Emancipation with a Clenched Fist: A Critique of Postmodern Critical Theory

At a time when we are encouraged to nod through policies embedding “diversity, inclusion and equality” in our places of work and subject to their ubiquitous manifestation in our entertainment industries, few recognise that this is not the spontaneous and organic growth of the desire of the mass of ordinary people but the outcome of a carefully orchestrated campaign by a minority of activists over many years which has been fired up by theoretical perspectives emanating from the universities, known as critical theory, although I shall refer to it as postmodern critical theory to distinguish it from an early twentieth century intellectual movement to which it is only somewhat related.

It is important to distinguish two senses of the word ‘critical’, as it is used in philosophy and the social sciences, respectively. In philosophy, where, for example, the term critical thinking is used, it means the application of logical reasoning and evidence in support of a thesis or line of argument. In the social sciences, where it is increasingly common to come across the term critical theory, it means a theoretical approach which claims emancipation as its goal and raison d’être. To some degree, belying the lexical identity, these differences derive from the different schools of thought that took root in the Anglo-Saxon and Continental philosophical traditions, such as empiricism, pragmatism, logical atomism and linguistic philosophy on the one hand and Kantianism, Hegelianism and the anti-Enlightenment philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on the other. However, the proximate root of all critical philosophy undoubtedly lies in Marxism, even when at a remove from those roots.

The debt to Marxism is twofold, one openly acknowledged, the other more esoteric but, I will argue, ultimately more powerful. The first lies in one of Marx’s most famous aphorisms: “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”. Under the influence of radical socialism, Spencerian evolutionism, the economic theories of Adam Smith and Hegelian dialectics, Marx arrived at a position that history is a history of class conflict arising from inherent contradictions in economic systems that embodied and perpetuated forms of inequality and oppression, and that progress was historically, and could therefore in the present circumstances of capitalist inequalities, only be achieved, by the overthrow of the entire oppressive system, including its cultural traditions. Resident in Britain for most of his adult life, Marx imbibed a peculiarly Victorian attitude that attached moral virtue to the idea of progress, which lives on in the virtual leftist monopoly of the label ‘progressive’.

Critical theories of whatever complexion have inherited from Marxism the penchant to see every problem as systemic in nature, that is one requiring the wholesale dismantling of the structures and traditions of the society, economy and culture. So Western society is frequently criticised today as systematically, i.e., inherently and irredeemably, racist, sexist, homophobic, patriarchal, transphobic and so on, and these qualities supposedly permeate every institution. Although not all critical theories agree with the Marxist analysis that the foundation of conflict is economic, all agree on perceiving society as divided into mutually antagonistic groups, an oppressor group and a virtuous oppressed group. The purported systemic nature of this oppression means that there is no option for society to reform its way out of its faults (despite the fact that it consistently has done), but only to be overthrown.

Though the idea of singular moral virtue is hardly unique to those on the political left, the Marxist basis of virtually all ideologies and activism of those on the left reinforces a moral absolutism that dictates that those with opposing or merely different agendas are not just wrong but represent an ontological evil. Marx, as essentially a historical positivist or ‘historicist’, could be interpreted, not entirely plausibly it must be admitted, as sitting on the fence regarding the rights and wrongs of revolutionary action, seeing the capitalists and bourgeoisie as just being on the wrong side of history rather than morally culpable. But certainly, after Lenin led the Russian revolution, turning Marxism effectively into a state religion as well as a revolutionary ideology, the use of vitriolic invective and angry abuse, based on the concept of ‘the enemy of the people’, has been an everyday weapon of the left against its perceived enemies. Marxism-Leninism, we might say, allowed the implicit moral censure in the classical Marxist view of history to be made explicit.

Riding on the back of the moral absolutism of the leftist worldview, but excavating a deeper psychological stratum, is the latent desire, not simply for the removal and addressing of past inequalities and oppressive structures and the creating of an equal landscape, but for revenge. Like a monopoly on moral virtue, the desire for revenge is not limited to those in thrall to Marxism or its ideological descendants, but a strong empirical case can be made that the opposite is true: that individuals, organisations and governments committed to ideologies, including postmodern identity ideologies, influenced by Marxist thought, invariably seek revenge on whatever and whomever they consider to be an obstacle to progress. The challenge is to locate the theoretical basis to understanding why this should be so.

A fruitful place to start is Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment. This should be distinguished from simple resentment, although they share emotional characteristics in common. We are all individually capable of resentment, which is typically a lingering memory of some personal affront which remains unresolved and which we were, and remain, unable or unwilling of dealing with at the time of the offense and which, therefore, remains a psychological burden for us. Resentment, because of its unresolved nature, is usually accompanied by the desire for revenge. Ressentiment differs from resentment in being a collective, rather than individual, feeling. Nietzsche surmised that it arose from a sense of inferiority, what he referred to a “slave morality”. Whereas Nietzsche’s anthropological ideal, the Übermensch, would be indifferent to affront, those exemplifying slave morality cringe before insult but carry a desire for revenge which corrupts their whole nature.

In Nietzsche’s view Christianity exemplified this slave morality and underlay the spirit of ressentiment that permeated and weakened Western culture. Nietzsche’s hatred of Christianity does in fact partly inform the modern left’s deep and instinctive hatred of Christian morality, particularly the postmodern identitarian left. However, I think Nietzsche was wrong about Christianity – as a religion – exemplifying ressentiment because Christianity has a mechanism for release from revenge, which is the principle of forgiveness. This is not, of course, a claim that this has always, or even often, been practiced, nor that forgiveness is unknown outside of Christianity, but systemically forgiveness is fundamental and integral to the teachings of Jesus transmitted through the ages, so as a theoretical depiction of Christian morality, ressentiment fails to capture its nature accurately. There is, conversely, a moral rejoinder to Nietzsche, that the spirit of forgiveness, rather than representing weakness, is the most difficult and profound of spiritual gifts and genuine acts of forgiveness are among the most moving, beautiful and transformative accomplishments of any society.

On the other hand, there is a good case that ressentiment describes very well the psychology and the philosophical presuppositions of the various ideological descendants of Marxism and explains their attachment to revenge. Though there is no evidence that Nietzsche had Marxism in mind, even though he despised the idea of equality as an invitation to mediocrity, this claim is based on the distinctive features of Marxism that form its heritable template. The first is the reification of social groups, the belief that the concepts of convenience which we apply to society and social processes to make sense of a complex social world – what Weber referred to as Verstehen – are immutable and concrete facets of reality, an outcome of Marx’s positivism. Moreover, secondly, under the influence of Hegelian dialectics, though seen through Marx’s own materialistic inversion, such classes are seen as bifurcated into opposing, mutually exclusive camps, differentiated by wealth and power. Thirdly, this differentiation manifests as one of oppressor and oppressed, with the oppressed being intrinsically morally superior (which demonstrates that Marx had, at least, imbibed one important value of Christianity, as that had filtered through social reform movements). Finally, the oppressed internalise their collective victim status, one of helplessness and seething resentment. An almost perfect epitome of ressentiment.

It is perfectly understandable how, based on this reading, Marxism has become the most effective revolutionary ideology in human history, seeding directly the communist revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola and a host of other countries, and indirectly influencing the development of African anti-colonialism, Arab nationalism, radical (political) Islam, second-wave feminism and, most recently, various forms of identity politics. Marxism provides the mirror for clearly seeing the concrete reality of one’s own oppression, the lens for finding the culprit for this existential reality and then the script proclaiming the very existence of the perceived enemy to be an affront.

Lenin’s genius was to realise that firm and effective leadership of a movement was necessary both to engage in ideological indoctrination and to turn this tinderbox of ideological ferment into actual revolution. Thus, he cemented the role of the Communist Party, as “the vanguard of the proletariat” in the Russian revolution, and as the immoveable power centre of the Russian and every subsequent communist society. In every case, the revolution and the installation of communist governments has seen the establishment of a culture of revenge: execution of supposed counter-revolutionaries, seizing of private property and wealth, of suppression of democratic rights, imprisonment of dissenters and political opposition and periodic purges even of the faithful.

From the beginning, though, the Russian revolution marked a departure from the classic Marxist view that the communist revolution should take place in the most advanced capitalist societies. It was in reaction to this failure of Marxist historicism and revulsion at Soviet totalitarianism that the Frankfurt school of critical theory developed, pioneering a fusion of the Marxist critique of capitalism with elements of psychoanalysis, existentialism, and other philosophical currents of the time. Although the members of the school worked independently and there was no complete ideological consensus, there are common features of critical theory that are apparent: the role of ideological hegemony; the idea that citizens of a capitalist society, particularly in its consumerist form, are alienated from their true nature; a focus on (in Marxian parlance) the cultural superstructure rather than the economic base; a critique of positivism in the social sciences and the furthering of interpretive modes of inquiry.

The critical theorists of the Frankfurt school inaugurated a more open form of Marxism that combined justifiable criticism of capitalism with a more humane, less dogmatic approach. The implicit danger in critical theory of this generation, which has fed into its postmodern successor, is its unerring focus on the systems of the West. In the hands of lesser intellects this has generated a belief that the West has been uniquely evil, uniquely oppressive, having no mitigating qualities in its favour. The truth is of course completely the opposite. The West has done more than any other civilisation to ameliorate the sins and suffering of the past and the world has largely benefitted from its advances.

Postmodern philosophy of the 1970s inherited the critical template but added a new dimension, that of nihilism. Its two greatest theorists, Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault began as Marxists, but like the thinkers of the Frankfurt School a generation earlier, became disenchanted by its ability to realise a truly socialist society and, like them, went on to engage in a deep critique of Western society. They went even further than a critique of capitalism and consumerism and began to look critically at the “grand narratives” of the West, specifically Christianity, science and philosophy, including Marxism. Derrida developed an extreme form of linguistic interpretation referred to as deconstruction. According to deconstructionists all artefacts are texts and each text has “sedimented” within it a history of interpretations of other texts; therefore, any interpretation is fundamentally the equivalent in value of the original text. The consequence of this is the dissolution of the Western canon of great art, for Shakespeare and Goethe are of no more significance than a penny-dreadful or a supermarket flyer; nor, for that matter, is Michelangelo’s David superior to a garden gnome.

Foucault engaged in a different type of reductionism. For him every type of social relation, whether personal or institutional, could be understood in terms of power dynamics. Power was not merely hierarchical but ubiquitous, saturating all of social reality. So, for him the claims of the superiority of Western civilisation in terms of faith, rationality, artistic merit and science, were merely assertions of power, essentially oppressive in nature. Foucault focused on particular themes – criminality, insanity and sexuality – to show how normative societal expectations themselves created the idea of the transgressive. Foucault undoubtedly contributed to a changed perception of such things as mental illnesses and homosexuality, for example. However, while power is a structural aspect of all relationships, it is demeaning and ultimately pointless to think that this is their defining quality and purpose.

There was a brief window when it was possible to see in postmodernism the possibility for a type of democratic anarchism, in which the critical erosion of the dominant themes of Western civilisation made possible the coexistence of multiple form of life, modern and traditional, rational, spiritual and artistic existing side by side, the claims of superiority of one over another stripped away, leaving the individual to assemble their own personal view of reality.

In practice, even had it emerged, it would have been an unstable social reality, as the attempt at the dissolution of truth claims leads not to a permanent relativism, but a void in which new truth claims are asserted, with no guarantee of superior wisdom. The nihilism of postmodern philosophy eventually led into a dead end. However, its potential as an acid dissolving the historical, philosophical, religious and scientific claims of superiority of the West proved to be an invaluable weapon in the hands of leftist academics, especially those with an activist agenda and a grudge.

Postmodern critical theory matured over the thirty years from around 1990 to 2020 and came into its own during the pandemic years of 2020-22. It has inherited directly from the Marxist template the two features outlined earlier: the claim that theory must be emancipatory rather than simply descriptive; and that emancipation must be accompanied by forms of systematic revenge and restitution for historical oppression, rather than simply accepting equality under the law and equality of opportunity. This underlies a subtle shift in terminology away from equality – even equality of outcome – to equity, which is heard more frequently now. The distinction is subtle and not supported by historical usage but bears the implication of systemic bias in favour of the formerly oppressed, perhaps unconsciously fulfilling Marx’s prophecy of the “expropriation of the expropriators”.

However, postmodern critical theory has added its own twist on this template by incorporating the philosophical anarchism of deconstructionism and Foucauldian power structures. If everything is text and all texts are equal in value, one is justified in saying anything, even shouting mindless slogans to drown out the enemy’s attempt at explanation, or extravagant displays of rage at careless infractions of some arbitrary rules of linguistic propriety. There is no longer any need for philosophical coherence either. Under the banner of social constructivism that which is complex and certainly continuous across many boundaries, such as race, is reified into absolute distinctions of oppressor and oppressed, while that which is rooted in clear biological differentiation, such as gender, is treated as variable, infinitely plastic and subject to personal whim while being, at the same time, a belief that is asserted to be factual and must be accepted as such. Building on ideas such as Foucault’s concept of “symbolic violence”, postmodern identity theorists have constructed a Dadaesque political language of “safe spaces”, “microaggressions” “cultural appropriation” and the absolute 4 minutes 33 seconds of absurdist political slogans, “silence is violence”.

The real motive force behind postmodern critical theory, behind the declarative façade of emancipatory action, is the desire to exact revenge inherited from Marxist ressentiment. Such politics perhaps draws on individuals who carry personal resentment. But it is also through ideological ‘infection’ capable of creating a sense of collective resentment – even vicarious resentment on behalf of those who we do not know and with whom we share no experience of oppression. Such is apparent in the intemperate language directed towards perceived enemies, the refusal to engage in dialogue, the clamour to censor the expression of views not conforming to ideological fashion and to force such nonconforming individuals out of their livelihoods.

It might be a false comfort that cancellation or dismissal from employment is not the gulag or the firing squad; the dehumanising language of the identity moralists is a worrying sign, as evidenced by the precursors of Nazi atrocity in the lands under their sway. Moreover, we should be very concerned that at a time when a totalitarian state that imprisons and executes huge numbers of its own citizens is on the verge of becoming the most powerful economy in the world, Western political leaders, media, universities and corporate entities are engaged in a war of attrition with our intellectual culture, economic system and traditions of liberty.

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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