Cultural Marxism: threat or myth?
In recent years, accusations of ‘cultural Marxism’ have increasingly been hurled at those on the cultural and political left. Not confined to any particular section of the right, the term is supposed to signify a vaguely conspiratorial attempt to undermine traditional Western values, such as marriage, heterosexuality, or authority. But aside from being a term of abuse, what does this accusation really mean?
For many, ‘cultural Marxism’ refers to a change in strategy by those on the left. Rather than openly and violently trying to overthrow capitalism, leftists would engage in what, following Gramsci, was called a ‘long march through the institutions’: taking key roles in education, the civil service and the arts to undermine capitalism from within.
Many on the left have denounced this as a conspiracy theory. They argue that the term accords an outsized influence to small groups of academics and has anti-Semitic undertones, fetishising the work of the ‘Frankfurt School’ – a group of radical Marxist cultural critics including Theodore Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. Moreover, they argue that the prevalence of leftists in cultural or educational roles simply reflects changing social attitudes. No one, they say, is trying to undermine Western values: such values simply are changing and people are increasingly confident about saying so.
However, there does seem to have been a shift in leftist thinking away from material or economic matters and towards issues of culture. It seems one is more likely to find those on the left complaining about ‘problematic’ adverts than the stalled wage growth of the working classes. Moreover, from assaults on the Western canon to demands to respect an ever-wider variety of sexual identities, many conservatives feel that certain foundational Western values really are under attack.
So, what ought we make of the term? Is it a helpful byword that describes a shift from seeking to overthrow capitalist economic structures to an obsession with issues of culture? Does it promote serious thought or is it a lazy accusation? Worse, is it simply a bizarre conspiracy theory favoured by those who feel alienated from contemporary politics? How should we assess the influence of the Frankfurt School? And why, at any rate, does the term have such widespread currency?