Lyotard and the post-modern

Does French Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard have anything to teach democratic socialists? Martin Jenkins has his doubts

Post-modernism’s impact on western intellectual life was at its height in the 1970s and 1980s, and was received by many on the political left as a threat.(1) As many prominent post-modernist thinkers were ex-Maoists, ex-communists and ex-Trotskyists, they were regarded as apostates turning on their former beliefs. Their theories were seen variously as the result of exasperation felt by ex-Marxists at Stalinism, orthodox communist parties and practices, and the failure of many radical social movements, or as the theoretical expressions of ‘late capitalism’.

Post-modern criticisms extend beyond Marxisms to all epistemological narratives, structures, texts and genres which single-handedly claim to provide the ultimate, exhaustive and definitive account of ‘reality’. Modernist narratives appropriate meanings – wherever they arise – as present within, identical too, that narrative. Post-modernism highlights disruptions, openness, difference, otherness within modernist narratives, structures, texts and genres to deny their holism, closure and identity.

In the following, I will provide a brief account of the history of modernism, and explain what post-modernism is and how it responds to modernism. I will then describe how post-modernism relates to Marxism and democratic socialism. This is to highlight the relevance of a contemporary democratic socialism as opposed to Marxism. I will analyse post-modernism chiefly through the works of French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard.


Modernism seeks a single, holistic narrative or grand narrative in which the rules concerning knowledge and non-knowledge, truth and falsity, and legitimacy and illegitimacy are decided, excluding that which does not recognise such rules. In the 16th and 17th centuries the dominance of Christianity as an intellectual narrative for Europe was increasingly challenged. It had provided the fabric and framework for humanity’s understanding of itself, the world and its place in the scheme of things. If belief in God no longer provided the foundation and guarantee of human knowledge, what could?

Empiricists such as John Locke and David Hume(2) explored the possibility that human knowledge was derived from the senses, from what people experience. However, basing knowledge on what is experienced does not provide certainty. Just because something was such and such in the past does not mean it will be like that in the future. Moreover, knowledge consists of things that are not experienced such as cause and effect, mathematics, logic and the like. Empiricism failed to provide certain and indubitable knowledge. Immanuel Kant addressed this problem.(3)

Kant maintained there were cognitive structures inherent to the human intellect which provided certainty. These structures, or ‘transcendental categories’, created the possibility of human knowledge. If God did not create the world ‘out there’, beyond the subject, the human intellect did. So began German idealist philosophy.

German Idealism and after

Knowledge based on the subjective structures inherent in the self became the foundation for knowledge of others and the world. Kant’s categories were criticised as immune to change; a point picked up by GWF Hegel.(4) With Hegel, knowledge of the world teleologically developed in accordance with the historical development of human consciousness. It’s cumulative development ends in the subject’s realisation that the objective world beyond itself is its own creation; this identity being the condition of absolute knowing. Knowledge of the self, others and the world is created by collective human consciousness. The actual is rational and the rational is the actual as expressed in lived theoretical structures which exhaustively account for all phenomena. Absolute knowing demonstrates holism, closure, and identity in an exhaustive account of history, knowledge, politics and ethics.

As a grand narrative par excellence, Hegelianism and its derivatives, such as Marxism, attracted the criticism of post-modernists.

As we all know, Marx was initially attracted to Hegel’s philosophy only to reject his idealist ontology for one of materialism. However, Hegel’s totalising themes permeated into Marx’s own philosophy. Arguably, these can be found in:

• Historical materialism: the totalising structures seeking to explain and account for historical development ending in the closure of world communist society.

• Class struggle: derived from this, a political prescription of how the class-conscious proletariat ought to act that monopolises emancipatory politics and which is identical with the emancipation of humanity.

• Dialectical materialism: a total, holistic explanation, encompassing the dynamics of all natural phenomena.(5)

In the 20th century, Marxism dominated left progressive politics and still remains significant. As an influential grand narrative it received critical attention from post-modernists, attention which might have a bearing on left politics particularly modern democratic socialism.


The history of western thinking in politics, ethics and theology has occurred within such holistic, all encompassing grand narratives. They have repressed or ignored what is disruptive, different and other. Post-modernist thinkers highlight that which epistemologically disrupts, is different from, or other to these structures to give ‘a voice’ or new representation to them. This has political implications.

For instance, in the states of ‘really existing socialism’, totalisation was established and operated. Human beings were judged and categorised by the prevailing structures of Marxist political epistemology. All were to serve the community, working for the state, constructing socialism on the way to communism. From the sciences to culture, the dominant narrative held sway. What was different, or other to it, was suppressed, incorporated and, at worst, sent to the Gulag.

In the world of global capitalism, the grand narrative of the market is becoming, if it’s not already, the totalising structure. Phenomena are viewed and valued as commodities subject to market exchange. What is viewed as ‘other’ to this narrative is submerged as potential terrain for the expansion of the market or dismissed as anachronistic. There is no alternative. The same totalisation characterises religious fundamentalism and racist supremacism.

As mentioned at the beginning, the grand totalising narratives became the critical concern of post-modernists in the 1970s and 80s. Their legitimacy was questioned. Actual social and political movements, which appeared to bear out concerns highlighted by post-modernists, complimented their theoretical concern. The events of May 1968 in France highlighted new social forces which fell outside the established narratives of orthodox Marxism and democratic liberalism. As Todd May writes:

‘The “events” of May reinforced the idea, first drawn from the holocaust, that that which is different must be recognised and protected.’(6)

Although post-modernist thinkers operate in different contexts and have different areas of concern, I believe a common thread links them. It is found in their highlighting of what is marginalised by existing grand narratives.(7) They emphasise that which is other, different, excluded and anomalous; highlight that which challenges or is excluded by the homogeneity of a structure, narrative, text or practice. I examine these concerns as articulated by Jean-Francois Lyotard.

Lyotard’s ‘incredulity’

In The Post-Modern Condition Lyotard famously enunciated ‘incredulity towards grand narratives’.(8) They cannot, despite their pretensions, exhaustively account for all meaning. Their legitimacy is questionable and in their stead are many different narratives or ‘language games’.(9) Developing this line of thought, Lyotard argued in The Differend: Phrases in Dispute(10) that knowledge is constructed of concepts and concepts are found in linguistic narratives or genres. These create the world we perceive.

Linguistic narratives are composed of phrase regimens or idioms (for example, reasoning, describing, knowing, questioning, showing and ordering) which are linked together in genres (such as capitalism, physics, sociology, Marxism, fascism, football culture, and so on). New voices arise which are incommensurable with existing phrase regimens and genres. Lyotard terms this site of incommensurability ‘the differend’. For him ‘politics’ is about creating new conceptual or linguistic phrases and linking them with established ones. From out of ‘the differend’ a new conceptual perspective is created. This allows the voices of those otherwise excluded, buried and silenced by existing phrase regimens or idioms and genres to speak and to be heard. Particularly, Lyotard seeks to apply this approach against the genre of capitalism.

Lyotard uses the example of land developers who want to purchase land sacred to Aborigines. Essentially, the two are before a judge which must decide on the issue. The Aborigine’s regard their land as sacred but cannot, for religious reasons, communicate this to non-members of their religion. Following the capitalistic genre the land developers wish to purchase the land to drill for oil. If they do not there will be social and economic consequences. A differend arises as the Aboriginal voices cannot be represented by the genre of capitalism. To reduce one genre to the judgement of the other is to commit injustice against the one reduced and silenced. As Bill Readings writes:

‘…the differend marks a point of incommensurability of dispute or difference where no criteria exists for judgement. The differend marks a point where existing representational frameworks are unable to deal with difference without repressing or reducing it.’(11)

The ‘differend’ marks the site of ‘otherness’, ‘difference’ and the emergence of the new. It is the responsibility of the philosopher to recognise differends, to facilitate a new means of articulation and communication by which the silenced voices of the differend can be expressed and received. Openness to differends is required for a politically and ethically just response to those whose voices are silenced and would be oppressed. Lyotard is particularly concerned to highlight those differends which arise against the genre of capitalism.

Lessons for democratic socialism

First, Marxism has been the genre employed by those on the left who seek social change. Marxism, according to Lyotard, was originally a response to the differend that emerged in the 19th century between capital and labour.(12) Despite originally seeking a new idiom through which the working class could speak, Marxism according to Lyotard, became a monolithic grand narrative, or genre, monopolising critical responses to capital. It ceased to listen to the labouring class and instead prescribed a-priori what it ought to do as stipulated by the ‘scientific’ party vanguard. Lyotard’s anti-capitalist politics are about witnessing the differend and aiding those who cannot as yet speak to become articulate in a new idiom. It is not about indiscriminately prescribing beforehand what ought and ought not to be done. Such an approach to emancipation is as oppressive as that it seeks to replace. If we are to avoid a dogmatic replication of an existing genre which ignores new voices then we must reject Marxism.

Understandably, the Marxist left has been scathing in its criticism of post-modernism. Marxist philosopher Nestor Kohan writes that post-modernism makes a fetishism out of its emphasis on the particular anomalies of capitalism without connecting them in a commonality.(13) As such it detrimentally fragments and isolates critical responses to capitalism. Instead, a global, grand-narrative or genre response to capitalism is required and it is found in Marxism. Here there is a connected common ‘subject’ (the proletariat), which is repressed by and resistive of capitalism.

Lyotard’s cardinal criticism is that Marxism, as modernism, precludes political action that deviates from its existing, prior genre and its criteria of truth and falsity, etc. It is not open to the new. It buries the new with its already existing narrative, silencing voices and committing injustice. We must bear witness to the differend for the sake of justice. Marxism cannot do this and accordingly must be rejected.

Secondly, does democratic socialism fare any better? We are to ‘judge without criteria’ in being open to ‘the differend’.(14) But as democratic socialists we do have an already existing critical narrative or genre concerning capitalism; are we to dispense with this and start from nothing so as to ‘judge without criteria’, and thus avoid smothering the differend? This would severely disable any critical response to capitalism; we would cease to be ‘socialists’ and would be acting blindly. So it appears we either cease to be democratic socialists and adopt Lyotard’s position or, we remain democratic socialists judging from existing theory and ignore ‘the differend’.

The ‘judging without criteria’ approach entails not judging indiscriminately from within existing narratives. However, openness to the new is possible on the basis of selective reference from existing criteria in the tentative construction of new rules of representation. So this doesn’t strictly mean acting blindly. Thus it is possible to be receptive to ‘the differend’ from a position within an already existing genre without prejudging it. Lyotard writes as much when he says that justice is about creating new links between phrase regimes – presumably already existing phrase regimes. So a tentative and receptive dialogue between existing genres such as democratic socialism and ‘the differend’ is required.

This does not follow. Differends are by definition irreconcilable with existing idioms and genres including that of democratic socialism. They are to be articulated anew. This criticism would hold if democratic socialism were a static genre. It is not. Democratic socialism has responded to its failures, sought to articulate new voices that would otherwise be silenced by modifying and revising its genre.(15) As written above, democratic socialism can forge new links between its existing phrase regimens and the differend. Its dialogical flexibility makes it more suited to this than the rigid ‘scientific’ socialism of Marxism.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Lyotard favours rejecting consensus in favour of ‘dissensus’.(16) A plurality of responses to differends is to be encouraged. As there are to be many acts of difference to the grand narrative or genre of capitalism, a plurality of differends is to be encouraged. This plurality of responses to the capitalist genre is not reconcilable with a single genre of democratic socialism, however flexible or revisionist. So the reconcilability of the democratic socialist genre to differends is ruled out.

In respect of responses to the capitalist grand narrative there will be a commonality. Grievances will emerge and possess a commonality. They will therefore be capable of being related in a common genre. Again, Lyotard would respond that there are many responses to differends and not just one. We can testify to this when we see the different responses to capitalism arising from nationalists, fascists, communists, democratic socialists, liberals, ecologists, conservative traditionalists, and so on. For different reasons from different perspectives capitalism is opposed. A critical perspective toward capitalism does not make for commonality which could be articulated by democratic socialism. In this respect, Lyotard is not reconcilable with democratic socialism.


For most of his intellectual life, Lyotard vigorously opposed ‘grand narratives’, genres, structures, texts, etc which precluded any alternative means of articulation or representation. He is unlikely therefore to advocate the replacement of the capitalistic grand narrative with the Marxist one. Marxism is not responsive to new voices, to differends.

Democratic socialism appears to be the better candidate as it is so responsive. Because it is responsive to its failures, to refutations, it is a genre subject to revision. As such it is open to new voices who seek representation. Not even this will suffice as Lyotard does not argue for new links to expand existing genres or narratives. He argues for the creation of new means of articulation and representation diverging from those existing. Despite its otherwise responsiveness as an existing genre, the expansion of democratic socialism is not what Lyotard wants. In this respect, democratic socialism and Lyotardian post- modernism are irreconcilable.

There are genres and genres. One that is rigid is qualitatively different from one which is flexible. The latter is able to revise itself in the light of new social changes, events and dynamics. Democratic socialism of the democratic left meets this criterion. It creates a common genre expressing common interests, needs and perspectives. If flexible, if subject to revision and criticism, there is less scope for it to silence new voices that cannot as yet speak.

Insofar as Lyotard implores us to be open to the new, the unrepresentable, inexpressible, he is of use to democratic socialism. Insofar as he advocates dissensus as a response to a grand narrative he is of no use to democratic socialism.


1. Alex Callinicos, Against Post-Modernism, Cambridge 1990. Nestor Kohan, Post-Modernism, Commodity Fetishism and Hegemony, International Socialism 105. Fredric Jameson, Post-Modernism or the Cultural Logic Of Late Capitalism, Verso 1991.

2. John Locke, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Everyman 1994. David Hume, Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Oxford 1987.

3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Everyman 1992.

4. GWF Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford 1979. Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hacket 1993.

5. For historical materialism see Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Lawrence & Wishart 1996. For class struggle and political prescription see Marx & Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Penguin 1972. For dialectical materialism see Marx & Engels, Anti-Duhring, Peking 1976; Alan Woods & Ted Grant, Reason In Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Science, Wellred 1995. This is an application of the ‘dialectical method’ of Marxist philosophy. Rather rudimentary and not convincing.

6. Todd May, Reconsidering Difference, Penn State University Press 1997.

7. For Gilles Deleuze, difference is inherent to structures or planes of concepts thereby disrupting them. What Is Philosophy?, Paris, 1991. Emmanuel Levinas highlights otherness to structures found in the ethical call of ‘the Other’. Totality and Infinity, Duquesne University Press 1969. For Jacques Derrida difference is inherent to texts by which we construct our experience. Difference permits texts to be deconstructed revealing different meanings. Of Grammatology; Writing and Difference, Routledge 2004. Peggy Kamuf (ed), Behind the Blinds: A Derrida Reader, Harvester Wheatsheaf. Michel Foucault locates difference in the transgression of existing discursive regimes of power by which our identities are constructed. See: Madness and Civilisation, Penguin 1991. The Archaeology of Knowledge, Penguin 1991. Discipline and Punish, Penguin 1991. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1, 2, 3, Penguin 1991. Paul Rabinow (ed), A Foucault Reader, Penguin 1984.

8. Jean Francois Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press 1984.

9. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell 1991. Language games attend ‘rules’ of thought and action (discursivity) indicative of a ‘form of life’. For example, a form of life in a work place (its history, events, familiarity with staff, their lives, their characters, familiarity with policies, procedures and so on) links with a corresponding language game. Language games, their rules are socially learned. In this sense an isolated, autonomous individual (of liberalism) does not use and command language. S/he is immersed into language and the established view of the universe inherent in it. Hence the extreme view that we do not use language, language uses us.

10. Jean Francois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Manchester University Press 1988. I have chosen this work as the texts prior to it appear developmental to me. The differend represents his mature approach to issues. Most notably, the emphasis on that which is different to, ‘un-harmonisable’ with modernist narratives, structure, texts, representation. See also: Jean Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Blackwell 1991.

11. ‘Glossary’, Bill Readings, Introducing Lyotard: Art and Politics, Routledge 1991.

12. The Differend, op cite, p171.

13. Nestor Kohan. op cite.

14. Lyotard, Just Gaming, op cite, p26. Opposed to judging indiscriminately and determinately from an already existing criteria or grand narrative model, judging ought to be indeterminate, sensitive and on a case by case basis; discriminately utilising existing models where deemed applicable and constructing new rules where applicable. Lyotard also terms this approach to paganism although it is dropped by the time of the differend.

15. Democratic socialism has a history of amending itself to accommodate social changes. Although modernisation has become synonymous with the controversial ‘new’ Labour project (a project more kindred to neo-liberalism insofar as it has any substantive political philosophy) the democratic left has historically revised and modified its theory. Whilst the fundamentalist left dogmatically retains a certain perspective, thinking socialists maintain a dialogue with social reality. I’m thinking here of organisations such as Compass, Independent Labour Publications, among others.

16. The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, op cite, p45.