Duchamp descending a staircase. Eliot Elisofon. 1952

Foundations in sand

Is poststructuralism purely a reaction to Stalinism? Paul Demarty responds to Rex Dunn

Rex Dunn follows up his previous polemic against so-called ‘poststructuralism’ with another, similar in its essential theses to his previous efforts.1

The basic difficulty with Rex’s account of poststructuralism and its relationship to political history is that he has a very specific story he wants to tell, and continues to repeat doggedly, despite Mike Macnair’s subsequent criticisms. Comrade Dunn’s contends that Marxist theory was poisoned by Stalinist ‘diamat’, that this theoretical legacy, combined with the Parti Communiste Français betrayal of the 1968 insurrection, explains the appeal of poststructuralism to the next generations of radical intellectuals - and that the explicit ‘anti-foundationalism’ of this philosophical outlook in turn authorises forms of feminism and identity politics that do not assign sufficient (or any) weight to human nature. The result is modern forms of political correctness that argue that ‘men are the problem’ and not capitalist class society.2

Indeed, comrade Dunn’s response to criticism seems to be mainly to increase the level of detail in his descriptions of ‘poststructuralism’ and related phenomena - which, however, does not in the end justify his interpretations. Rex labours under fundamental misunderstandings of the milieux that gave birth to ‘poststructuralism’, the significance of the May 1968 événements, and indeed the causal structures of highly abstract ideas like those of the ‘poststructuralists’. Increasing the level of detail might have been a worthwhile approach if he had sat down and read (or reread), in depth, the authors he criticises; instead, we get in the great majority citations from polemicists against them, and polemicists against them en groupe.

I have been careful so far to put scare-quotes around every mention of the word ‘poststructuralism’, for beyond the usual difficulties of naming philosophical schools (participants tend to reject the presumption to ‘put them in a box’), poststructuralism is one of those things that is defined negatively against what it is not, or at least not exactly. There clearly is a unity between them, but there are many kinds of unity; and what kind we are dealing with here is hardly incidental to matters.


So we ought to begin with some cliffnotes intellectual history. There are four essential intellectual contexts for ‘poststructuralism’:

Rex weirdly describes structuralism as a “western philosophical offshoot” of “Stalinist ‘diamat’”, “epitomised by the work of [Louis] Althusser” - basically none of this is true except the word ‘western’. Structuralism is a linguistic theory, not exactly a philosophy, though much philosophy drew on it later; its founding expression, Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in general linguistics, predates not only Stalinism, but the fall of tsarism; its epitomes, in the usual enumeration, would be Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Emile Benveniste and Claude Lévi-Strauss, with Althusser treated more as an exotic piece of fusion cuisine - a ‘structural Marxist’.

The basic idea of structuralism is that no scientific theory is possible of the historical development of language, but it might instead be studied through the systematic relationships between utterances. It is of no consequence how we came to associate the word ‘cat’ with the furry creature made so famous by the internet; but we might come to understand something about humankind in the various differences in signification between it and the word ‘dog’. Jakobson and Benveniste wasted no time in describing some of the more abstruse such structural relationships; Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist, applied the general method to kinship relations and myths. The result, after World War II, was a powerful bourgeois trend in French academic circles, in competition with Marxism, or ‘Stalinist diamat’, according to taste - not a perverted offshoot of it. (There was also cross-pollination - we have mentioned Althusser, but the early work of Roland Barthes is also relevant.)

Phenomenology, on the other hand, clearly was a school of philosophy rather than some other human science; its founder, in the sense we are concerned with here, was Edmund Husserl, a mathematician and philosopher, and his project consisted of deep introspection into the forms of consciousness in abstraction from its content. In Husserl, this endeavour had an almost camply rationalist flavour to it, with a whole Latin vocabulary concocted for the study of mental phenomena. His student, Martin Heidegger, pulled things in a radically different direction. In his thought, phenomenology merges with ultra-reactionary Kulturpessimismus, in a picture of a world whose fundamental experience of things is mutilated by the technocratic banality of modernity. The mission of philosophy is to dig away through these structures of thought, revealing their hidden contradictions, and attempt to live in an authentic pre-rational relationship with the world around us.

I will not discuss in detail this libertine-nihilism, except to emphasise the prominence in poststructuralism of a sort of Dionysiac edge: many of the systems elaborated by structuralism turn out to have, as their unmentionable complement, a core of sex and violence; conversely, such a primitivism of pleasure serves as a destination for thought. We think of Roland Barthes’ ‘The pleasure of the text’, or Lacan’s ‘Kant with Sade’ (frankly, most of Lacan), or Foucault’s ‘research’ for the History of sexuality in the bath houses of San Francisco.

The Marxism of the French scene in this period is presented in Rex’s telling as a matter of ‘Stalinist diamat’ -

... 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.

Certainly, the electoral success and deep organisation of the PCF lent its own intellectual culture pre-eminence within French Marxism; but Rex’s account is radically incomplete if it is supposed to account for the pioneering poststructuralists, who were not in great numbers drawn from the immediate orbit of the PCF. Many came from the ultra-leftist milieu around the Socialisme ou Barbarie group (Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard and Cornelius Castoriadis all served time in ‘SouB’), and many others from Maoist groups like Gauche Prolétarienne (the Maoist wing of the ‘official communist’ student organisation was also a fertile breeding ground, under the influence of Althusser)3.

Here we must offer a very sharp corrective. Apropos of another matter (feminism), Rex remarks of Maoism that “[it] is a variant of Stalinism. No wonder they got it wrong theoretically!” From the point of view of 20th century history, indeed, we must call Maoism a variant of Stalinism. The trouble is that his criticisms of Stalinism are criticisms that do not apply to Maoism. He excoriates Stalinism for selling out in May 1968; but the Maoists were on the streets. He criticises the anti-subjective bias in ‘Stalinist diamat’ - but surely nobody can accuse Maoists of ‘neglecting the subjective factor’, however numerous their sins. (Indeed, Mao already objects to such ‘diamat’ in his criticism of Stalin’s Economic problems of socialism in the USSR,4 before the cultural revolution that provided the immediate context for poststructuralism).

The too-easy dismissal of Maoists as just another bunch of Stalinists, then, leaves Rex guilty of what is called the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy, whereby the terms of debate are craftily redefined during its course. It also leads him to misunderstand the relationship between formal leftwing politics and the emergence of poststructuralism as a phenomenon in the 1960s and 70s. Its initial advocates were not, on the whole, dissidents from the official Stalinist party’s philosophical mainstream, but former devotees of other Marxist trends. Althusser’s political failures in 1968 are important not merely because he was a PCF member, but because he was supposed to be a leftwing rebel.

Rex clings to the idea of 1968 as an opportunity squandered by Stalinist treachery, but, quite apart from the fact that this is merely an empty counterfactual (‘if your mother had balls, she’d be your father’), the spontaneist terms in which he couches this criticism would leave the Maoists, within and without the PCF, as perfectly adequate historical agents; instead of talking about Althusser as a devil figure, he should wish that he had been a more effective factional operator for his politics ... and so on. Clearly that was not the case: there were plenty of organisations in favour of ‘going all the way’.

Shaky foundations

Rex gets himself into hotter water still by adopting the flag of philosophical foundationalism for himself:

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.

This may seem hopelessly vague and overbroad, not to say contradictory - we do not know what an objective theory of knowledge would be, but presumably he means “realist” (the philosophical position that the entities identified by knowledge exist independently of the knower). “Basic insights” being “proved false by reason” must by definition be “called into question”; otherwise, how could the exercise of reason begin? Clause (ii) is a banality; clause (iii) begins “therefore” but the possibility of inference does not imply necessarily a systematic approach to philosophy. Philosophy is “foundational” by virtue of being “grounded in reason”, that is to say, having reason as a foundation, and therefore not being foundational at all.

Yet it all looks very familiar to an old hand at reading the poststructuralists, for this is exactly the amalgam constructed by ‘anti-foundationalists’ in order to lump together Marx, Hegel, Descartes and the pope into one neat package. Rex seems to get his definition from a textbook-style dictionary of critical theory, whereby it is to be expected that poststructuralism will be treated as the state of the art and more ‘advanced’.

On the face of it, this is a quite extraordinary concession to the ‘anti-foundationalists’. The essential untruth of anti-foundationalism is that it is opposed to an amalgam, whereby a host of utterly disparate and entirely incompatible positions are lumped together to make it easier to smear them all en bloc. To take up your position in favour of foundations in general - with the pope, against Lyotard! - is utterly untenable.

When Nazis state that the movement of human society is grounded ultimately in the differences and Darwinian struggle between races, Catholics that human society is grounded ultimately in the supererogatory creative act of an absolute deity, and Marxists that human society is grounded in material nature and fundamental economic relationships between groups of human individuals, it is not the case that all are united on the general point that human affairs are determined by some real thing or another that can be known, or at least identified, but differ on the details: they in fact disagree fundamentally on what it is for something to be founded on or grounded in something else, despite all equally fitting into the big tent of foundationalism. From the point of view of a materialist and realist view of the world, such as orthodox Marxism, Foucauldian discourse analysis and religious cosmology are equally wrong.

It is unfortunately the case that Rex’s errors on this point are not merely a bizarre accident. His explicit polemical support for ‘foundationalism’ is, on one level, a matter of fidelity to the arguments of Scott Miekle and others that Marx is fundamentally ‘Aristotelian’ in his outlook, in which causation must include both the relationships between entities and their inner essences in a dialectical relationship: a defensible Marxological-philosophical position. Yet it is also related to the proximate cause of his objections to ‘anti-foundationalism’: the idea, implied in the poststructuralist progenitors and explicit in their more flamboyant followers, of a radical social constructionism: that human nature exists entirely at the level of discourse, which Rex diagnoses as authorising the current ascendancy of transgender identity politics.

Opposition to the latter is his immediate political point. Yet it does not follow from the fact that there are natural grounds for human relations (in this case gender identity) that those natural grounds are exactly what we think they are, or operate exactly as immediately as we think they do. For the Nazis, transgenderism is a matter of degeneration in the racial stock. For Catholics, it is a matter of insensitivity to the natural law created by God. Among Marxists, there is a great deal of debate as to the sources of gender identity, but surely neither of the previous positions would be acceptable. Yet they (especially the latter) have, at one time or another (and today, in some places), enjoyed the benefits of ‘obvious’ truths.

The foundations of a given phenomenon may not be transparent to us, then. Marxists have the classic example of the fetishism of the commodity: we discover that the essence of the commodity is not at all what we thought it was. Some input to the phenomenon of gender identification must ‘follow the chromosomes’; but we know that much of our picture of gender does not. The crucible in which we sort these things out is the criticism of foundations. We should not be afraid to accompany the ‘anti-foundationalists’ when they demonstrate the unsoundness of some apparent foundation or another. (It is a shame they so often do a poor job.) Whisper it quietly, but they may even be able to teach us a trick or two.

Rex, on the other hand, seems to view these ideas as resulting ultimately in a “danger to man as a ‘species being’” in the form of anti-men ‘political correctness’; but if the realist theory of human species-being is correct, this is simply impossible - one cannot theorise it away. Only by invalidating our successive conceptions of human species-being can we fully understand and indeed become it. Erecting a philosophical fortress around some particular understanding of it is the wrong approach.

The telos

It is worth returning to our earlier discussion of the French scene, for there is a question left unanswered. Why should the ‘three sources and component parts’ - spontaneist libertarianism, both Marxist and decadent-nihilist; the most anti-rationalistic wing of the phenomenologists; the ultra-systematic nostrums of structuralism - have proven such an intellectually combustible mixture?

In truth, there is not much specific to these ideas - other than that they were newish and audacious - that should have caused such a stir. We must think about phenomena such as the emergence of philosophical schools at a much higher level of abstraction than Rex does, hinging everything on the single historical event of May 1968. That said, we must work our way up to that level. There is, as Rex says, a basically invariant human biological nature, in which even the most audacious intellectuals participate; therefore, intellectuals also must eat, and thus must find a place for themselves in the class structure of society.

In capitalist society, that position is - crudely speaking - that of the petty bourgeoisie. (We leave aside the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the working class - surely irrelevant to a discussion of Foucault, Derrida and co.) The petty bourgeoisie, however, is a highly protean class ideologically; its continual dissolution by the automatic mechanism of capitalism, and reconstitution by the painstaking effort of the capitalist state for political reasons, lends a great deal of uncertainty to its outlook, and the possibility of wild political lurches and philosophical positions.

We have spent a great deal of space on the specific intellectual genealogy (to use a favoured term of Foucault’s) of the poststructuralists. Yet Foucault chooses genealogy to emphasise the provisionality of his conclusions, and assert the illegitimacy of more abstract, historical and - quelle horreur! - teleological conceptions of ideological analysis. As Marxists, we have no such qualms. The ideas of poststructuralism are in the end another bracing, fascinating product of a social class whose existence is an unending enactment of Lévi-Strauss’s ‘one myth only’: something dies, and comes back to life again. We should file it with Heidegger, yes, but also theosophy and Russian formalism and Frankfurt School critical theory and Tübingen Catholic nationalism and Methodism and ... in origin, Marxism. We cannot know, in advance, what new ideas will truly revolutionise the intellectual scene, but we expect that new ideas will continue to come forth, without fear, even if many amount merely to quackery. (We can, of course, do our best to build institutions of the working class such that a different and better intellectual culture should emerge.)

We should then ask ourselves honestly whether we should expect poststructuralism to disappear in the event of the proletarian conquest of power - in other words, place ourselves on the other side of Rex’s counterfactual, and wonder whether a European revolution in 1968 would have crushed deconstruction in the egg. Frankly, the historical evidence points elsewhere - reread Trotsky’s Literature and revolution for a picture of the bizarre literary trends unleashed by socialist revolution, even given the severe jeopardy of things at the moment of Trotsky’s writing.5

A truly successful revolution would have a more vibrant and chaotic literary culture still; and no doubt the remaining petty bourgeois intellectuals would make even more interesting moves, as they, slowly, are euthanised as a separate historical layer, and society itself becomes more ludic and intellectually adventurous (“The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx,” Trotsky writes, “and above this ridge new peaks will rise”6).

It is from this point of view - unforgivably teleological, eschatological, etc, as it is - that I, as an individual, evaluate poststructuralism: as a literary tradition, whose great value and most fundamental weaknesses are identical: that is, an unconcern for rigour and consequences. In this regard, Rex is very wrong about Althusser. He is not the epitome of structuralism at all, but a poststructuralist through and through: it is his teaching that philosophy is in the end a matter of the tactical taking of positions, in the fond hope that more knowledge might happen to fall out the other end.7 Such is also the basic orientation of his peers.

Thus the paradox that the very things that make Derrida, Foucault and co a useless guide to political action (the impossibility of assessing the validity of some of their claims, the clear falsity of many of the others, and their apparent unconcern for either of these issues) make for great aesthetic rewards for the generous reader. (It may help to think of Derrida’s works as a vast science-fiction novel about a world in which Derrida’s philosophy is true.)

Poststructuralism conquered the literary academy in the 1970s and 1980s partly as a result of successive political reversals against the Marxist left, partly (it is odd that Rex does not mention this) as a result of major changes in the cultural policy of the US state department, as it shifted its money towards the new right, and partly because, if we want a restricted sphere of human activity where these philosophers’ nostrums about endless signifying chains and perpetually deferred meaning have the most purchase, literature is exactly it. As a school of literary or aesthetic theory, it is surely of no negative consequence: in those other respects, agency lies elsewhere. Rex concludes with the statement that “we have to build strong Marxist parties”, so we do not squander the next 1968. We could not disagree.

But to do so, we need at least some of the spirit of those French oddballs, which they actually inherit from Marx and Hegel and Descartes - the refusal to take the world as it appears for granted, the urge always to turn over the next rock to see what squirms beneath l


1. ‘Understanding poststructuralism’, January 11. His previous article on the subject was ‘Poststructuralism and decline’, November 23.

2. ‘Historical inaccuracies and theoretical overkill’, November 30.

3. Here might be the moment to point out that there were also those among the leading poststructuralists with no leftwing political affiliations - Jacques Derrida only began toying with Marxism a quarter of a century after 1968, and Jacques Lacan was a male-chauvinist Gaullist. The ‘treachery of the PCF’ was surely a matter of indifference, if not relief, to such figures.

4. www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-8/mswv8_66.htm. The very first words state: “Stalin’s book from first to last says nothing about the superstructure. It is not concerned with people; it considers things, not people.”

5. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/index.htm - see especially chapters 2 to 5.

6. Ibid chapter 8.

7. See B Brewster (translator), ‘Lenin and philosophy’ in Lenin and philosophy and other essays New York 2001.