It seems rather odd in this day and age to deny the existence of Cultural Marxism as an intellectual movement. But it seems that this meme has been gaining traction lately on the left. It was recently the subject of a rather low quality, but nonetheless enlightening, editorial in the Guardian by one Jason Wilson.
So what does Wilson mean when he says that “the theory of cultural Marxism is integral to the fantasy life of the contemporary right.”? The first question I would ask anyone making this claim is “What do you mean when you say Cultural Marxism?” Wilson has an explanation for that, and it’s not entirely bad.
It begins in the 1910s and 1920s. When the socialist revolution failed to materialise beyond the Soviet Union, Marxist thinkers like Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs tried to explain why. Their answer was that culture and religion blunted the proletariat’s desire to revolt, and the solution was that Marxists should carry out a “long march through the institutions” – universities and schools, government bureaucracies and the media – so that cultural values could be progressively changed from above.
Adapting this, later thinkers of the Frankfurt School decided that the key to destroying capitalism was to mix up Marx with a bit of Freud, since workers were not only economically oppressed, but made orderly by sexual repression and other social conventions. The problem was not only capitalism as an economic system, but the family, gender hierarchies, normal sexuality – in short, the whole suite of traditional western values.
The conspiracy theorists claim that these “cultural Marxists” began to use insidious forms of psychological manipulation to upend the west. Then, when Nazism forced the (mostly Jewish) members of the Frankfurt School to move to America, they had, the story goes, a chance to undermine the culture and values that had sustained the world’s most powerful capitalist nation.
The vogue for the ideas of theorists like Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno in the 1960s counterculture culminated with their acolytes’ occupation of the commanding heights of the most important cultural institutions, from universities to Hollywood studios. There, the conspiracy says, they promoted and even enforced ideas which were intended to destroy traditional Christian values and overthrow free enterprise: feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights and atheism. And this, apparently, is where political correctness came from. I promise you: this is what they really think.
Upon reading this, my first reaction was to ask what exactly is so far-fetched about this framing? After all, this is a rather concise, if somewhat erroneous, history of some of the major players and ideas that have informed the current left wing discourse on race and gender (along with an increasing number of niche oppressed groups and identity politics rent-seekers). The problem is that Wilson is presenting this story as a grand conspiracy starting with Gramsci and ending with Brian Williams’ daughter getting analingus on primetime TV.
As long as it’s framed as a grand conspiracy, then sure I suppose you could deny that Cultural Marxism exists. But that’s not really how intellectual and political movements operate. It’s not as if the marching orders were given by Gramsci and then passed down through generations of left-wing intelligentsia and media elites who dutifully carry them out in a centrally planned and consciously directed conspiracy to destroy white Christian society and undermine Western Civilization. I mean, it’s almost like that, but not entirely.
The concept that Wilson seems to not understand, along with much of the rest of the left, is that of Schelling points. Once you have people in disparate locations acting out of shared concerns, then there is no need for conscious direction and conspiring. And indeed intellectuals like Gramsci, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno among others were very successful at disseminating their theories into the discourse of the left. These theories, particularly those concerning race, sexuality and oppression have now extended into the public consciousness at large. These are the major concerns of the left today, even if the original ideas have been altered and developed by subsequent generations of intellectuals, activists and rent-seekers. So there is really no conspiracy necessary. Calling this a conspiracy is analogous to calling Libertarianism a conspiracy because it started with the theories of Ludwig von Mises and ended with the Ron Paul campaign.
Another bone of contention that is often brought up is the labeling of this body of ideas “Marxism.” This drives orthodox Marxists in particular crazy. But there is no question that most of the intellectuals listed considered themselves Marxists and were anti-capitalist in orientation. In addition to that, there is good reason to consider the growing body of critical race, gender and whatever else theory as basically Marxist in character. Marxism is concerned with the revolution of an oppressed class against their oppressors. Cultural Marxism simply switches the roles of oppressed and oppressor from the classical notions of the proletariat and bourgeoisie to racial minorities, homosexuals, women etc., and the majority white Christian culture. But the basic mechanics and rhetoric remain the same. In any case, the argument Wilson is pulling here is entirely semantic, as there is really no question that these theories and ideas are in fact promoted on campus and in a less intellectualized form disseminated in the media. They are also reflected in government and corporate policies on diversity awareness and training and such.
So on what grounds would you actually say that Cultural Marxism is not alive and well at present? According to Wilson the entire notion is “transparently barmy” because:
“If humanities faculties are really geared to brainwashing students into accepting the postulates of far-left ideology, the composition of western parliaments and presidencies and the roaring success of corporate capitalism suggests they’re doing an astoundingly bad job. Anyone who takes a cool look at the last three decades of politics will think it bizarre that anyone could interpret what’s happened as the triumph of an all-powerful left.”
So in other words, since there are still opponents with political power and corporate capitalism is still a thing, then Cultural Marxism obviously doesn’t real. Cool story. You could use this same logic to argue that Classical Marxism never existed either, since capitalism still exists and it existed throughout the entire time that Classical Marxism was a major intellectual and political movement.
Perhaps even funnier is that in the process of claiming that Cultural Marxism doesn’t exist, Wilson can’t help but engage in a bit of it himself when he explains why such a “transparently barmy” theory persists on the right:
“It allows those smarting from a loss of privilege to be offered the shroud of victimhood, by pointing to a shadowy, omnipresent, quasi-foreign elite who are attempting to destroy all that is good in the world. It offers an explanation for the decline of families, small towns, patriarchal authority, and unchallenged white power: a vast, century-long left wing conspiracy.”
This is particularly ironic considering that the notion that right-wing views spring from psychological insecurities rather than an honest appraisal of the political situation comes straight out of Frankfurt School doctrine, and is a common theme that is very popular with the left today.
In the end the argument is just a semantic shell game used by leftists to avoid any discussion or criticism of actual ideas and policies and keep the debate focused on word games and obfuscation. Cultural Marxism is a useful and coherent label for a body of easily recognizable leftist theories and ideas concerning identity politics and oppression. We could just as easily call it Flying Spaghetti Marxism for all it matters though. What is important is the substance, which people like Wilson never actually want to discuss.