Understanding poststructuralism

We need to debate the development of diverse ideas and movements in their historical context, both before and after 1968. Only then can Marxism recover and move forward, argues Rex Dunn

Why return to the subject so soon? Firstly, without an attempt to define what poststructuralism stands for, we cannot expect to have a proper understanding of it. I included such an attempt in my first article on this subject, but it was cut for reasons of space.1 I reintroduce it here. Secondly, I appreciate Comrade Mike Macnair’s and Paul Demarty’s recent contributions, which have helped me clarify my own ideas.2

That said, both comrades fail to understand my position on poststructuralism. This can be summarised by the following five points:

In the light of the above, there is a definite connection between the origin of poststructuralism and Stalinism. But this has to be seen in terms of the latter’s long-term negative impact on western philosophy, as well as its poisonous legacy, following 1968. Apropos western philosophy, on the one hand, philosophical Marxism had begun to degenerate as early as the1930s, continuing into the post-war period. On the other, this provided breathing space for the emergence of ideas which became the basis of structuralism/poststructuralism. To this end, I shall concentrate mainly on the ‘battle of ideas’. In order to develop my argument, I shall deal with the following in this order: foundationalism; anti-foundationalism; Stalinist diamat/structuralism; poststructuralism.


Foundationalism is associated with the ideas of Descartes and Kant, as well as Hegel and Marx, although those can be traced back to the Aristotelian tradition. It may be summarised as follows: (i) An objective theory of knowledge is possible. Basic insights cannot be called into question, unless proved false by reason and empirical facts. The laws and categories of a body of ideas correspond to those of nature. (ii) On the basis of these insights, ‘more general propositions can be inferred’. (iii) Therefore we have the foundation of a philosophical system. (iv) Philosophy itself is foundational, being grounded in reason.

Anti-foundationalism is the antithesis of the above. It is exemplified by the work of the American, Richard Rorty. His Philosophy and the mirror of nature (1980) is derived from the work of Wittgenstein and Heidegger in the 1930s. The former is best known for his work in analytical philosophy during the 1920s: ie, the application of pure logic to ideas, language, irrespective of the real world. The latter’s Being and time (1927) is influenced by Husserl’s Phenomenology. But in the wake of Nazism and Germany’s Götterdämmerung, Heidegger’s later work “provides a theoretical basis for existentialism”: the idea that “being is the proper and sole theme of philosophy” (1975).

In The basic problems of philosophy of the same year, he developed his theory of Dasein (‘being there’): human beings are literally thrown into “the world of contingency or facticity” and

must therefore strive towards authenticity rather than fall back (verfallen) … the prospect of ceasing to be: Dasein is being towards death. The care (Sorge) and anxiety (Angst) induced by the prospect of being-towards-death can be overcome only by ‘resoluteness’ and striving towards authenticity.

(Cf Adorno, although Heidegger does not show a great deal of concern for the deadening impact of industrial capitalism and the culture industry; he is more concerned with metaphysics.)

To save space, I shall leave aside his affinity with Nazism here. Crucial to Heidegger of this period is the idea of Hermeneutics, the “art or science of interpretation” and “the more strictly linguistic tradition associated with [his pupil] Gadamer”. The latter asserts:

For Heidegger, hermeneutics is no longer a matter of textual interpretation [as with studies of the Bible during the period of the Reformation], but an interpretive mode of being in the world, orienting oneself to it. Perhaps the most important single influence on contemporary hermeneutics [cf the work of Paul de Man in the 1970s], however, is the adage in a fragment of Nietzsche’s The will to power (1901), where “positivism which halts in phenomena” is refuted in the proclamation: “No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations.”

The “paradox” of hermeneutics is that it is “inevitably a circular process”. The detail can only be understood within the whole: “it is impossible to step outside it. Meaning cannot be grasped from ‘outside’, precisely because ‘there are only interpretations’.”3

Stalinist ‘diamat’ and structuralism

The former stands for ‘official communism’ or Stalinist ‘dialectical materialism’, which, given its authoritarian origins, barbarism in practice, and objectivist bias in terms of its ‘philosophy’, was a monstrous distortion of Marxism. The Stalinist view of history may be summed up as: history is on the side of the proletariat and the achievement of communism is inevitable, regardless of mistakes by the leadership (ie, the Soviet party). History cannot be pushed by subjective factors, such as leftwing adventurism - eg, the student uprising of 1968 - despite the fact that this led to the largest general strike in history, whilst tens of thousands of workers occupied their factories, not because they were low paid, but because they wanted an alternative to wage-slavery and having to keep up with the conveyor belt. What a moment!

On the other hand, in the name of ‘socialism in one country’ and the defence of its own privileges, the Stalinist democracy wanted ‘peaceful coexistence’ with capitalism: therefore it had to smash the social revolution wherever it re-emerged, beginning with the Spanish uprising in 1936. Setting aside its occupation of eastern Europe as part of a peace ‘dividend’ with imperialism, during the cold war, (i) Stalinism gave limited support to national liberation movements, as long as they were based on the Soviet model (bureaucratic centralism); (ii) as long as they remained within the straightjacket of nationalism (eg, Korea, Vietnam); (iii) therefore they must not be allowed to spill over into a ‘hot’ war with imperialism: ie, direct conflict. (iv) Previously, of course, in large part, because of its own theoretical and strategic mistakes, Stalinism had failed to stop the rise of fascism and another world war. This opened the door even wider to the rise of the USA as world hegemon, economically, militarily and culturally.

Therefore it is not at all surprising that all of these events were reflected in the degeneration of western Marxism, beginning with the rise of the Institute of Social Research in the 1930s. The latter began to separate the superstructure from Marx’s base/superstructure model, either as a way forward for the masses (cf Benjamin’s theory, The work art in the age of mechanical reproduction) or as an impediment to revolutionary consciousness. (similarly, after his American experience, Adorno develops his theory of the culture industry, based on rational pessimism, as opposed to Marx’s rational optimism). This continues into the post-war period under the auspices of the Frankfurt School, aka Critical Theory, ending with Habermas (ie, neo-Weberianism). All this has to be taken into account, as well as the ideas of Marxism’s philosophical opponents (eg, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Levi-Strauss, despite the latter’s leftist leanings, etc).


Comrade Paul Demarty fails to point out that, ultimately, poststructuralism must be seen as an anti-foundationalist reaction to structuralism. According to David Lacey in his Dictionary of critical theory (2001), it appears in 1966, just when structuralism was at its zenith. In that year Derrida wrote a paper which he called deconstruction: ie, a criticism of structuralism as a “meaningful concept”. But the two concepts did hold one thing in common: a fixation with language, in a dualist relationship with the material world. (But instead of obeying a Saussurian rule-bound system, signifiers and signified behave in an arbitrary manner, as a basis for the construction of meaning.)

By the early 1970s Barthes was speaking of “awakening from the dream of scientificity”, associated with semiology and structuralism. But he was unable to make a complete break. Therefore, “When the Sorbonne was occupied by revolutionary students in May 1968, one item of graffiti proclaimed that ‘Structures do not take to the streets’, to which an anonymous hand added: ‘Nor does Barthes’. Another alleged: ‘Althusser a rien’ (Althusser is no good).”4 Thus poststructuralism covers everything from a new historicism to a new postcolonial theory, based on a rejection of foundationalist ideas, via its insistence on the plurality and instability of meaning, a distrust of scientific enquiry; in a word, the abandonment of the Enlightenment project (cf Marx).

To be more theoretical: poststructuralism was:

(i) a reaction to ‘repressive reason’ in its modern form; on the one hand, official Marxism itself; on the other, Marxist-oriented structuralism, along with Freudianism; all of which are ‘totalising theories’, associated with crude determinism. Althusserian structuralism, for example, introduces the concept of ideological superstructures, as the products of law, religion and the state:

In his substitution of [an] ensemble of practices, under the delegatory guidance of the economic, political, ideological and theoretical, Althusser breaks with the dualism of ideas/material forces … All levels are constituted as practices, and all practices are material … Both the ideological and the theoretical are redefined as practices which produce particular products and, as such, are as much material forces as are economic and political practices.5

Therefore it becomes possible to rationalise the May events of 1968: eg, in the words of comrade Macnair himself, as “plain spontaneism or anarcho-syndicalism” (cf the official communist view!).6 Would it not be better to argue that 1968 was an incipient social revolution which would have had a very good chance of succeeding, had the Parti Communiste Français, which was a mass workers’ party, been revolutionary? Surely that is the point!

(ii) Poststructuralism also rejects the idea of the human as a potentially centred and self-determining subject.

(iii) It is influenced by aspects of Kantian philosophy (in particular, the idea that, although objective reality exists, it can never be fully knowable), along with Nietzsche’s attack on “repressive reason”. Consider the example of Foucault (one of the ‘big four’). In an early essay, he focuses on Nietzsche’s Genealogy of morals, wherein “he recounts ‘the long story of how responsibility originated. [That] a reflexive relation to the self, and in particular an internalised moral concept of behaviour, can only be inculcated through threats and violence.’”7 But, following Nietzsche, true human freedom is to be found in instinctiveness: “The hostility towards self which is the foundation of moral consciousness, the torment of which [he] contrasts favourably with the ‘naive joy and innocence of the animal’.”8

(iv) Given its anti-foundationalist approach, in its search for a new humanist theory, poststructuralism descends into the “logics of disintegration” and becomes complicit with the capitalist system itself: ie, as a set of intellectual ideas, it dovetails nicely with a society dominated by the commodity form within a market structure. Yet the latter is an example par excellence of instrumental reason (as Adorno correctly points out). It subordinates the human to “production for production’s sake”. Therefore, from the standpoint of the human it is irrational and destructive of both man and the environment. Thus, as an unintentional consequence poststructuralist ideas end up reflecting the irrational basis of capitalism: ie, they end up being anti-human, which is indeed ironic. (See my comments on Lyotard below.)

The ‘big four’

What follows, of course, is only a summary. Poststructuralism came about mainly as a result of the work of the following, the ‘big four’:

(i) In the 1950s, Lacan started to work through structuralism and ended up overturning Freud’s ‘biologism’: cf Merleau Ponty, who “seeks to blunt the edge of Freud’s reductionism, arguing in The phenomenology of perception, that the significance of psychoanalysis is less to make psychology biological than to find a dialectical process in functions thought of as ‘purely bodily’, and to reintegrate sexuality into the human being.”9 But for Lacan, “Bodily functions no longer play a central role”; rather they become “sites of intersubjective negotiation”.10 The stick between biological and psychological/social factors begins to be pushed towards the latter. This is fine, unless there is a separation between the two, which destroys the dialectical relationship.

(ii) In 1967 Derrida provided a critique of structuralism; but in the process he substitutes relativism for the objectivity of concepts: “speech constitutes the object”, but it is based on the notion of différence; instead we have “intertextuality”, whereby the meaning of the text is “modulated by other contiguous texts” (ie, the “endlessness of meaning”).11

(iii) Writing in the 1970s, Foucaultdevelops a central theme: “order is motivated, at the most fundamental level, by a fear of the chaotic”. Echoing Lacan, he argues:

Biological theories of sexuality, juridical conceptions of the individual, forms of administrative control in modern nations, led ... to rejecting the idea of a mixture of the sexes in a single body, and consequently limiting free choice of … individuals. Henceforth everybody [had to have] only one sex.12

For Foucault, sexuality (sexual stereotypes) are imposed on the subject by “the side of power” (cf Nietzsche). This is relativism (ie, it is one-sided, and serves the interests of those in power). But what is the alternative? As Dews explains, his “relativism clashes with his political commitments”. Therefore in order to contest the ‘truth’, he has to resort or appeal to “some ‘prediscursive experience’, or natural reality outside of all perspectives”.13

(iv) Lyotard abandoned Marxism after 1968. He correctly concludes that modernisation goes hand in hand with the expansion of the market economy:

commodification is an ambivalent, double-edged process. But because it continuously overthrows and desacralises tradition, the expansion of the commodity form has a liberating, ‘revolutionary’ effect … is most tangible in the ceaseless experimentation of modernist art. Yet the capitalist labour process also abstracts from the living individual, absorbing libidinal energy into the indifferent circuits of commodity exchange …. By the time of Economie libidinale (1974) … the sign - whether word or commodity - is portrayed as always invested in the libido. Thus, just as Foucault concludes that liberation is a form of servitude, since our apparently ‘natural’ sexuality is the product of power, so Lyotard discovers servitude is a form of liberation, since even the anonymity and indifference of the commodity form can function as a conductor of libidinal ‘intensity’!14

But on the other side of the Atlantic similar developments were taking place within philosophy - ie, parallel to the French ‘school’. Here too anti-foundationalism had come back into fashion. To return to Rorty’s Philosophy and the mirror of nature, this may be summarised as follows.

(i) He challenges Kant’s idea that there is a permanent historical framework for the theory of knowledge.

(ii) Also Locke and Descartes, who argue that knowledge is a set of ideas which faithfully mirror external nature; that there are objective truths that exist prior to scientific discovery, which lead to indisputable insights, both before and after discovery (eg, some of the ideas of Aristotle, which he developed over 2000 years ago).

(iii) Rorty argues that (i) and (ii) is not realism, only a “metaphor of seeing”. Therefore if philosophy is to progress, it must rid itself of this metaphor.

(iv) Language is not a matter of representation, but of conversation: “Language is a tool, not a mirror” (cf the hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer: “meaning cannot be grasped from outside … there are only interpretations”).

(iv) The philosopher “can only prolong the conversation between various discourses”. Therefore it is “improbable that any final agreement will be reached”.

(v) Taken things to an extreme, Rorty has been accused of “absolute relativism, in which no value-judgments can be made about anything”.15 From a Marxist standpoint, all this is equivalent to a movement from dialectical materialism to subjective idealism and relativism.


From a foundationalist perspective, poststructuralism marks a return to the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus, whereby reality is reduced to “atomistic small bits that combine and repel in a void”; hence it is difficult to account for “the persisting natures of things, species and genera on that basis”.16

Ipso facto we have the basis for the “logics of disintegration”. As Marxists we should not be ‘buying into’ any of this - that is, if we wish to remain foundationalists, which is where Marxism comes from. If we choose the former, then we are helping to dig Marxism’s grave.

Let us start with Marx himself: it was he who gave material form to essentialism, based on his reading of Aristotle:

(i) The concept of essence states that there can be no account of any entity, “without admitting a category of form (or essence), because what a thing is, and what things of its kind are, cannot possibly be explained in terms of their constituent matter (atoms); since that changes while the entity retains its nature and identity over time” (eg, the natural human body). “A whole entity can be anything from an amoeba to a form of human society, or an astronomical system.”17

(ii) Marx also makes use of the Aristotelian concept of telos: “the form or … condition towards which an entity develops by its nature [cf necessity], unless its development is interrupted (either by external accident, or, in the case of a nature which contains a constitutive contradiction, by the way in which that contradiction develops)”.18

As I have argued previously in this paper (Letters, December 7 2017), because Marx gives his own concept of telos a material form, there is no question of a guiding intelligence other than humankind itself. Therefore, if the subjective factor (revolutionary consciousness) is absent, especially at critical moments, history is prone to accidents which frustrate its necessary development. In regard to the latter, its importance is clearly expressed by Marx himself in his Preface to the critique of political economy - a mature work, published in 1859:

A social formation never comes to an end before all the forces of production which it can accommodate are developed, and new, higher relations of production never come into place before the material conditions of their existence have gestated in the womb of the old society … Bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production … growing out of the conditions of life in society for individuals, but at the same time the productive forces which are developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the resolution of the antagonism. With that social formation the pre-history of human society draws to a close.19

Marx, of course, was not a determinist, who relied solely on the objective forces of history. He gave equal emphasis to the necessity for the subjective factor as well - ie, the need for “communist consciousness” (defined in the German ideology as the consciousness of “the necessity of a fundamental revolution”.) The future is not decided. Thus Marx was the first to introduce the idea, ‘either socialism or barbarism’:

On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces which no epoch of former human history had ever expected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman empire. In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary … this antagonism between the productive forces and the social relations of our epoch is a fact, palpable, overwhelming and not to be controverted.20

Let me return to that other factor within Marxist historiography: ie, the role of accident in history. In the epoch of capitalist decline, which was well under way by the early 20th century, the October revolution occurred at the right time, but in the wrong place. This was, of course, a consequence of the betrayal of German social democracy in 1914 (see my letter in Weekly Worker December 7 2017). Suffice to say that accidents of history can frustrate necessity: ie, the social revolution itself.

Waves of feminism

Strictly speaking, comrade Macnair’s account of the waves of feminism is correct: therefore in my first article, I was wrong to attribute the ‘first wave’ to the rise of socialist feminism in the 1970s (whereas this dates back to the 1800s!).

But he should have realised that my intention was to highlight the importance of socialist feminism to Marxism and the revolution. It grew out of Marxist studies in the 1960s - eg, the work of Juliet Mitchell - although it was developed further by women’s experience of their own struggles within Marxist groups in the 60s and 70s (I am speaking from first-hand experience of the International Marxist Group here, before it degenerated!). They were right to demand women’s caucuses in order to combat male sexist behaviour within an erstwhile revolutionary party.

Socialist feminism, of course, stands for the need of both men and woman to struggle against patriarchy, as an ideology and form of behaviour, whereby men seek to oppress women sexually, and in many other ways as well. Therefore patriarchy creates a primary division within all class societies, which is why it became a pillar of capitalist rule. However, because it is socially constructed, it can be overturned in the struggle for socialism. But in the epoch of capitalist decay - ie, today - political correctness has morphed into an ideology which asserts that ‘men are the problem’. This can only deepen the divisions within the working class and make it even harder to rebuild class-consciousness.

But surely I was right in my account of second- and third-wave feminism; therefore it is comrade Macnair who is wrong: In a recent article,21 he attributes “identity politics”, “political correctness” and “second-wave feminism” to the rise of

the soft Maoist left [my emphasis] in the United States, which grew out of the black civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. Radical feminism - the claim that gender oppression underlies class and is more structurally fundamental - began with Kate Millett’s Sexual politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The dialectic of sex, both published in 1970.

He should have added that they then went on to say that women must break with men, which is why we call them radical feminists. But the real point here is the fact that Maoism is a variant of Stalinism. No wonder they got it wrong theoretically! In this case, one can see a direct link between Stalinism and new forms of politics, coincidental with the rise of poststructuralism, whose ideas would provide a platform for third-wave feminism and identity politics.

Therefore it is disingenuous on Macnair’s part to insinuate that, “muddled or otherwise”, when I use the expression of “waves”, I am reinforcing the “construction of a teleology (in the bad sense), in which each ‘wave’ is better than its predecessor”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Given my support for the idea of socialist feminism, as opposed to my critique of second- and third-wave feminism, especially the latter, clearly I am inferring that second- and third-wave feminism are yet another example of a negative dialectic at work.

However, comrade Macnair is right to point out that second-wave feminism is exemplified by women such as Kate Millett: ie, her notion that Lawrence’s, Miller’s and Mailer’s “depictions of sexuality are deeply rooted in fear of femininity and express a murderous urge to suppress it”; therefore a “puritan revulsion” from heterosexuality is appropriate; otherwise women are “defiled”.22 Camilla Paglia is another example of this tendency.

It is entirely their right to come to these conclusions and to develop a lifestyle contrary to the heterosexual majority. But, as Marxists, we also have the right to criticise them in open debate. Macnair is correct when he says that Paglia “has criticisms of ‘poststructuralism’ and of ‘transgenderism’ along lines very similar to comrade Dunn’s - if from a libertarian (and imperialist culture-warrior) angle rather than a Marxist one”. On the other hand, I would argue that it is not necessary to change one’s sex in order to combat sexual stereotypes. Rather the fight to change society is more important! As for the third wave, there is no need for me to repeat what I have said already in my previous article.


Contra crude reductionism: vis-à-vis Wittgenstein and Heidegger, as the forerunners of anti-foundationalism and modern hermeneutics, both were working independently of the Marxist tradition (albeit not oblivious to the rise of Stalinism: eg, the purges of the 1930s): ie, within the sphere of speculative philosophy or metaphysics (which includes Nietzsche’s revolt against “repressive reason”). Post-1968 their ideas gained currency among the founders of poststructuralism (eg, the work of Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard).

This may be seen as part of a reaction to the determinist and anti-humanist claims of Stalinist ‘diamat’, in the first instance, followed by its offshoot, Althusserian structuralism (ie, closed, inflexible systems, which originated under the auspices of bureaucratic centralism). Thus the sceptical theoreticians of poststructuralism reject the idea of a centred human subject (ie, one who is able to develop a consciousness that, since it is man-made, society must be radically changed, and which can be shared collectively). Whereas Rorty is a cold war ideologue, who is “bitterly hostile to Marxism”, arguing that “American democracy is the best sort of society to have been invented”.23

Fundamentally, if it was not for Stalinism’s repressive role - as exemplar of arguably the worst form of barbarism in modern times, which has left a poisonous legacy, the ideological equivalent of the fallout from a nuclear explosion - 1968 might have turned out differently. Therefore we would not have had the rise of poststructuralism, the “logics of disintegration”, which provides a basis for third-wave, if not second-wave, feminism (since the latter still adheres to the biological origins of sex and gender). So now we have to deal with the new political forms or identity politics as well.

Last but not least, the ideology of political correctness has degenerated into the idea that ‘men are the problem’, which is oversimplified and a danger to man as a ‘species being’. Therefore by one means or another, if not directly, poststructuralism and its offshoots emerged as the dominant intellectual currency. Today it may be spent as an intellectual force, but its raison d’être makes it difficult for “the logic of disintegration to be resisted on logical grounds”24 - ie, for a return to foundationalism within philosophy, along with the need for Marxism as a totalising theory.

Thus we must wait for another 1968. But we have to build strong Marxist parties first, because they need to be in place before this happens. Otherwise history will repeat itself - there is the rub!

Meanwhile, on the one hand, capitalism continues to decline, whilst, on the other, society as a whole continues to disintegrate l



1. ‘Poststructuralism and decline’ Weekly Worker November 23 2017.

2. M Macnair, ‘Historical inaccuracies and theoretical overkill’ Weekly Worker November 30 2017; P Demarty, Letters Weekly Worker December 7 2017.

3. D Lacey Dictionary of critical theory London 2001. See sections on Wittgenstein, Heidegger and hermeneutics.

4. Ibid (see ‘Poststructuralism’).

5. T Lovell Pictures of reality London 1983, p31.

6. M Macnair op cit.

7. P Dews Logics of disintegration London 1990, p156.

8. Ibid p 156.

9. Ibid p68.

10. Ibid p64.

11. Ibid pp9,10,11.

12. Ibid p166.

13. Ibid p189.

14. Ibid p166.

15. D Lacey op cit. See section on Richard Rorty.

16. S Meikle Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx Illinois 1985, p9.

17. Ibid glossary, pp177-78. See also Meikle’s explanation of Marx’s approach to the value-form: the latter metamorphoses and becomes the basis of the various epochs, “until it … universalises itself over the whole of society with the attainment of its final form, capital, where the supply of labour itself has the value form thrust upon it.” After that it can only decline (p10).

18. Ibid p179 (my emphasis).

19. T Carver(ed) Marx, later political writings Cambridge 1996, pp160-61.

20. K Marx, ‘Speech on the anniversary of the people’s paper’ in Marx-Engels On Britain Moscow 1962, pp466-67.

21. Weekly Worker November 30 2017.

22. D Lacey op cit. See section on Kate Millett.

23. Ibid. See section on Richard Rorty.

24. P Dews op cit preface, pix.