Cultural Marxism and our current culture wars: Part 2

Paul Klee Angelus Novus.

In Part 1 of this article, I concluded that the term “cultural Marxism” has a variety of uses. It has been employed by right-wing ideologues, such as Anders Breivik, in grandiose theories of cultural history; and it is flung about popularly in ways that show little understanding of its history or its original meaning. Nonetheless, it has also been useful for some mainstream scholars who tend, themselves, to be sympathetic to Marxist thought.

In this follow-up post, I will elaborate and make some relevant recommendations.

Trent Schroyer on the Frankfurt School

As far as I have been able to trace the term “cultural Marxism”, it appears to have been coined by Trent Schroyer, who employed it in his 1973 book The Critique of Domination: The Origins and Development of Critical Theory. Schroyer was especially interested in the work of the Frankfurt School, but also in that of other Western Marxist thinkers, such as Henri Lefebvre, whom he as saw as engaged in the “critique”.

References to “the Frankfurt School” are to a group of scholars who were associated with the Institute for Social Research, founded in Frankfurt in 1923. Among the most influential scholars connected with the Institute at one time or another were Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and (later) Jürgen Habermas. The Institute evolved its orientation over time - most dramatically in 1930 when Horkheimer became its director - and in the late 1930s it adopted the deliberately obscure term “critical theory” as a label for its method(s) of analysis.

During that decade, Institute scholars were forced out of Germany (initially to Geneva and then to the United States) by the rise of the Nazi Party. After the end of World War II, however, a number of them returned to Europe. Adorno and Horkheimer, whose major publications were perhaps the most crucial contributions to the Institute’s program of social and cultural critique, returned to Frankfurt in 1949.

Schroyer opens The Critique of Domination by declaring that, “The critique of domination, or the reflective critique of socially unnecessary constraints of human freedom, is as old as the Western concept of reason” (Critique of Domination, p. 15).

As he develops his thesis, Schroyer explains the “crisis theory”, shared by the Frankfurt School with other “cultural Marxists”, as identifying a social process of rationalizing endless growth. This forces social-cultural processes to adapt in ways that undermine individual autonomy (Critique of Domination, p. 171). More specifically, Schroyer explains the central idea of the Frankfurt School as follows: “As advanced industrial societies developed, the individual was more integrated into and dependent upon the collectivity and less able to utilize society for active self-expression” (Critique of Domination, p. 227).

Schroyer describes the work of the Frankfurt School in analysing the contemporary “culture industry” (including philosophy, social theory, art, music, and literature) and contemporary manifestations of social institutions such as the state and the family. As expounded in The Critique of Domination, this body of cultural criticism, particularly the work of Horkheimer and Adorno, unmasks contemporary culture - and notably mass culture - as a system of social domination of the individual.

Schroyer was, and is, a genuine scholar presenting a thesis that was received and reviewed seriously. He seems generally correct in his description of Western Marxism’s departure from Soviet Marxism, with an emphasis on cultural critique and a different set of attitudes to culture itself. More specifically, the unmasking of culture as complicit in social domination of the individual was a central idea within the intellectual ambitions of the Frankfurt School. Similar ideas of unmasking and criticizing the role of culture can be observed more broadly within Western Marxism - and in what we might call “Western post-Marxism” - from at least the 1920s to the present day.

These remain vital organising ideas for the study and criticism of culture from Marxist or post-Marxist perspectives.

British cultural Marxism

Broadly Marxist critique of specifically British culture assumed increasing prominence from 1956, when both the New Reasoner and the Universities and Left Review were founded as important journals of socialist thought in the UK (Ioan Davies, “British Cultural Marxism,” p. 324). These later amalgamated in 1960 to become the New Left Review.

In that historical and social context, the modern academic discipline of cultural studies emerged within the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham (hence the common references to a “Birmingham School” of cultural critique). Here, Raymond Williams became a leading figure, drawing on both Marxist theory and established forms of British literary criticism, especially that of F.R. and Q.D. Leavis (Davies, “British Cultural Marxism”, p. 329).

Dennis Dworkin, an intellectual historian who has written extensively on British Marxist thought, suggests that the writings of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School were influential in the UK in the 1960s, and that they had a major impact on the development of cultural studies. Gramsci particularly influenced Raymond Williams and historian E.P. Thompson (Dworkin, Class Struggles, pp. 55-58).

Gramsci’s major body of work – his voluminous collection of Prison Notebooks – was not published until the 1950s, long after his death in 1937 and too late for him to exert any significant influence on the Frankfurt School. However, his ideas became increasingly influential in the 1950s and 1960s, and especially in the 1970s with the publication, in 1971, of an English translation of selections from the Prison Notebooks.

In the upshot, the British tradition of Marxism, especially over the past fifty to sixty years, has been influenced by theorists who emphasize certain styles of critique, including the idea of popular and mass culture as complicit in social domination of the individual and the hegemony of bourgeois ideology.

As Vesa Oittinen expresses some of this in The Encyclopedia of Political Thought: “The British Marxist tradition has usually been described as ‘cultural Marxism,’ as an attempt to apply basic ideas of historical materialism on the analyses of culture (Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton), but Christopher Hill ( 1997 [1965]) and E. P. Thompson ( 1963) stay much nearer the original traditions of historical materialism” (Oittinen, “Historical Materialism,” The Encyclopedia of Political Thought, p. 2).

Use by recent conservatives

Although the term “cultural Marxism” is used by mainstream academic figures, it has obtained greater prominence since the 1990s from its weaponized use by right-wing political commentators such as William S. Lind and Pat Buchanan.

For these culture warriors, cultural Marxism (or, often, “Cultural Marxism”) is associated with a program of moral degeneracy and subversion of traditional Western values - particularly Christian “family values” and moral teachings. On this understanding, cultural Marxism is linked, or equated, to political correctness, itself viewed as morally subversive and degenerate. Anders Breivik’s disjointed manifesto offers an extreme example of this kind of thinking.

It is not clear to me whether Lind and others on the culturally conservative Right invented the term “cultural Marxism” independently, or whether they co-opted the earlier usage of scholars such as Schroyer. I find it difficult to believe that they were entirely unaware of Schroyer’s relatively well-known work; however, I am not aware of any of their writings in which they specifically cite The Critique of Domination (if readers know of any, I’d welcome the information).

Nonetheless, there is at least a minimal commonality between the work of Marxist scholars such as Schroyer and the theories of right-wing culture warriors. To some extent they were focusing on the same tendencies in Western Marxism. Thus, there is a grain of truth even in Breivik’s conspiracy theorizing, and I wonder whether this might explain the hostility to including an article on “cultural Marxism” in Wikipedia. The same scholarship that supports Schroyer’s analysis, for example, gives a degree of superficial credibility to the likes of Lind, Buchanan, or Breivik.

Scholars such as Schroyer and Dennis Dworkin do not, however, suggest that the Frankfurt School or other “cultural Marxists” ever had a plan to destroy the moral fibre of Western civilization, or to use their critique of culture as a springboard to a totalitarian regime. That would be difficult to argue in all seriousness because Western “cultural Marxists” going back to the 1920s have typically been hostile to state power, social oppression of the individual, and Soviet Marxism itself. Moreover, they have shown considerable variation among themselves in their attitudes to specific social, moral, and cultural issues. There is no cultural Marxist master plan.

More generally, serious intellectual history cannot ignore the complex cross-currents of thought within the Left in Western liberal democracies. The Left has always been riven with factionalism, not least in recent decades, and it now houses diverse attitudes to almost any imaginable aspect of culture (as well as to traditional economic issues). Many components of the Western cultural Left can only be understood when seen as (in part) reactions to other such components, while being deeply influenced by Western Marxism’s widespread criticism and rejection of Soviet communism.

In the upshot, all the talk of cultural Marxism from figures on the (far) Right of politics is of little aid to understanding our current cultural and political situation. At best, this conception of cultural Marxism is too blunt an intellectual instrument to be useful for analysing current trends. At its worst, it mixes wild conspiracy theorizing with self-righteous moralism.

Marxism and post-Marxism

None of this is to deny the moderate thesis that much contemporary cultural criticism has roots that trace back to the 1960s New Left, the Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools, and various Marxist theories of culture. In that sense, contemporary cultural criticism extends a cultural Marxist tradition, but this tradition largely defined itself against Soviet Marxism. Theoretically, at least, it displays an antipathy to authoritarianism, and it aspires to liberate the autonomy of individuals.

Furthermore, contemporary cultural criticism (and much left-wing political thought and activism) has morphed into a form of Western post-Marxism. It has not only turned away from Marxist-Leninism, but evolved to a point where it has lost much contact with Marxism itself.

Current left-wing activism can, indeed, display hyperbolic, philistine, and authoritarian tendencies, but these have little to do with any influence from Marx, Soviet totalitarianism, or the work of the Frankfurt School. They have more, I suspect, to do with tendencies toward moral and political purity in almost any movement that seeks social change.


Right-wing culture warriors will go on employing the expression “cultural Marxism” (or “Cultural Marxism”) in a pejorative way, attaching it to dubious, sometimes paranoid, theories of cultural history. There is nothing I can do to discourage this usage, and nor can I deny that it includes grains of truth in, for example, associating a more culture-oriented approach to Marxism with the Frankfurt School. I assume that this weaponized usage will continue.

In those circumstances, what can the rest of us do? I don’t suggest that intellectual historians such as Dennis Dworkin abandon their use of the term in the general sense that I’ve traced to back to Schroyer in 1973. It is clearly up to them how useful they find the term in discussing tendencies in Western - and specifically including British - Marxism. They might, however, be wise to look carefully at the usage popularized by right-wing commentators, and to clarify how their own usage differs.

Outside of historical scholarship, and discussions of the history and current state of Western Marxism, we need to be careful. In everyday contexts, those of us who do not accept the narrative of a grand, semi-conspiratorial movement aimed at producing moral degeneracy should probably avoid using the term “cultural Marxism”.

Unfortunate cultural tendencies, including those that manifest a left-wing style of authoritarianism, can usually be labelled in less confusing, more effective, more precise ways. By all means, let’s develop useful terminology to express whatever concerns we have about tendencies on the Left, but “cultural Marxism” carries too much baggage.

All the same, the term is widely used, often without explanation. As I stated in Part 1, it has become a familiar meme. Given the confusion surrounding it, it is worth getting together some information on how the term “cultural Marxism” has been employed – whether by right-wing culture warriors, serious scholars, or occasional individuals who might be mixtures of both – what circumstances and ambitions have motivated its use in different contexts, and what real or imaginary social tendencies it denotes.

Like other controversial expressions with complex histories (“political correctness” is another that comes to mind), “cultural Marxism” is a term that needs careful unpacking. This two-part article has been my contribution toward that task. With accurate information about this meme, we can decide for ourselves how, and whether, we wish to use it.

Select bibliography

Anders Behring Breivik. “2083 – A European Declaration of Independence.” (Available online.)

Ioan Davies. “British Cultural Marxism.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 4(3) (1991): 323-344.

Dennis Dworkin. Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain: History, the New Left and the Origins of Cultural Studies. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Dennis Dworkin. Class Struggles. Edinburgh: Pearson, 2007.

Paul Gottfried. The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2005.

Vesa Oittinen. “Historical Materialism.” In The Encyclopedia of Political Thought (online edition). Wiley-Blackwell, September 2014.

Trent Schroyer. The Critique of Domination: The Origins and Development of Critical Theory. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975 (orig. pub. George Brazillier, 1973).

Richard R. Weiner. Cultural Marxism and Political Sociology. Beverly Hills and London: Sage, 1981.