January 21, 2022
From In Defence Of Marxism
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Postmodernism is an amorphous philosophical school of thought that rose to prominence in the postwar period. Beginning as a fringe trend, it has since grown to become one of the dominant schools of bourgeois philosophy, permeating large parts, if not the majority, of academia today. It embodies the utter dead-end and pessimism of bourgeois philosophy given the senile decay of capitalist society.

This article, first published in the IMT’s theoretical journal, ‘In Defence of Marxism’, is the first in a series of articles analysing the different aspects of postmodernism from a Marxist perspective.

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The history of philosophy has known a vast array of schools, sub-schools and trends, encompassing a diverse range of world outlooks and guiding principles. But within this myriad of trends, some of them rational and materialist, others idealist and wildly mystical, it was at least generally agreed that the hallmark of a great theory was consistency, precision and careful attention to detail. However philosophy was expressed, in the last analysis it was a struggle for truth. Even the most reactionary philosophers had to admit at least this much. People like Augustine of Hippo, whose theory of divine illumination formed the ideological backbone of medieval reaction in the Dark Ages, at least tried to portray his arguments as coherent and reasonable.

How times have changed. In the period of capitalist decline, philosophy has also undergone a process of regression. The clearest expression of this trend is postmodernism. For the last half century or more, this tendency has been slowly spreading like a virus throughout the world, jumping from country to country, constantly mutating into new and ever-more-bizarre variants. It has spun off an industry of subschools and trends such as post-colonialism, queer theory, several forms of feminism and many more, which, in open or disguised forms, dominate today’s social sciences and academia.

In the field of postmodern philosophy, the greatest minds in history are looked upon with disdain and unceremoniously discarded. Reason is denounced, while irrationality and unintelligibility are raised to the level of principle. Theoretical honesty and the pursuit for truth are drowned in endless caveats, ambiguities and incomprehensible language. The following is an excellent example of this genre:

“More important than political leftism, closer to a concurrence of the intensities: a vast subterraneous movement, wavering, more of a ruffle in fact, on account of which the law of value is disaffected. Holding up production, uncompensated seizures as modalities of consumption, refusal to ‘work’, (illusory?) communities, happenings, sexual liberation movements, occupations, squattings, 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, madmen, binned loonies. One hour of their lives offers more intensity and less intention than 300,000 words of a professional philosopher.”[1]

We do not know whether an hour in the life of marginals, experimental painters, pop, hippies and yippies, parasites, madmen, or binned loonies can offer more intensity than the words of an unspecified “professional philosopher”. But even from this brief extract it is certainly clear that just five minutes of anybody’s life is worth considerably more than 300,000 words of this particular philosopher.

Without so much as cracking a smile, the postmodernists put forward the most laughably absurd claims and propositions. Jean Baudrillard, for example, claimed that reality has now disappeared, and all meaning along with it. To illustrate his point, he paraphrases (and exaggerates) the words of Elias Canetti with apparent approval:

“Beyond a certain precise moment in time, history is no longer real. Without realising it, the whole human race suddenly left reality behind. Nothing that has occurred since then has been true, but we are unable to realise it. Our task and our duty now is to discover this point or, so long as we fail to grasp it, we are condemned to continue on our present destructive course.”[2]

The reader might feel entitled to ask a question: What does this mean? But this question has been answered in advance. Since reality has now disappeared, and all meaning along with it, there is no point in asking for any meaning at all. This is a method that has the undoubted advantage of ruling out any awkward questions in advance. It silences all possible criticism and, in fact, liquidates the basis of rational thought in general.

This line of argument, which is served up as something fresh, is – like every other aspect of postmodernism – neither new nor original. It is merely a regurgitation of the old argument of Tertullian in the third century, who justified the absurdities of Christian dogma by asserting Credo quia absurdum est: “I believe it because it is absurd.”

In fact, this penchant for the absurd takes us to the very heart of postmodernist thought, which rejects all rational thinking. Deleuze and Guattari, often portrayed as the “left wing” of postmodernism, take these absurdities to a whole new level:

“…the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man become one within nature in the form of production or industry, just as they do within the life of man as a species. Industry is then no longer considered from the extrinsic point of view of utility, but rather from the point of view of its fundamental identity with nature as production of man and by man. Not man as the king of creation, but rather as the being who is in intimate contact with the profound life of all forms or all types of beings, who is responsible for even the stars and animal life, and who ceaselessly plugs an organ-machine into an energy-machine, a tree into his body, a breast into his mouth, the sun into his asshole: the eternal custodian of the machines of the universe. This is the second meaning of process as we use the term: man and nature are not like two opposite…”[3]

Michel Foucault, a close friend of Deleuze and Guattari, fell over himself in his haste to shower praise on this nonsense: “… a light­ning storm was produced which will bear the name of Deleuze: new thought is possible; thought is again possible.” [4]

So now we know! Apparently it was quite impossible to even think until Monsieur Deleuze enlightened us with these pearls of wisdom.

The whole of postmodernist literature is replete with this pompous, self-important, crude rhetoric that provides a cover for its ill-thought-out theories. But this one must carry the prize. Now, having read the above lines, the whole of humanity can breathe a sigh of relief. We can all begin to think.

But here’s the problem: what exactly are we supposed to be thinking about?

Defining the indefinable

A philosophy that makes such grand claims for itself is surely worth paying attention to. We will therefore arm ourselves with patience and make every effort to grasp whatever meaning is to be found in it. What exactly is postmodernism, and what lies behind it? Here we immediately collide with the first problem. We are told that it is indefinable. It is an idea which by definition opposes definitions. So far, so unclear.

Lyotard Image Bracha L Ettinger Wikimedia Commons

The term “postmodernism” was first coined by Jean-François Lyotard which he defined as “incredulity toward the meta-narratives” / Image: BL Ettinger, Wikimedia Commons

The term “postmodernism” was first coined by Jean-François Lyotard in 1979, which he defined as – in his own words, “simplifying to the extreme” – “incredulity toward the meta-narratives[5]. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘meta-narratives’ as, “An overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences.”

But just one moment! Isn’t Lyotard’s own definition also… a meta-narrative? Of course, it is precisely that. When he informs us that we must at all costs avoid thinking in certain ways of which he disapproves, does he not provide us with a general theory – an “overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances”? And, in telling us that certain ideas are to be shunned, does he not also provide us with “a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs, giving meaning to their experiences”?

The answer to both questions is unequivocally in the affirmative. Therefore, Jean-François Lyotard stands accused from the very outset either of absurd self-contradiction, or of being a blatant fraud. We are in the presence of either a fool or a rogue. Or maybe both. It is hard to say.

“No progress”?

Postmodernists are also known for their rejection of the notion of progress in history. They claim that the development of science and philosophy knows no progress, and that there are only different ways of interpreting the world. Furthermore, this is a world that does not even correspond to our interpretations of it. And yet, the postmodernists present their school of thought as the only one that can explain this situation. If we accept this standpoint, then any idea is as good as the next, whether it springs from the mind of a stone age Shaman, an Aristotle, an Einstein or a Marx. At no point has humanity’s understanding of nature and society taken a single step forward – indeed there is no ‘forward’ for the postmodernist. Nothing is progressive, except, of course, postmodernism, which has only now emerged, triumphant, to expose this age-old sham of a belief in progress!

On one thing we can readily agree. It is certainly true that under the capitalist system in its period of senile decay, no serious progress is possible for the human race. But are we entitled to draw the conclusion from this that progress in general does not exist, or that history has not experienced times when it took giant steps forward? No, we are entitled to do no such thing. Anyone who studies the past will immediately see that human society has known periods of great advance, characterised by the rapid development of the productive forces, science and technology, and the flowering of art and culture.

Mona Lisa Image public domain

Postmodernists also rejects of the notion of progress in history. But, anyone who studies it will immediately see that human society has known periods of great advances / Image: public domain

It also knows other periods characterised by stagnation, retrogression, decay and even relapses into barbarism. The fall of the Roman Empire was the start of hundreds of years of retrogression in Europe, which has rightly been called a Dark Age. The Renaissance marked a turning point in the development of culture in every sphere. Art, science, literature: all experienced a remarkable rebirth (the literal meaning of the term “Renaissance”). That was the age of the rise of the bourgeoisie, the bearer of a new and higher stage of human society, an age of discovery that rescued humankind from the shackles of feudalism, together with the irrational obscurantism of the Church and the fires of the Inquisition.

Later, the revolutionary bourgeoisie of France produced the Enlightenment, which the postmodernists regard with special loathing, precisely because it championed rational thought and science. As its name implies, postmodernism believes that something called modernism is now at an end. Modernism is the set of ideas that emerged from the Enlightenment. That was the heroic epoch of capitalism, when the bourgeoisie was still capable of playing a progressive role. But the present epoch presents a picture of social, economic, political and ideological decay. Human progress has indeed stalled. The productive forces are paralysed by the deepest crisis in three hundred years. Culture stagnates, and the fruits of science, far from liberating mankind, threaten mass unemployment and environmental catastrophe. The capitalist class has become a colossal obstacle to progress.

On the basis of the present system, the outlook for humanity is bleak indeed. But instead of concluding that it is the social system of capitalism that bars progress, the postmodernists conclude that progress itself is ruled out, for it has never existed. The ruling class and its middle-class hangers-on in the universities are impregnated with a spirit of pessimism. They moan about the terrible state of society, but in rejecting science, rational thought and progress in general, they merely reflect the outlook of a degenerate and decrepit ruling class.

Dishonesty

Joseph Dietzgen once said that official philosophy is not a science, but “a safeguard against social-democracy” – and by social-democracy, Dietzgen meant the revolutionary movement of the working class. The task of the ruling ideas today is precisely to cover up the gulf between the interests of the masses and the status quo of capitalism. That is the underlying basis for the tricks, fallacies and extreme dishonesty which characterises bourgeois philosophy in general and postmodernism in particular. One such trick is the constant rattling off of contradictory statements in order to cover up their tracks. In an interview from 1977, published under the title Prison Talk, Foucault was confronted with an awkwardly straightforward question about his rejection of the concept of ‘progress’. This is an extract from that interview:

“I came across a sentence in Madness and Civilisation [in reality the quote is from History of Madness – ed] where you say that we must ‘free historical chronologies and successive orderings from all forms of progressivist perspective’.”

Foucault answered in the following way:

“This is something I owe to the historians of science. I adopt the methodical precaution and the radical but unaggressive scepticism which makes it a principle not to regard the point in time where we are now standing as the outcome of a teleological progression which it would be one’s business to reconstruct historically: that scepticism regarding ourselves and what we are, our here and now, which prevents one from assuming that what we have is better than – or more than – in the past. This doesn’t mean not attempting to reconstruct generative processes, but that we must do this without imposing on them a positivity or a valorisation.”[6]

If we make the effort to penetrate the obscure world of Foucauldian language, we see his rejection of the imposition of ‘valorisation’ on the ‘generative processes’ of history is nothing but a rejection of progress. In an act of cynical deceit, he drags in by the hair the term ‘teleological’ as a means of confusing the issue.

Anyone with the slightest knowledge about philosophy would know that there is a world of difference between teleology – a word with religious connotations, which means preordained purpose, which Marx never supported – and the idea that human history is not a series of meaningless accidents, but is governed by certain laws that assert themselves independently of the subjective will of individual men and women.

The interviewer, not to be so easily put off the scent, then asks Foucault the natural follow up question: “Even though science has long shared the postulate that man progresses?”

Foucault then answers:

“It isn’t science that says that, but rather the history of science. And I don’t say that humanity doesn’t progress. I say that it is a bad method to pose the problem as: ‘How is it that we have progressed?’ The problem is: how do things happen? And what happens now is not necessarily better or more advanced, or better understood, than what happened in the past.”

Here we see a classic case of facing all ways at the same time. Having clearly said (or as clearly as his peculiar language permits) that he denies progress in history, he then calmly asserts the opposite: that he does not say ‘humanity doesn’t progress’. But in the very next breath, he adds that “what happens now is not necessarily better or more advanced, or better understood, than what happened in the past”. So there really has been no progress.

Is that clear enough?

This is a very good example of how these ladies and gentlemen twist and turn and writhe, playing with words in order to hide their meaning, just as a squid squirts clouds of ink to confuse its enemies. Thus, if anyone ever accuses Foucault of denying progress, the focal point of the majority of his writings, he could always point back and say, “oh no, I once said that, ‘I don’t say that humanity doesn’t progress.”

Intellectual dishonesty and cowardice is an essential component of postmodernism. It adopts a whole host of manoeuvres to confuse and disorient the reader, in order to distract them from its real reactionary character. What is astonishing is the shameless arrogance and audacity with which this deceit is presented.

Language games

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland)

Postmodernism is based on the principle that concepts, ideas and language itself are subjective and arbitrary “constructs”. Thus all conceptual thought, including science, is also oppressive. There can be no objective truth. Nothing is true or reliable. The only truth lies in individual experience, ‘lived experience’, and that can only ever be a personal truth.

Not content with consigning all rational thought and “meta-narratives” to the dustbin, some postmodernists go so far as to inform us that, since language is an oppressive construct, grammar itself must be abolished as it is oppressive to human freedom. Once we are free of the oppressive shackles of grammar and syntax, we can soar into the heaven of absolute freedom, where we can communicate with one another in an entirely new way.

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/325851

Postmodernism is based on the principle that concepts, ideas and language are subjective and arbitrary “constructs”. But language is not a construct. It has evolved gradually as a result of the development of society / Image: public domain

But language is not a construct. It has not been invented by anybody. It has evolved gradually over a very long period of time, hundreds of thousands of years in fact, as a result of the development of human society. That is also true of the laws of thinking, which the postmodernists wish to destroy. But what are they to be replaced with? We may like or dislike the rules of grammar and syntax, whether it be the grammar of official language taught in schools or unofficial grammar such as dialects. However, without these rules, speech becomes completely unintelligible, or at least, extremely incoherent. Of course, the postmodernists have a nail for every hole.

Replying to the accusation of unintelligibility, Judith Butler, a postmodernist True Believer, denounces the “[l]earning [of] the rules that govern intelligible speech”.[7] According to Butler, learning such rules are “an inculcation into normalised language, where the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself.” She goes on to say that “there is nothing radical about common sense. It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed, upon the thinkable itself.”

So now you know! “Common sense” isn’t radical, but nonsense is. On this basis Butler goes off on a journey to make up her own grammar, one that somehow does not “impose” itself on her thoughts. Having done so, she goes on all manner of adventures, thinking of things that are completely “unthinkable” for those of us constrained by the language of mere mortals.

The question arises, however, how will she communicate these unthinkable thoughts to mere mortals, who are still bound by the constraints of “intelligible speech” and who have not the faintest idea what she is talking about? Butler’s method is pure sophistry. In other words, it is a trick: “My ideas aren’t bad and incomprehensible; you are just not advanced enough to understand them.”

That said, it is not correct to go so far as to assert that postmodernist texts are incomprehensible. The purpose of the convoluted rhetoric is to make ideas that are very old, stupid and reactionary sound original, sophisticated and even radical. True, it requires a little effort to uncover it, but there is definitely an agenda, and it is not so hard to understand once it has been translated from their “special language” into the speech of common mortals.

“There is no ‘outside-the-text’”

Jacques Derrida, one of the most influential postmodernists, famously said that “there is nothing outside the text.”[8] By this he means that meaning – and thereby knowledge – is not related to objective reality, but to itself alone. The words that we use are not in any way related to the things we want to signify. Rather, any single word, according to Derrida, is only defined by its relationship to other words. Thus, in order to understand anything, we first have to understand all the words that give our words context, and then all the words that give those words context, and so on. Of course, this is impossible and hence, we are told, this fleeting thing called ‘meaning’ will forever be ‘deferred’ and never fully grasped.

It is certainly true that the meaning of Derrida’s language cannot ever be fully grasped, but that is another matter. What Derrida is aiming at is to undermine the notion that we can comprehend objective reality itself. In other words, ultimately there is no reality “outside-the-text”. We might have a word for dog, or cat, but according to him, these concepts are merely the abstract and subjective creations of the human mind and do not have any relation to any real cat or dog, and hence they lose all meaning.

Bishop George Berkeley John Smibert

Derrida said that “there is nothing outside the text”. These ideas bring us back to the 18th century, when Bishop Berkeley put forward the same absurd arguments, albeit in a far more cogent manner / Image: John Smibert

In spite of these “profound” observations, for many thousands of years men and women have continued to make use of language, unconcerned with the higher truths that inform them that a dog is not really a dog, a cat is not really a cat and, in fact, that language is not capable of saying anything intelligible at all.

Far from being an all-sided view of things, as Derrida would claim, his philosophy shows an extremely one-sided understanding of human knowledge. If our concepts do not reflect any objective truth, and if “meaning” can be generated and “deconstructed” by human beings at their whim, then how can people communicate, by text or by any other means? Why does Derrida bother to write texts, when there is no objective or common basis for language? And how can we even acknowledge that we are all experiencing the same reality if, insofar as such a reality even exists, we are all barred from accessing it?

Such inconsistencies, however, did not seem to bother Derrida. Like all proper postmodernists, Derrida wears inconsistency as a badge of honour. His most famous notion, “deconstruction”, is, if anything, precisely the proposition that “freedom” lies in breaking up the consistency and coherence of ideas. In this way, every individual can construct and ‘deconstruct’ their own reality. In fact, that is precisely what Judith Butler, the most influential postmodern feminist, asserts:

“To ‘concede’ the undeniability of ‘sex’ or its ‘materiality’ is always to concede some version of ‘sex,’ some formation of ‘materiality.’ Is the discourse in and through which that concession occurs – and, yes, that concession invariably does occur – not itself formative of the very phenomenon that it concedes? […] to refer naively or directly to such an extra-discursive object will always require the prior delimitation of the extra-discursive.”[9]

The “discourse” is “formative of the very phenomenon that it concedes”. Thinking produces reality. Material reality, even biological sex, is ‘discursive’ and can naturally be changed via discourse. But surely if biological sex is just a product of ‘discourse’, then so is everything else; so are you and so am I. But can you not then simply construct or ‘deconstruct’ my reality, or I yours?… Butler does not say.

This theory is neither modern nor postmodern, but rather old. What we are dealing with is subjective idealism – a trend which goes back to the early days of philosophy itself. The main tenet of subjective idealism is that there is no objective reality existing independently of the thoughts and sensations of human beings.

Derrida’s form of argument is simply a crude copy of the notion put forward by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, that human consciousness can never really know material reality, or what he called the “thing-in-itself”. According to Kant, the mind is furnished with a series of ‘a priori’ thought categories – such as space, time, substance etc. – which allow us to recognise the world of appearance. But our minds are not able to know material reality as it truly is, ‘in itself’.

Derrida however, goes further than Kant and derides concepts in their totality. All general concepts are, according to him, products of the human mind with no relation to objective reality. These ideas are older even than Kant. At the beginning of the 18th century, Bishop George Berkeley put forward the same absurd arguments, albeit in a far more cogent manner: “It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding.”[10]

But there is a problem with this theory, and one that cannot be easily disposed of. The inescapable logic of this argument is solipsism (from the Latin solo ipsus, only I myself). This is the notion that since we cannot prove the existence of anything or anyone else besides our own mind with certainty, we must resign ourselves to being nothing but the solitary prisoners of our own internal worlds and everything else must be a figment of our imagination. But if that is the case, then God too must be just a figment of our imagination.

According to this idea, nothing can ever be objective because nothing can be proved to exist. Everything is only the creation (“construct”) of thinking. This, of course, is disproved by thousands of years of human experience and practice. It is also disproved by the history of science for at least two and a half millennia. But that is of no concern to the postmodernists who deny that any progress has taken place whatsoever.

Bishop Berkeley was a reactionary and a staunch defender of the Church. His declared aim was to conduct a struggle against science, rational thought, atheism and the materialism of the Enlightenment. On all but one of these (atheism), the postmodernists are in full agreement with him. His main argument was aimed at empiricism, an undeveloped form of materialism that predominated at the time. The empiricists maintained that all knowledge is ultimately attained via sense experience. This is correct, but one-sided. Their argument was drawn to an absurd extreme by the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who ended up arguing that because we can only rely on sense experience, we cannot prove that anything besides our own sense experience exists.

If we accept the premises of the subjective idealists, there is only one way out of this absurdity: the path proposed by Bishop Berkeley. Namely, that it is God’s mind perceiving things that gives our ideas objectivity and human beings a common point of reference. But there is another path: that of materialism and science. To the premise that all knowledge is attained via sense experience, we must add another premise, that an objective material reality exists independently of our ideas and experiences, and that human beings are able to investigate this reality and uncover its characteristics and inner laws of motion. This is precisely what postmodernism rejects.

Is truth possible?

It is commonly known that an idea that is true, is an idea that corresponds to reality. A small child might think that it is fun to play with fire. It will soon come to realise that this is not a correct idea. From painful trial and error, over time it will form the idea that approached in the right way, a fire might after all be very useful and, in some situations, perhaps even fun. Fire goes from being an unknown “thing-in-itself”, to a “thing-for-us”. Such is the general path of human beings – from ignorance to knowledge.

The postmodernists however, reject this notion. They entirely reject the proposition that ideas can be true or false. They deride categorical statements (although not always, as we will see) because that would imply that some statements are more true than others. Thus they stuff their writing with vague and extremely equivocal statements, which are filled with conditionalities and long contradictory explanations.

foucault Image thierry ehrmann Flickr

It is commonly known that an idea that is true, is an idea that corresponds to reality. The postmodernists however, reject this notion. They entirely reject the proposition that ideas can be true or false / Image: thierry ehrmann, Flickr

According to Foucault, the most prominent postmodernist, we cannot aspire to objective truth. That is, we cannot aspire to ideas, the content of which does not depend on human beings. He maintains that ultimately the truthfulness of ideas – knowledge, in other words – is not derived from our experience of material reality, but rather from what he calls ‘power’. This is not power in the sense that we normally understand it, such as state power, or the power of one class over another. ‘Power’ in Foucault’s vocabulary essentially merely means knowledge in general. Thus, ‘power’ produces knowledge and knowledge produces ‘power’. Or to put it another way, knowledge produces knowledge. This is a pure tautology that explains precisely nothing. Fundamentally, it is the same principle put forward by Derrida, that ideas and general concepts do not reflect objective reality, but merely other ideas and concepts.

Foucault then goes on to tell us that truth is not something we can attain by testing our ideas in the real world. Instead, truth is “produced” by ‘power’. And “regimes of truth”[11] are imposed on society by ‘power’. ‘Power’ tells us what is true and what is false. However, according to Foucault, in reality these categories of true and false do not exist. Consequently nothing is true and nothing is false. One of the ways we can discover this, he informs us, is by taking LSD:

“We can easily see how LSD inverts the relationships of ill humor, stupidity, and thought: it no sooner eliminates the supremacy of cat­egories than it tears away the ground of its indifference and disinte­grates the gloomy dumbshow of stupidity; and it presents this univocal and acategorical mass not only as variegated, mobile, asym­metrical, decentered, spiraloid, and reverberating but causes it to rise, at each instant, as a swarming of phantasm-events.”[12]

If we can attempt a translation of this gibberish, what Foucault is telling us here is essentially that LSD-induced hallucinations reveal to us that reality is not the way we think about it normally. One day I might think elephants are wild animals living in zoos and tropical regions, and the next day they might be small pink creatures flying in circles around my head. Who is to say which one of these ideas is true and which one is false?

We cannot talk about truth at all, neither my truth nor your truth. There is one exception of course, one kind of thing that is absolutely and eternally true, and that is Monsieur Foucault’s blanket statements, such as his rejection of the concept of truth. This is yet another example of postmodernist self-contradiction. Foucault does not even realise that he is attempting to provide us with proof of the ‘truthfulness’ of his concept. Wasn’t this precisely what was supposed to be impossible?

Can we really claim, as Foucault essentially does, that objective truth is a fiction? Let’s see. I can believe that I am a bird and that I can fly, but if I jump out from the edge of a cliff, that idea will come crashing down with me. I can imagine I am a multi-millionaire. But if I go into a bank demanding to withdraw a million pounds, the manager will certainly ask me how much LSD I have consumed. If any postmodernist wishes to prove us wrong, we politely invite him or her to try one of these two experiments. Practice will soon tell us who is right and who is wrong!

In Europe, throughout the middle ages and up until the 18th century, it was a commonly held belief that the earth was created by God a few thousand years ago. But science has dispelled that belief entirely. Today, this idea only exists on the basis of faith. To reject objective truth in the end amounts to reducing all of human knowledge to the level of faith and superstition – that is to say, it brings us back to the swamp of religion.

As opposed to faith, all of science is based on the proposition that a natural world exists independently of our ideas, and that our ideas are capable of reflecting natural phenomena. Truth therefore exists objectively, that is independently of the minds of individual human beings. To deny this is the same as denying science, which as we shall see, is precisely what the postmodernists do.

Subjective and objective knowledge

Postmodernism elevates subjectivity to an absolute principle. From this it deduces that thinking in general is limited and partial, therefore it cannot reach objective truth. For the narrow-minded academic, the world stops at the tip of his or her nose, or at least at the door of the seminar room. The university professor produces only words. These are the sum total of his or her world, their natural environment – the only environment they know. This is what explains the obsession of the postmodernists with words and language. It also explains the extreme narrowness of their outlook and the poverty of their thinking.

But thinking goes beyond ‘the subject’. The great scientific and philosophical theories of history are not merely the product of great individual minds; they are the highest expression of the development of human thought in their respective societies. When we speak about human thought we do not speak of the meanderings of an individual mind, rather we speak about human thought in general, collectively.

It is true that each individual human being by nature has a partial and limited outlook. But taken as a whole, humanity can overcome the limitations of the individual by collectively testing the objectivity of each proposition from a myriad of angles and by applying it in real life. The thoughts inside an individual’s head do not belong to them alone – all of our theories and language are the products of human social development as a whole, transmitted from one generation to the next. Nor is the relationship between subject and object purely a question of abstract contemplation. The human race reacts to the real world actively, not passively.

Human beings transform the world through collective labour, and thereby transform themselves. It is this ceaseless process of creation that finds its highest expression in the onward march of science, which the postmodernists wish to deny, but which is a self-evident fact. It is a ceaseless march from ignorance to knowledge. What we do not know today, we are certain to know tomorrow. In this sense, human thought is not only capable of objectivity, it is also limitless and absolute. No knowledge is beyond its reach.

Marx explained in his Theses on Feuerbach that, “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”[13]

To raise the question of whether truth can be objective or not, as the postmodernists do, disconnected from real human activity, amounts to empty speculation. Thought is an expression of practice and ultimately it is in practice that ideas are tested. The development of ideas serves to improve our practice. Likewise, in the course of this activity, the objectively true elements of all ideas are determined and separated from their untrue or exaggerated sides.

Relative and absolute truth

But does the fact that ideas can be proven objectively true mean that human ideas exhaust truth from the moment they are thought of, and forever thereafter? Of course not. From a materialist point of view, it is pointless to speak about reaching absolute truth in the sense of an ultimate knowledge of the totality of our universe. Mankind is capable of discovering laws of nature at all levels. The constant advances in modern science and technology are proof of this. But humanity will never reach a point where it discovers all there is to discover. For every problem that science solves and each level of nature that man masters, new avenues and new problems arise.

The history of science shows us this process in a never-ending series of theories, now rising and now declining in the face of more advanced ones. But here postmodernism, yet again, draws an exaggerated and one-sided conclusion from a formally correct observation. It deduces that since all theories are superseded at a certain stage, no idea is true; all truth is relative and arbitrary.

newton Image public domain

The history of scientific thought is not an unfortunate chase for some elusive ultimate truth. It is a never ending process of deeper and deeper understanding of nature / Image: public domain

In his books Madness and Civilisation and The History of Madness – which purport to be historical treatments of psychiatry – Foucault presents us with a series of ideas and methods that were used in psychiatry in the past, but which have since proven to be false. In fact, they would be deemed as extremely reactionary if applied by psychiatrists today. On this basis, he attempts to undermine science’s claim to objective truth in general.

This is a general trend in all of Foucault’s ‘histories’. It is as if he was expecting science to be the holy grail of absolute eternal truth from the outset and, disappointed with what he found, concluded that it was necessary to discard all science and the notion of truth altogether. He sets up a strawman, and then effortlessly knocks him down. But science has never been about possessing the absolute truth. It sets itself a far-more-modest aim: to discover the truth step by step, by the patient application of the real scientific method: observation and experiment.

Postmodernists look at the science of previous periods with scorn. Of course, it is easy to criticise a less-advanced period from the standpoint of your own. It reveals an ignorant and cowardly attitude, like an adult ridiculing a child for not speaking in the same refined and confident manner as themselves. But the ideas of different historical stages are not accidental. They reflect the capabilities of human society at each stage, and as such, they are absolute for that period. That is to say, they are the highest truths that society could attain at that particular time.

The particular truths discovered by a given society are not obtained arbitrarily. It is not possible that Newton would have developed quantum mechanics. Newtonian mechanics formed a necessary link that later led to the discoveries of quantum mechanics. Ultimately, thought – with scientific thought as its highest expression – reflects the level of development of the society of its time. But in turn it also develops society as a whole, so that at a certain point in time, this development itself leads to the rise of new, more-complex and more-advanced forms of thought. This is the never ending process from ignorance to knowledge; from lower to higher forms of truth.

This does not mean that the old ideas are discarded as pure nonsense. On the contrary, their rational kernel becomes a necessary element for the further advance of science. For every level of nature that humans learn to master, the path opens to a deeper level. The development of Newtonian mechanics was a big conquest for humanity. It was one of the first great advances ushered in by the rise of capitalism and it played an important role in the development of science and society as a whole. But science did not end there; after classical mechanics came quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics did not invalidate classical mechanics, on the contrary, it presupposed it, just like quantum mechanics will form the basis of even-greater advances for science in the future, and will prepare the ground for going beyond quantum mechanics itself. Quantum mechanics would remain valid for a certain level, but beyond that more advanced theories would emerge.

As opposed to what the postmodernists imagine, the history of scientific thought is not an unfortunate chase for some elusive ultimate truth, jumping from one accidental theory to another. It is a never ending process of deeper and deeper understanding of nature and the laws that govern it. Through countless trials and errors, each theory is ultimately tested, its accidental, subjective and untrue elements sifted off, its limits defined and its true kernel heaped onto the stockpile of human knowledge, preparing the way for new, more advanced ideas to take its place.

Each theory is not isolated from and diametrically opposed to the others. Rather, they all form different stages of the dialectical development of human knowledge as a whole – an infinite progression, from lower to higher forms of truth.

“Meta-narratives”

Since the postmodernists reject the notion of truth, they identify the number one enemy as those who accept truth. Let us return for a moment to The Postmodern Condition, where Jean-Francois Lyotard attempts to define the meaning of “postmodern”:

“I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.

“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward the meta-narratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences; but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the meta-narratives apparatus of ligitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university function, which in part relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great voyages, its great goal.”[14]

Here, we have an absolutely priceless example of the unintelligible jargon of postmodernism. Please bear in mind that, for our benefit, Lyotard is “simplifying to the extreme”. That is just as well, because otherwise we would be running a serious risk of actually understanding what he’s trying to say, which is that postmodernism rejects all schools of thought that attempt to develop a single, coherent worldview.

The rejection of a coherent worldview follows logically from the rejection of the existence of a mind-independent objective reality. If you deny that an objective reality, and hence an objective truth, exists independently of our minds, then there can never be any theories that apply universally. Every individual will develop their own theories applicable to their particular reality. In such a case, ‘meta-narratives’ would indeed amount to the formalism and schematism of imposing the laws of my world onto yours or vice versa. But the worst offenders of this particular crime would be the postmodernists themselves.

The rejection of meta-narratives is itself the crudest and most sweeping meta-narrative possible. And it is presented to us without a single proof or real argument! What is essentially demanded from us, is to accept the postmodernist meta-narratives on blind faith. Postmodernism is the only true meta-narrative. All others are wrong, because postmodernism says so. This is precisely the kind of intellectual bullying and “oppression” against which the postmodernists protest so vehemently. And it is the basis for their hysterical attacks on anyone raising a serious objection to what they say. This is no different than any other religious dogma.

Marxists are criticised by postmodernists for being dogmatic and opposed to incorporating other ideas into Marxist theory. To some people, this might seem like a good idea. Why stick to one philosophy when you can pick and choose from the best ideas around, irrespective of which philosopher or school of thought developed them? But that is the whole point. The postmodernists do not say we should choose the best ideas. There are no good or bad, true or false ideas, remember? It is not a question of having ideas that are correct, but a question of insisting that our ideas must be incoherent. For the first time in the history of philosophy, the “paupers’ broth of eclecticism” as Engels called it, is raised to the guiding principle of a school of thought.

Postmodernists blame Marxists for not being “open minded” towards other schools of thought. But in reality, the exact opposite is the case! These ladies and gentlemen are obsessed with being new and original (although that is far from the case). They act as if history starts and ends with themselves. Marxism, on the other hand, makes no claim to stand out as something completely unrelated to previous philosophies. We do not claim that the ideas of scientific socialism sprang into being purely from the particular creative genius of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Marxism is a synthesis of the rational kernel of all previous philosophies, each building on the advances of previous epochs. It forms a unified and harmonious whole. It contains within itself all the most valuable and enduring elements of earlier schools of thought – Ancient Greek philosophy, German classical philosophy, the French materialists of the Enlightenment, English political economy and the brilliant anticipations of the earlier utopian socialists. All of these, one way or another, contained valuable truths and insights, reflecting different sides and aspects of the same single objective reality.

Throughout the history of the development of science and thought over the course of thousands of years, the picture that has emerged, and which becomes clearer every day, is that of one, single, interconnected material world, which operates according to its own inherent laws of motion and development. This is the basis for the unified worldview of Marxism and of any real scientific theory. The systematic investigation of these laws at different levels of nature is the primary purpose of any science. All of this is anathema to the postmodernists who oppose any and all forms of systematic thinking.

“Anti-science”

In opposing meta-narratives, it is precisely this systematic investigation and science in general that the postmodernists oppose. Listen to how Foucault sneeringly decries “the tyranny of globalising discourses with their hierarchy and all their privileges of a theoretical avant-garde’’[15], and how he calls for a “…struggle against the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse”[16]. In fact, Foucault defines his main method, ‘genealogy’, to be nothing more nor less than “anti-science”:

“What [genealogy] really does is to entertain the claims to attention of local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter, hierarchise and order them in the name of some true knowledge and some arbitrary idea of what constitutes a science and its objects. Genealogies are therefore not positivistic returns to a more careful or exact form of science. They are precisely anti-sciences.”[17]

What is this if not a declaration of war against science and rational thought, and a defence of obscurantism? What is worse, these reactionary ideas are peddled off as the most radical form of thinking. Luce Irigaray for instance, is notable for her rejection of Einstein’s theory of relativity, on the ground that it is “sexist”, presumably because Albert Einstein had the misfortune to be a man. Her 1987 essay is titled Le Sujet de la Science Est-il Sexué? (Is the Subject of Science Sexed?). Pondering this question, she writes the following: 

“Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possible sexed nature of the equation is not directly its use by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest…”[18]

Elsewhere Irigaray continues her diatribe against the unfortunate Einstein: 

“But what does the mighty theory of relativity do for us except establish nuclear power plants and question our bodily inertia, that necessary condition of life?”[19]

According to the convoluted reasoning of Irigaray, speed is a predominantly male characteristic and therefore Einstein’s “fixation” with speed in his equation is “sexist”. Precisely why males should be more obsessed with speed and females not is a mystery that only Irigaray can explain. As far as we are aware, a man would find it equally difficult to attain the speed of light as a woman.

Here the irrational anti-scientific nature of post-modernism stands exposed in all its naked glory. The theory of relativity, which is one of the most basic cornerstones of modern science, is pilloried as “sexist”, because its author, Albert Einstein, was a man.

Behind the seemingly innocent rejection of mere “meta-narratives” and “globalising discourses” and wrapped in radical sounding rhetoric, postmodernism has set up a true global anti-scientific and anti-cultural inquisition. Here “local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges” – meaning discredited mystical ideas which lay about in the waste material of the history of philosophy – are promoted, whereas the greatest theories and minds humanity has ever known are condemned without blinking. If these ideas were ever to be implemented in real life, it would mean the complete reversal of all civilisation.

Anti-Marxist

While postmodernism stands as the highest development of irrationality, Marxism is the highest form of scientific thought. And it is precisely because it is the most consistent and scientific philosophy that it draws the particular ire of the postmodernists. It is interesting to note that Foucault’s principal objection to Marxism is that it is scientific. Here is what he writes: “If we have any objection against Marxism, it lies in the fact that it could effectively be a science.”[20]

Elsewhere in the same text he states:

“Nor does it basically matter all that much that this institutionalisation of scientific discourse is embodied in a university, or, more generally, in an educational apparatus, in a theoretical-commercial institution such as psycho-analysis or within the framework of reference that is provided by a political system such as Marxism; for it is really against the effects of the power of a discourse that is considered to be scientific that the genealogy must wage its struggle.[21]

Here, we see the true colors of postmodernism – an anti-scientific and counter-revolutionary ideology, which is opposed to Marxism at the most fundamental level. We sometimes hear that we should combine postmodern and Marxist ideas. But these are radically incompatible. Foucault acknowledges as much when he writes that, “It is not that these global theories have not provided nor continue to provide in a fairly consistent fashion useful tools for local research: Marxism and psychoanalysis are proofs of this. But I believe these tools have only been provided on the condition that the theoretical unity of these discourses was in some sense put in abeyance, or at least curtailed, divided, overthrown, caricatured, theatricalised, or what you will. In each case, the attempt to think in terms of a totality has in fact proved a hindrance to research.” [22]

Marxism and postmodernism are only compatible insofar as the “theoretical unity” of Marxism is destroyed; as soon as Marxism ceases to be a science, as soon as Marxism ceases to be true, and as soon as it ceases to be materialist… in other words, as soon as Marxism ceases to be Marxism.

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While postmodernism stands as the highest development of irrationality, Marxism is the highest form of scientific thought / Image: public domain

Marxism stands in irreconcilable opposition to postmodernism. We are materialists and we stand firmly on the basis of truth and science. We believe that there is only one single interconnected material world, which has always existed and which is neither the creation of a god nor of Monsieur Foucault’s ‘power’. Life is a product of this material world and humans are the most-advanced form of life. Through our activity, we are able to discover the laws of nature and to manipulate them to our benefit, but we are also ourselves subject to these laws and thus by changing our world we also change ourselves.

The consistent materialist theory of knowledge maintains that knowledge is ultimately derived from sense experience. Our senses are bridges to this external world, not barriers. Otherwise, what makes our senses feed our minds this information, and not that? We do not change the world by changing language or our modes of thinking. It is not in “the text” or in the “discourse”, but in the real, material world that the truth is to be found. We can change the world in certain ways, and our senses tell us if we have been successful. It is by interacting with the world that we discover, test and perfect our ideas and ultimately assign to them objective validity.

These are the basic principles of science. To part ways with them amounts to steering a course towards religion and mysticism. The postmodernists have not only diverged from science, they have launched a struggle against the essence of science itself. The fact that these reactionary ideas are being disseminated like gospel in universities, schools and via the media all over the world, reveals the rotten state of capitalism today. It is a system whose existence is no longer compatible with the interests of the vast majority of the human race.

To reject the notion of objective reality and objective truth ultimately leads to nothing but a whitewashing and a defence of the status quo. Because if progress is impossible, it is futile to strive for a better society. And if there is no objective truth, we cannot say that exploitation, poverty, oppression and war are ‘bad’ – it is all just a matter of perspective. The advocates of postmodernism end up as apologists for capitalism. A truly revolutionary philosophy can only be a thoroughly scientific and materialist philosophy, which looks reality straight in the face. Only the clearest and most precise understanding of the laws of nature and society can show a way out of the dead end of capitalism and class society. In the words of Karl Marx who delivered the final crushing verdict on all bourgeois philosophy:

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways. The point, however, is to change it.”


Notes

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, “Notes on the Return and Kapital,” Semiotext(e), Vol 3, No. 1, (1978), pg 53.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories 1980-1985, (London: Verso, 1990), pg 67.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, & Félix Guattari, Anti-Odeipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), pg 4, (our emphasis).

[4] Michel Foucault, “Theatrum Philosophicum,” in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, (New York: The New Press, 1998), pg 367.

[5] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), pg xxiv.

[6] Michel Foucault, “Prison Talk: an interview,” Radical Philosophy, Vol 16, (1977), pg 14.

[7] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (New York & London: Routledge, 1999), pg xviii.

[8] Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), pg 136.

[9] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, (New York & London: Routledge, 1993), pg 10-11. (our emphasis).

[10] George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, (2002), pg 13.

[11] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, pg 131.

[12] Foucault, “Theatrum Philosophicum,” pg 363.

[13] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism, (New York & London: Wellred Books, 2018), pg 51.

[14] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, pg xxiv.

[15] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), pg 83.

[16] Ibid., pg 85.

[17] Ibid., 83. (our emphasis).

[18] Luce Irigaray & Carol Mastrangelo Bové, “Le Sujet de la Science Est-ll Sexué?/Is the Subject of Science Sexed?,” Hypatia, Vol. 2, No. 3, Feminism & Science 1, (1987).

[19] Ibid

[20] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, pg 84. (our emphasis).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., pg 81.




Source: Marxist.com