Marxism and Postmodernism

by Joel Beinin
published in MER187

During the Thatcher-Reagan-Bush era, just as critical intellectuals and left political activists had won a small place for the concepts of political economy and class analysis in academia, postmodernism and post-structuralism replaced Marxism as the favored mode of Anglo-American intellectual radicalism.

Strictly speaking, postmodernism and post-structuralism are not the same thing. What I mean by these terms is an array of literary and cultural theory rooted in a Nietzschean -- as opposed to a Marxian -- critique of bourgeois modernity. Postmodernists hold that reason -- the leading principle of European post-Enlightenment modernity -- is not universal, but merely masks relations of power. Rather than conceiving of power as residing in centralized institutions like states, which can be seized and transformed, they regard power as dispersed and reproduced in every form of social discourse. Postmodernists reject the notion that the interests and outlook of the working class or any other group constitute the basis for liberation of all of people. They are suspicious of abstract categories like class, and deny the existence of unified subjects -- individuals or classes -- with historical agency. They do not speak of the origins of things because originary narratives inevitably privilege certain historical actors and forces while obscuring and repressing others. Postmodernists argue that because it is embedded in culture, language cannot transparently represent real historical objects; thus they concern themselves with the study of discourses and the cultural construction of meaning and difference, rather than with the study of society. They often adopt a playful, ironic, self-contradictory style, reflecting their view that there is no correct analysis of anything, but only an infinite variety of “readings.”

Like many Marxists who argue that Marxism and postmodernism are mutually exclusive, Terry Eagleton carried his polemic against postmodernism to the Middle East in a lecture at the American University in Cairo in April 1993, drawing on his book, Ideology: An Introduction (Verso, 1991). Eagleton contends that postmodernists are wrong in characterizing all post-Enlightenment philosophy as having a naive view of the self as prior to social context. Reviewing the tradition from Spinoza to Marx and beyond, he argues that individuals and social groups are historically formed and constitute communities based on real interests. Postmodernists, he believes, fetishize difference, and by positing that difference cannot be overcome, they ultimately reinforce the authority of the liberal state, which presents itself as the institution for representing and negotiating these differences. This opposes the Marxist concept of political order and ethics which emphasizes community. In Ideology, Eagleton argues that postmodernists who deny that the working class or other subordinate groups have interests derived from their socioeconomic conditions must reduce their political preferences to a moral option, and hence a version of liberalism.

While I share his critique of postmodernist politics, what makes Eagleton’s defense of Marxism unconvincing is his failure to consider categories of identity and difference marginalized by European post-Enlightenment (including Marxist) tradition: gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual preference, physical or mental capacity, or religio-communal loyalties that have been particularly potent in Lebanon, Bosnia and the Indian sub-continent. Those who identify with these excluded categories may well regard Eagleton’s Marxist universalism as yet another form of Euro-patriarchy.

Eagleton, David Harvey and Fredric Jameson have all tried to turn deconstructionism against itself by examining the historical conditions of its emergence. In The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Blackwell, 1990), Harvey combines a persuasive analysis of the global crisis of capitalist accumulation since 1973 with a discussion of cultural trends in urban architecture and other visual arts. Harvey commends the postmodernist “concern for difference, for the difficulties of communication, for the complexity and nuances of interests, cultures, places, and the like” and sees this as giving postmodernism a “radical edge.” Yet Harvey, like Eagleton, is suspicious of the postmodernist tendency to avoid questions of political economy and global power.

Harvey proposes that postmodernism derives its power from “the fact of fragmentation, ephemerality, and chaotic flux.” This he associates with the end of the long post-World War II economic expansion and the collapse of the “Fordist” regime of capitalist accumulation, with its integrated system of mass production, mass consumption and populist democracy in North America and Europe. In response to the crisis, a new regime of “flexible accumulation” emerged in the advanced capitalist world, characterized by geographical mobility of labor and capital, rapid shifts in consumption practices, specialized markets and the displacement of workers in traditional industrial sectors. In advanced capitalist countries -- the sites of postmodern culture -- this has resulted in higher structural unemployment, the deskilling and dispersion of labor, stagnation of real wages, the decline of trade unions, and rapid development of new products and forms of financing.

Developing a theme from the title essay of Fredric Jameson”s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke, 1991), Harvey proposes that the postmodern cultural shift is due to “a crisis in our experience of space and time...in which spatial categories come to dominate those of time while themselves undergoing such a mutation that we cannot keep pace” (201). Flexible accumulation practices alter the spatial distribution of investments, jobs and markets, and speed up production and capital turnover time. Compressions of time and space induce a new cultural sensibility, while capital remains dominant.

Jameson takes more pleasure in postmodern culture than Eagleton, and his analysis of political economy is less detailed than Harvey’s. But they all agree that postmodernism is the cultural form appropriate to the current configuration of transnational capitalism. Jameson regards postmodernism as a peculiarly American phenomenon because “the brief ‘American century’ (1945-1973)...constituted the hothouse of the new system, while the development of the cultural forms of postmodernism may be said to be the first specifically North American global style.” Jameson regards postmodern culture as “the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world” whose underside is “blood, torture, death and terror.” Nonetheless, the simple binary opposition of the First and Third worlds suggested by Jameson’s contention that all Third World literary texts are national allegories, in an essay on “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital” (Social Text, Fall 1986), provoked angry responses from those who see his Marxism as an obstacle to understanding the specificity and variety of non-Western cultures.

Aijaz Ahmad severely criticizes Jameson’s Eurocentrism in one of the central essays of In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (Verso, 1992). Ahmad properly rejects the term “Third World” as referring to no unitary entity. He prefers class categories, but his rhetorical strategy is not unlike deconstructionist approaches to collapsing binary oppositions. Ahmad disparages narrow Third Worldist nationalism, recalling the importance of communist political practices and the “Marxist critique of class, colony and empire” in the oppositional culture and politics of the formerly colonized world. But he also rejects critiques of nationalism based “not on the familiar Marxist ground that nationalism in the present century has frequently suppressed questions of gender and class and has itself been frequently complicit with all kinds of obscurantisms and revanchist positions, but in the patently postmodernist way of debunking all efforts to speak of origins, collectivities, determinate historical projects.”

Despite his insistence that socialism, not nationalism, is the antipode to imperialism, many of Ahmad’s positions amount to a recuperation of progressive nationalism. And rather than analyze why progressive national movements have all but disappeared in the current conjuncture, Ahmad denounces both postmodernism and the failures of the Anglo-American left.

Emigre intellectuals from the former colonies who have achieved some prominence in the West and who Ahmad regards as embracing postmodernism -- Ranajit Guha, Salman Rushdie and Edward W. Said -- receive equally harsh treatment. Ahmad argues that Said’s critique of Western representations of non-Europeans “panders to the most sentimental, the most extreme forms of Third Worldist nationalism.” No doubt Orientalism has been used in this way, and this is partly because Said seems ambivalent about the possibility of “true” representation or the ability of any Western intellectual to produce one. While Orientalism is not beyond criticism, Ahmad does not sufficiently appreciate its overwhelming significance as a text that reformed Anglo-American Middle East studies.

Ahmad is critical of these acclaimed figures because they admire bourgeois culture, and their intellectual and cultural anti-imperialism valorizes the celebrity of a privileged elite. But Ahmad, too, is situated in an academic institution, and the privileges accorded by such institutions enable us to read and write about each other’s work. Awareness of these privileges should lead us all to conduct criticism in a modest and comradely, rather than a dogmatic and personalistic style. Ahmad’s moralism obscures the validity of some of his arguments.

Finally, Ahmad is much concerned with Salman Rushdie’s misrepresentation of women in Shame, but he himself barely engages with the work of women like Jean Franco, Barbara Harlow, Mary Layoun, Ella Shohat or Gayatri Spivak -- all of whom have much to say about the matters he addresses. This suggests that Marxism is here being deployed as a discourse of exclusion.

In The Politics of Postmodernism (Routledge, 1989) Linda Hutcheon asks whether postmodern politics can be useful to the feminist movement. She applauds postmodernism’s challenge to the apparent common sense informing our cultural representations and the political significance embedded in them. Like Harvey and Jameson, she appreciates postmodern literature and photography. But she is quite clear that “the feminist and the postmodern -- as cultural enterprises -- can not be conflated” because “Feminism is a politics. Postmodernism is not.” And this is because postmodernism has no theory of agency, no strategy of resistance and no way to transform the structures of meaning that it so brilliantly exposes and critiques.

Gayatri Spivak’s much-quoted essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Illinois, 1988), addresses these problems. But her complex resolution is ultimately available only to intellectuals. Others are apparently left to define their political categories and strategies by the “strategic use of positivist essentialism” that she proposes in her introduction to Selected Subaltern Studies edited by Ranajit Guha and herself, and published by Oxford University Press in 1987.

For those concerned with the Middle East, nothing exposes the political disabilities of postmodernism more than Jean Baudrillard’s article in The Guardian arguing that the Gulf war existed “only as a figment of mass media simulation, war games rhetoric or imaginary scenarios which exceeded all the limits of real-world, factual possibility.’ Christopher Norris opens and closes his Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (Massachusetts, 1992) with a critique of Baudrillard. Rather than disregarding Baudrillard as absurd and irrelevant, Norris takes him on because he believes that engaging Baudrillard in terms of the Gulf war “brings home...the depth of ideological complicity that exists between such forms of extreme anti-realist or irrationalist doctrine and the crisis of moral and political nerve” of the left (27). Norris, like Hutcheon, rejects the excess of those who argue that historical events have no reality outside texts, although both agree that they are given meaning through texts. This fine difference limits what can be considered a valid representation, preserves the epistemological distinction between truth and falsehood, and makes it possible to argue ethically.

Norris also argues, similarly to Spivak and in opposition to Baudrillard, that Derridean deconstruction “sustains the impulse of Enlightenment critique even while subjecting the tradition to a radical reassessment of its grounding concepts and categories” and maintains “a scrupulous regard for the protocols of reasoned argument and an ethics of open dialogical exchange.” Viewing deconstruction as an internal critique of the Enlightenment allows it to be deployed as a tool of cultural critique by many who share Norris’ dismay with postmodernist excesses. This strategy cannot determine when it is appropriate to suspend the intellectual conversation about meaning and draw a political line, but it preserves the possibility of doing so. It is clear that the Gulf war required such a response.

A dialogue is required between advocates of Marxian political economy and postmodern cultural theory because of the apparent inability of the working class to play the role designated for it in Marxist theory; because of cultural and political changes in recent years that call into question the viability of oppositional political practices associated with both Marxism and liberalism; and because of the inadequacy of Marxist theory about the nature of human difference. There is a basis for such a dialogue because, in addition to their shared opposition to bourgeois society, many Marxists and postmodern literary deconstructionists can agree that language represents its referent only through a series of cultural filters, and that interpretations so constructed are never fully aware of their own meanings. Both can reject scientific positivism and agree that events have no single determination. Both can appreciate how postmodern cultural critique undermines the apparently natural and common sense character of dominant cultural representations and exposes the political interests in which they are embedded.

Cultural theory devoid of political economy lacks critical power and can easily become a form of entertainment for intellectuals who have no social commitments beyond the academy. We cannot, however, resuscitate the kind of Marxism Terry Eagleton advocates, despite its intellectual elegance. But developing an historically informed, holistic conception of society -- tentative and subject to change as it must be -- can be a powerful tool for understanding and political action.

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