Goldner’s Marxism

Loren Goldner, Vanguard of Retrogression: Postmodern Fictions as Ideology in the Era of Fictitious Capital, Queequeg Publications, PO Box 672355, New York, NY 10467, 2001. Paperback, $10.

Reviewed by Cyril Smith

THE STARTING-POINT for this volume is the rapidity with which the 60s wave of radicalism evaporated:

By 1971, it was clear that the whole culture of the previous 30 years was fading away. In New Left bastions like Berkeley, people, who only 1-2 years before had wanted to be professional revolutionaries, were now scrambling to be just professionals: lawyers, doctors, academics, but, of course, in an entirely new way.

Many of those who had thought of themselves as Marxists decided that they had been totally deluded and that it was time to grow up. Others clung to their old slogans and beliefs, while refusing to ask themselves what had happened in the real world. Loren Goldner decided that neither of these approaches was right. Instead he began to re-examine the traditional ideas of the Left and to analyse the new trends which had taken their place.

His new book is a marvellous antidote to that intellectual complacency which prevails on the so-called Left today. In a series of essays which have appeared over the past twenty years, he confronts a wide variety of problems to test out how the ideas of Marx can take them all on. As he explains in the introductory essay it is the latest to be written, since he prints them in the reverse order the contributions were written against the grain of much of the ideology of the past 50 years, above all in its left and far left guises, that might be summarised with the term middle class radicalism.

He counterpoises this kind of radicalism to the politics of Marx, especially on the issue of freedom: Middle-class radicalism conceives of freedom as transgression, as the breaking of laws, the refusal of all constraints, as the Situationist International put it 30 years ago, whereas the Marxian project of communism conceives of freedom as the practical solution of a problematic which evolved theoretically from Spinoza and Leibnitz to Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach as the transformation of laws, up to and including the physical laws of the universe.

This way of posing the question demands the re-examination of a multitude of political, economic and philosophical questions, covering centuries of thought. Goldner is not afraid to take up this task.

Scathing about the kind of single-issue politics which replaced all consideration of the transcendence of capital in the 80s and 90s, he demonstrates it to be the background to the ludicrously-named postmodernism. This is what replaced thinking as the excuse for mindless politics, and his savage and uncompromising onslaught on these tendencies will gladden the heart of many a reader. Read, in particular, the 1993 essay, The Nazis and Deconstruction: Jean-Pierre Fayes Demolition of Derrida, and the 1989 one on The Universality of Marx.

Several important themes recur throughout the book, and a brief review can do little more than refer to them. In a number of places Goldner pursues the postmodernists into the realm of literature and cultural studies, in one essay showing how this followed the virtual eclipse of American literature in the 1960s. Two 1998 essays take up the question of the origin of the concept of race. Goldner shows how this coincided with the period of the Enlightenment, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This shadow on the Enlightenment runs directly counter to the old Marxist story about the bourgeois revolution. In this connection, study also the 1991 piece called Multiculturalism or World Culture: on a Left-Wing Response to Contemporary Social Breakdown.

In 1993, Goldner had written about The Renaissance and Rationality: The Status of the Enlightenment Today. Here, he carefully separates his critique of the Enlightenment from its fashionable postmodern rejection. Even more important, he revisits the tradition of Hermetic and heretical thinking which the Enlightenment thought it had buried for ever. What is needed, he believes, is the rehabilitation, in suitably contemporary form, of the outlook of Paracelsus and Kepler, not of Voltaire and Newton, which the left requires today, for a (necessarily simultaneous) regeneration of nature, culture and society, out of Blake’s fallen world of Urizen and what he called single vision and Newtons sleep.

Two papers, one written in 1983 and one in 1979, deal with the history of the natural sciences from this angle. In them, Goldner points out, in a startling and stimulating way, links between ideas which would not ordinarily enter the same head at the same time.

Each of these chapters raises a multitude of questions, often without pausing to attempt to answer them. On all these issues, a huge amount of work is needed. If we are to see a regeneration of the international workers movement, these are the problems which have to be tackled, and Goldners book should be an invaluable spur to this work.