This is a lightly edited transcript of Helen Pluckrose’s opening statement on the panel “Cultural Marxism: Threat or Myth” at the Battle of Ideas.  


“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.

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17 comments

  1. I believe Postmodernism and its scions are properly relatives of Marxism by their Hegelian common ancestry. I think of both branches as conceiving of social/political/economic/epistemological power as the finger on the scale of the historical dialectic; the operation of power is the preconditioning of synthesis.

    If the point of this piece is to illustrate that the defense against Marxism (a Hogwarts elective,) is unsuitable to resist the Postmodernist strain, I would argue that it hasn’t even worked against Marxism. Both undermine the earnest synthesis of thought, and the specifics are just a sort of a smokescreen.

  2. I thought the lesson of Marx 101 was that it was about class, and every other social division was a distraction from the problem of class. Identity politics has nothing to do with Marxism; it even is at direct odds with it, regardless of the tendency of these two to overlap in recent times. Both — as usually practiced — have a certain tenuousness with the real world. But so do so many other belief systems, from religion to nationalism to libertarianism.

  3. Good article as ever. “Cultural Marxism” seems to be one of those terms that are so ill-defined that it is almost certainly counter-productive to use it in practice, even if a particular usage appears reasonable to you personally.

    One nitpick. American patriots did not overthrow British colonialism, they *were* British colonialists.

  4. Thank you Helen for your wide knowledge in this area. I think everybody is partly right here, grabbing different parts of the elephant and calling it a “snake,” a “tree trunk,” etc. My own initial take would be: a) Marxism clearly influenced pomo/poco hence the contemporary academic left, but differences were always apparent; b) identity politics actually is to some extent a return of nationalist/conservative ideas now on the “left”; “cultural Marxism” could cover a number of different lines, in a sense anything following Lucaks and the Frankfurt school, particularly when they influenced “cultural” departments. like English; d) the campus restrictions on free speech are not Marxist but Leninist (Party-authoritarian, “Eastern” not “Western” Marxism). Only in Lenin does the need for Party discipline required shutting down all discussion, and treat disagreement with the Party as a form of violence to be met by violence. My two cents, anyway.

    1. Definitely agree with your points. I think there are current Marxists thinkers like Vivek Chibber and Adolph Reed who would agree with the assessment that the identitarian bent is not Leftist but nationalist/conservative/neo-liberal. Maybe it’s better to look at the similarities with Marxism as a misappropriation of Marxist thinking rather the intended application of class unity? After all, Marx’s writing foregrounded the idea that economic issues are the fundamental existential issues impacting all people – which certainly feels like it fits well within Enlightenment universalism. Chibber and Reed definitely draw upon this type of argument.

  5. I like the article and generally agree that cultural Marxism and post-modernism are not entirely compatible, but I think that you’re giving SJWs too much credit. They often do not know the depths of either Marxist philosophy (and historical use) or of post-modern philosophy. Most SJWs are focused on the “face” of movements, and couldn’t care less about the contradictions within the movement. If they did, then there would be an absolute explosion in cognitive dissonance. What binds this simplistic movement is that both Marxism and POMO thought focus heavily on power and oppression, and that’s all SJWs really care about at the end of the day. The use of “Decolonisation”, particularly in how it’s applied to First Nations/Indigenous people, marries Marxism and POMO into an almost impenetrable web that you just cannot penetrate the irrationality without coming off as racist. POMO and Marxism may be categorically opposite, but that doesn’t translate into the SJWs use of the two interchangeably.

  6. In the 1920s, the vast majority of Marxist-influenced academics were in Europe and America. They had expected that a war would cause the Workers to rise up, and rule in a Marxist Revolution, expecting this to spread after the Bolshevik uprising in Russia. When the ‘Communist uprising’ did not spread, two leading lights (Gramsci and Adorno) came to the same conclusion: A Revolution could not be guaranteed success (or to last, if it were successful) – if based only on Traditional Marxism; Western society was too ingrained with Christianity and the traditional values that it espoused, that the culture had to be changed first – before the Revolution could take root. Therefore – Christianity and traditional values must be destroyed. This is Cultural Marxism.

    https://redgreenalliance.com/2016/02/11/political-correctness-the-postmodern-cult/

    This is not a part of some crazy right-wing conspiracy theory, when it has long been an established term among Cultural Marxists themselves. Here are but two examples:

    Richard R. Weiner, 1981. Cultural Marxism and Political Sociology (SAGE Library of Social Research).

    https://books.google.com/books/about/Cultural_Marxism_and_Political_Sociology.html?id=4G0XAAAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y

    >A thorough examination and analysis of the tensions between political sociology and the culturally oriented Marxism that emerged in the 60s and 70s is presented in this volume.

    Dennis L. Dworkin, 1997. Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies.

    https://books.google.com/books/about/Cultural_Marxism_in_Postwar_Britain.html?hl=de&id=dY1Cgg8NV64C

    > In this intellectual history of British cultural Marxism, Dennis Dworkin explores one of the most influential bodies of contemporary thought. Tracing its development from beginnings in postwar Britain, through its various transformations in the 1960s and 1970s, to the emergence of British cultural studies at Birmingham, and up to the advent of Thatcherism, Dworkin shows this history to be one of a coherent intellectual tradition, a tradition that represents an implicit and explicit theoretical effort to resolve the crisis of the postwar British Left.

    Cultural Marxist education. From the time of the Soviet Union but just as relevant today.

  7. Hi Helen! I am in full agreement that the term “cultural Marxism” does not properly fit with what most Leftist writers like Adolph Reed are calling “identitarianism.” But shouldn’t Marx’s writings (in the sense of economic issues being the fundamental existential issues impacting all people) be considered part of the Enlightenment as well?

    Vivek Chibber critiques post-colonial theory for its denial of the radical potential of Enlightenment universalism and its reinforcement of Orientalism; he seems to locate Marxism as part of the Enlightenment that you write about here. – https://jacobinmag.com/2013/04/how-does-the-subaltern-speak

    Just wanted to know your thoughts! Enjoyed your piece.

  8. Cultural Marxism may be a meaningless term, but it’s a stretch to say there’s no connection. Whilst it’s adherence to post modern ideas should mean Identifarians want nothing to do with Marxism, it hasn’t stopped some of them trying to shoehorn identity in place of class in fairly crude fashion.
    But more commonly the connection comes through the fact that many identifarians are admirers of Critical Theory. Critical Race Theory being a case in point.

  9. All of this is because 99.9 % of the population have not asked and answered the question at the root of the controversy:

    “What is the proper role and function of government?”

    Until people figure that out everyone will be clawing at the reins of power, either out of avarice or self-preservation.

  10. Although, after reading that critical Areo review of Stephen Hicks’ book on postmodernism, I’ve become far more skeptical of JBP’s/et al’s use of the term “Cultural Marxism,” it does still strike me as odd (telling?) that all—ALL—postmodern theorists are far Left. (Just coincidence?)

  11. While I agree with the need to defend modern Western values and achievements, I disagree that Marxism has had no influence on “social justice” theory and practices. One thing to consider is how significant the impact of Marxist professors on students and scholarship has been and continues to be (https://fcpp.org/2018/01/26/are-our-university-professors-a-fifth-column/). Second, both orthodox Marxist influence and general social justice theory have led to a rejection of capitalism, as well as alleged racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. etc. This is shown by ‘a troubling 2016 Harvard University survey that found that 51 percent of American youth aged 18 to 29 no longer support capitalism. Only 42 percent said they back it, while just 19 percent were willing to call themselves “capitalists.”’ (https://theconversation.com/todays-youth-reject-capitalism-but-what-do-they-want-to-replace-it-94247) Third, many academic faculties present their mandate as anti-captialist. For example, the Ryerson University“School of Social Work is a leader in critical education, research and practice with culturally and socially diverse students and communities in the advancement of anti-oppression/anti-racism, anti- Black racism, anti- colonialism/ decolonization, Aboriginal reconciliation, feminism, anti- capitalism, queer and trans liberation struggles, issues in disability and Madness, among other social justice struggles.” (https://fcpp.org/2018/01/26/are-our-university-professors-a-fifth-column/) Fourth, the dominant theory in the social sciences today is “postcolonialism,” the major thesis of which is that all of the problems in the world are the result of Western capitalism and imperialism. Fifth, “intersectionalism” ties it all together, insisting on the identity and alliance of victims of capitalism, imperialism, sexism, racism, and all phobias.

  12. This started already in the hippie period. Archie Bunker as the conservative and his rich, unbearable cousin Maud as the liberal

  13. The term ‘cultural marxism’ has been used too often in a confused sense to be useful at all, otherwise it might have been useful as an oxymoron. IdPol takes over the marxist worldview of a society divided into oppressors and oppressed. At the same time, instead of Marx’ dynamical, historical analysis of a changing economy with different groups getting or losing hegemony (which was largely wrong, but not that bad for a 19th century analysis) they come up with a static, almost determinist oppression hierarchy, largely biological (sex, race, sexual orientation) which has (to put it mildly) only partly anything to do with anybody’s actual wealth or position in society. While culture was ‘überbau’, a result of economics, for Marx, it seems to be the cause of everything and the only thing that counts for IdPol. So in a way, ‘cultural marxism’ puts all the wrongs of IdPol in two words. Sadly, that is mostly not how the term is used.

  14. I think you’ve told a history with one eye closed. Are you really arguing that Marxism has had no impact on grievance studies? While I agree that grievance studies *isn’t* Marxism, there is some historical relationship through the crisis of the left in the postwar period. [(1) the fruits of communism were becoming widely known, and (2) in a massive win, the welfare state had been created as a compromise between economic liberals and redistributionists.] I think the reason that class is defacto dropped from the oppression hierarchy is that it’s too inconvenient for those cultivating a felt sense of grievance. But the fact that class has been dropped, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lineage from intersectionality, through the high theory of 60s/70s postmodernism back to the Marxist intellectual dogmas of the prewar period. “Cultural Marxism” may be dumb term — a slogan — a thought terminating cliche — but it’s too much to say that Marxism has *nothing* to do with the anti-intellectual mess we’re seeing in problem departments today. A lot of professors think of themselves as Marxists (about 20% in the USA?), and some of them as full blown communists.

    1. Class, as soon as dropped by the left, has been embraced by the right. The “forgotten middle class”, “hard working people”, “economic migrants”… the anti-intellectual epidemic is unbiased.

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