The fuss around Jordan Peterson—the aggressive and articulate Canadian psychology professor du jour—has pushed back into common currency a phrase that knocks around occasionally on the right: “Cultural Marxism.” What might that be?
Marxism—and especially the Marxisms that came after Marx—did take an interest in culture. Base was economic relations; superstructure was the cultural set-up that normalised and reproduced them, and their relationship was—of course—“dialectical.”
This is a fancy way of saying something rather obvious: that culture affects the material set-up of a society, and vice versa. Most non-Marxists would probably agree. The likes of Theodor Adorno, Pierre Bourdieu, Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault offered various elaborations on all this.
But “Cultural Marxism,” as a catchphrase of the right, isn’t used just to mean a Marxist approach to the way power operates through culture: it’s used to imply a programmatic undermining of western civilisation by Marxists, who having been beaten in the political/economic arena, have transferred their attentions to the cultural sphere. They are responsible for “political correctness,” “identity politics,” 60s liberalism, and the threats to the established order that these represent.
Is this happening? You’d have to doubt it. Have the relatively obscure and often almost unreadable academics of the Frankfurt School somehow secretly taken over the major institutions of the western world? It’s true that Frankfurt School thought is influential in many university humanities departments. But that’s not the same thing as saying that it represents a menacing consensus that’s out to destroy civilisation.
It’s also unclear how—apart from on the superficial level that identity politics, like Marxism, involves analysing inequalities and oppressions in class categories—PC and Marxism go together.
Marxism is rooted in material analysis; PC in matters of language. Trans rights debates, which exercise the alt-right, centre on identity as felt rather than as experienced in social relations. Its ultimate logic is consumer individualism (I identify as who I want to be) rather than the sort of class-identity-as-socially-determined-category thinking you’d associate with Marxism.
Marxisms see the subject as oppressed because involuntarily trapped in a class structure; not as one who can determine his or her (or zir) identity freely.
More than that, “Cultural Marxism” is linked in Peterson’s mind with “post-modernism… the new skin that the old Marxism now inhabits,” he says. This is an odd position.
We could point out, for instance, that the same “postmodern” thinkers are also blamed for the “post-truth” world that enabled Donald Trump’s rise, which makes them pretty ineffective as Marxist revolutionaries. Most readings of postmodern thought lead us away from Marxism rather than towards it.
“Cultural Marxist” is used by dimmer figures on the alt-right as a clever-sounding barb. But even when deployed by the supposedly intellectual wing of the movement, it’s too incoherent a slur to mean much except for “lefties influenced by untrustworthy theorists with foreign names.” And this is to say nothing of its questionable genealogy—rhyming as it does with the Nazi idea of the “Cultural Bolshevism” of modernist art.
Even-handedness, perhaps, asks me to note that “neoliberalism” as a catch-all boo-word for the left is similarly questionable. Few free market advocates would self-identify as “neoliberal,” and if all market economies are by definition neoliberal—that is, all political systems that don’t have a strict command economy, which is to say nearly all political systems on Earth—the term is too wide to be of any use.
There is no one Marxism, just as there is no one capitalism. If we can’t name the enemy accurately, we can’t argue against it: we can just shout slogans to our supporters in social media echo chambers. Or was that the whole idea all along?