IDOM 34 editorial: postmodernism and history

“A journal that sets out to be a militant materialist organ must be primarily a militant organ, in the sense of unflinchingly exposing and indicting all modern “graduated flunkeys of clericalism”, irrespective of whether they act as representatives of official science or as freelancers calling themselves ‘democratic Left or ideologically socialist’ publicists.” (Lenin, On the Significance of Militant Materialism)

Welcome to the latest edition of In Defence of Marxism, which represents a new and exciting point of departure for our magazine.

In the nine years since it first commenced publication, in the Spring of 2012, the In Defence of Marxism magazine (IDoM) has established a firm reputation for serious Marxist analysis and commentaries on both theoretical questions and burning issues of the labour movement.

Although it was initially launched as a British journal, it has always had a strong international orientation and audience. It closely followed the political line of, the well-known website which has gained a well-deserved reputation for its consistent and uncompromising defence of the ideology and principles of revolutionary Marxism.

We have felt for some time that the International Marxist Tendency needed a theoretical journal, and the obvious candidate for this role was IDoM, which had the advantage of being “ready-made” and well established.

The political line of the journal will not change, apart from the new layout and presentation. However, the new magazine will now appear in several languages apart from English (Spanish, Portuguese, German and Swedish translations are already planned, and other languages will follow) It will be published in dozens of countries around the world, either in paper or digital format.

We trust that our existing readers will continue to give us the same enthusiastic support as ever and look forward to welcoming a large number of new readers, convinced that the ideas of Marxism will continue to be a never-ending source of inspiration to revolutionary workers and youth everywhere.

The importance of theory

The first number of the revamped IDoM is a special issue devoted mainly to the subject of Marxism versus postmodernism. Some people may be surprised at this decision. Why waste time discussing abstract and obscure ideas that have no relevance to the working class?

But this criticism misses the point entirely. Marxism does not confine itself to agitation on issues of immediate interest to the mass of the working class. Marxism is much more than a political programme and an economic theory. It is a philosophy, the vast scope of which covers not only politics and the class struggle, but the whole of human history, economics, society, thought and nature. It is too often forgotten that Marx and Engels started as philosophers and that a revolutionary philosophy, dialectical materialism, stands at the very heart of their thinking.

As Lenin pointed out in his classic of Marxism, What is to be done?:

Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.”

Revolutionary class struggle cannot be reduced to the immediate bread and butter struggle of the working class. Among the innumerable squabbling sects who falsely claim the title of Marxists, we frequently find a thinly veiled contempt for theory and a slavish worship for what they consider to be “practical issues.”

The newspapers of the sects are full of cheap agitation, written in a “popular” style, as though the workers were little children incapable of grasping “difficult ideas.” This merely shows a snobbish contempt for working-class men and women, a typical feature of the petty bourgeois mentality and characteristic of people that have no real knowledge of the working class.

In fact, the workers soon tire of being told things they already know very well. They are well aware that they’re exploited by the bosses, living in bad houses, paid too low wages, that they pay too much for water and electricity, and so on and so forth. But the thinking workers – those who have already understood the need for a fundamental change in society – will not be nourished by such stale crumbs.

The most advanced and militant workers seek a more satisfactory diet. They wish to acquire a serious understanding of the world in which they live. Far from being put off by theory, these workers have a thirst for knowledge and ideas. It is the task of genuine Marxists to help them acquire those ideas.

Without theory, we would have no reason to exist as a separate political tendency. It is what distinguishes us, on the one hand, from the reformists of both the left and right variety, and on the other hand from the sectarian blockheads. The role of our magazine is not to tell the workers what they already know, but to provide them with the necessary theoretical armoury to prepare them for the great tasks that impend.

The struggle for theory is a fundamental prerequisite for preparing the workers for the struggle for power. Whoever does not understand this has no understanding of what Marxism is. Alongside the economic and political struggles, as Engels explained, the working class must also wage war against the dominant ideas in bourgeois society. Engels’s Anti-Dühring and Lenin’s book on Empirio-Criticism, were classic examples of that struggle.

It is our duty to go on the offensive against the reactionary bourgeois ideas that are being continuously churned out by the universities. We must mercilessly expose the bourgeois professors for what they really are: ‘graduated flunkeys of clericalism’, to use the phrase by which Joseph Dietzgen describes the university professors – the idealist apologists of the capitalist system.

Dialectical materialism remains one of the most important weapons in our revolutionary arsenal. And since dialectical materialism is the basis and foundation of Marxism, it is quite logical that of all the theories of Marx, no other has been so attacked, distorted and slandered.

In the present period, the most prominent weapon of the bourgeoisie against Marxism has been postmodernism, which is the crudest form of subjective idealism. The honour of fighting against the stream, of combating these mystical and irrational ideas, falls to the revolutionary vanguard of the working class.

Every single school of philosophy for the last 150 years at least, is merely a regurgitation, in one way or another, of the irrational ideas of subjective idealism – the crudest, most absurd, and pointless varieties of idealism. The latest postmodernist craze is just another one of these variants.

One of the principal maxims of postmodernism is the denial of progress in history. But even the most superficial consideration of history clearly indicates the existence of periods of great advance, and also periods of evident regression. These periods find their reflection inevitably in the history of thought in general, and philosophy in particular.

In the period of its historical ascent, the bourgeoisie played a most progressive role, not only in developing the productive forces, and thereby mightily expanding humanity’s power over nature, but also in pushing back the frontiers of science, knowledge, and culture.

Luther, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Dürer, Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, and a host of other pathfinders of civilisation shine like a galaxy, illuminating the broad highway of human cultural and scientific advance opened by the Reformation and Renaissance.

In its youth the bourgeoisie was capable of producing great thinkers: Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Hegel, Adam Smith, and Ricardo. In the period of its decline, it is only capable of producing what Marx aptly described as flea-crackers.

Marx once observed: “Philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relation to one another as onanism and sexual love.” Modern bourgeois philosophy prefers the former to the latter. In its obsession with combatting Marxism (and materialism in general), it has dragged philosophy back to the worst period of its old, outworn, and sterile past.

A period of decline

Our own age is a period of decline. The capitalist system shows clear symptoms of terminal decay. Here we are faced with a paradox. On the one hand, the march of science has carried human knowledge to dizzying heights. One by one, nature is compelled to give up her secrets. The old mysteries that men and women attempted to explain through religion and the supernatural, have been analysed and understood.

Yet despite all these advances, philosophy has reached a complete dead end. It no longer has anything of interest to say. Its death certificate has been issued by postmodernism, which itself hardly deserves the name of philosophy at all.

The degeneration of bourgeois philosophy is a reflection of the dead-end of the capitalist system itself. A system which has become irrational must lean on irrational ideas. A man on the edge of a precipice is not capable of rational thought. In a vague way, the ideologues of the bourgeoisie sense that the system they defend is reaching its end. The spread of irrational tendencies, mysticism, and religious fanaticism reflects the same thing.

The postmodernist craze that passes for philosophy in our time is itself a confession of the most abject intellectual bankruptcy. The mere fact that this postmodernist “narrative” could be taken seriously as a new philosophy is in itself a crushing condemnation of the theoretical bankruptcy of capitalism and the bourgeois intelligentsia in the epoch of imperialist decay.

Postmodernism denies the concept of historical progress in general, for the simple reason that the society that spawned it is incapable of any progress. This is no accident. Millions of people are faced with an uncertain future. The general ruin does not affect only the working class, but extends to the middle class, the students and professors, the researchers and technicians, the musicians and artists, lecturers and doctors.

Under these conditions a mood of pessimism seizes the intelligentsia, which yesterday saw capitalism as a never-ending source of careers and the guarantee of a comfortable living standard. There is a general ferment in the middle class, which finds its most acute expression in the intelligentsia. This is the material basis of the mood that afflicts the middle class, a class that, crushed between the big capitalists and the working class, keenly feels the precariousness of its situation.


The radical moods of the petty bourgeois intellectual have a very unstable character. While it can be infected by the revolutionary optimism of the working class during the times of rising class struggle, it can quickly turn the other way around. The radical chic intellectuals who had flirted with revolution in 1968 were rapidly disheartened. The great majority, particularly in academia, were seized by moods of pessimism and uncertainty.

They decided that the working class had let them down, and therefore abandoned all “metanarratives” (especially Marxism) and turned in the direction of scepticism, which was merely a reflection of their own state of mind. It is no accident that the ideas that led to postmodernism became fashionable in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s as a reaction to the defeats of a series of revolutions worldwide – defeats which were compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was the soil on which the poisonous roots of postmodernism flourished and grew strong.

The same phenomenon can be observed in the aftermath of every defeated revolution in history. It was exactly the same process that led to the growth of irrational and mystical trends after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution in Russia. In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin brilliantly showed that the philosophies of Mach and Avenarius were bad copies of Berkeley, Kant, and Hume.

The only difference is that today’s postmodernist geniuses are simply bad copies of bad copies. Desperate to appear original and trying hard to hide their complete lack of any real content, they hide behind an impenetrable barrier of incomprehensible, convoluted, and intentionally ambiguous language.

Words, words, words…

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Nowadays, the subjective idealists are reduced to fighting a desperate rear-guard action, which amounts to the total dissolution of philosophy, reducing it entirely to semantics (the study of the meaning of words).

The postmodernists endow language with extraordinary powers. They argue that if we change the words we use in everyday language, taking care to avoid giving offence by using “oppressive” terms, then we will abolish oppression itself. But the real oppression that is suffered every day by millions of workers, peasants, women and poor people is not caused by the misuse of language, but by the real conditions of a society that is sharply divided into rich and poor, exploiters and exploited.
You do not change the essence of a thing by changing its name. Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name will smell as sweet. And capitalism by any other name will smell as bad. Here we have the most striking proof of the correctness of Marx’s celebrated dictum: social being determines consciousness.

This obsession with words is only a reflection of the mode of existence of the petty bourgeois intellectual who contemplates life from the comfort of the University seminar room. This mode of existence is far removed from the real world of ordinary mortals.

The carpenter produces tables and chairs. The potter produces plates and dishes. The farmer produces potatoes and cabbages. But the intellectual produces only words – many, many words. These words are read by other intellectuals, who produce other words to be read by still other intellectuals. And so on, and so on ad infinitum.

Normally, this is a fairly harmless pastime, which serves to fill the otherwise quite empty existences of the monks of academia, providing them with a sense of purpose, which, however, remains a mystery for the rest of suffering humanity.

However, matters change substantially when some of these mysterious words spill out of the confines of the University, and begin to affect the thinking of ordinary beings in a very negative way.

It is quite bad enough that generations of university students emerge from their studies even more stupid and confused than when they began. But when the same stupidity and confusion begins to infect society and politics, it ceases to become a matter of amusement and becomes a very serious matter indeed.

Reactionary consequences

Postmodernism is the most extreme form of idealism. It is a rejection of materialism, the commonality of human experience and perception and a rejection of the possibility of human solidarity. Instead of class solidarity, we are offered a superficial “allyship” of atomised struggles .

But even this confused notion breaks down as these “allies” immediately start attacking and abusing each other in the most violent diatribes, each shouting that they are the oppressed, while the others are all oppressors who must be silenced altogether.

This kind of ‘philosophy’ clearly suits the purposes of the ruling class strategists very nicely. They can use it to divide and derail class solidarity while also using it as a weapon against rational and progressive thought in general, and Marxism in particular.

Out of this confused morass of half-baked ideas, certain conclusions inevitably flow: a rejection of revolution in favour of “small deeds” (like pettifogging arguments over words and “narratives”), a retreat into subjectivity, and, of course, a denial of the class struggle.

This terminological radicalism may make some middle-class intellectuals sleep easier in their beds, but it does not advance the fight against oppression by a single millimetre. In fact, it retards it. By elevating “my” particular oppression over “yours”, we inevitably arrive at an increasing compartmentalization, and ultimately atomization of the movement.

All this has served to confuse and disorient a whole generation of young people who have been diverted away from the cause of socialist revolution and pushed into a poisonous swamp.

Some people may object that postmodernism is already old-fashioned. They say they represent entirely different trends. But this argument is false and disingenuous. Postmodernism is a hydra-headed monster that constantly mutates, much like the coronavirus. It re-emerges in a multiplicity of disguises: poststructuralism, postcolonialism, queer theory, and a whole host of theories of so-called identity politics.

All of these variants have a reactionary character, sowing confusion and deliberately dividing the movement into a myriad of squabbling tendencies and sub-tendencies, each one loudly proclaiming that it alone has the right to be considered as the real victim of oppression, and that everyone else is an oppressor.

And while the movement is busy destroying itself with a series of senseless internecine conflicts, the real oppressors – the bankers, capitalists and imperialists – sit back and laugh at the stupidity of the people who, consciously or otherwise, are doing the dirty work of the counterrevolution.

To the degree that these poisonous ideas have succeeded in penetrating the labour movement, where they are eagerly seized upon by the right-wing bureaucrats and certain misguided “Lefts”, they play a highly destructive, diversionary and divisive role.

It is high time to call a halt! We must declare war on this reactionary philosophy and drive these ideas out of the movement. Only in this manner can the way be cleared for the advance of the workers’ movement and the unity of all the oppressed under the banner of the socialist revolution.

Alan Woods
London, 17th June, 2021

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