[Author’s note: this developed in response to an exchange of opinions on a Facebook forum, during which it became clear to me that any fruitful advance of the discussion called for something more detailed than could be attempted in a setting like that. Hence the material that follows, which hopefully will prove to be just the first installment of more material to follow. Incidentally, if you believe this to be worth your time, please consider supporting my writing on Patreon.com.]
What, precisely, is cultural Marxism? To some, the term epitomizes all that has gone wrong with Western civilization, especially higher education. It represents an insidious attack on Western civilization’s premises, especially its Christian ones. To others, it is but a conspiracy theory and a code word for resentment against the advances made in recent decades by ethnic minorities, hatred of immigrants (legal or otherwise), of homosexuals, and other now-protected groups — perhaps also expressing the fear of the dominant group as its demographics start to shrink and it is slowly stripped of its power.
Both of these represent extremes. Is there a truth we can get at?
At first glance, the term seems to be a misnomer. Classical Marxism embodied an economic philosophy of history and a prediction of capitalism’s end. Since according to the dialectical materialism at classical Marxism’s core, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (Preface to Das Kapital, 1859), Marx had little to say about culture, regarding it as part of the “superstructure” generated by the relations of production except to note that it would express these relations in various ways.
Capitalism, meanwhile, proved to be more resilient than Marx had imagined. It was unclear that the proletariat wanted to overthrow the bourgeoisie. If anything, the proletariat wanted to join the bourgeoisie. Many of their children did, as capitalism raised the standard of living everywhere it was practices. It did not raise it evenly, however, and during the first decades of the twentieth century the left turned towards reforming capitalism instead of abolishing it. What philosopher Richard Rorty called the reformist left thus emerged to “save capitalism from itself” as the saying goes, saving it from its own worst tendencies (see Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, 1998). The result was the social security system, Medicare, the minimum wage, stronger unions, and so on. Prophesies of inevitable doom for capitalism continued, but in the hands of writers such as Joseph Schumpeter (see his 1947 classic Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy) they were far less revolutionary. If capitalism ended, it would be because the masses voted for more and more socialism at the ballot box. And it would happen quietly, as socialism had become a dirty word in America (as opposed to, say, entitlements or safety nets).
A cultural left arose during the 1960s. It shifted its emphasis from the class of economic Marxism to race/ethnicity, gender, and eventually sexual orientation. As racial/ethnic minorities, women, sometimes religious and eventually sexual minorities came to play an analogous role to that of the proletariat in economic Marxism, with straight white Christian males coming to play the role of the bourgeoisie, the term cultural Marxism was as inevitable as that of identity politics. Both terms came to be used by critics to describe the philosophy and impetus behind the political correctness which appeared in American colleges and universities in the 1980s (that term coming into use in 1990-91 although Lenin had used it back in the 1920s for those who adhered to the party line too closely).
Many of us looked initially just at political correctness, saw it beginning to disrupt both teaching and scholarship, urged that it be opposed, and were stymied when those who claimed the mantle of conservatism were either unable or unwilling to act. We sought reasons for its entrenchment as well as the fact that we critics of political correctness found ourselves deconstructed and demonized (when we weren’t simply ignored) instead of responded to with the same kind of reasoning we tried to employ. It was assumed, that is, that if you questioned the logic and justice of (e.g.) affirmative action programs, your motives had to be racist and misogynist, or “homophobic,” and that motivation was more important than any reasoning we brought to bear: almost as if our reasoning was part of that Marxian “superstructure,” determined by our social being and presumed status instead of products of autonomous consciousness. (Some of us, incidentally, had no special status. We were struggling, absent Ivy League connections, to get academic careers started. This was in the 1990s. I should note that the situation is vastly worse today.)
Hence the idea of cultural Marxism, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history; yesterday’s preferential favors have evolved into today’s “safe spaces,” open attacks on freedom of speech, etc. But does the phrase refer to an actual movement, or is it just a so-called conspiracy theory put forth by a number of renegade conservatives (e.g., Paul Gottfried) starting in the late 1990s? Is it responsible for what has happened to higher education, especially the humanities and liberal arts, or was their vulnerability to it less an actual cause and more a symptom of deeper problems? What was the actual status of these disciplines under even the reformed capitalism of the twentieth century? Did this status substantially weaken them? Finally, was economic Marxism truly dead outside the minds of a few stodgy academics — thought to be buried forever when the Soviet Union went out of business and history ended (Fukuyama) — or has it been given a new lease on life by the obvious massive consolidation of wealth and power, and the dislocations spawned by the global neoliberalism that has since risen to global dominance?
These are complicated questions, and sorting them out in a single essay is an impossible task. I will try to do two things in the material to follow in future installments under this general title. First, I wish to outline the evidence of a genuine movement with a certain level of impact. Second, though, I will argue that its capacity to have this impact has a separate explanation, because indeed, much of higher education outside vocational disciplines has had an uneasy status under even reformed capitalism. In many respects, humanities and liberal arts subjects had been effectively marginalized within academia, as they were not as profitable to the economic system’s most powerful actors, corporations, as were subjects like business, engineering, to some extent economics (once separated from the earlier political economy), and certain of the sciences (e.g., chemistry). Finally I will want to float the issue of whether what is now being sought is anything truly revolutionary, in the sense of offering challenges to the legitimacy of the global hegemony of neoliberal elites, or just a diversity of faces within their corporations, controlled universities, and other institutions left structurally unchanged.
Moreover, it was not as if even reformed capitalism had delivered Utopia. It was true enough that rampant racial discrimination had existed not just in the workplace and professions but throughout American culture. This was well-documented. Academics knew this. They had provided much of the documentation. Many of the practitioners of fields like history, literature, philosophy, and so on, leaned left, therefore, and had few problems when a cultural left relevant to their disciplines arose. The economic, educational, and sociological problems of marginalized groups did not lend themselves to immediate solutions: one can argue causes, but not this specific fact. They grew impatient and continued to speak of discrimination and oppression; the very meaning of discrimination was shifted from specific acts to an absence of politically acceptable outcomes, courtesy of the Supreme Court’s decision in Griggs v. Duke Power (1971). Impatient demands for proportional representation had begun to give rise to their own literature by the 1980s; a great deal of this literature emphasized oppressed-perspectives and rejected traditional norms of the neutrality of perception, objectivity, and rationality (documented, with hostility, in works such as Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals: How Politics Have Corrupted Our Higher Education, 1990). This multiple-perspectives approach is very much in alignment with the Marxian idea quoted at the outset that our consciousness is determined by our social being / relations and not the reverse. Traditional notions of perception and objectivity had come under independent criticism by the “historicist” strain in recent history and philosophy of science at the hands of writers such as Thomas S. Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, orig. 1962) and Paul Feyerabend (Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, orig. 1975). Arguably, these works destroyed the naïve, positivistic model of science as the theorizing of autonomous individual scientists working from neutral observations and hypothesis-testing. They emphasized the social embeddedness of even hard-scientific research in physics. What was true in the physical sciences was surely far truer in “softer” disciplines, and in our lives as participants in institutions and as members of communities generally.
Thus the Anglo-American world, especially its leading higher educational institutions, was vulnerable — on multiple fronts — to something that became known as cultural Marxism. But what is it? How did it develop? Are we able to critically evaluate it, or is any critical evaluation of it almost automatically tainted, e.g., by the fact that the present writer is a white male — a Christian, to boot! — and does my status as an ex-academic impact on my evaluation (assuming I have the resources to complete it? These last questions I must leave to others, having made my status and methods as transparent as possible. But if all of us are perceived as biased by whatever social embeddedness and unavoidable group characteristics we have, the paradox should be evident: the knowledge-seeking endeavor itself is invariably tainted and destroyed; and this, of course, reflects back on all that is or can be said about social-embeddedness and group-bias theorists themselves. If all there is, is the collective subjectivism of identity, then all claims about this collective subjectivism are just as tainted, and their conclusions can be discounted unless we are to give them a kind of reverse-privilege status born of (I suppose) past suffering. But any considerations in favor of this gambit will be equally tainted unless we are just to support them with a Kierkegaardian “leap.”
Dealing with all these quandaries won’t be possible here. Perhaps in essays to come down the pike. What follows is about cultural Marxism. I will limit myself to its development, its results, and then attempt some commentary on whether it is an effective problem-solving approach or more of a distraction from the kinds of issues an economic Marxist would raise in the era of neoliberal globalist capitalism.