By Stephen Hicks*
From postmodern epistemology to postmodern politics
There is a problem with making epistemology fundamental to any explanation of postmodernism. The problem is the postmodernists’ politics. If a deep skepticism about reason and the consequent subjectivism and relativism were the most important parts of the story of postmodernism, then we would expect to find that postmodernists represent a roughly random distribution of commitments across the political spectrum. If values and politics are primarily a matter of a subjective leap into whatever fits one’s preferences, then we should find people making leaps into all sorts of political programs. This is not what we find in the case of postmodernism. Postmodernists are not individuals who have reached relativistic conclusions about epistemology and then found comfort in a wide variety of political persuasions. Postmodernists are monolithically far Left-wing in their politics.
The Climate of Collectivism
Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty are all far Left. And so are Jacques Lacan, Stanley Fish, Catharine MacKinnon, Andreas Huyssen, and Frank Lentricchia. Of the major names in the postmodernist movement, there is not a single figure who is not Left-wing in a serious way. So there is something else going on besides epistemology. Part of that something else is that postmodernists have taken to heart Fredric Jameson’s remark that ‚everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political.‛
The spirit of Jameson’s remark lies behind the persistent postmodernist charge that epistemology is merely a tool of power, that all claims of objectivity and rationality mask oppressive political agendas. It stands to reason, then, that postmodern appeals to subjectivity and irrationality can also be in the service of political ends. But why?
Another part of that something else is that Leftist thought has dominated political thought among twentieth-century intellectuals, particularly among academic intellectuals. But even given that fact, the dominance of Left thought among postmodernists is still a puzzle—since for most of socialism’s intellectual history it has almost always been defended on the modernist grounds of reason and science. Marx’s socialism has been the most widespread form of far-Left thought, and ‚scientific socialism‛ was the Marxist selfdescriptive phrase. A related puzzle is explaining why postmodernists particularly among those postmodernists most involved with the practical applications of postmodernist ideas or with putting postmodernist ideas into actual practice in their classrooms and in faculty meetings—are the most likely to be hostile to dissent and debate, the most likely to engage in ad hominem argument and name-calling, the most likely to enact ‚politically correct‛ authoritarian measures, and the most likely to use anger and rage as argumentative tactics. Whether it is Stanley Fish calling all opponents of affirmative action bigots and lumping them in with the Ku Klux Klan or whether it is Andrea Dworkin’s male-bashing in the forming of calling all heterosexual males rapists, the rhetoric is very often harsh and bitter. So the puzzling question is: Why is it that among the far Left—which has traditionally promoted itself as the only true champion of civility, tolerance, and fair play—that we find those habits least practiced and even denounced?
Evidence, reason, logic, tolerance, and civility were all integral parts of the modernist package of principles. Socialism in its modern form began, in part, by accepting that package. The argument of the next three chapters As modernists, the socialists argued that socialism could be proved by evidence and rational analysis, and that once the evidence was in socialism’s moral and economic superiority to capitalism would be clear to anyone with an open mind. This is significant, because so-conceived socialism committed itself to a series of propositions that could be empirically, rationally, and scientifically scrutinized. The end result of that scrutiny provides another key to explaining postmodernism. Classical Marxist socialism made four major claims:
1. Capitalism is exploitative: The rich enslave the poor; it is brutally competitive domestically and imperialistic internationally.
2. Socialism, by contrast, is humane and peaceful: People share, are equal, and cooperative.
3. Capitalism is ultimately less productive than socialism: The rich get richer, the poor get poorer; and the ensuing class conflict will cause capitalism’s collapse in the end.
4. Socialist economies, by contrast, will be more productive and usher in a new era of prosperity.
These propositions were first enunciated by socialists in the nineteenth century, and repeated often into the twentieth before disaster struck. The disaster was that all four of socialism’s claims were refuted both in theory and in practice. In theory, the free-market economists have won the debate. Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman have shown how markets are efficient, and they have shown, conversely, how socialist top-down command economies necessarily must fail. Distinguished Left-wing economists such as Robert Heilbroner have conceded in print that the debate is over and that the capitalists have won. In theory, the moral and political debate is more up for grabs, but the leading thesis is that some form of liberalism in the broadest sense is essential to protecting civil rights and civil society in general—and the liveliest debates are about whether a conservative version of liberalism, a libertarian one, or a modified welfarist one is best. Many Leftists are re-packaging themselves as more moderate communitarians, but that repackaging itself shows how far the debate has shifted toward liberalism.
The empirical evidence has been much harder on socialism. Economically, in practice the capitalist nations are increasingly productive and prosperous, with no end in sight. Not only are the rich getting fantastically richer, the poor in those countries are getting richer too. And by direct and brutal contrast, every socialist experiment has ended in dismal economic failure—from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, to North Korea and Vietnam, to Cuba, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Morally and politically, in practice every liberal capitalist country has a solid record for being humane, for by and large respecting rights and freedoms, and for making it possible for people to put together fruitful and meaningful lives. Socialist practice has time and time again proved itself more brutal than the worst dictatorships in history prior to the twentieth century. Each socialist regime has collapsed into dictatorship and begun killing people on a huge scale. Each has produced dissident writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nien Cheng who have documented what those regimes are capable of.
These points are well known, and I dwell upon them in order to project the depth of the crisis that this meant for Left-socialist intellectuals. By the 1950s, the crisis was being felt deeply. Instead of having collapsed in the Great Depression of the 1930s, as both the collectivist Right and the Left had hoped, the liberal capitalist countries had recovered after World War II and by the 1950s were enjoying peace, liberty, and new levels of prosperity. World War II had wiped out the collectivist Right—the National Socialists and the Fascists—leaving the Left alone in the field against a triumphant and full-of-itself liberal capitalism. Yet while the liberal West’s recovery and its rising political and economic prominence were distressing to the far Left intellectuals of the West, hope was still offered by the existence of the Soviet Union, the ‚noble experiment,‛ and to a lesser extent by communist China.
Even that hope was brutally crushed in 1956. Before a worldwide audience, the Soviets sent tanks into Hungary to stifle demonstrations by students and workers—thus demonstrating just how strong was their commitment to humanity. And, more devastatingly, Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged publicly what many in the West had long charged—that Joseph Stalin’s regime had slaughtered tens of millions of human beings, staggering numbers that made the National Socialists’ efforts seem amateurish in comparison.
*Teman Syara Algone,