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«Marxism After Modernism: Anglo-American Leftist Theorisations of Modernism in the Later Twentieth Century - Sinéad Kennedy Dr. Joe Cleary ...»

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O II* e » li i t à id r t in n it i Hu*d

Marxism After Modernism: Anglo-American Leftist

Theorisations of Modernism in the Later Twentieth Century

- Sinéad Kennedy

Dr. Joe Cleary (Supervisor)

Department of English

National University of Ireland, Maynooth

Faculty of Arts, Celtic Studies and Philosophy

September 2007


This dissertation considers the manner in which a number of key Marxian intellectuals from the Anglo-American cultural left, including Perry Anderson, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Raymond Williams, Rosalind Krauss and others, have attempted to make sense of both literary high modernism and the modernist avant-gardes.

The study argues that in the period since the 1960s especially, the Marxian cultural left has helped to redefine our understanding of modernism in a number of significant ways.

Chapter One considers how key Marxist intellectuals developed the concept of uneven development to challenge the almost orthodox assumption that modernism was overwhelmingly associated with metropolitan and urban milieux. Chapter Two examines how the issue of imperialism moved from the margins o f Marxist cultural criticism to the core o f debates about the origins and political character o f modernism. The focus of Chapter Three is the American and European theorisations of the historic and contemporary avant-gardes. In Chapter Four I consider how Fredric Jameson’s seminal text on postmodernism challenged Marxists to not only rethink how they understood postmodernism but also to recondition how they thought about modernism as well.

Finally, Chapter Five concludes by considering the specific instance of Irish modernism.

Marxian engagements with Irish modernists from Joyce to Beckett offer an exemplary sense of the wider shifts in left-wing responses to modernism over the course o f the twentieth century.




Marxism and Modernism in the Later Twentieth Century


Uneven Developments: Rethinking the Historical and Geographical Coordinates of Modernism


The Shadow of Empire: Marxism, Modernism and the Subject of Imperialism


Whatever Happened to the Avant-Gardes? Marxist Analyses from Greenberg to Bürger and Beyond


Capturing Postmodernism: Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic o f Late-Capitalism


Repudiation and Reconciliation: Ireland as Case Study of Changing Marxist Engagements with Modernism



Joe Cleary, my dissertation supervisor, has offered invaluable support and advice at every stage of this study. He helped shape the first outlines o f this project, and his subsequent critical readings of the evolving chapters have enriched them profoundly. Through it all his sustained enthusiasm, patience and encouragement have been no less important than his insightful criticism and suggestions.

I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Conor McCarthy and Heather Laird who both read several chapters of this thesis and provided invaluable advice, criticism and support. Many other colleagues and friends have made substantive contributions to my understanding o f this topic: They include Willie Cumming, Mary Ryder, Aileen Kennedy, Colin Graham, Emer Nolan, Gearôid O ’Flaherty, Colm Stevens and Michael Cronin.

I would like to acknowledge the support I received from the members o f the Department of English in NUI Maynooth and the staff in various departments at the Mater Dei Institute o f Education, in particular the late John Devitt. The Red Stripe Seminar in Maynooth and Dublin and the Twentieth Century Irish Studies Society have both provided intellectual stimulus and support which has helped to shape my understanding o f both Marxism and modernism.

I particularly wish to thank Colin Coulter, Emer Nolan, Leeann Lane, Will Murphy, Denis Condon, Michael Cronin and Hilary Lennon for their friendship and scholarship. The consistent encouragement and enthusiasm, of my good friend Paul O’Brien brought new energy and fresh perspectives to the subject and frequently led me to rethink my arguments.

For more than ten years I have enjoyed and learned from discussions about aesthetics and politics that I have shared with friends and comrades. These discussions have challenged me and compelled me to clarify my own thoughts on the subject. None have allowed their disagreements with some o f my arguments (or my disagreements with their’s) to impede constructive intellectual and political exchange. They include: Kieran Allen, Simon Basketter, Richard Boyd Barrett, Willie Cumming, Mamie Holborrow, Melissa Halpin, Colm O ’Riain, Paul Foot, Donal MacFearraigh, Grace Lally, Janet Mullamey, Peadar O ’Grady and Brid Smith.

Many friends provided a welcome and often much needed break from the world of academia: Bridgeen Kelly, Cliona McGovern, Joanne Berry, Anna Hudson, Cathy Reinhardt and Vemice Murray. In particular, I wish to thank Mary Ryder for her enormous generosity, friendship and wisdom.

Finally, when working on this dissertation I drew heavily on the unfailing encouragement, confidence and moral support o f my parents, Margaret and Seamus Kennedy and on my wider family, especially Aileen Kennedy. My gratitude to them is

–  –  –

Marxism was one o f the twentieth century’s defining political and ideological forces.

At some point in the course o f that century the left has played a significant role in the history o f almost every country across the globe, including major ‘First W orld’ states such as France, Germany and Italy, as well as major ‘Second’ and ‘Third W orld’ states such as Russia, China, India and Brazil. The 1960s was a particularly important landmark in the history o f left.1 It was the decade that saw the emergence o f a New Left which rejected both the dogmatism o f Stalinism and the orthodoxy o f Social Democracy. This New Left embraced a more critical style o f Marxism and merged it with a commitment to radical democracy and an openness to a broad array o f political ideas and alliances. It sought to embody the best features o f the socialist tradition, and located them in social struggles such as feminism, the campaign for nuclear disarmament, gay rights and other countercultural movements. By the Spring o f 1968, this New Left version o f Marxism had reached the height o f its intellectual and political influence. The student revolts, the opposition to the Vietnam War, the US Civil Rights movement, and the simultaneous crisis in the labour market collectively created a resurgence in political and class conflict.

Marxism became both the political language and the theoretical perspective for a whole generation o f radicals who found it the most suitable intellectual vehicle for understanding war, 1 See Irwin Unger, The M ovement: A History o f the American New Left, 1959-1972 (New York:

Dodd, M ead & Company, 1974), Thomas Albert Koelble, The Left Unravelled: Social Democracy and the New L eft Challenge in Great Britain and West Germany (Durham: Duke University Press,

1991) and Michael Denning, Culture in the Age o f Three Worlds (London: Verso, 2004).

imperialism, racial and class inequalities and the socio-economic functioning o f Western democracy.

However, by the mid-1970s this transformational ambition had collapsed and the subsequent history o f the left was characterised more by failure, defeat and political exhaustion or defection than by the utopian possibilities o f socialism. The left suffered an extended and ongoing intellectual crisis as Marxism faced challenges from feminism, the gay rights movement, postcolonialism, poststructuralism and postmodernism. M any o f these movements were openly hostile to Marxism, critiquing its privileging o f the proletariat as the key subject o f history, charging it with eurocentricism or heterosexism, or even critiquing its very epistemological foundations.3 Even critics sympathetic to M arxism struggled to make sense o f the contemporary political moment and argued that the left needed to situate itself in a wider field o f radical movements rather than to try to command that field or give leadership to it.4 Intellectually, a series o f alternative theoretical discourses began to dominate the scholarly territory previously occupied by Marxism; these included structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis and postmodernism. However, as Perry Anderson has argued, the declining prestige o f Marxism in post-1960s intellectual life cannot be simply explained away by reference to M arxism ’s 2 See George Katsiaficas, The Imagination o f the New Left: A Global Analysis o f 1968 (Cambridge, MA.: South End Press, 1987) and Dennis Dworkin, Cultural M arxism in Postwar Britain: History, the N ew Left and the Origins o f Cultural Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).

3 See Terry Boswell and Christopher Chase-Dunn, The Spiral o f Capitalism and Socialism: Toward Global D emocracy (Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000).

4 A good sampling o f the variety o f different views within the intellectual M arxian left during this period is contained in Whither M arxism? Global Crises in International Perspective, Bem d Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg eds. (London and N ew York: Routledge, 1995) and Antonio Callari, Stephen Cullenberg and Carole Biewener eds., Marxism in the Postmodern Age: Confronting the New World Order (New York: Guilford Press, 1995). Some o f the m ost creative contemporary critical social theories have come from outside the M arxist tradition, such as Amitai Etzioni, The Active Society: A

Theory o f Societal and Political Processes (New York: Free Press, 1968) and The M oral Dimension:

Towards a New Economics (New York: Free Press, 1980). See also Roberto M angabeira Unger, Politics: A Work In Constructive Social Theory, 3 Vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

‘intellectual defeat at the hands o f a superior alternative’.5 W hat Anderson means here is that the declining influence o f M arxism within European radical and critical theory cannot be accounted for solely in terms o f the history o f ideas, but must also be understood within a wider social and political context.

Unable to articulate a substantive utopian future once the tumult o f the 1960s gave way to the global economic recession o f the seventies, Marxism found itself in a political crisis as it faced into the new millennium. The collapse o f the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc states, the embrace o f capitalism by China, the surrender o f the Social Democratic left to the ‘inevitability’ o f neo-liberalism and the decline in unionisation and the power o f the organised left across W estern industrialised countries all contributed to the collapse o f credible alternatives to capitalism in its increasingly globalised form. For the first time since the mid-nineteenth century, the left represented a minority position within the most significant social and political movements o f the period; for a younger generation struggles around ecology, feminism, AIDS, development and anti-globalisation seemed more pressing matters than the fate o f socialism or o f the working classes.6 This political shift was most potently articulated by right-wing academic Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 article ‘The End o f History’.7 Although first published before the events which made it notorious - the east European revolutions o f 1989 and the collapse o f the Soviet Union in 1991 - Fukuyama’s thesis acquired its intellectual force from the process o f which they were the culmination, the collapse o f Stalinism. History, for Fukuyama, is the struggle o f rival ideologies. He argued 5 Perry Anderson, In the Tracks o f Historical M aterialism (London: Verso, 1983), 56.

6 For overview o f this period, see Goran Therbom, ‘After Dialectics: Radical Social Theory in a PostCommunist W orld’, New Left Review, Vol. 2, No. 43 (March-April 2007), 63-114, and ‘Dialectics o f Modernism: O n Critical Theory and the Legacy o f Twentieth-Century M arxism ’, New Left Review, Vol. 1, No. 215 (May-June 1996), 59-81.

7 See Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End o f H istory’, The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989), 3-16 and ‘A Reply to M y Critics’, The National Interest, No. 18 (W inter 1989), 20-28. These articles were developed into the 1992 book The E nd o f H istory and the Last M an (London: Penguin, 1992).

that the discourse o f the market economy and liberal democracy had turned out to be the final form in which aspirations potentially common to all human beings can be shared. Earlier forms o f governments were, he argued, ‘characterised by grave defects and irrationalities’ which resulted in their ‘eventual collapse’, but liberal democracy ‘was arguably free from such fundamental internal contradictions’.

Fukuyama is not arguing that liberal democracy represents a perfect system, but rather that all attempts to achieve a viable alternative have failed. In other words, he writes, ‘the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved upon’.8 Fukuyama’s thesis was rigorously critiqued from both the left and the right.

His critics on the right contended that he had dangerously underestimated the strength o f liberal capitalism’s opponents while those on the left argued that liberal capitalism was characterised by increasing levels o f inequalities that would eventually provoke a formal challenge to parliamentary democracy.9 However, as Perry Anderson pointed out in his critique o f Fukuyama, an effective left-wing challenge to Fukuyama’s thesis cannot be content with simply articulating the manifold problems and contradictions inherent within liberal capitalism; it must be able to articulate a viable alternative to liberal capitalism, a task the left have singularly failed to achieve in the second half o f the twentieth century.10 It is this inability to meet the aspirations o f a generation radicalised by the social movements o f the 1960s that continues to haunt the contemporary left.

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