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On Bad Marxist Engagements With "Post" Theory

It has now become something of a rite of passage for those of us who declare fidelity to marxist theory––especially those of us who are also academics––to spend some time and energy bashing that semi-unified field of theory which falls under the rubric post: post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-marxism, and post-colonialism.  Obviously, since this post tradition has often set itself up as a radical rejection of the "totalizing" theory of marxism, those marxists who encounter Foucault, Butler, Spivak, Said, etc. usually feel that they must mount a counter-defense for marxism.  Especially since this post theoretical terrain, like marxism, often seeks to set itself up as a rejection of capitalism.  So almost every year there's at least one marxist text devoted to attacking the Foucaults and Butlers of the world, generally in the hope of proving that these theorists are all secret liberals who have nothing important to say.

Clearly, when it comes to the revolutionary movements in the global peripheries––to the radicalism of the world's most exploited and oppressed––the supposed radicalism of post-modernism/post-colonialism is generally unknown and definitely non-influential.  An Indian peasant that is part of the Naxal rebellion could care less for these theorists who, unlike so many marxists, have nothing to say to the wretched of the earth and whose theory will never resonate with the masses in whose name they often claim to speak.  Even those committed to a post-modern politics must be forced to admit that the most revolutionary movements have never found marxism as eurocentric as the post-colonialists (whose ideas, by-the-by, can be traced back to arch-eurocentrists like Nietzsche) imagine; perhaps to Spivak's horror, the subaltern's embrace of marxism can be seen as some sort of totalizing move on the part of devious communist intellectuals… But the fact remains that these intellectuals are often embedded in the masses whereas those who take issue with this fact are making conjectures from the standpoint of academia.

Point being whereas the supposed "totalizing" theory of marxism has always inspired revolutionary action, the radicalism of post theory––with its over-reliance on jargon, reified categories, and intentional opaqueness––generally resonates only with academics.  By the same token, however, the academic marxist rejections of this very same theoretical terrain also resonates primarily with academics.  For if the masses aren't reading Foucault, then they sure as hell aren't reading the latest rejection marxist critique of Foucault.  (Just as, to be entirely honest, the masses aren't reading this blog!)

None of this is to say that theoretical engagements with post-modernism/post-colonialism aren't useful.  More importantly, none of this is to say that this terrain of post theory––despite its alienation from the masses and philosophical limitations––also isn't useful.

Indeed, as much as I think that it is important to wage ideological struggle against theory that I consider to be ultimately idealist, I also think that a lot of marxist engagements with this post theory are thoroughly flawed in that they are dismissive and that they generally misread and straw-person the object of critique.  I would rather read Foucault than some random-academic-marxist-with-a-publishing-contract's asinine "critique" on something s/he was too lazy to read in a respectful manner: at least Foucault is a better writer than these second-stringer marxists; at least Foucault has something more interesting to say than "post-modernism is dumb cuz it en't marxism, dur hur hur."

Even worse is the fact that a lot of marxists read these critiques rather than reading the theory itself and then make the rest of us look like idiots when they talk about Foucault or Butler or Spivak or whoever based only on reading these terrible critiques rather than the theory itself.  And then they, in turn, write their own critiques based on reading these previous flawed critiques… Foucault would be chuckling at this discursive process, folks!

Michel "Uncle Fester" Foucault smirks at you. 

As much as I have serious problems with the philosophical foundations of post-modernism/post-colonialism, I think it is worth admitting that this theory, despite its equally asinine critiques of marxism, is useful for marxists: some of the critiques of marxism's more orthodox aspects are insightful, some of the analyses of history (regardless of the flaw in method) can be imported into a historical materialist understanding of things, some of the critiques of eurocentrism are worth investigating, etc.  Although we should challenge the philosophical foundations of this school of theory and uphold, if we are revolutionary communists, the living tradition that began with Marx and Engels, we should have nothing to fear from the challenges raised by post-modern/post-structuralist/post-colonial theory: the proof of marxism is in the unfolding of class struggle, the historical momentum of revolutions, and what we communists often refer to as science (which is to say that very "totalizing" theoretical approach) that proves theories like post-modernism to be as flawed when it comes to social and historical science as idealist and fragmented theories of nature are to natural science.  Simply by dismissing these theorists entirely and not seeing how their ideas might challenge the historical process of marxist theory is not very dialectical––moreover, it's kind of like protesting so much that some people might think we have something to hide.

[Caveat: I don't think Homi Bhabha needs to be taken seriously.  This is because I think his work is entirely useless, has nothing interesting to contribute to theory aside from jargonistic mystification, and is the perfect example of a theory that is radical in form but vapidly liberal in content.  Seeing as he strives to be needlessly opaque, and once you reduce his opaqueness to properly translucent sentences you can realize he's not saying anything very interesting, Bhabha's essays are prolonged exercises in academic obscurantism.  Considering that he only ever mentions "colonialism" and "imperialism" in the sense that they are indeed post––as if they are events that happened in the past rather than ongoing––it is no surprise that he is a liberal in practice and has endorsed imperialist interventions such as the invasion of Afghanistan.  His introduction should be taken out of the current edition of The Wretched of the Earth so that Fanon can stop spinning in his grave.]

It is also worth pointing out that some of the marxist critics of post-modernism have a political praxis that is actually worse than the theorists they are attacking.  Take Aijaz Ahmad, whose In Theory is actually a pretty good (aside from that terrible chapter on Said) engagement with post-colonial theory: whereas Arundhati Roy, who is closer to a post-modernism, is supporting the most revolutionary movement in India, Ahmad is a supporter of the Communist Party India (Marxist)––a party which really does deserve the term "social fascist"––that is actively engaged in supporting neo-liberalism and endorsing the slaughter of peasant revolutionaries.  So while it may be true that no revolutionary praxis can be derived from post-modern theory, it is also true that some marxists will always have problems deriving revolutionary praxis from marxism.


  1. I like this post - I tend to have to read a lot of post-modern stuff for the classes I TA, and actually find a lot of it to be pretty useful in conjunction with a marxist analysis in my work. It's not all bad! (though I do like to laugh to myself when I overhear new grad students in my program talking about how Spivak will change your life, etc. But I'm just crusty).

    1. Yeah, it's not all bad: my general problem with it, as noted above, is that its foundations are extremely dubious… And I find it rather funny that the post-colonial school of thought attacks people like Fanon for his marxist suppositions, and how Marx is all Eurocentric, and then hope we'll ignore the fact that their philosophical presuppositions actually come from Nietzsche by way of Foucault. But oh well, foundations aside, there are useful points made by these thinkers. Foucault has been influential in some way on my own work, despite my problems with him, as has Said. (Yeah, I don't think Spivak has really changed anyone's life, at least not in some revolutionary way... Not that I dislike Spivak, but you know.)

  2. Hi,
    I really like and relate to this post. Although, I might find more to like in the radical wing of Post-structuralism/post-colonialism, I also understand that there is a strong undercurrent of liberalism in much of the discourse. Having said that, I think some of the key figures (Derrida, Spivak, Foucault, et. al) have a lot to say and are radical (i.e., in the sense of getting at the root of issues) rather than liberal, and are quite worth reading. I'll never forget that in one of my classes, a "more Marxist than thou"type once said "I have never read him, but Foucault is worthless..."

    1. Yeah, I really can't stand it when people dismiss the Foucaults of the world without having read them. I also agree that a lot of them aren't liberal, but their fundamental propositions sometimes might lead to a default liberalism––that "strong undercurrent" you imply.

  3. I love your stuff, but I do have a one problem with many of your posts. This post is an example. You say post modernism is dubious and that many Marxist critiques of them are equally bad, but you really don't give any specific examples of this. I understand that a blog post isn't going to go into everything; that would be impossible. But you could go into one example of the kind of thing you are talking about. Or you could mention a variety of concrete examples without going into them, just so I can go look up what your actually speaking of.

    For example, you say that the foundations of post stuff are wrong, but there isn't a way for me to know what your talking about. I have my own knowledge of post modernism, but there is no way for me to know if what I *think* your talking about is what you are *actually* talking about. So when you say the foundations are wrong; ok, that sounds interesting, please tell me at least some of what these wrong foundations are.

    After reading your blog post, all I know is that some guy on the internet has a mostly negative opinion on post modernism. I haven't really learned anything about post modernism or Marxism. Now, I could go and independently read things and learn about these topics instead of your blog, but then why would I read your blog?

    This is a running problem in many of your posts. But your blog is great, so I hope I don't sound harsh.

    1. Hello, thanks for the comment. No, I don't think you're harsh... The problem, though, is that my blog posts are not academic essays. What you want, therefore, is what I write in my professional/academic life and this blog is where semi-formed ideas go to die: a place of rants, thoughts, reflections, but not academic essays. Some of my ideas are developed in a form closer to essays but most of them are just insights here and there––this is why it is a blog and not a book or a journal.

      Therefore, I didn't critique post-modernism in this entry because it wasn't the point of this entry and I think you might have misunderstood the point of this entry. I wasn't concerned here with critiquing post-modernism/post-structuralism/post-colonialism and any critique was just an aside. This post was simply a complaint about marxists who *dismiss* post-modernism (and this is pretty much a given) and therefore, in some ways, a defense for reading post-modern theory. Marxist critiques of post-modernism that I find problematic and not very good? How about the ones by Eagelton and McNally... pretty much every one, though.

      Since this was therefore not a post about my beef with post-modernism, and actually I don't plan to write one soon because I think that marxists waste too much time complaining about this phenomena which is only an academic phenomena and that the masses could care little about (again this was the point of this entry), I didn't want to waste time bashing a school of theory that has been unfairly bashed, and is actually insignificant when it comes to on the ground organizing, by countless marxists. No need to add myself to that number when I what I was doing here was saying "hey fellow marxists, read your post-modernism/post-structuralism/post-colonialism."

      I'll give you my problem with these schools of theory in a nutshell, though: the decentering of the subject produces an epistemic foundation that provides nothing for struggles against oppression and struggles on behalf of the oppressed and in fact turns anti-oppression struggles into another totalizing narrative; the concept of power is idealist because it is ultimately treated, if you follow through the logic, as something outside of space/time––biopower, knowledge-power, et al. subjects bodies throughout time, but then where did this power come from, and there is no such thing as "power" that is not economic or political… in this way, the post-modern ontology is akin to Duhring's theory of force. But the problem, now that I've said this, is that this would take pages and pages of thoughtful writing to explain thoroughly and that is not the point of this blog.

      Maybe all I'm saying here is that someone needs to publish my dissertation (where there is a point where I demonstrate the inadequacies of post-colonialism when compared to anti-colonialism due to the former's post-modern framework and discuss that in pages and pages of detail) or the book I'm writing on. But this blog is not a place for this kind of depth because I don't have the time and energy to write like that here on a consistent basis: if I did, it would never get updated. I think I explained this in an earlier post, in fact, about what this blog *is* and what it is *not*.

    2. Could I get access to your dissertation?

    3. Maybe… since it's not published I don't like sending it out to people I don't know. If you were in Canada I'd direct you to the Library of Congress where it's apparently filed (or if you were Toronto to the York University Library) but unfortunately you probably can't get ahold of it that way.


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