Thoughts on the term "Cultural Marxism"

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This article has been republished with permission from author Barra Cinel Moen. It is his wish to make it be known that the views contained within are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Liberalist International Association or Liberalists Ireland


There are few words in today’s political landscape guaranteed to cause more contention and confusion than Cultural Marxism: a term which entered the popular social-media lexicon around the same time as Alt-Right, with both serving as a feature of the mania which has permeated the left and the right in the wake of President Trump.  To some, the term denotes a conspiracy theory according to which nefarious philosophers and cultural institutions are secretly the driving force behind modern left-identity politics.  To others, it refers to a credible social phenomenon in which the influence of older philosophies (particularly Classical Marxism, The Frankfurt School and Postmodernism) can be discerned in the actions and rhetoric of left-identitarians[1].

As is often the case when the internet goes to war over a concept, the opposing sides ultimately end up talking past each other as one uses it as a brush with which to tar anyone they disagree with, while the other uses the term’s mere existence as an excuse to ignore criticisms which even vaguely resemble the ones it implies.

An example of the latter would be the YouTuber ContraPoints: who notably refers to Cultural Marxism as a “Nazi conspiracy theory about Marxist intellectuals plotting to destroy the west,” in an otherwise balanced . . . ish video addressing Jordan Peterson.  Though in the grand tradition of political YouTubers, she of course presents no evidence to support this generalization and instead provides links to her own videos in lieu of citations[2].

Speaking of Jordan Peterson: the Canadian Psychologist has indeed done much to popularize notions such as Postmodernism and Neo-Marxism (which appears to mean something like The Frankfurt School) over the last couple of years, particularly regarding their perceived links with contemporary left-wing subjectivism, violence, and authoritarianism (though as far as I’m aware, he has never referred to this as Cultural Marxism).

However, he has also rightly drawn criticism for failing to explain what these terms mean to a non-philosophically literate audience, even if those who have studied these philosophies can often grasp what he’s talking about.  And this is emblematic of a problem which pervades those groups which call people “Cultural Marxists”: that even if the intellectual history which the term implies is valid, the people who use it are often too ignorant of Marxism, The Frankfurt School or Postmodernism to present a compelling case.

In fairness to Dr Peterson (who clearly does understand these concepts), these are exceptionally difficult schools of thought to grapple with, and it would perhaps not be the best use of his time to launch into a detailed exposition during a live lecture: especially since, if some of his critics are anything to go by, many people already struggle to understand what he’s saying.  Nonetheless the lack of understanding surrounding these ideas (which Peterson has not endeavored to correct, as far as I’m aware) is not a good thing for those who oppose the identitarian tendencies in the right and the left.

To correct this deficiency, it is necessary to understand the history of the movements which supposedly have influenced the modern left-wing identitarians: which is a daunting task since it involves doing more than reading the introduction to a Wikipedia page or watching a video by Paul Joseph Watson.

The Frankfurt School is a school of social theory which began in Germany during the interwar-period, though its Jewish-Marxist founders were forced to flee to the US because of the rise of Hitler.  While it remained firmly rooted in the Marxist tradition, the influence it had on popular culture probably owes as much to its divergence from Classical Marxist thought as to its alignment with it.  Carl Grünberg, the first director of the Institut für Sozialforschung (from which The Frankfurt School emerged) was highly critical of Marx’s transhistorical tendencies: which posited that history was bound to follow a certain path with Communism representing the final stage in human development[3].

Now admittedly, it’s hard to talk about this group of theorists without painting some broad strokes.  However, one of the most noteworthy features is their focus on culture (i.e. art, film, literature, the media, social etiquette etc): a preoccupation which doesn’t quite fit within Classical Marxism owing to the supposed nature of the superstructure[4].   Also relevant is their attitude toward truth, since on the one hand they rejected the notion of an objective truth, and developed a strong skepticism surrounding cultural truth claims.

However, they were also careful to avoid the trappings of pure subjectivism, since this would undermine the Marxist objective of their writings, so instead they largely settled for a kind of middle ground wherein truth is not determined by the individual, but it is a feature of societal norms that are subject to change as a result of cultural revolution.  The Marxist notion of Praxis was retained as kind of yard-stick against which historical trends could be measured[5].

This sort of-subjectivist approach to critiquing culture, but with an objective political agenda, should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has engaged with such schools of criticism as Gender Studies, Feminist Studies, Marxist Criticism or the like, and there’s no question that these academic disciplines have played a major role in shaping the worldview of groups like Anti-Fa.

What might not be obvious though is the influence of this thinking on other groups, including Right-Identitarians.  If you watch a video by the likes of Stefan Molyneux or Lauren Southern, you’re likely to encounter a depiction of the mainstream media as a politically biased cultural institution intent on brainwashing the masses into thinking a certain way, and this sounds suspiciously like the idea of the “Culture Industry” as developed by Frankfurt School theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer[6].

Hell, at times it sounds like they’re describing Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s “Propaganda-Model[7]”, only instead of including “anti-communism” in the final filter, they instead substitute “anti-westernism” or “anti-free marketism” as the media’s preferred ideology.  And of course the really scary thing about this perspective is that it’s not false (though in Chomsky’s case, “anti-communism” has certainly become quite dated).  Yes, the media is biased, and yes, they do want you to adopt their bias.  Unfortunately, critics of this practice from both the left and the right really don’t tend to be much better.

The influence of Postmodernism is harder to pin down: mostly because defining The Frankfurt School really is a piece of cake compared to explaining just what the hell is Postmodernism.  The situation is not helped by the fact that nobody is quite sure how to define Modernism, and how the two relate to each other seems to vary depending on which intellectual endeavor you are discussing.

In Architecture, Modernism refers to a genre that emerged in the early twentieth century which rejected older aesthetic traditions in favor of new designs which embraced the latest innovations in construction technology, and the idea that form should reflect function[8].  Postmodernism (which is actually the dominant mode of architecture today) refers to a tradition which developed out of Modernism and which follows many of the same principles.  Except that Postmodern architects reject the rigid uniformity of modern architecture, and are typically fond of design elements which are added for purely aesthetic value[9]

In literature, a Modernist writer could be someone like James Joyce, who broke from the ancient tradition of having stories revolve around exceptional individuals who perform extraordinary acts of cunning and heroism, and instead tried to elevate the experiences of ordinary people to the status of mythology.  A work of Postmodern writing might include the novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, which in a sense degrades the experience of everybody by portraying modern culture as a consumeristic façade which robs life of meaning and fosters isolation and depression (not to mention the author’s use of the Tyler Durden character to really fuck around with the notion of personal identity).

I’m not even getting into the clusterfuck of a topic that is Modern and Postmodern art, other than to say they’re both hideous and need to die.

The closest I’ve come to a working definition is this: wherever the term “Modernism” is used, it typically refers to a tradition which developed as a response to older traditions, ultimately rejecting many of the older traditions’ standards but without rejecting the idea that there should be standards in the first place.  Postmodernism typically refers to a tradition which developed in response to Modernism, ultimately rejecting both the older and newer standards, and without necessarily replacing them with anything (yes, I do need a whole paragraph just to provide these definitions).

And this in my opinion is where the influence of Postmodernism becomes dangerous, at least in the realm of subjects like Philosophy or Psychology (I’m actually quite fond of Postmodern architecture). Its skepticism applies to the ideals of the enlightenment- including the liberal principles which form the bedrock of all western-democracies- as well as to much older philosophical concepts such as reason, truth and ethics.  The extreme subjectivism which it entails leads to conclusions such as Michel Foucault’s claim that mental illness is a social construct[10]: a notion which I believe serves the interests of the mentally ill about as well as free booze serves the interests of an alcoholic.

Mix this with the legacy of The Frankfurt School (which I regard as the less insidious of the two, since it at least contains useful insights into the workings of the media), and what you get is arguably a worldview which combines the most extreme forms of cultural relativism with an explicit rejection of capitalism, free-speech[11], and objective reality itself.

This in my view accounts for some of the more astonishing aspects of modern left-identitarianism: such as when a western feminist professes to live in a patriarchal rape-culture yet is quick to cry “racism!” or “Islamophobia!” if someone brings up the treatment of women in certain other cultures.  Or when members of Anti-Fa decide to protest the violence and intolerance of the right by using smoke bombs, rocks and sticks against the participants in a non-violent political rally.

Ultimately, I don’t consider the term Cultural-Marxism to be all that useful, since the phenomenon it’s trying to describe is much too vague, broad and disjointed to be codified into a single concept.  Some people might see it as a loose term describing the direction of modern culture, but even here I think it only serves to confuse the issue, since its users often fail (if they are even capable) to provide the historical context necessary to understand what they’re talking about.  It’s also frankly misleading, since even if it’s true that schools of Marxism influenced the identitarian-left, it’s clear that this is far from the only influence, and indeed there are more of these than could be squeezed into this already-too-long article.  That being said, the influences of older philosophical frameworks on contemporary politics is an important subject, and suggestions in that area should not be written off as a “conspiracy theory” simply because of how some people view a certain term.  Nonetheless, as a rule it’s probably better to just name the specific influence that you think is at play in a given scenario.

[1] Used here to reference people whom other writers might refer to as “SJWs”:  Anti-Fa, Black Lives Matter etc.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LqZdkkBDas

[3] The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance by Rolf Wiggershaus

[4] This article contains several references to complex ideas which cannot be explained in detail without making the whole thing seem long and disjointed.  If readers would like to see them addressed in future pieces, let me know.

[5] For example, see Max Horkheimer’s Essay On The Problem of Truth

[6] Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer

[7] Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman

[8] “What is Modern architecture?”. Royal Institute of British Architects. Retrieved 21/10/2018.

[9] Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by Robert Venturi

[10] It must be said that Foucault’s Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason does contain important criticisms of how society treats the mentally ill.

[11] A caveat must be made here regarding Postmodernism and The Frankfurt School: while it is true Postmodernism does not entail a rejection of free-speech, it’s also not clear how one would defend free-speech from within a framework which renders all moral truths arbitrary.  It must also be said that some Frankfurt School theorists were proponents of free-speech.