Chris Harman

Thinking it through


(November 1997)

From Socialist Review, No.213, November 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘The emperor has no clothes.’ So, according to the Guardian, declare the authors of a new book, Impostures Intellectuelles, attacking postmodernism which is causing tumult in French academic circles.

They insist that the major writings of this fashionable intellectual current are deliberately obscure, excessively convoluted, pseudo-scientific claptrap. People may think postmodernist ideas are ‘difficult because they are deep’, but ‘if they seem incomprehensible, it is for the very good reason that they have nothing to say.’

Whatever else the authors – a Belgian and an American scientist – may argue, their tone of denunciation is bang on. Postmodernism is the fashion that has poisoned an increasing proportion of academic intellectual life in the last two decades. Its central message is that we have to abandon any attempt to arrive at a true understanding of the world. All any of us can ever do is to interpret things according to our own perspectives – or ‘discourses’. To try to win people to our version of ‘truth’ is simply to try to subject them to our power. And to seek after a total understanding of the world is to tread the slippery slope towards ‘totalitarianism’.

Applied to sociology or history, postmodernism means an insistence that many different accounts are possible of any piece of human behaviour or any event, each as valid as any other. Applied to literature or film, postmodernism means an abandonment of any attempt to locate characters in the material and social world. Instead, both the characters and their world dissolve into kaleidoscopes of different images, not linked by any overall pattern. Typically the central character is the self questioning author, while the fascination of the work is meant to lie in clever knowing allusions to other works of art or literature.

Defenders of postmodernism (for instance, in the letters page of the Guardian) claim that it challenges established perceptions of the world and is in this way ‘subversive’.

It is true certain strands in postmodernism derive from attempts to challenge bourgeois orthodoxy – on the one hand, in the great works of modernist literature and art which used fragmented images in order to shock people into seeing how fragmented and dehumanised their world was, on the other in the Marxist tradition which sought to cut beneath superficial surface appearances to the reality of alienation beneath.

Some of the best known names in French postmodernism came out of these traditions. But the ‘post’ in postmodernism signifies precisely a clean break from both traditions. Each strove in its own way for a total depiction of reality. There can be no total picture for postmodernism. That is why it attacks Marxism as ‘reductionist’ and ‘essentialist’.

Some postmodernists do lay great stress on particular forms of oppression based on gender, ethnicity and sexuality. They see these as resulting from the ‘social construction of reality’. But they have nothing to say about where that ‘social construction’ itself comes from, except to point at cultural traditions or even the use of words. The answer to oppression then becomes to counterpose one definition of identity to another. After all, postmodernism has to deny there can be real social forces determining which ‘discourse’ triumphs.

But that is not all. Once oppression become simply a question of words, it becomes optional whether you favour or oppose it. The denial of any underlying reality, of any total structure of exploitation and oppression, necessarily prevents the consistent postmodernist from seeing one view of the world as any better than any other. There are simply different, equally valid, ‘discourses’.

But that precludes any possibility of affirming one account of history or one assertion of identity to be better than another. The Nazi and the anti-Nazi, the white racist and the black liberationist, the new lad and the old feminist, all should, logically, be regarded as equally valid approaches.

The result is that however radical some postmodernists might once have been and however convoluted their prose, their preaching is tailor-made for those who long ago gave up the struggle against an alienated and dehumanised system. Shallowness dressed up as depth provides armoury for those who insist, often with a near-totalitarian tone of their own, that there are no real problems and no real solutions.

Like most fashions, there is nothing historically novel about postmodernist denial of reality. It is about as new and as radical as New Labour. Similar trends have arisen in the past when the inheritors of once radical intellectual traditions have given up fighting the powers-that-be.

The best known example was in Russia after the failure of the revolution of 1905. All sorts of mystical and religious ideas became fashionable as intellectuals lost their faith in change and reconciled themselves to tsarism. Even former leading Bolsheviks became enamoured with the view that real knowledge of the external world was impossible, forcing Lenin to devote many months to debunking the fashion in his philosophical diatribe, Materialism and Empirio-criticism.

That fashion faded in the face of the barbarism of world war and the renewed upsurge of revolution. The clash of real social forces was so powerful that even the most complacent intellectual circle could no longer pretend they did not exist.

There are signs today that the aura of postmodernism is similarly beginning to fade as France, the land of its birth, is increasingly pulled in opposite directions by the revival of the workers’ movement on the one hand, and by the growth of the Le Pen Nazis on the other.

Such a polarisation leaves little room for those who would treat the denial that the Holocaust took place as an ‘discourse’ which cannot be tested against any facts.

Some years back some Socialist Worker supporters produced a T-shirt saying ‘Bollocks to Postmodernism’. It seemed like a cry in the dark at the time. I suspect it won’t be for much longer.

Last updated on 21 December 2009