At first, when I heard the aroused insults to freedom of expression referred to as “cultural Marxism,” I was irritated. It seemed like a way for Newsmax commentators to shout “commie!” More interestingly, it rested on a complete misunderstanding of the basic ideas of Marxism, with which the awakened approach and nullify the extreme or even exclusive attention of culture to representations – words and pictures, statues and cartoons, outfits and movies, Tweets and dark web, role models. and price discounts – is inconsistent. But I have looked into the history of Marxist theory over the last few months (working on a book project) and concluded that there is a story about how the left has moved from Marxist materialism to the postmodern notion that “words matter”.

Once we have told this story, we may be able to come up with a more appropriate sentence.

I should probably hesitate to broach these topics, given that the Southern Poverty Law Center has described the very phrasing “Cultural Marxism” as “conspiracy theory with an anti-Semitic twist”. This affirmation is itself a sign of awakening; conspiracy theories are crafted by sentences rather than people, and it is possible that I am called an anti-Semite even for taking the sentence seriously enough to try to diagnose or describe its meaning. This SPLC page and its ilk try to make the expression “cultural Marxism” impossible to say or taboo, by virtue of saying it means you are an anti-Semite.

The distinguishing feature of the type of leftism that had been built up since the Reagan era, which was common throughout an entire younger cohort in 2015, and which has consolidated as an ideology since, is its claim or assumption under -jacent according to which representations create realities. Back in the days when there were college campuses, various battles broke out over dated racial / gender phraseology or wearing the wrong Halloween costumes. People at one point watched Wonder woman, Black Panther, or Crazy Rich Asians and claimed that “that changes everything” to the point where you feel that racism and sexism couldn’t survive a few more Hollywood blockbusters or fictional models. Well-meaning liberals believed that Sesame Street and The Cosby Show had already settled everything. Remaking pronouns, we understand, can do a lot to fix transphobia.

During the latest wave of unrest, it emerged that protesters were more concerned with fighting statues than statutes, or that the entire social justice movement would mostly end up with renaming buildings and painting large yellow letters on the street in a sans serif font. Although (thank goodness) many concrete law enforcement reforms have been proposed, I fear that the energy will end up being spent primarily on controlling and creating or enforcing approved modes of representation: this is the approach. which ended up being called Cultural Marxism by people on the right. A repertoire of approved symbols could be seen emerging last weekend during the NBA reboot, for example, and commentators praised the power of having “education reform” on the back of a jersey. , which still changes everything, etc. This is one of the things that ended up undermining the outcome of the civil rights movement the first time around, which was more successful in teaching whites not to speak like racists than in fighting systemic inequalities.

It struck me that the emphasis on words and representations as the central cause, place or dimension of oppression, and symbolic action as the main means of obtaining redress or justice, could not be a form of Marxism. It is the opposite of what Marx and Engels called “historical materialism”. We don’t even have to wonder what Marx and Engels would say about chanting “words matter” or the idea that you’re going to change the basic conditions of inequality with a superhero movie.

“In direct contrast to the German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth,” they write in German ideology, “it is a question here of going up from the earth to the sky. That is to say not to start from what the men say, imagine, conceive, nor of the men as told, thought, imagined, conceived, for happen to men in the flesh… The ghosts formed in the brains of men are also, necessarily, sublimations of their material life process, which is empirically verifiable and linked to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, and all the rest. the rest of ideology also as forms of consciousness corresponding to these, no longer retain a semblance of independence, they have no history.

Here, as relentlessly throughout their careers, Marx and Engels attack the philosophical idealism of figures like Kant and Hegel, for whom the reality of the world stems from our representations of the world, rather than the other way around. It is the classic “base and superstructure” debate that has worried Marxists for about 170 years; Marx and Engels bluntly assert that the human symbolic order is always the result of the material conditions in which people live. By centralizing the transformative role of statues, films and jargon, the new post-postmodern left has reverted to forms of “German idealism” in this sense. One of the influences on this approach, Richard Rorty (who was not a Marxist), specifically stated that “textualism”, or the idea that language creates or is simply our reality, is an updated version of philosophical idealism. Marx opposed his entire analysis to such approaches.

That’s why, when I came across the phrase “cultural Marxism”, I thought they were just shouting “commie”, because the movement itself certainly didn’t work out of historical materialism. It has not occurred to me that just using the phrase is anti-Semitic, although I suppose that possibility is always at stake when working on the history of Marxism; Marx and many of his most prominent followers, from Trotsky to Adorno, were Jewish by origin, though preferably atheistic materialists.

Marxist theory, as I am beginning to appreciate it, has an elaborate history, perhaps as elaborate as non-Marxist philosophy, history, economics, and literary theory, 1848-2020. For a single person or a set of thoughts, Marx and his thought had profound effects all over the world (I don’t think this is any indication of his truth, for that matter). But at the same time, the complexity makes the story messy, with many bursts and turns. There’s some sort of thread that could take you from Plekhanov to the Twitter police, but there’s a thread that could take you anywhere, really.

If I try to tell this story, however brief it may be, I will confuse some Jews, which in my opinion is neither here nor there. I would say it is a story of Marxists who are particularly aesthetically sensitive, or who implicitly attempt to defend the meaning of arts and literature – which are after all words and representations – against a pure economic reduction that would take them. be a direct result of class relations, so that if you understood Russian economics, you would see how Tolstoy’s novels must have been as they were. As roughly stated by the SPLC, the story would begin with figures like Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian Marxist who attempted to rebalance the base / superstructure model, believing that the order of material production and the order of symbols historically interacted in a complex way.

Such reflections were echoed in the Frankfurt School, in particular in Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, who emphasized the supposedly revolutionary possibilities inherent in a continuous critique of representations produced in a capitalist economy, which often amounted to an attack on the popular culture (commercial music and films, for example) of their time. Marx was at the center of their thought, but they by no means appealed to him as unchallenged authority, and in many of these movements they fundamentally moved away from him, or developed him “dialectically” to overthrow his ideas.

The next wave (it’s a simplified story) which brings us to where we are today is the “postmodern” theory of figures like Frédéric Jameson in the 1970s and and the Freudian Lacan), specifically to deal with the symbolic side. or superstructure of the matter, a mixture reapplied a little later by Slavoj Žižek. Now the base and the superstructure have been completely reversed, and the symbolic order has reaffirmed its sovereignty over material reality. If Marx overturned Hegel, Jameson overturned the whole.

Even though we can tell some sort of story that sort of brings us from Marx to here, I don’t think the phrase “cultural Marxism” is useful, although it isn’t particularly anti-Semitic either. But “PC” is very 90s, and “alarm clock” gets really tired and also turns into a right-wing abuse term. I tried “new-new left” earlier, but it’s a bit lame. I take the suggestions: tweet me.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell