Racism and Post-modernist Theory - a critique

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The rise and malaise of postmodernism


The rise and malaise of postmodernism

By Jeremy Smith

Postmodernism as a cultural and ideological mood arose in the wake of the socalled crisis of Marxism announced in the mid1970s. It is itself difficult to define, and activists in the social movements and comrades among the organised socialist left commonly ask "What is it?" and "What are its implications?" It is a spectrum of thought that seems to touch many areas of academic and cultural practice, and yet it is wilfully elusive.1 From one position, the origins of the word "postmodern" can be traced back to Latin American sources in the 1930s.2 But, really, it achieved currency much later. In one respect, it is an attempt to come to terms with widespread social, cultural and economic changes that quickly followed the end of the postwar boom, which most Marxists characterise as the period of late capitalism. In a more ominous way, it is a revival and revision of older philosophical currents that laid out a challenge to the claims by Enlightenment philosophers that humanity was on the path of progress.

For Marxists, the vital concern is with the challenge it issued during the 1980s and 1990s to historical materialism and to the viability of the socialist project. More recently, however, the breathtaking rise of the movements against corporate globalism and the war on Iraq have forced an impasse in postmodernist thinking. Furthermore, the socialist project has reemerged alongside of and within these movements with an alternative vision of a human future that vies with the heirs of postmodernist thinking for the adherence of new activists.

This article traces the manner in which the postmodern mood arose, the common beliefs of postmodernist doctrines and some reasons for their current malaise. It looks also at the legacy of full-blooded postmodernist thinking at the point of its impasse (embodied in a watered-down version in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire). It addresses only the founding post-structuralist writings of postmodernism and their lasting impact and in no way professes to capture the full diversity of perspectives that appear under the heading of "postmodern". For the purposes of the main argument, a clear distinction is made between the former and the latter. Indeed, some Marxists have theorised developments in late capitalism as "postmodernity", while not accepting postmodernist claims about knowledge.3 While there are grounds to disagree with such views, they can be debated productively because they are articulated within the broad framework of historical materialism.4 This article also does not attempt to engage debates over how postmodern strategies can be enacted by progressive workers in different whitecollar professions, for example teaching,5 to expose dominant ideas and support empowering practices for dominated groups. It should be read, more modestly, as a guide for socialist and Marxist activists to the problems of postmodernist philosophy and social theory and the kinds of arguments needed to counteract them in the movements.

After the 1960s

Postmodernism's rise came at the tail end of the 1960s radicalisation, which drew people to Western and orthodox Marxism. The different schools of Western Marxism had been a meeting point of Marxist and non-Marxist philosophy since Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci. Orthodox Marxism variously continued as a living philosophy and politics in the different non-Stalinist traditions, even while it was rendered a stale state religion under Soviet and Chinese Stalinism. Western Marxism and other non-Stalinist and Trotskyist traditions sustained the critical and radical edge of the Enlightenment in opposition to both Stalinism and the bourgeois social sciences, although the traditions of revolutionary Marxism were clearer and more resolute in this opposition. With the decline of the movements of the 1960s in the West, post-structuralism filled an ideological vacuum with its sharp critique of Enlightenment ideas of universal reason and truth. Its influence was evident in general debates on science, knowledge and political commitment. Moreover, it was read and discussed by many of the students of the 1960s generation. Overall, its rise located Marxism further from the centre of the store of human knowledge and coincided with a recession of organised socialist movements in the West.

The leading postmodernists began their philosophical trajectories in the mid1960s. But it is with the retreat from the radicalism of that period and the loss of a sense of collective endeavours that postmodernism developed its identity.6 Postmodernists such as Jean Baudrillard and ex-Trotskyist Jean-Francois Lyotard themselves date the 1960s as the turning point in their thinking. Left radicalism reached a high-water mark in 1968.7 The year featured the mass revolt in France and subsequent strike waves in Mexico City, Berlin, Spain, Tokyo (where there was a large student movement), Uruguay and Belgrade. Czechs and Slovaks rebelled against Stalinism. The Moro government fell in Italy after student strikes. The Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention were a peak point of us radicalism. General strikes broke out in Senegal and Pakistan. The momentum of the radicalisation sustained the worldwide pattern of revolt well into the 1970s. However, after the upsurge, many Western radicals felt disappointed in their hopes for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Divested of their aspiration for revolution, many, in the 1980s and 1990s, entered middle age and the new, consumption-oriented middle class, forming an audience for postmodern cultural politics.8

Developments in France were at the heart of the rise of postmodern philosophy. The defeat of the May-June movement in 1968 was decisive for the French intelligentsia who founded post-structuralism, even though the core ideas of French philosophy provided no real inspiration for the movement's participants.9 The many radicals who took part in this revolutionary opening challenged the institutions of power. Many interpreted the failure to bring about the total transformation that they aspired to as the failure of the organised Marxist movement. Many identified the Stalinist French Communist Party-which during the crisis paraded as the guardian of bourgeois law and order-as the decisive force that demobilised the revolutionary process. Some, such as Luc Ferry and Alain Renault, construed events as a social-democratic modernisation of French society that was set off unwittingly by radical student leaders.10 However, many of the French intelligentsia of the 1968 generation became deeply suspicious of what they saw as common features of Marxism and liberalism: a focus on structures of power, the pursuit of truth and disciplined forms of political organisation. Many others sought a new metaphysics to explain the betrayal of the May movement and its subsequent collapse. This was the beginning of "postmodern times" in the estimation of the new post-structuralists.

The apparent failure of the movements of the 1960s gave way to a postmodern pessimism about mainstream political thought and strategy. The postmodern mood had an economic and political context in three factors that fueled the climate of disenchantment: the end of the postwar industrial boom, the fragmentation of the social sciences and the drift of Western politics to the right. Rates of industrial growth in the West fell after the 1973 oil crisis, bringing the twin nightmares of inflation and unemployment to the world economy. The pattern of steady growth dissipated, and capital found higher returns in speculative activities. Neo-liberalism promoted these developments, and it increasingly became the creed of the bureaucratic cadre of Western states. A new middle class receptive to postmodern thinking coalesced in those segments of Western economies that enjoyed the precarious boom of the 1980s. Multiculturalism and the politics of difference were well suited to the new global mobility of this class.

The end of industrial expansion impacted on the social sciences also. There was already an existing sense of internal crisis in social scientific thought and practice.11 Its functional role of formulating ameliorative reform ended, leaving its advocates and practitioners in a state of uncertainty about their vocation. The terrain of the social sciences looked like a new and radical plurality that had left behind the reformism associated with functionalist social scientific research. Perspectives on theory multiplied as the radicals of the 1960s filled the junior ranks of academia, especially in the us. The "crisis of sociology" affected many disciplines in liberal arts and humanities. There was a steady, although uneven, decline in the prescription and analysis of reforms and a greater concern with cultural questions.

The steady drift of Western governments to the right in the late 1970s also followed the flurry of the 1960s movements. The women's movement and then the antinuclear movement drew large numbers of people into activity. Unions still embodied considerable organised social power and were sporadically militant. Nonetheless, the right-wing resurgence in the uk and the us, personified in the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, exemplified a reactionary mood within the Western ruling classes, which were keen on recuperating the progressive reforms of the postwar period. In addition, Pope John Paul ii reversed the program of liberal reform in the Catholic Church associated with Vatican ii from 1978 onwards. His ideological assault on church supporters of contraception, abortion, the ordination of women and liberation theology helped recapture the hierarchy of Catholicism for conservatives.

The post-structuralist origins of postmodernism

These were the conditions under which postmodernism flourished in academia, the media and cultural industries. I now turn to its philosophical contents by outlining Lyotard's, Michel Foucault's and Jacques Derrida's founding contributions. In sum, they are an expression of disbelief in the humanist claims of the Enlightenment: that objective reality can be known, that there are underlying logics which govern human behaviour and that humans shape society. These humanist claims were critically reformulated within Marxism in the following ways. Objective reality can be disclosed and transformed through systematic analysis and practice. The working class is a collective subject capable of the transformation of capitalism into socialism. Above all, the patterns or logics governing human society revolve around the internal contradictions of the overall social formation and the development of class struggles. The tenets of historical materialism were the principles of a critical reception of eighteenth century philosophy.

On the postmodernists' anti-humanist reckoning, any effort to methodically explain and transform the world invokes a "meta-narrative", or overarching explanation that draws connections between different social, economic, political and historical patterns. In 1984, Lyotard heralded postmodernity's arrival as the rise of "incredulity towards meta-narratives".12 His formative book was a broadside at the belief that objective knowledge can be methodically derived. The specific object of his criticism is Hegelian Marxism (especially Jurgen Habermas' insistence on the unity of knowledge and an emancipatory politics). However, the thrust of The Postmodern Condition is directed more generally at historical materialism. For Lyotard, the human world is either not sufficiently integrated for it to be disclosed, or, if it is, then we are not able to comprehend it in its totality. Either way, our understanding is at best fragmentary. In the prevailing postmodern condition, knowledge, rather than production, dominates the world economy. The scientific paradigms that accompanied the society of industrial capitalism are therefore on the wane. The new postmodern age of information opens up an unfettered interplay of narratives, less dominated by dominant ideas. Natural and social science as a postmodern practice can become "game playing"-that is, an attempt to defy the technological principles of performance set by the system. Game playing is the pursuit of fragments of knowledge and becomes a strategy of "minoritarian" resistance against the mainstream.

In this framework of the free flow of ideas, the rise of the social movements makes sense, because they bring a plurality of different perspectives and go against the grain. In the movements, there is an abundance of expression of difference that is not hampered by radical meta-narratives (which might, in fact, draw together the threads between different forms of oppression). Politics, like knowledge, is reduced to a series of equally valid narratives or "language games". The plausibility of a particular perspective or of a certain course of political action is no longer a matter of critical judgment. The project of an emancipatory politics is renounced as flawed, and its goals should no longer be seriously considered. Marxism, in Lyotard's eyes, is obsolete. More than that, it may even be dangerous, as it shares in the oppressive universalism of the Western tradition and has a track record of authoritarianism. In any case, it was only ever one of many narratives about industrial capitalist society.

Michel Foucault developed a theory of knowledge and power during the same decade.13 In it, there are no underlying logics of human society or "history" as such. The past can not be understood by criteria of truth and falsehood. Instead, truth and falsehood are relative, as every past system of knowledge has defined them differently. Knowledge is therefore not a product of some universal search for an adequate grasp of the objective, but instead should be seen, in at least its modern forms, as an exercise of disciplinary or "pastoral" power. Power is not experienced as oppression or coercion necessarily or indeed primarily. It is the prevailing formation of subjects through practices of knowledge ordiscourses. This is a formidable salvo fired at Enlightenment thought: Western knowledge is saturated with power and nothing much else. Consequently, instead of developing a politics around the recognition of class or state power, Foucault argues that power is everywhere in the instrumental rationality of modern bureaucratic society. It is everywhere and yet centred nowhere in particular.

This microphysics of power has political implications even though it seems devoid of politics. The pursuit of power through overthrow of the state and establishment of a new state and society is always going to be misguided and a new form of authoritarianism. If power is not the property of one class or group of individuals, but a network enveloping us all, then a revolutionary, or indeed reformist, strategy directed at the "summit" of power is premised on a misunderstanding of power. In this view, there are no key subjects, actors, transformers of society or oppressors. The subject is philosophically eliminated. It is therefore difficult to see Foucault's theory of power as anything but an anti-politics. This is because politics (as he regards it), if it is to be more than mere gestures of defiance, can only be a power strategy with no meaningful ethical or liberatory content: in fact, it can be nothing more than the exercise of a counter-power. A politics of liberation or emancipation is therefore impossible. Instead, the aim should be localised struggles. The social movements, or at least some of them, are the place of those who wish to resist. These are the sites and the only possible spaces in which political action is possible.

Foucault later modified his views, becoming more ambivalent.14 When this was pointed out, he denied that his modifications represented a break from past views and responded to critics by saying that they had misinterpreted his work. In any case, his earlier message had been echoed by others and was taken as the Foucauldian orthodoxy by his followers. His earlier message had already reached a receptive audience.

Jacques Derrida's post-structuralism deals with the knowable in a different way.15 Western thought since the Ancient Greeks has been based on the search for the origins, foundations and principles of things, for truth if you will. Consequently, it has revolved around logic. This search for foundations and certainty has been erroneous, in Derrida's estimation. Knowledge communicated in speech and in writing draws the listener or reader closer to the point of origin, or the point of the truth. Therefore, language is a vital component of the pursuit of the truth. In departure from structuralist linguistics, Derrida regards the text, rather than language per se as the source of meaning. Language itself lacks the system of meaning and is, in fact, quite unstable. On the other hand, the subject cannot have unmediated access to reality either. This latter idea-that the subject can identify an objective reality-is a "metaphysics of presence", which is taken for granted in Western thought.16 The metaphysics of presence casts the subject as a being that can know reality and express it in language. The objective can be grasped, as the truth is almost present and often just below the "surface of appearances" (to borrow Marx's phrase). However, Derrida argues, the subject is deeply embedded in the human condition of prior consciousness (or discourse) that prefigures real objects and the capacity of the subject to signify them with words. An unmediated grasp of reality is therefore impossible, but so is escape from the metaphysics of presence embodied in the textual production of meaning. For Derrida, "There is no outside-text" or anything to reference for acting subjects, which is not to say that there is no objective reality, in his view, but rather that it cannot be known.

By logical extension, there is no individual or collective agency outside of the ensemble of discourses that mould the subject. All that remains to us by way of a political strategy is deconstruction. Such a strategy is also textual and involves ways of reading. Texts invoke an ideological presence, but also contain absences that can be exposed through a deconstructionist interpretation. Deconstruction then is a technique of trying to retrieve "absences" that are ideologically concealed by the act of writing or constructing discourse. In one way, it could be argued that this is consistent with the Marxian spirit of ideology-critique. On this basis, in fact, his creed has been described as an "open Marxism". However, it is more reminiscent of German idealist and romantic philosophy than a systematic ideology-critique that focuses on the central determining patterns of capitalist social forms. There is, however, one important difference that distinguishes it from the German tradition represented by Johann Fichte and Frederich Schelling as postmodernist: the objective world is not disavowed completely, but rather is beyond reach or comprehension. In rejecting the search for origins (or causes), Derrida abandons not only the Enlightenment, but also the foundation for a transformative politics that openly pursues far-reaching solutions. Derrida later called on practitioners of deconstruction to apply their craft in more practical and political ways, perhaps a tacit recognition of the limitations imposed by post-structuralism on activists.

The common contention of the three founding post-structuralists. is that social relations are constructed through the exercise of power, language and discourse. The dialectical relationship of forces and relations of production and the dialectic of class struggle is spurned as a totalising meta-narrative However, this is not immediately recognisable as idealism either. Social relations are not constituted simply through a contest of ideas, the dialectic of world spirit or a clash of civilisations. With postmodernism, there is a shift in the ground of idealism away from a direct philosophy of consciousness. Instead of consciousness determining being, language, text and discourse enclose meaning entirely. The principles of organisation of human relations flow from this enclosure. Moreover, they do so without the subject. In social theory, this is the turn taken by post-Enlightenment thought away from problems of consciousness and being.

So, in this re-theorised conception of being (or in philosophical lingo ontology), what can we know? Rational capacity to methodically disclose and purposively transform aspects of the objective world is rejected. In its place, we can do the following (in short summary):

explore the fragments and margins of social relations only;

survey "hyper-reality" (in the versions put forward by Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco).17 Hyper-reality refers to the surface manifestations of capitalism as the reality. All distinction between reality and appearance is negated;

rule out any prospect of generalised liberation;

situate power not in the institutions of state or capitalism, but primarily at the level of relations between groups of people in local settings; and

understand that commodities do not emerge from cycles of commodification. They stem from an economy of pure symbols. Where Marx, in the Grundrisse and Capital, theorised money as the abstract symbol of value, for postmodernists, such as Baudrillard and Lyotard, all commodities are symbols and nothing more than abstractions though which people define their identity and relationship to society.

Romanticism renewed

The founding thinkers can justifiably claim some original insights. But it is more telling to scrutinise postmodernism's roots in the Enlightenment's antithesis, Romanticism. Romanticism coalesced in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in reaction to the upheaval of industrialisation in Europe, and it was the converse of the Enlightenment. Literature, art, poetry and theatre were arenas in which romanticist sentiments were expressed. It manifested in the aristocratic reaction to republicanism. The Luddites were romantics of sorts. Early German nationalism drew on romantic images of Germanic identity. Romanticism was a sort of yearning for a "lost" past captured in images of alleged stability and rustic tranquility."Traditional" Europe was lost in the torrent of progress that the philosophes championed. In philosophy and culture, it formed as a countercurrent to the Enlightenment. Frederick Nietzsche is famously remembered as its chief exponent. His influence circulates through postmodernist French thought, often via Martin Heidegger's reformulations.

Nietzsche treats the ideas of the Enlightenment with extreme suspicion. Postmodernism has adapted three core Nietzschean ideas:

1. There is no truth. This belief is captured in his aphorism, "Against positivism which halts at phenomena-`there are only facts'-I would say: No, facts are precisely what there are not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact `in itself': perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing".18 It is impossible for the objective to be adequately grasped in concepts. Here there is an undeniable affinity with later postmodernist views that politics, science and economics are mainly terrains of competing perspectives that cannot be validated, except perhaps by reference to their own internal coherence.

2. Science and politics are forms of power and little more. Nietzsche postulates a "will to power" that, together with a "will to truth", permeates most human acts.19 Any claim to knowledge and reason involves the exercise of power and an act of domination, whether it is intended as such or not. To put this another way, all knowledge is ideological and steeped in the ruse of rationality and the exertion of power associated with it. The first such act was the will to conquer nature enunciated in ancient Greek civilisation. History since has been composed of an uninterrupted struggle for domination, to which end all efforts are directed, even though history itself is in denial of this. Stemming from this, politics (which must, after all, be a form of knowledge) is Machiavellian and conspiratorial and can be nothing else. It too is bankrupted by its own claims to truth. All that is left that can be autonomous is in the realm of art and aesthetics. Only there, when there is no declaration of certainty and only ambivalence, is life itself expressed.

3. There is no subject. We are instead monadic creatures that act according to instinctual drives, not the least of which is the will to power. Language gives voice to basic human experiences and orders those experiences for the purposes of survival. But it cannot reflect reality in any way and must necessarily falsify it: "We have no categories at all that permit us to distinguish a `world in itself' from a `world of appearance'. All our categories of reason are of sensual origin: derived from the empirical world."20 Language can only reflect itself and, for Nietzsche, is inescapable. We must express ourselves through language, and all we can express is a language-mediated unique perception. Self-reference is therefore possible, although only through language, but an active, purposeful, transforming subjectivity is not. Humans are trapped in language, and this shuts out agency, as there can then be no external reality to refer to, much less change. If language can only articulate immediate experience, then we can only have competing perspectives on the world and no form of authentication of claims to true statements, or indeed no form of persuasion. It became possible to conclude, as postmodernist French philosophers have, that in absence of acting subjects, the text prevails. Aside from the epistemological implications, the consequences for politics are clear. There can be no viable and enduring politics of solidarity. Above all, socialism should be seen as a narrative only.

Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard-the post-Marxist Gilles Deleuze can be added-trace their lineage back to Nietzsche. If postmodernism can profess some coherence, it is in the reenactment of Nietzsche's views. The connection is not entirely direct, however. Martin Heidegger's theory of being mediates the relationship between German Romanticism and the contemporary post-structuralist left. Where Nietzsche placed truth beyond philosophical contemplation, Heidegger placed being beyond logical thought. Again, it is immediate, sensual experience and its environs that is the object of study. Truth, if it can be uncovered ("disclosed") at all, can be found only in what is directly present-a proposition adopted later by Derrida. The correspondence or adequacy of concept and objects is not the first basis of truth for Heidegger. He thought that consciousness cast in a relationship to the external world, calling on it to generate objective data, is an absurdity. Moreover, in the alienating mass society of 1930s Germany in which he wrote, it seemed obscene. The point for him is not to verify aspects of reality, but to live through them. Poetry, and not science, is a more suitable mode of knowing. By limiting the range of human experience to everyday life, Heidegger highlighted the power of presence and immediacy. However, there is a difference between Nietzsche and Heidegger. The former stresses the Western tradition's obsession with truth (and this is his value for French post-structuralism); the latter stresses philosophy's forgetfulness of being. And, indeed, this is not the great value of Heidegger for postmodernism, so much as the destabilisation of Western philosophy itself that this idea instigated. From here, the founders of postmodernism could offer a theory of being and consciousness without obligation to seek any correspondence between them or adequacy.

Marxism and politics

What does the postmodernist style of philosophy offer emancipatory or liberationist politics? The consequences are disarming. Before turning to them, however, I want to make some points about the relationship of historical materialism to Western philosophy. Certainly, Marxism represents a radicalisation of the Enlightenment. But Marx himself also had a complicated relationship to Romanticism that is sometimes not fully appreciated. He could not halt at naive endorsement of the optimistic vision of the eighteenth century philosophes. Truth, reason and progress were problematic after all. As Marx demonstrated in the Communist Manifesto, they could be put to monstrous uses just as well as they could be mobilised in the service of revolutionary capitalist expansion. This suggests a two-sided relationship to modern philosophy, or a two-sided theory of modernity. Marx's own relationship to the prevailing creed of progress that the Enlightenment radiated was not straightforward. He spanned Romanticism and the Enlightenment in his critique of modernity, weaving together appreciation of capitalism's progressive role with abhorrence at some of its results.

The result is not a "reconciliation" of Romanticism and the Enlightenment or a happy medium struck between the two poles.21 Instead, each is surpassed by a philosophy that reflects on dynamics that seem simultaneously progressive and retrograde. This is a complex dialectic-despite postmodernist claims to the contrary-that stresses the contradictory development of modern capitalist societies. It explains the relationship of material and social conditions and culture in terms of the internal contradictions of the social formation. The rise of Enlightenment thought, Romanticism and indeed Marxism itself is systematically explained, by situating the development of each in the context of the expansion of capitalist social relations. This is implicit in Marx's philosophical insight into modern knowledge. He was able to see that historical materialism, along with the philosophical currents that had informed its formation, was embedded in the social relations that it was trying simultaneously to explain and overcome. To be successful, Marxism could not stand "outside history" as science alone, nor could it remain solely at the level of existing working-class consciousness as a historically bound ideology. It therefore had both to understand itself and to constitute itself as a practical philosophy of change. Historical materialism, in Marx's eyes, was therefore a special kind of theory: a theory of history, of revolution and of proletarian praxis all at once. Thus, Marx could not settle for a Romantic critique of capitalist advancement, nor could he act as benign witness to capitalism's expansion. The philosophy and politics that he inaugurated sought a path beyond both.

Marxism's relationship to the Enlightenment is therefore not as simple as it seems. Its approach is anchored in a dialectical stress on the conflict of opposites. This of course incorporates the opposites that are internal to modern philosophical reflection itself. Reason and nature, object and subject, identity and nonidentity, unity and difference can be understood as dialectically interrelated and not just the formal "binary opposites" that postmodernists disavow. Underpinning this is a Marxian dialectic of Enlightenment values and Romantic critique, as argued above.

There is a depth here of which postmodernism is incapable. French post-structuralism rejected one side of modern philosophy when it spurned the critical disposition of the Enlightenment as the tyranny of the Western tradition. In rejecting this, it ruled out a dialectical engagement with the problems posed by social theory. Its framework is not given to considering both sides of any contradiction, as opposites are always seen as detached and not interrelated in contradiction. Consequently, analyses of the complexity of late capitalism that draw on postmodernist assumptions risk oversimplification and one-sidedness.

What kind of politics can this philosophical framework generate for its adherents? The withdrawal of its major proponents from political commitment is well known, but this in itself is hardly a cutting criticism. Many postmodernists bid for the mantle of radical politics on the grounds that all universalist ideologies that have emerged from Europe are inescapably bound up in the dominant discourses of capitalism and imperialism. This includes Marxism, social democracy, many forms of feminism and even antiracisms. Instead, political action must mean resistance. Resistance is most effective at the margins, whether through the use of irony or deconstruction in art, literature, film or media or in localised struggles of some social movements that confront marginalisation. Terry Eagleton characterises this as "cultural politics" in which culture is reduced to politics. In turn, he calls for a politics of culture.22 While this is a forceful argument, it is also the case that politics, as it is recast in cultural politics, also falls prey to reductionism. The post-structuralist focus on culture reduces politics to aesthetics and presumes that this is the major battleground. The fully fledged version of this argument is Baudrillard's, which aestheticises a social world in which meaning is simulated so often that reality is no longer relevant. In this vision of culture, any capacity for more generalised critique is annulled, and the obvious conclusion must be that critique and praxis are futile. If there is any power in this prescription at all, then the very least that can be said in response is that this unacceptably narrows the range of critical politics.

Identity politics flows logically from this broader censure of universalism. It is derived from the postmodern condition of fragmentation and decentring, according to postmodernists. At the level of description, this basic argument does have some force. Capitalism drives towards totalisation (as some postmodernists might put it) in its pursuit of unlimited capital growth, markets and resources. It unifies different societies and spheres of human endeavour by subsuming them under capital's rule. Yet, it is quite clear that the major fluctuations of late capitalism-unemployment, the roller-coaster ride of global markets-are experienced by their victims as fragmenting and decentring. The destabilising effects of capitalism result from its central contradictions, and yet these contradictions impact on everyday lives in ways that seem incoherent. This appearance is most visible in the OECD countries where, not by coincidence, postmodernism has flourished. It is in the most developed zones of world capitalism that the penetration of all spheres of human life by capitalist social relations is at its greatest. However, fragmentation is not due to the dominance of the text, discourse or the Hyper-reality of postmodern life. There are other causes. While there is some validity in the description of contemporary life as seemingly volatile and disconnected, this condition should not be taken for granted. The underlying and complex reasons for it, and not just its surface effects, must be pursued.

However, identity politics is much more than just the experience of late capitalism's instability. It is also a personal assertion of identity based on a condition of marginality. The assertion of identity is no longer part of political activity; it can constitute the entire arena of activity. Politics becomes a matter of "style" and a contest of competing and proliferating identities. This risks political impotence, if the sole emphasis is on difference at the expense of any principle of equality. Under those circumstances, identity politics becomes hostile to any idea of a universal basis for social justice and a revolutionary transformation of society. But not all identities are treated equally. The more traditional identity of class is disavowed. It has always been interpreted as a foundation for solidarity, rather than fragmentation. The "new" identities have emerged in such a way that they displace this traditional category, according to the postmodernists.23

The Marxist notion of class rests ultimately on a theory of exploitation that assumes that the social formation has an underlying logic or coherence. In contrast, identity politics assumes multiple bases of power that generate multiple forms of oppression. These are seen as the sites in which power is contested, but rarely in forms of alliance or with reference to a broader political vision. As the category of class is discarded, so also are forms of political organisation and the connections between struggles that it implies. Indeed, even many of the grassroots campaigns of social movements that combated marginality in the 1970s and 1980s become suspect for the broad fronts that they entered.

The institutional basis of marginalisation (racism, sexism, heterosexism) is neglected in this style of politics. Postmodern concerns with body, identity and difference displace the focus of theory, analysis and action from the institutional sites of power, such as the family, the state, work and school. All that remains, as a political orientation, is the mobilisation of identity in an ironic stance towards the institutions of power. The use of irony and a certain attitude to life is pitched as a gesture in itself towards power, one that avoids forming a counter-power. If this view has any value at all, some political judgment as to why one ironic posture is more potent or effective than any other would have to be exercised. But, it is not clear how postmodernists might do this, when the possible foundations of judgment debated by philosophers are themselves held in contempt.

The political corollary of postulating all identities as unstable and fragmented is dissipation of opposition to capitalism as a whole:

In a fragmented world composed of "decentred subjects", where totalizing knowledges are impossible and undesirable *[w]hat better escape, in theory, from a confrontation with capitalism, the most totalizing system the world has ever known, than a rejection of totalizing knowledge? What greater obstacle, in practice, to anything more than the most local and particularistic resistances to the global, totalizing power of capitalism than the decentred and fragmented subject? What better excuse for submitting to the force majeure of capitalism than the conviction that its power, while pervasive, has no systemic origin, no unified logic, no identifiable social roots?24

In this passage, Ellen Meiksins-Wood draws attention to the political implications of postmodernism. If her description of postmodernism holds, then it is possible to go one step further: postmodernism can be characterised as an anti-politics. It is not anti-politics because it does not offer strategy, for it does after a fashion. It is antipolitical because it does not tell us much about what to confront capitalism with. What social, ethical and economic substance can we adopt to develop a vision of another possible world? Is such a vision possible without a basis for universalism? The most forceful versions of postmodernism can only shrug their collective shoulders ironically, so to speak, when confronted with these questions. We can't really even know the system, much less try to critically articulate credible alternatives to it. To try to change it involves an orientation to state power, and that is fraught with danger. For this reason, the intractable versions of postmodernism avoid politics and offer only an anti-politics dressed up as a localist strategy and not a revolutionary orientation at all. How postmodernists have, in hindsight, treated the movements of 1968 and the possibility of revolution can itself be seen as a test of this anti-politics:

What the ideologues supply after the fact is a legitimation of the limits (of the ultimate limitations; in the last analysis of the historic weaknesses) of the May movement: you did not try to seize power and you were right, you did not even try to establish a counter-power. and you were once again right, because to say counter-power. is to say power and so on. At the same time, what the ideologues furnish us with is a retrospective legitimation of withdrawal, renunciation, non-commitment or of a punctilious and measured commitment: in any case, we are told that history, the subject, autonomy are only western myths.25

A "politics" of identity without substance and with strategy that addresses only the local and particular corresponds with this withdrawal after 1968.

Postmodernism now

The attraction reached a peak with collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumphal proclamations of right-wing ideologues. The "end of history" was celebrated by neo-liberals; it was also a good time for postmodernism. If history is over and there is no more ideological struggle, we are left with liberal capitalism as the ultimate form of human society. Ideas can circulate freely as commodities. There is nothing more at stake than the interplay of perspectives.

In this context, it was odd, though significant, that Jacques Derrida revised his political views in 1993.26 In an attack on Francis Fukuyama's proclamation of the end of history, Derrida "deconstructed" the new mood as "manic triumphalism". Instead, he said that this was the darkest of times. Global capitalism has created more misery than ever. What is needed is a return to the "Marxian spirit of opposition" in the name of a promised justice and democracy (as opposed to their actually existing forms). On the face of it, this represented a new engagement with Marxism and even a call for practical political involvement. Indeed, this is a sort of turn to politics. However, the Marxian spirit that Derrida is trying to revive is a "ghostly" or spectral one. Realist approaches to knowledge abandoned by postmodernists, and which are vital to socialist politics, are still unwanted. He remains true to his stance on the metaphysics of presence. However, this intervention marks postmodernist doubt about its own role in debates about culture and politics. It anticipated developments at the turn of the millennium that have rendered postmodernist analysis and identity politics less relevant. The revolt against corporate capitalism that spread through the rich world after the 1999 Seattle protests created a climate in which earlier postmodernist ideas were not going to appeal. The climate became even less favourable as the momentum against Bush's war mobilised tens of millions around the war in a new global opposition to imperialism.

Anti-corporate and antiwar movements are drawing the links and bringing into focus the institutional order of modern imperialism. Their "rhetoric" variously stresses equality, human rights, peace and social justice-values that echo the critical traditions derived from the Enlightenment. Postmodernist relativism can offer little guidance to the way the activists in these movements understand the world and try to act in it. In fact, nothing could be further removed from postmodernism than the widespread Anti-corporate and antiwar sentiment that has emerged.

The shared positions of Anti-corporate movements show this in a stark manner. They include debt cancellation, opposition to privatisation, solidarity in the face of the large agribusinesses' grab for control of agriculture via the introduction of genetically modified organisms and a unified moral repugnance at the gross inequalities of the world. Far from being merely an "anti-globalisation" movement, as it is often simplistically characterised, these movements exhibit an extraordinary global consciousness. Their opposition is often directed at the totalising logic of the neo-liberal institutions: the IMF, WTO, World Economic Forum and the World Bank. Even the debates over whether these institutions can be fixed at all (or simply "nixed") or whether "fair trade" is achievable suggest a widespread recognition of the global weight of the international financial institutions of capital. This is, in turn, accompanied by recognition by many that social change needs to be more far-reaching and go beyond mere tinkering at the edges of capitalism. Anti-corporate campaigning has a wider orientation to the totality of capitalism, and this orientation informs the debates amongst progressively minded people. Postmodernism does little to assist this, and indeed socialist views hold greater appeal in this new environment than they did in the early 1990s.

The mistrust of the governments of the rich world deepened with the so-called war on terror that drew the us and its allies into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mobilisations against war added to the anti-imperialist outlook developed in the movements against corporate power, rather than detracting from it. A salient lesson of this upsurge in antiwar activity lies in one of the main debates played out in the Western media: did Bush and company lie about weapons of mass destruction? The evidence that they did is overwhelming and irrefutable. What is interesting is that truth and falsehood are squarely on the agenda of public consciousness. It seems to all observers that they have been the main concern of ordinary discussion during and after the war. The antiwar movements based their opposition to the war on anti-imperialist sentiment to a fair degree, but there can be little doubt that a great number of people were mobilised simply by the blatant deceit of Blair, Bush and Howard. In 2003, the leaders' declaration that they held the documented truth about WMDs was widely contested, and opinion polls variously indicate that they were contested successfully. In these circumstances, it's a bit hard to see why Foucault's thoughts on truth and power are a better read than Pilger or Chomsky on the duplicity of governments.

Fully fledged versions of postmodernism have waned in the new political environment. Yet, the influence of Foucault, Nietzsche and others is still evident in current debates. The authority of Hardt and Negri's Empire in the autonomist left and the Anti-corporate movement is testament to that.27 Although Hardt and Negri reject the relativist epistemologies of postmodernism that would leave us disposed to seek only a fragmented comprehension of the world, they count Nietzsche, Baudrillard and the post-Marxists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari among their influences. Empire has two propositions that are relevant to the argument here.

First of all, in a phrase reminiscent of Foucault, they proclaim that "power * is everywhere and nowhere".28 The Empire that they postulate and discuss is losing its recognised centres or peripheries. There are no more imperial capitals that exert control. The transformation of capitalism in the last half-century has produced an even world system based mainly on the flow of information. It is governed primarily by multilateral, international institutions, and not the older form of colonial and national states. Sovereignty continues, although it is no longer embodied in national or imperial states. In this sense, Empire does not simply ape the claims of globalisation theory. They do make some of the same mistakes, however. Above all, they contend that power has no particular location in the new globalised figuration and is embedded in network relations.

There are several points on this first issue. The decline of the nation-state assumed by globalists and neo-liberals is taken for granted by Hardt and Negri, without any distinction being made between different types of state or between the states of the rich and poor worlds. Furthermore, the concentrated power of the triad of leading capitalist states is not discussed with any depth and cannot be, as the rivalry of the core states is assumed to be at an end. But sovereign centres of power do remain in the world, and sovereignty continues to inhere principally in the states of the West.29 Moreover, the economic, political and cultural rivalries between them are glaringly obvious in the wake of the second Gulf War and are revealed in ways that they could not be during the Cold War. Arguably, the states of the major capitalist countries are garnering more power in a number of spheres, rather than releasing or losing it. But then, if power is thought to be ubiquitous, the commanding heights of state rule can be overlooked and these developments ignored.

Above all, the striking feature of the contemporary world is the great unevenness in the socioeconomic distribution of wealth and resources. There is ample empirical evidence that establishes that global capitalism is not "even" in any meaningful sense. This does not hold Hardt and Negri back from claiming that the Empire "is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its expanding frontiers".30 Contemporary capitalism does have a driving impulse of internal expansion, and the international bodies of capital advance it. However, its gross inequalities also work against that internal impulse, inasmuch as most of the world's population remain territorially rooted to their locale and unable to connect to the supra-territorial flows of informational capitalism. In this sense, there is a palpable unevenness in the post-Cold War world. Moreover, empirically speaking, capital on a world scale is mostly invested and headquartered in the principal capitalist countries and consequently does sustain a territorial orientation. A glaring outcome of the changes in global capitalism is the growing marginalisation or complete absence of large geographical spaces and territories from the major flows of trade and investment. Most of the "less developed countries" are left out in so many ways. Whole regions of Africa, the extremes of Russia and some Central Asian republics and devastated Afghanistan come to mind as stark examples. In this regard, territory matters. At best, Hardt and Negri's analysis of the network figuration might apply to relations between the wealthiest states of the triad, but it is difficult to see what value it has in comprehending the inequality and unevenness of world capitalism.

The second matter is that class is abandoned for the vague notion of the "multitudes". Class is believed to be an unfocused concept and the manifest power of the working class declining. Instead the multitude is "the real productive force of the social world".31 But Hardt and Negri do not spell out what the multitude consists of, what tensions and divisions might exist in this amorphous mass and why they have the capacity for resistance ("acts of refusal"). At different points, they designate "the poor" as the multitude, but this just confounds the issue further, and we are left with no clearer idea of who the subject of change might be. They brim with enthusiasm in their revolutionary assertions and claim that the multitude will desire liberation when they perceive the deterritorialisation of the system. In the meantime, they state that the multitude might be constituted as a political subject by a minority of militants. This is all too easily interpreted as a pretext for militant autonomists to stand in for a relatively acquiescent working class or mass. Above all, there is no firm argument as to why the idea of the multitude has greater explanatory or theoretical force. This is, at the same time, a rejection of identity politics and the localism of postmodernist philosophy.32 Hardt and Negri see the counterposition of local and global as mistaken and irrelevant and able to play into the hands of Empire. The movement of resistance directs its energy against "a specific regime of global relations that we call Empire".33 Nonetheless, in the absence of a discerning analysis of social forces and political subjectivity, this criticism of identity politics is only partial.


In many respects, unqualified postmodernist social theory is at a standstill. The worldwide context of ongoing war on terrorism-a war on the states of the south-and the credibility gap afflicting Neo-liberalism have marginalised postmodernist social theory. The Western academy is still the main seat of philosophy and theory and also the chief incubator of postmodernism. But, today, the problem that confronts academic postmodernism is that it is now the canon, the orthodoxy, the paradigm to be subverted. It doesn't generate the excitement in universities it used to. The spate of anthologies of older postmodernist writings that are prescribed readers for courses in cultural theory suggest that there is not much that is new to say, even though there are plenty still studying it.

Postmodernism's decline is in full view. We should not be surprised. From Nietzsche's denunciation of nineteenth century philosophy, to Foucault's conflation of knowledge and power, to Hardt and Negri's belief that rebellions are possible anywhere and everywhere in the system, there is little in the lineage of postmodernism for a political vision of emancipation that is so sorely needed today. Socialists today face the task of defending and advancing a socialist universalism in theory and practice.

[Jeremy Smith is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in the Australian Socialist Alliance and a lecturer in social sciences at the University of Ballarat.] Notes

1. T. Doherty, "Postmodernism: An Introduction", in T. Doherty (ed.) Postmodernism: A Reader, New York, Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 1.

2. P. Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, London, Verso 1998.

3. D. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, London, Basil Blackwell, 1989, and "Class Relations, Social Justice and the Politics of Difference", in J. Squires (ed.) Principles Positions: Postmodernism and the Rediscovery of Value, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1993, and F. Jameson, Postmodernism or the Logic of Late Capitalism, London, Verso, 1991.

4. Ellen Meiksins-Wood argues that Jameson and Harvey can be treated quite separately from the main body of postmodernist philosophy. See "What is the `Postmodern Agenda'?", In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1997. For a short but highly readable critique of the argument that this epoch is one of postmodernity and post-industrialism, see R. Watts, "Postmodernism and its Discontents",Arena, August-September 1993, pp. 39-43.

5. For a trenchant Marxist critique of postmodernism that deals soberly with the progressive strategies of postmodern pedagogy, see D. Hill, P. McLaren, M. Cole and G. Rikowski (eds.), Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory, Oxford, Lexington Books, 2002. See also H.A. Giroux, Theory and Resistance in Education: Towards a Pedagogy for the Opposition, London, Bergin and Garvey, 2001.

6. J.C. Alexander, "Modern, Anti, Post, Neo", New Left Review, 210, March/April 1995, pp. 80-84.

7. G. Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968, Boston, MA, South End Press, 1987.

8. A. Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique, London, Polity Press, 1989, pp. 162-8 and J. Petras, "Notes toward an understanding of revolutionary politics today", Links, 19, 2001, pp. 5-34, particularly pp. 6-12. In contrast, Julie Stephens argues that postmodernism's origins lie in the forms of cultural or anti-disciplinary protest that emerged in the 1960s, rather than via political judgments made well after its radicalism had receded (the so called "death of the 1960s" narrative). See Anti-Disciplinary Protest: 1960s Radicalism and Postmodernism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

9. On the impassive role of Foucault and Lacan and the insignificance of their ideas in the May-June revolt, see C. Castoriadis, "The Movements of the 1960s", Thesis Eleven, 18/19, 1987.

10. In "The Movements" Castoriadis rails against the interpretation of May-June events by Ferry and Renaut in French Philosophy of the 1960s: An Essay on Antihumanism, Mary H.S. Cattani (trans.) Arnhest, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985. See also the introduction to P. Starr, Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory After May '68, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995.

11. G. Therborn, Science, Class and Society: On the Formation of Sociology and Historical Materialism, London, Verso, 1980; A. Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, London, Heineman, 1971.

12. J.F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. xxiii-iv. The original text appeared in French in 1979.

13. M. Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Colin Gordan (editor and translator), New York, Pantheon Books, 1980.

14. M. Foucault, "The Subject and Power", in H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983, and "What is Enlightenment?" in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, New York, Pantheon Books, 1984. See also P. Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory, London, Verso, 1987, chapters 5 and 6.

15. Dews, Logics of Disintegration, op. cit., Introduction and Chapter 1, and Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, op. cit., pp. 73-80.

16. J. Derrida, Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (tans.), Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 1978.

17. J. Baudrillard, Simulations, New York, Semiotext(e), 1983, and U. Eco, Travels in Hyper-reality: Essays, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

18. F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (trans.), New York, Vintage Books, 1968, p. 267.

19. F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973. See also p. 280 of The Will to Power: "`Truth' is the will to be master over the multiplicity of sensations: -to classify phenomena into definite categories. In this we start from a belief in the `in itself' of things (we take phenomena as real)."

20. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, op. cit., p. 270.

21. Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, op. cit., pp. 37-8.

22. T. Eagleton, The Idea of Culture, Oxford, Blackwell, 1999. See also A. Milner, "Left Out? Marxism, the New Left and Cultural Studies", Arena, 19, 2002.

23. A. Callinicos, Theories and Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History, London, Polity Press, 1995, pp. 180-2.

24. E. Meiksins-Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 2.

25. Castoriadis, "The Movements", op. cit., pp. 25-6.

26. J. Derrida, Specters of Marx: the State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, New York, Routledge, 1994.

27. M. Hardt and A. Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2000. For critiques, see G. Balakrishnan, Debating Empire, London, Verso, 2003, and J. Petras, "Empire without imperialists?", Links 20, 2002.

28. Hardt and Negri, Empire, op. cit., p. 182.

29. E. Meiksins-Wood, Empire of Capital, London, Verso, 2003.

30. Hardt and Negri, Empire, op. cit., p. xii.

31. Hardt and Negri, Empire, op. cit., p. 62.

32. In contrast, Manuel Castells in his well-known trilogy on network globalisation, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, argues that the global and the local are systemically disconnected. Consequently, subjectivity-better called identity here-no longer emerges from civil society or from class position, but from continuing "communal resistance" to the disempowering flows of the global network. Most identities are generated from this process and are therefore defensive, rather than based on a project, such as socialism. In the late 1990s, Castells believed that these were incapable of a broader program of social change. See volume two of M. Castells, The Power of Identity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1997.

Postmodernism and the Left


Postmodernism and the Left

Barbara Epstein [from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 22, Winter 1997]

Barbara Epstein teaches in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

ALAN SOKAL'S HOAX, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," which was published in the "Science Wars" issue ofSocial Text,1 and the debate that has followed it, raise important issues for the left. Sokal's article is a parody of postmodernism, or, more precisely, the amalgam of postmodernism, poststructuralist theory, deconstruction, and political moralism which has come to hold sway in large areas of academia, especially those associated with Cultural Studies. These intellectual strands are not always entirely consistent with each other. For instance, the strong influence of identity politics in this arena seems inconsistent with the poststructuralist insistence on the instability of all identities. Nevertheless, no one who has participated in this arena can deny that it is dominated by a specific, highly distinctive subculture. One knows when one finds oneself in a conference, seminar, or discussion governed by this subculture, by the vocabulary that is used, the ideas that are expressed or taken for granted, and by the fears that circulate, the things that remain unsaid. There are many critiques of the literature that informs this arena, which can for convenience be called postmodernism (though the term poststructuralist points more specifically to the dominant theoretical perspective).2 But there is little if any discussion of postmodernism as a subculture.

The subculture of postmodernism is difficult to locate precisely. It is more pervasive in the humanities than elsewhere, but it has also entered the social sciences. It cannot be entirely identified with any particular discipline, but in some sense constitutes a world of its own, operating outside of or above disciplinary categories. Within the world of postmodernism intellectual trends take hold and fade into oblivion with extraordinary rapidity. Many of the people who play major roles in shaping it refuse such labels as "postmodernist" (or even "poststructuralist"), on the ground that such categories are confining.3 The difficulty of defining postmodernism discourages discussion of it as a particular intellectual arena. Nevertheless it does constitute a subculture. It has increasing reach and power within the university; it has become increasingly insistent that it is the intellectual left.

Many people, inside and outside the world of postmodernism (and for that matter inside and outside the left), have come to equate postmodernism with the left. There are many academic departments and programs that associate themselves with progressive politics in which the subculture of postmodernism holds sway. This is especially the case in interdisciplinary programs, especially those in the humanities; postmodernism is most likely to be the dominant perspective if the institution is relatively prestigious and if the faculty has been hired since the 60s. These programs tend to draw bright students who regard themselves as left, progressive, feminist, concerned with racism and homophobia. The result is that many students with this sort of orientation have come to associate progressive concerns with a postmodernist perspective. Many professors and other intellectuals, of all political shades, also accept this equation. Left intellectuals who object to postmodernism tend to complain in private but remain largely silent in public, largely because they have not learned to speak the postmodernist vocabulary. The equation of postmodernism with the left poses problems both for the intellectual work conducted under the aegis of postmodernism and for efforts to rebuild the left in the U.S. Alan Sokal's hoax, and the debate that has followed it, provide an opportunity to address these issues.

A physicist at NYU, Sokal was inspired to write a parody of postmodernism two years ago, having read Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science,4 which describes attacks on science, and on concepts of truth and rationality, in areas of the humanities. Sokal is a leftist, and was particularly upset that these attacks were being made in the name of left and feminist politics. He was also taken aback by the apparently intentional obscurity of the language in which these attacks were being made. At first Sokal found it difficult to believe that the statements quoted by Gross and Levitt could be representative of any significant trend. However in checking the quotes he found that these were not isolated instances but part of a growing and apparently influential literature. Believing that mockery would be the best way of combatting this trend, Sokal wrote an article that begins with the following statement:

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, expect perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an independent world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in eternal physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the objective procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method. 5

The article presents what is described as a review of developments in quantum gravity, and claims that this research justifies the conclusion that physical reality, no less than social reality, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific knowledge, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it. In the article Sokal extensively cites real research but (according to his subsequent critique of his own article) exaggerates and distorts its implications. His article consists of assertions that are backed up, not by evidence or careful argument, but by appeals to authorities -- the postmodern masters, Derrida, Irigaray, Lacan, Aronowitz, and others, whose vacuous remarks on quantum gravity and other areas of science Sokal quotes as if they were authoritative. Sokal makes vague statements implying some connection between scientific discoveries and the need for vast changes in thinking in other areas. For instance, Sokal claims that general relativity calls for new ways of thinking about time, space and causality not only in the physical realm but in philosophy, literary criticism, and the human sciences. He supports this point by a quote from Jean Hyppolite:

With Einstein...we see the end of a kind of privilege of empiric evidence. And in that connection we see a constant appear, a constant which is a combination of time-space, which does not belong to any of the experiments who live the experience, but which, in a way, dominates the whole construct; and this notion of the constant -- is this the center? (p. 221)

Sokal responds to Hyppolite's question with a quote from Derrida, which he describes as going to the heart of classical general relativity:

The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability -- it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something -- of a center starting from which an observer could master the field -- but the very concept of the game. (p. 221)

Further on, Sokal quotes Lacan on the importance of differential topology:

This diagram [the mobius strip] can be considered the basis of a sort of essential inscription at the origin, in the knot which constitutes the subject. This goes much further than you may think at first, because you can search for the sort of surface able to receive such inscriptions. You can perhaps see that the sphere, that old symbol for totality, is unsuitable. A torus, a Klein bottle, a cross-cut surface, are able to receive such a cut. And this diversity is very important as it explains many things about the structure of mental disease. If one can symbolize the subject by this fundamental cut, in the same way one can show that a cut on a torus corresponds to the neurotic subject, and on a cross-cut surface to another sort of mental disease.

Sokal adds: "As Althusser rightly commented, Lacan finally gives Freud"s thinking the scientific concepts that it requires." (p.224)

After what he presents as a review of research in the field of quantum gravity (and in related areas of science and mathematics) Sokal goes on to claim that in order to have a truly liberatory science, it is not sufficient to dispose of the outdated view that there is such a thing as objective reality. One must also subordinate science to progressive politics. In elaborating this point Sokal first quotes Andrew Ross that we need a science that will be publically answerable and of some service to progressive interests. This is a reasonable remark, tangentially related to Sokal's point, but not a call for subordinating science to politics. Sokal then presents a quote from Kelly Oliver.

In order to be revolutionary, feminist theory cannot claim to describe what exists, or, natural facts. Rather, feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories -- not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories. (p.227)

In approvingly quoting this remark, and linking it to Ross' comment about the importance of science serving progressive goals, Sokal makes the leap from a call for a socially responsible science to a call for an approach that sets aside questions of truth or falsehood and is driven by already given political goals.

Sokal submitted his article to Social Text, which accepted it for their "Science Wars" issue. After his article had been accepted but had not yet appeared, Sokal began working on a piece disclosing his own hoax and explaining why he had felt that it was necessary to mock postmodernism in order to save the left from its own silliness. Sokal wanted to find humanists critical of postmodernism, like him, from a left/feminist perspective, to comment on his piece. Through a string of associations he was led to me. I began working with him on the piece in which he disclosed his own hoax. At that point Sokal wanted to allow some time to elapse between the publication of his hoax and his disclosure. He wanted to see how long it would take for someone to discover his hoax. If, after a few months, no one had caught it, he intended to send his self-disclosure to Social Text with a request that they publish it.The course of events went differently. While the article was in press, an enterprising free-lance journalist, David Glenn, overheard a remark (made, presumably, by one of the by this time fairly large circle of people who knew of Sokal's hoax) which led him to believe that a scandal was brewing within Social Text. Some skillful investigation led Glenn to the page proofs of Social Text's forthcoming issue. It seemed to Glenn, on reading Sokal's article, that even for the world of Cultural Studies this was a bit extreme. Glenn contacted Sokal and asked him if the article was a hoax. Sokal acknowledged that it was and congratulated Glenn on his detective work. The two took the story to Lingua Franca, whose editors offered to publish a statement by Sokal in their forthcoming issue, disclosing his own hoax and explaining why he had done it.

The result was that the "Science Wars" issue of Social Text, with Sokal's article, appeared in mid-April of 1996, and Lingua Franca, with Sokal's statement about his article, about a week later. The story was picked up by the media. On May 17 there was a story about Sokal's hoax on the front page of the New York Times. After that the story spread; articles about it appeared not only in newspapers throughout the U.S. but in Europe and Latin America. Probably no one concerned with postmodernism has remained unaware of it. People have been bitterly divided. Some are delighted, some are enraged. One friend of mine told me that Sokal's article came up in a meeting of a left reading group that he belongs to. The discussion became polarized between impassioned supporters and equally impassioned opponents of Sokal; it nearly turned into a shouting match. The astonishing thing about this, my friend said, was that actually no one had read the article, because that issue of Social Text had sold out so quickly. Members of this group knew about the article only from having read accounts of it in the press, or from discussions with others who had read it. Clearly Sokal's article has brought to the surface intensely felt divisions, raising the question: what are these differences about?

Some of us who were delighted by Sokal's hoax, at one time had a more positive view of postmodernism. The constellation of trends that I am calling postmodernism has its origins in the writings of a group of French intellectuals of the 60s, most preeminently Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Fran*ois Lyotard. Those who developed postmodernism tended to be associated with the radicalism of the 60s, and to see May '68 as a formative moment in their intellectual and political development. French postmodernism expressed many aspects of the ethos of May '68: its anti-authoritarianism, its rejection of Marxism and view of it as implicated in unacceptable structures of authority, its celebration of the imagination and resistance to all constraints.6

In addition to being shaped by the politics of May '68 (including the French Communist Party's betrayal of the student movement and support for the authorities), French postmodernism developed out of the debates that were taking place in French intellectual circles at that time. It included a rejection of humanism, in particular of Sartre's view of the self as the center of political resistance and his quest for an integrated, authentic selfhood. Postmodernism rejected aspects of the structuralist legacy, particularly its emphasis on the stability of social structures but retained its focus on language, the view that language provides the categories that shape self, society. This could be extended to the view that all reality is shaped by language; it could suggest that language is real, everything else, constructed or derived from it. Such an approach could suggest a critique of social analysis or radical politics emphasizing the economic level, or overt structures of political power. It could suggest the need for a critique of culture and a call for cultural transformation.

POSTMODERNISM ENTERED THE U.S. IN THE LATE 70S AND EARLY 80S, by a number of routes simultaneously. There were academics, especially philosophers and literary critics, who were drawn to poststructuralist philosophy. Many feminists and gay and lesbian activists became interested in the work of Michel Foucault, whose attention to the social construction of sexuality, view of power as dispersed through society, and insistence on the connection between power and knowledge, intersected with their own concerns. Foucault's work seemed to provide a theoretical ground for shifting the focus of radical analysis away from macrostructures such as the economy and the state, and toward daily life, ideology, social relations and culture. Foucault's view of state power as always repressive and his identification of resistance with the marginalized and suppressed made sense at a time when radical struggles were being led by groups peripheral to mainstream culture and power relations, such as disaffected youth and women, blacks and other racial minorities, gays and lesbians.

The attractiveness of postmodernism, in the late 70s and early 80s, had something to do with the cultural and political currents with which it was associated. It was loosely affiliated with avant-garde trends in architecture and art, and also with the impulse of many intellectuals to set aside the old distinction between high and low culture and begin taking popular culture seriously. Poststructuralist theory emphasized flux, instability, fragmentation, and questioned the validity of claims to authenticity and truth. These concerns overlapped with emerging themes in popular culture: distraction, absence of rootedness in the past, a sense of meaninglessness. More important, these poststructuralist, or postmodernist, concerns spoke to levels of reality that seemed increasingly salient and that more conventional theories, including left theories, did not address. Postmodernism seemed to refer to a set of cultural changes that were taking place around us (and within us) as much as it referred to a literature or set of theories about those changes. The increasing use of the term poststructuralism to refer to a set of theories in part grew out of the need to distinguish between theory and the cultural realities to which it responded.

In the latter part of the 70s, many young people whose center of attention was shifting from the movements of the 60s to intellectual work, often in the academy, were avidly reading Foucault. Many were also reading other French intellectuals, including French feminist such as Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, the eclectic theorists of society and psychology, Gilles DeLeuze and Felix Guattari, the Marxist structuralist, Louis Althusser, the psychoanalytic structuralist, Jacques Lacan. Through the works of these writers and the debates in which their work was embedded, the poststructuralist ideas that had come to dominate French radical intellectual circles in the late 60s and 70s filtered into parallel intellectual circles in the U.S. By the early 80s an intellectual subculture was emerging in the U.S. which tended to use the term "postmodernism" to describe its outlook. Though it was located primarily in the university, it had links to avant-garde developments in art and architecture and a strong interest in experimental trends in popular culture. Postmodernists tended to feel strong sympathies for feminism and for gay and lesbian movements, and were especially drawn to a politics that was tinged with anarchism and oriented toward spectacle -- a politics that happened to be quite salient in a cluster of movements that emerged in the U.S. around the late 70s and early 80s.

The excitement of postmodernism, certainly in the early 80s and to some degree through the decade, had to do with its links to vital cultural and political movements, and the fact that it was pointing to rapid changes in culture and examining these through the poststructuralist categories of language, text, discourse. Through the 80s, original and provocative books and articles appeared, loosely associated with a postmodernist perspective or at least addressing questions raised by postmodernism. Though everyone would have a different list, most would no doubt include James Clifford's The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, Donna Haraway's Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Jean Beaudrillard's For a Critique of The Political Economy of the Sign, Jacques Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition.7

Others examined postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon and criticized from a broadly Marxist perspective. Works in this vein would include David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (and his influential article, "Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism.")8 In the 80s and 90s a great deal of European postmodernist (or poststructuralist) literature was being published in English, and was widely read in the U.S. In fact, postmodernist books by European authors may have been read more widely in the U.S. than in their authors' home countries, since by this time interest in postmodernism had faded considerably in France and elsewhere in Europe. DESPITE THE ATTRACTIONS OF POSTMODERNISM, SOME OF US WERE UNEASY about it from the start. Postmodernism not only pointed to processes of flux, fragmentation, the disenchantment or draining of meaning from social life, but tended to be fascinated with them. It often seemed that postmodernists could see nothing but instability, and that a new set of values was being established without ever being acknowledged, according to which the shifting and unstable was always preferable to the unified or integrated. Despite the brilliance of much of the literature there seemed at times to be a kind of flatness of vision, a tendency to insist on one set of qualities while refusing to recognize their necessary counterparts, as if one could have up without down, hot without cold. There seemed to be a celebration of the fragmentation of self and society that ignored the need for balance, for new level of coherence. Not that all writers who addressed the questions posed by postmodernism fell into this trap. But on the whole those who escaped it were those who addressed questions raised by postmodernism rather than adopting it as their own perspective.

By the late 80s and early 90s, postmodernism seemed to have been taken over by the pursuit of the new or avant-garde. Radicalism became identified with criticism for the sake of criticism, and equated with intellectual or cultural sophistication. The aestheticization of postmodernism corresponded to the attenuation of its ties with any actual social movements, as the movements with which postmodernism had felt the greatest rapport shrivelled. Postmodernism had always been pulled between the agendas of the academy and the social movements; the agenda of the academy now took over. Politics became increasingly a matter of gestures or proclamations. By the 90s, the quest for success in an increasingly harsh and competitive academic world became the driving force. Claims to radicalism, oddly, seemed to serve this purpose.

ONE WAY OF UNDERSTANDING POSTMODERNISM IS TO SAY THAT THERE ARE strong and weak, or more ambitious and more restrained versions of it. According to the strong version, there is no such thing as truth. Because all perception of reality is mediated, because what we regard as reality is perceived through discourse, there is no truth, there are only truth claims. Since there is nothing against which these claims can be measured, they all have the same standing. Another way of putting this would be that there is nothing prior to interpretation or theory, nothing that stands outside of interpretation and can be taken as a basis for judging its validity. In the postmodernist or poststructuralist lexicon, the terms "essentialism" and "foundationalism" are used to denote a host of presumably bad attitudes, including the view that interpretation or theory can and should be judged in relation to some reality external to itself, the view that some social groups have characteristics or interests that are given rather than continually constructed and reconstructed -- and reductionism, stereotyping, as in the view that all women are nurturent, or that African Americans have innate musical abilities. The fact that the term essentialism refers simultaneously to an epistemological approach and also to racist, sexist or at least naive politics tends to link these two and makes it difficult to have a calm discussion of whether there is such a thing as truth, and whether theory should be judged by reality external to itself. In many discussions the use of the term "essentialist" is enough to identify the philosophical stance as politically retrograde and therefore unacceptable.

Those of us who disagree with the strong postmodernist position do not object to the premise that our perception of reality is mediated. What we object to is the leap of logic between this premise and the conclusion that there is no truth, that all claims have equal status. We would argue that although we do not possess ultimate truth and never will, it is nevertheless possible to expand our understanding, and it is worth the effort to gain more knowledge -- even if that knowledge is always subject to revision. This version of the strong postmodernist position is -- in my experience -- rarely explicitly argued in the literature; it is in discussion (in conferences, seminars, and private conversations) that one encounters it. It is often posed against a straw-person argument that would claim that the truth is readily accessible, completely transparent, unaffected by culture. This straw-person argument is used as a foil, to excuse the implausibility and logical weakness of the strong postmodernist view. On the whole postmodernist literature, instead of arguing this position explicitly, assumes an attitude of radical skepticism toward truth, or toward claims that there is an objective reality that is to some extent knowable, without ever clearly defining the grounds for this skepticism.

The strong position, as it appears in postmodernist or poststructuralist writing, tends to take the form of an extreme social constructionism, a view that identities, relations, political positions are constructed entirely through interpretation, that there is no identifiable social reality against which interpretations can be judged, no ground in material or social reality that places any constraints on the formation of identities or perspectives. Joan Scott, for instance, in her influential article "Experience," argues that any account of experience takes for granted categories and assumptions that ought to be questioned, that to accept the category of experience, or to use the word without distancing oneself from it by surrounding it with quotation marks, is dangerous, and opens the way to essentialism and foundationalism. Scott admits that the concept of experience is too deeply embedded in culture to be done away with easily. In the end she suggests that we retain it but treat it with suspicion.9

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, in their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, apply the same approach to the formation of political positions. They argue that all political identities or perspectives are constructed, that there is no particular relation between class position, for instance, and political stance. In support of this, they argue that workers are not automatically socialist or even progressive: often they support right-wing politics. Laclau and Mouffe are of course correct that there is no automatic connection between class and politics, or between the working class and socialism, but this does not mean that there is no connection between the two, that all interpretations or constructions of class interest are equally possible and equally valid. For instance, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a socialist program, proposed by the capitalist class, was defeated by working-class opposition. Laclau and Mouffe make their argument by setting up a straw argument (that workers are automatically socialist -- a view held by no one that I know of), knocking it down, and substituting a position that is equally extreme, namely that there is no connection at all between class position and political perspective. Without this straw economism as a foil, the problems of the extreme social constructionist argument become more apparent.10

An even more extreme example of strong postmodernism is Judith Butler's argument, in her book Gender Trouble,11 that sexual difference is socially constructed. Butler accepts Foucault's now widely accepted view that gender is socially constructed; she goes beyond this and criticizes Foucault for his unwillingness to extend an anti-essentialist perspective to sexuality itself. She argues that not only gender but sex itself, that is, sexual difference, should be seen as an effect of power relations and cultural practices, as constructed "performatively" -- that is, by acts whose meaning is determined by their cultural context. Butler argues that the conventional view of sex as consisting of two given, biologically determined categories, male and female, is ideological, and defines radical politics as consisting of parodic performances that might undermine what she calls "naturalized categories of identity." Her assertion that sexual difference is socially constructed strains belief. It is true that there are some people whose biological sex is ambiguous, but this is not the case for the vast majority of people. Biological difference has vast implications, social and psychological; the fact that we do not yet fully understand these does not mean that they do not exist. Butler's understanding of radicalism shows how the meaning of the word has changed in the postmodernist arena. It no longer has to do with efforts to achieve a more egalitarian society. It refers to the creation of an arena in which the imagination can run free. It ignores the fact that only a privileged few can play at taking up and putting aside identities.

There is a weak, or restrained, version of postmodernism which is much more plausible than the strong version described above. This version argues that language and culture play a major and often unrecognized role in shaping society, that things are often regarded as natural which are actually socially constructed. This is a valid and important perspective. Those of us on the left who criticize postmodernism reject the strong version, not this more restrained approach. The difference between the two lies in the excessive ambition, and the consequent reductionism, of the strong approach, and the greater modesty or caution of the weak or restrained approach. Strong postmodernism is cultural reductionism: it represents the ambition to make culture the first or only level of explanation. It is no better to argue that everything can be understood in terms of culture or language than to argue that everything is driven by economic forces, or by the quest for political power. The project that frames postmodernism is the critique of Enlightenment rationality; there are aspects of that tradition that deserve to be criticized, such as the tendency to take the white male as the model of rational subjectivity, and the equation of truth with the discoveries of Western science, excluding other contributions. But the postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment is one-sided. It forgets that a universalist view of humanity was a major (and only partially accomplished) step away from narrow nationalisms, and that the concept of truth is a weapon in the hands of progressive social movements, that they rely on opposing the truth of oppression to hollow official claims that society is just.

THE PROBLEMS OF POSTMODERNISM THAT I HAVE NAMED, and more, have been displayed in the public response to the Sokal article. The first response was from Stanley Fish, Professor of English at Duke University and a leading figure in the field of Cultural Studies. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, "Professor Sokal's Bad Joke,"12 Fish tried to shift the terrain of the debate from postmodernism to the social sciences, suggesting that the field of Science Studies consists of scholars whose modest aim is to investigate the ideas that drive scientific research. The work of these scholars, he implied, hardly goes beyond the bounds of conventional sociology. In this article, Fish appeared not to have noticed the more extreme positions that have been taken in the name of postmodernism or Cultural Studies, inside or outside the field of Science Studies. It is hard not to see Fish's piece as a strategic move, a slide to the weak or restrained position when the strong position has begun to look foolish.

The next piece to appear was a statement in Lingua Franca, by Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins, editors of Social Text.13 Robbins and Ross wrote that they had regarded Sokal's article as "a little hokey" and "not their cup of tea" but that they published it to encourage a natural scientist who appeared to be interested in Cultural Studies. Next, Tikkun published an article by Bruce Robbins,14 who wrote that the editors of Social Text had published the article because of the merit they saw in its argument. Robbins asked what conclusions should be drawn and what should not be drawn from the fact that Social Text had published Sokal's piece. One conclusion not to draw, he wrote, is that postmodernists can't recognize an unintelligible argument when they see one.

When Sokal said his essay was nonsense, most reporters instantly followed his lead. After all, he should know, right? But we thought Sokal had a real argument, and we still do. Allow me to quote Paul Horgan, senior writer at Scientific American, summarizing in the July 16 New York Times: Sokal, Horgan says, "proposed that superstring theory might help liberate science from dependence upon the concept of objective truth.'" Prof. Sokal later announced that the article had been a hoax, intended to expose the hollowness of postmodernism. In fact, however, superstring theory is exactly the kind of science that subverts conventional notions of truth.(p.58)

Robbins went on to argue that the concept of truth is questionable on political grounds:

Does subverting conventional notions of truth really have anything to do with being politically progressive?...Is it in the interests of women, African-Americans, and other super-exploited people to insist that truth and identity are social constructions? Yes and no. No, you can't talk about exploitation without respect for empirical evidence and a universal standard of justice. But yes, truth can be another source of oppression. It was not so long ago that scientists gave their full authority to explanations of why women and African-Americans (not to speak of gays and lesbians) were inherently inferior or pathological or both. Explanations like these continue to appear in newer and subtler forms. Hence there is a need for a social constructionist critique of knowledge.(p.59)

Here we have an argument that has become hopelessly tangled, perhaps through the effort to see everything through a postmodernist lens while refusing to acknowledge that postmodernism is a lens, that it is anything other than pure Truth. Robbins is of course right that some people say things about African Americans, women, etc., that are not true. This does not mean that we should reject the concept of truth. It means that we should reject false assertions.

Robbins goes on to deride critics of postmodernism as "know-nothings of the left [who] delude themselves: Capitalism is screwing people! What goes up must come down! What else do we need to know?" Robbins continues, "It seems likely that what is really expressed by the angry tirades against cultural politics that have accompanied the Sokal affair is a longing for the days when women were back in the kitchen and it was respectable to joke about faggots and other natural objects of humor. These are not the family values I want my children to learn." (p.59) Presumably Robbins is referring to people who have expressed support for Sokal, such as Ruth Rosen (a feminist historian), Katha Pollitt (a feminist journalist), Jim Weinstein (editor of In These Times), Michael Albert (editor of Z Magazine), myself. Robbins' remark is self-righteous posturing, and unfortunately it is not an isolated example. In the arena of postmodernism, left politics is often expressed through striking poses, often conveying moral superiority, greater sophistication, or both. There often seems to be a sneer built into postmodernist discourse, a cooler-than-thou stance. This enrages the critics of postmodernism, and it is one reason why it has been so difficult for supporters and critics of Sokal to discuss their differences calmly.

THERE ARE SERIOUS PROBLEMS WITHIN THE POSTMODERNIST SUBCULTURE. There is an intense ingroupyness, a concern with who is in and who is out, and an obscurantist vocabulary whose main function often seems to be to mark those on the inside and allow them to feel that they are part of an intellectual elite. This is not to object to the use of a technical vocabulary where it is needed to express ideas precisely. The world of postmodernism has unfortunately come to be flooded with writing in which pretentiousness reigns and intellectual precision appears to have ceased to be a consideration. There is the fetishization of the new: the rapid rise and fall of trends, the collective deference to them while they last. For a while it seemed that every debate in this arena entailed accusations of essentialism. The exact definition of essentialism was never clear, but it nevertheless seemed that essentialism was the source of all error, and the use of the term as invective was enough to halt discussion. There is the inflation of language and the habit of self-congratulation: it has become common practice in this arena to advertise one's own work as radical, subversive, transgressive. All this really means is that one hopes one is saying something new. There is the worship of celebrities. This is a culture that encourages and rewards self-aggrandizement and grandiosity. There is intellectual bullying, the use of humiliation, ridicule, implicit threats of ostracism, to silence dissent. All of this stands in direct contrast to the endless talk of difference that takes place in this arena.

Efforts to raise criticisms from within this arena have not had much effect; those who have made such efforts have been treated with hostility or at best ignored. Those of us who supported Sokal's hoax felt that a public act of mockery was required to open up discussion. Now that postmodernism has lost its aura of invincibility people have begun to laugh, and it does not seem likely that the laughter will stop anytime soon. For instance, in a review of a book entitled Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line, by Calvin Thomas (University of Illinois Press), reviewer Daniel Harris writes,

In the fast-paced intellectual environment of postmodern cultural studies, the line between ostensibly serious scholarship and outright parody is not just thin but, in many instances, nonexistent, as became embarrassingly evident last month to the editors of one of the house organs of contemporary theoretical discourse, Social Text....One can only hope that Sokal's brilliant act of intellectual terrorism...will be the first of many similar practical jokes. If even a handful of the numerous critics of cultural theory did their part, postmodern journals and academic presses would be swamped with fraudulent manuscripts that would shatter the self-confidence of the entire field. This vast industry would collapse into a state of total disarray were its tightly-knit ranks to become infiltrated by jargon-spewing moles posing as the real McCoy, double agents cloaked in the uniform of the American university's elitist new brand of paper radicals.

Harris goes on to speculate that the book under review must be another hoax. How else, he asks, can one explain the bewildering statements that appear in this book, such as:

The excrementalization of alterity as the site/sight of homelessness, of utter outsideness and unsubiatable dispossession figure(s) in...Hegel's metanarrational conception of Enlightenment modernity as the teleological process of totalization leading to absolute knowing.

The anal penis...function(s) within a devalued metonmymic continuity, whereas the notion of the phallomorphic turd functions within the realm of metaphorical substitution.

If the bodily in masculinity is encountered in all its rectal gravity, the specular mode by which others become shit is disrupted.

Harris suggests that if Thomas wants to become an academic success he should follow Sokal's example and proclaim his book to be a prank. Only slightly less tongue in cheek, he speculates that what he describes as the central metaphor of this book, the comparison of writing to "productions" of the body, especially shit, may be apt in a field in which jargon is used as an offensive weapon, to score points against competitors in the battle for tenure and prestige.15

POSTMODERNISM DID NOT INVENT INTELLECTUAL BULLYING. This is not the first instance of dogmatism on the left. In the 30s people on the left (at least those in or close to the Communist Party) felt considerable pressure not to admit, or even consider the possibility, that the Soviets were anything less than angels. In the late 60s a kind of Maoist politics swept the left, in particular the radical core of the anti-war movement. Under the aegis of "Marxism-Leninism" a politics was put forward that revolved around the assumption that revolution was possible in the U.S. if only people on the left would follow the example set by revolutionaries in the Third World. Strategies were proposed that were utterly inappropriate to the U.S.; questioning these strategies, or for that matter suggesting that a revolution was not very likely in the U.S., was tantamount to labelling oneself a defector from the cause. Similar things took place in the radical wing of the women's movement: extreme conceptions of feminism, such as the belief that having anything to do with men amounted to fraternizing with the enemy, took hold in many circles, and questioning these ideas was likely to earn one a reputation as a friend of the patriarchy. The left in the U.S. seems prone to being seized by ideas which, when recollected a few years later, look somewhat mad. But it is worth asking why particular ideologies take over at particular moments. After all, in the case of postmodernism, it is not clear why culturalism, a social constructionism set in competition with other levels of social analysis, should be equated with radicalism.

Terry Eagleton, in his article "Where Do Postmodernists Come From?"16 argues that left intellectuals in the U.S. have adopted postmodernism out of a sense of having been badly defeated, a belief that the left as a political tendency has little future. Culturalism, he argues, involves an extreme subjectivism, a view of the intellect as all-powerful, a mindset that might be described as taking the May '68 slogan "all power to the imagination" literally, combined with a deep pessimism, a sense that it isn't worth the effort to learn about the world, to analyze social systems, for instance, because they can't be changed anyway.

I would add two points to Eagleton's analysis. First, postmodernism takes many of its ideas from the 60s. To some extent it represents a rigidification of ideas that were widespread in movements of that time, especially the voluntarism or hubris of a generational cohort that tended to think that it could accomplish anything. The widespread view among leftists of the 60s that revolution was waiting in the wings, and the fact that so few people openly challenged this, reflected a grandiosity, a loosening of the collective grip on reality. In the heated atmosphere of the late 60s it was possible for radicals to take fairly crazy positions without utterly losing their audience or becoming irrelevant to politics. In the 90s there is considerably less room for extreme voluntarism, or grandiosity, cast as a political position.

There was also a widespread tendency in the movements of the 60s to equate personal and cultural change with broader social change. One of the most important contributions of the movements of the 60s (especially feminism and the countercultural left) was the critique of a culture that promoted consumerism, that equated happiness with individual striving for power and wealth. But in rejecting a politics that left this element out it was easy to fall into the opposite problem of believing that creating communities in which people tried to live according to different values would inevitably move society as a whole in the same direction. This made change seem easier than it was. The prosperity of the late 60s and early 70s allowed alternative communities to flourish, and it seemed plausible that the more egalitarian relationships and humane values developed in them might serve as models. But as it turned out the egalitarian impulse that found expression in these communities was overshadowed by the shift to the right that has taken place in American society as a whole since the mid- to late 70s. Alternative communities themselves were weakened and destroyed by social changes over which they had no control, especially the depression of the 70s and the withdrawal of support from the public sector in the 80s and 90s. In the 90s it would be very hard to make a convincing case that cultural change equals social change. The equation of the personal or the cultural with the political was a mixed blessing for the movements of the 60s. In the 90s it tends to mean retreating into one's own community and allowing politics to drift further and further to the right.

POSTMODERNISM SUFFERS NOT ONLY FROM ITS RELIANCE ON a conception of radicalism that made more sense in the 60s than it does now, but also from the fact that it is located in academia and reflects its pressures. The logic of the market is not a new presence in the American academy, but it now seems to be sweeping all other values and considerations aside. There has been a dramatic increase in the pressures toward intellectual specialization and a frantic pace of publication. There is intense competition between and within fields. In the years following World War II there was a widespread belief, in government and business circles, that the U.S. economy would benefit if a broad liberal higher education were widely available. In the wake of Sputnik there was a sudden rush of support for science education; this resulted in more government support for universities without diminishing its commitment to the humanities. Through the 60s it was mostly the children of the white middle class who attended universities, public or private. Since the 60s the economy has changed, the values governing public spending have changed, and the composition of university student bodies has changed. In a society increasingly stratified between haves and have-nots, an economy in which technical expertise seems more important than familiarity with history and literature, support for liberal education is hardly reliable.

In the 50s and 60s academics could believe that their profession was held in high esteem. They were well paid, and at least some found their opinions sought by the White House or by large corporations. Over the last few decades it has become harder to believe that public esteem of the academy is unqualified. The loss of prestige (and of resources) is felt most sharply in the humanities. In the 50s the social sciences tried to show that they could be as rigorous, quantitative, and ostensibly value-free, as the natural sciences. This encouraged huge quantities of unimaginative, narrowly-conceived, jargon-ridden papers. Now it seems to be the turn of the humanities to try to raise their stock within academia, though this time the strategy is not to imitate science but to assert the supremacy of a vocabulary and theoretical perspective nurtured in the humanities over all fields of knowledge. But postmodernism only highlights its own weaknesses when it overreaches its scope. I have heard many postmodernists denounce Sokal on grounds that his hoax could lead to funds being withdrawn from Cultural Studies or the humanities generally. It seems more useful to look at postmodernism's internal problems. Sokal's hoax and the laughter it generated shows that the field had become ripe for parody.17

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THIS FOR THE LEFT? As restraints on capitalism have loosened and the logic of the market has crept into virtually every area of life, the more human values of the left have come to seem archaic and irrelevant. We certainly need a critique of this culture. But postmodernism is not that critique. There are too many respects in which postmodernism accepts or revels in the values of the marketplace for it to serve as a critique. On a deeper level the problem is that postmodernism is a stance of pure criticism, that it avoids making any claims, asserting any values (or acknowledging its own implicit system of values, in particular its orientation toward sophistication and aesthetics). Left politics requires a conception of a better society and an assertion of a better set of values than those that now prevail. This does not mean that any particular vision of society or any particular definition of those values is the last word; a left perspective requires ongoing discussion and debate. But it is not possible for a purely critical stance to serve as the basis for left politics.

No doubt, one reason that postmodernism has taken hold so widely is that it is much easier to be critical than to present a positive vision. Being on the left means having a conception of the future and confidence that there is a connection between the present and the future, that collective action in the present can lead to a better society. It is difficult these days to articulate any clear vision of the future, even more difficult to figure out how we might get from where we are to a more humane, egalitarian, and ecologically balanced society. A friend of mine recently told me that her image is that we are on a log that is slowly drifting down the Niagara River, and we can begin to hear the roar of the Falls. But because we do not know what to do, we are not roused from our lethargy. It seems to me that postmodernism has become an obstacle to addressing urgent issues, including impending environmental and social disasters, and how to build a movement that might begin to address them. Clearing away the fog won't automatically provide us with any answers, but might make it easier to hold a productive discussion.


1. Alan Sokal, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Social Text 46-47, Spring/Summer 1996: 217-252. return

2. For critiques of postmodernism, or poststructuralist theory, see Brian Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Peter Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Post-Structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (London: Verso, 1987), Alex Callinocos, Against Post-Modernism (London: Methuen, 1982); Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London: Methuen, 1982), and Deconstruction and the Interests of Theory (London: Pinter, 1988), Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (London: Verso, 1984), and Somer Broberibb, Nothing Mat(t)ers: A Feminist Critique of Postmodernism (North Melbourne: Spiniflex Press, 1992). return

3. See, for instance, Judith Butler, "Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism'", 3-21, in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992). return

4. Paul Gross and Normal Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994). return

5. Alan Sokal, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Social Text 46-47 (Spring/Summer 1996), p. 217. return

6. See Luc Ferry and Alain Renault, French Philosophy of the 60s: An Essay on Antihumanism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985) on the ways in which poststructuralism and the spirit of May '68 coincided, and differed. Ferry and Renault point out that while a politics of authenticity, of the self as agent of social change, was central to May '68, poststructuralism emphasizes fragmentation and incoherence to the point of denying the existence of the self and the possibility of authenticity. return

7. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989), Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985), Jean Beaudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis, Telos Press, 1981), Jacques Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). return

8. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: an Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), and "Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism," first published in New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984): 53-92, later included in Jameson's book of the same title (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991). return

9. Joan W. Scott, "Experience," in Feminists Theorize the Political, (New York: Routledge, 1992), ed. Judith Butler and Joan W, Scott: 22-40. return

10. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985), pp. 82-85. return

11. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). return

12. Stanley Fish, "Professor Sokal's Bad Joke," New York Times, Op Ed, May 21, 1996. return

13. "Mystery Science Theater," Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, Co-Editors, of Social Text, Lingua Franca, July/August 1996: 54-57. return

14. Bruce Robbins, "Anatomy of a Hoax," Tikkun Vol. 11, No. 5, September-October 1996, pp. 58-59. return

15. Daniel Harris, "Jargon Basement," review of Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line, by Calvin Thomas (University of Illinois Press). Bay Area Reporter, June 13, 1996, p. 40. return

16. Terry Eagleton, "Where Do Postmodernists Come From?" Monthly Review Vol. 47, No. 3, July-August 1995, Special Issue: "In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda," pp. 59-70. return

17. For a discussion of the public view of academics and how postmodernism has made a bad situation worse, see Loic J.D. Wacquant, "The Self-Inflicted Irrelevance of American Academics," Academe, July-August 1996, 18-23. return

The post-modernist wonderland


The post-modernist wonderland: Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont By Stefan Steinberg
1st July 2000

Intellectual Impostures, Profile Books ISBN 1 86197 1249

Intellectual Impostures has now been published in number of languages including English, French and German, and is also available in an affordable English paperback version. It should be read by all those who have an interest in modern ideological trends, in particular, the various somewhat nebulous schools of thought included under the hybrid term “postmodernism”.

Authors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont take up their lance and shield and go into battle against the many absurdities that are to be found among the works of a number of the most prominent of the French post-modernists. While this writer does not agree with a number of comments or conclusions drawn by Sokal and Bricmont, both are to be congratulated for their efforts to deflate postmodernism's monstrous balloon of misconceptions, or, as they themselves put it, “to stimulate a critical attitude, not merely towards certain individuals, but towards a part of the intelligentsia (both in the United States and Europe) that has tolerated and even encouraged this type of discourse” (p. 6).

It is worth briefly recalling the prehistory of the book Intellectual Impostures. In 1996 Sokal, who is a physicist at New York University, submitted an article for publication in a magazine called Social Text which is regarded as an influential left-leaning periodical devoted to sociology and the relatively newly developed field of “cultural studies”. Sokal named his article Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.

In the course of few pages he included as much gobbledegook and pseudo-science as imagination and space allowed. With the indulgence of the reader, a small example: “the pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centred, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point.” The editors of the magazine, including prominent left-wing radical Stanley Aaronowitz, cofounder of the journal and professor at City University of New York, welcomed the piece as a serious contribution and published it.

Only after its appearance and the admission by Sokal that the article was a hoax did the backsliding on the part of the magazine's editors begin. Sokal had put his finger on a sore spot, and in Intellectual Impostures he attempts to probe and deepen the wound.

The book deals with some of the most well-known figures of French postmodernism*Jacques Lacan, Jean-Pierre Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, Jean Baudillard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, amongst others. A series of examples are introduced from their work to demonstrate the cavalier way in which they develop and demonstrate their arguments.

Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva

Luce Irigaray is a prominent French feminist with philosophical and scientific post-modernist pretensions. Her work is well regarded amongst layers of the academia in Europe and America. In one of her essays, “ Le sujet de la science est-il sexue?” (1987), she turns her attention to an issue that has been virtually ignored in treatments of Einstein's famous relativity theory. She poses the question: “Is e=mc2 a sexed equation?” She continues: “Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possible sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest...” (p. 100).

In another text on related issues Irigaray gives vent to her spleen: “But what does the mighty theory of relativity do for us except establish nuclear power plants and question our bodily inertia, that necessary condition of life?” (p. 98).

In fact, the argument here is not so tortuous as many to be found amongst the post-modernists. Einstein (a man*q.e.d!) developed his relativity equation, which has become a cornerstone of modern science. A corollary of Einstein's equation is the impossibility of physical objects travelling faster than the speed of light, i.e., that the speed of light is the fastest comprehensible speed. Speed, according to a supposition of Irigaray, is a predominantly male characteristic. Einstein's “fixation” with speed in his equation is sexually motivated. Thus his whole equation is dubious (and a threat to our bodily inertia*long live inertia!).

The fact that male bodies are confronted with exactly the same physical problems as female bodies in attempting to attain the speed of light is swept aside in favour of Irigaray's argument, which has more in common with Alice in Wonderland than serious reasoning. The conclusion reached by Sokal and Bricmont on Irigaray's piece is eminently sober: “Unfortunately, Irigaray's claims show a superficial understanding of the subjects she addresses, and consequently bring nothing to the discussion.”

Irigaray has evidently strayed into a field about which she knows very little and come unstuck. We will take a deep breath and move on.

Julia Kristeva is another leading light in the post-modernist school, who has attempted to establish a connection between literary activity and mathematics. In particular, she has attempted to reconcile poetry with set theory, a special branch of algebra. One paragraph from her work “Semeiotike: Researches for a Semioanalysis” (1969) is typical:

“Poetic language (which we shall henceforth denote by the initials pl) contains the code of linear logic. Moreover, we can find in it all the combinatoric figures that algebra has formalized in a system of artificial signs and that are not externalised at the level of the manifestation of the usual language” (p. 41).

Sokal and Bricmont draw out the many contortions and falsifications of mathematical concepts made by Kristeva in the course of her article. At the same time they point out that she never once in her text puts forward a serious argument to justify her main thesis of a relation between poetry and a branch of mathematics.

Once again one could draw breath and conclude that this is another overrated theorist who has mistakenly been elevated to prominence. However, the list of travesties continues.

Sokal and Bricmont devote chapter after chapter to the most respected figures of French contemporary thought, many of whom would describe themselves as left-oriented in terms of their politics. The assembled intellectuals utilise proven and valued concepts from natural science in a spurious way in order to prop up controversial theories in the fields of sociology, literary criticism, linguistics, cultural studies and a number of other disciplines.

What is postmodernism?

Sokal and Bricmont have assembled sufficient material to support the case that postmodernism has brought forward at least as much nonsense as the clerical debate over how many angels can dance on the point of a needle. But is that all there is to it? Is postmodernism just nonsense? What is postmodernism? What are the roots of this movement?

Sokal and Bricmont make a number of interesting observations in this respect. First, they correctly identify the general tendency of postmodernism as a school of thought to be the rejection of a comprehensible objective reality and the introduction of relativism into every field of thought and science.

In addition, the authors acknowledge the particular affinity of broad layers of the “academic left” for post-modernist theories. In response to a number of “left” criticisms of an earlier edition of Intellectual Impostures, Sokal himself explains why he wrote his book: “Why did I do it? I must confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them” (p. 249).

Sokal and Bricmont identify French intellectuals as the driving force behind postmodernism, but point out that the movement has been broadly taken up by layers of the intelligentsia in Britain and America: “The lackadaisical attitude toward scientific rigour that one finds in Lacan, Kriesteva, Baudrillard and Deleuze had an undeniable success in France during the 1970s and is still remarkably influential there. This way of thinking spread outside France, notably in the English-speaking world during the 1980s and 1990s” (p. 194).

In one passage Sokal and Bricmont concede there is a “sociological link, often exaggerated” with respect to postmodernism, but then go on to say: “In particular, the ideas analysed here have little, if any, conceptual or logical connection with politics.” As a consequence of their own hypothesis, the authors have little more of interest to say about the sources of postmodernism.

In contrast, the leading figures of the post-modernist movement are not so reticent at delineating the social, historical and political roots of their own thinking. Jean-Francois Lyotard is regarded by many as a grandfather or “Pope” of the post-modernist movement. In his book The Post-modern Condition he makes a distinction between the modern and the post-modern:

“I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.

“Simplifying to the extreme I define post-modern as incredulity toward the metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences; but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of ligitimation corresponds most notably the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university function which in part relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great voyages, its great goal” (Jean-Francois Lyotard. The Post-modern Condition, 1977).

Lyotard regards as metanarrative all philosophical and social conceptions that proceed from the possibility of arriving at a general understanding of the world and society*a scientific understanding which could then provide the basis for consciously changing the world. Lyotard firmly rejects any such conception.

He is not alone amongst the post-modernists in regarding the German philosopher Hegel (“the dialectics of the Spirit”) as the greatest offender in this respect. The post-modernist antipathy towards Hegel (more on this question later) is, in particular, directed at the German philosopher's all-embracing world outlook, based on a dialectical method. Equally suspect in the eyes of the post-modernists is the materialist reworking of Hegel's dialectic by Marx and Engels, which became a social force in the form of the socialist workers movement.

Postmodernism and Stalinism

Equating Stalinism and its crimes with genuine socialism, Lyotard and the other post-modernists hold that the twentieth century marks the final failure of the Marxist “metanarrative” (“the emancipation of the rational or working subject”). In addition, they declare their dissatisfaction with any overall theory upholding the possibility of developing capitalism on a rational basis (“the creation of wealth”).

Although Sokal and Bricmont belittle the role of politics in the development of postmodernism, a glimpse at Lyotard's biography reveals that the evolution of his theories is intimately bound up with his own experiences of left-wing post-war politics in France.

Born in Versailles in 1924, Lyotard studied philosophy and literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. As a young man he was active in trade union politics and was radicalised, in particular, by his first-hand view of French colonialism in Algeria, where he worked as a teacher. Rejecting the Stalinised French Communist Party, which collaborated in the suppression of the Algerian national movement, Lyotard joined a group called Socialism and Barbarism lead by Cornelius Castoriadis. While referring to themselves as Trotskyists, the group rejected Trotsky's analysis of the Soviet Union, which they maintained was a type of state capitalist economy.

Following Castoriadis's own rapid evolution to the right in the fifties, Lyotard split with the Socialism and Barbarism group to form his own organisation in 1964 around a magazine called Workers Power. Two years later, in 1966, he broke completely with revolutionary politics. He described this process retrospectively and with disarming honesty in an interview in 1988: “A stage of my life was ending, I was leaving the service of the revolution, I would do something else, I had saved my skin.”

Many of the post-modernist theorists share a similar political evolution. Julia Kristeva published her first essays in Les Temps Modernes, the newspaper founded by French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who himself sympathised with French Stalinism and at the end of his career showed a certain inclination toward Maoism. A number of other post-modernists were either influenced by Sartre or by his most prominent successor at the Ecole Normale Superior, Louis Althusser (for many years Central Committee member of the French Communist Party responsible for ideological issues).

A cursory investigation of the roots of many leading figures in the post-modernist movement reveals at some point either membership in, or, at very least, close contact with Stalinist or left-wing radical organisations. Within the framework of a book review it is not possible to deal at length with the sociological development of broad layers of intellectuals in post-war France, but even the most superficial examination points to the enormous role played by the French Communist Party as the leading left-wing organisation in post-war France.

Stalinist dogma formed an important part of French intellectual life. The further degeneration and move to the right on the part of Stalinism in the post-war period, the party's crimes in relation to Algeria and Vietnam, the betrayal of the radicalised student and workers' movement in 1968, and finally the collapse of the Soviet block were crucial in spreading disillusionment and disorientation and catapulting a part of the intelligentsia to the right.

In his book The New Constellation, American writer Richard J. Bernstein undertakes to combat some of the excesses of the post-modernists and, in particular, to defend Hegel and the dialectic, but in so doing Bernstein himself graphically sums up the general pressure confronting layers of the intelligentsia (not just in France) in the twentieth century following the experiences of fascism and Stalinism:

“Anyone experiencing the twentieth century where there has been so much violence, barbarism, genocide can scarcely avoid being incredulous about a narrative of history as the progressive realisation of freedom. After Auschwitz and the Gulag, one cannot avoid being suspicious and sceptical of achieving reconciliation with reality through speculative comprehension. The entire metaphysics of being ‘at home' in the world now seems hollow” ( The New Constellation, p. 306).

Czech President Vaclav Havel also, in his own way, reflects the connection between the crisis of modern ideology and the collapse of Stalinism, when he says: “The fall of Communism can be regarded as a sign that modern thought*based on the premise that the world is objectively knowable, and that the knowledge so obtained can be absolutely generalised*has come to a final crisis” (quoted in Intellectual Impostures, p. 181).

The political agenda of the post-modernists

It is true that a section of the post-modernists have been plunged into nihilism and pessimism, singing the praises of “inertia”. Today French intellectuals have to apologise for their non-adherence to reactionary nineteenth century German philosophy. Two intellectuals, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, went so far as to write a book entitled Why We're Not Nietzscheans. But it would be wrong to ignore the fact that, although sceptical of being able to implement fundamental social change, the post-modernists do have their own political agenda.

According to the post modernists all “metanarratives”, i.e., comprehensive attempts to change the world in a progressive fashion, have failed utterly. The working class has discredited itself as an instrument for social change and the collapse of Stalinism demonstrates the impossibility of fundamentally changing society for the better.

The alternative which remains has, perhaps, been best articulated by another doyen of the post-modernist movement, Michel Foucault, who wrote: “There is no locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.”

Together with Deleuze, Guattari and Lyotard, Foucault emphasised the necessity of developing micro-politics and micro-struggles. Such a strategy has an obvious appeal to advocates of single-issue type politics: separatists and nationalists of every shade, environmentalists, feminists, and so on.

The weaknesses of the approach of Sokal and Bricmont

Despite the sharpness of their critique of the post-modernists, Sokal and Bricmont share a fundamental common point with their opponents*antipathy towards the dialectic. The most prominent of the post-modernist thinkers make no secret of their hatred of the dialectic: “What I detested more than anything was Hegelianism and the Dialectic (“I Have Nothing More to Admit” , Semiotext, Giles Deleuze, 1977).

Abhorrence for the dialectic (and life!) is also expressed in the following cryptic, but not untypical, quote by Felix Guattari: “Existence, as a process of deterritorialisation, is a specific inter-machinic operation which superimposes itself on the promotion of singularised existential intensities. And, I repeat, there is no generalised syntax for these deterritorialisations. Existence is not dialectical, not representable. It is hardly livable! ( Intellectual Impostures, p. 158).

Sokal and Bricmont also oppose dialectics. As a consequence, their own description of scientific method is weak, to say the least. Seeking to emphasise the continuity between everyday conceptions and those of scientific theory, they argue that scientific methods are “not radically different from the rational attitude used in everyday life” (p. 54), although they then qualify this remark and state that “it would be naïve to push this connection too far” (p. 55).

In fact, the history of scientific development is testimony to the fact that scientific method and discovery are not just the logical extension of common sense. The first decade of this century witnessed a raging ideological controversy sparked by advances in the scientific understanding of the atom. The “disappearance” of the solid, traditional basic particle in favour of an atom composed of a field of electrical forces led some scientists and philosophers (Mach, Bogdanov) to put a question mark before the existence of matter as well as man's capacity for objective knowledge of the world.

Lenin entered the debate in 1908 with his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, in which he combated philosophical relativism and defended both the objective nature of the material world and the ability of humans to correctly cognise the world as the basis for science. At the same time he made clear that the conflict between common sense notions of the atom and the revelations arising from new scientific research could only be resolved on the basis of a dialectical understanding of matter and human thought.

The issue of philosophical relativism was also the subject of controversy amongst ideological and cultural tendencies in the new Soviet state. In response to philosophical writings by a number of representatives of the Futurist movement, the editor of the influential literary magazine Red Virgin Soil, Aleksander Voronsky, commented on the writings of Chuzhak and others:

“All this has nothing in common with the dialectic of Marx, Plekhanov and Lenin. Over these and similar writings blows the wind of absolute relativism, denying all sense of stability. We communists are also relativists, but our relativism in not absolute, but relative.... Comrade Chuzhak argues not according to Heraclitus, who asserted that everything flows, everything changes, but according to Zeno, who proposed that it is impossible to step into the same stream twice, for ‘everything flows, everything changes.' Heraclitus was a dialectician, while Zeno was a metaphysical relativist. In the camp of bourgeois scholars there are now very many such relativists” (Aleksander Voronsky, Art as the Cognition of Life. p. 107).

On the eve of the Second World War, in the struggle against a petty-bourgeois opposition tendency within the Fourth International, Leon Trotsky made his own powerful contribution to the elaboration of materialist dialectics. The leading theoretician of the opposition at that time, James Burnham, shared a number of the conceptions of the young Lyotard, arguing that a form of capitalism had been restored in the Soviet Union.

Drawing out the philosophical method of the opposition, Trotsky concludes his concise elaboration of dialectics with the following warning: “Dialectic logic expresses the laws of motion in contemporary scientific thought. The struggle against materialist dialectics on the contrary expresses a distant past, conservatism of the petit bourgeoisie, the self-conceit of university routinists and ... a spark of hope for an after-life.” (Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism).

The crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy*its physical destruction in the thirties of the socialist political and intellectual opposition in Russia, together with its embrace of nationalism and complete perversion of the Marxist dialectic*were central in sabotaging the socialist workers movement and fostering new schools of irrationalism and relativism.

The army of relativists has swelled mightily in line with the spread of the contemporary school of thought of postmodernism. But at the same time there is something rather putrid and hypocritical in the claim by members of the movement that they represent the very latest in thought.

Their ideological heroes are, in the main, nineteenth century opponents of the Enlightenment*Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard. Rather than indicating anything new in terms of ideas and conceptions, the diverse theses and texts of the post-modernists, exuding a contempt for genuine scientific method, cultural pessimism, individualism, obscurantism and a rejection of historical truth, point to an ideological dead end, the distorted reflection of a social order which itself has long run out of steam.

Despite the weaknesses of their approach, Sokal and Bricmont have broken academic ranks to demonstrate the absurdity of much of post-modernist thinking. Their book deserves a wide public.

The second time as farce: the Right's "new McCarthyism"


The second time as farce: the Right's "new McCarthyism." - public criticism of political correctness

Monthly Review , Oct, 1991 by Christopher Phelps

Suddenly, it seemed, a deluge was upon us: a torrent of magazine articles, newspaper columns, books, talk shows, even a presidential speech, all claiming that "political correctness" (PC) has run amok on campus. The university, if we are to believe these sources, is dominated by tenured radicals. Guided by "well-intentioned" aims of eliminating bigotry, PC faculty and their student allies are zealots in charge of a repressive and censorious culture stifling investigation and discussion. Students and faculty who say the wrong thing, however innocently, are branded racist, sexist, or homophobic and sent packing. It requires real courage to speak out against the "tyranny of the left," and a massive violation of free speech is underway in higher education. The campus, in short, is afflicted with a "new McCarthyism."

One of the earliest and most vehement attacks of this sort came in December 1990, when Newsweek emblazoned the phrase "THOUGHT POLICE" across its cover in ominous block letters. Rhetorically, the subtitle asked, "Is This the New Enlightenment or the New McCarthyism?" Curiously, however, the article inside made almost no mention of McCarthy. The sole reference came in an assessment of comments made by Duke University literary critic Stanley Fish about the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a conservative faculty organization backed at Duke by political scientist James David Barber: "Fish called NAS, and by implication its members, 'racist, sexist and homphobic.' 'That,' notes one of Barber's allies, 'is like calling someone a Communist in the McCarthy years.'" Despite the dubiousness of this passage--its anonymous attribution and its assumption that Fish meant his assessment of NAS as an organization to apply to its members as well--others have rushed to raise the sensational cry of a "McCarthyism of the left." Invoking the memory of her father, who as a Hollywood screenwriter was blacklisted after refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), a Sarah Lawrence College student wrote, "I am a senior in college at a time when the freedom to voice, indeed even to think, controversial thoughts is under assault in American universities. One can't ignore the similarity between those accused in the 1950s of being disloyal and those accused today of failing to be politically correct."

Others dare to go even further. When ABC's Nightline took up the issue on May 13, reporter Jackie Judd opened an introductory piece on "political correctness" with a clip from an interview with Yale University Dean Donal Kagan:

Kagan: When I was a student back in the 1950s, in the days of Joe McCarthy, there was some such thing, but it was infinitely less effective than now. I don't think anybody was really afraid to speak his mind, even from a very unpopular, what would be thought to be an unpopular, point of view.

Judd: Are you saying that there is more intimidation today . . .

Kagan: Oh, sure.

Judd: . . . than there was during the McCarthy era?

Kagan: Oh, sure. No contest.

Kagan has been topped in rhetorical forcefulness only by the eminent historian Eugene Genovese. Shortly after announcing his departure from Marxism, Genovese wrote in a recent issue of the New Republic, "As one who saw his professors fired during the McCarthy era, and who had to fight, as a pro-Communist Marxist, for his own right to teach, I fear that our conservative colleagues are today facing a new McCarthyism in some ways some effective and vicious than the old."

McCarthyism and the University

Anyone attempting to investigate the theory of a "new McCarthyism" runs into a problem: there is, properly speaking, no such theory. None of those who see a new campus McCarthyism can define the term. Nor do they compare historical McCarthyism to the contemporary university in any systematic way. This neglect of intellectual responsibility is curious, since opponents who cry "leftist tyranny" invariably compalin that the modern academy is marred by a decline in the quality and standards of scholarship. No wonder, though, that the critics of a "new McCarthyism" neglect proper inquiry. While it is powerful as epithet, their phrase makes for weak history.

McCarthyism was the high point of Cold War anticommunism, a pervasive force that swept repressively through a series of institutions before settling on the university. The term is commonly used today to recall all aspects of the wide-ranging repression that was undertaken to contain or defeat global Communism, a threat greatly inflated by paranoia and self-serving interests in the years after the Second World War. Defined in this vernacular sense, McCarthyism preceded and outlasted the period spent in the spotlight by its namesake, Senator Joseph McCarthy. It first took hold in 1947, when President Harry Trauman's Executive Order 9835 authorized the FBI to conduct loyalty and security checks on all current and prospective federa; employees. Security probes were conducted through interviews with family, friends, neighbors, teachers, professional acquaintances, and former employers--who all remained anonymous. People under investigation had no right to cross-examination and could do nothing about damaging allegations in their dossiers. Since guilt, not innocence, was presumed, neither illegal nor even radical activity was required to justify dismissal. Mere "sympathetic association" with "subversive groups," as specified by the Department of Justice, was sufficient to cast aspersion on one's character. The probes culminated in the coerced signing of an oath pledging fidelity to the Constitution and government.

The repression took varied forms. Truman's loyalty program signaled the legitimacy of anticommunism, setting off a wave of related actions by state legislators. The House Committee on Un-American Activities grew powerful, passing beyond its reputation as a congressional backwater of southern segregationists, antisemites, and right-wing opponents of the New Deal. After HUAG spent 1947 pursuing radicals in Hollywood, the ten stars and directors who invoked the First Amendment in refusing to answer questions about their political pasts were censured for contempt by congressional resolution and imprisoned. After their release from jail, they found themselves blacklisted from employment by the film industry. Headline-grabbing cases of alleged Soviet espionage fed the myth that the Communist Party was a nest of spies. After ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of espionage, the former Roosevelt administration official was convicted for perjury in 1949, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed after their conviction in 1953 for conspiring to pass atomic secrets on to the Soviets. In 1949, the top Communist leaders were convicted of violating the Smith Act, which forbade speech advocating the violent overthrow of the government. Although the repression thus centered on the Communist Party, no radical was safe. The assault on political liberty also damaged the few liberals who refused to collaborate with investigative bodies in the belief that speech and association should not be subject to government regulation.

Though shaped primarily by the global dynamics of Cold War, the domestic campaign to eradicate Communism was fed by standard bourgeois political opportunism and electoral rivalries. For Truman and other leading Democrats, anticommunism was a means to retain control of the White House. When the Republicans won both houses of Congress in the 1946 election, it appeared that right-wing anticommunism was making inroads on the electorate. Truman responded in kind. In 1947, he announced a new doctrine promising U.S. aid to any government threatened by Communism. Soon afterward he instituted the loyalty oaths. And he perfected redbaiting in the 1948 election, when he accused Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace (formerly Roosevelt's vice-president) of sheltering Communists in his campaign.

Anticommunism went beyond the normal limits of party politics, however, when Wisconin Senator Joe McCarthy slandered Truman as Truman had Wallace. In a 1950 speech, the Republican senator accused the Democratic administration of harboring fifty-seven Communist agents within its State Department. As McCarthy's fantastic charges won him a hearing, he began to blame the 1949 "loss" of China and the 1952 stalemate in the Korean conflict on Communist infiltration of key government posts. McCarthy kept changing the number of names on his list of "State Department Communists": 57, 205, 81, 10, 116. But he nonetheless received the tacit support of more respectable Republicans because of the damage he was inflicting on the Democrats. While speaking of his "excesses," many elites saw McCarthy as an errant but basically just and successful opponent of "totalitarianism." Although some liberals criticized McCarthy, it was often on the grounds that he was discrediting the campaign against Communism--an argument that only served to reinforce the legitimacy of official anticommunism. It was not until the televised army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 that his belligerent, absurd course became intolerable to most elites, ending in his congressional disgrace and, in 1957, his death in alcoholic oblivion. Even after McCarthy's downfall, however, the suppression of Communism remained the cornerstone of American foreign policy, domestic politics, and bourgeois consensus. Government exclusion, investigation, and persecuation of suspected radicals continued, even after the culture of anticommunism fissured during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

McCarthyism had a chilling effect on the academy, as historian Ellen Schrecker painstakingly documented in her book No Ivory Tower. The first major university to get caught in the Cold War was the University of Washington in 1948, when a state legislative investigation prompted the firing of three tenured professors. This decision, which set the pattern for the national curtailment of academic freedom, justified firing Communists on the ground that Communists as such advocate the overthrow of the government by force, carry out policies of concealment and deceit, and adhere to dogma rather than scientific experimentation. The first ground implied a commitment to undemocratic ends and illegal means, the second a conspiratorial tendency inimical to academic community, and the third a penchant for ideological indoctrination rather than the education of students. Furthermore, Washington officials claimed, the Communist Party was part of a global movement that abolished academic freedom wherever it took power. Thus the campus witchhunt was conducted in the name of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and free scholarship. On principle, not out of cowardice, intellectuals argued that Stalinist Communism ought to be eradicated from American life, even at the expense of restricting the civil liberties of "loyal citizens."

This was flawed logic. Although it benefitted from the party's terrible record of political zig-zags, apology for dictatorship, and undermocratic internal politics, it also relied on a one-sided view of the motives and activities of the rank-and-file radical, a blindness to the usual reluctance of Communist professors to carry their politics into the classroom, an inaccurate characterization of party members as spies and security risks, and a false charactization of the U.S. party as violent and revolutionary when it had long been electoral and regormist. Furthermore, it held individual members of a political association, regardless of their specific actions, responsible for the believed crimes of their groups. Still, the hundt for campus Communists spread. Mandatory loyalty oaths for teachers and professors became common. Many state legislative committees began to scrutinize higher education. When civil libertarian or radical professors failed to answer the questions of the committees, they were fired by administrators, mostly with the approval of their colleagues. Some were prosecuted.

Congressional investigation hit the universities in the middle of 1952, just before the presidential election, when the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (to the Senate what HUAC was to the House) undertook to examine the Institute of Pacific Relations, a think-tank central to China studies in the 1930s and 1940s. Republicans and ex-Communist witnesses sought to demonstrate that Communist China experts in the Truman administration had caused the "loss" of China. The SISS concluded that Owen Lattimore, a Johns Hopkins professor who in the 1930s had edited the IPR's journal Pacific Affairs, was a "conscious articulate instruments of the Soviet conspiracy," even though he had never been a member of the Communist Party and his writing contained not a trace of Marxism. The gate swung open to congressional investigation of higher education. McCarthy himself hailed the exposure of "Communists and Communist thinkers" as an example of the new spirit of "trying to promote freedom of thought and expression in college." In February 1953, HUAC began hearings on subversion in higher education, issuing subpoenas to a number of professors who had been at Harvard in the 1930s. Despite reservations, the first witnesses--Robert Gorham Davis, Daniel Boorstin, and Granville Hicks--named those who had been in their Communist "cells."

Other faculty refused to cooperate with investigating committees. Some met the fate of Chandler Davis, a University of Michigan mathematics instructor who cited the First Amendment to claim that legislators were overstepping their authority, lost his job, and was jailed. Often professors who refused to cooperate with government investigation kept their jobs only by submitting to internal university investigations asking the same questions. In only one instance, the case of Reed College philosophy professor Stanley Moore, did a faculty refuse to administer political tests in evaluating a colleagues under government pressure. The Reed faculty assessed Moore solely on the basis of his scholarly competence and teaching ability and judged him outstanding. But Reed's president and trustees fired Moore anyway, in the belief that Communist Party association was "beyond the scope of political beliefs and associations and also beyond the scope of academic freedom." Other faculty were purged more quietly, often without a hearing, by institutions desiring to rid themselves of potential sources of embarrassment before they were discovered. Those who were fired faced a blacklist. Some left the academy or country forever. Others found temporary income to tide them over until the blacklist faded in the 1960s, but the personal too was great. Friends fell away, divorce and family strains were common, and at least three professors committed suicide. The respected Harvard literary critic F.O. Matthiessen, for instance, who was gay and radical, jumped out of a hotel window in 1950, leaving a note of personal and political despair.

Schrecker found that universities, for all their intonations on behalf of "academic freedom," did not defend free thought on principle during the McCarthy period. Administrators and trustees, the key powerbrokers, were mainly interested in avoiding negative publicity and had no sympathy for professors and graduate students who refused to cooperate with legislative inquiries. The American Association of Universities, a body of thirty-eight leading university presidents, issued a statement in 1953, at the height of the repression, stating that membership in the Communist Party "extinguishes the right to a university position." Refusal to cooperate with investigative committees was unacceptable to the AAU, even if it was legal. Unapologetically, it laid bare its loyalties: "Free enterprise is as essential to intellectual as to economic progress." Though such capitulation by trustees and adminsitrators might be expected, one would hope for more from faculties. Most faculty did not actively hunt Communists, Schrecker found, but they failed to organize to stem the tide of dismissals. Often the respectable, moderate elements of the faculty, not committed reactionaries, were most culpable, because they sat on important committees. The most common faculty action, Schrecker found, was to resolve to study the problem.

Schrecker estimated that almost 20 percent of the witnesses called before state investigating committees were college teachers and graduate students, and that most of those who did not clear themselves with the committees were subsequently fired by their institutions. David Caute, author of a comprehensive book on McCarthyism, estimates that the political purges of the Truman-Eisenhower years cost more than six hundred high school teachers and university professors their jobs. It is against this legacy that we must weigh the claims of "a new McCarthyism."

McCarthyism of the left?

Since the essence of McCarthyism is opposition to radicalism, the very idea of a "McCarthyism of the left" is nonsense. The traits of "reversed" McCarthyism, moreover, simply do not exist on campus today. Conservative faculty are not having their tenure revoked, finding themselves called before congressional committees, being queried secretly by federal agents, or discovering that their friends, coworkers, and relatives have been interrogated. They aren't being denied due process or blacklisted from jobs. The effort to create a campus free of bigotry, in short, does not constitute a new McCarthyism.

Presumably, the charge of a "left-wing McCarthyism" is meant to disembody the name from history, to erase the memory of the right's legacy of repression and reaction while a new attack is waged against progressive social movements. Paradoxically, the term only draws attention to itself. The assertion of an imposition of "political correctness" similarly raises the specter of the right's own authoritarian past. If there is a new McCarthyism, it comes from the right.

Like the old McCarthyism, the new charges of campus tyranny paint all left-leaning thought "totalitarian." The very phrase "political correctness" is classic redbaiting, conjuring up images of a Stalinist party line. Through the theory of "totalitarianism"--developed during the Cold War to grossly conflate fascism and Stalinism--the new attack on campus progressives makes disparate phenomena appear identical. Newsweek's story reads like a crude McCarthy tract: "PC is, strictly speaking, a totalitarian philosophy"; "Politically, PC is Marxist in origin, in the broad sense of attempting to redistribute power from the privileged class (white males) to the oppressed masses"; "It's the dictatorship of the proletariat, to be followed by the withering away of the state." Since all of this falls under the roof of the "new McCarthyism," we are apparently to conclude that McCarthy was a Communist. Fascism, Stalinism, Marxism, McCarthyism, the deplorable state of higher education--all heads of the same hideous beast! Like McCarthyism, the current campaign targets liberalism as much as radicalism, treating them as though they were essentially alike. Academics who trade in deconstruction, postmodernism, and other literary philosophies are often seen by the right as a greater threat to Western civilization than Marxists. Debates within and between different academic fields are conflated, so that such literary theories as semiotics and psychoanalysis appear completely harmonious and left-wing; Afrocentrism appears as though it were the only viewpoint in African-American studies; radical, liberal, and socialist feminism are conflated; the debates within and between these perspectives are ignored. Such reductive assessment is necessary to sustain the fiction of a singular "political correctness" pushed by the left.

The idea of a "tyranny of the left" has achieved its greatest definition and promotion in the wake of war, during a period of aggressive U.S. imperialism. In this way it parallels not only McCarthyism but also the "red scare" of 1918-1919 and the Nixon administration's public bombast and covert terrorism against the New Left. The difference is one of context: the absence of Bolshevism. As the Cold War wanes and Soviet Communism flounders, conservatives are conducting their attack adeptly. Their claim that they are opposing a new McCarthyism anticipates the accusation that would otherwise be made against a campaign aimed at the academic left--that of revisiting the Cold War. As someone (no doubt a deconstructionist) once said, history repeats itself: the first time of tragedy, the second as farce.

Opportunism fuels the anti-PC push. President Bush is a good example of the manner in which "political correctness" is rapidly becoming a catch-all term to batter liberalism. In their 1988 debate, he assailed Dukakis as a "card-carrying member of the ACLU"--a phrase that rings with McCarthyism and a hostility to civil liberties. More recently, Bush tried to outlaw flag burning and pushed for political checks on federal funding of "obscene" art. Nonetheless, Bush audaciously complained in his commencement speech at the University of Michigan that, "Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses." He had the pomposity to blame the campus anti-bigotry movement for a "rise of intolerance" and for "crusades that . . . crush diveristy in the name of diversity." Quite amusing, given the racist pandering in his notorious Willie Horton campaign ad and his harping on "quotas" to damage civil rights legislation.

The new conservative assertions, like those of Joe McCarthy, have been "objectively" broadcast and amplified by the corporate media. Syndicated columnists George Will, Mona Charen, and James Kilpatrick have joined Newsweek, New York, and The Atlantic in claiming a "tyranny of the left" in the universities. ABC's Nightline covered the controversy from a framework favorable to the right, as have other news shows.

Unless it is successfully resisted, the tide of reaction against PC will, like McCarthyism, result in profound violations of academic freedom. After all, who would tolerate a PC faculty member's cramming totalitarianism down the throats of innocent students? Consider the sinister titles of several recent books--Charles Sykes' Profscam and Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals--which focus the attack on tenured professors with radical or liberal views. Consider also a case at the University of Oregon. On National Coming-Out Day last year, a law instructor, during a discussion of Supeme Court verdicts on gay rights, told his class he was gay and read a poem. Conservative students complained, and the law school administration reprimanded the instructor and demanded he apologize to his class. The instructor complied, apparently out of fear for his career. This grave violation of academic freedom, which relies on the principle that teachers are free to express views in class as they see fit, indicates that PC may as well be turned around. The real totalitarians are on the right, viewing heresy as politically incorrect and seeking to eradicate it by branding left-liberals dogmatic ideologues unfit to teach. McCarthyism, one may recall, suppressed dissent in the name of preserving academic freedom and democracy from the threat of "totalitarianism."

God and Man at Dartmouth

A final parallel to McCarthyism may be drawn. Although it now appears in the national media as an objective depiction of campus reality, the concept of "political correctness" originated in the organized right. The intellectual centerpiece of the opposition to "political correctness," for instance, is Illiberal Education by Dinesh D'Souza. D'Souza, a smooth-tongued twenty-nine-year-old who is the leading figure in the attack on PC, was a founding editor of The Dartmouth Review. The Review published during D'Souza's editorial tenure an infamous "jive" article that attacked affirmative action in African-American "dialect." Despite his hand in these and other bigoted outrages, D'Souza has been able, because of his Indian descent and his purportedly principled defense of free speech and academic freedom, to pass himself off as a consummate liberal. Since leaving Dartmouth, however, he has served in the Reagan White House and now works for the American Enterprise Institute, a major conservative think-tank.

If there was a counterpart to D'Souza in the McCarthy era, was William F. Buckley, Jr. Like D'Souza, Buckley rose to prominence by editing a campus newspaper, the Yale Daily News. Also like D'Souza, Buckley's first book was an attack on higher education. His God and Man at Yale was published in 1951, just before McCarthyism turned its full force on the campuses. Buckley employed a rhetoric that finds echoes in D'Souza. "The conservatives, as a minority, are the new radicals," he wrote, complaining that the campuses were awash in New Deal liberalism and moral relativism that undermined individualism and Christianity. Although he admitted that actual Communist groups were all but absent from Yale, Buckley argued that Yale was on a sure course toward totalitarianism. Buckley's argument was unique among right-wing tracts of the era, in part for its genteel style but mainly in its conclusion that "academic freedom" was nothing more than a smokescreen. Yale, Buckley argued, did subscribe to an orthodoxy, though of expediency rather than principle, and thus would not hire a Communist or a Nazi. Buckley urged that the orthodoxy be further constricted so that faculty belief in Christianity and anticommunism were secured. As he put it, his argument was "not so much . . . that limits should be imposed, but that existing limits should be narrowed."

D'Souza has been called by some pundits a "new Buckley"--meaning a refined and learned intellectual of conservatism--but the differences between God and Man at Yale and Illiberal Education are as revealing as their similarities. D'Souza's perspective is that of the modernizing right, hegemonic since Reagan, which despite its nostalgic pining for simpler days unites in practice around meritocratic values and market choice. In contrast, God and Man at Yale put forward the program of a reactionary right. Buckley joined medieval religion and nineteenth-century economic liberalism to a worldview placing anticommunism at the center of politics. For Buckley, the central conflict in higher education was Communism against free enterprise, collectivism against individualism. D'Souza seeks to overthrow orthodoxy while preserving a tradition based on his notions of merit. For D'Souza, the problem is relativism rather than collectivism, a lack of standards that results in an "anything goes" mentality, leading to leftist tyranny. While Buckley's argument was much more coherent and consistent, D'Souza's promises to be more effective. Buckley became the enfant terrible of the Eastern intellectual establishment after God and Man at Yale, but was marginalized after his extended apology for McCarthyism in McCarthy and His Enemies. D'Souza has been treated obsequiously, his thesis absorbed and propounded by the mass media. Although D'Souza, like Buckley, claims in his book to be attacking an intellectual and liberal establishment, he has since its publication been wined and dined by that very establishment.

Unlike Buckley, whose overt McCarthyism associated him with a blundering assailant of civil liberties, D'Souza has placed himself squarely within the timid liberalism that has long been the political perspective of American elites. His use of "liberalism" is somewhat misleading, relying as it does upon the confusion between its nineteenth-century origins and its subsequent connotation of social reform. Still, the appeal to a "liberal" education in the sense of unfettered ideological competition is a far cry from Buckley's proposal that all professors be Christian individualists. Indeed, the use of "new McCarthyism" as some sort of a loose political epithet must unsettle Buckley, who to this day suggests that Joe McCarthy did not go far enough: "It never crossed his mind, when he railed about institutional disloyalty, how bad it really was."

A Right Turn?

This, then, is the paradox: Although distinct in tenor and program from the true McCarthyism of the early 1950s, the new conservative attack on "political correctness" falls neatly within the domestic Cold War consensus, or what is today known broadly as "McCarthyism." In order to wage an attack on campus radicalism, conservatives will be most successful when they appeal on liberal grounds for repression, as were anticommunists in the 1940s and 1950s. And as in the McCarthy period, the potential success of the right's antiradicalism is aided by the elasticity of its ideology--"political correctness" can smear almost any political belief with suspicion--and its usefulness in constraining such impulses toward reform as remain in liberalism.

The claim that the American university is a totalitarian institution in the hands of the left is a patent absurdity. The success of this claim on campus demonstrates not only that it is false but that it has real potential as a conservative influence on liberalism. The left has no position of control, either on campus or elsewhere. The real power in an American university lies with trustees drawn from the business class and elite administrators who direct resource allocation and make the detailed policy decisions. Inroads made by progressive faculty and ideas since the New Left are important, but greatly exaggerated by the right. Despite all the claptrap about "reverse discrimination," by the mid-1980s only about 12 percent of all full professors were women and 2 percent African-American--hardly a sufficient base for domination by feminists and multiculturalists. Despite all the talk about a curricular revolution under the guise of "diversity," only one school in the United States, Temple University, offers a Ph.D. in African-American studies. Despite fears of "politicized" education, academic radicals have to an unfortunate extent cultivated convoluted writing and retreated from activism.

Campus liberals are in far better shape than campus radicals. Talk of radical rule is a red herring (so to speak) for the hardiness of leberal culture, which is infuriating to conservatives and motivates the current attack on "political correctness." A recent nationwide Roper survey found that one in five students is involved in political activity, that about 60 percent become more politically aware while at college, and that 65 percent say their views changed while at college (50 percent more liberal and 15 percent more conservative). Such statistics indicate that the university remains a place where liberalism not only survives but thrives. It is ludicrous, however, to suggest that liberals are engaged in thought control. Conservatives and proponents of scholarly "neutrality" are hardly endagered species on campus. Accurately portrayed, the American university is a basically conservative institution, contracted to corporations and the state. Its peculiarity is that it remains, as it should, a contested terrain on the level of ideas. It is that contest, not tyranny, that the right seeks to end.

In addition to liberalism and radicalism, the right's targets are "multiculturalism" and "diversity." Ironically, these concepts, the new buzz-words of university administrators, represent a weak attempt--more public relations than substance--to make up for the fact that U.S. higher education is still Eurocentric, its faculties and student bodies still disproportionately white and male, and its campuses the location of continuing rape, gay-bashing, and racist attacks. But the right sees even timid pledges of diversity as a threat to "tradition"--a word that sometimes indicates a legitimate appeal to cultural roots and scholarly rigor but is more often than not a euphemism for an elitist, European, male canon.

The right is out to prevent the left from criticizing the unsavory aspects of the university, the American social order, and Western culture. It wants people to feel ashamed of holding critical opinions. Elitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, however, are real problems that won't go away unless society changes. Those who make up the civic community of the university have an obligation to challenge bigotry if they truly want a democratic university open to free speech for all. Bigoted statements, whether made out of malice or ignorance, reinforce the structural and institutional difficulties that already bar oppressed groups from equal access to education. It is true that in attempting to correct bigotry people are occasionally too quick to judge or too harsh in their criticism, but this should not cause people to destroy what they want to preserve. Those who seek honestly to challenge oppressive behavior should not have to fear being labeled PC--that is, dogmatic and self-righteous. Nor should anyone be able to avoid responsibility for their actions by slandering their opponents as PC. For universities to be a place for rational debate, no stigma may be placed upon criticism and no barriers thrown up to exchange.

There is a real crisis of the university, but it won't be found by pursuing windmills of leftist tyranny. A fiscal crisis threatens programs and access to higher education. The budgetary crisis reveals the real tyrants of the university: managerial bureaucrats and capitalist trustees. The result of their unaccountable rule has been the reduction of financial aid and the elimination of programs. Simultaneously, federal minority aid programs have been gutted. Access to higher education is constricting, and students and faculty have little control over how the university will respond. At the University of Oregon, for instance, the response to budget cuts from new restrictions on property taxes was to eliminate the entire school of education, while such redeeming programs as military studies were left untouched.

Whether deliberately or not, the campaign against PC serves to distract the attention of the public, students, and faculty from the very real crisis of the university. Simultaneously, it serves to channel that crisis in specific directions. The new rejection of PC comes as the aging strata of professors hired in the boom years of the 1950s approaches retirement and a new generation of scholars, with a liberal tinge, seeks tenure. It also comes as the demographic composition of the United States shifts so that multiculturalism has become a fact, not an aim. The present university, the university of the right, is a think-tank for corporations and the state, a management training school for children of the elite, and a credentialling program for everyone else. In the face of budgetary crisis, restricting enrollment to privileged groups and increasing penetration of the university by corporate financing and military contracts will be the order of the day--unless an organized left is around to demonstrate the threat to academic freedom, scholarly integrity, and equal opportunity that such a financing structure implies, and to push for a different vision of the university. A genuine concern for freedom requires opposition to a mean-spirited ideology calculated to preserve the corporate and military university and to narrow higher education to a class privilege rather than a universal right.

The conservative blather about PC must be recognized for what it is: an attempt to expunge from the universities all obstacles to the progress of privatization and militarization. To be effective, the left will have to break through the framework that the right has given the debate. It should be remembered that it was the courage of the African-American movement for civil rights that broke open the old McCarthyism, dispelling the myth that militant democracy is totalitarian. Similarly, the left today should put its minds toward rejuvenating the movements for radical change. Rather than cower in the face of PC, it must cultivate an imaginative vision of the university. Against the right's corporate university, it must counterpose its own alternatives. Against bureaucratic administration, it must build democratic structures. Against an institution open to those who can afford it, the left must counterpose a campus open to all who are serious and responsible. Against a shrine to national and European culture, it must insist upon an international curriculum. Against a business contracted to the military, the corporations, and the rich, it must build alliances with working people and the oppressed. Against a fictitious separation of theory from practice in an illusory ivory tower, it must propose a humanist socialism.

Only active campaigns to change the university will prevent the right from quietly resurrecting McCarthy under the cover of a "political correctness" smokescreen. If McCarthyism has a lesson to teach us, it is that lies can stick and wound. The success of campus activism in refuting the lies this time around will be determined by its scholarly inquiry, its rational criticism, and its progressive activism. Nothing less than democratic militancy will bring down the curtain on this farce.