A Word on "Cultural Marxism

Sean Gabb is right below to see that the heavily oppressive version of political correctness that has emerged in recent years is not well described as "Cultural Marxism". It has in fact very little to do with Marxism, except insofar as both bodies of thought are heavily oppressive.

The fact that Marxist regimes do have oppressive speech codes is a link between the two but exactly what speech is forbidden today has only a passing kinship with what Marxist regimes forbad. In fact it was criticism of the existing order that Marxist regimes most heavily forbad whereas the current movement is heavily in favour of criticizing the existing order.

The practitioners of the current obsession usually describe themselves as "woke" and the term "woke movement" seems an adequate descriptor to me. As far as I can tell, the term "woke" first arose among South African blacks who saw even black rule as oppressive towards blacks -- which it undoubtedly is. So it was simply another critique of the exiting order. It mainly manifested itself in a desire to tear down colonial-era statues, for whatever good that was supposed to do.

The term was however gladly adopted by enemies of historic statuary in Britain and the USA. It was hard to see what good the iconoclasm did but it became the vanguard of a movement that aimed to tear down conventional vocabulary. As such it mainly has nuisance value only. By adopting new words for old one can usually escape its attacks and all sorts of people are doing just that. As long as we can get on with whatever we normally do, let the vocabulary critics expend their energies on trivia.

It seems that Conservative politicians are now forbidden to use the term Cultural Marxism. The alleged reason is that it describes a Jewish conspiracy theory. The Cultural Marxist hypothesis traces the rise of political correctness and the growing use, both formal and informal, of political censorship to a group of neo-Marxists collectively known as the Frankfurt School. Since these neo-Marxists were mainly Jewish, the claim is that anyone using the term has to be anti-semitic. I accept that some who use the term have ethnic origins uppermost in their minds. Most, however, do not, but are trying to understand the connection between ideas and political action. Melanie Phillips, indeed, one of the most liberal users of the term, is herself Jewish. Whether she must now be defined as an anti-semite I leave to others. What cannot be doubted is that, wherever it started, there is an increasing censorship of political opinion, and that both Britain and America are sliding into a strange sort of outsourced totalitarianism – a totalitarianism that has no basis in written law, but proceeds by way of omnipresent propaganda and the sacking of anyone who refuses to agree with what the propaganda claims.

This being so, I am disturbed that any term of analysis for what is happening has itself become a victim of informal censorship. I am equally disturbed, though hardly surprised, that the Conservatives have so little interest in winning a battle of ideas that they are willing to let their opponents set the terms of debate. On the other hand, I do not think that Cultural Marxism is the right term of analysis. Though I have used it myself, and may even have helped introduce it into this country, I have long since come to what I think a more accurate analysis. I do not now use the term Cultural Marxism, and I do not recommend its use, because I do not believe that the present attack on liberal civilisation is in any meaningful sense Marxist.

So far as I understand him – and I write as an outsider to any school of Marxist ideology – Marx made five essential points. First, there have been, since the French Revolution, two classes – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Second, the bourgeoisie owns the means of production and exploits the proletariat through the extraction of surplus value. Third, this is an unstable parasitism, as the reinvestment of surplus value leads to periodic crises of over-production. Fourth, these crises concentrate wealth in fewer hands and expand and immiserise the proletariat. Fifth, there will be an inevitable revolution, in which the expropriators will be expropriated and a communist society will emerge. A further and perhaps optional sixth point is that the inevitable revolution can be hurried by the defection of informed bourgeois intellectuals to radicalise and form a vanguard for the proletariat.

Now, where is any of this in the present mix of climate alarmism and obsession with the alleged oppression of racial and sexual minorities? How is capitalism supposed to be overthrown by getting Sainsbury to fill its advertisements with pictures of black people eating Christmas dinner? Ditto boycotts of Israeli pharmaceuticals? Ditto arguing with or against radical feminists over the exact status of men who change sex?

The answer, of course, is the Cultural Marxist hypothesis – that the present culture wars are a product of the writings of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. These men took the Marxian concept of “false consciousness” – that the bourgeoisie keeps the workers quiet by making them believe that all is for the best – and enlarged it into a project for achieving a counter-hegemony by taking over the means of cultural reproduction.

There is some truth in this answer, so far as these writings are prescribed in most university humanities departments, and many advocates of the new totalitarianism have at some time called themselves Marxists. It is, even, so a weak answer. Before about 60 AD, most Christians were Jews, and Christianity ever since has retained some Jewish religious writings among its core texts. But nothing is achieved by describing Christianity as “Gentile Judaism.” The differences between the two faiths are too essential to define either by reference to the other. In the same way, the present totalitarianism has nothing to do with the essential claims of Marxism. It lacks any interest in the analysis of surplus value, and its belief in the instability of unregulated markets derives mainly from a reading of Keynes and the welfare economists of the Cambridge School.

I prefer the term “cultural leftism.” I prefer this because the present totalitarianism is based on belief in an appearance of equality mediated by the State. It therefore has elements of socialism as reasonably defined. But it is in no sense Marxist. Its revealed preference is for a ruling class that is a coalition of politicians, administrators, policemen, lawyers, educators, plus media and business interests. So far as individuals move freely between them, these groups are mutually permeable. If they disagree over incidentals, they preside collectively over a mass of the ruled who are mostly well-nourished, but who are too atomised and intimidated by often meaningless words to combine in opposition.

Indeed, if I prefer my chosen term, I see little point in arguing against what it describes. Undoubtedly, this must be explained and opposed. But too much analysis of particulars can risk an overlooking of the much more important generality. This is that, in every time and place, there have been those who want to get on with their lives and those who want to control others. These latter will take up whatever body of ideas is most likely within the prevailing assumptions of their age to legitimise their urges.

I have written about this already – here and here. I will therefore only summarise my opinion. This is that, during the religious controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the will to power was dressed in the clothing of radical Protestantism. My own reading of The New Testament shows no condemnation of any rational enjoyment, and certainly no call for censorship or the regulation of lifestyle. As refashioned by those who took it up, radical Protestantism became a doctrine of guilt and gloomy thoughts, and an excuse for controlling others. Though often shown to be ill-made, this particular clothing was only abandoned once it had become threadbare with the passing of time and the rise of new concerns. In the early twentieth century, Marxism was the main preferred legitimising ideology. It was to little effect that the predictions of monopoly and immiserisation were falsified, and to none that the Austrian School showed how the analysis of surplus value was based on a misunderstanding of price formation, and how economic activity could not be coordinated without market prices. Orthodox Marxism was progressively abandoned in the West after about 1950 by everyone who mattered, only because the mass-murders had given it too bad a name, and because the workers plainly wanted more and nicer consumer goods than a planned economy could deliver.

The significance of the neo-Marxists is that they were at first the intellectual equivalent of Pethidine for the more effective advocates of total control. They were an exit from the apparent dead end of Marxism. They were then incorporated into a new legitimising ideology that, with its fanaticism and guilt-laden puritanism, might not have been recognised by Gramci and Adorno and Marcuse. This movement was driven by a need to explain why predictions of working class impoverishment had been falsified, and why the workers were happy after the Great War to support non-leftist authoritarian governments. It was a thing of its own age. It is not substantially to blame for my present fear that I shall be sacked for thinking it a good idea to leave the European Union without a deal, or my scepticism about the existence of a Great Plastic Patch – or for believing in freedom of speech and association.

On this analysis, the new totalitarians are only contingently cultural leftists – just as their predecessors were only contingently Marxists or eugenicists or Calvinists. Given a change in prevailing assumptions, their successors might easily be Moslems or white supremacists. Ideas come and go. The will to power is always there.

The problem, therefore, is not to be solved by proving that men like Adorno were wrong, or perhaps saying that they were Jewish. The problem is the existence of a State that is able to enforce the whims of people inherently inclined to totalitarian control and who are permanently in search of the most appropriate ideology to legitimise their inclinations. Now that I am growing old enough to be wise, and now it is plain there can be no conservative reaction, I see more clearly than ever that there is only one permanent solution to these waves of fanaticism that were destroying lives long before Marx was born. This is to withdraw sanction from the powers that be and to work for the destruction of the State and its replacement by a mass of autonomous communities too small and too easily escaped to oppress those living in them. This is not to be achieved by political activism, but by a process of individual defection.

I return to the term Cultural Marxism. It emerged for historical reasons. Libertarians and conservatives spent much of the twentieth century arguing against Marxism. It was comforting after about 1990 to see the new threat to freedom as a variant of something they could believe they had already defeated. But, if it really worries Jews – and many libertarians are Jewish – let it go. If using it can get you sacked from your job, let it go. It is, after all, a bad term of analysis. And whatever other terms may or may not be allowed, the facts analysed remain facts. We face a ruling class that is more than usually trying to get its way by censorship and intimidation and the ruining of careers. Make it law that we must call these people “devoted friends of humanity” – they would still be the sworn and obvious enemies of the liberal civilisation that emerged in the Enlightenment.

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