“Cultural Marxism” in common usage is a very confused concept. Usually, when people refer to “Cultural Marxism,” they are talking about the identity politics problem currently manifesting on the left and referred to as “Social Justice activism.” They see this as a straightforward transference of Marxist ideas of an oppressed and oppressor economic class to identity categories like race, gender and sexuality. This is neat and easily graspable, but it is not accurate. Identity politics has its source not in the evolution of Marxist ideas but of postmodern ones. More specifically it comes from various forms of identity studies which call upon postmodern ideas and almost entirely neglect class.
Sometimes postmodernism and Marxism are conflated into “Cultural Marxism” or “Postmodern Neo-Marxism” cynically and strategically. Right-wing intellectuals can do so to conveniently connect their two enemies – the economic left and the identitarian left. Postmodernism and particularly identity studies are much younger than Marxism and so densely theoretical that they are difficult to relate current problems to. Marxism, on the other hand, has easily graspable tenets and an authoritarian and bloody history to point to and frighten people with.
However, most people who make this conflation are perfectly sincere. They are trying to understand a problem they see on the left and seize on something with historical roots that can be easily understood. They frequently point out to me that the current “Social Justice,” “identity politics” problem involves a belief in oppressor and oppressed classes and is revolutionary. They give this as evidence of its similarity to Marxism.
This is unsatisfactory. A belief in oppressor and oppressed classes can be true or false. Revolutionary overthrow can be argued for or against ethically. It is particularly ironic that many of the people who push these elements as intrinsically Marxist most strongly are American patriots. They proudly stand by the overthrow of British colonialism by revolution but they don’t consider themselves proto-Marxists. Similarly, those who believe that by enacting Brexit, they are liberating the British people from an oppressive external power do not believe that what they are doing is Marxism. That’s because it isn’t.
Trying to overturn power imbalances is not the property of Marxism but of liberalism which emerged from a long modern history. This saw the freedom of people from feudalism, theocracy, slavery, patriarchy, colonialism and apartheid. What we have to decide right now is not whether the power imbalances being claimed to exist by Social Justice academics and activists derive from Marxist ideas but whether they are real and need overthrowing.
There is an influential section of society which believes that dominant discourses are still profoundly racist, sexist and homophobic. They see much evidence of patriarchy, rape culture, white supremacy, transphobia and imperialism. These ideas come from the universities but they are not citing the Frankfurt school. They are citing the postmodernists and, to an even greater extent, the theorists in intersectional feminism, critical race theory, queer theory and postcolonial or decolonial studies to do so.
The original postmodernists were radically sceptical that any truth can exist which is not constructed by power using language. Successive waves of identity-based critical theory have upheld this belief. They have more explicitly politicized it and applied it to identity while largely ignoring class identity save for the occasional paying of lip-service to anti-capitalism. This is why we see an intense focus on society as constructed of systems of power, privilege and marginalization. This is why we hear that different demographics have different knowledges and that science and reason and liberalism are straight white male knowledge that unfairly dominates and oppresses minority groups. It is why we are told that language is dangerous and needs to be regulated.
Are they right about this? Do we live in an imperialistic, heterocentrist, white supremacist patriarchy or not? For most liberals, the answer is “not” even as we acknowledge racism, sexism and homophobia to continue to exist and need addressing. The dominant cultural narrative of UK society is not that men are superior to women, white people superior to black, Asian and minority ethnic people, or heterosexuals superior to homosexuals. We see this in the widespread support for gender equality, racial equality and issues like same sex marriage.
Therefore the people who believe that society is governed by oppressive, identity-based systems of power which perpetuate knowledge through ways of talking about things are largely incorrect and liberals need to defend against this. Not by calling it a form of Marxism but by understanding how it really works. To defend against this, we need to defend the fruits of modernity: science, reason-centered philosophy, strong institutions and secular, liberal democracy. We need to stand for the liberal values of individuality and universality in which every individual is a member of our shared humanity and must have the right to access every opportunity our shared societies have to offer. These are what have advanced social justice and can continue to do so while identity politics in its “Social Justice” form can only divide and hinder and undermine liberal values of equality.
Sometimes these values are referred to as “western values” although rational, empirical, secular liberal democrats exist everywhere. Nevertheless, the Enlightenment and the formation of the scientific method and secular liberal democracies did form and take root in the west. We, the lucky inheritors of them, should not take them for granted and neglect to defend them. Not because they are western but because they have proven their effectiveness at facilitating the advance of knowledge and the progress of human rights and equality.
The Social Justice worldview is irrational and counterproductive to progress. It is not Marxism and we do not need to claim it is to oppose it. We can simply defend the fruits of modernity and with it the search for objective knowledge, the prioritisation of reason, and the liberal principle of equal rights, freedoms and opportunities regardless of race, gender and sexuality. That is what we should do.