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On Marxism, Post-Modernism, and “Cultural Marxism”

The attempt to conflate Marxism and post-modernism under the label of “cultural Marxism” is, at the very least, highly problematic.

Today, it is increasingly common in some Anglo-American circles to conflate post-modernism and Marxism under the label of “cultural Marxism.” The most articulate promoter of this idea is University of Toronto psychology professor, Jordan Peterson. Through his popular online lectures and in his recent bestseller Twelve Rules for Life, Peterson argues that Marxism’s collapsing intellectual and moral credibility in the post-Stalinist era led to a crisis within left-wing thought.

Peterson’s Argument

It had become clear that Marxist communism was no longer a morally viable outlook for anyone with sensitivity to the horrific consequences of the gulag. Therefore, according to Peterson, many left-leaning intellectuals simply gave Marxism a new coat of paint to try to and rejuvenate its credibility.

Post-modern authors, his thinking goes, simply broadened Marxist ideas about class oppression to encompass all forms of social interaction. These post-modern figures now claimed that oppression and power existed everywhere, even in the most innocuous behaviors and cultures. Therefore, he argues, the goal of left-wing activism has become not simply to overthrow an oppressive class structure or rectify drastic economic inequalities. Its newfound purpose is to overturn every aspect of Western culture through criticizing it as racist, sexist, homophobic and so on, replacing it with a vaguely defined egalitarian society, the post-modern equivalent of a communist utopia. Given this new emphasis on culture, and a perceived link with the past of leftist movements, Peterson and his counterparts have taken to suggesting that post-modernists are, in fact, “cultural Marxists.”

Peterson is joined in this appraisal by a litany of other commentators. Conservative Ben Shapiro has consistently called on his fellow conservatives and classical liberals to combat the growing influence of cultural Marxism. Matthew Continetti of the National Review recently wrote a column on “the coalition for cultural freedom” and praised Peterson (amongst others) for combatting a resurgent Marxism on university campuses.  In my own country of Canada, the National Post’s Barbara Kay ridiculed “Marxism-marinated cultural elites obsessed with group rather than individual rights.” And the litany against cultural Marxism goes on.

“Frankly, at points it feels that the Cold War never really ended for some of these thinkers.”

There is a highly reactionary quality to much of this discourse, not to mention a rather homogenizing effort to conflate all variants of far-left discourse under one convenient label. Frankly, at points it feels that the Cold War never really ended for some of these thinkers. This has resulted in a consistent lack of rigor and analytical clarity when assessing the state of today’s left-wing movements. In this brief article, I will dedicate some time to indicating why Marxism and post-modernism are intellectually quite different. Indeed, in many respects the latter is quite fundamentally different at both a theoretical and a practical level. Understanding why this is so will help us gain a better understanding of what makes today’s radical left different (and what makes it the same).

What is Marxism?

Marxism emerged in the nineteenth-century from a novel fusion of Hegelian historicism, French political radicalism, and English political economy.  This synthesis of influences reflected Karl Marx’s biographical trajectory.  As a young scholar at the University of Bonn, and later the University of Berlin, Marx initially studied law but quickly became enamored with philosophy. He wrote his doctoral dissertation, The Difference Between Democritean and Epicurean Philosophies of Nature, defending a more materialist and scientific approach to nature against what he took to be the superstitions of theology. Later, Marx became enamored with the thought of Georg Hegel and the Young Hegelians, collaborating with his friend and supporter Friedrich Engels to make his idealist dialectical philosophy more materialist. After parlaying with the French socialists and anarchists, he was exiled from several countries before landing in the United Kingdom. He published the first volume of his most famous work, Das Kapital, in 1867, but was never able to complete the others in his lifetime. He died a relatively well-off middle class gentleman in London in 1883, after spending most of his last decade reading Shakespeare and writing poetry.

“Marx would no doubt find his modern association with so-called ‘relativists,’ ‘identity politics,’ and the destruction of the West’s literary and cultural heritage cloying.”

Were he alive today, Marx would likely have responded to the claim that he was a post-modern theorist with sarcastic ridicule.  Brought up in an Enlightenment-friendly household, he was deeply concerned to present his work as a scientific and materially grounded analysis of capitalist society. Whatever one thinks of that pretension, he would no doubt find the association with so-called “relativists,” “identity politics,” and the destruction of the West’s literary and cultural heritage cloying.

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Marxism is a complex doctrine that cannot be explained in its entirety here. Here are a few observations about its main tenants. First, Marx’s analysis of capitalist society was predicated on his philosophical and methodological commitment to historical materialism. Summarized briefly, Marx accepted the then-popular scientific view that in one sense the world consists of atomically separated objects. However, he broke with dogmatic empiricism in arguing that what is more important than the independence of these objects is the relations that existed between them. Take for instance, a tree. While it is a material object in the world, seen in isolation, it is an incidental thing that is abstractly understood. To try understand a tree, one must grasp the “dialectical” relations it has with the world around it; taking in solar energy from the sun, nutrients and water from the ground, releasing oxygen into the air, and so forth.

This was integral to his understanding of society. His criticism of the classical “vulgar economists” of his day were drawn from this dialectical philosophy. He saw classical economists as essentially regarding individuals as abstractly isolated in the world. From their standpoint, individuals looked after their private needs by engaging in mutually beneficial bartering and exchanges with others that were non-coercive and thereby legitimate. As per the tree example, Marx saw this as too abstract a way of looking at the economy. It was divorced from the actual relations that existed between people which had emerged from a complex and often violent history.

One example is private property. According to Marx, classical political economists were ahistorical in looking at the economy as just a process of buying and selling between individuals. It was also defined by relations between those who had started with a great deal, again often acquired through violent primitive accumulation, and those with far less.  Those with a great deal of property, the bourgeois capitalists, were typically able to dictate the terms by which those with less, the proletariat, were able to participate in the economy. For instance, because they owned the means of production where most people could find employment, the capitalists were largely able to determine the wages they were going to pay people, even if that was not consonant with the work they committed and the value they created. This is what led to exploitation.  This exploitation was hidden from most people by what Marx termed ideology; the abstract set of norms and rules that hid the real truth of complex material processes of appropriation and exploitation from the mass of society.

Whether his observations have merit or not is not at issue here. What I want to observe is that ontologically and epistemically Marx is 1) highly committed to a theory of truth: dialectical materialism, and 2) believed that this truth can be uncovered by getting past ideology.  Conjoined to this ontological and epistemic stance is a strong moral commitment to ridding society of perceived exploitation—though Marx was hesitant to ever directly invoke the language of morality. As we shall see, this is quite different from the position of one school of post-modern theorists.

What is Post-Modernism?

For examination, left-wing post-modern theorists can be divided into two schools of thought.

The first school consists of scholars who understand post-modernism as an epoch in Western history. Most are self-identified Marxists or post-Marxists. Representative thinkers include Frederic Jameson, David Harvey, Jean Francois Lyotard, Neil Postman and Jacques Baudrillard. Ironically these authors often agree with many conservative criticisms of the post-modern epoch. They argue that social, economic, and technological changes have brought about a society where individuals increasingly look solely to their own private opinions, and those that agree with them, for epistemic and moral authority. They reject truth claims from other groups, seeing those as antithetical to their interests.  To provide a brief (and telling) example, Neil Postman and Jacques Baudrillard both wrote about how the hyper-real modern media, with its heightened rhetoric and two-minute analysis, was having a dramatic impact on how people understand political and moral positions.  By increasingly reducing the dissemination of information to clearly partisan and simplified sound bites, the media was creating a world where people increasingly felt that all truth claims were nothing but opinion.  They, like the other authors in this school, were highly critical of this development because they accorded truth a great deal of significance.

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Those in the second school are slightly different, taking a more critical stance on truth. This school largely emerged in the aftermath of the May 1968 civil protests and riots, and reacted strongly against Marxism and its aspirations for scientific truth and world-historical applicability. While authors in this school were open to the possibility that new and better theories of truth might be developed, they were skeptical that we would ever arrive at a theory that gave us both uninhibited access to the world, and moral certainty.  They were, to invoke Richard Rorty, anti-Archimedeans. Unlike authors in the first school, they did not regard these epistemic and moral conclusions as contingent on epochal social circumstances. They regarded them as valid for all time.  Conjoined to this epistemic and moral skepticism was a critique an analysis of power dynamics which were responsible for making flimsy or problematic truth claims seem valid.  Canonical  authors in this line of thinking include Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour, and Richard Rorty.

Conclusion

I view that there is a great deal one can learn from the first school of post-modern authors, and less from the second.  Indeed, many conservative critics such as Patrick Deneen and Allan Bloom might well sympathize with claims that our media-saturated hyper-real environment is dissolving our capacity to assess truth claims. But that is not the issue here.

Most authors in the first school are highly critical of post-modern culture.  They actually hold to the old Marxist line that one can both obtain “true” epistemic insight into the nature of society.  While they don’t necessarily share Marx’s hyper-scientific pretentions, they feel that the point of theory is to get past “ideology” in order to arrive at universalizable conclusions about what is and what is not.  The authors in the second school of post-modern thought do not share this conclusion. Reacting very strongly against Marx and Marxism, they reject the idea of “ideology” because they do not believe there is any way to get past discursive power to arrive at what really is and what should be done. They also are deeply skeptical of claims that one can establish a non-exploitative society. They regard strong moral arguments like this as a potential mask for establishing new forms of marginalization and dismissal. To the extent they moralize at all, contra Marx, authors in the second school tend to appeal to highly individualist Nietzschian arguments about self-creation and aesthetic rapture as a (very vague) new moral outlook. Many of the identity politics acolytes who draw on post-modern theory share this outlook. Very little in this is consonant with any recognizable Marxist doctrine.

What this brief genealogy shows us is that the attempt to conflate Marxism and post-modernism under the label “cultural Marxism” is, at the very least, highly problematic. Theorists who wrote about post-modernism as an epoch drew on Marx and post-Marxist ideas to criticize it very sharply. Those who wrote about post-modernism as a philosophical stance, and who are the main theoretical inspirations for today’s identity politics advocates tended to be highly critical, or in Foucault’s case even dismissive, of Marx. Critics on the right who want to lump all strands of left wing intellectual thought together should be far more cautious and rigorous in their appraisals. Otherwise, they are just knocking down caricatures and strawmen.

Matt McManus recently completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca.