 4 years earlier, they had been fighting for power, establishing workers’ councils all over the country, and organizing revolutionary general strikes.
Similarly, in the 1969 preface to their book Dialectical Enlightenment, they talk about how the working class of the Western world is incapable of any revolutionary consciousness, so really of doing anything political – you know, because they had too many luxury commodities, for example. But they wrote this one year after 1968 and the biggest general strike in history in France, and many other revolutionary events throughout the world. And this book is, it could pretty much be a postmodernist book even though it isn’t considered an example of postmodernism. Its argument is that the Enlightenment, the idea of the Enlightenment is about freeing humanity by mastering nature. And this morphs, or sort of automatically morphs into oppression of humanity because the idea of dominating nature to liberate humanity very easily becomes the idea of dominating other humans. And so for them, the main reason that – and they state it explicitly – the reason for the Holocaust is because the ideas of the Enlightenment inherently lead to the desire to oppress [people].
Now, it is clearly a thoroughly idealist and non-Marxist outlook, because the entire basis of the argument is the nature of the ideas of the Enlightenment. And you would also think that given these people are allegedly Marxists, you would think that from this argument that no Marxist had ever had anything to say about the limitations of the Enlightenment and the bourgeois revolutions, whereas an absolutely key foundation of part of the writings of Marx and Engels is the criticism of the ideas of the Enlightenment and revealing how because of the material character of bourgeois society, the ideas, in other words, human freedom, reason, etc. – the ideals of the Enlightenment could not be realized.
And one final thing on the Frankfurt group, just to return to their petty-bourgeois character and their contempt for the working class. The Frankfurt School itself was founded by a couple of businessmen, left-wing businessmen with the idea – not that it would help the socialist movement and the workers’ struggle, but that it would develop the study of society for the sake of it. And the school itself had a long tradition of working for bourgeois governments. In fact, Heinrich Grossman, its founder, actually worked for the Austrian government and gave them the briefings that they needed for the Brest-Litovsk treaty when they were negotiating with the Bolsheviks. In the Second World War, they worked for the American government, and after the Second World War, Horkheimer would routinely edit out any mention of the word Marxism or revolution from any of their publications, because he was worried that their contract with the German Ministry of Defence would not come through as a result. So it’s very clear that their position in society and the dependence they had on money from the bourgeois state obviously restricted what they would and wouldn’t say and think, and it gave them a contempt for the working class, basically.
And this is the same with the postmodernists, which is equally a thoroughly academic phenomenon. And what I always find amusing about this is that the postmodernists emphasize that all institutions, even institutions we’ve never thought of before, have power structures that contain within them, are inherently repressive – except, apparently, the university, which obviously paid their wages.
Now, I’ll go and talk directly about the main postmodernists now. As I’ve said, they completely rejected any ideology of progress or belief in human emancipation, in really the exact same way as the Frankfurt School, and they see, just like the Frankfurt School, they also see oppression everywhere. And they also define themselves in this respect against what they term ‘modernism’. And this is again similar to the Frankfurt School, because the Frankfurt School of course sort of ignored the Marxist criticism if you like of the ideas, of the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. And similarly, the postmodernists, for them, liberalism and Marxism are the same thing. They ignore completely that there’s a difference between the two, because for them the two of them are basically modernist, which means both of them believe in science and the possibility of human progress. And they caricature Marxists as if we think that with each passing year, every year just gets better and better, as if we don’t understand that the bourgeoisie is a reactionary class and will use technology and science to oppress humanity so long as they exist.
So what all of these ideologies do reflect, which is true in a sense, is that progress has stalled, yes, but it is progress under capitalism. They blur over the class distinctions and just treat that as if that sums up humanity’s lot forever: there will be no progress, and that all humans will oppress other humans.
And what they describe this as in Lyotard’s words – Lyotard was an early prominent postmodernist – they describe this actually as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’. A metanarrative means, this is obviously their term, not ours, but it means any ideology or theory that attempts to explain a broad process rather than just small, isolated phenomena. So the philosophical basis of their rejection of the possibility of progress lies in this, this rejection of the ability of humans to understand and to explain phenomena.
They have another word for this, which is ‘essentialist’. So for them, any theory is essentialist if it states that it understands the underlying reason or in other words, the essence of a given phenomenon. So they would argue that it is essentialist when Marx and Engels state that the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles, or to emphasize the centrality of the productive forces in determining the development of human society. Or (all?) they would say is that it’s very naïve and arrogant to think that we can explain such complex phenomena as society. And so for them, ‘modernism’ – in other words, liberalism and Marxism, which they lump together – both of them have this arrogance and this naivety of thinking that we’ve understood history and we can explain it and we know how we’re going to liberate ourselves.
I can understand of course why some people find this a compelling argument, because of course society is indeed very, very complex. And of course a lot of people do make bad generalizations and they don’t back up their generalizations up efficiently. And indeed, many old theories of how humanity would develop have been proven to be wrong. And you also have to bear in mind that the postmodernists were, a lot of them were, they pretty much, all of the original ones were French, and a lot of them were in or around the French Communist Party, which was thoroughly Stalinist. So the version of Marxism that they had before that they were arguing against was in reality not Marxism at all, it was a crude mechanical caricature of Marxism.
Although at first glance it might seem like quite a wise insight, as soon as you begin to grapple with these ideas, they basically begin to reveal their uselessness. So if we take the example of what is called queer theory, which we’re having a session on this week as well, it’s concerned with sexual oppression. But it argues that we cannot say what the underlying cause of sexual oppression or the sexual norms that we have are, and it would be arrogant to try and give them such an answer.
So the explanation that is put forward is that there’s no fundamental reason for these sexual norms. It’s just that this or that person “performs” – and that is the word they use, “performs” a gender role, and I emphasize the word “perform” because it’s obviously used to give the impression that it’s non-essential, that it’s an “act”. And once somebody performs that role, perhaps their children see that performance and they think that that’s normal, so they copy it, and by means of that, we have this kind of vast web of overlapping performances and just a particular norm arises out of that, which basically may or may not have happened. It’s completely accidental, essentially.
Now what they say is that to say that there’s an underlying reason for this particular sexual norm dominating is to kind of treat it in a mystical way, because you’re treating the cause as prior to and external to society, and then somehow imposing it on society. But the materialist philosophy of Marxism tells us that although there are laws, of course, there are laws to human society and all natural phenomena, but they don’t exist outside of the phenomena itself. They are a product of the necessity of all of the parts interacting in the way that they do.
And at the end of the day, this comes down to the independent existence of the material world, which we all inhabit. The fact that we need to survive, that we need to produce everything that we live off, that obliges us to enter into definite relations with one another that we cannot simply opt out of, and that is the reason that human society has the different laws that it has that we can explain.
But the complete denial or ignoring of this fact leads to an arbitrariness to the ideas of the postmodernists and in this case the queer theorists, and the problem of infinite regression. Infinite regression, in other words, there’s no ability to understand any starting point or any reason that any of this has happened. It could have happened in any other way, and it’s arbitrary then. And so at best, this just is reduced to mere description of the different phenomena that we find in society, without any understanding of the reason for them. In practice, this philosophy just ends up producing lists of oppressions and different grievances without any explanation. And therefore, there’s no solution either, or if there is, it’s impossible to know what that is.
And we can see this very clearly with modern-day identity politics, which I’m sure people have noticed this themselves: it presents itself to you as just an endless list of new bad kinds of behaviours that are being discovered and people must just be told not to do, without any understanding of why it happened.
So a few years ago, we had the idea spreading around of manspreading, where that was identified as a problem, that arrogant men spread their legs too far when they’re sitting down. Today the latest one seems to be the Karen, you know, the white woman who is very bossy in shops. And that seems to be all that this philosophy produces in terms of politics, an ever-growing list of think pieces and articles saying all of this, “this kind of person is very annoying or oppressive, aren’t they.” And of course some of them are true and they are a problem, but there’s no explanation or understanding present at all.
And so ironically, they end up actually essentializing oppression and making it seem completely natural and unavoidable, because they have no explanation for it. Certainly to me, that is the impression that one gets in reading all of these articles, you just sort of get inundated with all of these very depressing things with no sense of a solution, and the conclusion that you’re kind of tempted to draw from it is that “Well, this is just how humans are. They’re just really unpleasant to each other all of the time.”
And this isn’t just a case of people misinterpreting the actual philosophers’ ideas. This is pretty much what the philosophers themselves put forward. So Judith Butler, the most prominent person in queer theory, she puts forward the idea that what we should do is just sort of parody, on an individual level, just sort of parody the sexual norms that we find oppressive. That’s it, that’s basically the prognosis of what to do. Or for Deleuze and Guattari, who are two prominent French postmodernists who worked together, for them, the source of all oppression is kind of hierarchies of ideas, theories that attempt to say, “This is correct and that’s incorrect,” because that’s oppressive and it sets [inaudible].
But their response to this is therefore to say, “Well, because thought is bound up in all of these kind of hierarchies which are inherently oppressive, we should escape thought.” So they actually started celebrating schizophrenics and they argued that if we just follow the desires of our body rather than of our thoughts, than that might be the path to freedom.
Now I’m just going to read out a quotation from Lyotard, who’s, this is his sort of response, very similar to Deleuze and Guattari. He also finds language and thought inherently oppressive, so his response is essentially to escape thought, and I’ll just read out his quotation to give you a flavour. OK, he says, ‘Holding up production, uncompensated seizures as modalities of consumption, “refusal to work” in inverted commas, communities, happenings, sexual lib movements, occupations, squatings, abductions, productions of sounds, words, colours with no artistic intention – here are the men of production, the masters of today, marginals, experimental painters, pop, hippies and yippies, parasites, mad men, binned loonies. One hour of their lives offers more intensity and less intention than 300,000 words of a professional philosopher.’
I think we can all agree that one hour of almost anyone’s life is worth more than any of the writing of this particular philosopher, if we can call him that. And on the basis of this philosophy, although it typically directs itself against oppression and things like racism and imperialism, it’s unclear why any particular ideology should ever be rejected, because for them, the ideas and the ideology of any given society, all of them are just relative, like none can be described as objectively true because to say something is objectively true and is the correct idea is actually oppressive itself. So there’s no real foundation, actually, for rejecting any particular idea, even the ideas of fascism.
And what really stands out with all of this writing is the inherently kind of, incredibly flippant character of it. It’s, I think it’s the, I think the role that it serves and has served is to, obviously as I said, discredit the idea of progress, and in doing so to take intellectuals who could actually be won to Marxism or to the cause of the working class and take them down these harmless paths, these illusory paths. And I also think that it can get away with such badly argued and shoddily written stuff because basically, it serves the interests of the powerful. Basically it’s harmless. It’s completely harmless to the powerful. And so in the ’70s and in the ’80s, and even moreso in the ’90s, this kind of outlook was promoted and all of these texts got churned out because in my opinion, it served a very useful purpose which is discrediting the idea of revolution and of Marxist theory.
And it ends up coming to these ridiculous conclusions, and I’ll just give one last quotation while I’m discussing this part of it. This is from Baudrillard, who’s another French postmodernist. The quotation is not actually from him, but he was very fond of quoting it and he took it and he adapted it and changed it to make it more overtly postmodernist, so it is effectively his own words. And he says, “Beyond a certain precise moment in time, history is no longer real. Without realizing it, the whole human race suddenly left reality behind. Nothing that has occurred since then has been true. But we are unable to realize it. Our task and our duty now is to discover this point, for so long as we fail to grasp it, we are condemned to continue on our present destructive course.”
And this brings me on to the final aspect of postmodernism that I want to discuss, which brings me on to its paradoxical character, the self-contradiction at the heart of it. This absurd claim that reality has now been departed from and nothing is true, this is obviously nonsense and it’s, I mean, it contradicts itself in its own [inaudible]. For something to no longer be true obviously requires there to be a reality that it is in contradiction with. The only basis of anything being true or false is whether or not it agrees with objective reality, with the material world, essentially.
And also, other parts of it make the same kind of bizarre mistakes, such as, he says, “At a certain precise moment in time” – in other words, time is real. But then the entirety of his philosophy is dedicated to the denial of history and of objective time.
And this reminds me of the paradox of the solipsist. A solipsist is somebody who argues that the external world simply does not exist. Everything is a projection of your own imagination, your own consciousness. But anybody who advocates this – and there are people who have advocated it – is inherently absurd and contradicting themselves. Of course they contradict themselves in practice with every moment of their daily life, as it were, whether it’s when they choose to eat, when they look before they cross the road – they demonstrate that actually, they really do believe in an independent material reality. Not only that, but the person who is making this argument is going to the effort of writing an entire book and getting people to read that book in an attempt to convince them that they themselves do not exist.
By denying generalization or essentialism, in other words, any attempt to explain the general features of reality, they are falling into this kind of paradox. I’ll give you some examples from the conclusions that they draw and the kind of political outcome, or political conclusions of their philosophies.
Now, Foucault is probably the most influential postmodernist. And as a result of his rejection of essentialism or “metanarratives”, instead of developing a new theory about the nature of society and the laws of society, etc., he dedicated himself to studying the history of oppression in different institutions, like the prison system, mental health or psychiatry, etc. And summing up his philosophy in this respect, he said the following: “There is no locus of great refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead, there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.”
And so in other words, we have no idea how emancipation could possibly ever be attained, because there’s just so many different kinds of struggle for liberation. Each one of them has really nothing to do with any of the others.
Now, first of all, where do you draw the line at generalization? What Foucault seems to be saying is that he cannot generalize the whole of society, he cannot generalize across all of the struggles. He can only discuss the individual struggles. But then, surely when you’re discussing the prison system or psychiatry and the treatment of mental health, surely that also inherently involves quite a lot of generalization, across many different countries and centuries. Why is that kind of essentialism OK? And the statement itself unavoidably is a general statement about society. As he says, “There is no locus of great refusal, there is no soul of revolt.” Therefore, unconsciously, he is stating a general state of affairs or making a claim about the nature of society as a whole. But it’s one that he never justifies, or he never explains why there isn’t or can’t be any sort of general logic or law to revolution or anything else across the whole of society.
Moreover, he is making an even more explicit claim about the nature of society across his work, which is that for him, the essential defining feature of all social relationship is power and domination. Only for some reason, in each case, power is slightly different in each social institution and somehow never manages to develop a general character. Not only is that a generalization, but it’s a very poorly argued one with no real facts or evidence to back it up. You know, why is power the general feature of society and not economic relations, for example?
And what is power, anyway? This is a completely abstract – the worst kind of generalization, devoid of any content, just totally abstract. And he avoids having to tackle that, of course, by only focusing separately on each individual case of power in different institutions. But he does then conclude that power is general to all social phenomena [inaudible] … calls in question, for some reason, it’s never explained.
And this problem is found in all of the postmodernist philosophies. In queer theory it is sexual oppression that is focused on, and it’s declared that sexual oppression has this form, which is that it is performative. It’s people acting in a certain way, playing a certain role. But why is it that way, and not a product of material conditions, this is never explained. So this is the worst kind of generalization, in other words. And I could go on with many other examples. I’ll just give a couple.
With Deleuze and Guattari, who I’ve already mentioned, their argument is that we mustn’t have generalizations because any thought that bases itself on generalizations creates hierarchies of ideas. This idea is correct, that idea is incorrect, and it therefore oppresses people who subscribe to different ideas, and therefore that is the source of oppression and we shouldn’t do that. But in doing so, they are claiming that they know the source of all oppression. In other words, they are making precisely the kind of generalization that they say is so bad, to claim that they have the answer, and all the other theories about why we have oppression and inequality, those are wrong. It’s a paradox. It’s self-contradictory.
Now, postmodernists sort of hold up essentialism or metanarratives as a very simplistic and naïve thing, an arrogance, you know – people who think in that way sort of arrogantly think they have all of the answers. Well, there certainly are people who make very poor generalizations in an arrogant and a sloppy way. And I would argue that the faddish, trendy quality of PM is a perfect example of that.
Also, this outlook we hear from Postmodernists all the time, that Marxism, for example, is very simplistic because it just reduces everything to class, the class struggle – it’s class reductionist, as they would say, and they say this is very simple. And there’s the claim that it is made that instead, we must have a very nuanced philosophy, because reality is extremely complex. Although as I’ve said, I don’t think they themselves actually manage that, because their own claims are very simplistic, very repetitive and very poorly argued.
Now, we can all agree that society and the natural world are very, very complex things. I think we can say that humanity will never reach a point where we have answered everything and understood everything about reality. However, the mere assertion that things are very, very complex is actually one-sided. In reality, actually, the most complex phenomena can have quite simple laws governing them. The comprehension of those laws does not mean that you have a crystal ball and that you can predict everything that will happen. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
Darwin’s theory of evolution – we can all agree that organic life is phenomenally complex and we are very far from having fully explained this. I think we can also agree that the basic idea of evolution, that is of natural selection through different mutations from one generation to the next, is a rather simple idea and is actually quite easy to explain and understand. Does that mean we should therefore dismiss it as old-fashioned, essentialist, simplistic, reductionist, etc.? And of course, understanding the basics of Darwinism does not mean you can just fold your arms, sit back and think that you’ve understood all of the organic world forever.
And Marxism is like that. The basic ideas of historical materialism, for example, I think are quite easy to explain. A statement such as, ‘The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle’ does not mean you don’t need to study those class struggles, or that literally nothing else happens and nothing else has any influence on society.
And this dialectical contradiction between the simple and the complex we find across all of the natural world. It is impossible to predict, with a complex system, it is impossible to predict the exact movement of any of the parts of that system. No one can predict exactly when somebody will die, for example. The healthiest person could die tomorrow in the most random and unexpected of ways. But we can understand and predict very accurately the number of deaths in a given country in a given year, which of course is something that is being used to shore up the lie that the government statistics on the number of people who have died from coronavirus, you can only do that because of the reliability of that basic fact.
Human society is ultimately a natural thing. Humans are physical and natural beings. We are animals. Whilst it clearly has its own laws, the idea that it should be fundamentally inexplicable in how it’s developed is completely unscientific and actually very, very outdated. And despite the complexity of capitalist society, it certainly does have predictable laws, such as capitalist crises and political revolutions, or social revolutions. And nobody, no Marxist thinks that they know when the next revolution is coming or exactly when and where or how it will happen. But we can say with certainty, looking at the history of capitalism, is that these are regular features of capitalist society. Not only that, but we can also explain why they happen. And it is the job and the duty of Marxists to painstakingly study the history of revolutions, the history of the working class, the laws of the capitalist economic system, etc. And there’s no other political org in the world besides the IMT that puts such a high emphasis on carefully, on all of its members carefully discussing and studying the history of the workers’ movement, etc. – Marxist theory, basically.
And we should, btw, we should come out in defence of generalization. Just to go back to the earlier points about the paradoxical character of Postmodernism in denying generalization but making generalizations while they do it – not only is their position anti-philosophy, which is all about discovering these things, but it’s anti-human thought. You cannot actually have a thought without generalizing. This is what all thought is based upon – say, I am a man, or this is a table, or this is a piece of paper. These are generalizations. The table is of course different than all other tables. So how can I use that term?
So we should, there’s no point in denying this. What we need is to base ourselves on accurate information and the best theoretical generalizations, rather than rubbishing them, but at the same time actually making generalizations, which is absurd.
And finally, you cannot hope to fight oppression with a pessimistic attitude. Indeed, I think it’s dishonest and irresponsible actually to dedicate your entire philosophy to the discussion and the study of oppression in all of its forms, but then deny the ability to understand it and to do anything about it. For revolutionaries or anybody seriously interested in ending oppression and emancipating humanity, Marxism is indispensable, because our optimism isn’t arbitrary, but it is based on a thorough materialism and a method.
And hasn’t humanity plumbed the depths of all of the mysteries that surround us, and began to solve one after another all of these mysteries? And haven’t we proved the validity of these generalizations and theories – not only in theory, but in practice, by transforming the world and society around us? And haven’t these discoveries and this technology laid the basis for a society in which nobody has to go hungry, nobody needs to die of an unnecessary disease, and nobody should live without a home? And also, haven’t we as a class in countless times risen up to fight against capitalism and to challenge this capitalist system as a whole?
So we should have tremendous confidence in our ability to understand things and to change the world for the better. Of course, what is holding us back in general is the capitalist system. But more specifically, also, the ability to transfer this scientific method to our own society, to our own social organisms – to examine it, to see how it works, to see what the problems are, and to propose clear solutions and to set about putting those solutions into practice so that we can live better.
But the middle class academics of Postmodernism stand at the threshold of the struggle to apply a scientific approach to society. And they say to us, ‘Do not pass! Do not even try to do this. In fact, it’s dangerous if you do so.’ Well, maybe it’s dangerous for them because they have a lot to lose. But the working class has nothing to lose but its chains, and a world to win.
Hamid: Thank you Jorge and thank you, Dan, for an excellent leadoff.
I think as Dan said, the Postmodernists think they’re very clever. They attack Marxism, but of course it’s not real Marxism. Instead as Dan explained, they take a bastardized Marxism, of the Stalinists really, which in reality is an extremely dry and rigid philosophy – that everything is fixed, that everything is predetermined and goes through very, very specific stages in a very mechanical way.
Now, this worldview, which is also known as a metaphysical view, is like old biology books from the Middle Ages, where monks would sit and categorize thousands of types of flowers or butterflies or something else, describing all of the general features, or anatomical textbooks which would list various body parts of a human being, the sizes and general characteristics. But of course if you look into nature, you’ll never find a man or an animal or a plant similar to those generalizations. Not only are all individual beings different than our generalizations of them, but all beings and species are in a constant state of flux and change.
But the postmodernists take up this rigid view that the Stalinists presented, and they say, “Well, since everything is different, you can’t categorize anything.” So to put it into philosophical words, there’s no identity, but there’s only difference. But Hegel made a very interesting comment about that. He said if you don’t recognize identity, but only recognize difference – if you say that a moon is a moon, this man is a man, the second man is a man, you’re just saying that a moon is itself, a man is himself, and so on, which is the same as the crude, lifeless metaphysical worldview that the Postmodernists were supposed to rebel against in the first place.
And in fact, it would be an even cruder view than the medieval monks, who at least tried to put their crude views into some type of broader categories. In reality, identity and difference go together. Everything is itself, and something else at the same time. Nature is an interconnected whole, and contradiction is the basis of all development and movement.
The Postmodernists are also obsessed with possibility. As Dan explained, everything is possible. Nothing is necessary. The moon could crash into the earth tomorrow. They criticize Marxists for believing in necessity, which is another word for lawfulness in nature. But again, actually, Hegel way, way before these guys gave a scathing critique of this view of the world. He said that possibility is an extremely poor category. In theory, yes, the moon could crash into the earth. After all, the earth’s gravitational force is very strong. But there are also forces at play, which are the centrifugal forces pulling the other way. And then we have the gravitational effects of other objects. And it’s the coming together of all of these forces which constitutes necessity, or the laws of nature in other words.
The postmodernists think they’re very clever and nuanced and complex, when they say that everything is possible. But in reality, they just take a one-sided view of reality.
Now, in all being, there is a decaying force. Yes, but there is also a countervailing force towards higher complexity. As an example, let’s look at human beings. If you leave a human being passively to itself, not doing anything, it would die of hunger and thirst. Of course, that doesn’t happen, does it? That’s only one side of the story. And in order to maintain themselves, human beings develop tools, they collaborate in order to make a livelihood. And that is the essential basis of human society. The tools that humans develop transform their society.
For instance, we saw with the rise of primitive agriculture came the end of nomadic life. With the rise of capitalist industrial production came the era of huge metropolitan cities – just to name a few examples. To say as the postmodernists then that there are no stages in history, that there’s no progress, is a completely ridiculous thing. Again, they think they’re nuanced. They highlight the fact that there are things which are common for all class societies. Even today, there’s slavery: 660,000 slaves in sub-Saharan Africa, working in diamond mines and other places. But does that mean that our society today is not qualitatively different than the Roman and Greek slave societies? Or after the English Revolution, Charles II, whose father had his head chopped off during the English Revolution, he was re-instated. But that was not the re-imposition of feudalism. On the contrary, it was a means for the new bourgeois order to use the royal family to stabilize its own rule.
And I find that’s the main thing about postmodernism – that they think that they’re very profound, they talk very scathingly about generalizations, but they end up making the most obscene generalizations possible: we can’t generalize stages in history, so everything is just one stage. They say that they’re against grand narratives, but that is the grandest and crudest narrative you can possibly have. There are no laws of nature, only one law of nature, which is that there is no law. And instead of seeing nature as a complex differentiated whole, which they claim to see, in reality they reduce everything to one static block, without contradictions, without movement, and without direction.
Antonio: Postmodernism gives, has to thank some of its thinking to the poststructuralist French philosophers. Some of them, like Foucault or Deleuze, they were considered Marxists, but in reality, their recourse to Marxism was superficial. Their philosophy is an eclectic mixing in which one of their main points of reference is Nietzsche.
Nietzsche was [inaudible] claimed by all the main reactionary controversial aspects, and introduced as the philosopher of the differences, the champion of plurality. Nietzsche was the supporter of Romantic anti-capitalism. He was against the decadence of the bourgeois values, was the supporter of aristocratic revenge. It’s incredible that a philosopher who stands for the rule of the elite now is welcomed by everybody as the defender of the [inaudible] plurality.
The bourgeoisie take Nietzsche, first of all, in a way to get rid of Marx. And Marxism was reduced to its caricature, the economic reductionism. Dialectics, with no distinction at all between the speculative approach by Hegel and the materialist approach of Marx and Engels, was condemned because it is totalitarian. The reason is given, is found in the fact that it in fine thought, in which the differences are conceived as opposition, that were overcome in the dialectical movement.
The fundamental point is that they rejected the idea, the very idea of the dialectical contradiction, and in particular on the question of the unity of [opposites], that was a substitute from difference. The difference is not opposition, is not a negative pole of a positive, but it’s in itself positive. So in this way, a metaphysical difference is substituted of the more traditional metaphysic of identity. The result is that reality has been negated, in its very complexity and interconnection. In reality, in the whole essence, there is totality.
From a Marxist point of view, there is no obstruct, word to know [?], but the result of postmodernism is the rejection of an organic vision of society. Most of all tended, the postmodernists supported that it is impossible to know the fracture of society – not on the outskirts, but in the very heart of the system, as the Marxist view. In their theory, in the postmodernist theory, their thought would be an anti-hierarchical, I think is the word, an anti-hierarchical one, able to guarantee pluralism. In this theory, in their view, pluralism would guarantee the resistance to the totality, totalitarian aspect of capitalism. We are sure that this theory enabled them to be completely legitimized, this philosophy, to be completely legitimized in the epoch of the propaganda about the end of ideology.
At the end, the postmodernist philosophers, they substitute their own hierarchy to the one of the historical materialism. Difference, for example, is one of this, as the desire, the body, etc. And naturally, obviously, they got their own generalization. For example, the idea that the facts do not exist, but only interpretations of them. So the role of the cultural difference becomes very prominent, and used against a class vision of society. Nevertheless, they call for a materialistic, anti-metaphysical interpretation of society. The idealistic trends are self-evident. As is self-evident, the irrationalism is self-evident as well.
What they put in discussion is the whole Western rationality. They think that it is rationality, all [inaudible] as a way of rule of reality, and never, never as emancipation. For a Marxist point of view, historical development is not determined by the development of reason, but from the development of the productive forces. This development is made possible through the rational development of science and technique. The problem is not because of the reason in itself, but from the irrationality of the capitalist system.
Marx and Engels stand for the progressive role of reason as the one of science, but they did not lean in to declare this. [?] Marxists claim that modern socialism from one side is the fruit of the class, is the result of the class antagonism. On the other part, from a radical point of view, it appears at the beginning as the natural following of a more radical and more consistent following of the Enlightenment …
And they say this, Marx and Engels at the same time, they criticize the ideological features, including the abstract universalism of the Enlightenment. We know now, as Engels wrote, that this realm of reason was nothing else than the realm of the, the idealized realm of the bourgeoisie. But this idea that reason is, stands for itself to guarantee human emancipation is still the main feature of the utopian socialism. Only with Marx, socialism appears as a necessary result of the struggle between the two main classes. Postmodernism deletes completely this feature, and limits itself to consider Marxism out of tune because it is a song of the modern epoch.
Last thing about Foucault. Foucault, who introduced conception of power as the asymmetric relation that stands before the social relationship of production, and pervades everything. The power is not a thing, but a common that you can take. This question of power becomes free from every relationship between the classes. The power is the relationship, or to say better, a plurality of relations that infiltrates the whole of the social body. But material world, power, of the knowledge power of Foucault is not less essential than the Marxist one, with the difference that it doesn’t allow a generalized struggle, but if you’re lucky, partial resistance. Generally, postmodernism, they criticize the idea that we can know the essence of things. But the idea of power of Foucault is absolutely essentialist.
It is very likely that we’ll clash over a period of time with this theory, and also the political consequence. Also, because of the poverty of the academic Marxism that chases after postmodernism on this same theory. Anyway, an answer cannot come from the university, but from the building of a real Marxist organization, able to bash this idea in the clash of the different classes, and from the mobilization that we will see.
Niklas: I wanted to talk a little bit about knowledge and how we know things.
One aspect of postmodernism is a fundamental skepticism of everything. But they’ll have one consistent view of the relationship between matter and consciousness. But in general, they tend towards solipsism, and that is that the only thing you can really know is yourself, that we can’t really know anything about other people, we can’t really know phenomena in nature, we can’t know history. All we can know is ourselves and our own experience, even to a point where, it’s almost like we can only know our own feelings. But those with this kind of attitude, it comes up against problems in everyday life.
If you can’t know anything about anything, how do we know what to eat? How do we know what to eat? How do we know that we have to eat, etc., etc. It’s impossible to live your life that way. And it’s very similar to some of the ideas that Lenin polemicized against. In spite of them always claiming to come up with new ideas, all the, well, most of the ideas they’re putting forward were criticized by Lenin and by other people before Lenin, to be honest. You can find a collection of these ideas and Lenin’s polemics against them in Materialism or Empirio-Criticism. And in this book, Lenin quotes an [inaudible] professor, who I think can represent quite a lot of academia.
He tries to answer the point about “What about eating and these everyday things?” And he dismisses it, says, “Such proofs are only valuable to mock”… [inaudible] Or he says, “my skepticism does not concern the requirements of practical life, but remains within the bounds of philosophy.” Well, one may ask, what’s the point of a philosophy that doesn’t deal with everyday life? Or for that matter, a philosophy which does not give you any guidance on how to change society?
Well, it’s completely useless. It’s very easy to put up, to make up a, come up with criticisms and various kinds of arguments against something. And the Postmodernists are experts at that. How can you possibly know that? How can you do that? And so on. But they don’t really come up with any solutions ever. It’s quite a depressing world, to be honest.
Actually, Marxism did answer these questions – well, Marx answered them. And you find it also, and you find it [inaudible] Marxists. And Lenin basically summarizes it. The standpoint of life, of practice, should be first and fundamentally the theory of knowledge, and it inevitably leads to materialism, brushing aside the endless fabrications of professorial scholasticism.” Apologies to the translators.
The point is that we learn through experience. We learn through struggle, from observation, and we test the conclusions that we draw from these observations, and we constantly test our ideas. And this also relates to the class struggle. The working class when it starts to move will test the ideas and the prejudices it has, and inevitably, some of the ideas will not be, will be found not to correspond to reality. Say, for example, the ideas of reformism. And for a consider [?] of testing of ideas, we acquire more knowledge, and we discard false ideas and prejudices.
And therefore, we can actually learn something about the world, and the postmodernists like to raise absolute things. Well, you can’t know everything about this table or apple or whatever. You don’t know every molecule, every atom in this apple. But, and that’s true. Certainly for each apple, I would not have that kind of knowledge of it. But we have general ideas of apples, which through personal and also societal experience have been tested multiple times. So we do know that they’re edible and nutritious and tasty. And although we might find a few apples that do not conform to those general rules, we can, I think it’s safe to say, but we know something in general about the apples.
With the development of science, we obviously learn more and more things about the world around us, including apples. But in general, it doesn’t invalidate what we knew about them before. Newton’s laws did not, were not, did not become obsolete because of Einstein’s discoveries. Newton’s laws were perfectly sufficient for a lot of human activities. But if we want to be able to build spacecraft or launch satellites and so on, they are not sufficient. So the development of knowledge is a gradual approximation where we discover more and more things about objects and phenomena in the world.
And so we can learn something about the fellow human beings as well. We can empathize with them. We can listen to them and thereby understand something about their experience. Even if it’s not exactly the same as our own. And so in that way, it’s not impossible for white workers to show solidarity to black workers, because they can listen and they can understand. And you have the evidence of that in the Black Lives Matter movement, where it’s [inaudible] that white workers are supporting the movement. But according to the cynics and skeptics among the postmodernism, that was never supposed to happen.
So it’s quite capable for workers, workers are quite capable of joining in struggle. And obviously our ideas should be those ideas that help us unite workers in struggle, that help strengthen the bonds of solidarity, and advance the struggle and take it to the next step. The working class is full of divisions, there is no denying it. But our job is to unite them, unite the class in struggle, not to create a million divisions and split the class in a million different ways.
Yola: One expression of postmodernism is the idea of “narratives” and “left populism”. In recent years the idea that a “left narrative” and a “left populism” are the way forward for left parties, gained popularity. Particularly when new left parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain witnessed a sudden upswing and leaders of these parties referred to the idea of a Left Narrative and a left populism.
One of this concept’s most important theoreticians is the Belgian political scientist Chantal Mouffe. In the acknowledgements of her latest book which is called “For a left populism”, she gives credits to Íñigo Errejón (a prominent former politician of Podemos) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon for their contributions and personal conversations. But also the leader of the German Left Party, Katja Kipping said that she is a big fan of “left populism”. Kipping explained: “we must counter Merkel’s narrative … with a different narrative.” We can find many examples like this with left reformist politicians everywhere.
Their basic idea is that “narratives” or “convincing stories” make people act in a certain way and in this way, reality is shaped. According to this idea, you can shape the world however you want it to be with stories, as long as the narrative becomes “hegemonic” in society, that means, as long as enough people believe it.
Another theoretician, Julia Fritsche, writes:
We must “give the impression that the narrative corresponds to shared experiences. It doesn’t matter if these experiences were actually made.” (Fritzsche p. 20, own translation.)
They say that their goal is to construe a collective identity by telling the people that they have shared interests and that the “elites” are their enemy. Only if people “feel” like they are a class, they will become a class. To “look at the world through narratives” means that they often don’t even see real class struggles, they are in permanent campaign mode looking to “frame” reality as it fits their slogans.
As Marxists we argue the opposite: Exactly because we are objectively part of one working class, we notice our shared interests. We are forced into struggle because of objective conditions, and this changes our consciousness as we increasingly feel the solidarity of being one class.
Because “postmodernism” is an ideology which says that we must talk a lot to change “hegemonic” ideas, it doesn’t obligate politicians to act. It is thus an extremely useful cover for reformists who actually only want access to the state apparatus to get a nice position in parliament, where they can change the “discourse”.
Chantal Mouffe writes openly against Marxist theory of state. Instead of taking power and then smashing the state, we should reform the state apparatus from within. Mouffe writes: “The objective is not the seizure of state power but,” “one of ‘becoming’ state’.” (ib. 589.)
In reality, this means that left politicians will give in to the pressure of the bourgeoisie. And they will explain that they had no other choice, because the “hegemony” of their narratives wasn’t yet strong enough.
The best example for this is SYRIZA. Their leader, Alexis Tsipras, had the idea that he would “change the hegemonic discourse of austerity” in Europe. He went to meet the pope so that the church could spread anti-austerity ideas. He refused to wear a tie in public to give a “symbol” of radical change. He appealed to bourgeois politicians in Europe to change the idea that “austerity is rational”. He demanded that the “Troika” of austerity, the ECB, the IMF and the European commission should no longer be called “the Troika”.
Of course, Merkel and the others laughed and gladly stopped to use the word Troika. But they crushed the will of the Greek workers nevertheless and forced through brutal cuts.
What do the “left populists” have to say about this defeat? In a paper financed by the German Left Party we can read: “The struggle of SYRIZA was lost because only a relevant resistance in the core countries of the Eurozone could have helped the ideas of SYRIZA to achieve a break-through.” (Seibert, p. 1.)
Of course there was no “resistance” to austerity by the ruling class of the EU. Those who could have resisted – and who started to do so at that time - were the workers and youth of Europe. Instead of “changing the narrative”, and going to the pope, Tsipras should’ve appealed to the working class of Europe.
The Greek comrades of the IMT at that time, wrote right after the elections: “No illusions in negotiating with European capital and its institutions! Our opponents are the capitalist interests, local and foreign, that are hiding behind the troika ... Our only true ally is the European working class!”
The depiction that “unfortunately” all kinds of factors are to blame for the defeat of Syriza, except the leadership of Syriza itself, is typical for reformism. With the ideology of “narratives” and “hegemony”, the blame can easily be put on the shoulders of the masses.
Fritsche, the author I mentioned earlier, makes this very clear. To explain why great mass movements of recent years failed, such as the yellow vests in France, the “Occupy” movement or the Arab sping, she says: “because potentially interested people thought them too academic, or because they thought tents were nice and cute, but capitalism was somehow better. Because the occupants of the squares gave up in order to get back to their jobs, or because they occupied places where they disturbed no-one.” (p. 25.)
This is pure cynicism if we think about how people in countries such as Egypt or Tunisia literally risked their lives, overcame sectarian divisions and were willing to give it all to achieve freedom. Her line of argument is extremely comfortable for politicians who don’t want to confront the capitalists and who explain their own traitorous inaction and hesitation by blaming the ‘lack of hegemony in society.’ The concept of a Left Narrative is a good example for the connection between philosophical ideas and political practise.
The task of revolutionaries, however, is to uncover such ideas and the practice that flows from it and to counterpose real solutions to escape the misery of capitalism. Do the ideas help the ruling class, do they throw dust into the eyes of workers and left activists? Or do they help us to change society? Let’s confront reality without “postmodern” blinders, let’s fight for a world without exploitation and oppression – for a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
Daniel: Thank you for all the comments, it was a very good discussion. I thought the comments were great, I really learned something from the comments as well.
Now if I was able to have given this session a name, I would have called it “Postmodernism, or There is Nothing New Under the Sun.” Postmodernists are typically very impressed with newness. Often quite explicitly – for example, Baudrillard frequently writes about how we live in a new time and we need new ideas and everything is new now and all of my ideas are now – in other words, my ideas are better because these other ideas are old. The name itself, of course, represents modernism, which explains what they understand that to be, and for them, liberalism is a form of modernism which they have surpassed, along with Marxism, and they are now postmodern, something new.
I think it’s probably clear to a lot of people who have listened to what I said and what the other people in this session have said that postmodernism is really just a particularly obscure rehashing of liberalism. They emphasize over and over again the oppression of the individual. They emphasize plurality and there’s no one right way of doing things or of thinking or, no solutions … we should just allow people to do their own things. And it’s particularly obvious with people like Deleuze and Guattari, and Lyotard, who talk about language games and hierarchies of language, and how what we, the source of oppression is thinking in a hierarchical way and being intolerant of other viewpoints.
So yeah, in my view, it’s really just a rehashing of liberalism. And the phrase, “there is nothing new under the sun”, that does express something quite true, which is that so long as we live in capitalist society, there aren’t really any new ideas that we can find. If you’re going to take up political positions, you’re forced to choose: Do I think that the state needs to be smashed, or do we need to work within it, as Yola mentioned? Can we grasp objective reality and the laws of human society, or can we not? And so despite their efforts to appear absolutely new, they end up just taking more or less all the standard positions on things that all the liberals are taking.
Hamid also brought up the attitude towards difference, or the one-sided overemphasis on difference as opposed to identity that they have. And this, with slightly different language, we find also with the Frankfurt School, who continually emphasized disunity and other terms like collapse and the fracturing of society. And this, so this very sort of abstract philosophical emphasis on difference actually has a clear political justification or cause, shall we say, which is a deep pessimism. There are no commonalities, there’s no solidarity, there’s no ability to unite in a powerful way. There’s only disorganization, basically.
I just want to end on one point, which is that sometimes, discussing, mentioning that I was going to talk on this topic, some people I know have said to me, “That’s strange, because postmodernism is actually very out of fashion now.” What they mean is like in the typical philosophy department of a university, it’s obviously, it’s been and gone a little bit. Its heyday was in the ’70s or the ’90s, and of course it can only stick around for so long. Sooner or later, that fad passes.
But I would say that outside of the university, its influence in certain respects anyway is clearly waning as well. In a certain sense, the politics of Blairism, for example, are really the epitome of Postmodernism, the discarding of class, the emphasis on single-issue politics, and the sense that history had ended and those questions are in the past. That really was at its strongest in the ’90s and in the early 2000s. But it’s very hard today to deny the importance of class, after the financial crisis and in today’s epoch with the coronavirus, the idea that we’ve moved into a post-history era is obviously ridiculous.
And I think that Postmodernism particularly encourages an atmosphere of cynicism and a sort of sarcastic attitude in which if you’re a postmodernist, the most embarrassing thing would be to be very sincere and committed to something. And I do think that that kind of era has passed. If you look at the militancy and the anger that you find in the young generation – look at the movements in America at the moment – you find a sincerity and a militancy that clearly suggests a different epoch and a different consciousness.
Which actually brings me on to another point, is that it discredits their technological determinism. Of course, postmodernism very much don’t like to think of themselves as determinist in any way. But it’s clear when you read their theories that they’re heavily technologically determinist. What I mean by that is when they do try to explain why we now live in a postmodern epoch, they always say that, “Well, it’s because we have things like MTV.” Of course, they were writing in the ’80s when that was the new thing. “We have MTV, we perceive reality through the simulated world of the television program and the soap opera, and all the politicians have their spin doctors, etc.”
And now, I do think that this is an example of a very simplistic determinism. And to me, it’s disproven by the fact that in the current epoch we live in, in which politics has become so polarized and people care so passionately about causes and we see a rise in militancy – and yet, this has happened in an era in which the simulated world, if you like, of communications technology has reached a height that they couldn’t possibly have dreamt of in the ‘80s, with social media, with meme culture, with the ability of anyone and everyone to make a video of their own lives and broadcast it to the world.
No doubt these technologies have their influence, but they’re only one part of a whole, the most important factor of which is clearly the economic situation and the exploitation of young people and the working class. The generalized uncertainty of modern life, the insecurity of being a worker in today’s conditions, the extreme inequality, etc. – these are enormous factors which I think far outweigh the fact that anyone can watch any YouTube video they want at any time.
And I would make the same point in regard to the Frankfurt group. The Frankfurt School are often characterized as Marxists who emphasize culture and want to move away from a kind of crude determinism that apparently Marxism, or orthodox Marxism has. And yet as I’ve mentioned, their discussion of the impotence of the German working class or the general impotence of the Western working class is crudely deterministic. They treat the defeats of those revolutions as absolutely necessary, because of the objective character of the working class. They talk about the division between workers with more secure jobs and those with insecure jobs, and that causes a split in the working class. They talk about the role of mass culture and consumer goods which must mean that the working class is basically bought off and indoctrinated.
And they produce no analysis whatsoever of the actual political events in, for example, the German Revolution and the role and the mistakes of the different political tendencies involved, all of which are relatively accidental. In other words, we could have had more or less the same situation in Germany, but with different political figureheads, and that would have changed the course of history.
And what we get instead is a very simplistic and a totally fixed position which is that the working class cannot – because they’ve got televisions, fridges, cars, etc. – they just cannot attain to a revolutionary consciousness and it’s a lost cause. And so while the postmodernists and the Frankfurt School profess to reject a kind of crude materialist determinism and to emphasize culture and consciousness, it turns out that actually, when it comes to explanations for things, they resort to or they slip into the worst kind of simplistic determinism.
The main point is, now we are moving into a revolutionary epoch. We’re going to see titanic struggles in the coming period with the fallout of the coronavirus. Governments will be overthrown and consciousness will be transformed, and we cannot afford to make mistakes yet again and see a new revolutionary wave pass by because we lacked the right leadership. And so although I said the postmodernist ideas are waning for these reasons and I think they are, they still have a tremendous influence, especially with regards to the proliferation of identity politics. And as we’ve seen for example with Jeremy Corbyn being in power in the Labour Party, identity politics were a cutting edge of the counter-revolution if you like against the Corbyn movement – accusing him of being a sexist and particularly an anti-Semite.
And if we were to make a balance sheet of the influence of these ideas on our movement, we would say they have only served to divide and to sap confidence. The most fundamental thing that we need to defeat capitalism and also all of the oppression that goes with it is unity. And that ultimately is why we have to reject these ideas, and fight for the liberation of the working class and humanity in full confidence.