“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
— Keyser Söze/Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Progressivist Left is getting very worried; their opponents are contesting the Cultural Marxism theoretical paradigm within which the Left’s ideology and much of their political activism are framed. Consequently, they are now denouncing anyone who uses the term as far-right extremists and are even denying that anything called Cultural Marxism exists. In doing so they are sawing off the ideological branch on which they are seated.
For the past half century, the Left has pursued its ‘long march through the institutions’ of liberal democratic societies, infiltrating, colonizing, and eventually controlling them, as Kevin Donnelly notes in Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March. This grand strategy has focused on seizing control of key cultural, educational and media institutions and using them to impose on society the Left’s ‘counter-hegemonic’ worldview, which consists of a blanket rejection of all the values of Liberal-Democracy, while entrenching new ‘rights’ that benefit the Progressivist constituency. This ideological assault is presently represented by Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, Postcolonial Theory, Radical Feminist Theory, Queer Theory, and Intersectionality Theory, etc., all of which favour the subversion and overthrow of Liberal-Democracy and its replacement with a socialist-patronage-supplicant society, serving under the direction of an all-powerful state charged with imposing the Leftist worldview on society, if necessary, by force.
Now however, this strategy has become the subject of well-documented critiques (e.g., Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity, 2021; David Horowitz, The Enemy Within: How a Totalitarian Movement is Destroying America, 2021; Mark R. Levin, American Marxism, 2021; Michael Walsh, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West, 2017; Alasdair Elder, The Red Trojan Horse: A Concise Analysis of Cultural Marxism, 2017.) ‘Cultural Marxism’ has also been used by many politicians and commentators opposing the Leftist strategy. These include Jordan Peterson, and, in Australia, Cory Bernardi, Nick Cater, Chris Uhlmann, Mark Latham, Fraser Anning, Malcolm Roberts and Caleb Bond. In reaction, the Left is campaigning to delegitimate the concept of Cultural Marxism and even demonize its use.
The concept is valuable because it preserves the connection between contemporary radicalism and the dominant revolutionary tradition of the modern era, while also making explicit two vital shifts that occurred within the 20th Century history of that tradition: (1) The ideological shift within the Marxist paradigm from economic to cultural determinism that began during the mid-decades of the 20th Century; (2) The subsequent political shift of the Left from a focus on mobilizing the Industrial Proletariat, to a focus on radicalizing ‘knowledge workers’, i.e., those working in the ‘culture industries’, and especially in schools, universities, the media, entertainment, and the many policy centres advising government and large corporations. This political shift gained traction in the 1970s and was greatly facilitated in Australia by the enormous expansion of the university sector, and the subsequent rise to power of ALP governments at the federal and state levels.
The concept is also very useful for those seeking to defend the values of Liberal democracy because it confronts the strategy of the Left on its own ground, makes it easier to expose its tactics, and manipulations, and links these to the agenda of radical social change the Left is seeking to impose on society. As a consequence, the ideological foot soldiers of the Left have taken to print and the Internet to violently denounce the concept and all critiques based upon it. (e.g., R. Busbridge, et al, “Cultural Marxism: Far-Right Conspiracy Theory in Australia’s Culture Wars”, in Social Identities, 26:6 (June 2020); J. Jamin, “Cultural Marxism and the Radical Right”, in A. Shekhovtsov, et al, The Post-War Anglo-American Far Right: A Special Relationship of Hate, 2014; T. Mirrlees, “The Alt-Right’s Discourse of ‘Cultural Marxism’: A Political Instrument of Intersectional Hate”. Atlantis Journal, 39, 2018.)
There is also now an extensive Wikipedia entry for ‘Cultural Marxism Conspiracy Theory’, but no entry on Cultural Marxism, as such, presumably because that would imply it did have some form of existence. The ‘conspiracy theory’ entry verges on the hysterical:
Cultural Marxism is a far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory which claims Western Marxism as the basis of continuing academic and intellectual efforts to subvert Western culture. The theory claims that an elite of Marxist theorists and Frankfurt School intellectuals are subverting Western society with a Culture War. [The theory] is promoted by right-wing politicians, fundamentalist religious leaders, political commentators in mainstream print and television media, and white supremacist terrorists.
The entry then goes on to associate anyone using the concept of Cultural Marxism with Nazism, fascism, racism, antisemitism, the alt-right, the radical right, QAnon, the Illuminati, cultural bolshevism, religious fundamentalists, white supremacists, paleoconservatives, Neo-Nazis, terrorism, the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik, and to “a neo-Nazi child sex offender”. The entry is particularly eager to portray those who use the concept as violent anti-Semites, providing links to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theories, the blood libel, and even well-poisoning!
Predictably, the entry re-assures readers, “scholarly analysis of the conspiracy theory has concluded that it has no basis in fact.” Indeed, it insists that Cultural Marxism itself has no reality and is merely a conspiratorial phantasy of the far-right. Consequently, we have the odd situation of the Left being very obviously guided by an ideological paradigm, one of whose basic rules is, don’t admit it exists!
But, of course, it does exist, and it is a measure of the concept’s analytical usefulness that its use attracts such vigorous criticism and determined attempts to de-legitimate it. It is a measure also of the historical ignorance and intellectual deceit of the Left that, despite its “scholarly” pretensions, it doesn’t properly know or understand its own history. In particular, it doesn’t understand the crisis of the International Communist movement that occurred during the 20th Century and came to shape the ideological orientation of the contemporary Left.
Marxism was the dominant revolutionary theory at the beginning of the 20th Century and much of its power arose through its self-depiction as ‘scientific socialism’, i.e., it purported to be not only an ideology that guided political activism but also a ‘science of society’ that identified the economic laws of capitalism and revealed its inherent tendency to collapse, opening the way for the industrial proletariat to seize power and establish Communism. However, the unpredicted Russian Revolution of 1917, the onset of Stalinism, the rise of fascism and Nazism, and the post-WWII revelations about the Soviet regime discredited this model, and the Marxist tradition split into two antagonistic streams: (1) The Marxism-Leninist stream, centred in Moscow, remained dominant. It adhered to the economist model of scientific socialism, directed the global communist movement through the Comintern (including in Australia), and was a very powerful ideological force across the world from 1917 until the 1970s. (2) The minority stream of Western Marxism emerged, led by Western intellectuals, who developed a culturalist model of revolutionary action. Wary of Soviet dominance and unconvinced by the scientistic pretensions of Marxism-Leninism, this stream drew on the work of the Communist Party intellectuals, Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci, to pursue an alternative approach that stressed the importance of cultural and ideological forces (‘hegemony’) in explaining social control. It was this stream that gained a foothold in the universities in the 1960s, initially in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, and that subsequently evolved into Cultural Marxism.
These early Cultural Marxists tended to operate independently from the proletariat and its political arms, which they increasingly came to reject as reactionary. Instead, they focused on the role of the intelligentsia and university-trained knowledge workers. Their expertise in ideas gave their culturalist approach considerable appeal, and they made use of major intellectual figures, e.g., Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, and Weber, who had previously been vigorously denounced by orthodox Marxists. They also drew on a significant tradition of previously marginalized radical thinkers, e.g., Walter Benjamin, Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, T.W. Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, many of whom were associated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, which was itself a major force. Marcuse proved to be a prophetic figure as he used the work of the Early Marx to develop a Marxist critique of culture, and also predicted that the vanguard of the next revolution would be formed by marginalized social groups, or what came to be called New Social Movements (NSMs).
Consequently, Cultural Marxism turned from the class analysis of orthodox Marxism and adopted a strategy based on the NSMs that had emerged in Post-Industrial society out of the ‘Sixties Cultural Revolution, e.g., Black Power, Feminism, Gay Liberation, etc. It also accommodated a new wave of theorists (e.g., Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser), most of whom came out of the Structuralist, Post-Structuralist, and Postmodern movements and specialized in the analysis of language as a primary vehicle for the construction of social reality. Foucault also took the vital step of identifying knowledge with power, enshrining Irrationalism and relativism at the intellectual core of Cultural Marxism.
A further addition to this burgeoning category was Cultural Studies, which originated in the United Kingdom, drawing on the work of Post-War dissident Communist and leftist intellectuals like Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, E. P. Thompson, and Stuart Hall. It self-identified right from the outset as a form of politically engaged analysis of contemporary culture, drawing on an eclectic range of theories and methodologies. It came to be particularly concerned with how systems of power were exercised through cultural phenomena and impacted on class, racial, and gender identities.
This smorgasbord of ideas serves to provide the ideological foundations for many politically active NSMs, including some that have recently risen to considerable prominence, e.g., the Black Lives Matter NSM draws heavily on Critical Race Theory (CRT), which locates the origins of racism (and its obverse, ‘white supremacism’) in the very fabric and structure of liberal-democratic societies (hence ‘systemic racism’). This effectively demonizes such societies and their white citizens, all of whom are condemned as the unworthy beneficiaries of ‘white privilege’. As one critic has observed:
Critical Race Theorists attack the very foundations of the liberal legal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law. These liberal values, they allege, have no enduring basis in principle, but are mere social constructs calculated to legitimate white supremacy … CRT is an unprincipled, divisive and ultimately unhelpful attack on the liberal tradition of America.
— Jeffrey J. Pyle, “Race, Equality and the Rule of Law: Critical Race Theory’s Attack on the Promises of Liberalism”, Boston College Law Review 40(3), 1999
Meanwhile, this entire critical spectrum is held together (at least conceptually) by Intersectionality Theory. This was first formulated in a 1989 paper by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an Afro-American legal academic who was also one of the founders of CRT. She was concerned with how social identities interact to affect the outcome of court cases. It purports to be a synthesizing approach that analyses overlapping social and political identities in terms of the discrimination and privilege derived from the intersecting and interdependent effects of race, gender, sex, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, ethnicity, disability, physical appearance, etc. It is a politically powerful concept as it provides an ideological rationale for mutually reinforcing ‘popular front’ activism involving Progressivist coalitions of NSMs seeking to further their agendas through coordinated joint campaigns.
This shift from class to NSMs as the focus of mobilization for radical change was predictable. Viewed historically, it is clear that the modern revolutionary tradition that began with the French Revolution in 1789 has evolved in parallel with changes with its prospective revolutionary base, or what Lukacs identified as the ‘revolutionary subject’, i.e., that sufficiently powerful political vanguard that could be mobilized to enact radical social change. During the period of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions and up to WWII, this was considered to be the Industrial Proletariat, in accordance with the economist model, while, during the ‘Long Boom’ of the post-war decades, 1945-75, it became the National Liberation movements of the Third World.
Then came the culturalist shift within Marxism and the Revolutionary Subject was identified with a coalition of various NSMs, e.g., Radical Feminism, Black Power, LGBTI Rights, etc., joined after 9/11 by Islamism, which was interpreted initially not as a medieval form of religious fascism but as an anti-Imperialism NSM, and recently by the BLM NSM in the aftermath of the George Floyd’s death. This basically remains the situation, with Intersectionality Theory serving as the unifying ideology of the Progressivist Left, as it continues its comprehensive assault on Liberal-Democracy.
As the epigram at the head of this article emphasizes, a key tactic of the Progressivist Left operating within the Cultural Marxism paradigm is to deny its existence while nevertheless declaring it to be a “political instrument of Intersectional hate” and demonizing those who use it. This reaction, which verges on the hysterical, serves more than anything to emphasize the potential power of the concept as those who value Liberal-Democracy seek to defend it against those committed to its extinction.
Mervyn Bendle contributed ‘Medieval Monastic Mysteries‘ to Quadrant‘s September issue