Home > General Politics, Marxism > In defence of Cultural Marxism

In defence of Cultural Marxism

Anders Breivik, in his fascist vanity tome “manifesto”, poured scorn on the influence of “cultural marxism” – leading some, like me old mucker Left Outside to ask: “What the hell actually is a cultural marxist by the way?”

His tongue is probably in his cheek (Left Outside, that is) when asking that, but let me just add a note to that particular debate.

The usual, post-Frankfurt crowd, identify cultural Marxism as the use of Marxian theory to analyse cultural relations. It’s as easy to view cultural Marxism as using Marxism as an analogy for the relations at play between individuals and groups.

Productive relations are played out between owners and non-owners of the means of production, and it is the opinion of thinkers such as Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and T.W. Adorno to Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton that this same terminology be applicable to cultural relations at play; making useful the notion of cultural hegemony.

Of course when Breivik references “cultural Marxism”, he doesn’t mean the embedding of equality within the fabric of society – which he would be opposed to anyhow – rather, he means political correctness. But rather than being a construct of 20th century Marxist thinkers, political correctness, or the societal disincentive to prejudice – works towards the public display of decency and/or sensitivity. Also, moreover, an acceptability to do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

As fascists and neo-fascists fail to understand, the notion of political correctness is not an unnatural tenet, against the natural tenet of prejudice – indeed there is nothing so unnatural as prejudice. Instead, it is an attempt to undermine discrimination against the most marginalised in society, women, homosexuals, religious and ethnic minorities – something which may have been acceptable in a bygone age (which the extreme Right aim to fetishise), but is by no means an organic state of play to cultivate through the active dismissal of that which has been demonised as “cultural Marxism”.

To conclude, Elizabeth Kantor in her 2006 book Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature suggested that for academia to allow great literary works – such as A Handmaid’s Tale – to disappear, on the grounds that they may be perceived as sexist, racist, or homophobic, “will destroy Western civilization and lead to barbarism.”

Yet, Atwood’s classic is still being taught at colleges and universities as a useful exegesis of a dystopian nightmare, and barbarism of late seems to be the preserve of racist fanatics with no more an understanding of the enlightenment as I have of the quantum harmonic oscillator.

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  1. Jeff
    July 28, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    I read some of Breivik’s manifesto myself, but, as it turns out, life really is too short. Speaking as a Marxist and a student of literature at one of those hated American universities, I have several thoughts on these matters.

    First, Breivik’s (and he is by no means alone in this) lumping of Derrida and other postmodernists into the Marxist tradition is particularly grating. Indeed, authentic Marxism is pretty marginal on the cultural scene today – Cultural Studies is more often interested in feminist and postcolonial criticism, both of which are somewhat hostile to Marxism as an eurocentric or otherwise “phallic” discourse. Sure, these critics mention class struggle, but seemingly only ever in a catalogue of struggles that include nationality, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, etc., which is to say, it holds no privileged position, and is often considered secondary to the others.

    Second, OF COURSE “political correctness” can go too far, and does, but the societal ostracization of bigots of all stripes is nonetheless a project very worthy of being continued and given full-throated support by the Left.

    Regarding “actually existing cultural Marxism,” about which I could go on at some length (but will resist the temptation), the Left should probably be in the business of critiquing it ourselves – its tendency to ignore the critique of political economy and to treat Marxism as a mere tool for textual analysis has created a de-fanged and (to the degree that this is possible) depoliticized Marxism incapable of outlining, never mind carrying out, a coherent political program in the twenty-first century.

    • July 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm

      Lumping together Pomo and Marxism is a sin above and beyond those stipulated in the Bible. On those others points you’re absolutely correct, it shows a disturbing misunderstanding of Marxism, however this might be a problem perpetuated by “culutral Marxism” themselves, say with the preoccupation of identity politics by Terry Eagleton.

      Political Correctness, like charity, is a good, but not an end in itself. Inherent to PC there seems to be a notion of tolerating people, which firstly privileges the white, heterosexual male to tolerate others, and is also slightly forced, which risks promoting a kind of false toleration of others, where it should be rather natural.

      As for your third point, I hope my agreeing with this came through in the above piece; I said it’s easier to see cultural Marxism as an analogical use of Marxism, and thus is an unorthodox use of it. To tie this in with your first point, cultural Marxism probably shares more with British Liberalism and Christian Socialism than it does Marxism proper.

      But please, do go to any length you wish, I’m all ears.

  2. Dilberto
    July 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    There is little reason to conserve the nature of anything if one believes that it is no better than the alternatives, that is why conservatives do not believe in equality and those who do are not conservative. A society in which equality is enforced by law (cultural Marxism) is therefore anti-conservative.

    Conservatives believe in the preservation of the existing difference and inequalities which are inherent in a surviving culture and the defence of the liberty to express a preference which are also inherent in the preservation of those inequalities and differences which a cultural of legally enforced equality or cultural Marxism would replace with a process of cultural, racial and gender homogenisation.

    • July 29, 2011 at 4:49 pm

      Good try, but your logic doesn’t get past me.

      What you said boils down to this: Change is pointless if that change is worse than what already exists – equality as stipulated in law qualifies as change and so falls into the category of something that ought not to be preserved – only what passes as traditions not stipulated by law are worth preserving.

      First, I can understand the conservative notion of favouring that which has stood the test of time, but you’ve turned a basic conservative tenet into an almost deterministic imperative, as though all hitherto societies must be preserved as a good in themselves, and to question this is somehow throwing caution to the wind.

      Second, you risk appearing to assume a society that preserves its traditions is a better society, come what may.

      Thirdly, when has a society ever just lived by its preserved traditions, and not in some tried to modify ideas and traditions to see fit. In a sense, isn’t what passes for cultural Marxism simply the embedding of traditions of decency into civil society (i.e. a society based on democracy)?

  3. Edgar
    July 31, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    “authentic Marxism”

    Who said the Americans don’t do irony!

    The problem with the “cultural Marxist are out to corrupt your children” people is that it is simply false. In some ways political correctness is a concept dreamed up in the world of advertisers who want to sell products to an ideal market. A market where all get along, where it doesn’t matter if you are black, white or whatever. Then the bangwagon got started and no organisation wanted to alienate a potential purchasing block, so every company had to emblazon on its policies that it was against discrimination of any kind.

    I find it strange that one of the real positives of capitalism is so detested by conservatives. If I were a conservative I would be say look at capitalism and how it has broken down barriers and look at your former communist states where monkey chants are common on football terraces..

    Judging by the views of ‘authentic Marxism’ marxism above rather than cultural Marxism being the cause of the moral degradation the conservatives talk about it would appear it has a lot to learn from it. I seem to remember reading Marx speaking in favour of having a womens section of some group he was involved in, I guess today ‘authentic Marxism’ would take issue with that position?

  4. est
    August 1, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    Lefties = Bas

  5. August 12, 2011 at 10:30 am

    It’s important to recognize that what people like Breivik and Lind call “Cultural Marxism” bears no connection to how leftists might use the term. And you hit the nail on the head about “political correctness.” It’s the term the rightwing uses when their own politically and religiously correct domination of society has been stopped. It’s also the lazy person’s way of feeling incredibly well-informed; every issue that gets them upset isn’t over complex matters you have to read and think about in great depth — it’s those damn politically correct people again!

    All in all though, a nice post from a leftwing that doesn’t currently have too many nice posts on the topic.

    • August 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm

      Like when people say Freudian to mean perverted, it’s a buzzword that has found odd parlance. Cultural Marxism is code for social experimentation, but society has been a breeding ground for experimentation since time immemorial – possibly to overcome our ape selves!

  6. Dilberto
    August 13, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    The problem is when “experimentation” becomes the norm and then becomes the law, that is what people object to in cultural Marxism. Tolerance is a virtue, but when it is imposed by law then it is just another form of oppression.

    • August 15, 2011 at 10:01 am

      The ones who pursue something like a strict dominance of equality is not legislators, but capitalists pursuing the pink pound, the Irish pound, the Christian pound, the Islamic pound; ad nauseum. Tolerance fits into the logic of capital as well, so it’s not all cultural Marxism.

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