In a recent NYTimes OpEd, the intellectual historian Sam Moyn claims that “cultural marxism,” the bête noir of far-right and alt-right extremists, among them the mass murderer Anders Breivik, simply “does not exist.” “What is cultural marxism?” he asks. The reply: “Nothing of the kind actually exists.”
I think this claim is strategically unwise, historically misleading, and verging on bad faith.
For surely there are deeply influential scholars that use marxist concepts and terms to perform a critique of culture – of literature and art, on the one hand, and of race and class and gender identity as it is shaped by culture. Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams and Gyatri Spivak (to name just a few of the scholars I teach in my grad critical theory class this semester) are obvious examples, and they are hardly lonely figures. It’s difficult to see how the term “cultural marxism” would be misapplied to them, or indeed to Adorno, Horkheimer, and Benjamin, the members of the Frankfurt School who those on the far right tend to treat as the fons et origo of cultural marxism. It’s a poor slight of hand to say “Yes there exists a vibrant tradition of marxist critique of culture” – of course there is! – but cultural marxism? “Nothing of the kind actually exists.” As I wrote earlier this year:
“As a term, “cultural marxism” is actually quite apt for Hall and the intellectual tradition he assembles. The culmination of that tradition is an analysis of the full domain of culture in terms of domination, hegemony, and struggle. At various points over the last thirty years, the term has on occasion been used to refer to Hall, Hoggart, and the Birmingham school more generally. Yet when the right warns of cultural marxism today, this is not the tradition or school they are talking about. Why not?”
I’m afraid the obvious answer is also the right one: not enough Jews.”
The key point is that dropping the nonexistence claim doesn’t mean acquiescence to noxious rightwing narratives. Those narratives offer false, conspiracy-theory versions of real but more complex and hybrid intellectual narratives, only a fraction of which go back to Marxist Jews escaping Nazi Germany. They unify under a single aegis, in the image of a plotting multigenerational Jewish cabal, a quite disparate range of competing claims by diverse scholars who are engaged in quite different projects (feminism, anti-racism, anti and post-colonialism, etc.) and are as often at odds as in agreement. The purveyors of the “cultural marxism” label regard real claims about domination and representation – claims supported by evidence, evidence, analysis, and argument – as if they were merely the expression of a single racial agenda.
The term “cultural marxism,” moreover, is a pretty good indicator that the person using it hasn’t actually read many or any of the texts or authors for which it serves as a catchall. And most horrifically, as in the case of Breivik, those who use the term tend to be less interested in making accurate claims about the world than providing a target and a justification for violence.
Moyn’s non-existence claim is not only implausible, it cuts short a political and rhetorical analysis of the appeal of “cultural marxism,” which derives partly from the term’s ability to index something real, even if only to distort and misrepresent it. If Adorno and Company hadn’t t trained Marxist concepts on Beethoven and jazz, Fine Art and the Culture Industry, and if subsequent generations of scholars hadn’t drawn on their writings to further their own work opposing racism, sexism, classism, colonialism, and so on, then the label of cultural marxism wouldn’t have had a century of currency on the right. Moyn is correct that the Alt-right engages in “phantasmagoria.” But pure phantasms make bad targets.
I suspect there’s a misunderstanding about language going on in Moyn’s nonexistence claim. Those who take “cultural marxism” as their subject – Lind, Breivik, posters in Alt-right subreddits – attach a range of predicates to it to make false and misleading claims. But Moyn conflates the falsity of these claims with the non-existence of cultural marxism’s referent, as when he writes that “what ‘cultural Marxism’ implies” is ” a malignant plot to convert” the “defense of the workers” and “other disempowered groups” into a “conspiracy.” Various Alt-right types have used the term “cultural marxism” in implying – or sometime stating outright – just that. But Moyn is mistaken to suppose that the term itself implies this, or that the falsity of the things said about it entails the non-existence of its referent.
It’s a bit like if someone said that rainbows are the highways by which the gods travel to earth. The right response would be to say that no, a rainbow is a spectrum of light caused by the diffusion and refraction of sunlight through water droplets. Moyn’s response is to claim that rainbows don’t exist.
The far right’s account of the left is a hydra-headed monster. But cutting off its heads doesn’t require claiming, as if to channel Margaret Thatcher, that there’s no such thing as cultural marxism.