In the previous article in this series, we began to look at the roots of Cultural Marxism, a postmodern adaptation of classical Marxism. Along with summarizing a few key ideas in Marxism, we looked at Modernity, which can be defined as a series of concepts that shape society and culture, including some or all of the following:
- belief in progress;
- faith in reason, science and technology;
- secularization and the decline of religion’s role particularly in public life;
- individualism and personal freedom;
- the nation state;
- and a smug sense of Western cultural superiority with a strong racist component.
Exploitation of the rest of the world through colonialism was justified by and reinforced these ideas.
The beginnings of postmodernism are found in the response to the horrors brought about by modernity during the twentieth-century, starting with World War I and then accelerating in the wake of World War II, the Holocaust, and the prospect of nuclear war.
Some of these responses were anchored in philosophy. Thus, between the world wars, German philosopher Martin Heidegger (who joined the Nazi party) deplored modernity’s reduction of the world to matter and energy. He rejected the primacy of reason and instead focused on poetry and Eastern mysticism, looking for a reawakening of humanity to a transcendent world that made room for the mythic as well as the simple peasant life. This thinking contributed to the Nazi interest in Germanic folklore and the occult and anticipated the later rise of the New Spirituality.
Cultural Relativism and Decolonization
Heidegger’s criticism of modernity was relatively unusual in its day. More frequently, early critiques of modernity came from disillusionment with Western civilization and the destruction wrought by Western science and technology, often combined in an uneasy mix with a faith in science as a solution to world problems.
One effect of this internal critique of Western claims to superiority over other cultures was a growing support for cultural relativism, the idea that we should not judge people in other cultures by our own standards since all cultures are equally valid in their own context. One of the few things cultural relativists recognize as objectively wrong morally is any attempt to impose our values, norms, religion, or anything else on other cultures. Instead, we should avoid contaminating non-Western cultures, and especially pristine aboriginal cultures, with our ideas and technologies.
In the decades following World War II, significant political pressures led European countries gradually to give up their colonies. There was a great deal of reluctance to do so out of concern for national prestige and for economic and political reasons. But modernism had supported the idea of personal freedom and thus the right of self-determination, leading to the nation state in Europe; it became increasingly difficult to justify denying these rights to the inhabitants of the colonies, especially when combined with the growing influence of cultural relativism.
Cultural relativism contributed to the widespread acceptance of moral relativism. Even prior to the World Wars, secular naturalists (a.k.a. secular humanists) had adopted a materialist metaphysics, that is, the idea that matter and energy were all that exist. If that is the case, then good and evil and right and wrong do not exist—they are neither matter nor energy, and so cannot be facts, only opinions. Thus, there is no absolute or objective standard for ethics. Instead, in the words of the Humanist Manifesto, ethics are situational and relative.
Critics of modernity took this basic idea and developed a different rationale for it. Rather than talking about ethics, which in its historic usage refers to overarching standards of right and wrong that cross cultures, these critics focused on morality, which historically refers to standards of right and wrong within an individual culture.
But this poses a problem: given that cultures differ on issues of morality, how are we to determine transcendent ethical standards? Anything we think of as right or wrong is shaped by our own culture and cannot be considered objective. Instead, they argue, we need to recognize that we cannot determine universal ethics and that morality is a social construct, not a reflection of overarching ethical standards. This leads directly to moral relativism, the idea that we cannot judge others based on our own morality nor impose our moral views on others. For most moral relativists, doing either of these is the one universal wrong.
In response, it is worth noting that the degree of variation in cultures is regularly exaggerated, as C. S. Lewis points out in the Appendix to The Abolition of Man. Most people do not recognize this or believe it, however, and so this type of thinking prevailed and has become deeply embedded in our culture.
Arguably, all of these ideas can be classified as postmodernism, since in all cases they represented a reaction against aspects of modernity; full blown postmodernism pushes these ideas even further.
Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define. There is no core set of beliefs postmodern thinkers have agreed upon, and so postmodernism has taken a myriad of forms, some of which are mutually contradictory. Fortunately, for our purposes, we only need to trace a subset of postmodern ideas to make sense of Cultural Marxism and emerging worldviews.
Arguably, the roots of much postmodern thought can be traced back to the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant’s metaphysics began with the argument that we cannot know things as they are in themselves, but only as they appear to us. In other words, our ability to perceive sets the limits on our knowledge of the world, which of necessity is always mediated to us by our senses. Objective reality is thus inaccessible to us; all our knowledge is always and inevitably subjective.
Postmodernists takes this basic idea and extends it further: not only is our knowledge of the world limited by what we can perceive, it is also limited by the cultural filters we use to make sense of it. In other words, our culture determines how we think about and make sense of the world: everything we think about reality is ultimately determined not by the world as it actually is, but the world as we perceive it and as our culture interprets it.
“Reality is a Social Construct”
The buzz phrase for all of this is, “reality is a social construct,” which means that how we understand and interpret the world and our place in it is a product of our culture. In essence, metaphysics disappears: we can’t answer the question “what is real?” Instead, everything becomes a question of epistemology, how do we know things, with the answer being that we don’t; we can only “know” what our culture tells us is true.
This version of postmodernism thus parallels and accepts (at least in principle) the ideas underlying cultural and moral relativism: since cultures differ and we can’t privilege our own, there is no way of knowing right and wrong, good and evil, even basic elements of reality itself. They all disappear under a skeptical epistemology.
At the same time, when combined with some of the themes from Marxism we noted in the last article, these ideas can become the foundation for militant cultural and political action aiming at reshaping reality in a more “just” direction. We will look at that in the next article.
Glenn Sunshine, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and professor of history at Central Connecticut State University.