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Marxism and Postmodernism

by Joel Beinin
published in MER187
During the Thatcher-Reagan-Bush era, just as critical intellectuals and let political
acti!ists had "on a s#all place or the concepts o political econo#y and class analysis in
acade#ia, post#odernis# and post-structuralis# replaced Mar$is# as the a!ored #ode
o %nglo-%#erican intellectual radicalis#&
'trictly spea(ing, post#odernis# and post-structuralis# are not the sa#e thing& )hat *
#ean by these ter#s is an array o literary and cultural theory rooted in a +iet,schean --
as opposed to a Mar$ian -- criti-ue o bourgeois #odernity& .ost#odernists hold that
reason -- the leading principle o European post-Enlighten#ent #odernity -- is not
uni!ersal, but #erely #as(s relations o po"er& Rather than concei!ing o po"er as
residing in centrali,ed institutions li(e states, "hich can be sei,ed and transor#ed, they
regard po"er as dispersed and reproduced in e!ery or# o social discourse&
.ost#odernists reject the notion that the interests and outloo( o the "or(ing class or any
other group constitute the basis or liberation o all o people& They are suspicious o
abstract categories li(e class, and deny the e$istence o uniied subjects -- indi!iduals or
classes -- "ith historical agency& They do not spea( o the origins o things because
originary narrati!es ine!itably pri!ilege certain historical actors and orces "hile
obscuring and repressing others& .ost#odernists argue that because it is e#bedded in
culture, language cannot transparently represent real historical objects/ thus they concern
the#sel!es "ith the study o discourses and the cultural construction o #eaning and
dierence, rather than "ith the study o society& They oten adopt a playul, ironic, sel-
contradictory style, relecting their !ie" that there is no correct analysis o anything, but
only an ininite !ariety o 0readings&1
2i(e #any Mar$ists "ho argue that Mar$is# and post#odernis# are #utually e$clusi!e,
Terry Eagleton carried his pole#ic against post#odernis# to the Middle East in a lecture
at the %#erican 3ni!ersity in 4airo in %pril 1556, dra"ing on his boo(, Ideology: An
Introduction 78erso, 15519& Eagleton contends that post#odernists are "rong in
characteri,ing all post-Enlighten#ent philosophy as ha!ing a nai!e !ie" o the sel as
prior to social conte$t& Re!ie"ing the tradition ro# 'pino,a to Mar$ and beyond, he
argues that indi!iduals and social groups are historically or#ed and constitute
co##unities based on real interests& .ost#odernists, he belie!es, etishi,e dierence, and
by positing that dierence cannot be o!erco#e, they ulti#ately reinorce the authority o
the liberal state, "hich presents itsel as the institution or representing and negotiating
these dierences& This opposes the Mar$ist concept o political order and ethics "hich
e#phasi,es co##unity& *n Ideology, Eagleton argues that post#odernists "ho deny that
the "or(ing class or other subordinate groups ha!e interests deri!ed ro# their
socioecono#ic conditions #ust reduce their political preerences to a #oral option, and
hence a !ersion o liberalis#&
)hile * share his criti-ue o post#odernist politics, "hat #a(es Eagleton:s deense o
Mar$is# uncon!incing is his ailure to consider categories o identity and dierence
#arginali,ed by European post-Enlighten#ent 7including Mar$ist9 tradition; gender,
ethnicity, nationality, se$ual preerence, physical or #ental capacity, or religio-co##unal
loyalties that ha!e been particularly potent in 2ebanon, Bosnia and the *ndian sub-
continent& Those "ho identiy "ith these e$cluded categories #ay "ell regard Eagleton:s
Mar$ist uni!ersalis# as yet another or# o Euro-patriarchy&
Eagleton, Da!id <ar!ey and =redric Ja#eson ha!e all tried to turn deconstructionis#
against itsel by e$a#ining the historical conditions o its e#ergence& *n The Condition
of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change 7Blac("ell, 155>9,
<ar!ey co#bines a persuasi!e analysis o the global crisis o capitalist accu#ulation
since 1576 "ith a discussion o cultural trends in urban architecture and other !isual arts&
<ar!ey co##ends the post#odernist 0concern or dierence, or the diiculties o
co##unication, or the co#ple$ity and nuances o interests, cultures, places, and the
li(e1 and sees this as gi!ing post#odernis# a 0radical edge&1 ?et <ar!ey, li(e Eagleton,
is suspicious o the post#odernist tendency to a!oid -uestions o political econo#y and
global po"er&
<ar!ey proposes that post#odernis# deri!es its po"er ro# 0the act o rag#entation,
ephe#erality, and chaotic lu$&1 This he associates "ith the end o the long post-)orld
)ar ** econo#ic e$pansion and the collapse o the 0=ordist1 regi#e o capitalist
accu#ulation, "ith its integrated syste# o #ass production, #ass consu#ption and
populist de#ocracy in +orth %#erica and Europe& *n response to the crisis, a ne" regi#e
o 0le$ible accu#ulation1 e#erged in the ad!anced capitalist "orld, characteri,ed by
geographical #obility o labor and capital, rapid shits in consu#ption practices,
speciali,ed #ar(ets and the displace#ent o "or(ers in traditional industrial sectors& *n
ad!anced capitalist countries -- the sites o post#odern culture -- this has resulted in
higher structural une#ploy#ent, the des(illing and dispersion o labor, stagnation o real
"ages, the decline o trade unions, and rapid de!elop#ent o ne" products and or#s o
inancing&
De!eloping a the#e ro# the title essay o =redric Ja#eson1s Postmodernism, or the
Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 7Du(e, 15519, <ar!ey proposes that the post#odern
cultural shit is due to 0a crisis in our e$perience o space and ti#e&&&in "hich spatial
categories co#e to do#inate those o ti#e "hile the#sel!es undergoing such a #utation
that "e cannot (eep pace1 7@>19& =le$ible accu#ulation practices alter the spatial
distribution o in!est#ents, jobs and #ar(ets, and speed up production and capital
turno!er ti#e& 4o#pressions o ti#e and space induce a ne" cultural sensibility, "hile
capital re#ains do#inant&
Ja#eson ta(es #ore pleasure in post#odern culture than Eagleton, and his analysis o
political econo#y is less detailed than <ar!ey:s& But they all agree that post#odernis# is
the cultural or# appropriate to the current coniguration o transnational capitalis#&
Ja#eson regards post#odernis# as a peculiarly %#erican pheno#enon because 0the
brie A%#erican century: 715BC-15769&&&constituted the hothouse o the ne" syste#, "hile
the de!elop#ent o the cultural or#s o post#odernis# #ay be said to be the irst
speciically +orth %#erican global style&1 Ja#eson regards post#odern culture as 0the
internal and superstructural e$pression o a "hole ne" "a!e o %#erican #ilitary and
econo#ic do#ination throughout the "orld1 "hose underside is 0blood, torture, death
and terror&1 +onetheless, the si#ple binary opposition o the =irst and Third "orlds
suggested by Ja#eson:s contention that all Third )orld literary te$ts are national
allegories, in an essay on 0Third )orld 2iterature in the Era o Multinational 4apital1
7Social Text, =all 158D9, pro!o(ed angry responses ro# those "ho see his Mar$is# as an
obstacle to understanding the speciicity and !ariety o non-)estern cultures&
%ija, %h#ad se!erely critici,es Ja#eson:s Eurocentris# in one o the central essays o
In Theory: Classes, ations, Literatures 78erso, 155@9& %h#ad properly rejects the
ter# 0Third )orld1 as reerring to no unitary entity& <e preers class categories, but his
rhetorical strategy is not unli(e deconstructionist approaches to collapsing binary
oppositions& %h#ad disparages narro" Third )orldist nationalis#, recalling the
i#portance o co##unist political practices and the 0Mar$ist criti-ue o class, colony
and e#pire1 in the oppositional culture and politics o the or#erly coloni,ed "orld& But
he also rejects criti-ues o nationalis# based 0not on the a#iliar Mar$ist ground that
nationalis# in the present century has re-uently suppressed -uestions o gender and
class and has itsel been re-uently co#plicit "ith all (inds o obscurantis#s and
re!anchist positions, but in the patently post#odernist "ay o debun(ing all eorts to
spea( o origins, collecti!ities, deter#inate historical projects&1
Despite his insistence that socialis#, not nationalis#, is the antipode to i#perialis#,
#any o %h#ad:s positions a#ount to a recuperation o progressi!e nationalis#& %nd
rather than analy,e "hy progressi!e national #o!e#ents ha!e all but disappeared in the
current conjuncture, %h#ad denounces both post#odernis# and the ailures o the
%nglo-%#erican let&
E#igre intellectuals ro# the or#er colonies "ho ha!e achie!ed so#e pro#inence in the
)est and "ho %h#ad regards as e#bracing post#odernis# -- Ranajit Euha, 'al#an
Rushdie and Ed"ard )& 'aid -- recei!e e-ually harsh treat#ent& %h#ad argues that
'aid:s criti-ue o )estern representations o non-Europeans 0panders to the #ost
senti#ental, the #ost e$tre#e or#s o Third )orldist nationalis#&1 +o doubt
Orientalism has been used in this "ay, and this is partly because 'aid see#s a#bi!alent
about the possibility o 0true1 representation or the ability o any )estern intellectual to
produce one& )hile Orientalism is not beyond criticis#, %h#ad does not suiciently
appreciate its o!er"hel#ing signiicance as a te$t that reor#ed %nglo-%#erican Middle
East studies&
%h#ad is critical o these acclai#ed igures because they ad#ire bourgeois culture, and
their intellectual and cultural anti-i#perialis# !alori,es the celebrity o a pri!ileged elite&
But %h#ad, too, is situated in an acade#ic institution, and the pri!ileges accorded by
such institutions enable us to read and "rite about each other:s "or(& %"areness o these
pri!ileges should lead us all to conduct criticis# in a #odest and co#radely, rather than a
dog#atic and personalistic style& %h#ad:s #oralis# obscures the !alidity o so#e o his
argu#ents&
=inally, %h#ad is #uch concerned "ith 'al#an Rushdie:s #isrepresentation o "o#en
in Shame, but he hi#sel barely engages "ith the "or( o "o#en li(e Jean =ranco,
Barbara <arlo", Mary 2ayoun, Ella 'hohat or Eayatri 'pi!a( -- all o "ho# ha!e #uch
to say about the #atters he addresses& This suggests that Mar$is# is here being deployed
as a discourse o e$clusion&
*n The Politics of Postmodernism 7Routledge, 15859 2inda <utcheon as(s "hether
post#odern politics can be useul to the e#inist #o!e#ent& 'he applauds
post#odernis#:s challenge to the apparent co##on sense inor#ing our cultural
representations and the political signiicance e#bedded in the#& 2i(e <ar!ey and
Ja#eson, she appreciates post#odern literature and photography& But she is -uite clear
that 0the e#inist and the post#odern -- as cultural enterprises -- can not be conlated1
because 0=e#inis# is a politics& .ost#odernis# is not&1 %nd this is because
post#odernis# has no theory o agency, no strategy o resistance and no "ay to
transor# the structures o #eaning that it so brilliantly e$poses and criti-ues&
Eayatri 'pi!a(:s #uch--uoted essay, 04an the 'ubaltern 'pea(F1 in 4ary +elson and
2a"rence Erossberg, eds&, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture 7*llinois, 15889,
addresses these proble#s& But her co#ple$ resolution is ulti#ately a!ailable only to
intellectuals& Gthers are apparently let to deine their political categories and strategies
by the 0strategic use o positi!ist essentialis#1 that she proposes in her introduction to
!elected !u"altern !tudies edited by Ranajit Euha and hersel, and published by G$ord
3ni!ersity .ress in 1587&
=or those concerned "ith the Middle East, nothing e$poses the political disabilities o
post#odernis# #ore than Jean Baudrillard:s article in The Guardian arguing that the
Eul "ar e$isted 0only as a ig#ent o #ass #edia si#ulation, "ar ga#es rhetoric or
i#aginary scenarios "hich e$ceeded all the li#its o real-"orld, actual possibility&:
4hristopher +orris opens and closes his #ncritical Theory: Postmodernism,
Intellectuals and the $ulf %ar 7Massachusetts, 155@9 "ith a criti-ue o Baudrillard&
Rather than disregarding Baudrillard as absurd and irrele!ant, +orris ta(es hi# on
because he belie!es that engaging Baudrillard in ter#s o the Eul "ar 0brings ho#e&&&the
depth o ideological co#plicity that e$ists bet"een such or#s o e$tre#e anti-realist or
irrationalist doctrine and the crisis o #oral and political ner!e1 o the let 7@79& +orris,
li(e <utcheon, rejects the e$cess o those "ho argue that historical e!ents ha!e no reality
outside te$ts, although both agree that they are gi!en #eaning through te$ts& This ine
dierence li#its "hat can be considered a !alid representation, preser!es the
episte#ological distinction bet"een truth and alsehood, and #a(es it possible to argue
ethically&
+orris also argues, si#ilarly to 'pi!a( and in opposition to Baudrillard, that Derridean
deconstruction 0sustains the i#pulse o Enlighten#ent criti-ue e!en "hile subjecting the
tradition to a radical reassess#ent o its grounding concepts and categories1 and
#aintains 0a scrupulous regard or the protocols o reasoned argu#ent and an ethics o
open dialogical e$change&1 8ie"ing deconstruction as an internal criti-ue o the
Enlighten#ent allo"s it to be deployed as a tool o cultural criti-ue by #any "ho share
+orris: dis#ay "ith post#odernist e$cesses& This strategy cannot deter#ine "hen it is
appropriate to suspend the intellectual con!ersation about #eaning and dra" a political
line, but it preser!es the possibility o doing so& *t is clear that the Eul "ar re-uired such
a response&
% dialogue is re-uired bet"een ad!ocates o Mar$ian political econo#y and post#odern
cultural theory because o the apparent inability o the "or(ing class to play the role
designated or it in Mar$ist theory/ because o cultural and political changes in recent
years that call into -uestion the !iability o oppositional political practices associated
"ith both Mar$is# and liberalis#/ and because o the inade-uacy o Mar$ist theory
about the nature o hu#an dierence& There is a basis or such a dialogue because, in
addition to their shared opposition to bourgeois society, #any Mar$ists and post#odern
literary deconstructionists can agree that language represents its reerent only through a
series o cultural ilters, and that interpretations so constructed are ne!er ully a"are o
their o"n #eanings& Both can reject scientiic positi!is# and agree that e!ents ha!e no
single deter#ination& Both can appreciate ho" post#odern cultural criti-ue under#ines
the apparently natural and co##on sense character o do#inant cultural representations
and e$poses the political interests in "hich they are e#bedded&
4ultural theory de!oid o political econo#y lac(s critical po"er and can easily beco#e a
or# o entertain#ent or intellectuals "ho ha!e no social co##it#ents beyond the
acade#y& )e cannot, ho"e!er, resuscitate the (ind o Mar$is# Terry Eagleton ad!ocates,
despite its intellectual elegance& But de!eloping an historically inor#ed, holistic
conception o society -- tentati!e and subject to change as it #ust be -- can be a po"erul
tool or understanding and political action&