Cogito

Cultural Marxism and our current culture wars: Part 1

Nalbandyan.

In a recent post at Cogito on the problem of cultural and political Manichaeism, I mentioned the apocalyptic manifesto of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik. Breivik was convicted of 77 murders that he perpetrated in July 2011. He is one of many right-wing ideologues who believe in a concerted effort by an elite of “cultural Marxists” to destroy Western morality and civilization.

Overall, my post was well-received, but one response (via Twitter) was to the effect that cultural Marxism is a real phenomenon, with evidence for it all around us. Hence, it was suggested, I should not have been so dismissive. I’m following up to clarify my larger views about cultural Marxism, if such a thing exists.

In this post, I propose to distinguish some possible meanings of the term “cultural Marxism”, and I will briefly identify an academic usage that seems to me defensible. In Part 2, to be published next week, I’ll delve more deeply into the difference between academic and other uses – and I’ll conclude with recommendations.

Some distinctions

I don’t doubt that there is a phenomenon (or a cluster of phenomena) that can legitimately be labeled “cultural Marxism”. I’ll return to this, but for the moment I emphasize that some intellectual historians and other academics have found the term useful. However, cultural Marxism in this academic sense bears only a slight resemblance to the grand, semi-conspiratorial, civilization-wrecking ideology described by Breivik and others.

To complicate the issue further, the term “cultural Marxism”, when used informally, often seems to refer to nothing more than left-wing cultural criticism. Clearly enough, this is prevalent within academia and in some corners of the internet. However, it’s not obvious why left-wing cultural criticism should, in itself, be considered a bad thing. Indeed, some of my own writing on popular culture could be viewed as cultural criticism from a perspective that is vaguely left of the political centre. None of it, however, seriously qualifies as an expression of cultural Marxism.

Sometimes, when people complain about “cultural Marxism”, their emphasis seems to be on something more specific. They are thinking, perhaps, of a left-wing variety of cultural authoritarianism: a tendency to criticize movies, video games, and other cultural products in a very harsh way that implies a need for government censorship. Short of that, it may at least imply the need for aggressive social policing and an environment of public shaming.

Again, I don’t doubt that this kind of left-wing authoritarianism is a genuine phenomenon. It is common in some areas of academia and elsewhere, including among some networks of bloggers or journalists. I agree that it can be a bad thing, at least to an extent, but there is not necessarily anything very Marxist about it. Some of it may be little more than a rationalization, in political jargon, of a distaste for depictions of violence and overt displays of sexuality. That has very little to do with the civilization-level subversion of values described in Breivik’s manifesto. Indeed, much of it involves resistance to elements of popular culture that are immoral by traditional standards.

If we discern an authoritarian tendency in, for example, consumer campaigns to restrict the marketing of Grand Theft Auto V, we can speak up and express our dissent. But I doubt that left-wing hostility to GTA V is best explained as cultural Marxism. Surely there are reasons for the hostility based on more commonplace concerns about violence (especially sexualized violence) in our entertainment media.

Cultural authoritarians and libertarians

For all that, there does, indeed, appear to be something of a culture war going on between people who might be considered cultural authoritarians, fought against others who could be classed as cultural libertarians (I’m borrowing the latter term from controversial Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos… love him or hate him, he has introduced some useful terminology). To some extent, this twenty-first-century culture war cuts across political/economic classifications of Left and Right.

In many situations, I would line up with the cultural libertarians. Perhaps they are my tribe. On particular occasions, however, I’ve found myself involved in quarrels with them. They sometimes appear insufficiently sensitive to language, tropes, and images that can operate to belittle or demean women. I’m not dogmatic, though, when I engage in those debates, and I acknowledge that specific images (for example) can be open to numerous reasonable interpretations. In any event, I doubt that Marxism of any kind (or opposition to it) has much relevance to disputes like these.

Perhaps a different expression, such as “cultural Stalinism”, could be employed for some culturally authoritarian interventions: “cultural Stalinism” suggests an analogy with Soviet attempts to police art and culture. If so, however, that takes us no closer to accepting a grand historical narrative such as Breivik’s.

So far, then, I’ve identified little justification for the term “cultural Marxism”. At most, there can be a mindset of left-wing cultural authoritarianism that has little to do with Marx and may, ironically, have much to do with defending traditional values.

There are also, let’s take note, culturally authoritarian mindsets associated with the political Right. These tend to be straightforwardly and overtly protective of traditional Christian values and attitudes.

The Wikipedia dispute over cultural Marxism

That might be the end of the matter, except that the term “cultural Marxism” is sometimes used by mainstream intellectual historians and other academics.

For that reason, I have been unhappy with a decision by Wikipedia – carried out on 30 December 2014 – to delete its longstanding article on the subject of cultural Marxism. This seems, itself, to have been an unnecessary and provocative action in the current culture wars. Indeed, as a Wikipedia editor and administrator in good standing I took part in some unsuccessful efforts to oppose or reverse the article’s deletion. As a further disclaimer, I have even assisted in some (rather futile) behind-the-scenes efforts to develop a better Wikipedia article on the subject.

Unfortunately, there is intransigent, vehement, and (to date) successful opposition from some well-entrenched Wikipedia editors to the existence of any “cultural Marxism” article.

Even more unfortunately, Wikipedia, which aspires to be a neutral compendium of human knowledge, has itself become a site for culture wars, with editors representing rival political tribes frequently attempting to impose their respective narratives as the official version of one or another cultural controversy.

Wikipedia is a useful starting point for research, especially on topics that push no one’s emotional buttons. It is a project that has my gratitude and support, and I have put in many hours over the years contributing as and when I could. Sadly, however, its articles have little credibility when it comes to explaining contemporary cultural and political controversies. The debacle over an article on cultural Marxism is a good example.

The academic use of “cultural Marxism”

Contrary to those polemicists who’d deny all legitimate uses of the term “cultural Marxism”, it has been in circulation for over forty years. Its meaning remains somewhat unclear and contested, but there is at least some commonality of understanding.

Although the term is often applied pejoratively, it has a more scholarly meaning that connects to the cultural turn within Western Marxism since approximately the 1920s and especially after World War II. This turn from Soviet style communism found popularity in the late 1950s with left-wing critiques of the USSR (and Nikita Khrushchev’s own denunciation of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin), then grew increasingly with the development of cultural studies as an academic discipline (initially in the United Kingdom, with considerable early take-up in Australia).

Thus, Richard R. Weiner writes: “In response to a complex of problems which labor movements in advanced industrial societies have not been capable of solving either theoretically or practically, there emerged in the wanderings of social and political movements in the 1960s and 1970s a culturally oriented perspective.” Weiner adds that this perspective “may actually have taken off in 1956” with a series of events that alienated Western thinkers from Soviet-style communism, not least Khrushchev’s invasion of Hungary (Weiner, Cultural Marxism and Political Sociology, Beverly Hills and London: Sage, 1981, pp. 117-118).

Weiner attributes the actual term “cultural Marxism” to Trent Schroyer in the latter’s 1973 book, The Critique of Domination: The Origins and Development of Critical Theory (Weiner, Cultural Marxism and Political Sociology, p. 36). The Critique of Domination was prominent in its day, and it was a nominee in the 1974 National Book Awards for the “Philosophy and Religion” category.

Schroyer’s use of the term “cultural Marxism” is the earliest that I have been able to find, and he relates it specifically to what he sees as a “crisis theory” employed by the Frankfurt School of Marxist intellectuals. He also refers to other theorists whom he sees as sharing this crisis theory, such as György Lukács and Henri Lefebvre. It is worth pausing to get an idea of what Schroyer meant by this term that has since become so controversial. In Part 2, I’ll return to Schroyer’s analysis in some detail, and I’ll go on to examine the phenomenon of British cultural Marxism, perhaps best explained in the writings of intellectual historian Dennis Dworkin.

Conclusion

Meanwhile, we can conclude that the term “cultural Marxism” has a variety of uses – scholarly, ideological, and more popular. It is employed by extreme right-wing ideologues, such as Breivik, in grandiose theories that have little credibility, and it is used popularly in ways that show little understanding of its history or its original meaning.

Nonetheless, it is has also been useful for mainstream scholars who tend, themselves, to be Marxists or sympathetic to Marxist thought – for example, Trent Schroyer and (more recently) Dennis Dworkin.

I don’t, therefore, propose that the term “cultural Marxism” simply be expunged, assuming that were possible. As far as the Wikipedia dispute goes, it is unfortunate that the encyclopedia has not been able to obtain some agreement among its editors on a neutral and scholarly article relating to the term. It is in common use - a familiar meme - so Wikipedia should provide solid information about it.

Unfortunately, this reflects Wikipedia’s more general woes, insofar as it has become yet another battleground for rival culture warriors.

[Edit 4 August 2015: Part 2 of this article can be found here.]