The fuss about ‘cultural marxism’

I was nonplussed when a Conservative MP was accused of using an “antisemitic trope” because she said that the Conservatives were “engaged in a battle against Cultural Marxism.”  The accusation is given more force because it was subscribed to by the Board of Deputies of British Jews: this is the report from the Jewish Chronicle.   I’ve been on the receiving end of antisemitism sufficiently often to be sensitive about it, but this one I don’t see.

The idea of “cultural marxism” has been around for the best part of forty years, as a way of distinguishing the work of Gramsci or Lukacs from the traditional marxist emphasis on historical materialism.  This is from a 1983 article, Theses on Cultural Marxism:

Cultural Marxism is the theoretical and interpretive project that approaches culture in its dialectic relation to the social totality. … critical Marxism has had to evolve from the realization that the proletariat and the intellectuals attached to its historic role had lost the capacity for self-organization which could unite the social, moral, and aesthetic aspects of collective experience into a revolutionary project. … It is in this context that cultural Marxism undertakes its theoretical project: to revamp the social, psychoanalytic, and aesthetic elements of theory.

(from J Brenkman, 1983, Theses on cultural marxism, Social Text 7 Spring-Summer 19-33: obtained at

Cultural marxism was identified, in its day, with critical perspectives on class, race and gender – but it made that analysis subordinate to the marxist framework.  The term itself became the subject of criticism, because it was not pure enough for some marxists.  Ioan Davies wrote, in 1991:

throughout the late 1960s and the seventies, British Cultural studies was  firmly anchored in a strategy of political struggle, that its priorities were those of an elaboration of the cultural problems facing the Left at the time. By the 1980s, however, British Cultural Marxism became more culturist and less Marxist, carried along by its own academic institutionalization, shadow-boxing with itself and only indirectly contributing to political practice, so that in the end, notably in the pages of Marxism Today and the
cultural journals that came into being in the last few years of the decade, it became caught up in the process which it had set out to criticize.

(From I Davies, 1991, British Cultural Marxism, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 4(3) pp. 323-344, obtained at

Cultural Marxism, by that account, was past its sell-by date thirty years ago, and a  ‘battle’ against cultural marxism is hardly the most pressing issue in contemporary politics.

So, what’s the problem?  Apparently, the objection to the term ‘cultural marxism’ is that the term has been picked up by the extreme right; according to the New Statesman, Anders Breivik used the term 650 times in the course of a 1000-page document.  I’ve not read that document, and don’t propose to, but I understand that he also banged on about “multiculturalism” and “elites”.  Do we have to stop using those words, as well?

Additional note, 31st march:  Jonathan Portes has objected to this piece in these terms:  “Misses the point. No-one is suggesting you can’t use the phrase “cultural Marxism any more than “Zionism” or (your eg) multiculturalism. But”battle against CM” is very clearly alt-right/white nationalist [no responsible pol would say “battle against multiculturalism” IMO]. ” I think he is right to read the comments in that context, and it follows that I am wrong.


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