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.