‘Post’ or ‘Past’?: Does Post-Marxism Have Any Future? by Stuart Sim

‘Post’ or ‘Past’?: Does Post-Marxism Have Any Future?

By Stuart Sim


A quarter-century has elapsed since the publication of the work which more than any other established post-Marxism as a brand in its own right on the theoretical spectrum, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Laclau and Mouffe 1985). As I discussed at some length in my book Post-Marxism: An Intellectual History (Sim 2000), we can identify post-Marxist tendencies well before that event, but there is no denying that Laclau and Mouffe’s book served to bring together these somewhat disparate strands into a coherent theoretical position, which many others then proceeded to rally around. The result was a period of bitter infighting on the left, with insults being freely thrown around by those on both sides of the Marxist divide: what was post-Marxist to some was anti-Marxist to others, what was a necessary recognition of a changed global reality to the former was more like a betrayal of the revolutionary cause to the latter (Geras 1987). Nevertheless, post-Marxism was now firmly on the theoretical map, along with a series of other ‘posts’ from the later twentieth century: poststructuralism, postmodernism, post-industrialism, post-feminism, post-humanism, even post-philosophy. ‘Post’ seemed to be very much the flavour of the age, which was developing a very sceptical streak when it came to cultural totems.

Much has happened culturally and politically in the interim (not least the disappearance of the Soviet empire), so it is worth taking stock of what post-Marxism now means and asking whether it has anything of note to contribute to socio-political debate – especially now that communism is no longer a force of any note in the West, and at best a very distorted image of itself in China, where capitalist economics is being openly promoted by the state. (One of the issues I will be considering at a later point in the paper is whether we can consider China to be a post-Marxist phenomenon – and whether that would be a good or a bad thing.) So I am posing the question as to whether there is any future for post-Marxism as a theoretical movement in the twenty-first century: is it still relevant to political debate on the left, or have we moved inexorably from ‘post’ to ‘past’?

Post-Marxism and Postmodernism

Speculating on what the prospects might be for post-Marxism is made all the more problematical given that it is so tied up with the history of postmodernism, the status of which is currently very much under review now that many of its major figures have passed away: Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, Derrida, Baudrillard, for example – all of whom were in dialogue with Marxism to some degree or other over the course of their careers. Post-Marxism from Laclau and Mouffe onwards is very much influenced by postmodern thought (and I include poststructuralism within that general category), and it is motivated by very similar ideals: such as, breaking free from an intellectual tradition felt to be restrictive and authoritarian, and pushing the case for a more pluralist politics where difference and diversity are given their full due instead of being systematically marginalised. But we have to wonder whether postmodernism itself still means all that much, particularly now that its main target, modernity, seems to be in such trouble on the economic front (the term ‘post-postmodernism’ has even been bandied about of late). Neoliberals would certainly agree with Habermas’s contention that ‘modernity is an incomplete project’ (Habermas 1985), and have done their level best to keep it going on the economic front through the insistent spread of market fundamentalist principles and globalization in recent decades. Yet we are all uncomfortably aware of just how much of a mess that project is presently in as national economies collapse around us (with Ireland merely the latest of a growing list of casualties), and it is an interesting question as to whether it can ever reconstruct itself as it was before. Without its economic successes to proclaim, modernity loses much of its cultural authority, since economic growth was always its strongest suit. Indeed, it is entirely possible to argue, and I did so myself in a recent book, that we might actually be witnessing the ‘end’ of modernity (Sim 2010): that it is just no longer sustainable as a system, that its contradictions and limitations have been brutally exposed by the unprecedented severity of the banking crisis we have undergone. A crisis, we have to remember, that we were assured the system had become all but proof against. We could ask where that leaves postmodernism: does it mean it loses its force as a concept as well? Is it locked into a binary relationship with modernism/modernity such that if that can’t survive then it can’t either? I will be returning to this topic in a later section.

Several commentators have already written postmodernism off as a late twentieth-century phenomenon that has now passed its sell-by date and need concern us no longer: Alan Kirby going so far in an article as to proclaim that it’s ‘dead’ (Kirby 2006: 34). I think that judgement is more than a little premature (although I would concede that having just finished editing the 3rd edition of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (Sim 2011) means that I am not exactly an unbiased witness in this respect). However, it does mean that a case has to be argued for its continuing relevance, as it does too for its post-Marxist strand.

Post-Marxism and Post-Marxism

So what can we claim for post-Marxism? What has it actually achieved as a theory? On the negative side, that is easy enough to say, in that it has significantly damaged Marxism’s reputation as a philosophy and cultural theory by its confrontational style of critique and refusal to abide by any party line; but on the positive side it is much more difficult. The distinction that Laclau and Mouffe themselves made between post-Marxism and post-Marxism can be usefully drawn on in this context. They tended to emphasise the importance of Marxism as a starting point for their theories, which proceeded to advocate ‘radical democracy’ as the way forward for the left, whereas others, like Lyotard and Baudrillard took a more virulently anti-Marxist stance. Both approaches have attracted their share of followers: you either consider yourself to be engaged in revitalising a tradition of thought, or unapologetically consigning it to historical oblivion. The distinction is a fairly loose one and I would not want to push it too far, but it can be helpful in trying to assess the impact of post-Marxism as a theory.

Laclau and Mouffe forcefully brought to our attention the revolutionary potential of the diverse social and political protest movements that had sprung up around the globe by the later twentieth century – ethnic, sexual, environmental, etc. It was a revolutionary potential that Marxism was turning a blind eye to because it did not fit into its prescriptive scheme of how revolution was supposed to emerge and then be conducted. Their argument was that Marxism was doing what it always did when faced by discrepancies with its socio-historical vision, and taking refuge in its theory of hegemony in order to discount the importance of such phenomena: from the classical Marxist point of view, the new protest movements were mere diversions from the real business of class struggle, which would eventually re-assert itself as the overriding concern. Laclau and Mouffe’s critique of hegemony is long and exhaustive, but the gist of it was that Marxism could not really think outside its preconceptions; that it could not shake off its commitment to its basic principles; that it had become doctrinally rigid and dogmatic. (Feminist theorists, of course, had been saying similar things for some time – if with a more specific agenda, which at one point, memorably enough, called for a ‘divorce’ to be drawn up between Marxism and feminism (Hartman 1981).) Nevertheless, Laclau and Mouffe’s work still suggested that it was motivated by the spirit of Marxism: it wasn’t quite going to the lengths of recommending a divorce, although maybe it did sound a bit like a trial separation. They just felt that it was time to strike out in new directions in order to keep that spirit alive, to lose the doctrinaire attitude they felt was inhibiting its development and leading to its decline as an influential theory. If post-Marxism was to mean anything it would have to seek out new methods and approaches rather than just go on repeating the mantras of the classical Marxist past, a past that provided little guidance about how to adapt, and turn to account, rapidly changing cultural circumstances.

When we turn to such as Lyotard and Baudrillard, however, that spirit seems to have disappeared and we do seem to have entered divorce territory. Baudrillard inveighed against Marxism’s fetish for production in The Mirror of Production, and was completely dismissive of its pretensions as a socio-political programme:

The concept of production is never questioned; it will never radically overcome the influence of political economy. Even Marxism’s transcending perspective will always be burdened by counter-dependence on political economy. Against Necessity it will oppose the mastery of Nature[.] … The political order is at stake here. Can the quantitative development of productive forces lead to a revolution of social relations? Revolutionary hope is based ‘objectively’ and hopelessly on this claim (Baudrillard 1975: 59).

Baudrillard is such a determinedly maverick figure in theoretical terms, however, that it is hard to identify much in the way of development in his post-Marxist stance from that point in the 1970s onwards; whereas Lyotard, on the other hand, can be turned into a veritable case study of post-Marxism. On the face of it, the evidence would seem to suggest that Lyotard is anti-Marxist, the criticism made by Normas Geras of Laclau and Mouffe. Libidinal Economy alone constitutes compelling forensic evidence on that score, where instead of detailed breakdowns of the history of the theory of hegemony and how it had been deployed to uphold the ‘truth’ of Marxist doctrines, we are treated to withering asides such as: ‘Why, political intellectuals, do you incline towards the proletariat? In commiseration for what?’ (Lyotard 1993: 115). Or could we say that, in a sense, Lyotard is always ‘post-Marxist’ (in the more general sense, without emphasising either side of the term), and that he demonstrates just how difficult it can be to try to occupy such a position on the theoretical spectrum? That is, temperamentally far left, but intellectually increasingly sceptical, and even despairing, about the belief system this entails.

First, Libidinal Economy, which certainly appears to be a vicious attack on Marxism, which is taken to be everything that is wrong about the art and practice of theory by the time of the later twentieth century. As Lyotard boldly declares, before launching into a diatribe against Marx on both a personal and a theoretical level: ‘We no longer want to correct Marx[.] … We have no plan to be true, to give the truth of Marx’ (Lyotard 1993: 96). It is a cardinal sin of theory, as Lyotard sees it, to believe that it can explain everything within its domain, that it can provide a comprehensive picture and thus a basis for authoritative predictions and assessments (exactly what Derrida was objecting to in structuralism of course, its universalising tendencies). Lyotard argues that the impact of libidinal energy alone would dispute that claim, since it is neither predictable nor, ultimately, controllable: it is instead an ‘excess’ (a favourite concept of the postmodern movement) that always evades the schemes of the political theorist – Marxists no less than anyone else:

Now, therefore, we must completely abandon critique, in the sense that we must put a stop to the critique of capital, stop accusing it of libidinal coldness or pulsional monovalence, stop accusing it of not being an organic body, of not being a natural immediate relation of the terms that it brings into play, we must take note of, examine, exalt the incredible, unspeakable pulsional possibilities that it sets rolling, and so understand that there has never been an organic body, an immediate relation, nor a nature in the sense of an established site of affects (Lyotard 1993: 140)[.]

Libidinal Economy is full of such outbursts in its quest to resituate Marx’s Capital as ‘a work of art’ rather than a text bearing any kind of ‘truth’ (Lyotard 1993: 96), and that of course changes the ground-rules of debate on the left quite radically. Marx’s basic premises are effectively being rubbished as totally misguided, in what is a quintessentially post-Marxist gesture, iconoclastic to a fault: what could be more wounding than comparing it to fiction? Coming in the aftermath of 1968 this is a devastating indictment of the entire Marxist enterprise as being founded on false and unsustainable premises which have become an end in themselves for the party machine rather than a means to bring about a fairer, less exploitative, society. Marxism has ceased to have any positive connotations at all for Lyotard, who can only regard it henceforth as a target for abuse.

The rest of Lyotard’s career is largely spent pointing out what we cannot exert control over, where difference keeps intruding to disturb any grand plans that we may have in either the social or the political arena – and even the aesthetic. Hence his later obsession with the ‘sublime’, that ultimate signifier for the unknown and the unknowable, all the ‘excess’ that we can never account for. As far as Lyotard is concerned there is no escaping the fact of the sublime: knowledge can only ever be partial in its scope; aesthetic endeavour has no alternative but to bear witness to the existence of the unpresentable and make that known to its audience; there is always something that our theories must fail to encompass, something that can disrupt and distort even the most painstakingly worked-out plans. It is all very persuasive, if more than a bit depressing for anyone trying to think how we could construct a political plan to achieve radical change of the kind that leftists traditionally have been geared towards. As so often in post-Marxism, positive proposals to bring about that state of affairs prove to be a bit thin on the ground; but let’s have a brief look at what these actually are in Lyotard to see if they offer any guide at all as to how post-Marxism might develop as a political philosophy in future.

Lyotard lays great store by ‘little narrative’ as a means of challenging the supremacy of grand narratives, whether in the political domain or elsewhere (Lyotard 1984). There is no set model being put forward here: a little narrative is effectively a protest movement which does all it can to undermine the operations of whatever grand narrative it chooses to take on – the greens versus the multinationals, the anti-capitalist and anti-globalization movements versus the World Trade Organisation (and everything that it represents), for example. The whole point of the exercise is to exist only as a protest movement, and crucially, for only as long as the particular circumstances of the protest demand: once a specific objective has been completed then the little narrative is expected to dissolve, rather than to allow itself to mutate into a power base and so replicate the system it has set out in the first instance to challenge. This has proved to be a difficult concept for the traditional left to get its head around, since the episodic nature of operations it involves opens up the prospect of recurrent power vacuums being created as each subsequent little narrative winds itself up, mission apparently completed. The assumption is that grand narratives would simply move into such vacuums and re-establish control. Marxism in particular cannot countenance such a way of proceeding, which appears to have no overall trajectory, no teleological dialectic as it were, and to leave far too much to chance: hence its opposition to the student-trade union alliance against the de Gaulle government in 1968. By the standards of the traditional left this approach to political action is just too ad hoc ever to work truly effectively; that, however, is precisely its attraction to a thinker like Lyotard, for whom long-term planning is an illusion – in the political domain above all, human behaviour being just too erratic to forecast with any accuracy. And he does have a point: who could have forecast the exact character of the événements? One does have to wonder, however, just how effective the little narrative method could ever be as a way of destabilising a grand narrative in the longer term, a process which usually requires far greater continuity of action than is being promised here. While one can understand the distrust of power bases being displayed by this kind of disenchanted leftist, this nevertheless has to be seen as a drawback in the process of fighting entrenched systems, which can regroup after each little narrative confrontation: the aftermath of 1968 in France was not particularly pretty in this regard.

Then there is the concept of ‘paganism’ to consider, Lyotard’s attempt to construct a workable system by which to make value judgements, as in legal cases, without use of pre-established criteria in which authority is deemed to reside. He argues for this to be done on a ‘case by case’ basis, without reference to previous practice or experience, and cites Aristotle as a model of how we ought to proceed (Lyotard 1985: 28). The success or otherwise of any particular judgement can only really be assessed in retrospect by its consequences (there is more than a suggestion of utilitarianism to this method, it should be said), and it probably does reflect how most of us operate in everyday, small-scale, decision-making situations. It is far more problematical when it comes to larger-scale moral issues however (a point consistently made against utilitarianism), and that is precisely where relativism always comes unstuck – and postmodernism is never less than defiantly relativist in outlook. Value judgement is undeniably postmodernism’s weakest point as a system of thought, and where post-Marxism most differs from its Marxist source with its absolutist stance. Judgement without criteria is not something that Marxists can ever really accept – they know exactly what their ultimate objective is and how they are supposed to expedite it: difference merely clouds the issue and is to be marginalised wherever possible. Neither relativism nor pragmatism square with the classical Marxist world-view, which can only equate these with making things up as one goes along – empiricism rather than scientific socialism.

Returning to a point I raised earlier: we might well ask if China qualifies as post-Marxist in character. It certainly has its roots in Marxist theory, and at least in principle still claims to be a Marxist state, although pragmatism seems to be very much in evidence there in its present phase of development. It has openly embraced the market economy, quite aggressively so in recent years, and has done its best to integrate itself into the world trading community: ironically enough for such an apparent tyro in this game, it seemed to suffer less from the credit crisis than the majority of the developed nations did. There are political commentators who consider it to be on the verge of eclipsing the USA and the West to become the next global superpower of the twenty-first century, the world’s future economic centre (Jacques 2009). So it is not unreasonable to classify it as some kind of post-Marxist political entity, officially Marxist in ideology but in practice capitalist in exhorting its citizens to ‘become rich’ as their patriotic duty. What it is not so good on is encouraging difference and diversity, which are completely at variance with its authoritarian ethos. This is hardly what Laclau and Mouffe envisaged in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, but nevertheless it does need to be seen as representing one direction that post-Marxism could take: tight political control from a centralised party apparatus, plus carefully-monitored economic freedom. Whether the Western left would regard this as still being in the spirit of Marxism is a moot point. Another way of looking at it would be to see it as combining the worst of the two systems in question: a somewhat schizophrenic mix of repression plus economic free-for-all. All the same, it does maintain many of the ideological trappings of a Marxist state, and does indicate that classical Marxism, or Maoist Marxism at any rate, has some capacity for adaptation.

Radical Democracy

China therefore constitutes one possible solution as to how to construct a post-Marxist politics. Another way that post-Marxism can distance itself from its Marxist shadow however, is to evolve into something else entirely: as in the case of radical democracy, which gives us something more concrete, and certainly less authoritarian, to enter onto the positive side of the Western post-Marxist ledger. Radical democracy enshrines difference and diversity, and wants to restructure political life in such a manner that these are always respected and given a platform, rather than being diluted in the compromise politics of the West or suppressed altogether in the one-party vision of traditional Marxism. Pluralist debate is at the forefront of the system that is envisaged, with Mouffe arguing for what she calls an ‘agonistic’ style of politics that precludes the possibility of compromise (Mouffe 2000) – to her, that being the great curse of Western political systems, by which a deadening consensus is achieved, stifling debate in the process. The pluralist commitment takes us, Laclau and Mouffe both feel, past Marxism, which is to be regarded as an ideological dead-end from this viewpoint.

Radical democracy is an interesting development; although it would have to be said it does have limitations and that so far it has promised more than it has delivered. As several critics have pointed out, there are some rather glaring ‘deficits’ in it as a political theory. It is unclear, for example, how we could form political institutions under its aegis: agonistic politics does not lend itself to that very easily, since it usually requires some measure of compromise and consensus between competing groups to establish anything viable in this line. As David Howarth has remarked of the problem of implementing radical democracy in the current political system, ‘less attention is paid to the economic, material, and institutional obstacles that block its realisation, as well as the precise composition and configuration of such impediments’ (Howarth 2008: 189), than should be by its leading theorists. Howarth and Jason Glynos go on to assert that radical democracy suffers from being essentially ‘theory-driven’ as a concept (Glynos and Howarth 2007: 167), thus substantially limiting its practical application: a criticism that might well be made of postmodernism in general when it comes to its political ambitions.

The classical Marxist alternative to consensus is one-party rule, which is the antithesis of what this kind of a post-Marxist wants to see. We face the same dilemma here that we do with paganism, the central problem for anyone on the left who espouses a post-Marxist position, and that is how to justify value judgements. This returns again and again to haunt relativists, and it has to be admitted that it is a major obstacle to anything like post-Marxism making a major breakthrough into the arena of mass politics. Could you really have mass politics without some kind of consensus between competing factions? Even Mouffe seems to concede that the answer is probably no, although the way she puts this in her book On the Political raises some awkward questions: ‘A democratic society cannot treat those who put its basic institutions into question as legitimate adversaries’ (Mouffe 2005: 120). It depends how you interpret ‘into question’ and ‘legitimate’, of course: one suspects that those words could only too easily be abused, by radical democrats as much as anyone, as Mouffe herself goes on more or less to admit when she cautions that: ‘The agonistic approach does not pretend to encompass all differences and to overcome all forms of exclusion’ (Mouffe 2005: 120). How this state of affairs differs from the kind of consensus we already see in play in parliamentary systems is by no means clear, and it sounds as if it would in its turn merely create yet another class of alienated individuals, thus storing up future trouble for the proposed ‘radical democratic’ society.

It is worth reflecting at this point on Žižek’s theories of how ideological systems, especially authoritarian ideological systems, work in psychological terms at the level of the individual. Žižek identifies a bias towards ‘saving the phenomena’, upholding the system, even if one can recognise that it is signally failing to achieve its goals, and indeed, looks highly unlikely ever to do so. We then enter into a condition of what he calls ‘enlightened false consciousness’, preserving the illusion, the ‘fetish’ in Žižek’s terminology (Žižek 1989: 29), of loyalty to the system in spite of its recognisable shortcomings. It is Žižek’s contention that the Soviet system only managed to survive as long as it did because it eventually generated this rather desperate form of ‘consensus’ amongst many of the populace as a coping mechanism. We can see exactly that happening again of late in terms of neoliberalism and the free market, which still continue to inform policy amongst the political class of most countries despite the all-too-evident structural flaws in the global economic system. We would have to lose our disposition towards saving theories in this manner, towards attaining the condition of consensus no matter how desperate it turned out to be, if we were to have any hope of a transition to an agonistic political set-up where there is no central core of belief to hang onto, illusory though that may always prove to be in real terms.

Marxism and the Crisis of Modernity

Perhaps we need to situate the debate between Marxism and post-Marxism within the wider debate about the future direction of modernity as a project, because that is probably the key cultural debate of our time. Unlike artistic and architectural modernity, economic modernity never went away, although it is now in deep trouble; nevertheless, like it or not, those in political power are committed to resurrecting it, and at least in theory ‘business as usual’ is what is being aimed at by policy-makers (no doubt they will be pleased to hear that in places like Ireland). The notion of full-scale structural renewal, which had so much public support a couple of years ago when the credit crisis really started to bite and the full extent of the system’s internal contradictions were remorselessly coming to light, has been quietly sidelined: ‘enlightened false consciousness’ seems to have set in again, the brief public flare-ups in Greece and the student protest movement in the UK notwithstanding.

There is the not inconsiderable problem that Marxism itself is part of modernity as a project, equally as entranced by the prospect of progress as any capitalist institution, it would seem; a point made very firmly by Bauman in his Intimations of Postmodernity:

Throughout its history, communism was modernity’s most devout, vigorous and gallant champion – pious to the point of simplicity. It also claimed to be its only true champion. Indeed, it was under communist, not capitalist, auspices that the audacious dream of modernity, freed from obstacles by the merciless and seemingly omnipotent state, was pushed to its radical limits: grand designs, unlimited social engineering, huge and bulky technology, total transformation of nature (Bauman 1992: 179).

True, as Bauman goes on to point out, such schemes almost invariably went horribly wrong somewhere along the line, but Marxism certainly wanted the economic and technological progress, just not the capitalist method of bringing it about: it is that fetish for production Baudrillard railed against declaring itself yet again. China gives every indication of still being addicted to such grandiose transforming projects however, whether social or environmental, which is all the more reason to be wary of its brand of post-Marxism, and yet further proof that it might be taking in the worst of both systems it is drawing upon for its current working ideology.

If Marxism is to continue to mean anything it would have to reconsider its attitude towards modernity therefore, and be much more critical of its goals and not just its methods. In fact, Marxism can never really return to its old form; too much has happened in the interim, and in a sense Marxism itself will always henceforth be post-Marxist.


So is there a future for post-Marxism? It could be said that post-Marxism is as much a symptom of a problem as a solution to the left’s ills; the problem being that radical politics has become very dispersed in the last few decades. The anti-capitalist movement, the anti-globalization movement, the various versions of the greens to be found around the world, none of these are very homogeneous entities, and neither do they necessarily agree even on the most basic points of what needs to be done to rectify the situation, or how. Yet capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal form, still needs to be opposed. There is manifestly a desperate need for some kind of radical leftist movement to articulate the opposition to neoliberalism as we move into a very uncertain post-credit crunch world, and it will have to take account of Marxism – whether as what Derrida referred to as a ‘hauntology’ or otherwise (Derrida 1994: 10). However it will also have to take account of post-Marxism (in whatever form), with its dissenting cast of mind, rejection of dogmatism, and generally anti-authoritarian outlook. As long as Marxism continues to have any kind of intellectual presence in our culture, and by that I mean as more than just a historical phenomenon to be studied by academics, then there will be a need for an internal critique of its workings, and at the very least we now have a history of how this can be formalised.

Where does this leave post-Marxism in yet another rapidly changing cultural environment however? Do we really want post-Marxism on the Chinese model? My own preference would be to follow the ‘radical democracy’ route and see where that might take us, what we might be able to do with it, whether its limitations can be overcome so that it can start to exert some mass appeal. That, of course, is the crucial difference between Marxism and post-Marxism: for all its abstract theoretical basis, the former could exert such appeal – there was no institutional deficit to report. Yet if Marxism ever did resurrect itself as a significant opponent to neoliberalism, it would of necessity have to include a post-Marxist element within it. It has undoubtedly been one of Marxism’s greatest failings as a socio-political theory not to recognise the value, indeed the sheer necessity, of internal dissent; as Jean-Paul Sartre remarked of the conflicts over the imposition of the party line in the French Communist Party in the late 1940s, ‘the opponent is never answered; he is discredited’ (Sartre 1967: 190). That reputation for intolerance is something Marxism will always remain ‘haunted’ by, and deservedly so. From this perspective, post-Marxism might be seen as the guardian of that ‘hauntology’, and I would argue it would justify itself on that basis alone.

But ‘radical democracy’ plainly demands to be taken much further, to be developed in such a way that it overcomes its institutional deficit. At the moment, the post-Marxist tradition has no fully coherent option to offer to the neoliberal system, and that has to change. Zygmunt Bauman warned us back in the early 90s of the likely adverse consequences of ‘living without an alternative’ (Bauman 1992: 175), as he put it, to Western capitalism, and that has been borne out by the excesses committed in the name of a neoliberal economics with no real check on its activities: ‘casino capitalism’, as one commentator dubbed it, at its very worst (Strange 1986). Whether we call it post-Marxism or radical democracy, something will have to step into the breach that the collapse of communism has created, otherwise we face a future of ‘casino capitalism’, run for the benefit of fanatical market fundamentalists only – and as we now realise only too well, you can lose really big-time in this particular casino. So there is definitely an opening for a radical political alternative, which at the very least would have to be informed by the experience of post-Marxism.

The point that I am making overall is that post-Marxism probably is now ‘past’, that it has served its purpose of knocking Marxism off its intellectual pedestal and making it all but impossible to have an idealized view of it any longer, either as theory or politics. A certain degree of cynicism with regard to Marxism’s chequered history in the twentieth century is no bad thing, I would venture to suggest. Post-Marxism, however, remains relevant in that it has the potential for development and adaptation, the desire to take on the same socio-political evils that motivated Marxism to enter into cultural combat in the first place. It was harder to make a case for post-Marxism when market fundamentalism and neoliberal globalization were sweeping all before them: but not now that the system has revealed its weaknesses quite so graphically. I suggested before that the key cultural debate of our time was over the direction that economic modernity would take, and that requires attention to be drawn to the insidious role of enlightened false consciousness in allowing neoliberalism to go unchallenged in any really serious way. Post-Marxism was designed above all to offer precisely that kind of serious challenge and we can build on the lesson it taught us in this respect.

Referring to the ‘evident truths’ of left-wing thought, Laclau and Mouffe spoke of ‘an avalanche of historical mutations which have riven the ground on which those truths were constituted’ (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 1): this is surely even more the case than it was in 1985 when they were writing. Classical Marxism has no answer to the impasse we find ourselves in a post-credit crunch environment, exactly the sort of situation which it believes should be breeding revolution, but to cite the appearance of yet another ‘hegemonic’ moment. That alone would be enough to generate the cynicism and nihilism that so often accompanies post-Marxism; but on the other hand it also ought to spur us on to re-investigate what can be done in the name of post-Marxism. If we are going to problematize the fetishization indulged in by both neoliberalism and classical Marxism, then that is where we have to start: ideological fetishization in general is the ‘past’ we should really be doing our utmost to turn into a ‘post’.


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