Robert P. Murphy
In this 3-part series, I am showing the reader that the various attacks on our liberties are part of a coordinated strategy that was conceived decades ago by avowed socialists. I realize that is a provocative claim, but it is easily demonstrated, as I show in this series. In the first installment, I focused on the founding of public schools in the US, and the agenda and legacy of the Fabian Society. In the second installment, I documented the long march through the institutions adopted (though the term was coined later) by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci and by the Frankfurt School. This was a strategy of socialist infiltration of society through a gradual takeover of the schools, churches, news media, music and art, and the cinema; it is colloquially referred to as “cultural Marxism.”
In this third and final installment, I’ll focus on postmodernism and Critical Theory, which are essential building blocks to understanding today’s identity politics with its attacks on “whiteness” and “the patriarchy.”
A Quick Overview
The reader has surely heard these terms thrown around, but let’s give a quick explanation of what they mean. Some of this will be a review from the last article, as Critical Theory originally was associated with the Frankfurt School, a.k.a. the “cultural Marxists.”
Critical Theory: Growing out of the narrow limits of its original usage by the Frankfurt scholars, there is a more modern and broad definition of Critical Theory that links to today’s fields such as Critical Race Theory and Gender Studies. Here is how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry explains the connection:
Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many “critical theories” in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.
The reader will see this common element in all of today’s agitation against the patriarchy, white supremacy, European colonialism, etc. Writers and activists in these fields use the tools of Critical Theory to highlight what they perceive as oppression of the powerless by the powerful, and use social, economic, racial, sexual, and other characteristics of personal identity to divide the population into these categories of Oppressed and Oppressor.
Postmodernism: These are the ideas that developed as a reaction against “modernism,” which is basically the worldview we associate with the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. To be honest, it is difficult to briefly define postmodernism; I scanned the Stanford entry on postmodernism and realized it is truly incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the doctrine. So let’s just use the Encyclopedia Britannica discussion:
Postmodernism is largely a reaction against the intellectual assumptions and values of the modern period in the history of Western philosophy (roughly, the 17th through the 19th century)…The most important of these viewpoints are the following[:]
- There is an objective natural reality, a reality whose existence and properties are logically independent of human beings—of their minds, their societies, their social practices, or their investigative techniques. Postmodernists dismiss this idea as a kind of naive realism. Such reality as there is, according to postmodernists, is a conceptual construct, an artifact of scientific practice and language…
- The descriptive and explanatory statements of scientists and historians can, in principle, be objectively true or false. The postmodern denial of this viewpoint—which follows from the rejection of an objective natural reality—is sometimes expressed by saying that there is no such thing as Truth.
- Through the use of reason and logic, and with the more specialized tools provided by science and technology, human beings are likely to change themselves and their societies for the better….Postmodernists deny this Enlightenment faith in science and technology as instruments of human progress…
- Reason and logic are universally valid—i.e., their laws are the same for, or apply equally to, any thinker and any domain of knowledge. For postmodernists, reason and logic too are merely conceptual constructs and are therefore valid only within the established intellectual traditions in which they are used.
- There is such a thing as human nature; it consists of faculties, aptitudes, or dispositions that are in some sense present in human beings at birth rather than learned or instilled through social forces. Postmodernists insist that all, or nearly all, aspects of human psychology are completely socially determined.
- Language refers to and represents a reality outside itself. According to postmodernists, language is not such a “mirror of nature”…
Incidentally, I omitted points 7 and 8 from the Britannica discussion, because I think the first six give the reader the gist of postmodernism.
Now that we have an idea of what these doctrines are, we can better understand how they have been used to further the West’s slide into tyranny.
Disclaimer, Courtesy of Thaddeus Russell
At this point, let me confess that my knowledge of these topics is derived primarily from secondary sources. In other words, I have not read much from the actual postmodernist thinkers, or writers in the area of Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, etc. Having said that, I still thought it important to show LMR readers the connection between these fields and the modern culture wars.
There is admittedly a danger in setting up a strawman punching bag, when in reality any actual thinker is going to be more nuanced than his or her angry critics might allege. The canonical postmodernists such as Jacques Derrida certainly said more than, “You can’t know anything,” or “A book means anything you want it to!” Along these lines, Thaddeus Russell is a historian (with a popular podcast) who passionately claims that libertarians should embrace postmodernism as a bulwark against technocrats trying to run our lives. After all, Russell argues, if postmodernism fosters a healthy skepticism of alleged Truth coming from scientists in white lab coats, then it limits the State’s ability to regulate and control society.
I personally debated Russell on this topic, and even people he agreed are experts on postmodernism—namely Stephen Hicks, Michael Rectenwald, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose—did so as well. (Consult the endnotes for links to the various videos of these debates.) Whether it was me as an amateur, or the others as experts, we all pushed back hard against Russell’s claims that right-wingers were unfairly caricaturing the postmodernists.
Are the Critics Unfair to Postmodernism?
Let me give an example of how these debates went. Russell criticized Jordan Peterson for popularizing the bogeyman of “postmodern cultural Marxists” which were supposedly taking over college campuses, the workplace, and even social media. Why, this is just ignorant fear-mongering, claimed Russell, showing that Jordan Peterson doesn’t know what he’s talking about! After all, postmodernism at its core rejects any “grand narrative” of historical development, while Marxism offers a very specific theory (in the form of dialectical materialism) of how society evolves through the stages of slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and ultimately communism. So for Thaddeus Russell, the very phrase “postmodern Marxist” is a contradiction in terms; there could be no such person.
And yet, the other experts I’ve named above were much more sympathetic to linkage of these ideas. For one thing, there’s a big “coincidence” that the big guns in postmodernism are former Marxists (or at least very leftist). And a simple perusal of the policy demands from today’s postmodernists (with a few notable exceptions) shows that they detest capitalism.
If the reader wants a truly scholarly discussion of the evolution in the academic literature, through which the old school postmodern ideas were linked to the more recent articles on overthrowing the (ostensible) oppression of the bourgeois white patriarchy, I strongly recommend Russell’s own podcast episode where he invited James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose as his guests. (Again, see the endnotes for the link.)
But for our purposes here, let me make two points on the alleged impossibility of a postmodern Marxist. First of all, Marxism contains lots of contradictions already, as Ludwig von Mises frequently noted. For example, classical Marxism contains the two doctrines of (a) the progressive immiseration of the proletariat, by which the workers get poorer over time, and (b) the doctrine of the iron law of wages, by which the workers at any moment are paid the barest subsistence level while the rest of their labors’ fruits are siphoned off by the capitalists. As Mises asks, how can these doctrines both be true? If the worker is always being paid the subsistence level to avoid starvation, then he can’t get paid less and less over time, right? (For what it’s worth, the Wikipedia entry on “immiseration thesis” suggests two possible reconciliations: Marx himself changed his views over time, or we could interpret the immiseration as a relative phenomenon, not an absolute one.)
Hence, because standard Marxism contains many internal contradictions—at least, that’s what its critics like Mises allege—then it’s not outlandish to suggest that Marxists, or at least people with Marxist sympathies, would also adopt the doctrines of postmodernism if it suits their ideological goals. The fact that this move would produce a contradiction wouldn’t faze someone whose worldview is already full of them.
The second point I want to make is that the claim from Jordan Peterson and others isn’t that today’s socialist/communist activists were genuinely persuaded by the intellectual merits of postmodernism. Rather, they saw it as a way to advance their pre-existing agenda. And it is undeniable that those seeking to overthrow capitalism have grabbed postmodern ideas for this purpose.
Let me end this section with an example of what I mean about fidelity to principles versus advancing a pre-existing agenda. When I was researching postmodernism, I learned that many of the biggest names associated with it—including Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard—signed a petition in 1977 to overturn French “age of consent” laws. In other words, they wanted to decriminalize sexual relations (so long as they were consensual) between adults and minors, including those as young as 13.
My point is bringing up this example isn’t to criticize them as moral monsters for endorsing what many LMR readers view as scandalous activity. Rather, my point is that the same arguments these thinkers used to endorse decriminalization of adult/minor sex could also have been used to get rid of regulations on business. For example, if Foucault wants to argue that a 13-year-old girl has the power and competence to meaningfully consent to sleeping with a 40-year-old man, then surely a grown woman has the power and competence to decide if she wants to buy a pharmaceutical that hasn’t been certified as safe by the government, or if she wants to work for less than the minimum wage. And yet, my research indicated that the major thinkers associated with postmodernism are all quite leftist in their views about government regulation of business.
So to sum up, yes we should be careful to be fair to postmodernists and other thinkers with whom we may disagree, but it’s hardly a defense to point out that their own official doctrines don’t (on paper) support some of the crazier things coming out of college campuses these days. It’s standard practice for intellectuals to treat philosophies as a buffet, picking and choosing those implications that suit their pre-existing views.
Postmodernism Is Literally Anti-Christ
I realize this is provocative, but the easiest way to show how antithetical postmodernism is to Western civilization is to point out that it is literally anti-Christ. Now to be clear, I’m not saying any particular postmodern thinker is the anti-Christ, meaning a person. Rather, I am saying the doctrines themselves go against the very nature of Christ, and thus Western civilization, to the extent that it was built on a Judeo-Christian foundation.
Consider: One of Jesus’ names or titles is Logos (in the Greek). As the King James Bible says in the gospel of John, chapter 1:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 The same was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
To repeat, Jesus is the Word, or Logos. As theologian R.C. Sproul explains, that word “Logos” is the foundation of our word “logic,” but also the intellectual disciplines that end in –ology, such as theology, biology, geology, etc.
Notice what is happening here. Jesus Himself is called by a name that flows through language itself—He’s the Word, remember—and scientific, rational inquiry. Far from there being a tension between science and religion, it was actually a belief in a rational, orderly universe—created by an intelligent Designer—that motivated the great religious scientists such as Isaac Newton.
So does the reader see how postmodern attacks every single element of this edifice? The postmodernists cast skepticism upon the ability of language to capture meaning, and of rational inquiry to discover truth. Indeed, some of the most extreme postmodernists deny that there is even such a thing as objective reality.
This is the sense in which I claim that postmodernism is quite literally anti-Christ. Even for those readers who aren’t religious, I hope you can see how dangerous this set of doctrines is. Postmodernism seeks nothing less than the complete eradication of the intellectual foundations of Western civilization.
In case the reader thinks I am engaged in hyperbole, consider that one of the classic terms associated with postmodern is deconstruction. Here’s how Britannica defines it, and applies it to more modern academia:
Deconstruction, form of philosophical and literary analysis, derived mainly from work begun in the 1960s by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, that questions the fundamental conceptual distinctions, or “oppositions,” in Western philosophy through a close examination of the language and logic of philosophical and literary texts.
Deconstruction’s influence widened to include a variety of other disciplines.…Some strands of feminist thinking engaged in a deconstruction of the opposition between “man” and “woman” and critiqued essentialist notions of gender and sexual identity. The work of Judith Butler, for example, challenged the claim that feminist politics requires a distinct identity for women. Arguing that identity is the product or result of action rather than the source of it, they embraced a performative concept of identity modeled on the way in which linguistic acts (such as promising) work to bring into being the entities (the promise) to which they refer. This perspective was influential in gay and lesbian studies, or “queer theory”…
…In anthropology, deconstruction contributed to an increased awareness of the role that anthropological field-workers play in shaping, rather than merely describing, the situations they report on and to a greater concern about the discipline’s historical connections to colonialism.
In Kirby Dick’s (excellent) 2002 documentary “Derrida,” there is an early scene where an interviewer introduces Derrida to her audience by saying (in French), “Born in El Biar, Algeria, Jacques Derrida’s name is now known on five continents. He’s a thinker of lightning thoughts whose work is like that of miners who work by exploding the beams supporting their shafts.” Upon hearing such a description of his scholarship, Derrida gives the interviewer a mischievous smile.
For more evidence that Derrida’s work undercuts the intellectual foundations of modern society, check out this passage from his Dissémination, a book published in 1969: “It is thus not simply false to say that Mallarmé is a Platonist or a Hegelian. But it is above all not true. And vice versa.”
If the reader is confused by the above quotation, that’s a good thing. Read it again to absorb the full enormity of Derrida’s style. After she herself flags this particular quotation from Derrida, Barbara Johnson comments: “Instead of a simple either/or structure, deconstruction attempts to elaborate a discourse that says neither ‘either/or,’ nor ‘both/and’ nor even ‘neither/nor,’ while at the same time not totally abandoning these logics either.”
It’s because of such rhetorical moves that Jordan Peterson dismissively refers to Derrida as a “trickster.”
I hope the reader by now sees the connection with these abstruse doctrines and the craziness of today’s debates. Serious academics—including Thaddeus Russell!—argue with a straight face that gender is a social construct, and that an individual can decide to be a man or woman just as surely as an individual can decide to be a Republican or a vegetarian.
To make things even crazier, earlier this year James Lindsay—who has a math PhD—got into a huge debate on Twitter with people when he claimed that 2+2=4. I promise, I am not making this up. And the people arguing with Lindsay themselves had advanced degrees.
For example, one academic pointed out that some readers might doubt whether 2+2 = 4.0. This is because, for those trained in engineering or the physical sciences, you have to be careful to keep “significant figures” the same in your inputs and outputs. If your thermometer really only gives you readings accurate to one decimal place, then you shouldn’t report temperature readings with three decimal places.
Yet of course, when James Lindsay was arguing that 2+2=4, he wasn’t challenging the standard warnings about precision of estimates. He was making a basic point to challenge the postmodern attempts at deconstructing all knowledge.
Yes folks, we’ve gotten to the point where math PhDs have to argue that 2+2=4, and other academics disagree. I hope the reader by now can understand how useful this rhetorical device is, in the hands of the socialists and communists. What possible defense can economists give of private property and free enterprise, when college kids are being taught that sex has nothing to do with biology and that 2+2 doesn’t necessarily equal 4?
This article concludes my 3-part series on the intellectual foundations of the West’s slide into tyranny. In conclusion, I want to be clear that I am not accusing any particular thinker of necessarily being complicit in a grand conspiracy. Rather, I have shown how some socialists and communists have indeed conducted a grand campaign of subversion, working through various institutions. As part of this agenda, they have cherry-picked from various doctrines and philosophies that suited their purposes, whether or not the developers of these ideas would have approved.
And so we see, it is no coincidence that our economic, civil, and religious liberties are under a coordinated assault. That was the plan all along, and now I’ve shown you, the reader, some of the background scholarship that made it all possible.
 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Critical Theory,” available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/.
 See the Encylopedia Britannica discussion at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/postmodernism-philosophy.
 Here are the debates involving Thaddeus Russell on postmodernism as a defense (or attack) on liberty: (1) His debate with me, on the Bob Murphy Show: https://youtu.be/ibUS9uNMFeU. (2) His debate with Stephen Hicks, at the SoHo Forum: https://youtu.be/Qb9Eajt0KVA. (3) His debate with Michael Rectenwald, on the Tom Woods Show: https://tomwoods.com/ep-1784-postmodernism-debate-russell-v-rectenwald/. (4) Thad’s discussion (but with disagreement) with James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose: http://www.thaddeusrussell.com/podcast/110.
 See the Wikipedia entry, “French petition against age of consent laws,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_petition_against_age_of_consent_laws.
 Quoted in John M. Ellis, Against Deconstruction (Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 6.