What he calls postmodern neo-Marxism is one of Jordan Peterson’s favourite bugbears—even though, by his own admission, the only Marxist work he has read is the Communist Manifesto and in debate with Slavoj Zizek he was unable to provide any examples. In this, Peterson is far from alone: the relationship between Marxism and postmodern philosophy is a never-ending object of revulsion and fascination for conservative commentators, many of whom are unfamiliar with either way of thinking.
Marxism as a Mature Enlightenment Philosophy
For Peterson, Stephen Hicks and others, postmodernist theory was an effort to continue the Marxist revolutionary project by other means. According to the usual story, by the 1960s Marxism had been so discredited by its association with the Soviet Union that many French philosophers felt compelled to find new ways of theoretically justifying it. In fact, in the 1960s the French Communist Party was one of the strongest political forces in the country, and Marxist philosophers like Louis Althusser and Jean Paul Sartre were very popular on the left. In the 1980s, when Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were at the height of their fame, France was governed by François Mitterrand through an uneasy alliance between the socialist and communist parties called the programme commun (“common programme”).
Marxism is best understood as a mature Enlightenment doctrine. During the nineteenth century, proponents of Enlightenment like J. S. Mill increasingly came to recognize that the quest for absolute certainty in the social sciences and politics that had defined early Enlightenment aspirations was a non-starter, given the immense complexities of human life. Marx’s critique of capitalist political economy was the result of a creative synthesis of Hegelian philosophy, French political radicalism and English economic theory. He heaped praise on scientists like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, and drew on the insights of economic predecessors like Adam Smith and, especially, David Ricardo. Marx also acknowledged the emancipatory importance of liberalism and commended the productive power of capitalism—even though he felt both had serious flaws.
In a preface to the French edition of Capital Volume One, Marx claims that there is no “royal road” to science, but that “only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” The scientific object of his study was the emerging capitalist social form, in particular as it was developing within the United Kingdom and the broader British empire. One of the primary ways he studied it was through a systematic critique of the classical political economists who proceeded Marx. This has sometimes been misconstrued as that implying Marx was simply critical of capitalism and its defenders, but the point of a critique is to explain the conditions under which a given social phenomenon emerges and explain how that phenomenon appears and is understood to those who participate in it. The emphasis on appearance is important. Marx felt that we often perceive our social world in fetishized ways that make it difficult to understand the totality of what is going on.
Marx makes two especially interesting claims. First, Marx argues that one-to-one causal determinism—the idea that x causes y in a direct, linear way—cannot adequately explain social phenomena. While that model might be appropriate for the physical sciences, it offers a misleading model of human phenomena, which are defined by social relationships between individuals. For instance, it would be as simplistic to argue that the industrial revolution caused the emergence of capitalism as it would be to argue that economic necessity propelled technological innovation and thus brought about the stream engine. Instead, there is a dialectical relationship between economic activity and technological innovation, which are both linked to a staggering number of other processes and developments.
Second, Marx argues that social relationships must be viewed in their historical context. Mass coercion was necessary to create various economic systems. For instance, he (somewhat unfairly) criticizes Adam Smith for regarding capitalist property relations as emerging from a natural process of production and exchange. Instead, Marx insists that capitalism emerged relatively recently, and in its infancy was often dependent on “primitive accumulation,” a phase during which property is seized and old economic relations overturned. The violence involved has often been deliberately obscured or downplayed—for example, in the triumphalist portrayals of the foundation of the United States, which involved the mass appropriation of territory and resources by the early US settlers, and during which millions of indigenous peoples were driven from their lands and were either killed outright or died of disease and starvation. This shows that economic arrangements—including disparities in wealth and power—are anything but innocent. It also shows that economic arrangements can change dramatically over time—which opens up the possibility that the current arrangements could be changed too.
Marx sometimes compares his analysis of what is happening behind the scenes of history to the way in which Newton and Darwin demonstrate how the laws of physics and natural selection operate behind the scenes of nature. These comparisons are partly a testament to Marx’s self-confidence, but they also indicate that he aspired to a degree of scientific accuracy in his analysis of the liberal capitalist system. He was also audacious enough to occasionally claim that his analyses proved that, like previous economic systems, capitalism would collapse as a result of its internal contradictions, to be replaced by a higher form of society. As later radical commentators like the social democratic Sheldon Wolin and the Marxist Michael Heinrich have pointed out, this was a serious error. Indeed his dramatic assertions that one day the “knell of capitalist private property” will inevitably sound are deeply at odds with Marx’s nuanced appreciation of the dynamism of the capitalist system and its deep association with the most powerful forces in society. At points his political optimism and yearning overtook the often icy truths his own analysis brought to the fore.
Marx, then, saw himself as overcoming the methodological limitations of early Enlightenment political economy and philosophy to provide a more complete explanation of modern social relations. Nevertheless he very much situated himself within—indeed at the climax of—that tradition.
Many elements of postmodernism draw inspiration from the Marxist tradition, especially its historical analyses and its critique of established systems of social organization. Derrida, for example, claimed to be inspired by a “certain spirit of Marxism” in his belief that the market itself cannot produce justice and in his increasingly vague commitment to human emancipation and equality. But Foucault and Gilles Deleuze were emphatic in their rejection of much of Marx’s analysis, especially Marx’s commitment to the broader Enlightenment project, which postmodernists increasingly associated with the emergence of new forms of discipline and control, which were often more insidious than those that came before. But they also drew heavily on Nietzsche’s scepticism about truth and moral claims, and Heidegger’s arguments that the trajectory of Western thought had ended in nihilism and failure. They were sceptical of the emancipatory claims of socialist and communist movements—not because they considered either movement to be irredeemably discredited, but because they thought Marx defined flourishing in too narrowly materialistic terms and was also too much of a universalist in his belief that emancipation and flourishing would take the same forms everywhere. In these aspects of his thought, they argued that Marx had too much in common with liberal thinkers—who also defined flourishing in material terms and believed in universal goods, though they thought those goods would be achieved by capitalism. In a word, the postmodernists found Marx far too modern.
The exact political convictions of the major postmodern theorists varied considerably: from Richard Rorty’s soft social liberalism to the anarchism of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In practice, postmodernist arguments have usually been mobilized against the claim that there are universal forms of human flourishing that can be achieved by instituting the correct kinds of social relations, usually on the basis that this kind of universalism is often just a pretext used to excuse power grabs. One of the reasons postmodernism has been especially attractive to postcolonial theorists like Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said is because it shows how liberal and socialist states justified colonialism and imperialism by claiming that they were bringing civilization and development to the backwards. Liberals have, of course, responded by accusing postmodernists of cultural relativism and irrationalism. They’ve been followed in this by many Marxists; indeed one of the ironic things about the hoopla around “post-modern neo-Marxists” is that it Marxist critics like Harvey and Jameson have also been amongst the best analysts and critics of postmodern culture. Moreover Marxists like Raymond Williams and David Harvey have bemoaned the ways in which the cultural and moral relativism of postmodernity generates the identity politics of what they call “militant particularism.” These movements are defined by the admirable effort to demand inclusion into the neoliberal order by historically marginalized groups, but largely remain uncritical of its basic structures. This is in part because demands for structural change which impact everyone require leaning in on the kinds of moral universalism militant particularism eschews. Williams and Harvey believe this has limited the left’s capacity to unite against the global domination of capital.
As Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton has pointed out, the anti-Enlightenment particularism so beloved of the postmodern left is hardly novel. Conservative critics have been making the same arguments for a long time. As Eagleton puts it: “You do not need to tell the Edmund Burkes, Michael Oakeshotts and Hans Georg Gadamers of this world that events can only be understood in their historical context.” From Edmund Burke down to Roger Scruton and Yoram Hazony there have been many conservative authors who’ve insisted in the priority of nation, identity, and tradition over universalism, materialism, and Enlightenment reason. For many of these authors, the traditions and histories of our community mean we should revere its particular practices—including the hierarchical forms of organization within—and ascribe special moral weight to members over the rest of the human species. The parallels between these arguments and those of postmodern militant particularism should make the left wary that the latter is the right approach to take.
Marxism and postmodernism are different traditions of thought, which require different analyses. Marxism was a mature Enlightenment doctrine with aspirations to objectively understand society and to enact transformation on a global scale. Postmodernism was by and large critical of the Enlightenment heritage, and took special delight in pricking at the expansive aspirations of movements like Marxism and liberalism. Lumping them together cheapens political and cultural discourse.