The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Signifiers

Cultural Marxism

Andrew Lynn

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

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.  

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