The influence of postmodernism in contemporary thought has run a course from being a beacon of hope, and relief from hard realities, to a diversion from materialism and scientific methodology. The seductive character of postmodernism, for the Left, was its offering of answers to uncomfortable questions by making it permissible to abandon recognition of essential truths in favour of relativism. This process was, and is, deeply in the service of reactionary conservatism while posturing as Leftist thought.
Perhaps the root of postmodernism’s reactionary character is its aggressive and simplistic embrace of difference. Expressed and glorified as diversity, the objective is to disregard antagonistic opposites by adopting a “live and let live” attitude. This has gone to the extent of nullifying the most fundamental antagonism in the arena of political struggle: class. If the “wonderful, rich, diversity of cultures, religions, ideas, arts, values”, et cetera, are to be celebrated, then so must class distinctions be recognized. The emphasis, in the cause of recognition, is tolerance – the acceptance of antagonistic opposition. The embrace of difference can only occur when the elements are viewed relatively. So, fundamental antagonisms are interpreted, not in the context of disagreement but as simply and inconsequentially different.
The effect is stasis; fundamental conservatism. While reconciliation is sometimes achieved through compromise, irreconcilable difference requires radical confrontation and revolutionary change. Irreconcilability is the conditional reason for the existence of the state - the established laws and the means to enforce them. The postmodern agenda is retention of the status quo: contentious difference is celebrated rather than reconciled. Radical activity, from ideas to political revolution, is suppressed in favour of tolerance; cultural, religious, and especially class difference, is to be tolerated. Karl Marx theorized that class society is the primary source of conflict in modern society, and that class conflict is irreconcilable except through revolution and radical social change.
The Enlightenment movement of the 17th and 18th centuries initiated a worldview that dragged humanity out of the constraints of medievalism with a progressive focus on reason and, subsequently, the scientific method and revolution. Reactionary forces reacted to this disillusionment, first with denial, and then with attempts to incorporate rationality with their supernatural concepts. The ensuing centuries have seen a continuing, though losing, struggle of conservatism to justify non-evidential belief, generally in the form of spirituality and religion. In service of its populist agenda, the Left became a champion of religious rights in opposition to reason.
The revolutionary threat of the Enlightenment produced a reaction that became the contemporary postmodern movement. Sweeping away the old and establishing the new is always met with resistance, and as the nature of change develops, the resistance must be intensified. The blunt jackboot of resistance to political progress gives way to sophisticated opposition to intellectual change. Enter the device of doublespeak, as exemplified in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The direct substitution of terms, such as Ministry of Peace for Ministry of War, and Ministry of Truth for the rewriting of history, have long warned of the nature of totalitarianism. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s thought police dangerously reflect conditions of today’s universities where the right of free speech is under threat as disrespectful, and demands for control of expression are commonplace.
The inanity of racism was largely exposed in the radical atmosphere of the 1960s. Social equality, the rise of feminism and radical politics flourished in the universities. Left and Right political forces were clearly defined, respectively, by their opposition or support for the Vietnam War. Loosely identified through anti-materialist thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, a formation, sufficiently distinct from the Marxist left to warrant its own name, appeared. The “New Left” was the first direct diversion from the revolutionary character of the Left, to a populist political position. The reformism of the New Left provided an avenue of escape from the uncomfortable rigour of struggle that radical change demands. University students, often through the influence of Leftist professors, embraced the radical attractions of demands for reforms that were often mollified by the acceding of authorities. Civil rights struggles won major victories without challenging the power of the state, and the New Left became the de facto representation of the Left.
Postmodernism’s influence on the Left was a departure from materialism to relativism, and, in simple form, can be determined as starting with an answer, and examining only the arguments that support it; while the scientific method demands objective evidence to determine the truth. The Left was now defined by the social activism it indulged. Radicalism became “Left” regardless of its objectives; political correctness became the accepted objective; form superseded content. One aspect of this New Left thought is the obstruction of speakers and writers of ideas that are deemed unacceptable by those who know what is right. People like Charles Murray, Jordan Peterson and Michael Bailey are attacked, uninvited to previously scheduled presentations, and are often the object of demands for formal punishment. These actions are taken in the context of censorship of ideas that some people find offensive. The Thought Police in Nineteen Eighty-Four control thinking, but thinking is also controlled when its expression is not allowed.
Marx theorized that the irreconcilable conflicts between the working and capitalist classes will inevitably result in revolutionary change. The postmodern deviation, away from the revolutionary focus while posing as agents of radical change, becomes a reactionary obstruction to progressive thinking and activity. In the process, the challenging of ideas, discussion and open debate face obsolescence. Thus the Left, of science and reason, is neutralized, and the reactionary, bullying and totalitarian opposite is instituted in disguise. By all standards, the three disingenuous tormentors of Lindsay Shepherd at Wilfrid Laurier University were on the Left for their self-determined protection of transgendered students.
Postmodern doublespeak has come full circle. Reactionary conservatism has usurped the role of the Left. For students and younger people, this is the only expression of radical thought: there’s no Left left!