WritingsArticles & SpeechesOn postmodernism and identity politics

On postmodernism and identity politics

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By Jose Maria Sison
Introductory Speech to webinar sponsored by International League of Peoples’ Struggle-Canada
November 13, 2021

Dear Compatriots and Friends,

Thank you for inviting me to talk about post-modernism and identity politics. I propose to critique postmodernism and identity politics, distinguish the course and character of the two, answer the question whether identity politics is the offspring or by-product of postmodernism.

At the outset, let me state at the outset my philosophical position. Marxism assumes that objective reality exists priorly and independently of human consciousness. The material universe existed long before the emergence of humanity and its consciousness. After going through stages of development, from primitive communal society to class-divided society, humanity reached the high road of civilization from which Marxism arose.
As an integrative materialist-scientific philosophy, Marxism recognizes that the mode of production is the economic base by which all societies can subsist and produce the surplus product that can sustain the political and cultural superstructure.

Postmodernism

Postmodernism is a subjectivist idealist trend of thought, whose starting point is the individual and personal consciousness and is aimed at making an anti-Marxist critique and running counter to the chain of intellectual advances, such as the humanism of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, rationality in the Enlightenment, the liberal democratic revolution and the advent of Marxism.

Postmodernism arose directly from a chain of subjectivist idealist trends of thought, such as existentialism as articulated by Jean Paul Sartre in the years after World War II and the structuralism inspired by Ferdinand de Saussure and followed by Louis Althusser and others.

Sartre seemed to seek the integration of existentialism with Marxism but strayed away from dialectical materialism by exaggerating individual existence and individual freedom against the definable and essential collective role of the oppressed and exploited in class struggle. He preoccupied himself with the psychological contradiction of existence and nothingness under the weight of Kierkegaardian angst and Nietzchean nihilism. And he glossed over the dialectical relationship between objective reality and cognition.

The structuralists Saussure and Althusser reacted to Sartrean existentialism in the 1960s. Saussure put forward structuralism in linguistics as a guide in discourses and achieving agreement in human activity. In his own way, Althusser adopted a fragmentary sense of structure. He made an offensive critique of Marxism by reviving the old charge that it is economic determinism by rephrasing it as economic reductionism. He missed the point that society cannot exist without having a certain mode of production at the material base interacting dialectically with the political and cultural spheres in the superstructure.

The postmodernists started out in the 1970s as a group of poststructuralists in contention with the structuralists. The group of so-called poststructuralists included Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Lacan and others in the backwash of frustrations after the mass protests of 1968 in the streets of Paris subsided. They made it fashionable to make sweeping attacks on the previous major trends of thought from the humanism of the Renaissance, through rationality of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment to the liberal democratic revolution and the emergence of Marxism.

The so-called postmodern thinkers affirm knowledge and value systems as socially conditioned and framed as products of political, historical or cultural discourses and hierarchies rather than objective social conditions involving class contradictions. They think that personal and spiritual needs are best fulfilled by improving social conditions through fluid discourses in rejection of the supposed impulse of modernist philosophy to maximize progress through the imposition of “objective truths” and grand narratives either by the oppressors or by the oppressed.

They are predisposed to be self-centered even as they borrow the concepts and methods from modern reason in order to critique their philosophical adversaries and express skepticism, sarcasm and rejection against what they deride as grand narratives and ideologies of modernism. In consonance with self-conceit, self-indulgence and personal relativism, their usual targets are the “universalist ideas” of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, the process of cognition, science, language and social progress. To further garble their subjectivist notions, the postmodernists inject into their discourse Nietzche’s nihilism, Kierkegaard’s dread and Heidegger’s fascination with fascism.

The postmodernist trend of thought has been attached to earlier beginnings in various disciplines but in the main it has been extended more relevantly to various academic disciplines in the 1980s and 1990s, such as literature, literary criticism, contemporary art, architecture, cultural studies, music, linguistics, economics, and women’s studies. Postmodernism has been associated with poststructuralism, , deconstruction, institutional critique and the philosophy of science.

The usefulness of postmodernism to the imperialist ideological offensive has fizzled out as the bourgeois political and academic authorities have found other ideological tools to be more effective in captivating the general run of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia and misleading the masses. At the same time, the enlightened academics and social activists are criticizing postmodernism as subjectivist, obscurantist and useless in the process of advancing or gaining empirical and rational knowledge and effecting progress in social practice.

Identity Politics

There are followers of postmodernism as well as as commentators who claim that identity politics is a product of, or somehow related to identity politics. As an obscurantist school of thought, postmodernism has no interest in generating its own mass movement. Identity politics has its own track of development.

The term “identity politics” means that it is a political approach whereby people of various identities determined by gender or sexual orientation, religion, race, ethnic community, social background or class initiate and develop programs of political action in order to liberate themselves from systems of oppression and discrimination.

This broad compass of identity politics is just and progressive. It includes the class struggle of the oppressed and exploited working classes against the oppressive and exploitative classes. It allows the class struggle to be interconnected and interactive with sectors of society that are the target of oppression and exploitation. But there are those who narrow the intersectionality of identity politics, separate it from and collide it against the class struggle.

The term identity politics arose in political discourse in the 1970s, quite separately from postmodernism. It was first put forward in the April 1977 statement of the Black feminist socialist group, the Combahee River Collective. The statement was printed in 1979’s Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, and later in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. by Barbara Smith. She and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term.

Identity politics is a mode of categorizing people who are oppressed and discriminated against in order for them to arouse, organize and mobilize themselves, emancipate and empower themselves through mass struggle against all forms of oppression, including national chauvinism, imperialism, racism, fascism, labor exploitation, marginalization and subjugation.

BAYAN-Philippines has been excellent at promoting the integral organizations of the exploited and oppressed classes and the sectoral organizations of the women, youth the professionals and others as well as bringing them together in a broad alliance, coordinating them and mobilizing them in the struggle for national and social liberation against the foreign monopoly capitalists and the local exploiting classes in the Philippines.

What is wrong is to use identity politics to misconstrue the narrow interests of US monopoly capitalism as democracy, impose such interests on other peoples and misrepresent revolutionary forces as terrorist and glorify the imperialists who are the real terrorists. There must be a clear differentiation between the identity politics of the American white supremacists who are the oppressors and the identity politics of the Afro-Americans and other peoples that they oppress.

In the 1980s, the politics of identity became prominent and motivated a new wave of social activism. The monopoly bourgeoisie in the imperialist countries decries identity politics as being disruptive but in fact abets the reactionary kind of identity politics that is exclusionary. oppressive and discriminatory. In his 1991 book The Disuniting of America, the historian Arthur Schlesinger invokes liberal democracy and then attacks the politics of identity as the cause of the fracturing of American society rather than as a just response of the aggrieved and oppressed people.

Brendan O’Neill criticizes identity politics as the cause of political schisms along lines of social identity and as a cause impelled by inward looking and obessesion with the body and the self and as having nothing to do with the world. But it is not only someone with an obviously reactionary mindset who is against identity politics but also the author Owen Jones who, with his book Demonization of the Working Class criticizes identity politics as often marginalizing the working class and pushing aside issues of the class struggle that used to resound in the 1960s and 1970s.

Implicating Postmodernism with Identity Politics

In her article, “How French Intellectuals Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained”, Helen Pluckrose attacks both postmodernism and identity politics as threats not only to liberal democracy and modernity and tries to hold postmodernism culpable for identity politics. But nowhere does she quote any of the founders of postmodernism having knowledge of or encouraging identity politics.

She simply asserts the irrational and identitarian “symptoms of postmodernism” in identity politics. And she proceeds to denounce Social Justice Activism as undermining the credibility of the Left and threatening to return to an irrational and tribal “pre-modern” culture. However, she acknowledges that postmodernism has its own history quite different from that of identity politics.

She avers that postmodernism was an artistic and philosophical movement which began in France in the 1960s and which drew on avant-garde and surrealist art and earlier philosophical ideas, particularly those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, for its anti-realism and rejection of the concept of the unified and coherent individual. She criticizes postmodernism as having been against the liberal humanism of the modernist artistic and intellectual movements.

She goes so far as to scold the postmodernists for rejecting ethics, reason and clarity, for opposing structuralism, a movement which (often over-confidently) attempted to analyze human culture and psychology according to consistent structures of relationships, and likewise for regarding Marxism as equally rigid and simplistic, with its understanding of society through class and economic structures.

We can also go along with Pluckrose in berating the postmodernists for attacking science and its goal of attaining objective knowledge about a reality which exists independently of human perceptions and which they saw as merely another form of constructed ideology dominated by bourgeois, western assumptions. But certainly we cannot go along with her in her abrupt and baseless designation ofLacan postmodernism as “decidedly left-wing, with both a nihilistic and a revolutionary ethos” which resonated with a post-war, post-empire zeitgeist in the West.

She cites the postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard for defining the postmodern condition as “an incredulity towards metanarratives” and for rejecting metanarratives as wide-ranging and cohesive explanations for large phenomena, like religions and other totalizing ideologies do, in explaining the meaning of life or all of society’s ills.

Lyotard is about the only postmodernist she can cite as having something to do with identity politics by advocating the replacement of metanarratives with “mininarratives” to get at smaller and more personal “truths.” He does not spare Marxism and science from the criticism and charge that they are metanarratives which are supposed to be senseless and useless except as instruments of domination.

Pluckrose holds to account Michel Foucault for being centered on language and relativism which he applied to history and culture. She criticizes Foucault as the most extreme expression of cultural relativism read through structures of power in which shared humanity and individuality are almost entirely absent and in which people are thus constructed by their position in relation to dominant cultural ideas either as oppressors or oppressed. But she fails to connect Foucault directly with identity politics.

She is even more strained in trying to link Jacques Derrida’s further relativism, both cultural and epistemic, to identity politics. She simply blames Derrida for presuming that differences cannot be other than oppositional and therefore a rejection of what she preaches as the Enlightenment liberalism’s values of overcoming differences and focusing on universal human rights and individual freedom and empowerment.

Pluckrose picks out Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida as three of the “founding fathers” of postmodernism culpable for inspiring, if not fathering, identity politics. She sounds as a liberal progressive when she comments that the desire to “smash” the status quo, challenge widely held values and institutions and champion the marginalized is absolutely liberal in ethos. But she fails to differentiate the identity politics of the oppressive white supremacists and that of the oppressed African-Americans.

Concluding Comments

But she proceeds to expose herself as an illiberal reactionary. She declares, “… we are at a unique point in history where the status quo is fairly consistently liberal, with a liberalism that upholds the values of freedom, equal rights and opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, race and sexuality. The result is confusion in which life-long liberals wishing to conserve this kind of liberal status quo find themselves considered conservative and those wishing to avoid conservatism at all costs find themselves defending irrationalism and illiberalism.

She continues, “Whilst the first postmodernists mostly challenged discourse with discourse, the activists motivated by their ideas are becoming more authoritarian and following those ideas to their logical conclusion. Freedom of speech is under threat because speech is now dangerous. So dangerous that people considering themselves liberal can now justify responding to it with violence. The need to argue a case persuasively using reasoned argument is now often replaced with references to identity and pure rage.”

And she overextends her claim to liberalism by declaring the following: “Despite all the evidence that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia are at an all-time low in Western societies, Leftist academics and Social Justice activists display a fatalistic pessimism, enabled by postmodern interpretative ‘reading’ practices which valorize confirmation bias. The authoritarian power of the postmodern academics and activists seems to be invisible to them whilst being apparent to everyone else.

After trying to force a linkage between postmodernism and identity politics, she ends up attacking the Leftist academics and Social Justice activists as no better than agents of postmodernism and praising how under the status quo is fairly consistently liberal, with a liberalism that upholds the values of freedom, equal rights and opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, race and sexuality. All the time she carries the mendacious presumption that postmodernism is a Left school of thought and not an ideological torpedo against Marxism and the identity politics of the oppressed.

Pluckrose tries to conceal the reactionary character of her position by straining to stick the label of postmodernist to both the “far-Right” and to her contrived “postmodern-Left” when she preaches the following: “It has become commonplace to note that the far-Right is now using identity politics and epistemic relativism in a very similar way to the postmodern-Left. Of course, elements of the far-Right have always been divisive on the grounds of race, gender and sexuality and prone to irrational and anti-science views but postmodernism has produced a culture more widely receptive to this.” Postmodernism became a corpse before the 21st century and she wants to resurrect it as a whipping dog.###

Questions after Speech:

  1. How do you raise tactical alliances based on things like identity (e.g. bourgeois feminism) to a higher level (e.g. class analysis)? What are some examples of how this is done with the youth?

JMS: In the broadest sense, identity can be based on nationality in the sense of the nation state or indigenous community, social class, social system, race, sex, religious belief or political thought. The general identity of Filipino nationality is composed of more specific identities such as social classes, the dominant nationality and minorities, various genders or sexual orientations, races and followers of various religions and ideologies.

There may be tactical alliances or even strategic alliances that are multi-class and multisectoral as well as intra-class or intra-sectoral. There can be a multi-class and multisectoral alliance of legal and democratic forces like BAYAN or of revolutionary forces like those in the NDFP. There can be intra-class or intra-sectoral alliances of any social class, stratum, any sex, any race, indigenous community, Christians or ecumenists and anti-imperialists.

Relative to a general identity like Filipino nationality, the Filipino youth is a specific social sector but has its own generality as an identity because it is divisible into youth of various classes, such as the young workers and peasants, student youth, young professionals and so on, who are encompassed by the comprehensive legal youth organization called Anakbayan and by the underground Kabataang Makabayan. And Anakbayan can also have alliance with other youth organizations and likewise the KM with other your organizations in the underground.

  1. How do you carry out tactical alliances based on identities without losing class analysis?

JMS: As demonstrated by the example of BAYAN, there can be an alliance of organizations of definite classes like the workers, peasants and the urban petty bourgeoisie and organizations of certain social sectors like women and youth, national minorities, professionals and commitment to certain causes or tasks like defense of human rights, advocacy of just peace and so on.

I would consider BAYAN as a strategic alliance of patriotic and democratic forces on the scale of the legal struggle of the people for national independence and democracy. But perhaps you can also call it a tactical alliance in the context of the overall struggle for national and social liberation, with the revolutionary armed struggle as the most decisive form of struggle. In any case, a Marxist can subject to class analysis any kind of organization in any kind of alliance or in any kind of struggle.

  1. How can we navigate the rise of “spirituality/healing” culture among the diaspora towards the NDR?

JMS: From the Marxist viewpoint, there is nothing indivisible. Relative to the national democratic movement, there can be an advanced section of the masses that are already members of the national democratic organization. But there is a middle section of the masses that can be won over and recruited if the NDMOs do their mass work effectively. And there is the backward section of the masses that follow the reactionary classes and reactionary trends of belief and thought.

The rise of “spirituality/healing” culture among the diaspora is an indication that the NDMOs have so much work to do. There is no Chinese Wall separating the advanced, middle and backward sections of the masses. There are the Christians for National Liberation and the legal patriotic and democratic groups of religious who accept the line and program of the national democratic revolution. These prove that Christians and other religious believers can join the advanced section of the masses. Please read the CNL Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

  1. How can overseas Filipinos in settler-colonial countries like Canada flesh out the narrative that migrants are settlers when they too are oppressed by labour export policy and US imperialism?

JMS: African slaves were kidnapped and brought to the Americas as beasts of burden, originally as rationed slaves before they became “emancipated into “wage slavery”. Overseas Filipinos have been brought to the US and Canada by the impoverishment of the Filipino people and high unemployment among them and by US imperialism and the local exploiting classes. Thus, by force of economic necessity, Filipinos have gone abroad to seek employment as wage slaves in the US, Canada and elsewhere in the world.

These overseas Filipinos are entirely different from the white colonialist settlers that came from Europe to grab the land and other natural resources of Canada from the First Nation. The Filipinos did not come to grab land and other resources from the First Nation. They came to Canada as wage slaves and are class brothers to the majority of First Nation who must by necessity work for their subsistence by earning wages within the capitalist system. Only a very few Filipinos live like the big white bourgeois in Canada because they are high executives, successful professionals and investors or they have brought in from the Philippines their bureaucratic loot.

  1. How do we engage compatriots, who choose the struggle in host countries, rather than on issues back home? These compats strongly focus on Filipino representation and visibility within the host country.

JMS: Filipino compatriots who are already Canadian citizens or permanent residents have the right and duty to join trade unions, professional organizations and political processes of Canadians of various nationalities. It is the burden of the NDMOs and their activists in Canada to learn how to approach, inform and engage such Filipinos. I presume that by and large they are still interested in what is happening in the Philippines and are inclined to help their Motherland and the Filipino people’s struggle for a better life against an extremely exploitative ruling system in the Philippines.

That these compatriots strongly focus on Filipino representation and visibility within the host country indicates not only that they are interested in the goodwill and votes of their fellow Filipinos in Canada but also because they have a certain measure and degree of interest in and concern for the Filipino people. It is an important task of the NDMOs and their activists to think of campaigns, projects and activities for engaging the participation and support of compatriots who have become well-rooted in Canada.

  1. Some mass activists take on an idealist analysis of issues, viewing the ideology of white supremacy or the patriarchy as the root issue, rather than monopoly capitalism. How can we acknowledge this and raise the analysis higher?

JMS: The NDMOs and their activists must recognize and understand that some mass activists take on an idealist analysis of issues, viewing the ideology of white supremacy or the patriarchy as the root issue, rather than monopoly capitalism, probably because of their earlier concrete experiences or they do not have sufficient opportunity to learn that monopoly capitalism validates and spreads racial prejudice and male chauvinism.

It is the task of the NDMOs and their activists to criticize monopoly capitalism and its educational system and mass media other cultural means for perpetuating the ideology of white supremacy and patriarchalism and at the same time the direct purveyors of the ideology of white supremacy and patriarchalism as well as the idealist activists that you have cited as purveying the same thing. But of course, these idealist activists must be talked to in a rational and persuasive way. Victims of white supremacy and patriarchalism sometimes cannot see through the concrete acts if their level of cognition cannot understand monopoly capitalism as an oppressive and exploitative force.

  1. Intersectionality, a key concept of identity politics, speaks of the overlap of different forms of the oppression created by capitalism (though their origin is not always made explicit) within specific individuals and groups. While the focus on lived experience can be hyper-individualistic, these experiences do exist in material reality. So what is a properly materialist method of addressing such experiences?

JMS: With the concept of intersectionality, the exponents of identity politics save themselves from the charge of fragmenting the national and class struggle against capitalist oppression and exploitation. They do not give up putting the emphasis on lived experiences to the extent of appearing or being hyper-individualistic. But as you have pointed out the dialectical materialist method can address these experiences. In fact, dialectical materialism requires empirical data at the perceptual level of knowledge before one can make conclusions, judgments and general concepts at the rational level of knowledge.

There can be billions of identities such as the individuals in the entire world. But all these individuals cannot escape having identities in a sense larger than themselves such as belonging to a social class, nationality, profession, occupation, gender and sexual orientation, age group, race, creed and so on.
Without being carried away by hyper-individualism and without abandoning or obscuring its class and interclass character, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines recognizes and applies intersectionality by embracing organizations of the proletariat, peasants, national minorities, women, youth, professionals of various types, Christian liberationists and so on

  1. In the West, at least, identity politics has made major inroads into mainstream politics through entertainment media like MTV and many popular shows, mainstream news commentary and social media. It has become the politics of “resistance” that most people in the West are the most familiar with. How do we, as communists, address the masses within such a discourse and bring them over to more materialist understandings of oppression?

JMS: Indeed, there is abundance of bourgeois groups in the West that preoccupy themselves with presentations of individuals and non-class groups and avoid the reality of classes and class struggle because they adhere to the petty bourgeois standpoint or even to the viewpoint of the entire bourgeoisie, wittingly or unwittingly that of the monopoly bourgeoisie. While the capitalist ruling system persists, such bourgeois groups that invoke identity politics to deny or obscure the reality of classes and the class struggle and the revolutionary role of the proletariat will also persist.

Just as the NDFP embraces a variety of organizations with various types of identities, we must take advantage of this fact by having a variety of programs and activities without losing sight of the principle that the revolutionary proletariat is the class that leads us in the democratic struggle within the capitalist system to be able to overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish socialism. It would be quite boring and counterproductive to present all the time the proletariat and its party as the revolutionary forces without presenting the revolutionary participation of other classes and distinct formations.

  1. Much foundational anti-capitalist psychology works come from the likes of foundational postmodernist thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari. Is there a way to adapt their work into a more Marxist theory of the mind?

JMS: The post modernists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri use psychology among the various disciplines as the base of their subjectivist thinking. They claim to be interdisciplinary but their minds shoot off in various directions arbitrarily and anarchistically. They describe best their kind of thinking by arbitrarily choosing the rhizome (underground roots) to depict their ideas as spreading underground without direction, no beginning and no end.

They are like their fellow postmodernists. They are anti-Marxist fragmentarians who overemphasize the subjective and individual psychology. They deny objective reality, reason and logic and scientific or historical truth (objective truth). They hold suspect science and technology as instruments of human progress and rail against them as instruments of established authority.

They are subjective idealists whose starting point is consciousness, in particular individual psychology, rather than objective material reality. Their ideas therefore cannot be adapted to Marxist theory in general or even to a Marxist theory of the mind, with individual and social psychology as scientific subjects in the realm of the superstructure. ###

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