Why ‘Postmodern Neo-Marxism’ Ain’t the Right Term After All
Today, I want to talk about a question I have seen some people asking: is there a relationship between critical race theory, and the idea of ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’ that was at the center of a big controversy a few years ago. Basically, the two things are highly related. They are all part of what I think should be classified under ‘postmodern neo-criticalism’, or just ‘criticalism’ for short. Let me explain.
First popularized by Jordan Peterson a few years ago, the term ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’ was used to denote a new ideology arising in the Western political landscape in the early 21st century, that was clearly attempting to challenge and supplant liberalism. When someone says they are concerned about postmodern neo-Marxism, they’re usually talking about the kind of divisive, us-vs-them identity politics, that divides people into oppressor vs oppressed groups based on immutable characteristics like race, gender and sexual orientation. There’s also the skepticism towards free speech and radical cultural demands that are undertaken in the name of justice for the oppressed group. Now, I think the root of all this can be traced back to Herbert Marcuse, specifically his idea that the excluded groups of society be made the new focus of a possible revolution in the Western world, first articulated in his 1964 book One Dimensional Man. Given the context of 1960s America, many have interpreted this to include the racially oppressed, and the idea was also taken up by some radical feminists later on.
Peterson’s use of ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’ was considered controversial. Nowadays, people are more likely to call it ‘critical theory’ or ‘critical social justice’, which has attracted much less controversy, in part because ‘critical theory’ is indeed the correct academic term to describe the kind of ideas Marcuse and his ideological successors promoted. ‘Postmodern critical theory’ is the umbrella term for the more recent work that incorporates postmodern ideas from thinkers like Michel Foucault. If you read widely enough, however, you would very likely come across books and other academic sources that call critical theory ‘neo-Marxism’. For example, there is a section in the 8th edition of the Giddens and Sutton Sociology textbook about the Frankfurt School, that calls their critical theory work ‘neo-Marxism’. Hence, at least in some contexts, neo-Marxism simply means critical theory, and following from that, ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’ would simply refer to ‘postmodern critical theory’, which is indeed at the root of a lot of controversial new social movements in the Western world right now. Hence, Peterson’s usage is neither a new invention, nor entirely incorrect.
However, just because a term is being used, doesn’t mean it’s the best or most correct term. I have actually long been frustrated about the term ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’ being a confusing one, although I did use it on several occasions, because I didn’t know of better terms yet. However, it is clear that critical theory driven identity politics isn’t actually Marxism, and I think it wouldn’t be helpful to anyone to perpetuate this confusion. The confusion arises because of the roots of critical theory. Critical theory was first invented by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School, who believed they were using the ‘method of Marx’ to examine culture, although this point remains very controversial. However, it was also inspired heavily by the psychoanalysis of Freud, perhaps more so than Marx. Anyway, even though critical theory was inspired partially by Marxism, it’s not Marxism. Hence it’s a new ideology. Perhaps we should call it criticalism.
The next thing is, contemporary Western identity politics is not rooted in the whole of critical theory either. You can’t draw a line leading from Adorno’s work to the radical movements on college campuses today, for example. In fact, many of the 68 generation, the direct ideological predecessors of today’s identity Left, actually hated Adorno. The ‘critical theory’ we are concered about today is rooted in Marcuse, rather than Horkheimer and Adorno. Marcuse was part of the Frankfurt School, but he had a unique take on critical theory, and it is his take that is influencing our politics right now, probably because he was in America and also very politically active. It’s a point I think that more people should emphasize. Hence, we should technically call it neo-criticalism. The root of all radical identity politics on the Left we see today is, hence, neo-criticalism.
Marcuse’s ideas were enthusiastically taken up by the radical young people of the late 1960s and the 1970s, the so-called 68 generation. But Marcuse was only the starting point. The radicals of this generation later also took in other radical ideas that fit in with the oppressor vs oppressed worldview, particularly from French postmodernism. Critical theory that dealt with identity groups also developed into specific branches, like critical race theory, gender critical theory and queer theory, all with their own key thinkers, influences, worldviews, and jargon. Hence, what we have now is not the original Marcusean neo-criticalism either, but rather, postmodernized neo-criticalism. Or ‘postmodern neo-criticalism’.
In conclusion, while Jordan Peterson may have not been technically wrong to call radical identity politics ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’, this still creates the problem of confusing it for a form of Marxism, which it isn’t. However, changing just one word, to call it ‘postmodern neo-criticalism’, would solve the problem, and make it entirely technically correct. On the other hand, given that the phrase is pretty long, I think we can just call it ‘criticalism’, and there is no risk of confusion because this is essentially the only form of critical theory that has been widely practiced as political activism. The other thing is, practitioners of critical race theory sometimes call themselves ‘crits’, and it is very logical that the ideology the ‘crits’ practice is called ‘criticalism’.
Originally published at http://taraellastylia.blogspot.com.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.
She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for Western democracies in the 21st century.