Social Justice Usage
Source: Busbridge, R., Moffitt, B., & Thorburn, J. “Cultural Marxism: Far-right Conspiracy Theory in Australia’s Culture Wars.” Social Identities, 2020: 1–17, p. 4.
Arguing that the Frankfurt School was involved in a deliberate and covert plot to undermine Western civilisation, the Cultural Marxist conspiracy offers a simple explanation for the progressive cultural change many Western countries have experienced since the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. One of the issues associated with the Cultural Marxist conspiracy is that Cultural Marxism is a distinct philosophical approach associated with some strands of the Frankfurt School, as well as ideas and influences emanating from the British New Left. However, proponents of the conspiracy do not regard Cultural Marxism as a form of left-wing cultural criticism, but instead as a calculated plan orchestrated by leftist intellectuals to destroy Western values, traditions and civilisation, carried out since at least the 1930s.
New Discourses Commentary
“Cultural Marxism” is a fraught term that can be reasonably applied to the underlying approach defining neo-Marxism and, later, Critical Social Justice, though neither cleanly nor entirely accurately. The term can mean at least three distinct things, at least one of which has a moderate degree of accuracy and at least one of which is a conspiracy theory, either by accusation or legitimately, depending on the situation and context. The fact of this conspiracy theory—both in accusation and in truth—makes the term difficult to use without significant pushback and dismissal, even when used accurately.
The most apt meaning of “cultural Marxism” is that the underlying oppressor-versus-oppressed analytical dynamic utilized in Marxism proper is re-appropriated out of the economic context and into the cultural context (see also, conflict theory, neo-Marxism, identity politics, and applied postmodernism). In many regards, this application of Marxian conflict theory to cultural phenomena is, in fact, what neo-Marxism is about and is also what Critical Social Justice is about, if in the latter case one reduces “cultures” to a sense of solidarity with and shared values and political aims within one’s identity groups, say like race, sex, gender, or sexuality. A related meaning that is also not completely wrong and is characteristic of both movements—neo-Marxism and Critical Social Justice (though much more the former)—is the belief that the socioeconomic goals of Marxism, i.e., socialism and/or communism, can in the end be achieved through cultural means and agitations.
There are many difficulties with the term “cultural Marxism.” For one thing, “cultural Marxism” might imply to many hearers that “Marxism” is the relevant part of the phrase, which is somewhat inaccurate where both neo-Marxism and Critical Social Justice are concerned. Both of these ideologies are highly critical of Marxism, in fact, in their own fashion, and the latter (at least) is barely interested in economic class and is distinctly bourgeois itself. Nevertheless, the idea isn’t completely wrong, as the second meaning for “Cultural Marxism” given above (achieving something like communism by agitating culturally) is this meaning, and that was rather explicitly the goal of at least some of the neo-Marxist Critical Theorists (see also, Frankfurt School). Their goal wasn’t necessarily to achieve Marxism but communism and to do so by attacking the cultural hegemony that prevents the overthrow of liberal Western democracies based on Enlightenment principles.
For the neo-Marxists who thought this way, Marxism implied the specific set of beliefs about the unfolding of capital-H History via dialectical materialism through capitalism and socialism on to communism. They would have used the Marxian idea of conflict theory applied to a different domain—culture, rather than economics—to achieve these goals, facilitating the confusion around the term. (In a way, the awkward “cultural Marxianism” would be a more accurate term for this way of thinking.) Nevertheless, the “Marxism” part of “cultural Marxism” presents a front of confusion and thus capacity to discredit those who use the term for being too simplistic or wrongheaded.
Broadly speaking, the left half of the political spectrum rejects this straightforward analysis of the aims of Critical Theory, which are frequently stated in its own words, including its goals for sociocultural and economic revolution (see also, equity). Because it seems implausible that an outfit like the Frankfurt School and its relatively academic and obscure Critical Theory could possibly achieve its explicitly stated aims of taking a long march through the institutions (Gramsci) and undermining the liberal order and Enlightenment rationalism, these thinkers conclude that taking Critical Theorists at their word must be a sort of conspiracy theory. They do this to downplay the impacts Critical Theory has had and continues to have where and when it is installed.
Complicating matters further, because many of the members of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory were Jewish, a genuinely anti-Semitic conspiracy theory known as “cultural Marxism” has arisen around precisely the activities that is described above. As is sometimes the case, there are far-right anti-Semites who believe the Frankfurt School to be yet another attempt by (evil) Jews to destabilize Western society for their own gain—in precisely the manner described above.
That it is possible to see “cultural Marxism” as a conspiracy theory—both legitimately and not—covers a great deal of ground toward discrediting any arguments that make use of the phrase, whether the relevant critiques are legitimate or are instead genuinely rooted in anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing. Complicating this matter even further, there is also a conspiracy theory about the “cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory that holds that the accusation that the term “Cultural Marxism” refers to a conspiracy theory was part of a branding conspiracy by the Critical Theorists themselves, who wished to discredit the analysis of conservative and liberal thinkers who accurately saw what the Frankfurt School’s goals were and publicized them.
These two issues—the technical inaccuracy of the term and its branding as related to a possible anti-Semitic conspiracy theory—make it almost impossible to use the term “cultural Marxism” in an effective way when trying to describe the operation of neo-Marxism or, more recently, Critical Social Justice (which Jordan Peterson called “postmodern neo-Marxism”)—even if one is using it completely fairly to describe the approach given above to which the name almost fits. Though both academic and a mouthful, it is vastly more useful and accurate to say that neo-Marxism and Critical Social Justice employ Marxian conflict theory in the attempt to achieve some form of communism (see also, liberationism). This tends to be unsatisfying and of limited utility because it requires unpacking all of the relevant terms in detail.
When people of good faith who are not likely to be anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists use the term “cultural Marxism,” however, it should be understood in the way just stated. It is a way of thinking that applies Marx’s conflict theory along cultural lines in order to destabilize cultural hegemony and/or systemic power (which are approximately the same thing—see also, Foucauldian and episteme) for the purposes of achieving something much more like communism (or socialism) than capitalism. In particular, these people will be describing an ideology that is specifically critical, in the Marxian “ruthless criticism of everything that exists” sense. It is critical specifically of the liberal order and Enlightenment rationalism and carries the objective of using Critical Theory to awaken the oppressed from false consciousness and to the injustice in the system, and thus to take up the fight for a social, cultural, and political revolution for “liberation” (see also, critical consciousness and consciousness raising).
In the context of the early Frankfurt School, the relevant “cultural” division would have been between “high culture” and “low (and middle) culture,” with the latter not realizing they are being conditioned to accept their oppressed state by the “bourgeois” high culture while simultaneously being excluded from accessing real high culture that would set them free. Hence Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno’s intense focus upon aesthetics, for instance. As the Frankfurt School evolved, especially following World War II, this approach coarsened as it took up liberationism, which was rooted in postcolonialism and the radical identity politics of various identity groups, most notably black power and black liberation initiatives.
With the advent of intersectionality in the 1990s (see also, applied postmodernism), culture became even more profoundly tied to identity group status (see also, positionality). This trend deepened as all of individual, institutional, and biological racism either were effectively ended or were minimized significantly following the legal advances of the Civil Rights Movement (and Act). It was in this context that “cultural racism” emerged as the “new racism” within critical race Theory to explain what Derrick Bell had Theorized as the “permanence of racism” (e.g., in Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism). Cultural racism was described as the new form that racism took as other more substantive forms of racism fell into disrepute and were rejected on principle and by law. Thus, by appropriating Foucault’s postmodernist thought about the cultural construction of knowledges (see also, racial knowledge), critical race Theorists and other intersectionalists managed to tie identity categories like race, etc., to cultures and thus reinvent the “cultural Marxist” analysis of their neo-Marxist predecessors in a way explicitly designed to do radical (queer black feminist) identity politics.
Thus, when people use the phrase “cultural Marxism” in good faith to describe the mode of analysis in Critical Social Justice and its various Theories, this is what they mean. They are referring to a conflation of identity group with culture (see also, positionality and standpoint epistemology) that is then analyzed through oppressor-versus-oppressed conflict theory (which is Marxian) to achieve something that resembles (ethno)-communism more than it does capitalism. In this regard it is more accurate than not to refer to Critical Social Justice as “cultural Marxism,” noting the various caveats provided here—most especially that it is not explicitly Marxism and remains a tremendously fraught term that will be dismissed by almost anyone hearing it who doesn’t already agree to the meaning of the term.
Applied postmodernism; Black feminism; Black liberationism; Capitalism; Communism; Conflict theory; Consciousness raising; Conservative; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical race Theory; Critical Theory; Cultural racism; Enlightenment; Episteme; Exclusion; False consciousness; Foucauldian; Frankfurt School; Gender; Hegemony; Identity; Identity politics; Ideology; Injustice; Institutional racism; Liberalism; Liberation; Long march through the institutions; Marxian; Marxism; Neo-Marxism; New racism; Oppression; Positionality; Postcolonialism; Postmodern; Power (systemic); Queer; Race; Radical; Revolution; Sex; Sexuality; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialism; Solidarity; System, the; Standpoint epistemology; Theory; Western; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Busbridge, R., Moffitt, B., & Thorburn, J. “Cultural Marxism: Far-right Conspiracy Theory in Australia’s Culture Wars.” Social Identities, 2020: 1–17, pp. 4–5.
Although the terminology is much older, current usage of Cultural Marxism can be traced to the American ultraconservative literature of the early 1990s. While the conspiracy had a number of early proponents, including political commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, the American paleoconservative William S. Lind is widely credited with popularising the concept and providing the most influential account of it, with his edited volume, Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology, being the key citation since 2004. For Lind, Cultural Marxism is traditional Marxism ‘translated from economic to cultural terms’, spurred by the historical failure to universally unite the proletariat. The idea is that Cultural Marxists seek to pave the way for revolution by destabilising and damaging traditional cultural values, attachments and solidarities, taking what Antonio Gramsci called the ‘long march through the institutions’, particularly those in the realms of culture and media. Rather than the ‘classless society’ of classical Marxism, Cultural Marxism allegedly promotes a radical egalitarian vision of an emptied-out, soulless multiculture, replacing the proletariat of old with a ‘new proletariat’ made up of immigrants, multiculturalists, black nationalists, secular humanists, feminists, homosexuals, sex educators and environmentalists. The purpose of the Cultural Marxist project is to destroy and replace the traditional institutions of Western civilisation, such as Christianity, national identity and the nuclear family, through the use of ‘politically correct’ ideology and the portrayal of ‘white men as evil’. It is in this regard that Bill Berkowitz (2003) deems Cultural Marxism ‘a kind of “political correctness” on steroids’. Whereas political correctness became a point of contention in the US college culture wars between progressives and conservatives between 1990 and 1992, the discourse of Cultural Marxism gives it a conspiratorial spin. For Buchanan, if Cultural Marxism is the ideology imposed on the masses to institute a ‘New World Order’, ‘political correctness’ is the tool whereby any criticism – particularly conservative and right-wing – of such a project can be curbed.
Revision date: 12/11/20