In the first article of this series, I noted that new worldviews are emerging in our culture. Many of these are not full worldviews yet—they are more like worldview fragments—but given time, they may develop into complete worldviews. In this article we will begin looking at the worldview that will most likely provide the basic framework around which these emerging worldviews will coalesce if it doesn’t absorb them outright. In my book, Portals, I labeled this “Ideological Postmodernism,” though today it is generally (and somewhat misleadingly) called Cultural Marxism.
For present purposes, it is not necessary to go into all the details of Marxism to make sense of Cultural Marxism. We do need to review a few key points, however, that will reappear in our discussion of its postmodern cousin.
In its origins, Marxism was a philosophy of history. Building off the thought of the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, Marx argued that history moved forward in discrete stages, each of which has its characteristic economic system. In all of these systems, the basic division in society is between the owners of the means of production and the workers. The owners get all the benefits of the system while the workers, the people who actually produce goods, get little to nothing.
Everything in society—the system of government, religion, ideologies, values, etc.—exists simply to support the status quo economic system. Society thus divides into two groups, which can be described in a variety of ways: owners and workers, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressors and the oppressed; the haves and the have-nots. This leads inevitably to class tension and class conflict.
The process of history consists of some subset of the workers staging a revolution and instituting a new economic system in which they become owners of the means of production, generally in conjunction with the owners in the previous system. History comes to an end when the last group, the proletariat, rises up and seizes the means of production so that the workers and owners merge into a single group, resulting in a communist system. Once that happens across the globe, the dynamic that moves history forward comes to an end.
The key points in this that carry over are, first, the division of society into the oppressors, who hold power, and the oppressed, who are marginalized and denied their rightful place in society, and second, the idea that history has a specific direction, a goal, involving the liberation of the oppressed. It is thus possible to be on the “right side of history” by supporting marginalized groups. Marx’s emphasis on sharing the wealth appropriately continues to be part of this, but as we will see “economic justice” is only one part of the Cultural Marxist vision.
Although Marxism became a formidable ideology during the twentieth-century and remains so in the guise of various forms of socialism today, postmodernism, another intellectual movement from the twentieth-century, is even more important in shaping current and emerging worldviews in America.
Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define, in part because it is a reaction against modernity and Western culture and thus can take a myriad of forms. In order to understand it, we should first define modernity to understand what postmodernism was rejecting.
Modernity has a variety of overlapping definitions depending on whether one is viewing it from a political, sociological, cultural, scientific, philosophical, or economic perspective, among others. One important element that is held in common among most of these perspectives is a belief in progress, the idea that through our efforts we can make the world a better place in almost every way. This involves a rejection of tradition in favor of a more rational approach to life. This includes an emphasis on science and scientific explanations of reality, secularization, and the steady erosion of the place of religion especially in public life, and industrial capitalism and technology as the most efficient way to produce and deliver goods and services. Since progress depends on knowledge, public education is an important institutional component of modernity.
The modern world also places a great deal of emphasis on individualism accompanied by freedom and equality before the law. This leads politically to democratic institutions since each person has an equal right to a say in government, as well as to the nation state. Prior to modernity, multicultural empires were the rule for most people in the Europe. In the 1800s, a series of revolutions set the stage for the breakup of those empires into nation states, where more or less coherent linguistic and cultural groups were given the right to self-determination, extending the idea of individualism to culture.
There were limits to the nation state, however, when it came to non-Western cultures. Western powers were able to extend their control over most of the globe by the end of the nineteenth century, dominating indigenous cultures and effectively denying them their right to self-determination and equality before the law. The colonizing powers justified this by claiming cultural or racial superiority that gave them the responsibility to share the benefits of their culture to the poor, benighted souls in Africa, Asia, Oceana, and the Americas, or, in less condescending terms, that gave them the right to exploit inferior cultures and peoples to get the resources, manpower, or markets they needed to advance.
And that, in turn, meant competition with other Western nations for colonies and to create spheres of influence to promote and extend national power. Since the colonial powers were already using their military technologies to dominate regions such as Africa and Asia, it was a relatively small step to think in terms of using military might to gain advantage over their European counterparts, first in acquiring colonies and then ultimately within Europe itself.
The World Wars and the Challenge to Modernity
This was all part of the background to World War I. The causes of the war are complex and convoluted and need not detain us here. The conduct of the war and its aftermath, however, are particularly important for understanding the rise of postmodernism.
World War I was arguably the first total war, where all the resources of the countries involved were harnessed to the war effort. Thus, along with the front in France or in Belgium, the war was fought on the home front, where war materiel was produced, food was rationed, men and even horses were conscripted, etc.
The full forces of science, technology, and industrial capitalism were used to advance the war effort as well. This resulted in destruction unimaginable to previous generations: a single, minimally trained artillery battery could deliver more explosives in a few hours than were spent by all combatants in the entire course of the Napoleonic Wars a century earlier. But in World War I, all sides had this capability, and so the war turned into a stalemate with slaughter on an unprecedented scale. The Battle of the Somme by itself resulted in over a million casualties but had no significant effect on the lines. To break the stalemate, both sides looked for ways to apply science to kill vast numbers of people to clear the land of opponents using chemical weapons, including chlorine gas and phosgene, the latter of which by itself killed 85,000 people during the war. Along with science, they looked to technology for solutions, including the use of airplanes and the newly invented weapon, the tank.
When the war ended, Europe was left in ruins. An entire generation of young men were lost to death, wounds, or “shell shock” (which we call PTSD). National debt was at an all-time high, and as the loser, Germany was expected to pay it all. Their economy was shattered, though, and so they could not live up to the terms forced on them at Versailles, leading to hyperinflation and untold misery for the German people. And that paved the way for Hitler.
World War I shook people’s faith in modernity, and for some, it led to a rejection of the premises of modernity altogether. Those reactions are at the origins of postmodernism and helped provide some of the intellectual support for Hitler’s critique of Western culture. And then World War II proved to be even more horrific and destructive than World War I, including particularly the Holocaust where the full forces of science and technology were used for the express purpose of killing on an industrial scale. This led to an even more pointed rejection of the assumptions and premises of modernity on a wide range of levels. We will turn to that in our next article.