16 January 2024

cultural Marxism’s obsession with Language – part 1

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is here used to mean:
the corpus of Marxist ideology excluding the parts that are overtly about economics or politics,
not the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, usually spelt with a capital C.

In other words, cultural Marxism is those elements of Marxist ideology that deal with cultural or philosophical topics, and which are currently found widely disseminated among the academic humanities, particularly in literature studies and other arts subjects, usually under the misleading label of ‘Critical Theory’.
   Here is an example of cultural Marxism, from literature professor Terry Eagleton’s undergraduate textbook Literary Theory.
... ‘pure’ literary theory is an academic myth: some of the theories we have examined in this book are nowhere more clearly ideological than in their attempts to ignore history and politics altogether ...

It is not the fact that literary theory is political which is objectionable ... what is really objectionable is the nature of its politics ... [Literary theory] assumes, in the main, that at the centre of the world is the contemplative individual self, bowed over its book, striving to gain touch with experience, truth, reality, history or tradition ... It is a view equivalent in the literary sphere to what has been called possessive individualism in the social realm ... it reflects the values of political system which subordinates the sociality of human life to solitary individual enterprise.
Both conceptually, and in terms of academic practice, there is a cultural/philosophical part of Marxism that is distinct from the overtly political part. This more philosophical part includes ideas about the individual, about psychology, about culture and about other related topics. It can appropriately be referred to as ‘cultural Marxism’, to distinguish it from political Marxism.
   In the West, cultural Marxism some time ago acquired an identity and momentum of its own, relatively independent of the oscillating fortunes of political Marxism. It can be – and is being – taught to students without the requirement of thinking in any detail about the associated politics. One needs to bear in mind, however, that since these more cultural elements of Marxist ideology were invented with the political goal in mind, that goal is likely to be embedded in all cultural-Marxist material, even when not immediately visible.
   The history of cultural Marxism goes back to the early days of Marxism following the death of Marx; rather than beginning in the 1950s with the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’ based at Germany’s Institut für Sozialforschung, as some analysts argue. Georgi Plekhanov’s Art and Social Life (1912) and Franz Mehring’s The Lessing Legend (1893) are early examples of cultural Marxism.
   Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism describes Mehring’s ideas as follows:
In his works on literature Mehring generally endeavoured to show that the greatness of a writer was measured by his success in presenting the aspirations and ideals of the class which he historically represented ... He held that no artistic values or tastes were permanent irrespective of history, but that all were relative to social situations.
The above two quotations illustrate one way of interpreting cultural Marxism: the collectivist mindset applied to cultural/philosophical topics. Culture, which might, in the absence of Marxist ideology, be seen as individualistic, is to be reinterpreted as a collective activity that should be subordinated to collective needs and interests. Pure art – art that does not involve politics – is to be regarded not only as unacceptable but as impossible.
   I will consider the idea of ‘collectivism’ – and its popularity with intellectuals – in a later instalment, but we should note straight away that the concept is not equivalent to some kind of pure democracy in which everything is decided by ‘the people’ (that is to say, everyone acting collectively). Collectivism involves massive state control (supposedly in the interests of all citizens), and since the state must operate through authorised agents, it inevitably means – as under Soviet communism – the existence of a large political elite.
   Analogously, cultural collectivism is likely to involve culture being controlled and policed by an intellectual elite.

Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (second edition), Blackwell 1996, pp.170-171.
Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism Volume 2, OUP 1978, p.59.

part 1: introduction
part 2: terminology
part 3: ‘ideology’
part 4: which ideology is dominant?
part 5: ‘good’ and ‘evil’
part 6: Language (extract from my forthcoming book)