Postmodernism: Does it Have Marxist or Historicist Origins?

George Seaver

“Postmodernism” is a generic and nebulous term, much like “The Enlightenment.” For both terms, the specific meanings change with location and time. The term “postmodern,” however, is widely used, and an analysis of its meaning and origins provides a framework for understanding the times. The two contending ideologies within Postmodernism are Marxism and Historicism, with all their current spin-offs—social justice, diversity, multiculturalism, sustainability, and global citizenship.

Postmodern Marxists

After World War II and the revelations about Stalin's crimes, academic Marxists began migrating from traditional, economic Marxism to a culture-based version, even dropping the Marxist name. The first group, the Frankfurt School—which led to the rise of Western Marxism and Cultural Marxism—originated in Germany. Some of the School’s members migrated to the United States. Among these was Herbert Marcuse, who in 1965 published the essay, "Repressive Tolerance." [1] Marxist literary criticism came with Frederic Jameson's 1984 book The Political Unconscious,[2]and was further advanced by Marxist Terry Eagleton in his 1983 book Literary Theory.[3] These critics attempted to interpret literature as “fragments of a discourse of class struggle” (Jameson) and as “a way of characterizing the transition . . . from bourgeois to socialist morality” (Eagleton). Other academics joined in moving from Marxism to literary theory and deconstruction. Professors Christopher Norris (University of Wales), Richard Rorty (Columbia), and Cornel West (Princeton) are in this group. However, Professor Norris in 1994, after 20 years of involvement, abandoned deconstruction after observing the failure of social justice reasoning in Africa and the Soviet Union. In 2003 Eagleton reappraised his alliance with deconstruction in his book After Theory, and acknowledged the difficult fit between Marxism and literary theory, particularly in translating the economic to the cultural and the transcendent to the relativistic. He explained, “We are living now in the aftermath of what might be called ‘high theory.’ . . . Cultural theory must be harnessed to practical, political ends.”[4] Marxism became both discredited and fragmented, and its importance diminished.

Postmodern Historicists

Due to the relativistic basis of today’s postmodernism, a stronger case can be made for its Historicist origins. Historicism was first introduced in 1744 when Vico Giambattista described each historical epoch as having separate cultures being “signified” by their art, religion, philosophy, politics, and economics.[5]Harry Jaffa of the Claremont Institute in his 2012 book, The Crisis of Strauss Divided, described the influence that Leo Strauss had on him as a graduate student in 1944: he freed me from "the prison of historicist dogma"(not Marxist dogma).[6] Deconstruction arrived in the United States in 1966 at a conference at John Hopkins University, and then at Yale in 1967 where the "Yale School" formed. The New Historicism of the 1980s added deconstruction's binary opposition to describe the power hierarchies of an epoch,  which led to today's "social justice." "That all thought is essentially related to and cannot transcend its own time" is how Allan Bloom described New Historicism in his 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind.[7] Jonathan Culler in 1988 traced in detail the ascendancy in academia of postmodern concepts, from the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, Psychoanalytic Theory of Lacan, Discursive Practices of Foucault and Jack Derrida's Deconstruction.[8] Later, the sum effect of these academic theories became loosely referred to as postmodernism, but it did not transform the general culture and politics until the 1990s.

Postmodernism and relativism was soon dominant in academia. Bloom included Marxist Criticism as one of the postmodern methods in the interpretation of literature but asserted,

Comparative literature has now fallen largely into the hands of a group of professors who are influenced by the post-Sartrean generation of Parisian Heideggerians, in particular Derrida, Foucault and Barthes. The school is called Deconstruction, and it is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy.(See footnote vii.)

From Academia to Culture

Postmodernism was not limited to the academy.  As Allan Bloom put it in 1987, “their [the deconstructionists] passage from academia to the market place was the real story.”(See footnote vii.) Between 1987 and 2004, relativism and social justice permeated the media, public education, race and gender diversity, national security, and corporate culture.

The Media. In 2001 William McGowan, a columnist variously for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review and the Wall Street Journal, wrote Coloring the News in which he summarizes, "Today's journalists may not themselves have read Derrida or Michael Foucault, but they have been educated in an ambiance where ideas hostile to objectivity have become the white noise of the academic endeavor, and where 'race-class-gender' has become a brain-numbing intellectual mantra." This is "contextualized" with "content audit" and "diversity management" in the operation of newspapers.[9]

Education. The National Association of Scholars was founded because of the deterioration in higher education on many fronts. That deterioration is meticulously documented in its 2013 study, What Does Bowdoin Teach?. Relativism and social justice have undermined education on three fronts: the quality of the teachers coming out of schools of education, the capability of the students, and the curriculum.

Race and Gender. In regard to race and gender the applications of relativism and social justice have had great impact, in particular, from Critical Race Theory. Cornel West's "Prophetic Criticism" and his 1993 book, Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America , describe this and are political in their demands.[10]

National Security. Relativism and social justice had a profound effect on both the FBI and the CIA. After the WTC bombing in 2001, Charles Hill, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institute, editorialized in the Wall Street Journal that the "main cause of inadequate intelligence performance over the past three decades has been a decline in the quality of personnel, brought about by pressures for diversity."[11] Yet, at his retirement in June 2001 Louis Freeh cited as one of his greatest accomplishments the diversifying of the agent force. Similar policies existed at the CIA. After taking over as CIA director in 1997, George Tenet sent out a letter to the personnel of the CIA titled "Intelligence Community Functional Diversity Strategic Plan" in which he stated:

We are going to have to become a much more diverse intelligence community…We must see Diversity as a corporate imperative—a strategic goal. Our community will need to attract, train, and retain talented employees who have a deep understanding of other societies, cultures and languages...I consider the advancement of Diversity to be a vital part of our Strategic Plan for the Intelligence Community.[12] [emphasis in original]

Corporations. Large corporations have also yielded or, in some cases, enthusiastically joined, the social justice campaign. As Eagleton observed in his 2003 book, After Theory, "these new cultural ideas sprang up in a capitalism for which culture itself was becoming important . . . by 1990 culture became indistinguishable from it [capitalism]."(See footnote iv.)

Academic Freedom. The president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Cary Nelson, debated NAS president Peter Wood in January 2009 on "The Meaning of Academic Freedom," with regard to the AAUP evidence-based defining statement of 1915. Professor Nelson stated that he supports that 1915 statement, as well as the scientific method, but stipulated that what constitutes evidence is "contingent," that knowledge is culturally constructed, and that neither is transcendent.[13]

Relativism and First Principles

Harvard Professor and historian Samuel Huntington was one of the few to understand the profound nature of these changes. In his 2004 book, Who Are We, he stated, "these efforts by a nation's leaders to deconstruct the nation they govern were quite possibly without precedent in human history. Substantial elements of America's elites in academia, the media, business and the professions joined government elites in these efforts [as] the deconstructionist coalition."[14]

Relativism had also developed influence in national liberal politics, probably beginning with President Clinton in 1992. Charles Kesler of the Claremont Institute provides a recent statement of this in his 2012 book, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism. In it he describes Barack Obama's political philosophy as "a doctrine that made historicist assumptions about the philosophical core of modern liberalism." An example is the justification of a "living constitution."[15] Postmodernism has reached the White House and has influenced liberalism more generally. Marxism, though certainly an important ideology, is not important to the motivation.

Another recent example comes from Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, in a November 7, 2012 post-election interview in Imprimus:

It is certainly true that the vast majority of our nation’s elites today—those who welcome the results of yesterday's [2012] election—are creatures of modern historicist thought, which explicitly rejects the kind of objective principles— equality under God, inalienable rights—on which America was founded. According to modern historicism, the only objective truth is that one can't know an objective truth. President Obama embraces this view in no uncertain terms in his book The Audacity of Hope. He writes: the very idea of ordered liberty is a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or 'ism,' any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course.

This view drives modern liberalism or Progressivism.[16]

An economic response came from history professor Angus Burgin of Johns Hopkins University in his 2013 book, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression. Professor Burgin explains the success of the 1980s Hayek/Friedman/Reagan economic ideas in a historicist framework, as the "Spirit of an Age," the subtitle of his conclusion.[17] He did not see these results as a reimplementation of the transcendent ideas of Adam Smith and David Hume, but of importance only to their age and admitting of a progressive successor.


The central tenant of Historicism is relativism. Its invocation readily downgrades the successes of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the economies of Hayek/Reagan and the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. The Marxist ideology cannot accomplish these central tasks of the modern liberal/progressive agenda.

[1] Marcuse, H., 1965: Repressive Tolerance. In "A Critique of Tolerance",

Beacon Press, Boston.

[2] Jameson, Frederic, 1984: The Political Unconscious. Cornell University Press.

[3] Eagleton, Terry, 1983: Literary Theory. University of Minnesota Press p. 4.

[4] Eagleton, Terry, 2003: After Theory. Basic Books, New York. pp.29, 87.

[5] Giambattista, Vico. “Principles of New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations.” The New Science. 3rd Ed. of 1744. Trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1948.

[6] Jaffa, H., 2013: Crisis of Strauss Divided: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussisms. Roman &

Littlefield, pp.290. Claremont Review of Books, Spring, 2013, pg.53.

[7] Bloom, Allan, 1987: The Closing of the American Mind. Simon & Schuster,

New York.  p. 40, 379,  226.

[8] Culler, Jonathan, 1988: Framing the Sign. University of Oklahoma Press, p.17, 63.

[9] McGowan, William, 2001: Coloring the News. Encounter Books, San Francisco, p.232, 12-13.

[10] West, Cornel, 1993: Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America. Routledge, New York.

p.22, 29, 23, 265, 288.

[11] Hill, Charles, 2004: "Commissionism". Wall Street Journal, July 123, 2004. Op-Ed Article.

[12] Gertz, Bill, 2002: Breakdown. Regnery Publishing. Washington, D.C., Appendix A.

[13] 13a. Nelson, C., 2009: "The Meaning of Academic Freedom". Debate, NAS, Jan. 30, 2009.

    b. Seaver, G., 2009: Comment on above debate, Feb. 2, 2009.

[14] Huntington, S., 2004: Who Are We. Simon and Schuster, 2004. New York. pg.143.

[15] Kesler, C., 2012: I am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism. Broadside

Books, pp.304. CRB, Fall 2012, pg.17.

[16] Arnn, L., 2012: Time to Give Up or Time to Fight on. Imprimis, Dec. 2012, Vol.41, No. 12,


[17] Burgin, A., 2012: The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression.

Harvard University Press. Pp. 320. CRB, Spring 2013, pg. 28.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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