Some books I read in 2021 (3) – ‘The Illusions of Postmodernism’

The appearance of widespread support among organisations describing themselves as Marxist for demands that don’t have a material basis – I’m referring to the claims of some trans activists that men can become women simply by declaring it – has come as has surprise to many, although perhaps it should not.

In attempting to explain this, those Marxists who are rooted in a materialist understanding of the world have referred to these organisations’ orientation to students, who are a strong constituency of the broad movement supporting this particular claim.  In effect, it is argued that these organisations that should know better do not want to alienate potential recruits and presumably don’t see the issue as important enough to risk doing so.

They are acutely aware that even to raise any question invites denunciation as a transphobe and calls for what is now called cancelling – ‘trans rights are not a debate’ is not only a slogan.  This censorious approach does not sit well with Marxists, for whom this is simply not an approach we can afford to take even if we wanted to, which we don’t.

It is all very well for trans activists to refuse to debate, or refuse to argue for their views and address challenges; their demands have had access in corporate boardrooms and HR departments, and in the corridors of government departments, judiciary and university administrations.  This is a more than inviting substitute.  For Marxists this is impossible – our politics are based on the self-emancipation of working people and this isn’t going to come from within these locations.

Of course, a more interesting question is how this constituency came to support these views in the first place, although the book reviewed doesn’t really focus on this.  I’ve rather read it with a view as to how these views, that should be so alien, have been so easily embraced by sections of the Left.

Reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘The Illusions of Postmodernism’, published twenty-five years ago, makes a number of observations about its target that help inform this inquiry.

So, in his preface, he defends himself against the anticipated criticism that he is placing himself on the same side as conservatives, which has often been an argument of some on the Left, thus the examples are numerous.  As one example we have Brexit, which supposedly must be supported because the EU is capitalist, and big business supports it, so we can’t be on the same side as it.  Of course, this also requires a certain set of blinkers.

Eagleton agrees that ‘radicals and conservatives, after all, necessarily share some ground in common’, which explains resistance to postmodernism and its progeny, including the type of claim above.  ‘Radicals, for example, are traditionalists., just as conservatives are; it is simply that they adhere to entirely different traditions.’ (page ix) 

The Left has lots of ‘antis’ – anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and anti-austerity.  That none of them necessarily entails socialism gets missed, so much so that some organisations name or define themselves in these terms, forgetting that there are reactionary movements that endorse each.  Ironically, many ‘social justice’ demands today are not even anti-capitalist.

He thus notes that postmodernist ideas (and their offspring) can be subversive but not transformative; positive content is effectively evacuated and the power to change does not arise, even if it were contemplated, from reality but from moral outrage against the oppressive power of language, hence the need to police it.

‘Some, one might predict, would assume that the dominant system was entirely negative – that nothing within this seamlessly non-contradictory whole could by definition be of value – and turn from it in dismay to ideologise some numinous Other.’ (page 7)

Many on the Left have long thought of capitalism as in terminal decline, in continual crisis with workers equally as long being exhorted to be angry and outraged.  Capitalism has no contradictions, otherwise it would not simply be utterly reactionary and, faced with a simple negative, the positive becomes a socialism that is not grounded in capitalism but has its own foundations.  Since these are uncontaminated by capitalism they are uncontaminated by reality and must rest on purely ethical claims – as do the claims of trans activists that men can become women and that they must be supported because they are oppressed: ‘only the oppressed know their oppression’ so no need to be ‘labouring away in the British museum’, as Eagleton explains, in order to understand it. (page 5)

In responding to postmodernist claims that it is opposed to dogma – and Marxism is always characterised by opponents as such – Eagleton notes that ‘one of the commonest forms of postmodernist dogma is an intuitive appeal to ‘experience’, which is absolute because it cannot be gainsaid.’ (page 67)  This, of course, also means that anyone else’s experience, of postmodernists for example, cannot be challenged either.

The low level of class struggle facilitates the alternative arising out of capitalism being judged on purely moral grounds because a real mass struggle will contain lots of impurities (which of course Marxists will want to combat) so will not therefore withstand any test based on a perfectly moral yardstick.

We know this from the experience Marxist organisations continually hark back to – the Russian revolution.  The issue here is not to excuse or condemn its failings but to recognise it is not a great example for today and that these failings were not moral but material and political.  It wasn’t ripe for socialism, particularly if left on its own – and it was left on its own – and given this it was inevitable that something other than working class self-emancipation would rise to take over.

This is what has happened with opposition to racism and sexual oppression etc.  Without a working class movement which can embrace them and offer a totally different system, within which their needs can be expressed, their demands are enveloped by politics compatible with capitalism.  All the rhetoric and ‘Theory’ is mainly camouflage.

So, the autonomous and rational individual subject that is the basis of liberalism is taken to another level when such an individual can determine the sexual nature of their own body.  It is claimed by some transgender activists that their gender identity is innate and not an internal processing of external culture, but this is similar to ‘any brand of epistemological anti-realism, it consistently denies the possibility of describing the way the world is, and just as consistently finds itself doing so.’ (page 28)

Hence, some trans activists deny the world has caused their gender dysphoria but just as consistently demand that this world can and must ameliorate it.

As Eagleton notes ‘at a certain point in the 1970s, all concern with biology became ‘biologistic’ overnight . . . Properly afraid of a vulgar reductionism, some strands of postmodernism responded to this danger by the rather more violent tactic of erasing the biological, and occasionally the economic, altogether.   In speaking materially about culture, it began to speak culturally about the material.’ (page 48)

‘What culture you inhabit is not definitive of your humanity, in the sense that beings of different cultures are not creatures of different species.  To be some kind of cultural being is indeed essential to our humanity, but not to be any particular kind.  There are no non-cultural human beings, not because culture is all there is to human beings, but because culture belongs to their nature.’ (page 101)

Eagleton takes up the sibling of race and gender as these are perceived by some postmodernists, which is class.  But ‘classism’ is not something Marxists have ever complained about, unlike racism and sexism.

‘’Classism, on this analogy, would seem to be the sin of stereotyping people in terms of social class, which taken literally would mean that it was politically incorrect to describe Donald Trump as a capitalist. Socialists, however, churlishly refuse to subscribe to the orthodoxy that social class is a bad thing, even though they are out to abolish it.  For socialism, the working class is an excellent thing, since without it one could never usurp the power of capital.’

‘On the surface, the class–race–gender triplet appears convincing enough.  Some people are oppressed because of their gender, some on account of their race, and others by virtue of their class.  But this is a deeply misleading formulation.  For it is not as though some individuals display certain characteristics known as ‘class’, which then result in their oppression.  On the contrary, Marxists have considered that to belong to a social class just is to be oppressed, or to be an oppressor.  Class is in this sense a wholly social category, as being female or having a certain skin pigmentation is not.’ (page 57)

‘The oppression of women is a matter of gender, which is wholly a social construct; but women are oppressed as women, which involves the kind of body one happens to have.  Being bourgeois or proletarian, by contrast, is not biological at all.’ (page 58)

Some of these ideas are obvious for Marxists, which points not to explaining how easily some Marxist organisations have adopted idealist constructs of woman, but how difficult it should be.  Any explanation should therefore entail how this departure is not really unique and surely a result of some general malaise.

So, to come back to what I have called the moral basis of much of the politics practiced by some on the Left; Eagleton asks a question that returns us to social reality – ‘Is the capitalist system progressive?’

He responds – ‘The only reasonable answer is a firm yes and no.  On the one hand, Marx’s praise for capitalism is surely well justified.  Capitalism, as he never tires of arguing, is the most dynamic, revolutionary, transgressive social system known to history, one which melts barriers, deconstructs oppositions, pitches diverse life-forms promiscuously together and unleashes an infinity of desire . . . As the greatest accumulation of productive forces which history has ever witnessed, it is capitalism which for the first time makes feasible the dream of a social order free of want and toil.’

‘All of this, of course, is bought at the most terrible cost.  This dynamic, exuberant release of potential is also one long unspeakable human tragedy, in which powers are crippled and squandered, lives crushed and blighted, and the great majority of men and women condemned to fruitless labour for the profit of a few.  Capitalism is most certainly a progressive system, and is just as certainly nothing of the kind.’ (page 61)

For a long time, many on the Left have sought to overcome their marginality by relying on capitalist crises to radicalise workers, but through a moral critique unhinged from how that capitalism works.  The key question for them was creation of a revolutionary party, but neither capitalist crises or moral indignation will create it, so it becomes as idealistic a construct as postmodern ideas of social justice that look to other agencies, if they look at all.  When they do they especially look to the state.

Today some of the Left endorses claims that are utterly unrelated to reality, doing so because these appear as demands of the oppressed, forgetting that the working class is not the agent of change because it is particularly oppressed; others have been much more oppressed and much more numerous.   Unfortunately, an ungrounded moralistic alternative is very unlikely to be accepted by the working class and especially its more irrational claims.  This Left will make another mistake, and if we have learnt anything, it is that it always pays for them.