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.