Marxism and Postmodernism: A Reply to Roger Burbach

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As editors of the special July-august 1995 issue of MR on "Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda" we've taken it upon ourselves to write these comments on Roger Burbach's reply to Daniel Nugent. We've done this because Burbach's remarks, though written in part as a reply to Nugent's article, have more to do with the general questions raised by the special issue than with Nugent's discussion of the postmodernist treatment of the Zapatistas. In fact, it still isn't clear, from Burbach's reply, how invoking postmodernism helps us to understand the EZLN. It still isn't clear how Burbach's often interesting and illuminating analysis of conditions in Mexico is clarified rather than obscured by tacking on the postmodernist label. In that respect, it seems to us that his reply has simply left Nugent's criticisms unanswered. Instead, Burbach focuses his attention on the much larger issue of Marxism and postmodernism.

Let's begin with the points of agreement between us and Burbach. He actually provides an eloquent defense of Marxism: he agrees with Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff that historical materialism is still the best foundation for the social sciences; he agrees with John Foster that Marx and Engels had deep insights into the connection between industry and the environment (how, by the way, does Burbach square this with his comments about historical materialism and its alleged assumption about the virtues of limitless progress in the domination of nature," and so on?); he even agrees with Carol Stabile that Marxism (to quote Burbach) "provides a much more powerful framework than postmodernism for deciphering how women are exploited in today's world." As a "tool of analysis," Marxism is, in fact, "as useful today as in decades past." Postmodernism, he assures us, will have nothing like the staying power of Marxism, and a decade or two from now, we'll more or less forget about it. By the time he finishes praising Marxism, not only for its traditional critique of capitalism but for its deeper insights into "postmodern" issues like ecology and gender, it's hard to know what's left of postmodernism as a way of understanding the world.

It would be one thing if Burbach had confined himself to claiming that the Marxist revolutionary project, as distinct from Marxism as a "tool of analysis," has been overtaken by history. There is, of course, a lot to be said against that proposition, and we intend to make one or two points about it here in a moment. But at least the proposition would be understandable. The trouble is that Burbach, in spite of everything he says in favor of Marxism, seems to be making claims for postmodernism as a better way (at least temporarily) of understanding where we are today, and here his argument really comes unstuck.

One major problem is his uncertainty about what he means by postmodernism. On the one hand, although he repudiates the "relativist school of postmodernism," he uncritically repeats some of its main platitudes about the "Enlightenment project." It simply isn't good enough to say, for example, that "modernism and the faith in progress that began in the age of Enlightenment are at the root of the disasters that have wracked humanity throughout this century." There is undoubtedly a lot to be criticized in Enlightenment theories of history and progress (as Marx himself, of course, was profoundly aware); but the historical vacuity (not to mention the "idealism") of this proposition is surely evident the moment we place, say, the ideas of Condorcet in the balance against the complex historical forces that gave rise to capitalism or the specificities of German history which produced Nazism.

On the other hand, Burbach invokes people like David Harvey to illustrate the kind of postmodernism he has in mind. But this example reveals substantial confusion on Burbach's part. We should probably apologize for not taking up this issue in the introduction. Perhaps we took too much for granted, but it should be clear to someone as familiar with the literature as Burbach seems to be that there is a huge difference between "postmodernism" as an intellectual current and the position of someone like David Harvey or Frederic Jameson, Marxists who are fiercely critical of "postmodernism" but who use the concept of "postmodernity" to identify a historical moment in the development of contemporary capitalism and associate with it certain cultural tendencies, like postmodernism. …