Marxists or Jacobins?

One of the most disconcerting things about public discourse these days is the running together of ideas of ‘marxism’ and ‘postmodernism’, as though they are equivalent, or that latter grows directly out of the former.  This can be found, for example, in statements by YouTube pundits Jordon B. Peterson (Prof. of Psychology at U. of Toronto) and Douglas Murray (an Editor with The Spectator)[1].  Both might be described as conservative-leaning, but also hold strongly liberal views. 

The context is the current fusion of academic social theory and social movements based on identity politics. The argument seems to be that the defining feature of Marxism is an analysis of society in terms of a fundamental opposition of power, namely between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and a political call to overturn that power relationship, so the oppressed (the proletariat) are on top, and the oppressor (the bourgeoisie) is on the bottom.  What later postmodern, postcolonial, and identity-based theories supposedly derive from Marx is this same basic analysis and problematic, of a world defined by oppressed and oppressors, and a revolutionary call to overturn the relationship.  But now the bi-polar relationships concerned have both multiplied, in terms of axes of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity (class is often weakly in the mix), and yet also amalgamated into a macro-pattern of oppressed and oppressors.  Figures like Peterson and Murray understandably express frustration with how this model tends to over simplify the world, and become an ideological banner under which people march.  Marxism persists in a new outfit. 

But speaking as someone ‘who was there’, let me come back to the incongruity of this theoretical genealogy.  I studied for my PhD in an Anthropology graduate programme that was strongly marxian, though by no means intolerant of other views (CUNY in the early 1990s).  At that time and place, the common wisdom was that Marxism and postmodernism were antithetical, that you had to choose.  For instance, a key text that helped create a bridge between Marxism and emerging ‘identity politics’, Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy[2], while having roots in Marxist theory, was normally seen as essentially leaving marxism behind.  By de-prioritising the role of class conflict in relation to other axes of social conflict and identity, its call for a broad coalition of struggles was seen as an abandonment of the Marxist project. 

So, on one hand, the marginalised role of economics and class struggle in later postmodernism and identity politics is one reason for questioning how much these strains have inherited from Marxism.  On the other, the formal echo of fundamental polarised opposition does indeed seem to have some roots in Marx.  But I would focus on another aspect.  At the heart of Marx’s theory was the idea of ‘social labour’, that humanity is what it is in light of its capacity to perform cooperative work, that transforms both nature and society itself.  ‘Labour’, for Marx, took the place of ‘Reason’ for Hegel, as the central motivating force of human history.  In Marx’s hands labour becomes not just a key analytic concept, but also an almost metaphysical, and romanticised concept.  Nonetheless, it resonates well with what we know about the nature of society in our own prehistory.  It seems that early humans were able to survive and sometimes thrive precisely because of their unique capacity to work cooperatively, thanks to language and moral pressures created by the group. In a very real sense, society, both then and now, just is the cooperative organisation of work.  And while we can have many debates about how work should be organised today in a complex global society, and I would reject Marx’s economic theory, and his notion of history’s logic, the idea that labour is at the core of what it means to be both human and social, is robust.  It is the preoccupation with categories of identity and a rather omnibus notion of oppression, to the neglect of the role of social labour, that for me really distances the current trend from any Marxist roots.

But I would add that I’m not sure it works all that well to treat Marx as the original source of a ‘polarised oppression model’, however much we may trace genealogical connections in theory.  Marx was a product of his time, shaped, like Hegel was, by the modern idea of revolution, particularly as it had played out in France.  The idea that an old order, the ancien regime, was to be overturned root and branch, and replaced by a new, morally charged order of human emancipation, was in the air increasingly in the eighteenth century.  It broke onto the world stage, and into the popular imagination, decisively in 1789.  So here we find a paradox.  The current brand of strenuous identity politics, which is often highly critical of the Enlightenment[3], understood as a source of dehumanising rationalism and a will to colonial domination, is itself a product of the Enlightenment, following the ideological template of total revolution that emerged at that time and has persisted ever since[4].  Perhaps a better term for the ‘postmodern’ style of thought in question is not Marxist, but Jacobin.

[1] See: Douglas Murray (2020) The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, London: Bloomsbury Continuum, pp. 51-63.

[2] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London: Verso.

[3]  Due to another set of marxist influences via Frankfurt…

[4] See: Bernard Yack (1991) The Longing for Total Revolution: Philosophic Sources of Social Discontent from Rousseau to Marx and Nietzsche, new edition, Berkeley: University of California Press; Martin Malia (2006) History’s Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World, New Haven: Yale University Press; Daniel Chirot (2020) You Say You Want a Revolution? Radical Idealism and its Tragic Consequences, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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