The puzzle of why postmodernists are hostile to dissent and debate

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Daniel Dennett, the great American rationalist: “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.” (Source: The Guardian)

Excerpt from Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Expanded Edition), by Stephen Hicks (Ockham’s Razor, 2013). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 4: The Climate of Collectivism

From postmodern epistemology to postmodern politics

There is a problem with making epistemology fundamental to any explanation of postmodernism. The problem is the postmodernists’ politics.

If a deep skepticism about reason and the consequent subjectivism and relativism were the most important parts of the story of postmodernism, then we would expect to find that postmodernists represent a roughly random distribution of commitments across the political spectrum. If values and politics are primarily a matter of a subjective leap into whatever fits one’s preferences, then we should find people making leaps into all sorts of political programs.

This is not what we find in the case of postmodernism. Postmodernists are not individuals who have reached relativistic conclusions about epistemology and then found comfort in a wide variety of political persuasions. Postmodernists are monolithically far Left-wing in their politics.

Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty are all far Left. And so are Jacques Lacan, Stanley Fish, Catharine MacKinnon, Andreas Huyssen, and Frank Lentricchia. Of the major names in the postmodernist movement, there is not a single figure who is not Left-wing in a serious way.

So there is something else going on besides epistemology.

Part of that something else is that postmodernists have taken to heart Fredric Jameson’s remark that “everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political.”[117] The spirit of Jameson’s remark lies behind the persistent postmodernist charge that epistemology is merely a tool of power, that all claims of objectivity and rationality mask oppressive political agendas. It stands to reason, then, that postmodern appeals to subjectivity and irrationality can also be in the service of political ends. But why?

Another part of that something else is that Leftist thought has dominated political thought among twentieth-century intellectuals, particularly among academic intellectuals. But even given that fact, the dominance of Left thought among postmodernists is still a puzzle—since for most of socialism’s intellectual history it has almost always been defended on the modernist grounds of reason and science. Marx’s socialism has been the most widespread form of far-Left thought, and “scientific socialism” was the Marxist self-descriptive phrase.[118]

A related puzzle is explaining why postmodernists—particularly among those postmodernists most involved with the practical applications of postmodernist ideas or with putting postmodernist ideas into actual practice in their classrooms and in faculty meetings—are the most likely to be hostile to dissent and debate, the most likely to engage in ad hominem argument and name-calling, the most likely to enact “politically correct” authoritarian measures, and the most likely to use anger and rage as argumentative tactics. Whether it is Stanley Fish calling all opponents of affirmative action bigots and lumping them in with the Ku Klux Klan,[119] or whether it is Andrea Dworkin’s male-bashing in the forming of calling all heterosexual males rapists,[120] the rhetoric is very often harsh and bitter. So the puzzling question is: Why is it that among the far Left—which has traditionally promoted itself as the only true champion of civility, tolerance, and fair play—that we find those habits least practiced and even denounced?

Evidence, reason, logic, tolerance, and civility were all integral parts of the modernist package of principles. Socialism in its modern form began, in part, by accepting that package.

The argument of the next three chapters

As modernists, the socialists argued that socialism could be proved by evidence and rational analysis, and that once the evidence was in socialism’s moral and economic superiority to capitalism would be clear to anyone with an open mind.

This is significant, because so-conceived socialism committed itself to a series of propositions that could be empirically, rationally, and scientifically scrutinized. The end result of that scrutiny provides another key to explaining postmodernism.

Classical Marxist socialism made four major claims:

  1. Capitalism is exploitative: The rich enslave the poor; it is brutally competitive domestically and imperialistic internationally.
  2. Socialism, by contrast, is humane and peaceful: People share, are equal, and cooperative.
  3. Capitalism is ultimately less productive than socialism: The rich get richer, the poor get poorer; and the ensuing class conflict will cause capitalism’s collapse in the end.
  4. Socialist economies, by contrast, will be more productive and usher in a new era of prosperity.

These propositions were first enunciated by socialists in the nineteenth century, and repeated often into the twentieth before disaster struck. The disaster was that all four of socialism’s claims were refuted both in theory and in practice.

In theory, the free-market economists have won the debate. Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman have shown how markets are efficient, and they have shown, conversely, how socialist top-down command economies necessarily must fail. Distinguished Left-wing economists such as Robert Heilbroner have conceded in print that the debate is over and that the capitalists have won.[121]

In theory, the moral and political debate is more up for grabs, but the leading thesis is that some form of liberalism in the broadest sense is essential to protecting civil rights and civil society in general—and the liveliest debates are about whether a conservative version of liberalism, a libertarian one, or a modified welfarist one is best. Many Leftists are re-packaging themselves as more moderate communitarians, but that repackaging itself shows how far the debate has shifted toward liberalism.

The empirical evidence has been much harder on socialism. Economically, in practice the capitalist nations are increasingly productive and prosperous, with no end in sight. Not only are the rich getting fantastically richer, the poor in those countries are getting richer too. And by direct and brutal contrast, every socialist experiment has ended in dismal economic failure—from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, to North Korea and Vietnam, to Cuba, Ethiopia, and Mozambique.

Morally and politically, in practice every liberal capitalist country has a solid record for being humane, for by and large respecting rights and freedoms, and for making it possible for people to put together fruitful and meaningful lives. Socialist practice has time and time again proved itself more brutal than the worst dictatorships in history prior to the twentieth century. Each socialist regime has collapsed into dictatorship and begun killing people on a huge scale. Each has produced dissident writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nien Cheng who have documented what those regimes are capable of.

These points are well known, and I dwell upon them in order to project the depth of the crisis that this meant for Left-socialist intellectuals. By the 1950s, the crisis was being felt deeply.

Instead of having collapsed in the Great Depression of the 1930s, as both the collectivist Right and the Left had hoped, the liberal capitalist countries had recovered after World War II and by the 1950s were enjoying peace, liberty, and new levels of prosperity. World War II had wiped out the collectivist Right—the National Socialists and the Fascists—leaving the Left alone in the field against a triumphant and full-of-itself liberal capitalism. Yet while the liberal West’s recovery and its rising political and economic prominence were distressing to the far Left intellectuals of the West, hope was still offered by the existence of the Soviet Union, the “noble experiment,” and to a lesser extent by communist China.

Even that hope was brutally crushed in 1956. Before a world-wide audience, the Soviets sent tanks into Hungary to stifle demonstrations by students and workers—thus demonstrating just how strong was their commitment to humanity. And, more devastatingly, Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged publicly what many in the West had long charged—that Joseph Stalin’s regime had slaughtered tens of millions of human beings, staggering numbers that made the National Socialists’ efforts seem amateurish in comparison.

Responding to socialism’s crisis of theory and evidence

From The Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848 to the revelations of 1956 was over a century of theory and evidence. The crisis for the far Left was that the logic and evidence were going against socialism. Put yourselves in the shoes of an intelligent, informed socialist confronted with all this data. How would you react? You have a deep commitment to socialism: You feel that socialism is true; you want it to be true; upon socialism you have pinned all your dreams of a peaceful and prosperous future society and all your hopes for solving the ills of our current society.

This is a moment of truth for anyone who has experienced the agony of a deeply cherished hypothesis run aground on the rocks of reality. What do you do? Do you abandon your theory and go with the facts—or do you try to find a way to maintain your belief in your theory?

Here, then, is my second hypothesis about postmodernism: Postmodernism is the academic far Left’s epistemological strategy for responding to the crisis caused by the failures of socialism in theory and in practice.

A historically parallel example may help here. In the 1950s and 60s, the Left faced the same dilemma that religious thinkers faced in the late 1700s. In both cases, the evidence was against them. During the Enlightenment, religion’s natural theology arguments were widely seen as being full of holes, and science was rapidly giving naturalistic and opposed explanations for the things that religion had traditionally explained. Religion was in danger of being shut out of intellectual life. By the 1950s and 60s, the Left’s arguments for the fruitfulness and decency of socialism were failing in theory and practice, and liberal capitalism was rapidly increasing everyone’s standard of living and showing itself respectful of human freedoms. By the late 1700s, religious thinkers had a choice—accept evidence and logic as the ultimate court of appeal and thereby reject their deeply-cherished religious ideals—or stick by their ideals and attack the whole idea that evidence and logic matter. “I had to deny knowledge,” wrote Kant in the Preface to the first Critique, “in order to make room for faith.” “Faith,” wrote Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling, “requires the crucifixion of reason”; so he proceeded to crucify reason and glorify the irrational.

The Left thinkers of the 1950s and 60s faced the same choice. As I will argue over the course of the next two chapters, the far Left faced a dilemma. Confronted by the continued flourishing of capitalism and the continued poverty and brutality of socialism, they could either go with the evidence and reject their deeply cherished ideals—or stick by their ideals and attack the whole idea that evidence and logic matter. Some, like Kant and Kierkegaard, decided to limit reason—to crucify it. And for that purpose, Heidegger’s exalting feeling over reason came as a godsend. And so did Kuhn’s theory-laden paradigms and Quine’s pragmatic and internalist account of language and logic.

That the leading postmodern intellectuals—from Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida to Rorty and Fish—came of age in the 1950s and 60s then is not a coincidence.

Postmodernism is born of the marriage of Left politics and skeptical epistemology. As socialist political thought was reaching a crisis in the 1950s, academic epistemology had, in Europe, come to take seriously Nietzsche and Heidegger and, in the Anglo-American world, it had seen the decline of Logical Positivism into Quine and Kuhn. The dominance of subjectivist and relativistic epistemologies in academic philosophy thus provided the academic Left with a new tactic. Confronted by harsh evidence and ruthless logic, the far Left had a reply: That is only logic and evidence; logic and evidence are subjective; you cannot really prove anything; feelings are deeper than logic; and our feelings say socialism.

That is my second hypothesis: Postmodernism is a response to the crisis of faith of the academic far Left. Its epistemology justifies the leap of faith necessary to continue believing in socialism, and that same epistemology justifies using language not as a vehicle for seeking truth but as a rhetorical weapon in the continuing battle against capitalism.

Excerpted from Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks. Copyright © Stephen Hicks, 2004, 2011, 2014. All rights reserved.


[117] Jameson 1981, 20.

[118] Engels 1875, 123.

[119] Fish 1994, 68-69.

[120] Dworkin 1987, 123, 126.

[121] Heilbroner 1990; see also Heilbroner 1993, 163.

Stephen HicksStephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and the Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (2010), and he is the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W.W. Norton and Co., second edition, 1998). He has also published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including Review of Metaphysics, The Journal of Private Enterprise, Teaching Philosophy, and The Wall Street Journal. You can follow his work at StephenHicks.org, and on Twitter.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Dogmatic Communism would seem to be further Left than Socialism.
    Maoism and Stalinism were ideological and cultural, as well as economic organizations.
    They claim Socialist and Communist intent, but ideology soon destroys good intentions.
    If Capitalism and Socialism are two ends of the bell curve, the objective would be to extend the sweet spot in the middle to the largest number of people.
    What is the label for that spot? I assumed that was ‘Socialism’ as the center of balance.

  2. The trick is to continue believing in Capitalism not Socialism. For it is a fact, that the poorest nations on earth were people live on less than a dollar are day, are in fact all Capitalist countries.

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