What happened to the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century and where did they go? When the Soviet Union collapsed towards the end of the century, what happened to its ideological remnants? It collapsed in on itself and all that seemed to be left was smoke. The last of the brutish authoritarian experiments of the century, the Soviet machine ground to a halt and been delivered a swift and decisive blow. The Marxist rhetoric that had been permeating the country (and many others over the century — think Mao’s China) now seemed embarrassingly erroneous. The utopian dreams attached to the ideal of Communism had utterly failed to materialize.
What was supposed to result was equal distribution — a precise shaving-down of advantage to produce an equitable society characterized by sameness and distanced from the alleged diseases of Western liberalism and capitalism. But what resulted instead was a beast of destruction.
In the name of constructing a utopian, equitable future millions of people were slaughtered and millions more yoked with the looming threats of violence and their lives streaked with paranoia. How could it be that an ideology advertised as perfection itself, touted as the incomparable optimization of people and resources so that everyone might be happy — how could it be that underneath this veneer was a reality unfathomably savage?
Totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century did not truthfully die a swift death after they received their final blows. They did not crumble in a rueful fashion and wash away with the blood they had spilled, soundly contained to a sordid section of history. No, the economic Marxism of yore was purposefully shapeshifted into cultural Marxism, a thriving and very-much-alive vein of postmodernism as we know it in our 21st-century society. It’s a disguise and it’s a mistake to think that postmodernism is a benign and somewhat superficial kind of philosophical outlook that currently happens to be in vogue in Western societies.
The socialist experiments of the century destroyed the proudly academic gloss of Marxism. The economics of Marx were in bad shape and had been thoroughly, cleanly checkmated. Many academics, however, still clung to this utopian vision they had staked so much of their careers and thought on. And so, when the empires fell in the 20th century, many of these committed followers actually did not blithely exchange their ideologies with the times, handing over their secretly totalitarian sympathies with a casual shrug of their shoulders.
Isn’t it odd, when you think about it, that the Soviet Union collapsed and then we didn’t hear a sound out of Communism thereafter? Did it really die that fast, surrender that painlessly? I don’t think so. I think it took another form and lives on to this day, underneath the clever mask of a cultural/philosophical movement called postmodernism.
Now, the economic Marxism that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries was built upon the famous line — straight from the pen of the grandfather of Communism himself, Karl Marx — “to each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It was theorized that a Communist model would be able to optimize distribution like no other economic system could. Such a rigorously idealistic approach was bound to become totalitarian, however, and it did. Perfect “equality” was an impossible aim, and heavy, top-down intervention only made it worse.
Capitalism, in the Marxist mindset, was inherently oppressive and would only succeed in advancing the few at the expense of the poorer, woefully unaware lower classes. And yet, by and large, the capitalist societies maddeningly appeared to prosper, defying this Communist logic.
The Americans in the 1950s, say, were off buying their shiny new washers and dryers and were flourishing societally and economically by most estimations, whereas their continental counterparts disposed to communism were shaking their heads in irritation. This could not be, this would undermine their whole theory. It was plainly obvious that capitalism was more than capable of fundamentally providing for the needs of its citizenry.
The widespread complaint of capitalist societies has long been their lack of “equality”. Yet this is no straightforward objective. The equality that leftists are after is far more messy and complicated in reality, in addition to being more coldly absolutist than solicitous in nature.
Postmodernism is essentially Marxism packaged in a different veneer. It’s Marxism transplanted in a different era. The 20th century was rife with these straight-laced totalitarian ideologies that had orderly, systematic structures. But when the inevitable crumbling of (most prominently) the Russian and Chinese Communist systems occurred, the despotic pasts of these countries did not simply vanish. The French tradition of postmodernism gained a foothold in this new environment.
The postmodernists from the academy did basically this: discarded the economic vein of Marxism and exchanged if for a cultural vein of Marxism. The difference? Instead of the old dynamic of proletariat vs. the bourgeois, it became all about the oppressed vs. the oppressor. Marxism had its beginnings in economics, certainly, but it’s currently preoccupied with the oppressed vs. oppressor dynamic playing out in the cultural sphere, particularly between race and gender.
At the heart of the oppressed vs. the oppressor relationship is a power struggle. And to the postmodernists, everything is about power. As far as they’re concerned, race relations can be explained entirely by power and gender relations can be explained entirely by power. That power is the greatest obsession of postmodernism makes perfect sense when taking into account the movement’s appetite for conflict and belief in the impotence (and simultaneously, the subjectivity) of reason.
If there is no ultimate truth, then there is only war and perpetual clashing. Communism and Socialism were never about egalitarian harmony — they were always about power. Which is exactly why our historical memories generally hold no rosy recollections of what these ideologies did to our world — because they did nothing short of tearing it up. We’ve seen the reality of these ideologies as they have behaved in practice and have seen them to be the savage, destruction-laced, power-hungry beasts that they are. We’ve seen the reality and not simply the suavely insistent theory put forth. Such is the contradiction of socialism — reality and theory are oceans apart.
Postmodernism itself is troublingly inconsistent, shapeshifting from one extreme to the other. For example, one of its most central tenants is the idea that reason is ultimately mired in relativity and subjectivity. There is no objective truth or reality, the postmodernists say, and everything is ambiguous! From that comes deconstructionism — a trendy method of analysis (if you could call it that) whose aim is not to find truth but to destroy the idea that there could fundamentally be any truth.
There’s no element of seeking to it; there is only ceaseless tearing-down, a cynical process of annihilation. Because after all, there is only power. And what’s the ultimate exercise of power? Annihilation and destruction. These leftist creeds hide behind cowardly claims to inclusivity and tolerance. But when in positions of power, leftists wield political correctness in their fists the first chance they get, striking hotly and forcefully. And what is political correctness but a softer, less crude version of absolutism? And absolutism is the opposite of relativism, is it not? Stunningly contradictory, postmodernists are, but they know this. It’s a feature of their philosophy and not an overlooked flaw.
At their core, postmodernists are radical leftists. And they’re often plagued with both nihilistic and revolutionary streaks. Because they don’t believe in objective truth and philosophically are deeply skeptical of reason, they have a difficult time believing in anything. Except the stark reality and usefulness of power, that is, which is why they have an appetite for revolution like no other and want to tear down as much as they want to overturn. It is understandable, in a way, that such an attitude did gain traction in Europe — a continent that had tried their hands at so many philosophical and political projects over the centuries and were ready to cynically give up, world-weary as they were, and lapse into post-truth territory — a territory nihilistic and embittered as well as absolutist and raging.
Postmodernism was just this resulting territory, a European disease, a strain of older totalitarian ideology repackaged in a softer, more intellectual wrapping that concealed the darkness underneath. After all, what do postmodernism and communism have in common? Both are obsessed with power — the former more culturally, the latter more economically and politically. Thus, postmodernism is Marx’s legacy dressed up and disguised for the 21st century.