Po-Mo critiques

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Sat Feb 25 16:32:07 MST 1995

Andy's post of the citation from Jane Flax, and the responses by Yasko and
Dumain, raise some important questions. It seems to me that at the heart of
this debate is the assessment of Marxism as a tradition. Implicit in Andy's
concluding question "how can 'Marxism' respond to [Flax's po-mo] critique,
and remain Marxist?", is the need for an understanding of what it means to
be a Marxist. (I would guess that's why Andy put "Marxism" in quotation marks.)

The same question can also be posed out of Yasko's response. His argument,
as I understand it, is that Flax commits the very error that she condemns
the Enlightenment tradition for. She sees only a single "Marxism", the one
which is associated with the realisation of such Enlightenment values as
progress, rationality, truth, freedom, etc., and not the anti-Enlightenment
strains of Marxist thinking.

But doesn't this kind of response merely beg the question? If there is more
than one Marxism, aren't some versions better than others (and if not, don't
we end up endorsing postmodern relativism)? How, then, are we to understand
the relationship between the better and the less good versions? Whether we
like it or not we need to be able to explain how, for example, Stalinism
grew out of Leninism and Marxism. This is not simply an intellectual
question, nor is it a matter of personal responsibility for the crimes of
the past, but of how we can revitalise the tradition so that it contributes
to a socialist future. We cannot simply dismiss the problem by saying that
Stalinism was a deviation from the true Marxism of the founders of the
tradition (as that also simply begs the question of how these deviations
came to dominate that tradition for the better part of this century, and
were responsible for the loss of not thousands but millions of innocent lives).

Nor does calling for the "strangling of the last Stalinist with the entrails
of the last Maoist" (Dumain, inimitably, from another post) solve our
dilemma. In fact, I am uncomfortable not only with this kind of hyperbole
but even with the dismissive qualification of Flax as a "petty bourgeois
feminist". Implicit in it are a series of assumptions: (a) that it is
possible to discern the "true" interests of the working class (before that
class enacts them); (b) that there is a clear-cut (necessary? inevitable?
probable?) correlation between what one does and what one thinks; (c) that
feminism and postmodernism are ideologies which inherently attempt to
subvert the "true" ideology of the working class; (d) that it is the working
class that is the agent of revolutionary change by virtue of its position in
capitalist society.

I ask again: What version of Marxism is it that warrants these assumptions?
And how does it account for the history of the past one hundred and fifty
years of the tradition? Now these are vast questions (but what better place
to ask them than on this list?). Flax's critique, like that of many feminist
writers, applies to at least some versions of Marxism, and arguably to those
which attained a dominant position amongst those calling themselves
Marxists. It is not enough to answer that there are other plausible
interpretations of Marxism which avoid the difficulties she notes, unless we
are able to identify what *all* versions of Marxism have in common, and why
we believe that those for which we hold out hope will lead in the direction
of human emancipation, and not in the direction of another Gulag. I think we
need to discuss this in an atmosphere that recognises that there is not yet
a satisfactory answer available, and which therefore imposes a degree of
humility on all of us. I look forward to being able to do this, as long as
there is interest on the list.

Briefly, a final point from Dumain's post. He wrote: "Marxism recognizes no
pre-given purposes of history or of anything else. 'History' itself is
nothing, does nothing, as Marx wrote explicitly. One could accept an
implicit telos within history, esp. viz. perfectibility and
self-realization." I do not understand the difference between "no pre-given
purposes", which Marxism precludes, and "an implicit telos in history" which
it can endorse?

Howie Chodos

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