In November, Politico published a profile of Claire Lehmann, the founder of the web magazine Quillette, which it hailed as the “unofficial digest” of the intellectual dark web. While acknowledging that many of the arguments on the site will never be considered “mainstream,” Lehmann presented her project as a well-intentioned effort to escape echo chambers and engage in intellectual risk taking. “We just want to capture the highly educated but open-minded, curious, heterodox audience,” she claimed, “wherever they are.”
For more than a few liberals and leftists, this will sound like a false advertisement for Quillette, which they view, and not without justification, as a reactionary force in the media landscape. The site has been a magnet for attacks on social-justice activism, and it returns with conspicuous regularity to “uncomfortable topics” like race science. But given its rapidly expanding readership—according to Lehmann, up to two million visitors per month—it’s worth examining what exactly Quillette’s readers say they are reacting against.
Quillette’s suggestion that our intellectual media stifles “open-minded” discussion is dismissed by its detractors as being made in bad faith. If anything, they say, there is too much “open discussion” these days; we have a president who will say anything at any time, neo-Nazis marching through university towns, and have you been on Reddit? Here, too, it’s fair to be skeptical: many calling for open-mindedness simply want to be able to say contemptible things with no consequences or criticism, and there are certain ideas that we refuse to countenance for good reason.
But which beliefs exactly should be judged as “out of bounds”—and who gets to be the referee? How wide is the circle of ideas that are not even worthy of discussion? Such questions are themselves open to debate, and the judgments we make about them in particular cases will tend to be provisional. Still, this is preferable to the alternative. For there is a growing cost to pretending we’ve arrived at a settled consensus about their answers, or to denying that they are even real questions.
A controversy over the phrase “cultural Marxism,” revolving around a recent New York Times op-ed, offers a helpful example of how such matters are often adjudicated—or avoided—in elite publications.
As a term of art, “cultural Marxism” has been in circulation for some time, and in recent years it has become a staple of outlets like Quillette. An article published there last summer, by the cultural studies graduate student Galen Watts, described it as a “social theory” holding “that culture (ideas, religious beliefs, values, etc.) is in the last instance determined by one’s position in a class or social hierarchy.” In other words, cultural Marxism is the belief that our tastes and preferences—the books we read and the museums we visit—are determined by our racial, gender, and economic positions. Watts concludes that the framework the term represents is useful for “helping us to understand the mechanisms by which inequality is reproduced” through culture, even as he cautions against seeing it as a totalizing theory of social and political life.
Writing in the Times in November, the Yale historian Samuel Moyn defined cultural Marxism very differently from Watts. In an op-ed titled “The Alt-Right’s Favorite Meme is 100 Years Old,” Moyn did not attempt to explain cultural Marxism or weigh its virtues as a social theory. This is because, according to Moyn, “nothing of the kind actually exists.” That is, cultural Marxism is not a set of beliefs to be understood or argued with but rather the product of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. It can be compared to the “Judeobolshevik myth” in the early twentieth century, which was used as a rationale for exterminating Jews in Eastern Europe, and its main import today is as the ideological phantasm of internet trolls and racist murderers—like the Norwegian summer-camp shooter, Anders Breivik, and the white nationalist who killed eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, Robert Bowers.
Moyn’s main target, however, was not figures like Bowers and Breivik, who are unlikely to take their cues from the Times editorial page. What makes it urgent to expose the ugly roots of cultural Marxism, Moyn contends, is that the term has recently “burst into the mainstream,” where it is being employed by supposedly respectable commentators, politicians and intellectuals. As if by fiat, a high-profile example of this “mainstreaming” appeared just a few days after Moyn’s op-ed, in a column called “Liberal Parents, Radical Children,” by the veteran Times columnist and Twitter piñata David Brooks. Brooks wrote about the Turgenevian “generation gap” he believes is opening up in American society between older liberals who tend to be “individualistic and meritocratic” and young activists who have been influenced by what he calls the “cultural Marxism that is now the lingua franca in the elite academy.”
If we follow the logic of Moyn’s argument, then Brooks, by using the phrase “cultural Marxism” in such a way, demonstrated himself to be, at best, an unwitting accomplice in an anti-Semitic plot. But what kind of a charge is this? Surely, it would come as a shock to Brooks, who has been accused of almost everything except anti-Semitism to this point. It would also be confusing to most readers of the article. Brooks, like other mainstream intellectual commentators who have used the term—such as Andrew Sullivan and (with slight variations) Jonathan Chait—was clearly trying to describe, not a Jewish-led plot to rule the world, but rather an increasingly influential theory or set of ideas and practices on the left, which challenge conventional liberal notions about the best way to promote diversity and equality. The way Brooks puts it, echoing Watts’s earlier evaluation, is that adherents to these ideas believe “group identity is what matters,” and that “society is a clash of oppressed and oppressor groups.”
As many eagerly pointed out on social media, Brooks went too far in saying this set of ideas had become the “lingua franca” of all academia. But only someone who had never set foot on a college campus, or in any of today’s other elite educational and media institutions, could possibly believe that Brooks is not talking about a real and growing phenomenon. Rapidly becoming standard procedure in many schools, nonprofits, and media organizations, practices like the “privilege walk,” the “progressive stack,” and “affinity groups” testify to the wide purchase among enlightened elites of the idea that we should be constantly reminded of our “position” in cultural and social hierarchies.
Is “cultural Marxism” a helpful term for describing the philosophy behind these ideas and practices? This is certainly arguable. Leaving aside the anti-Semitism issue, one common charge against the term is that Marx would have disapproved of any politics predicated on racial or cultural identity. But this charge is specious. The addition of the modifier “cultural” signals that we need not think of the term as signaling a logical extension of Marx’s analysis; what it identifies, rather, is a creative (and sometimes only half-conscious) application of his framework and rhetorical style. Whereas Marx believed our politics were determined by our class identity—dividing the world into the oppressed proletariat and the privileged bourgeoisie—the cultural Marxist applies the same dichotomous framework to matters of culture, dividing the world into the cultural oppressors and those who are culturally oppressed or “underrepresented.” Although more commonly used as a term of approbation, this meaning has sometimes been embraced by leftist intellectuals themselves. For instance, in his Al Jazeera column “Hooray for Cultural Marxism,” the radical author Malcolm Harris proposed reclaiming the label from its critics as a way of describing the application of “Marxist cultural theory” to left-wing activism. “Whether it’s called social justice warrior theory, cultural Marxism or feeling the Bern,” Harris wrote, “these ideas have coalesced into a recognizable politics.”
Related to Harris’s and Brooks’s usage of the term, but less compatible with some of the movements they associate it with (like the Bernie Sanders campaign), there exists another discernible meaning for “cultural Marxism.” This meaning can be traced back to the Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, and is more easily conceived of as a credible extension of Marx’s project. Gramsci, recognizing that capitalist hierarchies reproduced themselves not only through economic arrangements but also through cultural ones, famously called for Marxists to wage a “war of position” in cultural institutions. This project—taken up to varying degrees by the Frankfurt School critical theorists, the cultural analysts Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, and the philosopher of late capitalism Fredric Jameson, who published a book called Conversations on Cultural Marxism in 2007—stipulates why those who care about dismantling capitalism should care about influencing culture.
The first and second uses of the term cultural Marxism are connected, although the notion that it is just a “short step” from one to the other, as some have argued, overstates the case. The relationship between them is complex, and some think of the creative employment of Marxist categories as a vulgarization of a more rigorous effort to battle capitalism through culture. (Perhaps it is a sideways step, or a blind leap.) For our purposes, though, what’s noteworthy is that both have a perfectly sensible meaning, and can be useful for describing existing political and/or intellectual movements. Neither the movements, nor the way the term is often employed by those who use it to describe them, have any evident connection to anti-Semitism.
This is not at all to refute Moyn’s claim that the term “cultural Marxism” plays a role in a conspiracy theory. Like many political terms (including, of course, Marxism by itself), cultural Marxism has many meanings and associations, and some of them are ugly. There is nothing wrong with directing attention to the noxious history of anti-Semitism that the term can be connected to, as well as to its recent resurgence among alt-right adherents and some of their allies in right-wing media, who use it to indicate that the “progressive agenda” is in actual fact an elite conspiracy captained by “globalist Jews” like George Soros. Those who traffic in memes referring to this conspiracy, like the retired libertarian congressman Ron Paul, should be condemned, not reasoned with.
But Moyn does not assert merely that the term is sometimes used in an anti-Semitic way; he says that it is nothing but a “crude slander, referring to something that does not exist.” To be fair, he was writing an op-ed, where you are allowed few words and fewer caveats. Still, given that “cultural Marxism” is employed in so many different contexts, the question is what gets accomplished by conflating those who use the phrase to justify mass murder or anti-Semitic hatred with those who use it, like Watts, Brooks and many others, in an attempt—perhaps clumsily, and certainly not always charitably—to understand a prevalent if elusive family of ideas. Judging from the response of Times readers to the editorial, Moyn may be successful in reducing the usage of the phrase in mainstream publications. Given the current dynamics of our media ecosystem, though, it is worth wondering whether the stigmatization of yet another touchstone of our cultural conversation will render that success pyrrhic.
It is an inconvenient truth that there are many people who see the political landscape differently than we do, placing X at the center of their vision when we are sure they should be focusing on Y. It makes sense to try and convince such people that their vision is distorted, but we cross into a different territory entirely by insisting that X is actually a mirage. What you’re talking about doesn’t exist—and, even if it does, it’s so insignificant that your desire to focus on it merely betrays your hidden agenda or bias. In other contexts, this mode of argument has been derided as gaslighting, or denialism, yet it has become increasingly common in liberal and leftist writing.
This is especially the case with regard to subjects that have been targeted by right-wing critics. For example, one can read in the Guardian that political correctness is a “phantom enemy,” evoked by conservative operatives in order to “drum into the public imagination the idea that there was a deep divide between the ‘ordinary people’ and the ‘liberal elite.’” Or in the New York Times that identity politics, when spoken about by “panicky white bros,” is simply “code for historically scorned peoples’ daring to propose norms about how they are treated.” Or in the New Yorker that columnists who criticize progressive college activists are irrationally fixated, as a result of their “white racial anxiety,” on something that only occurs on a “handful of college campuses.”
These can hardly be thought of as serious evaluations of the movements and ideas in question, and it is telling that what they count as “evidence” is primarily the bad faith of their ideological adversaries. By shifting attention from the targets of conservative and centrist criticism to the impure motives of their critics, the logic seems to go, we reap a double benefit: at the same time as the discourse is cleansed of reactionary prejudice, debates about sensitive topics can be strategically relocated to more favorable ground. The reality seems to be, to put it mildly, somewhat different. Sure, certain corners of the media ecosystem have become “cleaner.” But the swelling readership of websites like Quillette is just one indication that an excessive focus on the bad faith of others, far from rooting out adversarial ideas or movements, can imperil one’s own capacity to engender loyalty or trust.
No one, of course, is under any obligation to adopt “cultural Marxism,” or any other phrase, if they do not feel it well describes the movements they support. But it would be helpful for us all to acknowledge that terms like cultural Marxism and political correctness can, in addition to being used as right-wing slurs, also refer to something real. To claim otherwise is at once to concede an outsize influence to groups like the alt-right over what we are allowed to say to each other, and to waste an opportunity to engage those trying to come to terms with complicated cultural developments. At a time when social norms are shifting at breakneck speed, readers look to liberal and leftist writers for guidance: if what they find are denials of phenomena that are unfolding in plain view, they may embrace media alternatives that take up such topics from a less sympathetic perspective.
What if, rather than pretending that such terms describe nothing we can recognize—an impulse that likely engorges conspiratorial thinking—we were to propose better ways of describing, discussing and critically evaluating our intellectual and political practices? This would allow some of those tempted by conspiracy theories to confront an account of the “progressive agenda” in terms of the values that actually animate it. Even more importantly, it might help us revive our own intellectual discourse, making it more honest, less defensive, and less dependent for its rhetorical power on the invocation of an ignorant and evil other.
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