There has been a tremendous pushback in recent years against what are broadly known as “grievance studies”; a loose collection of academic disciplines characterized by their emphasis on oppressive social and political institutions and the marginalized identities they victimize. The philosophical outlook underpinning these disciplines tend to be portrayed in a less ambiguous manner: it is typically described as some combination of Marxist politics with postmodern skepticism, and has been variously termed “cultural Marxism,” postmodern neo-Marxism, the New Left, and so on.
In his book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism From Rousseau to Foucault, the philosopher Stephen Hicks argues that post-Kantian thinking gradually led to the adoption of ever more skeptical epistemologies. At the same time, a growing number of intellectuals came to align with Marxist and socialist political perspectives. This leads Hicks to the claim that postmodern philosophy is the perpetuation of Marxist politics through other philosophical means. He argues that there is a clear through line where the scientific pretensions of classical Marxism gradually gave way to the irrationalist critiques of the cultural Marxists, and finally converged with the overtly skeptical epistemologies of the postmodernists. Specifically, postmodern skepticism was adopted as a philosophical backdoor to justifying socialism along largely emotive lines. To paraphrase a memorable quote in Hicks’s book, postmodern Leftists came to say feelings were all that mattered and their feelings demanded socialism. Hicks goes on to argue that this epistemological skepticism and cultural Marxist/Socialist politics is the philosophical wellspring of the various identity politics movements ascendant today.
I have already reviewed Hicks’s book elsewhere, and do not intend to repeat my criticisms of his argument here. My point in this brief essay is to highlight the historical and philosophical problems with conflating “cultural Marxist” analyses with postmodern philosophy. While I think that both traditions can be validly criticized on a large number of points—and I have engaged in such criticism myself at some length—so-called cultural Marxism and postmodern philosophy are in fact quite different perspectives. They need to be appreciated as such, and evaluated according to their own philosophical and moral merits and demerits.
The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory
The authors who can most justifiably be characterized as “cultural Marxists” belonged to the Institute for Social Research, which later colloquially became known as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. The history of the Frankfurt School begins in 1930, when Max Horkheimer took over and recruited an eclectic array of Marxist inspired scholars into the Institution’s ranks; including luminaries such as Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. These authors were largely inspired by two events. The first was the failure of Marx’s “scientific” prediction that a utopian revolution would emerge in developed Western states to overthrow the exploitative capitalist order. The most spectacular Marxist uprising—the infamous Bolshevik Revolution—began in underdeveloped feudal Russia. And far from a Communist Utopia, the Bolsheviks went on to establish a brutal totalitarian dictatorship.
The second event which inspired the Frankfurt School was the rise of fascism and Nazism in Western liberal democracies; most spectacularly in Germany, the homeland of the major authors. Many members of the Institute, including Adorno and Fromm, came from mixed or openly Jewish backgrounds and were appalled by the Nazis’ racial doctrines. The Institute fled Germany before the Second World War. In 1944, Adorno and Horkheimer published their seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment to try and explain how an enlightened liberal country could give rise to Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust. They returned to Germany after the conflict, and swiftly published a number of influential books in critical theory. These included Adorno’s dense work in ontology Negative Dialectics, Erich Fromm’s study of the psychology of totalitarian figures in Escape from Freedom, and Marcuse’s efforts to combine Marxism and psychoanalysis in works such as Eros and Civilization.
The Frankfurt School has often been misrepresented by authors such as Hicks, who argue they promoted abandoning reason in favor of irrationalism. But this is a misunderstanding of the aims of the Frankfurt School. Figures like Jurgen Habermas to this day argue that we need to recover or strengthen reason to fight against the temptations of skepticism and nihilism. The criticisms of the Frankfurt School were directed against what one might call “subjective” or “instrumental” reason. They argued that in modern societies, reason is often understood as a mere means to achieving our subjective ends. We tend to look at the world as a collection of different material objects that we could learn to manipulate and transform in pursuit of our desires. There was nothing wrong with this in and of itself. But the authors of the Frankfurt School were concerned that under the right cultural conditions this instrumental conception of reason would be extended into the human realm. They maintained it was not so great a leap from regarding crude matter as simply a means to our ends and regarding other human beings in the same manner.
They pointed out that the Nazis and other totalitarian figures regarded the mass of humanity as little more than a disposable tool that could be manipulated in the pursuit of state goals. When reason was culturally reduced to little more than an instrument for the achievement of our subjective desires, there were few reasons left to regard other human beings as possessing some intrinsic worth which we must not violate. Like everything else, they were simply objects in the world to be manipulated to ends set by other individuals, or under the right conditions, the state. This is because, when reason is purely instrumental, morality itself became purely a matter of subjective opinion. If reason is just a tool for achieving my ends, it can say nothing about why I should desire maximizing the welfare of all over establishing a totalitarian society. Which moral outlook was superior became simply a matter of preference. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, this instrumental “flattening” of reason was partially responsible for the rise of the death camps; with their hideous establishment of efficient factories for extermination, their gruesome experimentation on living subjects, slave labor to support the war effort, and so on.
None of which implies that the Frankfurt School wanted to abandon reason. Far from it. What they wished for was the adoption of a more holistic and sophisticated form of reason which provided space for the discussion of objective—rather than merely subjective—human mores within rationalized political discourses. Of course, one could rightly object that most of the early members of the Frankfurt School provided little guidance on what such a superior conception of reason would be. They also had little to say about what a political system based on such rationalized political discourses would look like. Later figures such as Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth came to argue that reason must be understood along more inter-subjective lines, and that the consequences of this for politics would be greater democratization and respect for a number of economic and social rights. As an evaluation of this argument would take up too much space, I will set it aside here. Interested readers may wish to peruse an earlier article I wrote for Quillette on the subject.
Postmodern Philosophy and Postmodern Culture
Postmodernism is one of the most debated topics in academic political discourse today. This belies the fact that, far more than even the “cultural Marxism” of the Frankfurt School, postmodernism has many iterations. I will here briefly repeat the distinction I have made elsewhere in distinguishing between postmodern philosophy and postmodern culture. I will then discuss how the former, especially, is philosophically distinct from the “cultural Marxist” positions of the Frankfurt Schoolers.
Postmodern philosophy, as presented in the work of figures like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty is the latest iteration of skepticism to emerge in the Western philosophical tradition. Postmodern philosophers in this vein were in fact largely not influenced by Marx or Marxism. Jacques Derrida was primarily influenced by French structuralist theories of language, German philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, and later religious thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Emmanuel Levinas. He only wrote about Marx late in his academic career, largely to understand the end of the Cold War’s ideological conflict. Foucault identified himself most closely with the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche (and later Immanuel Kant), and even called Marxism a completely outdated “fish out of water” in The Order of Things. Rorty admitted to never even being able to finish Capital. So the claim that the work of postmodern philosophers is a continuation of Marxism by other means is quite strange, both philosophically and politically.
The primary aim of these authors was to skeptically demonstrate the contingency of language. While positivist theories took language to be a tool used to “picture” the world piece by piece, and structuralists took a more holistic approach saying the meaning of a word was determined by its association with other words, the postmodernists stressed that many of the ways we use words are contingent and ambiguous. According to Derrida, the stability of our interpretation of what a word “means” often depends on ignoring ambiguities and contradictions which might bequeath alternate interpretations. For instance, we often underestimate how much our feelings about death determine our interpretation of the word “life”; when we go to the Doctor to extend our “life expectancy,” this is predicated on an implicit understanding that “death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”
By contrast, authors who interpret postmodernism as a cultural development—such as Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, Allan Bloom, and Neil Postman—tend not to be skeptics. In fact, they are often keen to refute what they see as the growing skepticism characteristic of contemporary cultures. Those on the Left, such as Jameson and Harvey, tend to regard this growing skepticism as the result of capitalist dynamics overthrowing older traditions and replacing them with new ones oriented by the subjective preferences of consumer culture. Those on the Right, such as Bloom, tended to blame changes in the literary curriculum and education system for growing skepticism. And figures like Neil Postman and Jean Baudrillard would claim that it was in fact changing communication technologies which were responsible for the emergence of postmodern culture. For instance, the shift from a society which read newspapers and books to one where most people learnt about politics via five minute soundbites and clickbait results in a culture that is paradoxically both more partisan and more skeptical at the same time.
There is considerable overlap between the analyses of the Frankfurt School and authors who regard postmodernism as culture. Both sets of authors believe that modern societies are characterized by a flattening of reason and political discourse. While the root cause is often debated, these authors are largely united in rejecting this as a negative development. They often call for the restoration of an earlier conception of reason—as did Allan Bloom—or they wish to develop new and better conceptions that will avoid the subjectivist pitfalls of instrumental rationality. This is often connected to their support for very concrete political projects; from proposals to revise the education system to calls for a more democratic and egalitarian society. And, most notably, both Frankfurt School authors and those who regard postmodernism as a culture were and are often extremely critical of postmodern skepticism.
By contrast, postmodern philosophers such as Derrida and Foucault are far more skeptical that any viable conception of reason and concrete political projects are intellectually sustainable. While they were often reticent to simply accept full irrationalism in all its nihilistic connotations, postmodern philosophers were often willing to flirt with deep skepticism and (to my annoyance) even mysticism in the case of Derrida as a default philosophical outlook. This was connected with their political arguments, which were almost always critical and frustratingly ambiguous about specific proposals to reform culture and society. How such a skeptical philosophy could be used to justify the various identity politics movements is a fascinating question, which will hopefully be taken up in the future. But as I hope I have made clear, the answer is far more complex than just drawing a through line from Karl Marx, to the Marxist critique of culture offered by the Frankfurt School, and finally to postmodern skepticism and politics.
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