Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Poststructuralists as Frustrated Marxists-Communists

What is wrong with the Left today? In my view, a big problem is the ideology called Postmodernism.

Chomsky in the video below gives us some fascinating insights into the origins of French Poststructuralism – and also into its modern offshoot Postmodernism.

Remember he is talking about the origin of French Poststructuralism in the early 1970s.

Chomsky understood the origins of Poststructuralism very well: many of the big French Poststructuralists – like Roland Barthes (1915–1980) and Michel Foucault (1920–1984) – had been Marxists, and some of them Stalinists and Maoists.

They become disillusioned with this cult-like ideology by the late 1960s and early 1970s, which had also been associated with Structuralism (the fashionable academic theory that replaced Existentialism in post-WWII France). The result? These frustrated Marxists turned to Poststructuralism, and to what they believed was a new “radical” critique of “bourgeois” society and civilisation. Unfortunately, this involved all sorts of unbelievably stupid nonsense such as truth relativism, the idea that texts don’t really have authors, and that texts can mean anything you like (no matter how insane your interpretation).

A crucial foundational text for the emerging Poststructuralist movement was Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” (Barthes 1967 = Barthes 1977). In this, Barthes essentially argued that critics should divorce their study of a text from its author, and that a text is not a product of its author with a definite and fixed meaning intended by the author (see Barthes 1977: 146).

The radical political agenda for this nonsense was expressed quite openly, explicitly and without any shame by Barthes in this article, as follows:
“Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’ – victory to the critic. …. literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” (Barthes 1977: 146).
In other words, let us ignore authors and pretend texts can mean anything. In the process, we can emancipate ourselves from “reason, science, [and] law.”

As an aside, some people seem to think that Michel Foucault was some great exception to the absurdity of the Poststructuralist movement, but this is entirely wrong and anyone who bothers to read Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” (Foucault 1984 [1969]) can see clearly he was fully on board with the stupidity.

Any person who wants to be “liberated” from reason and science is simply unhinged. The Poststructuralist ideology and its Postmodernist offspring was nothing but the most outrageous betrayal of the Left, which, if anything, ought to be strongly defending reason and modern science.

Let us just probe one point in what follows. For example, what would being “liberated” from modern science even involve? Would you be “liberated” from modern science-based medicine? Liberated from scientific principles that ensure that our engineers built buildings, houses and other structures that don’t just collapse on people’s heads and kill people?

Liberated from vaccination programs or scientific principles of public health and sanitation that protect first-world countries from diseases that still plague the developing world? Liberated from the germ theory of disease? Liberated from the principles of internal combustion and science that make motor vehicles work?

The few people in our world today who seriously want to be “liberated” from modern science are mostly religious fundamentalists of the most extreme kind – people who don’t accept Darwinian evolution or even modern medicine. Is that who the progressive left wants to stand with these days?

It is not surprising that the Postmodernist left took up this bizarre hostility to science to the point where it had become an embarrassment to anyone who cares to look at the issue seriously.

If the left wants to reform and strengthen itself, a good place to start is simply for left-wing people to subject Postmodernism to the withering criticism and contempt it deserves, without any concern for offending fellow leftists. Postmodernism does very little except rot your brain – it is the enemy of reason, science, logic, progressive economics and rational discourse.

Further Reading
“Postmodernism: Its Family Tree and Origins,” February 8, 2015.

“Quantum Weirdness and Nonsense,” October 4, 2015.

“Foucault’s “What is an Author?”: A Critique ,” March 7, 2015.

“Lectures on Russian Formalism and Semiotics and Structuralism,” February 19, 2015.

“Postmodernism and Third World Progressive Movements,” February 9, 2015.

“Yanis Varoufakis on Postmodernism and Economic Methodology,” February 16, 2015.

“The Left needs to abandon Postmodernism,” February 5, 2015.

“Chomsky on Žižek and Lacan,” February 6, 2015.

“Nonsense and Postmodernist Writing,” February 7, 2015.

Barthes, Roland. 1967. “Death of the Author,” Aspen 5/6.

Barthes, Roland. 1977. “Death of the Author,” Image Music Text (trans. Stephen Heath). Fontana, London. 142–148.

Foucault, Michel. 1984 [1969]. “What is an Author?,” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader. Pantheon, New York. 101–120.


  1. i'm not sure how your characterization as "frustrated marxist-communists" holds in any meaningful sense, except to note that marxism and postmodernism were both major intellectual currents among leftists of the past century, and some people happened to flit between them (among others). worth mentioning also that marxists have been responsible for some of the most thorough and enduring critiques of postmodernism

    (also, it's not clear what a 'marxist-communist' is or how it differs from a garden-variety marxist or communist)

    are you using marxist more as an epithet or a descriptive term?

    1. "Marxist" means "bad" for LK. And poststructuralist means "bad". Unfortunately many post-Keynesians consider themselves idological Marxists and many derive a good deal of their work from Marx. The poststructuralists are "bad" for doing this. The post-Keynesians are "not bad".

      Why? Something to do with Science and Reason, I think. Science and Reason are "good". And post-Keynesians like Science and Reason. So they are "good". They can be forgiven for "bad" Marx-reading because they are "good" Reason-loving Scientists.

      Of course we all know what really fractured the left throughout history: factionalism. But ignore that. Instead focus on goodies and baddies. It's easier.

    2. Yes, to me Marxism means a badly flawed and wrong dogmatic economic theory whose proponents -- when they put it into practice -- produced some of the most vile, brutal and murderous regimes in human history. That I am supposed to not think this -- when all the evidence shows it is true -- is bizarre.

      Also, I have to say it must come as a profound shock to most Post Keynesians to be told that they are all or mostly “id[e]ological Marxists and many derive a good deal of their work from Marx” when in fact most of them:

      (1) reject the labour theory of value, the foundational theory of Marxism (just as indeed Keynes rejected it as well as Michał Kalecki and Joan Robinson, the great founders of the school)

      (2) reject commodity money (which Marx maintained must always be the basis of money)

      (3) reject the long-run Classical prices of production of Marxism (unless you are a Sraffian but as King notes they have been expelled from the mainstream Post Keynesian school now)

      (4) reject command economies

      (5) reject the nationalisation of all industry

      (6) reject the abolition of private property

      (7) reject the imposition of an authoritarian Marxist “dictatorship of the proletariat”

      (8) reject historical materialism and historical determinism.

      (9) take their foundational work, not from Marx, but from Keynes (who despised Marxism).

      But it seems in the comment above we have entered that very "Twilight Zone" Postmodernist world where words – in this case the word “Marxism” – can mean anything you like.

    3. admitting that it is just an epithet saps your argument of any strength. that's unfortunate, but maybe we can salvage this. do you understand the theoretical basis for PKian rejection of those things?

    4. ichigoanno@October 22, 2015 at 6:47 AM

      Is your comment addressed at me or the TheIllusionist?

    5. i should have said. theillusionist hazarded an answer to my first question, which turned out to be the right one based on your agreement after. but both questions were meant to be directed at LK

      please forgive me for being unclear

    6. The second comment is poorly phrased and, frankly, it is difficult to even understand.

      If you are saying that I admitted that "Marxism" or "Marxist" are just "epithets", I did no such thing.

      TheIllusionist's assertions that Post Keynesians are just "id[e]ological Marxists and many derive a good deal of their work from Marx” is patently untrue.

      "do you understand the theoretical basis for PKian rejection of those things?"

      Do I understand the "theoretical basis" for Post Keynesian rejection of the labour theory of value and Marxist economics and its vile authoritarian political ideology? Yes, I do . Do you??

    7. i have already apologized for being unclear. no need to rub it in. if you "did no such thing," as you say, then your comment was also very unclear, since you began by agreeing with theillusionist.

      you have also misquoted theillusionist by leaving out "many" and thus changing the meaning of their remark.

      and you are coming off very aggressive at the end there, instead of just explaining.

      perhaps this was not a good place to come to discuss these matters. apologies

    8. "i'm not sure how your characterization as "frustrated marxist-communists" holds in any meaningful sense,"

      Of course it holds: Chomsky explains actually why in the video and it is an empirical fact that many of these French Poststructuralists were former Marxists. If you dispute this, then show me evidence against it.

      They were frustrated revolutionaries and of the 1968 generation -- the soixante-huitards -- and turned to this absurd Poststructuralist radicalism when they became disillusioned with Marxism/Maoism.

      Again, if you dispute this, then show me evidence against it.

      And now: notice how you don't even engage with the other major substantive points in the post:

      (1) what would it mean -- as Barthes seemed to want -- to be "liberated" from modern science?

      (2) Do you seriously believe this nonsense that texts can never have any fixed meaning?

      (3) do you dispute that Foucault was fully committed the this "Death of the Author" nonsense?

    9. " if you "did no such thing," as you say, then your comment was also very unclear, since you began by agreeing with theillusionist."

      I agreed that I think Marxism -- as a clear and particular economic and political ideology -- is bad. I do not say I thought "Marxist" was just some meaningless epithet or term you can define in any way you like.

      "Marxist/Communist" is a descriptive term that refers to a clear group of ideologues taking their origin from Marx and Engel's works and based on Marx's economic theory in the 3 volumes of Capital, namely, early Marxists of the 19th century, Marxist-Leninists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, and Maoists. I assume this is clear.

  2. I understood you perfectly well LK.

  3. I found this post very interesting. I never knew you were a Marxist LK.


  4. Thanks, Ken, B, at least someone appreciated it.

    I never knew you were a Marxist LK.

    lol... that is the result of the Postmodernist view that texts and words have no fixed meaning. Possibly you are a Marxist too, Ken B: for when you describe yourself as "libertarian" you can mean "Communist" by that term.

    1. Communist? Well, whenever I apply logic Murphy's crew calls me one!

  5. What do you think of Varoufakis identifying as a marxist? Do you have a theory why some very smart people apparently fall for such unhinged lunacy?