Cultural Marxism: Enemy Of Real Marxism?
This is not the kind of letter you get every day. I’m not using the reader’s name here, but he included it in the post:
I read your recent article, “Seminary Confidential”, which was shared by a couple of my facebook friends. I have some familiarity with your work and I agree with a lot of it. I would like to offer a different perspective from that of your other readers.
Because, you see, I am a Marxist.
And the reason I need to speak up is because the same cancer that is eating away at you is also eating away at us. Time and time again I see conservative sources that I respect talking about Marxism in the same breath as (to use some quotes from your student correspondent):
“First, they fully bought into the primacy of the autonomous individual. You are untethered from all social and biological relationships and constraints that you do not willfully choose. Anything you feel is good and should be celebrated by society. You are unbounded by any moral constraint except the consent of other autonomous individuals.”
“It has been applied to gender, to sexuality, to race, even to colonialism. It has given us the fields of Queer Theory, Postcolonialism, and Whiteness Studies, among others.”
“You can see how nicely CT dovetails with autonomous individualism: you are morally excellent if you embrace all your identities and liberate yourself and others from the shackles of the oppressors (systemic white, capitalistic, patriarchal heteronormativity).”
“One group says that truth exists, humans are sinful, our actions must be conformed to God, and that society and systems help us obtain those ends. The other says that truth either doesn’t exist or is dependent on the subjective experience of the individual…”
This… is Marxism? Radical subjectivist individualism… is Marxism? Believing that there is no truth, that subjective individual experiences are the measure of all things, that you (an individual) should “embrace all your identities” and “liberate yourself” – all this is Marxism? A system of thought which denies objective reality and proclaims the individual will as supreme arbiter of the universe, being regarded as not just compatible with Marxism, but as *being* Marxism, somehow! O, how far we have fallen.
It is of course true that Critical Theory originates from Marxism, and that all these ideas were indeed promoted at first by thinkers who began as Marxists. But only in the same sense that Mormonism originates from Christianity and was created by a man who began as a Christian.
Marxism is a philosophy rooted in materialism, indeed even radical materialism. The original 19th century Marxists were, as you know, roundly criticized and caricatured as historical determinists. They believed that human society operates according to certain laws as immutable as the laws of physics, and furthermore that they had discovered what those laws were. Later Marxists (including myself) seriously doubt the claim that we have actually *discovered* all those laws, but you can’t really be any kind of Marxist without believing that those laws *exist*, that we know at least a few of them at least to some extent, and that, in principle, all of them can eventually be discovered.
Marxism is compatible with a lot of things — I’m certainly not one of those people who deny the label of “Marxist” to those who disagree with me — but radical subjectivist individualism is almost the precise polar opposite of Marxist philosophy. The whole point of Marx is that the machine of human society and history operates a certain way regardless of what you think or feel, that “matter determines consciousness” and not the other way around, and that everything that happens in society (including oppression) has ultimately economic causes.
Marxism doesn’t validate anyone’s feelings. Marxism says that your feelings are determined by the objective material conditions of your life.
Now the reason I am insisting on this is because the Critical Theory that you see taking over Christianity has taken over our movement first, and drove it into the ground. It is not Marxism, although it may be considered a parasite upon Marxism. It does originate from among us — it began with a group of Marxists (the Frankfurt School) trying to answer the question of why no communist revolutions happened in the West, and their answer was that subjective individual experiences are more powerful than traditional Marxism believed. A few decades later this evolved into the view that subjective individual experiences are all-powerful and objective material conditions are irrelevant.
In other words, it basically evolved into the view that Marxism was wrong about everything (they wouldn’t necessarily put it this way, but this is what it actually implies). And this view took over the Western left some time between the 1960s and the end of the Cold War. Cheered on, I might add, by those on the right who were all too eager to promote anything that was critical of traditional Marxism.
This had political consequences. Oppression — which was originally defined by Marxism as an objective economic phenomenon, where some people get less wealth than they justly deserve and others get more than they justly deserve — became re-defined as a matter of subjective experience. Now, to be oppressed simply meant to *feel* oppressed. This led to a retreat from practical political thinking. You can redistribute wealth, but you can’t redistribute feelings. All you can do is tell the people responsible for the bad feelings that they should feel guilty about their privilege. So here we are today, with a left-wing political culture more interested in telling white male college students to feel bad than in actually improving the material conditions of the working class. It’s a disaster.
Inequality — objective, economic, material inequality — is higher than at any point since the 1920s. Global corporations are stronger than ever. By any objective metric of success, we are losing. Badly. Consumerism, individualism and hedonism are winning, but by some strange alchemy people on both the right and the left have come to believe that a pro-gay ad campaign by a multinational corporation represents a triumph for “the left” or for “Marxism”.
So this Marxist wishes you godspeed in your fight against radical subjectivist individualism. You are not fighting us, but rather a common enemy that defeated us first. We may not have much in common in our worldviews, but one thing we DO have in common is a belief in the primacy of objective reality over subjective experience.
Also, attacking religion was the worst mistake we ever made. We foolishly believed that, in the absence of faith in an afterlife, people would turn to working altruistically to build paradise on Earth. In fact, it turns out that they become selfish hedonists instead, and they care less, not more, about improving general human life on Earth. I wish we could ask for your forgiveness collectively, but I can only ask it for myself. Your side has always been right about the importance of faith and family to a healthy community (which is something we want as well). Capitalism, on the other hand, is your enemy as much as it is ours.