The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

Signifiers

Cultural Marxism

Andrew Lynn

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

A specter is haunting the imaginations of many in the modern West—the specter of cultural Marxism. Its influence, the suspicious say (and the suspicious range from the moderately conservative to the screamingly extreme alt-right), is evident in everything from gender-neutral pronouns to training in detecting microaggression to, well, virtually every aspect of what is now called identity politics. Centered in the academy, cultural Marxism is said to hold sway over the professoriate in humanities and social science departments, and every year legions of their proselytes are loosed upon the wider culture to spread the corrosive doctrine.

How does a nineteenth-century Hegel-reading philosopher like Karl Marx shape the thinking of today’s social-justice warriors? A potted history of ideas runs as follows: In the mid-twentieth century, the doctrine of “economic Marxism” was fatally discredited by the failure of communist regimes around the world, spurring disillusioned intelligentsia to seek a new and improved Marxism that could speak to post-war consumer-capitalism. These so-called “cultural Marxists” undertook what Canadian psychologist-guru Jordan Peterson has called a “sleight of hand game” in salvaging their ideological wares, turning from economics to culture. Thinkers ranging from Antonio Gramsci to Jacques Derrida are lumped into this effort, but at the center of this history one almost always finds the Frankfurt School, a group of midcentury Marxists who fled Germany and took refuge in America during World War II. This group’s expertise was not in economics but in philosophy, social theory, art, and literature. Accordingly, its members repackaged their Marxism for the subjects they knew best. They also frequently turned to the theories of Freud, blending the early Marx’s concern with alienation with Freud’s ideas of repression and sublimation.

Flash-forward to the present. According to conservative journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan, today’s cultural Marxists are deeply invested in toppling power structures of patriarchy and white privilege. They do so, according to this version of history, by following the Frankfurt School thinkers in transposing the oppressed-oppressor conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie into the cultural realm, assigning oppressed status to various nonprivileged identity groups. Emergence of a victimhood culture follows, as groups laying claim to various identities articulate grievances against dominant groups and the structures that serve their interests. Rational adjudication of truth then becomes subsumed under demands for the subversion of power, patriarchy, and privilege across unjust social institutions, perpetuating continual identification of conflict within the established social order.

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Andrew Lynn is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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