Wed Jul 24, 2024
July 24, 2024

Postmodernism, a Senile Ideology of Reformism

"The Young-Hegelian ideologists, in spite of their allegedly "world-shattering" statements, are the staunchest conservatives. The most recent of them have found the correct expression for their activity when they declare they are only fighting against “phrases.” They forget, however, that to these phrases they themselves are only opposing other phrases, and that they are in no way combating the real existing world when they are merely combating the phrases of this world."
-K. Marx, F. Engels, The German Ideology (1846)

By Francesco Ricci – PdAC

Describing the positions of postmodernism is not very postmodern.

In fact, it implies making a generalization based on rational reasoning, something that postmodernists reject as a residue of the “Enlightenment.” Moreover, it involves an attempt to find a coherent and logical thread in a theory that has very little logic and coherence [1].

Another complication arises from the fact that various theories and sub-theories have been grouped under the name of “postmodernism” [2] (by others, since a postmodernist worthy of the name will never agree to recognize himself in a “universal” category) [3].

Finally, what hinders our attempt is the esoteric language employed by postmodernists.

The endeavor, therefore, resembles that of someone trying to explain the four Marian dogmas in rational terms.

Given the premises, it might seem wiser to leave the matter in the hands of the faithful of this secular religion. Except that, as with other religions, even when one chooses not to be interested in it, it is the religions that are interested in us.

In fact, postmodernist philosophy, at least since the late 1970s, has served as ideological cover for a substantial part of reformist policies: although, it should be noted, good old determinism has not entirely left the field and continues to serve Stalinism old and new, and even a certain so-called “Trotskyism” [4].

The opium of the people in a new perfume

If for a hundred years, since the late 19th century, the reformism of social-democratic and Stalinist parties has found in the deterministic deformation of Marxism the “false consciousness” with which to deceive the exploited and oppressed masses, in the last fifty years neo-reformism has discovered in postmodernism an equally effective tool for the same purpose.

A determinist, teleological vision, in which socialism was presented as an “inevitable” and distant horizon; a prospect that corresponded in the present time to the acceptance of the capitalist system and a “stageist” policy in dependent countries (first capitalist development, then the socialist stage) and (illusory) reforms in the imperialist countries in substitution of a revolutionary policy: this was the definitive stamp of reformism from Bernstein to Togliatti and Berlinguer.

From the defeats of the mass struggles of the 60s and 70s – betrayed by the leadership – a new kind of opium was produced in universities with which to numb the masses. This opium production increased exponentially after the collapse of Stalinism, presented by the bourgeois and reformist ideologies as the “crisis of Marxism.”

That is why revolutionaries must, to their regret, deal with these theories and demonstrate their reactionary, counter-revolutionary function.

In the last period of his life, Engels had to devote time to refute the nonsense of the determinists who – distorting Marxism they pretended to use – reduced history to a first-degree equation, to laws of Newtonian physics applied to society, with a compelling mechanism of cause and effect. Today we have the ungrateful task of sticking our noses into the new perfume (or, if you prefer, stink) of postmodernist indeterminism, the most recent opium of the people, lab-created by the reformists.

A farce after the tragedy

Marx wrote [5], paraphrasing Hegel, that history always repeats itself twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This wise phrase comes to mind when comparing the tragedy of the hundred years of classical reformism with the farcical theories of reformism of our time.

If the classic reformism, rooted in the working class, sowed illusions about the possibility of reforming capitalism as able to guarantee a few crumbs in a phase of relative growth of the system, the current reformism is devoid of working-class roots and taking place within the context of economic crises that are increasingly frequent and more disruptive, a planet on the verge of ecological collapse, the emergence of new diseases. In other words, this context rather guarantees the emergence of anti-working class policies sweetened with words sprinkled like powdered sugar on a cake. It is what Podemos did in Spain, SYRIZA in Greece, and [Communist] Refoundation in Italy (during the Prodi governments). Only now, unable even to promise crumbs, it needs to convince workers and unemployed youth that they will have to pay for dinner, but in return, they will have nothing to eat because the pots are empty. What’s more: they need to be convinced that food and hunger are a mistake and, ultimately, that there is no dinner, no table, and no chairs.

The postmodernist intellectuals have succeeded, it can’t be denied, in a far from simple endeavor: to elaborate a theory to convince the workers that wage labor exploitation does not exist because in reality labor has disappeared or has become “immaterial” (in the so-called post-Fordist epoch). And further that classes and therefore workers have also disappeared and that, therefore, it really makes no sense to set as a goal the building of a working-class party.

However, this intellectual commodity (for which the bosses pay well) was already produced before the emergence of postmodern theories. Postmodernism has brought something else: along with labor, workers and exploitation, it has also made reality itself disappear, making it appear to not exist or be unknowable. Or it exists, but only as a construction of language that needs to be “deconstructed”.

A truly brilliant trick because, if there is no objective reality, any attempt to understand and modify it is obviously futile. Here, Marxism is followed by a supposed “post-Marxism”, at best, or directly by theories that no longer even refer to Marxism in any way (all things considered, they are more honest), or evoke it only to spit it out and fill hundreds of pages of books about the end of everything: the end of classes, of class struggle, of history, of reality. The only thing that never seems to have an end, if we can confess it as reluctant readers of this stuff, are these scholars’ books, which are produced in a continuous cycle (and printed by… disappeared workers). Books and theories which, as has been said, one should be interested in following the well-known saying “If you know them, avoid them.” So, let’s begin a brief journey into the fantastic postmodernist world.

The French great-great-grandfathers of the postmodernists

From time to time, those who are engaged in examining postmodernism are tempted to go in search of the ancestors of these theories. Thus, one extracts an element of this great “minestrone” and searches for its ancestry. Perhaps in doing so one is too benevolent because one finds the matrix of certain complete absurdities in theorists who, even within their limits, moved in a much higher sphere and have sometimes left interesting things.

For example, fishing with a ladle for the gnoseological theory that unites most postmodernists, a possible reference is found in Nietzsche. Especially, in his famous statement on facts and interpretations. The sentence usually quoted is found in the Posthumous Fragments and in the full version reads: “In opposition to Positivism, which halts at phenomena and says, ‘These are only facts and nothing more,’ I would say: No, facts are precisely what is lacking, all that exists consists of interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’:it may even be nonsense to desire to do such a thing. ‘Everything is subjective,’ you say; but that in itself is interpretation. The ‘subject’ is nothing given, but something imposed by fancy, something introduced behind.—Is it necessary to set an interpreter behind interpretation already to hand? Even that would be a fantasy, hypothesis. To the extent to which ‘knowledge’ has any sense at all, the world is knowable: but it may be interpreted differently it has not one sense behind it, but hundreds of senses.— ‘Perspectivity’.”[6]

Not being experts in Nietzsche, we will not enter into the debate… on the interpretation of this aphorism. What is certain is that such a concept as expressed here (or at least as it seems to be) is at the basis of postmodernist extreme relativism.

Always looking for the ancestors of postmodernism, others have brought up the exponents of the Frankfurt school [7]. This seems to us to be an exaggeration, because it implies putting authors who, in spite of everything, had a theoretical dignity, on the same level as simple charlatans.

We believe that the research that points to the so-called “post-structuralist” French philosophers, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and others, who elaborated in particular from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, seems more appropriate [8]. The common ground between these authors, despite the differences between them, and the postmodernists is the rejection of an objectively knowable reality.

In particular, it is in Foucault that we can find the thesis according to which language is not a social product, but, on the contrary, constructs social reality. Derrida takes up and develops the concept, going so far as to affirm that “il n’ya pas de hors-texte” [9], that is, that nothing exists outside the text, that it is not possible to know the real outside language. In other words, words and concepts would have the power to determine the material world. Ideas and words refer to other ideas and words, it is a matter of practicing “deconstruction.”

However, in more directly political terms, the true fathers of postmodernism are undoubtedly Jean-François Lyotard, Ernesto Laclau, and Chantal Mouffe.

Lyotard’s skepticism, son of the low ebb

Lyotard’s book, The Postmodern Condition [10], came out not by chance in 1979, the beginning of the ebb of the mass struggles in the sixties and seventies.

According to Lyotard we have entered a new epoch that replaces modernity: precisely the postmodern and post-industrial epoch. The postmodern epoch would be the disbelief of the so-called “metanarratives” (also grand narrative), in which he includes the Enlightenment and Marxism, especially the latter as a “narrative” of the emancipation of the proletariat through revolution. It would then be a matter of abandoning those metanarratives that tried to interpret reality as a totality and, in doing so, produced a fictional narrative.

Lyotard follows Foucault on the centrality of language and the thesis according to which language creates reality. So, he argues, power is not embodied in the bourgeois state but in the production of information and language. In his struggle against the “dictatorship of reality,” Lyotard goes further and questions the very concept of science. For example: is the Copernican theory true? His answer (bleak, if one considers that he wrote these things three and a half centuries after Galileo’s death) is: “What I say is true because I prove it; but who proves that my proof is true?” [11].

In other words, the temporal relativity of all scientific knowledge is replaced by an absolute relativity, so that science itself is but one “narrative” among others.

The Italian version of these theories will be developed as from the publishing of the anthology edited by Pier Aldo Rovatti and Gianni Vattimo, fathers of the so-called “weak thought” [12].

Post-Marxist or anti-Marxist? Laclau and Mouffe

The Argentine Ernesto Laclau and the Belgian feminist Chantal Mouffe extract, from the ravings seen so far, the practical and political repercussions that will be appropriated by reformist parties, from Podemos to SYRIZA passing through Communist Refoundation, as a safe conduct to join bourgeois governments.

Their fundamental book was published in 1985 with the ambitious title of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy [13].

They initially define themselves as post-Marxists, that is to say, in their opinion, as overcoming, while maintaining the best carefully chosen things from a Marxism that they tear apart to then mix it eclectically with elements taken from linguistics, from Wittgenstein, from the psychoanalyst Lacan, and adding, before baking, a few flakes of Gramsci. That is why some agree in defining them as Gramscian, except that it is a sterilized and embalmed Gramsci, purified of his revolutionary content.

After having caricatured in the first half of the book the materialist conception of history [14] and Marxism, reducing it to its economist and positivist [15], social-democratic and Stalinist conception, the so-called post-Marxists proclaim the death (for the eleventh time at least in the 20th century alone) of the working class and prattle on about “new subjects” of change. A change that is no longer, of course, revolutionary; that is, it does not aim at overthrowing bourgeois rule in order to replace it with the rule of the proletariat (the dictatorship of the proletariat), but proposes the much more acceptable (to the bourgeoisie) task of realizing a vague “radical democracy.”

The authors’ next step, after they have abandoned all reference to Marxism, including its “post” version, was the approach to a left populism [16], that is, the search for a popular subject detached from class contradictions. It led, concretely, to Laclau’s support for the Kirchnerist governments in Argentina.

An attempt at synthesis in three points

At this point, we would like to make a synthesis of the elements that unite the various species and subspecies of postmodernists. We will try, therefore, to determine a least common denominator in order to get an idea, however approximate, of what these theorists hold. Their thinking can thus be summarized in three points.

1) Politics. We live in a new era that has replaced modernity: the postmodern era, characterized by a post-industrial, post-Fordist society, based on the predominance of “immaterial labor” in which the social classes of the past no longer exist (variant: or, at best, are suffering extinction) and, therefore, society is no longer based on the exploitation of wage labor. The solution cannot be centered on a “general class” (the working class) which, by liberating itself, liberates everyone.

In this new society, there are infinite forms of oppression and each oppressed sector (the new subjects that replace the class) must be organized separately from the others, since only those who suffer specific oppression are able to understand it, can speak of it, and can fight it or, better, “resist” it.

Criticism of the system based on classes and on wage labor exploitation is replaced by a moralistic critique of the individual and of the “lifestyles” that reproduce privilege over discriminated subjects. Society is not divided by classes but by “privileges:” of men over women (this is the basis for the theories of so-called patriarchy), of heterosexuals over LGBTQI, of white people over black people, etc.

Consequently, the whole Marxist program loses meaning, that is, the building of a vanguard workers’ party to lead the proletariat (composed of men and women, black and white people, heterosexual and LGBTQI, who have to unite and not divide according to the conceptions of “intersectionality”) and to fight for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois rule and the establishment of proletarian rule, that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat as a transition towards a classless society. The Marxist perspective of taking power, in a world where “power is everywhere,” is replaced by a “post-Marxist” perspective based on individual solutions or whose goal is at most to establish (in Laclau & Mouffe’s version) a “radical democracy.”

2) Philosophy. The political perspective summarized above is based on a philosophical conception. The postmodern era is characterized by disbelief in the old visions of the world conceived as a totality (the metanarrative): both the revolutionary phase of bourgeois Enlightenment and 20th-century proletarian Marxism produced a fictional narrative. This must be replaced by skeptical, nihilistic thinking, which feeds on distrust of any rational thought.

There are no facts but infinite subjective interpretations. There is no scientific truth insofar as it is only a narrative like anyone else.

A short parenthesis: note that this view goes far beyond the correct critique of positivist science or of the (bourgeois) conception of science absolutely independent of classes and ideologies. It is, in fact, totally rejecting science [17] in favor of epistemic relativism. Certainly, for Marxists, science is not a neutral and independent body (in research, in technical application, etc.), but neither, on the contrary, can it be reduced to a simple ideology. In science, Gramsci wrote in his Notebooks, we can distinguish the concepts from their ideological containers, which is why “a social group can appropriate science from another group without accepting its ideology” [18].

Returning to the postmodernists: mechanical determinism is replaced by absolute indeterminism. Reality is fragmentary. Or more precisely: there is no objective social (or natural) reality or (variant) if it exists it is not objectively knowable or (variant) it exists as a mere construction of thought and language.

In short: while social being conditions consciousness, for Marx; consciousness determines social being or, more precisely, it is language that determines consciousness and therefore social being, for postmodernists.

3) Language. Language, therefore, assumes a centrality as the creator of reality and of “power” (understood not as a class power, since classes no longer exist – see point 1 – but as a ubiquitous entity that imposes its interpretation). Words and concepts have the power to construct reality (or rather its appearance, since reality does not exist). Meanings are not expressed by language; on the contrary, meanings (ideas) are determined by signifiers (symbols and sounds). It is then a matter of criticizing and “deconstructing” language. It is not a question here of criticism in the Marxian, i.e. materialist, sense of the term, which is obviously necessary, but of what, mocking it, Marx and Engels called “critical criticism” [19].

It is worthwhile to dwell on the specific issue of language, given its importance in postmodernism.

The meaning… of empty signifiers

At the heart of the postmodernist conception lies a confusion between ontology and epistemology [or gnoseology], between what there is and the knowledge of what it is (and the method by which we know). Conceptual schemes (without which we obviously could not relate to reality) become or create reality itself.

Now, all this, rather than an “updating” of Marxism, appears as its abandonment.

Undoubtedly, when Marx criticized the “old materialism” (in Theses on Feuerbach), he specified that there are not two separate and independent entities: on the one hand, nature, or object of knowledge, or matter, and, on the other hand, man, or subject of knowledge, or consciousness. For, although it is true that, from an ontological point of view, matter is prior to consciousness (the planet existed long before man and, therefore, before thought), nevertheless, since the “appearance” of man – through the evolutionary process – and of consciousness and language – through the development of work as a social activity-, nature has lost its absolute independence and, therefore, it makes no sense to speak of a reality that does not include consciousness, which is part of reality and, at the same time, modifies it. It was Marx, unlike the postmodernists caricature of him, crediting Stalinist dia-mat as Marxism, who overcame the secular opposition between being and consciousness, between knowing and doing, between theory and practice, and between subject and object.

But postmodernists go far beyond the Marxian denial of deterministic materialism, that is, of materialism that sees social reality only as a “reflection” of “matter” or of “economy.” Turning things upside down, they return to idealism, and certainly not to what Lenin defined as (speaking of Hegel) “intelligent idealism”: no, for them, it is “interpretations” that create reality, or better still: it is language.

If it is true that the subject is not a mere reflection of the object (determinism), this does not mean that the object is a mere reflection of the subject (indeterminism).

But postmodernists do not limit themselves to denying the existence of a knowable reality, a reality that man changes by praxis while knowing it (as Marx affirms in Thesis on Feuerbach) [20], they go so far as to indicate that language creates reality [21]. A reality that they always put in quotation marks and that is created and modified by language and constructed linguistically.

According to Marxists [22], language is a product of society and, at the same time, expresses and influences reality, especially social reality. But, this is not what postmodernists claim: for them, language has absolute power, it is the demiurge of reality. That is why they maintain that society is “a discursive reality” and, taking up the French theory of the aforementioned philosophers, they attribute to the signifier (the envelope) a primacy over the signified (the contained concept). In the book we have quoted [23], Laclau and Muffe speak of “empty signifiers,” that is, devoid of meaning or “floating,” that is, with different meanings.

Exploitation and oppressions

For Marxists, the heart of the capitalist system is the exploitation of the proletariat (which is forced to sell its labor power to the owners of the means of production), the exploitation of wage labor. Therefore, the proletariat is the only class capable of destroying the capitalist system, which is the material basis of oppression; it conditions, produces and reproduces them.

Stalinist determinism reduces all this to mere exploitation, ignoring or removing the struggle against oppression.

At the opposite pole, postmodernist reformism eliminates exploitation and, therefore, pretends to fight oppression without changing the capitalist framework or yearning for a “radical democracy.”

In contrast, revolutionaries think that class exploitation is the fulcrum of oppression and, therefore, it is not possible to end oppression without destroying capitalism and building socialism. This does not mean (as it does for Stalinism) that the question of oppression should be postponed until after the revolution. On the contrary: it is necessary to combine the struggle against exploitation and the struggle against oppression, uniting the working class, composed of men, women, LGBT, white and black people, that is, exploited people who suffer different forms of oppression. To achieve this, it is necessary to use a transitional program, combining (and not opposing) democratic, transitional and socialist demands, as a means to win over the politically active majority of the class to the need of overthrowing capitalism by revolutionary means. The struggle against oppression can only win if it is built on the basis of working-class independence and subordinated to the struggle for revolutionary power.

Postmodernism rejects all this and, combining it with the theories of “patriarchy,” sees, for example, gender and not class as the fundamental division of society.

Judith Butler and queer individualism

Judith Butler, disciple of Foucault, and theorist of the so-called queer philosophy, further developed, so to speak, this idealistic conception [24].

If the identity politics of petty-bourgeois feminism aims at dividing the oppressed into separate movements based on affinity groups, queer politics takes separatism to the extreme, supporting, in fact, an individual resistance based on the education of the atomized individual.

The categories of gender and sex are denied (because, like all definitions, they have the power to “reify”) by arguing that gender is “constructed by language” and therefore can be “deconstructed” by language.

Butler’s starting point is the correct questioning of those who reduce sex to the male-female norm (heterosexuality), excluding millions of intersex people, but, from there, proposing the elimination of the words “masculine” and “feminine” from the vocabulary as a means to eliminate oppression. As if it were possible to invent a neo-language (we will return to this later) and above all as if grammar were the cause of the oppression of trans people and not the capitalist system that feeds oppression to strengthen exploitation.

Queer theory is, in short, a return to bourgeois individualism. Marxism, by contrast, conceives of the categories of gender and sexuality as socially constructed and holds that only class struggle can challenge them; language follows and does not precede social, class constructs.

Schwa is an Orwellian neo-language

If up to this point we have dedicated ourselves to summarizing the serious side (strange as it may seem) of postmodernism, it is worth dedicating a few lines to some consequences which, born in universities or petty-bourgeois salons, are reaching especially the young and petty-bourgeois feminists.

As we have seen, after having eliminated classes, individual behavior is the big thing for postmodernism. Therefore, the solution would be in “self-consciousness,” in reflection on one’s own “privileges” and on language.

The so-called “woke ideology” (to be aware of racial prejudice and social injustice) [25], which spreads from the American academies, prescribes watching one’s own and others’ language as a way of being aware of the class-biased use of language as an aid to transmit prejudices (as it would be correct), but having the pretension that this is the way to make discrimination disappear.

In other words (the expression is the most appropriate…), by eliminating some words, some signifiers, and the discriminatory content, the meaning, is inhibited or, at least, contrasted.

Right-wing newspapers often devote an easy sarcasm to “politically correct language” or “inclusive language,” debiting everything to the account of an unspecified “left” (in which they include revolutionaries and “progressives”), thus wanting to show how any idea of equality (even more so communism and the abandonment of the so-called Western values) would be imbued with intolerance because if you choose equality you give up freedom.

However, the fact that this conception of “inclusive language” is attacked by right-wing intellectuals does not mean that it should be defended: the enemy of our enemy is not our friend.

Let us be clear: it is positive and useful to keep in mind that society, with its baggage of exploitation and oppression, also manifests itself through language. But it is not this trivial truth that interests postmodernists. As we have seen, for them, it is at the level of language that things are changed.

It is from this general thesis (an impoverished form of idealism) that grotesque positions descend, on which the attention of the journalistic debate is often focused, which goes so far as to correct, if not censor, words and books in which “non-inclusive” language is used.

Hence, the list of words that should not be pronounced even to stigmatize their use, to prevent from causing possible discomfort to the listener.

From words to concepts is a short step. Since only a sector that lives a certain oppression would be able to understand it, it is necessary to avoid referring (even stigmatizing them) to certain oppressions, so as not to arouse discomfort in the listener. Continuing along this path, in some American universities, we reach the paradox that there are topics (such as racism) that become taboo because they can disturb an oppressed identity.

The “soft” version of all this lies in the use of schwa [26] and in the clumsy attempts to eliminate the grammatical gender of languages that have it. A practice that, in the first place, is based on the confusion between grammatical gender and gender, and that presupposes ignoring the fact that many languages that do not have gender (such as Turkish or Iranian) are spoken in countries that are not very advanced in the fight against the oppression of women.

The crusade against desinence, at the same time, is based on ignorance, is elitist and unfeasible.

On ignorance because languages are not artificial constructions that can be modified at will.

Elitist because this supposedly “inclusive” language excludes (when adopted) the majority of the speakers of a language: and – crucially for us – it excludes in the first place the majority of the proletariat who, unlike the petty bourgeois, do not have the tools to (nor the possibility of) engaging in these language games.

Unfeasible because schwa and other inclusive stratagems are almost impossible to use in texts and completely impossible to use in spoken language. In fact, one thing is to introduce a neologism, another is to think about changing the construction of sentences, and the desinences of words. Morphology and syntax cannot be changed by decree, as evidenced by the fact that attempts at artificial languages have regularly failed.

The real point is obviously not about schwa. It is that this and other anti-scientific idiocies are only the visible part (often the one that attracts talk-show debates) of a much more dangerous general theory that sees language as the creator of reality and oppressions and that therefore substitutes “deconstruction” of language or the invention of a neo-language, as in Orwell’s novel 1984 [27], for class struggle to change reality and fight oppressions.

A philosophical misery

A century and a half of determinist and positivist incrustations, used by social-democratic and then Stalinist reformism, have been replaced by postmodernism. Postmodernism takes advantage of the determinist caricature of Marxism to decree its “crisis” and return to a form of idealism as impotent in the face of reality as vulgar materialism.

As was said at the beginning, determinism has not disappeared from the workers’ movement. We find it in Stalinist organizations and also in some that, surely by mistake, claim to be Trotskyist. However, in the youth and women’s movements, postmodernist indeterminism generally predominates.

There is a reason, we believe, that explains this changing of the guard (always in defense of bourgeois rule) between determinism and postmodernism. Determinism was the predominant ideology of reformism at the time when the bourgeoisie could make some concessions. At that time, the supposed inevitability of socialism, the daughter of a teleological, determinist conception, served to postpone the struggle while waiting for the “sun of the future,” while enjoying some crumbs granted by the bosses.

Today’s neo-reformism, born and raised in a situation of increasingly devastating crisis of capitalism, called upon to directly manage the anti-worker policies of the bourgeois governments, without any possibility of boasting even of small reforms, has been forced to secrete an adequate ideological cocoon: the theory on the disappearance of classes and the cancellation of socialism even for a distant horizon.

Thus, we pass from the Sunday promise of socialism for future centuries to a cancellation of socialism even from Sunday Mass. Critical criticism thus replaces criticism of arms, in Marx’s words. The concrete reality of exploitation of wage labor and of oppressions rooted in the system is replaced by a liquid reality. No longer the class struggle as the engine of history but the much more innocuous “deconstruction” of language. All things that certainly do not worry the bourgeoisie and, for this, is sincerely grateful, financing the authors of this philosophical misery, printing and distributing their books, and boosting their university careers.

Reformism, whether it is the bearer of a determinist or postmodernist philosophy, is definitively confirmed as the main prop of capitalist rule, bringing the paralyzing bourgeois ideological poison to the workers’ movement and to the struggles of exploited and oppressed masses. This is not new, although, it must be admitted, rarely in the past has philosophical misery reached the… heights of postmodernism.

Thus, the battle for a revolutionary perspective implies a battle against the ideologies used by opportunism to disguise class collaboration or divert struggles into dead ends. This means rescuing what already two centuries ago Marx called the “new materialism,” that is, the Marxist materialist conception of history, the “philosophy of praxis.”

To conclude, it is undoubtedly positive that a growing number of young people, who participate in the movements against sexist oppression, the destruction of the environment, racism and fascism, are looking for a theory to guide them in the struggle against the capitalist system that produces all this. But, it is good to warn them that they will not find any adequate theory in postmodernists’ textbooks. To arm themselves with a truly revolutionary theory, they need to go back to reading Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, not Lyotard, Laclau or Judith Butler.

Notes:

[1] Regarding the incomprehensibility of the language of postmodernist theorists, often a berry with no cake, an experiment conducted by the physicist Alan Sokal in 1996, known as “Sokal hoax” (or Sokal affair), became famous. The scientist wrote an article totally devoid of logical sense, based on the composition of a set of concepts and phrases extracted from postmodernist texts. He titled it “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, and sent it to a prestigious postmodernist feminist journal (Social Text), which published it without realizing that the article said nothing sensible. Only later did Sokal reveal that it was a parody of postmodernist texts (in the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca). The tasty anecdote is in A. Sokal, J. Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures. Their book analyzes the texts of Lacan, Baudrillard, Deleuze and other important authors of postmodernist thought, revealing the absurdity, to say the least, of the supposedly scientific references that usually appear in their works.

[2] We refer here only to philosophical and political postmodernism, although the concept was born in other spheres (essentially artistic), at other times and with other characteristics.

[3] For those who wish to go deeper, we suggest some texts that contain a good description and criticism of postmodernist theories. It should be noted that we do not necessarily always share the conclusions of the authors or, even less, their political position. Having made this clarification, we suggest reading: E.M. Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism (1986); S. Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism History, Politics and Theory of Gay Liberation (2009), the best critique we have read of queer theories and Judith Butler’s in particular; and A. Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: a Marxist critique (1991). A profound and timely criticism of postmodernism has also been published recently, which also offers an overview of the debates on the various issues: this is the gigantic work by Francisco Erice, En defensa de la razón. Contribución a la critique del posmodernismo (Siglo XXI, 2020), is also very useful for orienting oneself in the vast bibliography on the subject.

[4] A good example of a vulgar determinist conception, very similar to the Stalinist dia-mat but trying to present itself as Trotskyist, is found in Alan Woods’s works, the main leader of the IMT. See, for example, the monumental Reason in Revolt: dialectical philosophy and modern science, written with Ted Grant, a sort of encyclopedia of science and philosophy (more in intentions than in results).

[5] K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

[6] F. Nietzsche, Frammenti postumi, 1885-1887, vol. VIII, volume I of the Opere, edited by G. Colli and M. Montinari, Adelphi, 1975, pp. 299-300.

[7] Regrouped under the name of “Frankfurt School” (after the city where some of them used to teach) are philosophers and sociologists who worked from the 1920s onwards. Among the best-known are Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm.

[8] By post-structuralists, we refer in particular to some French philosophers active since the 1960s. Among the best known: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray and Roland Barthes.

[9] One of Jacques Derrida’s central works, De la grammatologie (1967) highlights the thesis that there is nothing “beyond the text”.

[10] J. F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (1979). In addition to Lyotard’s book, the birth certificates of postmodernism also include the book by R. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). Rorty is a theorist of the so-called linguistic turn.

[11] J.F. Lyotard, La condizione postmoderna, Feltrinelli, 2014, p. 45 et seq.

[12] The so-called “weak thought” developed from the 1983 anthology with this title, edited by Pier Aldo Rovatti and Gianni Vattimo. Maurizio Ferraris and Umberto Eco wrote essays for it. Eco moved away from this theory in the following years. He argues, for example, the hermeneutic absurdities to which postmodernism leads, in the compilation I limiti dell’interpretazione [The Limits of Interpretation] (Bompiani, 1990).

[13] E. Laclau, C. Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985).

[14] For a reconstruction of Marx and Engels’ authentic materialist conception of history we refer to the essay by Fabiana Stefanoni, “Che cosa non è la concezione materialistica della storia. Il ruolo dimenticato della prassi rivoluzionaria” (What is not the materialist conception of history. The forgotten role of revolutionary praxis) in the issue 21 of the journal Trotskismo oggi.

[15] Using a well-known methodology established by dozens of critics of Marxism, Laclau and Mouffe (see note 13) extract from the context some phrases by Marx to attribute to him the paternity of the mechanical determinism that reigned in the degenerated phases of the Second and then the Third International, just to make it easier to polemicize with that arbitrary attribution.

[16] E. Laclau, On populist reason (2005).

[17] Skepticism towards science also translates, for some postmodernist theorists, into the rejection of medicines. In this sense, Mark Fisher’s theories (Capitalist Realism, 2009) place the issue of mental illness and depression at the center of his reflection. With few exceptions, mental illnesses would never have a neurological origin, derived from chemical imbalances, so psychotropic drugs would be useless. Absolutizing two truths: that Marx already observed, two hundred years before Fisher, the mental effects of labor alienation; and the great manipulative role of the pharmaceutical industry, Fisher ends up implicitly endorsing the very fashionable theories that see a conspiracy behind every drug (see, for example, the non-vaxers). It should also be added that Fisher’s critique does not actually attack capitalism but a supposedly bad variant of it, “neoliberal” and “meritocratic.” This is why he supported Corbyn (he committed suicide in 2017). His book, full of assertions as incontrovertible as superficial, is very popular among young people.

[18] A. Gramsci, Quaderni dal carcere (Prison Notebooks), Notebook 11, Einaudi, 1975, p. 1458.

[19] See K. Marx, F. Engels, The Holy Family. Or critique of critical criticism. Against Bruno Bauer and associates (1845).

[20] The eleventh of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach says: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” There is a wide (though unjustified) exegetical controversy among scholars about this and other theses, or about which is the correct translation from the original in German or about the slight modifications made by Engels, who published them after Marx’s death. For a philological deepening of the Theses, see Pierre Macherey, Marx 1845. Les theses sur Feuerbach (Editions Amsterdam, 2008).

[21] This is not a new theory. As early as the 1930s, Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf elaborated the theory (known as the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”) according to which, simplistically speaking, language discovers a truth that remains unknown until it is named. In Whorf’s version (which takes to the extreme the linguistic relativism of his teacher), the way of thinking and perceiving reality would be determined by language. In support of his thesis, Whorf showed that the Inuit people (an indigenous population from the Arctic coasts of America), who use different words to indicate different types of snow, would have a different knowledge of the world in which they live.

It should be noted that these theories are largely disproved by science: moreover, empirical experience shows that it is possible to know and think about a concept without being able to express it in words; just as it is evident that those who learn several languages are not schizophrenic for this reason.

[22] For Engels, language has a social nature and originated from labor in the process of man’s evolution, just like consciousness. Engels writes: “In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other. Necessity created the organ; the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed by modulation to produce constantly more developed modulation, and the organs of the mouth gradually learned to pronounce one articulate sound after another. (…) First labour, after it and then with it speech – these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which, for all its similarity, is far larger and more perfect.

See his: “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” (1876, but first published in 1896 in the SPD’s theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit). See Engels, Dialectics of Nature. Engels’ reasoning was considered scientifically correct by the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in his work Ever Since Darwin (1977).

[23] E. Laclau, C. Mouffe, op. cit. (1985).

[24] Judith Butler’s main work is Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) But, whoever, out of some form of masochism, wants to read more by the author, will find many in bookstores. On language (which is the basis of all Butler’s works) see, for example, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997).

[25] “Woke” means to be awake, or aware of something, in particular, of the use of language, of some topics that may be offensive to an oppressed identity.

[26] Schwa (which, paradoxically, is masculine…) is a Hebraic graphic symbol and is a sort of inverted letter e. Whoever wishes to go deeper into the subject, from a scientific point of view and not merely linked to journalistic polemics, can read the linguist Cristiana De Santis, in particular, “L’emancipazione grammaticale non passa per una e rovesciata” (Grammatical emancipation does not mean an inverted e) available on (in Italian): www.treccani.it/magazine/lingua_italiana/articoli/scritto_e_parlato/Schwa.html

[27] George Orwell, in his novel 1984, written in 1948, imagines a strongly repressive society in which, among other things, a “Newspeak” is imposed to replace the “Oldlanguage,” aiming at changing not only words but the worldview, by eliminating any subversive thought. Watching over everything is the “psychopolice” whose task is to repress not only the acts but also any idea of disobedience to Power and to punish it before it can materialize (the “psychedelic crimes”). The protagonist, Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth, has the task of censoring articles and books and also of modifying historiography by adapting the historical account to the forecasts of Power. The “Newspeak” is not limited to introducing neologisms but it modifies morphology and syntax and, among other things, the form of plurals. In short, the resemblance of certain postmodernist theories with Orwell’s fiction is truly impressive.

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles