The full Tablet series featuring Paul Berman’s original three-part essay on the state of the contemporary Left, along with responses to Berman from writers across the political spectrum, is collected here.
In a recent article published in The New York Times, the prominent and prolific Yale historian and legal scholar Samuel Moyn argues that “cultural Marxism” doesn’t actually exist as anything more than a “crude slander,” a “phantasmagoria of the alt-right.” More alarmingly, Moyn argues, “talk of cultural Marxism is inseparable” from “the most noxious anti-Semitism;” it merely updates the old trope of “Judeobolshevism” that imagined a global cabal of Semitic interlopers conspiring to undermine the West by spreading socialism throughout the Christian lands. As I hope to show, however, these wild-swinging claims are themselves, examples of the very “crude slander” and “phantasmagoria” against which Moyn sets out to inveigh. They are epithets aimed at a convenient straw man, even as the real monster continues its evermore-indiscriminate rampage through the West and beyond.
The reason I single out Moyn’s false and misleading commentary from among the many blithe dismissals of “cultural Marxism” is because I know and respect Moyn, both as a scholar and as a person, even if I do not share many aspects of what I take to be his worldview. And I also know, as the result of a Twitter discussion with him about the issue some months ago, that he is aware that there are those, such as myself, who have used and would use the term “cultural Marxism” in nothing like the conspiratorial sense he decries. Let me begin, then, by acknowledging that the loony right-wing conspiracy theory to which Moyn refers in his article definitely does exist. It is out there. There are certain people—likely those who have never read more than a few words of the 20th century Marxist and Marx-inspired thinkers of whom they speak—who have argued there was an intentional, conspiratorial plot by, inter alia, members of what was known as the “Frankfurt School” to subvert and destroy Western high culture, dumb it down and corrupt it from the inside out in order to seed the ground for the coming Communist revolution. They cite, for instance, the noted midcentury cultural critic Theodor Adorno’s participation in a sinister plot, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, to undermine classical music and replace it with debased and depraved rock ‘n’ roll, as evidence of the Frankfurt conspiracy.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about Adorno, or has, for instance, read the essay for which he is best known, realizes that Adorno was, in fact, one of the most passionate and articulate defenders of Western high culture and, in particular, “difficult” (atonal) classical music. He argued that capitalism, and especially American capitalism, systematically turned culture from an authentic, often unsettling, unnerving and challenging manifestation of creative genius into a profit center devoted to the mass production of inauthentic, sensationalized fluff, filth and treacle that turned the reader, viewer or listener from an engaged interpreter and participant in the process of making meaning into a passive zombie beholding a stultifying spectacle. The real Adorno, in other words, held a viewpoint diametrically opposed to the one attributed to him by the conspiracy-mongers on the lunatic fringe. But to equate “cultural Marxism,” as Moyn does, with the nutty theories of those who advance such bogus claims (Moyn’s featured spokesman for cultural Marxism is William S. Lind, one of the foremost proponents of this conspiratorial silliness) is also either utterly disingenuous or intellectually lazy beyond belief.
Having left the straw man to the crows, let us now turn to actual cultural Marxism. While I have not made my way through the entire wing of YouTube devoted to Jordan Peterson—whom Moyn blames for spreading the concept — I have to say I have never heard Peterson make reference to any crazy “conspiracy” in his many rants against cultural Marxism. Likewise, the philosopher and literary critic Russell Blackford, who attributes the term’s first use to a book by the scholar Trent Schoyer, who was sympathetic to the theories he characterized as “cultural Marxism.” As Blackford further explains,
Contrary to those polemicists who’d deny all legitimate uses of the term “cultural Marxism,” it has been in circulation for over forty years. Its meaning remains somewhat unclear and contested, but there is at least some commonality of understanding … the term “cultural Marxism” has a variety of uses—scholarly, ideological, and more popular…It is employed by extreme right-wing ideologues, such as Breivik, in grandiose theories that have little credibility, and it is used popularly in ways that show little understanding of its history or its original meaning. Nonetheless, it is has also been useful for mainstream scholars who tend, themselves, to be Marxists or sympathetic to Marxist thought—for example, Trent Schroyer and (more recently) Dennis Dworkin.
The term, in other words, has perfectly respectable uses outside the dark, dank silos of the far right.
So what is cultural Marxism? In brief, it is a belief that cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures, so we must scrutinize and judge all culture and ideas based on their relation to power. Following from this premise, advocates for the persecuted and oppressed must attack forms of culture that reinscribe the values of the ruling class, and disseminate culture and ideas that support “oppressed” groups and “progressive” causes.
A short tour through some notable landmarks should suffice to show how 19th-century Marxism evolved into 20th-century “cultural Marxism” and the culture war of our present day:
In the 1920s, the Hungarian Marxist György Lukács set out to address a contradiction within orthodox Marxist dogma: for Marx, a society’s dominant ideology was a “superstructure,” a mere reflection of its more basic economic structure. Thus, the ruling class of capitalists who controlled the money and the means of production also created and controlled its dominant ideas. But a workers’ revolution of the sort Marx predicted could, Marx thought, only come from the subordinated class, i.e., the workers themselves. This question then arises: what will convince workers to revolt when the very ideas in their heads are implanted by their overlords? To answer this question, Lukács, in his History and Class Consciousness (1923), argued for a more subjective conception of class consciousness than the one favored by Marx. Workers (the proletariat) had to have their consciousness raised in order to muster up the appetite for revolution.
The necessary friction to light the revolutionary fuse would come from what Lukács viewed as inevitable tensions within capitalist society that stemmed from its tendency to disguise contingent relations between people as seemingly necessary relations between things (a phenomenon Lukács called “reification”). An institution such as a factory or a university is, in reality, an arrangement of human relationships constituted in particular, contingent ways, but we treat these institutions as more or less fixed givens. The tensions between appearance and reality could not but bubble up to the surface in various ways (e.g., factory worker wages being insufficient to support anything more than a bare subsistence lifestyle), and when workers respond to such conditions, such as by organizing workers’ unions to fight against these institutionalized and reified practices, this then brings about reprisals, cracks of the capitalist whip. And this, in turn, would lead workers to see more clearly what was what, who was with them and who was against them. Thus, proletarian consciousness would be elevated and break out of the ruling class’s ideological girdle. The contingent—and therefore, changeable—nature of capitalist society would be revealed. The principal point for the rest of this story, however, is this: the very process of organizing and agitating was not merely a means to an end (e.g., better working conditions), but also critical to the development of revolutionary consciousness, which must be cultivated in order to blossom.
Building upon Lukács’ ideas, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the key figure in the cultural Marxist canon, developed, in the 1930s, a more elaborate concept he called “hegemony.” For Gramsci, a war of ideas necessarily precedes any actual war against the capitalist ruling class. “Hegemony” is the ruling class’ use of mass culture to dominate the masses. The elites use mass culture as armies use trenches and fortifications to defend their core interests. A revolution, then, can only occur after a long battle of position against these cultural fortifications and ideological defenses. Every revolution, Gramsci argued, is preceded by an intense period of criticism, a culture war. A key role in this process of counter-hegemony is played by people Gramsci referred to as “organic intellectuals”—those born into an oppressed (“subaltern”) class. Such intellectuals refine the “common sense” of the masses into “good sense,” thereby planting the seeds of a more widespread revolutionary consciousness.
In the 1970s, the French Marxist Louis Althusser, influenced by Gramsci (as well as by the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan), distinguished between the “repressive state apparatus” — police, military and other direct organs of ruling class control—from the “ideological state apparatus”—those institutions, such as education, religion, law and familial practices, that work to further hegemony by reproducing the existing relations of production. Echoing G.W.F. Hegel’s famed master-slave dialectic, Althusser then argues that the social roles in which we (mis)recognize ourselves (e.g., “mother,” “worker”) always exist in reference to and in relation with some other, more powerful subject (Lacan’s “big Other”), such as the Boss, the State or God. The end result of this process is that we cannot question or deny the roles and authority of these more powerful subjects without simultaneously tugging at our own rug and denying ourselves.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Marx-inspired German émigré thinker Herbert Marcuse, who had fled the Nazis and settled in America, became an academic superstar. Wielding enormous influence over a generation of New Left activists (most prominent of these, perhaps, being the erstwhile communist, Black Panther and African-American and feminist studies trailblazer, Angela Davis), Marcuse framed broad, scathing critiques of the straitjacket of American society. American capitalism, Marcuse claimed, manufactured uniformity and alienation and co-opted the working class into complicity with its own subjugation by convincing it to identify with commodities. America made us all into consumers, vanquishing all possibility for revolutionary action. Given this state of affairs, Marcuse, leaving the white working class to its own devices, argued for a shift of focus to those marginalized and oppressed groups that had been left out and, thus, were easier prey for radical agitation. Clearly indebted to Gramsci’s notion of the “organic intellectual,” he argued that leftist intellectuals such as himself had a role to play in rousing up and channeling the rage of such groups into an attack upon societal institutions.
Perhaps Marcuse’s most important contribution to contemporary political discourse on the Left was the concept of “repressive tolerance.” This idea—easily recognizable as a forerunner of modern-day political correctness—consisted in the by-now-all-too-tragically-familiar view that the norm of classical liberal universal tolerance could be repressive insofar as it resulted in the tolerance of certain kinds of “wrong” or “backward” beliefs. “[W]hat is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression,” Marcuse writes. On this foundation, he chillingly argues for “the systematic withdrawal of tolerance toward regressive and repressive opinions and movements.”
Drawing closer to our own time, Columbia University literature professor and prominent Palestinian activist Edward Said, in his wildly influential work Orientalism (1978), concocted a simplistic and thoroughly Manichean account of how Western writers and scholars had systematically objectified and exoticicized Asia and the Middle East. The work spurred a revolution in established university literature canons and became a foundational text for post-colonial studies, which came to adopt, as an unquestioned dogma, Said’s take on a dynamic of the Western oppressor and the non-Western oppressed.
There are many others I could discuss here—Judith Butler and Stuart Hall spring most readily to mind—but the point has been, I hope, sufficiently made. It is a short step from Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” to political correctness, free speech crackdowns, no-platforming, and the epidemic of boorish and thuggish university “protests,” Antifa intimidation and violence directed against illusory “fascists,” who end up being mostly Trump administration officials and supporters.
It is a short step from Gramsci’s “hegemony” to the now-ubiquitous toxic memes of “patriarchy,” “heteronormativity,” “white supremacy,” “white privilege,” “white fragility” and “whiteness.” It is a short step from his and Marcuse’s reconceptualization of the role of radical intellectuals to our sensationalized and politicized media outlets playing the part of a self-styled progressive vanguard riling up the allegedly oppressed and turning their incoherent rage loose on the rest of us. It is a short step from Althusser’s notion that we (mis)recognize ourselves in ideologically constructed social roles to the pseudoscientific (or, at least, greatly overstated) idea that sexuality, gender roles and gender itself are all thoroughly socially constructed. It is a short step from Said’s Orientalism to the complete displacement of aesthetic merit as the sole criterion that should be considered in the construction of canons and the recognition of aesthetic excellence.
It is a short step from the Marxist and cultural Marxist premise that ideas are, at their core, expressions of power to rampant, divisive identity politics and the routine judging of people and their cultural contributions based on their race, gender, sexuality and religion — precisely the kinds of judgments that the high ideals of liberal universalism and the foremost thinkers of the Civil Rights Era thought to be foul plays in the game. And it is a short step from this collection of reductive and simplistic conceptions of the “oppressor” and the “oppressed” to public shaming, forced resignations and all manner of institutional and corporate policy dictated by enraged Twitter mobs, the sexual McCarthyism of #MeToo’s excesses, and the incessant, resounding, comically misdirected and increasingly hollow cries of “racist,” “sexist,” “misogynist,” “homophobe,” “Islamophobe,” “transphobe” and more that have yet to be invented to demonize all those with whom the brittle hordes partaking in such calumnies happen to disagree.
I want to linger one moment on this last point, as Moyn, in his New York Times article, in tarring the idea of cultural Marxism with the charge of “anti-Semitism,” has done precisely what I just described. That charge, surely, is deployed for the sole purpose of leaving those who would otherwise dare to speak of cultural Marxism cowed and intimidated into silence lest they be accused of perpetuating an anti-Semitic trope. Moyn’s article, however, offers not a shred of evidence that talk of cultural Marxism is anti-Semitic in any way, shape or form. What we are offered, instead, is slippage from a flat and unsupported declaration that “talk of cultural Marxism is inseparable from” anti-Semitism to a more extended discussion of what is, on its very face, a genuinely anti-Semitic, older charge of “Judeobolshevism.” But, of course, there is no necessary connection between the two. Nor, in fact, is there even any special connection between cultural Marxism and Judaism or Jewishness. I am not in the habit of keeping tabs on who is or isn’t Jewish — which I view as crude for the same reason I despise all our reductive racial classifications — but, of the thinkers I listed as most complicit in erecting the foundation of cultural Marxism, only Lukács and Marcuse were Jewish. Gramsci was not. Althusser was not. The resolutely anti-Israel Palestinian-American Edward Said was not. I see, in short, no compelling basis to identify cultural Marxism with Jewishness or talk of cultural Marxism with anti-Semitism.
I cannot speak for the motivations of those deranged or plain uninformed far right-wingers who peddle the sinister conspiracy theory version of cultural Marxism and equate it solely with the more Jewish constituency of the Frankfurt School. Some of them may well be driven by anti-Semitism. But savaging an idea on account of ignorant or deplorable motivations on the part of its most backward proponents can only be a mean-spirited debater’s trick or a textbook logical fallacy.
Had Moyn written an article (of the sort that Russell Blackford, whom I quoted from above, actually did write) that endeavored to separate the wheat from the chaff and denounced those fringe elements that perpetuated a conspiratorial or an anti-Semitic version of cultural Marxism, I would have had no cause for complaint. But to take a concept in use in academia, and that is now also regularly invoked by intellectuals and pundits on the totally mainstream right (though, of course, usually with a derisive connotation), and claim that the recognizable intellectual paradigm to which these thinkers are referring simply does not exist as anything other than “crude slander” is a kind of deceptive move that indicates a fealty to politics over truth. Indeed, a similar argument could easily be made about the very notion of political correctness, which, like cultural Marxism, is largely used as a term of opprobrium and is also frequently deployed in a manner that is irresponsibly overbroad or as a rationalization for various species of bigotry. Certain (regressive) segments of the left may not be crazy about such terms, or about their usage, but that is no justification for denying them a meaning or bullying them out of existence.
Cultural Marxism was no conspiracy, but it is also no mere right-wing “phantasmagoria.” It was and remains a coherent intellectual program, a constellation of dangerous ideas. Aspects of these ideas, to their credit, brought the West’s dirty laundry into the limelight and inaugurated a period of necessary housecleaning that was, indeed, overdue. But their obsessive focus on our societal dirt—real and perceived “injustice,” “oppression,” “privilege,” “marginalization” and the like—quickly became a pathological compulsion. We started to see dirt everywhere. We cleansed and continue to cleanse ourselves tirelessly but are never satisfied, always eager to uncover more dirty deeds and historical sins and stage more ritualized purges. We end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And all our hard-won collective attainments and achievements, all that is great and good and glorious in our midst, gets swept up, spat on and discarded with the rest of the trash.