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Class Struggle in the Terrain of Theory Again!

After attending Jasbir Puar's recent Toronto talk and book launch the other night I was struck again with the dilemma that post- theory presents to Marxists, particularly Marxists like myself who occupy some sort of academic space. We all, to different degrees, represent the deep-seeded problem with what is often called "post-modern" philosophy/theory: its displacement of Marxism upon the sanctified pedestal of recognized radical theory, its idealist (and quite often obscurantist) bases that permit identity politics and movementism to proliferate as praxis, and (most damningly) the fact that the foundational authors of this tradition only achieved academic hegemony through a translation project funded by the CIA. I have diagnosed this problem in previous posts, and in Continuity & Rupture I attempted to provide a general explanation for the rise of "post-modernism" by linking it to a Marxist retreat forced by the "end of history" narrative of capitalist victory.

To be clear, I've never been happy with the rubric "post-modern" to describe this internally heterogenous body of theory that has displaced Marxism within the hallowed halls of theoretical sanctification. As I mentioned in the aforelinked post, while Lyotard used this term it was not used by the more influential and pernicious thinkers grouped under this rubric (i.e. Foucault, Derrida), nor by those who have taken their analyses and extended their theoretical ethos within the realm of theoretical struggle (i.e. Butler, Spivak, Agamben, etc.), so it becomes an inaccurate buzzword that often obscures what is at stake. The fact that reactionaries also centre "post-modernism" as their prime target, sometimes even connecting it directly with Marxism as Jordan Peterson does, demonstrates the extent of the term's inaccuracy. About a month ago I got sucked into an online debate with a Peterson supporter committed to the idea that there was a link between "post-modernism" and "Marxism", regardless of the facts of reality, and it became clear that part of this commitment was due to the vagueness of the term "post-modernism" that permitted this misreading. And I was reminded of all of this when I read Shuja Haider's critique of Peterson's conceptualization of "post-modern neo-Marxism" which provided a clear articulation of the pedigree of French theory that has been homogenized as "post-modernism" despite the fact that this umbrella term is not always accurate. (But also I'm probably one of those people Haider seems to dismiss as a Marxist "of a certain persuasion" who "unequivocally loathed" Derrida's Spectres of Marx.)

Hence, I feel it is more appropriate to use the term post-marxist to define this theoretical trend. Yes, I realize that "post-Marxist" is the term that is supposed to apply specifically to thinkers such as Laclau and Mouffe, but they are tied also to the other post- trends and term appropriately in a general sense applies to all of these streams of radical theory––Foucauldian, Derridian, Spivakian, Agambenian, etc.––than "post-modern". Not simply because of the fact that "post-modern" was never a unifying term but, in the first place, because some of this post- theory is not at all a rejection of modernity but, in point of fact, an adoption of some of the most reactionary aspects of bourgeois modernity criticized by the Marxist tradition, a tradition which has always been about, according to Samir Amin, "a modernity critical of modernity." Foucault's concept of genealogy, for example, is derived from Nietzsche whose philosophy represents the most predatory valorization of the bourgeois subject and this subject's reasoning: modernity is not escaped, it is only translated according to the grossest conception of the bourgeois individual. But all of this theory is post-marxist because it could only ever exist because of Marxism blasting out space within academic discourse, and thus is tied to this history. For example, Foucault would never have even come to the attention of academia, eventually promoted through translation by the CIA itself, if he wasn't functioning within a space cleared by Marxism, a space he used to turn against Marxism so as to displace its authorization of the radical critique of all that exists. The same applies to Derrida, Baudrillard, Lyotard, and every thinker that patterned their work according to this post-marxism. A displacement and replacement of historical materialism with theoretical models that became the de facto critiques of capitalism without providing a materialist basis to actually fight capitalism.

With all of this in mind back to the Puar talk and my thoughts about it… The most obvious being: why the hell does she, like so many others, treat Foucauldian categories such as "biopolitics" as possessing any sort of material veracity when such categories are idealist wagers, products of academic theorization, that lack a strong materialist argument. A lot of these post-marxists just say things, providing no argument as to why we should accept these things as being actual things, as if they are also asserting the very scaffolding of reality that their rejection of "totalizing narratives" is meant to trouble. Biopolitics becomes a universal standard in theory despite the fact that its originators opposed universality, so their very claims about the political order should not be accepted as immediately correct by their own logic. So how have we reached a point that chic radical theorists just think according to these post-marxist categories, which are spurious and particularist, without bothering to go deeper? Why is a historical materialist narrative (that could ground concepts like "biopower" in material relations) forbidden because it is "totalizing" but narratives that seek to replace it are allowed to be "totalizing" despite proclaiming that they are not? The language to answering these questions necessitates historical materialism, the very framework that post-marxism forbids despite the fact that the latter has thrived, was only able to come into being, because of Marxism.

But Puar's talk also made me think about multiple works of theory and philosophy that have been produced in the last two decades that, while eschewing historical materialism and developing according to the categories of post- theory, nevertheless contain important insights and analyses of the state of affairs that Marxism could benefit from. Puar is a case in point. While I have expressed my problems with Terrorist Assemblages (in an aborted series of blow-by-blow reviews), I nevertheless recognized the conceptions developed in that book as important and timely. My problems were: i) the obscurantism that rendered the text unnecessarily opaque; ii) the picking and choosing from the buffet of post-marxist theory that courted idealism and eclecticism. Still it would be wrong to dismiss her work, especially since she is also an academic who engages in an activism that, in this day and age, puts her career at risk. Moreover, this past month I read Jodi Byrd's masterful Transit of Empire that also eschews a historical materialist framework (though it does engage with various Marxists, including Lenin) and yet is clearly a very significant addition to Indigenous theorizations of settler-colonialism and anti-colonial self-determination. Unlike Puar, Byrd is a very clear writer who seems to be interested in generating texts that can be understood by her community, contributing to their struggles. But at the same time, since a historical materialist foundation is explicitly lacking in Byrd's approach (though it might be implicit, much more so than Puar) a stodgy and orthodox Marxist could easily declare it "post-modern" (even though Byrd also critiques "post-modernism" and even "post-colonialism" from the vantage point of Indigenous resistance) due to its apparent refusal to ground itself in explicit Marxist categories.

There is this troubling attitude in contemporary Marxism, in all of its tendencies, to quarantine theories that are not historical materialist and use the pejorative "post-modernist" as a blanket dismissal. Many Marxists do not bother to even read the foundational "post-modernist" texts and instead decide that they all mean a commitment to identity politics, that their displacement of Marxism means that the generate nothing that we can use, and generally fail to even struggle with the actual theory since they prefer straw-person secondary sources, written by other Marxists who also don't really read these texts. Of course we need to be critical of this kind of theory, especially since all variants of post-marxist theory lack the grounding that historical materialism can provide, but we can only do so if we understand them for what they are. When an ML revisionist mocks Marxists for reading Foucault, for example, we should wonder whether this ML revisionist has themselves read Foucault. Quarantine often demonstrates a failure of innoculation: if you haven't really steeled yourself in the basis of historical materialism chances are, if you actually bother to read these counter-traditions, you might lack a materialist immunity system.

Can we imagine how Capital would exist if Marx had not bothered to critically read Smith, Ricardo, and others? Like just imagine telling Marx he was a traitor for engaging with the bourgeois economists and liberal philosophers of his time, that he should quarantine all these other tendencies from his project and pretend that they did not exist. A radical reading Adam Smith in 1867 is similar to a Marxist reading Foucault in 2018. If you forbid the latter then you must forbid the former, which would mean the collapse of the basis of historical materialism.

If we take seriously Althusser's injunction about pursuing a "class struggle in the terrain of theory" then we must read and engage with the traditions that have sought to displace historical materialism from the space of radical theory. For when we approach this theory from a grounding in historical materialism (and it is important to do so with this grounding rather than just become enamoured with it because we haven't familiarized ourselves with the historical materialist classics – one should not dispute a pseudo-science without a grounding in the science in question) we will be able to account for its existence, reveal its short-comings, and engage with it in a rigorous manner that it itself lacks. We have everything to gain from this kind of approach: i) we will not demonstrate an ignorance of the material and thus be unequipped to deal with arguments against Marxism that are produced by non-strawperson versions of post-marxism; ii) we will not make arguments that resemble the kinds being made by reactionaries, such as Jordan Peterson, and thus in refusing to make critiques from the right will also be able to grasp and reject the critiques of "post-modernism" that are in the service of a right-wing agenda; iii) we will be able to delineate between positive and negative aspects of this work, buttressing historical materialism with insights generated by theorists who are not historical materialists but who still, in their opposition of the state of affairs, produce useful concepts.

Robert Biel's The Entropy of Capitalism is a good example of a historical materialist work that has been able to draw from post-marxist theories while still remaining grounded in a Marxist approach to reality. Concepts taken from Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, and Agamben are drawn upon by Biel to elucidate and expand on an analysis that cannot be anything but Marxist and, moreover, is indebted the tradition of Maoism. The Marxist grounding enabled him to understand how these concepts could be used in his essentially historical materialist project, blasting them out of their idealist context and repurposing them according to a materialist approach. It is impossible to read The Entropy of Capitalism as anything other than a Marxist work of political economy, but it is equally impossible to see how it would succeed in accomplishing its aims without its repurposing of particular post-marxist work. Marx and Lenin did the same with theory antagonistic to their politics, and this theory was even more antagonistic than much of post-marxism!

The larger problem, to be clear, is the ways in which bourgeois academia (which has the most power in determining the veracity of intellectual labour) has coded the permissibility of challenging capitalism in the the realm of theory. The Marxism that is permitted tends to be some form of Trotskyism, or at least "Political Marxism" (which is also indebted to a Trotskyist understanding of reality), and even this viewpoint is marginalized. Otherwise the anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist/anti-colonialist theory that his hegemonically acceptable is some variant of post-marxism. We should recall, here, Aijaz Ahmad's critiques of post-colonialism (while being clear that Ahmad was also a supporter of a revisionist Indian communist party that has collaborated with neo-liberalism) where, in In Theory, he argued that the main reason post-colonial theory even existed as a theory was because intellectuals from the peripheries, who wanted to write against power, mainly drew upon post-marxist theory because they were not permitted to draw upon anything else if they wanted to be taken seriously. There is a certain normativity accorded to these post-marxist theories that was once accorded to Marxism; radical intellectuals seeking to challenge the state of affairs are thus conditioned to begin and end with this limited theoretical framework. But we can do better: by honestly presenting the ruination of the post-marxist perspective, and by demonstrating how we are able to navigate these ruins, we can struggle to demonstrate a better construction of theoretical understanding.

Much of this struggle, though, must and will take place outside of academia. It is not about seizing power in academia (although we should never abdicate this struggle, particularly in a time where the alt-right is focusing on a take-over of the sites of knowledge production) but about building counter knowledge sites that are part of our movement. Building such institutions are part and parcel of a theory of People's War, but that is a topic for another time.