Postmodernism: Theory and Politics

— Tony Smith

THE TERM "POSTMODERNIST" has been used to describe everything from contemporary paintings and music videos to amusement parks and information technologies. Things remain confusing even if we restrict our attention to postmodernist theory. A great variety of perspectives have been lumped under this heading.

Nonetheless, there are a number of theses that are closely associated with leading postmodern theorists such as Foucault, Lyotard, Rorty and Baudrillard.(1) For those who have not had the opportunity to read the works of these postmodernist authors and their critics, a brief account of some of the main points of debate may be useful. By and large the leading theoreticians of the postmodernist movement accept 1) the politics of particularity; 2) perspectivism and social constructionism; and 3) the claim that we have entered a radically new epoch.

Down With the Enlightenment?

The leading postmodernists all reject "Enlightenment politics," which can be defined as the project of constructing a world according to principles of universal reason. They follow Nietzsche in being suspicious of all claims to universality and reason; such claims always mask the power interests of those making them. Imperialist nations, ruling classes, males, whites, heterosexuals, doctors, psychiatrists and criminologists have all claimed that their perspective defines a universal and rational outlook. By doing so they have effectively silenced other nations, other classes, other genders, other races, those of other sexual orientation, patients, the mad and prisoners.

The leading postmodern theorists do not conclude from this that we should simply replace one claim to universality and reason with another. That would be to continue playing the Enlightenment game, and they believe that something much more radical is called for. And so they proclaim that reason is inherently manipulative and dominating, and that claims to universality necessarily involve the subjugation of what is "other."

Most of the leading postmodernists reject class politics in general on the grounds that it too is part of the Enlightenment heritage. They point out that claims to the priority of class politics have historically been connected to the suppression of the interests of women, people of color, gays and lesbians and others whose concerns escape a class framework. And most post-modernist thinkers reject Marxist class politics even more vehemently. In their interpretation, Marxist politics is based on the premise that a revolutionary vanguard can embody the interests of the entire working class.

Most postmodernists hold that Stalinism is the inevitable result of this framework; policies proclaimed to be in the universal interests of the working class represent, in fact, the quite particular interests of a bureaucratic elite.

If claims to universality are abandoned, the alternative is the politics of particularity, sometimes termed "identity politics." According to this argument, the voices of marginal groups are silenced when discussion is monopolized by those claiming to speak in the name of universal reason. Those engaged in postmodern politics resist this monopoly and attempt to let silenced groups be heard, each in its own particular voice. This requires a multiplicity of social movements, movements of women, people of color, gays and lesbians, patients, prisoners and so on.

It is unquestionably true that claims to universality and rationality have often masked the power interests of particular groups. It is certainly also true that there are a variety of general types of oppression (e.g. by race, sex, class), and that from a moral standpoint each general type of oppression is equally wrong.(2)

It must also be granted that those committed to class struggle have not always combined this with a vigorous struggle against other forms of oppression. For all these reasons the women's movement, the anti-racist movement and other movements struggling against oppression must have independent political organizations, independent leaderships and their own press. The goal of politics must include creating a social space within which differences can flourish, and it will take a plurality of different social movements for us to ever get there. These elements of the postmodernist position can be affirmed without reservation.

This does not mean, however, that the position defended by the leading figures of the postmodernist movement is fully adequate. On an abstract philosophical plane, Habermas has argued convincingly that the postmodern critique of reason cannot be formulated consistently. Postmodernists provide reasons for distrusting reason, thereby presupposing precisely what they claim to reject.(3) We should not abandon reason because some appeals to rationality have furthered the power of privileged groups. Instead, we should make use of a critical reason to undercut such appeals.

In a similar way the rejection of universality in the name of multiplicity and difference also cannot be coherently formulated. The principle that society should be structured so that all voices can be heard is, of course, itself a universal principle. (And for all the postmodernists' desire to beau courant, it is difficult to see how this is so different from the old liberal principle of toleration formulated by John Stuart Mill and others.)

On a more political level, the problem with the postmodernist stress on differences is that it overlooks the importance of forging unity in certain contexts. Oppression may take a number of different forms. But radical social change can occur only if alliances are formed among these oppressed groups in society. The one-sided stress on differences is as undialectical as a one-sided stress on unity.

The goal must be to bring about a unity that does not involve the suppression of the different groups within it Of course, this is easier said than done. But there are good reasons why the phrase "The people divided will never be defeated" hasn't caught on!

Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe are among the few postmodernists who acknowledge the need for unifying alliances.(4) Yet they too vehemently reject Marxist class politics. In their view, the working class is not a central and uniquely important ("privileged," in the current jargon) agent of social change, and so there is no reason that it must play a leading role in any alliance.

But in capitalist society oppressed nationalities, women, Blacks, gays and lesbians are also oppressed by capitalism, and this provides a practical basis for an alliance with the working class. Also, the working class maybe in a better position to play a hegemonic role due to its structural position in the social framework.

The capitalist class' control of the economic surplus gives that class a form of power that is unmatched in society. Any serious attempt at social transformation must concentrate on addressing this power. The struggles of men and women in the workplace address this power in the most direct fashion. In this sense class struggle retains a certain priority, although not one that would justify a dismissal of other forms of struggle.(5)

The postmodernist stress on differences overlooks a further point: The need for unity is not going to go away after any radical social transformation. Anyone attempting to carry through the postmodernist political agenda and set up a society of pure multiplicities will soon discover that different groups may favor incompatible uses of the same resources. In such cases the principle "differences must be respected" will not be very helpful in deciding between alternative proposals. Some mechanism must be discovered that allows different perspectives to be articulated and decisions to be made when conflicts arise. The model of socialist democracy sketched by Ernest Mandel addresses this problem:

“The real objective of building socialism must be authentic political representation of the proletariat as a whole, which is impossible without the flourishing of political,, ideological and cultural pluralism for the masses.... Without this sort of pluralism workers will not be able to really wield power. They will not be able to decide on the big problems of economic, social, cultural and international policy, because all these questions cannot be resolved in the workplace or on a local level. All these questions imply a choice between coherent alternatives on a national level (and even increasingly internationally). When you talk of such coherent alternatives you are dealing with different political platforms, precisely in other words about political pluralism.”(6)

Our choices are not limited to a unity that subjugates differences, on the one hand, or differences that prevent any unity from being articulated, on the other. We must strive to create a future society in which the rights of different groups are protected within a framework of unity. Socialist democracy provides such a framework,, while the politics of particularity advocated by most of the leading theorists of postmodernism does not.

Finally, the passage just quoted also makes clear that the equation of Marxism and Stalinism, accepted by so many postmodernists, is completely inadequate. Revolutionary Marxists such as Mandel have been unequivocal in their opposition to Stalinism and defense of political pluralism.

How We Know What We Know—and When

A second thesis associated with postmodernism combines "perspectivism" and "social constructionism." This approach can be traced back to the Kantian point that we cannot know anything of things in themselves, but only how they appear to us For Kant, however, phenomena ultimately had to appear to everyone in the same basic way. Nietzsche radicalized Kant by insisting that there are an indefinite number of possible perspectives, and thus an indefinite number of ways phenomena can appear to us.

Postmodernists are the children of Nietzsche, expressing his position in linguistic terms: We cannot know anything of things in themselves outside of how they are formulated in language. There is an indefinite multiplicity of different possible language games, no one of which can claim a privileged status. In this sense "reality" is constructed socially through these language games.

While some of the slogans uttered as battle cries by postmodernists ("Everything is a text!") suggest a particularly crass form of linguistic idealism, most post-modernists do not deny that there is an extra-textual reality. They simply deny that we can know anything about it.

This "perspectivism" has obvious affinities with the "standpoint" theories of knowledge accepted by many on the left, in which Marxist theory expresses the standpoint of the working class, neoclassical economics expresses the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, feminist theory expresses the standpoint of women, and so on. There is clearly something right about this approach; members of oppressed groups often understand things that those at the center of power cannot see.

It is surely also the case that social constructivism can illuminate certain aspects of social life. David Roediger, for instance, has argued convincingly that race is not something that exists in itself; to a great extent it is a linguistic social construct. This is a potentially emancipatory idea. It means that in principle it is possible to "abolish" whiteness, simply by refusing to play language games that encode racist cultural assumptions.(7)

The progressive potential in this approach is obvious if we compare social constructivism to sociobiology, which attempts to reduce all of social life to immutable biological imperatives. Should we then accept this second postmodernist thesis? Before doing so we should be clear about its implications.

Postmodernism involves a radical generalization of the "standpoint" theory of knowledge. Postmodernists point out that there are an indefinite number of possible perspectives. Any group one cares to mention can always be divided into an indefinite number of subgroups, and the standpoint of any one of these subgroups at any particular moment can always be modified indefinitely with the passage of time. Thus there is an endless proliferation of standpoints, no one of which can claim any privilege.

Once this move has been taken, the question of truth recedes completely. This leads to a number of difficulties. First, most postmodernist thinkers are never far from asserting that the thesis "there is no truth" is itself true. Obviously this is another statement that cannot be uttered consistently. Second, if there is no truth there is no reason to accept the claims of anyone, post-modernists included!

Finally, while all our assertions about the world are indeed mediated by language, this does not mean that language users do not have the capacity to refer to non-linguistic phenomena within language. In Against Postmodernism Alex Callinicos surveys recent work on the problem of reference by Anglo-American philosophers of language. He concludes that the arguments that we have this capacity are compelling.(8)

The classical Marxist claim was that a work such as Capital captures the inner nature of the capitalist mode of production, the social forms that allow us to comprehend the surface level of day-to-day life in capitalist society. In this view, an objective truth about capitalism is that it rests upon the exploitation of the working class. The "language game" of exploitation is not simply one among a multiplicity of language games, with no more validity than the language game of neoclassical economics. And so Capital is not simply an expression of the standpoint of the working class (although it is that too).

Feminist theory also can be interpreted as the formulation of objectively true claims regarding the ways in which gender bias is institutionalized within various social forms. Callinicos' arguments suggest that we should not rush to give up these claims in the face of postmodernism's fashionable skepticism regarding cognitive validity.

Turning to the question of social constructionism, it is surely true that aspects of social life such as racial dynamics and gender roles are not biologically determined. But it does not follow from this that biology plays no role in human life, as at least some leading postmodern theorists seem to suggest.(9) The unqualified social constructionism of much postmodernist thinking (linked to its anti-Enlightenment rejection of science) is as one-sided as sociobiology. Social life has a biological foundation (birth, subsistence, disease, death) that cannot be reduced to purely social dynamics.(10)

Finally, we must grant that the meaning of social relations rests on linguistic constructs. But there are certain material (extra-linguistic) practices maintaining those relations. Our sense of "Blackness" and "whiteness," of "masculinity" and "femininity" maybe linguistic constructs. But the economic relation of extracting surplus from a slave labor force cannot be reduced to a matter of discourse alone, and neither can the imposition of unpaid domestic labor on women. The influence of postmodernism has led far too much recent work in social history to ignore this elementary fact.(11)

Social constructionists have a number of valid insights. They must be combined, however, with precisely the sort of materialist analysis most postmodernists reject.

So What's New?

A third thesis associated with postmodernism is the claim that contemporary society forms a new historical epoch It must be stressed that not all so-called post-modernist thinkers accept this thesis. For Foucault, for instance, the contemporary social world is the culmination of a disciplinary society that has been developing over the last three or four centuries, and not a rupture from the recent past But most other postmodernist theorists insist that such a rupture has indeed occurred.

The claim that we are in a postmodern epoch is equivocal. This could be taken to mean that the capitalist mode of production—of which Marxism provides an accurate general account—has entered a new phase, one illuminated by certain aspects of postmodernist thought This is the position defended by Frederic Jameson.(12) Or the claim could be taken to mean that contemporary society now operates in a manner that makes the classical Marxist theory of capitalism completely irrelevant This is the position of Lyotard and Baudrillard.

The former claim is interesting and plausible. But the thesis that we have entered a radically new epoch in which classical Marxist theory has lost all relevance simply does not withstand close scrutiny.(13) We are not in a "post-industrial economy" in which services supplant manufacturing, although with productivity gains and increasing rates of exploitation a smaller workforce in manufacturing can produce a much larger quantity of goods. Nor are we in a period where mass production has suddenly ceased: there is a considerable replacement market for cars, washing machines and refrigerators, while new mass markets for video-recorders, walk-men, compact disk players, microwave ovens, dishwashers and food processors have arisen.

We also do not live in a world where the consumption of images and spectacles makes the question of the organization and control of the means of production suddenly irrelevant. The circulation of images and spectacles depends upon the ownership and control of satellite discs, information networks, video technologies, studios and television stations.(14)

It cannot even be said that we live in a period where changes in everyday life are more pronounced than in the past. In the period between 1850 and 1940, railroads, steamships, telegraphs, electricity, telephones, automobiles, motion pictures, radio and airplanes were introduced, all of which combined to transform daily life in ways as profound as any transformation today.

If anything is new in the contemporary period, it is the way developments in technology and markets have allowed capital accumulation to expand its scope both extensively and intensively. The last pockets of peasant agricultural production have been transformed through links to the world market. More and more aspects of social life have been brought under the commodity form. This counts as a development within capitalist society and not a transition to a qualitatively new sort of "postmodern" society.

It would be a mistake simply to dismiss postmodernism as a fad representing the views of spoiled Yuppies.(15) The postmodernists' stress on the importance of differences and multiplicity, on the social construction of meaning systems, and on the incursion of the circuit of capital into more and more dimensions of social life are all valuable insights that can greatly enrich historical materialism.

But postmodernism cannot be said to have supplanted historical materialism. Historical materialism culminates in a call to confront the power of capital directly. Nothing in postmodernist theory weakens the force of this call.


  1. A very helpful analysis of most of the major postmodern thinkers can be found in Postmodern Theory, Steven Best and Douglas Kellner (New York: Guilford Press, 1991).
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  2. This does not mean that each instance of oppression is equally wrong. Bourgeois democracy does not equal fascism; a sexist joke is not morally equivalent to a rape.
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  3. Jurgen Habermas, Lectures on the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987).
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  4. Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985).
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  5. This argument is forcefully presented by Ellen Meiksins Wood in The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism (London: Verso, 1986).
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  6. Ernest Mandel, In Defense of the Fourth International, International Viewpoint, special supplement to issue #93, Feb. 21, 1986, 17.
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  7. David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York Verso, 1991). I mention this work only as an example of how aspects of the postmodernist position are helpful. Roediger's own position transcends the limitations of social constructivism
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  9. Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (New York: St. Martin's Press), 108.
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  10. In his most influential works Foucault considers the body as a "docile body, completely formed by the apparatus of power/knowledge. Such complete social determination leaves no room for any relatively autonomoue biological determination. Baudrillard s eradication of the biological is just as radical; he abandons the category of biologically determined needs completely.
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  11. See Sebastiano Timpanaro, On Materialism (London: Verso, 1975) and “Rethinking Women's Oppression,” by Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas (New Left Review, No. 144, 1984).
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  12. Bryan Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) amply documents this.
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  13. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).
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  14. See Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, Chapter 5.
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  15. Tony Smith, “The Critique of Marxism in Baudrillard's Later Writings,” Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 3, Nos. 3-4, 1990.
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  16. This is the conclusion Alex Callinicos comes to at the end of Against Postmodernism.
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July-August 1993, ATC 45