In this paper, I want to tackle some of the underlying issues around ‘post-Marxism’ in contemporary social theory, using just one exemplar of this emerging framework, namely Michèle Barrett’s book The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault.footnote1 The rationale for this limited focus is that the field of ‘post-Marxism’ in sociological, educational, feminist and cultural studies is now extensive, and it is consequently rather easy—but also somewhat unsatisfactory—to take a ‘scatter-gun’ approach to the central questions by citing many authors and gesturing at general tendencies. It seems to me better to anchor the discussion of those tendencies in a single text like Barrett’s, partly because she is a widely respected commentator, and partly because the area she deals with—the theory of ideology—remains of particular importance to the self-image of radical critics.

One of my overarching themes is to suggest that post-Marxist critiques of historical materialism and class analysis tend to be couched as rejections of the type of theory that Marxism is thought to represent, or as drastic temperings of its explanatory scope, rather than being outright dismissals of substantive Marxist propositions and analytic concerns. That is why the arguments for post-Marxism tend to hang more on pejorative characterizations of general conceptual effects/strategies such as Marxism’s alleged ‘reductionism’, ‘functionalism’, ‘essentialism’, and ‘universalism’, than on the denial of particular historical materialist postulates, such as the systematically capitalist nature of the modern industrial order, which few post-Marxists seriously question.

The second component of my argument is to point out that although these discursive effects of ‘modernist’ theorizing—reductionism, essentialism, and so on—are nowadays treated in the post-Marxist literature almost as unpardonable gaffes or ‘sins’, they are seldom analyzed in a fine-grained way. Moreover, where they are more than gesturally featured, the evident continuing complexity of these explanatory issues tends to undercut the somewhat dismissive surface rhetoric of the critics. Thus, in Michèle Barrett’s book a minor key of uncertainty and retrieval runs alongside the major key of renunciation. The dominant ‘voice’ in the book is one which appears unambiguously to reject Marxist theories of ideology. Thus, the author holds that ‘in recent years, the whole paradigm within which the debate has occurred has been extensively and tellingly criticized’, to the point where we must accept that ‘the materialist (in practice economic reductionist) premises of Marxism are inadequate as a basis for thinking about political, cultural and social life in a late twentieth-century whose “determinations” are so different from those of mid nineteenth-century manufacturing capitalism.’footnote2 As a general theoretical problematic, Marxism is therefore held to be ‘woefully inadequate’.footnote3 As a political theory, it has gone beyond the ‘breaking point’ of ‘viability’ on the brink of which Gramsci had left it.footnote4 Marxism’s class-theoretical model of ideology, for its part, now ‘does not work very well’, having been ‘problematized at a very fundamental level’, indeed having ‘collapsed’ alrogether.footnote5 And its understanding of subjectivity in particular has been either non-existent, or ‘lamentable’.footnote6

Taking heart from the fact that the ‘entire field of social theory is being recast in such as way as to take more seriously questions of culture and of subjectivity’, Barrett prefers to understand ideology as a matter of deconstructing the ‘politics of truth’ rather than prolonging ‘Marxism’s obsession with the illusions of “the economics of untruth”.’footnote7 Drawing on some now-familiar postmodernist emphases, she believes that this shift of focus necessitates highlighting the ‘competing, and increasing, attractions of a newly elaborated theory of discourse’.footnote8 One central component of this new discursive perspective would appear to be the Foucauldian strategy of treating all theories, identities and paradigms as regimes of truth, in which the concern to argue about the rights and wrongs of ideologies is replaced by one which latches on to ‘the processes by which effects of truth are secured’.footnote9 Another new dimension is the idea of a pluralized, socialized psychoanalysis: and a further angle is felt to be the need for an understanding of ‘concatenations’ of affective forces which possess ‘a certain force and coherence’ and yet lack ‘a clear motive or logic’—such as ‘world-cup fever’.footnote10

Put this way, the critique of Marxism is uncompromising, and a very positive buzz is created around the possibility of a new alternative perspective. Nevertheless, Barrett—like many of the best post-Marxists—is not, as it happens, so fully committed to the ‘major key’ as she generally appears to be. And, to me, her hesitations signal a commendable awareness that, without some version of the four modernist methodological sins, the very notion of explanation in social theory simply cannot be sustained. So the third and final emphasis in this paper is to say that there is a deeper continuity of concern between classical Marxism and post-Marxism than many on either side are willing to admit. That continuity of concern is partly epistemological—what is to count as social knowledge?—and partly practical: what is such knowledge for? Ironically, of course, post-Marxists have some difficulty in openly admitting the continued relevance of these questions, because both epistemology and ‘rationalist’ visions of intellectual practice stand high on the list of bad old things that need to be quickly superseded.

Of the four sins, ‘reductionism’ is most frequently referred to by Barrett as being very damaging for Marxism. In addition to the general sentiments quoted above, Barrett makes a number of hard-hitting specific adjudications: for example, she expresses serious doubts as to whether the very idea of ideology can in any form survive the taint of ‘economic determinism’ with which Marxism irreversibly glossed the original concept;footnote11 Laclau’s early work is cited as a decisive intervention against reductionism;footnote12 and Lukács and Korsch as well as Gramsci are damned with faint praise for valiantly trying to escape the reductionist problematic of Second International Marxism, but ultimately failing to accomplish that liberation.footnote13 Clearly, Marxism is assumed by the author to engage routinely in reductionism—not even its best practitioners can escape it—and throughout the critical assessment of the historical-materialist tradition, reductionism is portrayed as fairly obviously a bad thing to be caught practising.

One important theoretical issue in assessing the status of the post-Marxist critique of reductionism lies in deciding whether Marxism is being treated as outdated, strictly speaking, or whether the faults that are now apparent were always there but were not always seen. In one of those set-piece statements, for example, it is implied that the world itself has moved on, and so Marxism, which may have been adequate for the analysis of an earlier social formation, is not adequate to the present one, which is characterized by very different ‘determinations’.