A specter is haunting the imaginations of many in the modern West—the specter of cultural Marxism. Its influence, the suspicious say (and the suspicious range from the moderately conservative to the screamingly extreme alt-right), is evident in everything from gender-neutral pronouns to training in detecting microaggression to, well, virtually every aspect of what is now called identity politics. Centered in the academy, cultural Marxism is said to hold sway over the professoriate in humanities and social science departments, and every year legions of their proselytes are loosed upon the wider culture to spread the corrosive doctrine.
How does a nineteenth-century Hegel-reading philosopher like Karl Marx shape the thinking of today’s social-justice warriors? A potted history of ideas runs as follows: In the mid-twentieth century, the doctrine of “economic Marxism” was fatally discredited by the failure of communist regimes around the world, spurring disillusioned intelligentsia to seek a new and improved Marxism that could speak to post-war consumer-capitalism. These so-called “cultural Marxists” undertook what Canadian psychologist-guru Jordan Peterson has called a “sleight of hand game” in salvaging their ideological wares, turning from economics to culture. Thinkers ranging from Antonio Gramsci to Jacques Derrida are lumped into this effort, but at the center of this history one almost always finds the Frankfurt School, a group of midcentury Marxists who fled Germany and took refuge in America during World War II. This group’s expertise was not in economics but in philosophy, social theory, art, and literature. Accordingly, its members repackaged their Marxism for the subjects they knew best. They also frequently turned to the theories of Freud, blending the early Marx’s concern with alienation with Freud’s ideas of repression and sublimation.
Flash-forward to the present. According to conservative journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan, today’s cultural Marxists are deeply invested in toppling power structures of patriarchy and white privilege. They do so, according to this version of history, by following the Frankfurt School thinkers in transposing the oppressed-oppressor conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie into the cultural realm, assigning oppressed status to various nonprivileged identity groups. Emergence of a victimhood culture follows, as groups laying claim to various identities articulate grievances against dominant groups and the structures that serve their interests. Rational adjudication of truth then becomes subsumed under demands for the subversion of power, patriarchy, and privilege across unjust social institutions, perpetuating continual identification of conflict within the established social order.
There are many problems with this narrative, of course, and here’s one: Such a vision of an ever-in-conflict social order is only loosely “cultural” and could be constructed entirely independent of anything “Marxist.” You can find it in Machiavelli, Hobbes, Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand, to name just a few. Indeed, today the most popular accounts of society as groups in perpetual conflict over resources—whether material, symbolic, or political—are found in best-selling books by evolutionary psychologists and biologists eager to apply their disciplinary insights to questions far outside their field. It is more the diffusion of Darwin—not Derrida—that underlies popular conflict-grounded accounts of morality and culture today.
Nevertheless, the twentieth century did see a number of Marxist schools of thought turn from economics and politics to cultural concerns after communism produced no proletarian utopias and quite a few dictators of the Stalinist variety. “Culture” indeed came onto the Marxist radar, but it functioned in a very particular way: not to identify antagonisms among social groups but to better explain the lack of antagonism observed in societies. Why was the working class not squaring off against those complicit in its oppression? Perhaps, as literary critic Richard Hoggart observed in his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, this subjugation was a product of a newly emerged mass consumer culture. Culture is not a new site of battle; it the salving opium that keeps the war-wounded permanently on the sidelines.
Hoggart belonged to a midcentury Marxist splinter group called the British New Left, a movement that also claimed leading cultural-studies figures like Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, E.P. Thompson, and, for a time, philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. As cultural historian Dennis Dworkin recounts in his book Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain, these scholars drew inspiration from a variety of intellectual sources—including the more conservative thought of T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis—to apply critical methods to the nonpolitical dimensions of common life. Culture, for all these thinkers, was the arena in which the humanistic potentialities described in Marx’s early writings should manifest themselves. But all of them believed contemporary culture thwarted the agency and creativity that Marx saw as essential to human freedom.
There is good reason why the British New Left’s version of cultural Marxism sounds nothing like the cultural Marxism deplored by Jordan Peterson and Andrew Sullivan. The modern conservative narrative traces back to a 1997 “Letter to Conservatives” written by Heritage Foundation cofounder Paul Weyrich. Weyrich was first to finger cultural Marxism for inventing the “ideology of Political Correctness,” which he traced to the Frankfurt School and described as “alien,” “bitterly hostile,” and an “enemy of our traditional culture.” Weyrich and his colleagues at the Free Congress Foundation—including William Lind, a prolific historian and columnist—only rarely discussed how the Jewishness of the Frankfurt School related to its members’ ideology, but the hints were picked up and exploited by those with more radical agendas. Fringe far-right groups, drawing inspiration from Weyrich, produced several documentaries—which today rack up millions of views on YouTube—asserting the existence of an early-twentieth-century plot by the Frankfurt School to subvert American culture through the promotion of multiculturalism, conflictual group identities, and political correctness. One can still find poorly formatted websites from this era displaying elaborate diagrams charting the Frankfurt School’s nefarious cultural infiltration, with one website claiming to expose social scientist and musicologist Theodor Adorno’s direct role in composing much of the Beatles’ discography.
Endorsement by such fringe voices did not deter paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan and Paul Gottfried from promoting the vaguely conspiratorial narrative in more established conservative circles in the early 2000s. At the same time, alt-right and white nationalist groups began latching on to the narrative. Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered seventy-seven people in two attacks in Norway in 2011, cited and plagiarized writing by the Free Congress Foundation in his 1,500-page manifesto, blaming Frankfurt School thinkers for developing a “cultural Marxism” that justified contemporary “white genocide.” Breivik also cited Richard Spencer, the white nationalism activist partly responsible for Charlottesville’s 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, whose openly anti-Semitic history of cultural infiltration came to shape the American alt-right movement. The 2017 discovery of a memo warning of a cultural Marxist conspiracy—a coordinated effort of globalists, bankers, Islamists, Black Lives Matter figures, and establishment Republicans plotting to take down President Donald Trump—resulted in the firing of the document’s author, Rich Higgins, from Trump’s National Security Council staff.
But beyond its unshakable association with fringe conspiratorial thinkers, the cultural Marxism narrative has another shortcoming: a fundamentally defective understanding of the left. Nearly all observers of the left’s development during the twentieth century see substantive disagreements and discontinuities. But the cultural Marxism narrative, in reproducing the conventions of conspiratorial thinking, asserts a deep consistency hidden beneath the apparent heterogeneity: Identity politics is postmodernism is Marxism. This Procrustean distortion obscures both the past and present varieties of progressive politics and thought. Marx himself took little or no interest in even the ideological precursors of those movements that exercise many contemporary conservatives—multiculturalism, feminism, identity politics—and would have discounted many of these concerns as “superstructural” diversions from the realities of class struggle. Marx makes a poor postmodernist; indeed, his restrictive metanarrative of class warfare is one that many postmodernists tossed into the dustbin of dead ideologies in the 1970s. Frankfurt School leaders themselves openly feuded with the social-justice warriors of their day, finding themselves the victims of 1960s classroom protests and interruptions. Their European elitism did not comport well with warm, all-embracing multiculturalism. “Woke” they were not.
Underplayed as well are more recent ruptures within the left. In academic circles, these are best represented by the enduring clash between the remnants of Western Marxism and the newer left voices of poststructuralism, postcolonialism, feminism, and “post-Marxism.” These factions seldom play well together. In fact, hard-core Marxists are responsible for some of the more sophisticated takedowns of the various perspectives lumped under the rubric of “cultural Marxism.” Perry Anderson, Alex Callinicos, Nancy Fraser, and Terry Eagleton have all produced biting critiques of the political dead end of postmodernism. In recent years, flare-ups of an even more internecine nature have revealed underlying tensions within leftish values: radical feminism vs. transgender rights, the ACLU vs. Black Lives Matter, Ta-Nehisi Coates vs. Cornel West, even the “Bernie Bros” vs. the Democratic National Committee. If there is a conspiracy, it is not going particularly well.
Culture—as Marx, Gramsci, and the British New Left all saw—is not politically neutral. Nor is it merely subjective values, tastes, or ideas of individuals’ private lives. Instead, it is the very public stage on which political and ideological interests often contend for legitimacy. This is exactly the function of culture that is energizing those on the right who claim to see and unmask the dangerous “Marxist” agenda lurking behind all left-wing cultural critique and activism. This “hermeneutic of suspicion,” long a staple of the deconstructivist college seminar, now appears to have found a new home on Stars and Stripes–bedecked cable news shows. Maybe the real cultural Marxists have been hiding in plain sight all along.