“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” — H. L. Mencken
Cultural Marxism is a strange catch-all term being thrown around a lot these days. Why is it strange? Because if you scratch below its surface, all that seemed logical melts into air.
The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is used to cover feminism, multiculturalism, identity politics, civil rights, postmodernism, and globalism. It also is used recently to describe multiculturalist curricula in the education system.
Let’s take a look at these concepts in a little more detail:
Marxist ideas about women covered ideas of equality and examined the historical and contemporary position and exploitation of women. Marx and Engels wrote about death from overwork, cheap labour, women and children in the mills, etc.
They appear to have had a low opinion of feminism. In a letter from Engels to Paul Ernst, Engels writes:
“Furthermore, I am not at all acquainted with what you call the feminist movement in Scandinavia; I only know some of Ibsen’s dramas and have not the slightest idea whether or to what extent Ibsen can be considered responsible for the more or less hysterical effusions of bourgeois and petty bourgeois women careerists.”
Therefore, the inclusion of feminism into the meaning of cultural Marxism is odd.
Marxist ideas are based on the idea of citizenship and the state. All citizens should be treated equally under the law with the common identity of “citizen.”
However, it seems the deeper the political and financial crises of the state and the subsequent whittling down of the rights of the citizen, the more emphasis is put on multicultural policies, as if to provoke the majority population into negative reactions.
Marxist ideology is reflected in Article Two of the constitution of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic of 1918 whereby citizenship was held:
“(22) The Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, recognizing the equal rights of all citizens, irrespective of their racial or national connections, proclaims all privileges on this ground, as well as oppression of national minorities, to be contrary to the fundamental laws of the Republic.”
One description of multiculturalism in Western countries notes multiculturalism “was seen to combat racism, to protect minority communities of all types, and to undo policies that prevented minorities from having full access to the opportunities for freedom and equality promised by the liberalism hallmark of Western societies since the Age of Enlightenment.”
If it was necessary for minority groups to fight for rights, “to protect minority communities,” and “to undo policies that prevented minorities from having full access to opportunities,” then it seems this too also has very little to do with Marxist ideology.
Involvement in the historical struggle for basic human rights does not necessarily mean you are a Marxist. For example, the Bill of Rights definitely was not written by Marxists because it was approved in 1791, which is before Karl Marx was born.
Now class, please add “KARL MARX IS A BLACK GAY MUSLIM WOMAN” to ^this^ list in your textbooks.
Identity politics and civil rights
The same can be said for identity politics, whereby people of a particular religion or race form exclusive political alliances and move away from traditional broad-based party politics. It is true, minority cultural groups experienced exclusion in the past and today, and fight for their rights. The thing is, Marxist ideas focus on the concept of class, not race, religion, or ethnic group.
Marxist politics is formulated on the basis of class struggle, not the political objectives of individuals or minority groups. Furthermore, the term “identity politics” came into use in 1970s America. It isn’t a term Marx – or anyone else – threw around in their manifesto a hundred years ago.
Strangest of all is the inclusion of postmodernism in descriptions of Cultural Marxism. Postmodernism is a movement characterised by an attitude of rejection of meta-narratives, such as Marxism.
A meta-narrative (or grand narrative) is an over-arching theory which tries to give a totalizing, comprehensive account of history, culture, etc based upon an appeal to universal truth.
Postmodernism calls into question various assumptions of Enlightenment rationality, the idea of man free from Church-run society. Yet such Enlightenment ideas form the basis of Marxist philosophy and socialist ideology. Go figure.
Globalism is a word associated with with world-systems or other global trends. The term is associated with “post-war debates debates of the 1940s in the United States. In their position of unprecedented power, US planners formulated policies to shape the kind of postwar world they wanted, which, in economic terms, meant a globe-spanning capitalist order centered exclusively upon the United States.”
Marx advocated against a globe-spanning capitalist order, cultural or otherwise. Hence, we are more likely to find Marxist ideas in anti-globalisation movements.
It can be seen from all of the above, the basic ideas associated with “cultural Marxism” have more in common with crises of neo-liberalism and international capitalism than with actual Marxism.
It may be true the origins of ‘cultural Marxism’ lie in the Frankfurt school of the 1930s, in the attempts of critics like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin to mix Marxist ideas with Freud to break down the effects of the church and state on revolutionary consciousness, but it seems later on, absolutely anything not associated with the conservative values of the nationalist “white” Christian became ascribed to cultural Marxism.
How did that happen?
While the neo-nationalist so called “alt-right” ascribes many different ideas and movements to “cultural Marxism,” it can be shown in the main, these all actually benefit the political right. This is through the magic of monolithism (something having a uniform or inflexible quality or character), an approach used as a sleight of hand to implement other agendas. Below are three different ways monolithism can be used to stifle dissent:
In the education system, we begin to see monolithism used to appear “progressive” and concerned with minority issues (multiculturalism), while at the same time implementing a right-wing agenda. For example, recent changes in the French education system are criticised for devoting more time to a 14th century Malian king, Mansa Kankan Mussa, (who was also a great scholar, an economist as well as an art lover!) compared to the study of Napoleon, or even replacing French Revolution lessons all together.
By treating French history as monolithic (i.e. for the political right the threatening (revolutionary) and non-threatening elements can be treated as one), the baby can be thrown out with the bathwater, and the revolutionary tradition of the French people safely removed from the education system for your protection.
In this way, the anti-aristocracy progressive parts of French history can be removed, while appearing to be concerned about minority history instead. The added bonus is non-threatening ethnic historical figures can be chosen too. (A more subtle approach than in Ireland where the study of History is being made optional at junior cycle in the secondary schools…)
The second way dissent can be silenced using monolithism is to portray minority groups as being made up of similar people all sharing similar views, aka stereotyping.
As Kenan Malik writes:
“Multiculturalists tend to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogenous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith.
In so doing, they all too often ignore conflicts within those communities. All the dissent and diversity gets washed out. As a result, the most progressive voices often get silenced as not being truly of this community or truly authentic, while the most conservative voices get celebrated as community leaders, the so called “authentic” voices of minority groups.”
The ‘authentic’ conservative gets privileged over the dissenting critic, once again serving the agenda of the political right.
A third way monolithism works is in the change from the Marxist idea of class struggle (the proletariat vs the bourgeoisie) to categories of the oppressed vs the oppressor (a postmodern non-class concept). Yet again, we see a non-Marxist idea ascribed to the all purpose slur “cultural Marxism.” The oppressor is changed from the “bourgeoisie” to all “privileged” people.
For example, white people become the monolithic ‘oppressor,’ while black people become the ‘oppressed.’ The privileged vs the underprivileged, despite white people having very varied economic background. In America, white people economic status ranges everywhere from poverty level to plutocrat billionaire.
This way of grouping people (by colour, creed, ethnicity, and so on) socially constructs multiple identities, which are not class-based, and therefore, from the perspective of the political right, which historically by definition aligns with the aristocracy, is also non-threatening.
The irony is the main targets described by the term cultural Marxism all have in common is the removal of the class (or individual) dissenting elements, or simply have no connection with Marxist ideology at all. The overriding concern, then, is politics will be reduced to competing groups realigned along specific cultural boundaries, all blind to clever elite manipulation. Firing the term cultural Marxism at any divergent social, cultural or political activity will not enlighten people about what is really happening under their noses but will send them off tilting at windmills instead.
In summary, my observation is when a person uses the term “cultural Marxism,” it is, indeed, clearly a dead giveaway sign from heaven flashing lights star of Bethlehem overhead land here sign of one thing…
The person using the term never actually read a page of anything written by Marx or Engles. Which is a bit like me stating “Star Wars is a wonderful Vulcan spaghetti-Western film” without my ever having watched the movie at all, isn’t it?
Guaranteed or your money back.
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history.