I'm no stranger to the depths of the internet. It's a place where many perspectives can meet together and either have thoughtful discussion, or (more frequently) duke it out verbally over things they know they'll never come to agreement on. The internet is frequently described as the "free market place of ideas," and with good reason - on the internet, you're not very much restricted on what you can say or do. It's a place where even the smallest of voices can be heard, and be much louder than they ever would have been in "the real world." This can be good, because it can offer dissent and debate over things that would never have seen the light of day otherwise; it can serve as a floor that is conducive to open discussion over any topic, and in many ways, provide equal weight to all of them.
Yet this can also be very bad. Particularly, it makes sense out of nonsense, or at least gives nonsense the appearance of sense. Uninformed parties can also shout from the rooftops of the internet and convince the ignorant masses that what they say is true, or at the very least backed up by substantial evidence or reason. I use "ignorant" mildly here. There's nothing particularly wrong about being ignorant on any given subject, because different pieces of knowledge are useful for different things. Being ignorant has nothing to do with personal value, but merely with what a person has been exposed to and what they're familiar with, and it's very context specific.
I'll give the subject of this post as an example, which we'll further examine. The term "cultural Marxism" has recently gained a lot of popularity in usage among cultural conservatives. While I'll be discussing the "true" meaning of the term throughout this post, a very basic summary is that it is an easy-to-use description of leftism and its influence on culture, adherent to the principles of Marxism. Proponents of the term often claim that these things, starting as early as World War I, have slowly crept their way into Western culture in order to uproot its traditions and values, and is thus a real threat to our way of life.
Now, at an initial glance, this seems like it makes sense, but I'll spoil the surprise for you: it's nothing more than propaganda, utilizing a seldom understood "foreign" concept as a target through which cultural conservatives can mobilize their supporters against a narrative scapegoat. The use of this term, at least within academia, will ultimately never find favor due to its sheer ridiculousness (although proponents will argue that it's being avoided because of "political correctness"); however, this means that its most common occurrences are found within the works of published authors or the internet, and will gain much favor amongst the adhering public. Very few people are truly aware of what Marxism actually is, and so when they see the term, they don't immediately recognize its flaws. This is why it only shows itself at night: because only the ignorant masses, or the uninformed but generally educated public, will buy it.
It's actually kind of funny. Last year, I read a work by one published proponent of the term, Patrick Buchanan, specifically his book State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America for a project on how to recognize propaganda in rhetoric. This year, it seems Lex (the coauthor of this blog) has been getting hammered by fans of Kevin MacDonald, another author who has frequently used this term to describe a hypothetical Jewish group evolutionary strategy. Quickly we can see that its favor amongst cultural conservatives has led to its application to immigration, Jews (and most likely anti-Semitism), and in general the political left. Now I get to examine its implications and explain why it's of no value.
In this post, we'll first take a look at the meaning of the term "cultural Marxism," its history and usage, and its rising popularity in America. I'll then explain its association with the Frankfurt School and the related conspiracy theory. Next, in order to be able to make any sense of what I'll be talking about, I'll review a few fundamental tenets of Marxist theory. I'll then use the available information and critical analysis to pick apart the term and explain why it doesn't make sense. Likewise, I'll explain why it has nothing to do with the Frankfurt School. Finally, after dispelling all misinformation and propaganda surrounding the issue, I'll try to explain why this term has found common usage, and argue why it's preferable to keep it around instead of eradicating it from the public thesaurus with an atomic bomb.
By the end of this post, I plan on having accomplished the following:
1: Thoroughly examining and refuting the term "cultural Marxism."
2: Pissing off every ideologue that supports the use of this term.
3: Giving people a better understanding of Marxist theory and methodology.
However, I do not plan on accomplishing the following:
1: Convincing anyone who finds favor with this term that it's of no value.
2: Educating those who just want to argue with me.
3: Stopping the use of this term.
I am not here to debate those who are already convinced of their righteousness. I'm here to provide information for those individuals who are seeking it, and want to know more about Marxist theory/methodology without it being confounded by conspiracy theories and political dogma. This is a pedagogic discussion, not a platform for people to promote their ideologies.
Likewise, I don't expect that this will be the end of "cultural Marxism," nor do I want it to be. Although it's admittedly stupid, the use of the term serves as a very powerful and important political tool, and even if it were to be eradicated from the political lexicon, a new term paired with a new conspiracy theory (or the same one for that matter) would quickly replace it. It seems apparent to me that if any term were to find favor with radical conservatives, it's fortunate it was this.
History and Background
When I first looked at the term "cultural Marxism," I nearly spat out my water. First of all, what the heck does it mean? Secondly and lastly, where did it come from?
Perhaps the first popular use of the term "cultural Marxism" in its modern conception is found in an article entitled What is Political Correctness? by cultural conservative pundit William S. Lind. In an Accuracy in Academia (a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting against perceived liberal bias in education) conference, Lind explained:
"Political Correctness is cultural Marxism. It is Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms. It is an effort that goes back not to the 1960s and the hippies and the peace movement, but back to World War I. If we compare the basic tenets of Political Correctness with classical Marxism the parallels are very obvious."These are from around the turn of the century. Now, the term has found increasing favor with conservative movements such as the Tea Party movement in 2009. In his manifesto, Anders Behring Breivik placed a copy of Lind's 2004 pamphlet on the subject, further popularizing the term. Less dangerously, the term has been picked up in its extreme by white nationalist movements. If we look at Metapedia, which is basically an encyclopedia for racists, the definition of cultural Marxism begins as follows:
"Cultural Marxism or Cultural Bolshevism (degenerate culture) seeks to destroy everything good about a society, what holds it together, what helps it to advance, what promotes intelligence and beauty. It seeks to degenerate society and take it to a lower form where people are less intelligent and more animal. It's based on the Marxist lie that everything good about society is all a form of oppression."In this definition, we can see the practice as being instrumental in some type of conspiracy, and even in promoting "degenerate culture-" a term which finds its roots in the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany, and refers to a lower quality of culture, specifically modern art. Of course, we now know that culture can't be seen as being part of a hierarchy or set of stages, but is instead plural and adaptive.
It's not fair, admittedly, to associate all found usage of the term "cultural Marxism" with these more radical (and admittedly uninformative) interpretations and applications. Given what we know, and what we can see on Wikipedia, cultural Marxism is essentially the application of Marxist theory to culture, and "conceives of culture as central to the legitimation of oppression, in addition to the economic factors that Karl Marx emphasized."
This was once, perhaps, a legitimate intellectual practice, but in its modern usage it not only doesn't make sense, but it probably doesn't exist. However, when something doesn't make sense, it's usually attributed to a contentious source, or a conspiracy theory. This incites not only a sense of legitimacy, but fear as well, and serves to mobilize people who are afraid of its lasting effects.
The Frankfurt School
The Frankfurt School is a school of neo-Marxist interdisciplinary social theory. It's actually not a physical school, but refers to any thinkers associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. The term was rarely used by the thinkers themselves. The Frankfurt School arose from dissident Marxists who thought that some of Marx's followers were narrowly interpreting his teachings. In addition, they thought these Marxists were spending too much time discussing the "base" of human society, and not enough time discussing how the "superstructure" functions to support it. We'll discuss what these two things mean in our overview of Marxist theory.
The foundations and teachings of the Frankfurt School, however, are seldom examined by those who use the term in question. A conspiracy theory has arisen around the Frankfurt School, suggesting that they "deliberately subverted traditional Western values through interventions into culture, leading to what is called political correctness." The critical theory of the Frankfurt School, then, is an intentional destruction (or deconstruction) of Western culture, values and traditions to those who buy into this conspiracy theory. Such groups include the Free Congress Foundation and, as mentioned, white nationalist organizations and movements.
While it has found popularity amongst those who, politically, can utilize its societal ramifications, this isn't the common scholarly understanding of the Frankfurt School. This understanding argues that while some individual thinkers from the Frankfurt School did engage in social critique in America, they had no unified theory, nor collective political agenda. This actually makes a lot of sense, given the tenets of Marxist theory and the scholarly foundations of the Frankfurt School.
The alternative interpretation served and continues to serve as an explanation for the idea of "political correctness," originally suggested by the Schiller Institute (a branch of the LaRouche Movement) in 1992, and further promoted in 1994. They charged that the Frankfurt School promoted modernism as a form of cultural pessimism, which contributed the counterculture of the 1960s. The counterculture was a counter mobilization effort primarily amongst proponents of the black civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the anti-Vietnam student movement in America. Opposition to the counterculture, seeing it as trying to subvert and destroy the traditional values and foundations of America, is what eventually led to the election of the conservative president Richard Nixon. Already, we can see why the term "cultural Marxism" could be of political significance.
But before we look at any of that, we have to be able to make sense of all of these associations - by that I mean we have to look at fundamental tenets of Marxist theory to see why none of these associations make any sense at all.
In this section, we'll be discussing two important facets of Marxist theory in order to explain the relationship between culture and society that it envisions, and later apply it to the subject at hand. The first is the dichotomy of human society according to Marxist theory, base and superstructure. The second is the analytical framework and theoretical foundation of Marxism, called dialectical materialism (or, as we will refer to it, dimat).
According to Marxist theory, human society is divided into two parts: the base and the superstructure. The base of society consists of the means and relations of production. The means of production include the tools, factories, land, raw materials, etc. which are all instrumental in the substance of the society. The relations of production are the capital, commodities, private property, etc. which are the social relations and interactions within a mode of production.
The superstructure, or the phenomenon, on the other hand, consists of everything not directly to do with the production. This includes (but is not limited to) the law, media, education, religion, philosophy, and namely the culture. At the center of all of this is ideology, which provides the justification for it all - that is, after the superstructure interacts with the phenomenon. Marxist theory sees culture as being part of the phenomenon, and states that it comes into existence from the base, or the substance of society. It is then, after interacting with the base, justified by the ideology of the society in the superstructure, which also rises from the base. It is a spiral dialectic where the base is most often the domineering force in society.
Outside of this dialectic is the overarching analytical framework of Marxist theory - dialectical materialism. As the term implies, it is a combination of dialectics and materialism. Dialectics is the method of reasoning which aims to understand things concretely in all their movement, change and interconnection, with their opposite and contradictory sides in unity. It approaches things with static definition, and is informal in its mode of thought of ordinary understanding. It goes beyond the formal appearance of something and examines its essence.
Materialism emphasizes the material world as the foundation and determinant of thinking, especially concerning questions of the origin of knowledge. Simply put, it is the belief that at the end of the day, the material conditions' existence shape consciousness, not vice versa.
Dimat, then, is the combination of the two. It's a way of understanding reality by applying the informal mode of thought of ordinary understanding that is dialectics, along with the determinist approach of materialism, to make sense of everything, whether it be the material world, or thoughts and emotions. It is an overarching analytical framework, not a specific analytical framework.
These are fundamental to Marxist theory, and are key in understanding why "cultural Marxism" makes no sense. Learning these dialectics is important because it allows us to know when something can be "applied" or, when it does, if it makes sense. If we look at the fundamentals of Marxism, we see that "cultural Marxism" is a poorly framed interpretation of Marxist theory and is flawed in its conception.
To reiterate, cultural Marxism can be considered the application of Marxist theory to culture. Immediately, knowing what we do, we can make sense of this nonsense and explain why the concept is flawed. It may not be obvious right now, but in a moment it'll make nonsensical sense.
Let's start with the Frankfurt School. As was stated, the Frankfurt School thought that the Marxists of the time were paying too much attention to the base, and not enough to how the ideology functions to support it. They, like the other Marxists, saw the ideology as rising from the base of society, and then justifying it in the superstructure, but sought to emphasize this. Dimat is materialism - the belief that material is the determinant of consciousness - and dialectics - an informal method of understanding things concretely - as an analytical framework for making sense of reality. Why, then, would the Frankfurt School apply the dialectics of Marxism to culture? They sought to emphasize how ideology functions to support the base, not the other way around. "Cultural Marxism" would be a contradiction to this purpose, because it places the same emphasis on culture as traditional Marxists (or the narrow-minded followers of Marx, from which the Frankfurt School dissented).
Moving on, however, the whole idea of "applying" Marxist theory/dimat to a specific facet of superstructure or base, such as culture, is fundamentally flawed. Dimat is an overarching analytical framework that serves as the base for Marxism. It's not a specific framework. Culture always has a place in the framework, as it's a part of superstructure in the relationship we've established above. You can't apply Marxist theory specifically to culture (as is proposed by cultural Marxism) because culture is already an element of Marxist dialectics, and is already examined via the theoretical framework.
Furthermore, even if we were to examine culture specifically using dimat, this is contradictory in nature. Marxist theory is deterministic, where Marx emphasized that ideas have no significant consequences. To examine culture deterministically would be a fundamental contradiction to Marxist theory - it would be a dialectic idealism, not a materialism.
The term "cultural Marxism," then, is either redundant, or self-contradictory in nature. Certainly the Frankfurt School would have nothing to do with such an application of dialectic materialism, but even if they were, they would quickly run into problems. Beyond the Frankfurt School, framing of the term "cultural Marxism" is inherently flawed because it fails to grasp a basic understanding of Marxist dialectics, and this is why it serves no position in scholarly debate, but in propagandizing.
Why is This Important?
Phew, that was a bit of a headache. Now we have to expand upon what was just said and ask the question: why did this flawed term gain so much popularity, and why is it important?
Simply put, I believe it's because it's a foreign concept. Not many people are familiar with Marxism, and the idea of it is seen as the antithesis of Western values, especially democracy. Using Marxism is an easy scapegoat because it incites anger and fear out of people; and then, when you tack "culture" onto "Marxism," it makes it seem like a very specific attack on the culture and traditions of Western society. It's an illustrated conspiracy theory intended to make people afraid of anything that seems to resemble critical theory. In reality, dialectic materialism is merely an analytical framework - it doesn't seek to "do" anything, merely analyze it.
But as flawed as the term is, I think it's important to keep it around. For one, it's very stupid, and thus it won't become too dangerous in its popular usage. More importantly, though, it serves as a method by which radical conservatives can mobilize and consolidate their interests, playing an important part in the political process. As we mentioned, such a rapid mobilization is what resulted in the election of Nixon and the ensuing election of several Republican presidents in the United States. This was a pretty important period for American history where a lot was done, and a lot of modern government operations are founded in that era. While it qualifies as propaganda, "cultural Marxist" fear may actually play enough significance in society that it warrants the very analysis it opposes.
Thank you everyone for reading, and I'll see you all next time!