A Postmodernist approach to history in some ways mimics Marxism, which is understandable since the fountainheads of Postmodernism have Marxism in their intellectual genealogies. A distinct residue of Marxist critique remains in their work, providing them with the dichotomizing perspective so blatant in the Marxist vision of class struggle. Derrida admits that his deconstruction is a radicalization “within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism.”1
Specifically the Postmodern historian mimics Marxist understanding of the ideological nature of writing history. While Marxists focus on the proletariat rising against the bourgeoisies, Postmodernists focus on one gender, race, or socially identifiable group in a struggle for dominion over another. Gene Veith explains, “Post-Marxist radicalism constructs new revolutionary ideologies by replacing Marx’s concern for the oppressed working class with other oppressed groups (blacks, women, gays). Status and moral legitimacy come from being ‘excluded from power.’ The victim has the favored role....To be black, female or gay is to enjoy a sort of secular sainthood. But even these categories are segmenting into ever-smaller sects of victim hood.”2 Such an approach does little to draw society together toward harmonious civility. Rather, it engenders a new tribalism, pitting every group against the other in an attempt to gain moral standing by becoming the greatest victim.
Postmodern History – Historical Materialism
One significant difference between Postmodernist and Marxist approaches to history concerns whether history has an inherent meaning. Marxists advocate historical materialism, complete with the vision that human history eventually will arrive at a purely communistic (i.e., classless) society. In a similar way Secular Humanists hope for evolutionary progress throughout history and Cosmic Humanists spiritualize those evolutionary hopes for bringing about a “New Age.” But the Postmodernist view of history is distinctly ateleological (i.e., without a purpose). For them, mankind is an evolving animal but not necessarily at the top of the species list. Homo sapiens are simply one among many species. We have arrived at this point in evolutionary history by chance, not design, and therefore have no purpose or destiny.
A world without meaning or purpose results in nihilism. Stephen Hicks suggests that Derrida clearly understood the kind of world Postmodernism was bringing and declared his intention not to be among those who let their queasiness get the better of them. Derrida proclaimed that Postmodernists “do not turn their eyes away” when faced with the prospect that ours is “the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.”3 This is a strong rejection of a meaningful past. Given a naturalistic approach to life, one without the bold assertions of Marxism or the sentimental hopefulness of Humanism, a Postmodern view of history is devoid of ultimate meaning or purpose.4
Rendered with permission from the book, Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews (Rev 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.
1 Jacques Derrida, Moscou aller-retour (Saint Etienne, France: De l’ Aube, 1995). Cited in Stephen R.C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Tempe, AZ: Scholargy Publishing, 2004), 186.
2 Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 161.
3 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 293. Cited in Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, 195.
4 See Elizabeth A. Clark, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 42–43 for a discussion of early Postmodern theories and Marxist historical teleology.