“Classic Marxism interprets history as a series of economic stages. The driving force is the struggle between the oppressors (capitalists) and the oppressed (proletariat). Cultural Marxism extends the same form of analysis from economics to race [white vs. black/brown/red/yellow], sex [men vs. women/LGBTQIA], ethnicity [Nation states vs. Globalists]—the list is virtually endless.” Nancy Pearcey
With the midterms upon us, cultural Marxism has emerged as a lightning rod, re-igniting the battle over whether it is a malignant force in society – or whether it even exists.
The new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is charged with being a fascist, misogynist white supremacist – who adds to his crimes the fact that he thinks cultural Marxism is both real and destructive.
Jordan Peterson prefers the term “postmodern neo-Marxism” and condemns it as dangerous – for which he is targeted in the media and accused of preaching “patriarchy, misogyny, and illiberal politics.”
Senator Rand Paul sees cultural Marxism as the driving force behind grievance politics – groups identifying as victims of exploitation to gain moral prestige and political advantage.
Liberals don’t bother to debate what the term means. They deny that it means anything at all. Recently, Salon dismissed cultural Marxism as “a hoax concept.” The Daily Dot denounced it as “little more than a racist dog whistle.” Even the libertarian magazine Reason ridiculed the concept as an invention of “the conspiratorial right.”
So what is cultural Marxism, and is it even a real thing? Cultural Marxism defines individuals largely in terms of group identity – race, class, sex, ethnicity, sexual identity, and so on. It’s familiar to most ordinary people in the form of identity politics. Multiculturalism. Political correctness. Speech codes. Harvard professor Steven Pinker once complained that at many universities, students are “muzzled by speech codes that would not pass the giggle test if challenged on First Amendment grounds.”
Both on and off campus, grievance groups have escalated to bullying and de-platforming speakers who hold “wrong” (usually conservative) views. Activists shout down politicians and drive their families out of restaurants. Repressive intolerance is metastasizing in the public arena.
But critics ask: How is all this related to Marx? The connection is easy enough to trace. Classic Marxism interprets history as a series of economic stages. The driving force is the struggle between the oppressors (capitalists) and the oppressed (proletariat).
Cultural Marxism extends the same form of analysis from economics to race, sex, ethnicity, sexuality – the list is virtually endless. Any group can claim to be oppressed. Just as in classic Marxism, the proposed solution is to raise your consciousness (become aware of yourself as an oppressed group), then rise up against the oppressor.
Though these trends are recent, the justification for extending Marxism to other social groups was already implicit in the source of Marx’s theory – the philosophy of Hegel.
Hegel held a version of German idealism, which simply means he thought history is driven by ideas. He taught that the real actor in history is not the individual, but what he called the Absolute Mind, a kind of collective consciousness that expresses itself through a community’s shared laws, morality, language, religion, and culture. Indeed, for Hegel, individuals do not even have original ideas of their own. Their thoughts are merely expressions of the Absolute Mind. In his words, individuals “are all the time the unconscious tools of the World Mind at work within them.”
Over time, Hegel’s successors reduced the Absolute Mind to a metaphor – the best known being Marx himself, who famously said he “turned Hegel on his head.” By that he meant that in his theory, humans are unconscious tools not of mental forces (a World Mind), but of material forces (economic class). What remained from Hegel in all his successors, however, is the notion that individuals are “unconscious tools” of a communal consciousness. They are not producers of culture so much as products of a particular culture and community.
In our own day, this has led to the extremist conclusion that individuals are little more than mouthpieces for communities based on race, class, sex, ethnicity, and sexual identity.
Sound familiar? Every community is said to have its “own” truth, based on its unique experience and perspective – which cannot be judged by anyone outside the community. This ghettoized vision reduces individuals to puppets of social forces: they hold beliefs not because they have good reasons, but because they are black or white, a man or a woman, Asian or Hispanic, or whatever.
Yet, ironically, while neo-Marxists treat everyone else’s beliefs as relative to social conditions, they treat their own beliefs as objective and universally true. They are just as exclusive as anyone else in insisting that their view captures the way things really are. To ask for evidence of racism or sexism is itself denounced as racist and sexist. Thus, neo-Marxism makes itself unfalsifiable.
So yes, cultural Marxism is real. It has roots in the same philosophy that inspired Marx. The original version of Marxism led to communism, where those who did not fit into the prescribed box of economic class were subject to forced famines or sent to hard labor camps. All told, an estimated eighty-five to a hundred million died or were shot to death.
As Peterson notes, Marxism is not only wrong, but also “murderous and genocidal.” Conceptually, cultural Marxism is the same “game under a new guise.”
The troubling implication is that it has the potential to be just as repressive and tyrannical as classic Marxism.
Nancy Pearcey is professor and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University and editor-at-large of the Pearcey Report. Her books include Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life & Sexuality and Finding Truth, on which this article is based.