In Defense of Grand Narratives

Restoring big ideas.

Postmodernists oppose “grand narratives,” and perhaps the “grandest” of all “narratives” was authored by Karl Marx, that of the proletariat taking power and creating a society in which all individuals can develop their talents to their fullest. For postmodernists, this is mere verbiage which masks an extension of Enlightenment rationality that serves to legitimize political power and oppression. Where Marxists (critically) defend science, rationality, the idea of an objective, knowable world, and human subjectivity, postmodernists proclaim the impossibility of objective truth, the absence of a pregiven human subject, and that all social movements or societies which seek scientific knowledge or objective truth lead to yet more oppression. The class struggle and socialism are particular examples of such “metanarratives,” and in any event have become outmoded.

One can effectively argue against such notions, and Marxists have often done so. That said, there are aspects of the postmodernist critique of Marxism that deserve greater scrutiny. It is true, after all, that no matter how much anti-Stalinist Marxists actively opposed the rulers of the Soviet Union and like states, those rulers spoke in the name of Marxism. Foucault is not wrong to ask what in the works of Marx “could have made the Gulag possible” — or, to put it in more materialist terms, what in those texts could have been used to justify the Gulag.1 In this spirit, this article will attempt to discern what is valid and invalid in the postmodernist critique of Marxism, and, moreover, if what is valid in the critique of Marxism (as popularly presented) is valid as a critique of the thought of Marx himself.

Why does this matter? Because the core of the Marxian understanding of capitalism — that it is a system of production for the sake of production in which all of life is increasingly subordinated to the needs of capital accumulation, where human life itself is reduced to a “production cost” — remains as true as ever. Yet Marxism is hardly the dominant trend within the so-called “anti-globalization” movement today. The movement is divided between those who are only opposed to neoliberalism, or “globalization,” and those with an explicitly anti-capitalist viewpoint. Many of the anti-capitalists are anarchists who eschew Marxism due to the authoritarianism of both the Communist party states and the innumerable avowedly Marxist sects, both Stalinist and anti-Stalinist.

But the anarchist critique of capitalism is almost purely moral, whereas Marx’s critique of political economy represents a move away from such moralism. It is an advance over the mere “capitalism is bad, let’s overthrow it” mindset because it recognizes the need to understand the system to make its overthrow possible. Marx provides a theory of capitalist development that recognizes that capitalism is a system of class rule that has arisen from a previous class society but which is more dynamic than any before it. And while postmodernism does not directly influence most left-wing radicalism today, the postmodernist evocation of “micropolitics” is akin, though not identical, to the anarchist repulsion towards power in general.2 But as Stephen Eric Bronner rightly says, it is deeply misguided to see power “as a quantum in which less of it is good and more of it is bad: the issue is not the concentration of power, but its accountability.”3 A movement that rejects seeking power is ultimately rejecting the possibility of lasting radical change. Whatever their flaws, Marxists always understood this.

Enlightenment as Domination

The embryo of the postmodernist critique of Marxism can be found in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Adorno and Horkheimer had themselves been Marxists at the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt, Germany. The Marxism of this school was profoundly shaped by the failure of the Bolshevik revolution to set off a world revolution, the rise of Stalinism and fascism, and the political failures of the working class. In particular, despite the generally pro-socialist politics of the German working class, the Nazis still managed to take power. Talk of the inevitability of socialism — a hallmark of both Second and Third International Marxism — no longer seemed even slightly credible.

Rather than seeing the Great Depression, Stalinism and fascism as signs of the decline of capitalism, as Marxists of all stripes did at the time, Adorno and Horkheimer claimed they were the results of the rationalist mode of thinking introduced by the Enlightenment. As they saw it, the Enlightenment desire to control and dominate nature with reason was now being turned on humanity itself. Reason, they claimed, was being used to justify Nazi barbarism and world war. When Nazi experimentation on Jews, homosexuals, and others is done in the name of science, a critique of science — and technology and instrumental reason — seems apt. Hence the statement that “For Enlightenment whatever does not conform to the rule of calculability and utility is suspect . . . Enlightenment is totalitarian.”4

If the class struggle had once been the motor force of history, Adorno and Horkheimer claimed it was no longer so. The primary conflict in the modern world was now one of humanity as a whole versus non-human nature. The objectification of nature that emerged from the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ultimately led to the objectification of humanity itself in the manner of Nazi “scientific” experimentation. If there is a direct line of continuity from the Enlightenment to Marx then obviously Marx is complicit is this process.

But the argument that the Enlightenment is the cause of totalitarianism is specious. As Kenan Malik explains, “science” in the hands of the Nazis was “the use of the discourse of science to give legitimacy to irrational, unscientific arguments . . . To engage in mass extermination it was necessary [for Nazis] to believe that the objects of that policy were less than human . . . to say that it was a rationally conceived plan is to elevate the prejudices of the Third Reich to the status of scientific knowledge.”5 In Marx’s case, while he is certainly an heir of Enlightenment thought, his concept of “species-being,” derived from German idealism, exempts him from any one-sidedness and linear, mechanistic assertion of “progress” that characterized Enlightenment materialism. As Marshall Berman argues, to see Marx as glorifying the conquest of nature fails to discern that

If Marx is fetishistic about anything, it is not work and production but rather the far more complex and comprehensive ideal of development — “the free development of physical and spiritual energies” (1844 manuscripts) . . . Marx wants to embrace Prometheus and Orpheus; he considers communism worth fighting for, because for the first time in history it could enable men to have both . . . He knew that the way beyond the contradictions would have to lead through modernity, not out of it.6

No crude Promethean would write, as Marx does, that “man lives from nature means that nature is his body with which he must maintain a constant interchange if so as not to die. That man’s physical and intellectual life depends on nature merely means that nature depends on itself, for man is a part of nature.”7

Postmodernism against Productivism

However, the “productivist” version of Marxism so often attacked by postmodernists cannot be said to have been purely the invention of the Second and Third Internationals. Various writings by Marx give the impression that he considers material production to be the sole and autonomous motor force of history, and consciousness a mere “reflex” and “echo”: “In this framework, relations of authority and the ideational forms of social intercourse can be analyzed solely in terms of whether they foster or fetter the development of the forces to the progressive technological self-objectification of the species.”8 Marx writes in The German Ideology that

These various conditions, which appear first as conditions of self-activity, later as fetters upon it, form in the whole evolution of history a coherent series of forms of intercourse, the coherence of which consists in this: in the place of an earlier form of intercourse, which has become a fetter, a new one is put, corresponding to the more developed productive forces and, hence, to the advanced mode of the self-activity of individuals — a form which in its turn becomes a fetter and is then replaced by another. Since these conditions correspond at every stage to the simultaneous development of the productive forces, their history is at the same time the history of the evolving productive forces taken over by each new generation, and is, therefore, the history of the development of the forces of the individuals themselves.9

It is not difficult to see how such texts could be interpreted as “a kind of technological evolutionism, where socialism becomes the enforced result of the irresistible advance of the capitalist productive forces themselves, and revolution becomes simply the moment of transition . . . to the unfettered development of the productive capacity of the species.”10

Jean Baudrillard aims his barbs in The Mirror of Production at precisely this “Marxist” productivism. His fundamental argument is put forth in the book’s first chapter, “The Concept of Labor”:

Radical in its logical analysis of capital, Marxist theory nonetheless maintains an anthropological consensus with the options of Western rationalism in its definitive form acquired in eighteenth century bourgeois thought. Science, technique, progress, history — in these words we have an entire civilization that comprehends itself as producing its own development and takes its dialectical force toward completing humanity in terms of totality and happiness. Nor did Marx invent the concept of genesis, development and finality. He changed nothing basic: nothing regarding the idea of man producing himself in his infinite determination, and continually surpassing himself toward his own end.11

Baudrillard is correct to challenge the assumption that liberating productive forces equals liberating humanity. It is a logic that led Marx to write articles for the New York Daily Tribune that come close to apologias for British rule in India, “progressive” in its development of the productive powers. It led Lenin to praise German capitalism’s productive infrastructure and Taylorist scientific management, to claim that ultimately “productivity of labor is the most important, the principal thing for the victory of the new social system. Capitalism created a productivity of labor unknown under serfdom. Capitalism can be utterly vanquished by socialism creating a new and much higher productivity of labor.”12 It led Trotsky to define Stalinist Russia as a “workers’ state,” albeit a “degenerated” one, precisely because it was developing productive forces while capitalism had entered its stage of “decline” and “decay.”13

But Marx himself can hardly be said to be an unambiguous productivist. Since the publication of “Theses on Feuerbach,” the Grundrisse and the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, and the unearthing of the Hegelian influence on Capital, it has been clear that Marx’s desire to maximize production is subservient to his goal to establish a world society in which all people can develop their talents and abilities to their fullest. Dreams of transcending scarcity aside, it became obvious that Marx did not see human beings as mere production machines. Baudrillard has nothing to say on this tension in Marx’s work; for him, Marxism invariably “assists the cunning of capital.”14

Baudrillard contends, in the chapter “Historical Materialism and Primitive Societies,” that Marxism is incapable of understanding primitive societies. It “rewrit[es] History through the mode of production.”15 Failing to break from the framework of political economy, Marxism cannot see primitive societies’ irreducibility to production: “The magical, the religious, and the symbolic are relegated to the margins of the economy. And even when the symbolic formations expressly aim, as in primitive exchange, to prevent the emergence with the rise of economic structures of a transcendent social power . . . things are arranged nonetheless to as to see a determination by the economic in the last instance.”16 Baudrillard locates Marxism within the history of Western notions of science being used to oppress the primitive:

Western culture was the first to critically reflect upon itself (beginning in the 18th century). But the effect of this crisis was that it reflected on itself also as a culture in the universal, and thus all other cultures were entered in its museum as vestiges of its own image. It “estheticized” them, reinterpreted them on its own model, and thus precluded the radical interrogation of these “different” cultures implied for it. The limits of this culture “critique” are clear: its reflection on itself leads only to the universalization of its own principles. Its own contradictions lead it, as in the previous case, to the world-wide economic and political imperialism of all modern capitalist and socialist Western societies.17

Marxism is therefore supposedly as guilty as its bourgeois opponents in miscomprehending societies “without history,” trying to place them within the context of political economy and therefore just as guilty of racism and ethnocentrism.

But Baudrillard draws no distinction between thought and practice. It was not the ideas of the classical political economists that led to colonialism. Their theories were generated after colonialism was already a long-established fact. Colonialism sprang from capitalism’s expansionary dynamic, its need to force “all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production,” and would have done so even if Adam Smith had never put pen to paper.18 Baudrillard fails to note that Marx and Engels both considered the communal forms of organization of peoples such as the North American Iroquois to be forerunners of communism, as Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks make clear.19 More famously, between 1878 and 1881 Marx considered that Russia might be able to “jump over” the capitalist stage of history through its communes (obshchina) and “pass directly to the higher form of communist common ownership.”20 The “stage” theory of history of “official Communism,” an easy target for Baudrillard and postmodernists in general, cannot be reconciled with Marx’s hopes for the Russian communes.

Class Reductionism?

Michel Foucault’s dispute with Marxism rests less on its supposed productivism and more with what he considers its inability “to go beyond the mode of production to make intelligible the forms of domination that emerge at other points in social space and, in addition, to regard these forms of domination as conceptually distinct from the relations of production.”21 Echoing Nietzsche, Foucault sees the class struggle as only one example of a more fundamental impulse in humanity, the “will to power.” He refuses to “take sides” between repression and the “power” wielded by social movements that resist it. Moreover, he refuses to classify those power relationships politically, socially or morally. Foucault specifically rejects the idea of the human subject: “The individual is not a pre-given entity which is seized on by the exercise of power. The individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces.”22

The Marxist response to Foucault begins with the question “where does the will to power originate?” If it is a biologically determined human trait, and it underpins all social conflict, then humanity is genetically damned to suffer oppression. Foucault, and postmodernism in general, offer little more than a reworked version of the religious theory of original sin. But if the will to power has social roots, then it is already called into question as the essential category. What in society produces and reproduces this will? What exists before it? Where does the “power struggle” come from?

Foucault sees the effects of the rise of capitalism on human relations, not just at the level of class struggle, but in the sphere of punishment, training, social oppression and sexual repression. He argues that while feudalism had imposed a political power relationship from above, rising capitalism imposed “self-discipline” through a variety of new social institutions:

This new mechanism of power is more dependent upon bodies and what they do than upon the earth and its products. It is a mechanism of power which permits time and labour, rather than wealth and commodities, to be extracted from bodies. It is a type of power which is constantly exercised by means of surveillance rather than in a discontinuous manner by means of a system of levies or obligations distributed over time. It presupposes a tightly knit grid of material coercions rather than the physical existence of a sovereign. It is ultimately dependent on the principle that one must be able simultaneously both to increase the subjected forces and to improve the force and efficacy of that which subjects them.23

These observations are raised to the position of a theory, explicitly opposed to the class struggle as an explanation of historical change: “One should not assume a massive and primal condition of domination, a binary structure with ‘dominators’ on one side and ‘dominated’ on the other, but rather a multiform production of relations of domination.”24 But who is the “one” who must be able to increase the numbers of those dominated while increasing the force that dominates them? Who are the dominated?

Foucault’s argument against Marxism rests on the allegation that Marxism reduces history to just one set of power relationships — class structure — whereas “power” itself is a more elemental category. But Marx himself, at least, did not do this. For Marx the fundamental human category is not class struggle, nor power, but labor. Because people have to labor to live (regardless of what Baudrillard may write), and because their labor is social, they create societies as a means to implementing labor. Marxism does not have to disregard or reject a connection between power structures and human biology, as Foucault does. Marxism sees human beings as social animals and can comprehend power relationships in relation to the most fundamental human activity — social labor.

Marxism — intelligent Marxism, at least — does not reduce all power struggles to class. It “merely” asserts that social struggles can be defined in relation to class. Carol A. Stabile explains:

. . . the three main charges leveled against [Marxism] . . . [are] that it is “reductive,” that it is “too universalistic,” and that it fails to consider female labor. On the first point, the general claim is that historical materialism reduces structures of oppression to class exploitation, thereby ignoring or minimizing sexism, racism, and homophobia. While it is certainly true that historical materialism places relations of production at the foundation of society, there is nothing simple or reductive about how these relations structure oppression. Rather, historical materialist analyses, instead of examining only one form of oppression . . . would explore the way they all function within the overarching system of class domination in determining women’s and men’s life choices. Sweatshop workers in New York City, for example, experience sexism and racism in quantitatively and qualitatively different ways than do middle class women. The racism directed at poor African-American youths occurs in a different context than that directed at African-American women in the academy . . . by situating both forms [of oppression] within the material context and historical framework in which they occur, we can highlight the variable discriminatory mechanisms that are central to capitalism as a system.25

In the end, not only is Foucault’s critique of Marxism a failure, but his “reduction” of all inequalities to the concept of power is not a reduction at all, but a mystification. It cannot explain the reasons for power without reference to power. And unlike Marx, Foucault does not offer an alternative to the relationship of oppressors and oppressed.


The postmodernist attack on Marxism conflates the crudities of “Marxism-Leninism” with the thought of Marx himself. Its critique of Enlightenment rationality fails on its own terms, but it also fails to discern Marx’s break with his Enlightenment forebearers. Marx’s goal — the emancipation of the human individual from need and the flowering of “rich individuality” — is not that of rationalism, Hegelianism or classical political economy. It is not assured by the rationality and all-knowing totality of the theoretical system, but can only be accomplished through struggle.

It was chiefly the (anti-Stalinist) Marxist Left that actively opposed the truly reactionary “metanarratives” of the twentieth century: Social Darwinism, national chauvinism, fascism, Cold War liberalism, even Stalinism. Marxism provides a more lucid critique of “metanarratives” where they serve as justification for oppression than does postmodernism, including where — as in the case of Stalinism — that “metanarrative” is a degeneration originating in the Marxist movement itself. Whether the world’s workers fulfill what Marx had hoped was their “historic destiny” — to overthrow capitalism and usher in communism — remains to be seen. The teleological aspects of Marxism are open to critique. But Marx’s work still provides, simultaneously, the only coherent critique of Enlightenment rationality with the notion that the Enlightenment was, in fact, a good thing.


  1. Michel Foucault, in Colin Gordon, ed., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 135.
  2. See, for example, John Holloway, Change The World Without Taking Power — The Meaning of Revolution Today (London: Pluto, 2002).
  3. Stephen Eric Bronner, Socialism Unbound, 2nd Edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001), p. 168.
  4. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1976), p. 12.
  5. Kenan Malik, “The Mirror of Race: Postmodernism and the Celebration of Difference,” in Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster, eds., In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), p. 127.
  6. Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), pp. 126-29.
  7. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (London: Oxford Press, 2000), p. 81.
  8. Carmen Sirianni, Workers Control and Socialist Democracy: The Soviet Experience (New York: Verso, 1982), p. 249.
  9. Marx, “The German Ideology,” op cit., pp. 180-81.
  10. Sirianni, op cit., p. 250.
  11. Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975), pp. 32–33.
  12. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works (London: Progress Publishers, 1964), p. 427.
  13. “Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface — not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity.” Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), p. 8.
  14. Baudrillard, op cit., p. 31.
  15. Ibid, p. 69.
  16. Ibid, p. 87.
  17. Ibid, p. 89.
  18. Marx, “The Communist Manifesto,” op cit., p. 225.
  19. See Franklin Rosemont, “Karl Marx and the Iroquois,” available online at <>.
  20. Marx, “Preface to the Russian Edition of the Communist Manifesto,” op cit., p. 584.
  21. Mark Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984), p. 107.
  22. Foucault, op cit., p. 74.
  23. Ibid, p. 104.
  24. Ibid, p. 142.
  25. Carol A. Stabile, “Postmodernism, Feminism, and Marx: Notes From the Abyss,” in Wood and Foster, eds., op cit., pp. 142-43.