Monday, October 02, 2006

The baby, the bathwater etc

Over at Adventures in Histomat 'Snowball' - is that really what his parents called him? - has posted a long review of Paul Blackledge's new book about Marxist approaches to the study of history. Snowball is not too keen on postmodernism:

Over the last twenty or so years, postmodernism has swept over the historical profession, declaring that 'real' events cannot be known outside written sources, and so as part of this 'cultural turn', a literary obsession with texts has replaced any sort of attempt to systematically and theoretically try and understand historical contexts. Karl Marx's insistence that all history was 'the history of class struggles' is therefore just another 'grand narrative', as outdated as the Whig historians of Victorian Britain faith in the steady march of 'Progress'.

There is no universal 'History' any more, just lots of 'histories' with each little narrative as equally relevant and important as any other narrative. Relativism rules and anything is as open to study as anything else (apparently, someone recently did a History PhD on the changes in 'matchbox design in England in the nineteenth century').

Well, yes and no. Here's a response I made in the comments boxes at Histomat, and which I'll expand on when I get the time:

Good bait for the book. Surely the crude dismissal of postmodernism is out of order, though? Postmodernism is only a very extreme manifestation of tensions that beset all worthwhile Marxist work - the tension between particularity and generality, for instance.

The work of the best postwar Marxist thinkers - Louis Althusser and EP Thompson are two people you've been discussing - is an attempt to do away with the rigidities of Kautskyan and Stalinist determinism and admit more dissonance into Marxism. (I argue here that Thompson and Alhusser are not as different as some people have pretended.)

Althusser's work is hard to understand, and best approached through commentaries, but it succeeds superbly in restoring to Marxist concepts some of the complexity and fluidity that they had before Kautsky, Plekhanov, and later Stalin entombed them.

The trouble with the work of Foucault, Derrida and other key postmodernists is not that it folows Althusser in doing away with the absurdity of appeals to an absolute 'objective truth', or hard and fast positivistic bourgeois 'definitions' of concepts that were always for Marx contingent dialectical abstractions, but rather that it loses the balance Althusser maintained between dissonance and coherence, and thus lapses into epistemological nihilism, which is a very different thing to epistemological relativism. (A relativist says there's a whole lotta truth out there; a nihilist says there's none.)

Much the same thing can be said about the work of scholars of ethnicity captivated by identity politics. It's not that these postmodernists were wrong to attack the Eurocentrism, scientism, and - let's cut to the chase - racism of much 'Marxism', and of bourgeois social science as well - where they went wrong was in throwing the baby out with the bathwater by treating every culture as 'unique', and rejecting any notion of cross-contextual generalisation.

Marxism is beginning a revival, after being pronounced dead in the 80s and 90s, but this revival is full of dangers. On the one hand, the ideologists of the ruling class are suddenly very critical of 'multiculturalism' and 'relativism', as they rush to justify the depredations of the Bush regime as some sort of war for the Enlightenment. A faction of these ideologists - think Norm Geras, Christopher Hitchens, Francis Wheen - is ready to press Marx into action as a shock trooper fighting for 'science', 'objectivity', and the supposed virtues of imperialism, aka globalisation, over Third World 'backwardness'. If I were you Snowball I'd be more careful about quoting the first section of The Communist Manifesto: Geras et al got there first.

On the other hand we have a new generation of activists and scholars who can see that the worldview and politics of postmodernism are totally incapable of dealing with the post-9/11 world. The danger is that these folk will revert to a crude caricature of Marxism in their eagerness to reassert the importance of concepts like class and imperialism. Many of them seem to share a crude empiricist epistemology with faux-Marxists like Geras and Wheen - I think of Richard Seymour of Lenin's Tomb, who is obviously a tremendously intelligent and energetic bloke, yet can't understand what use dialectics could be to a Marxist!

In this sort of atmosphere I think it's important to highlight the work of Althusser and other Marxist thinkers who decisively rejected the crude determinism and teleology that disfigured mid-century Marxism, without succumbing to the siren call of postmodernism.

I've argued here that the publication of the first English translation of Althusser's late work gives us an opportunity to reassess him.


Blogger ماثيو said...

I agree with everything you say, except that Althusser isn't approachable. Reading Capital is great. The commentary one should use to read it is Capital. I took the route: limits to capital>> Capital>>Reading Capital. Worked for me.

5:59 am  

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