The best defense is a good offense. Wokeists in cultural elite circles know this well. Some critics of their radical agenda began noticing that there is a body of long-established academic writing about revolutionary politics, known as cultural Marxism, behind their efforts and launched an attack on those ideas and thinkers. The Wokeists responded with the kind of counter-attack most in keeping with the win-at-all-costs worldview that drives them: they denied that the ideas even existed and claimed conservatives had invented them out of whole cloth.
Here’s an interesting discovery that I made the other day about this Wokeist effort to deny the existence of cultural Marxism. Plug the term into Wikipedia and wait to see what happens.
What happens is that you get redirected to “Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory,” which is described as a “far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory.” The reader is told that this dangerous myth alleges, falsely of course, that there are ongoing efforts by Marxian and Marxian-influenced academics and other cultural producers in the West to subvert Western civilization and culture. All this is a figment of the lurid imaginations of right-wing partisans, according to Wikipedia, as there are certainly no such people doing any such things.
It is, of course, widely (and wisely) understood that Wikipedia should not be trusted on many topics, but many billions of people visit the site every month. It therefore contributes a great deal indeed to what people believe they know about many things. I know that this specific page is being visited by my own university students, since it was one of them who alerted me to the page’s existence.
This is concerning, for the boldness of the lie that is here being perpetrated is impressive. I remember quite distinctly during my time in graduate school, some twenty-five years ago, that the terms “cultural Marxism” and “Western Marxism” were used interchangeably as among the organizing principles of academic textbooks and syllabi on the cultural Left. The people who taught the courses in which such textbooks were used and in which such ideas were presented were frequently quite open in talking about the project of undermining the dominant culture in America. Many of them explicitly called themselves cultural Marxists. They referred to the dominant culture they wanted to overthrow as “advanced capitalist” or sometimes (more hopefully, in their view) “late capitalist.” I heard them say such things and saw such things written in books and in political chat groups and listservs of the day (this was back when USENET was a big deal) many times. I still have some of those textbooks somewhere in my office.
I know this all to be true because I was there.
Cultural Marxism as a phenomenon emerged as a combination of two intellectual and political currents. One of these, the academic field of cultural studies, looked at the popular cultures of the working class, women, and racial minorities as efforts to resist capitalism. Many of its academic practitioners adhered to the second of these currents, which is a variant of Marxism connected to the writing of the Italian Leninist Antonio Gramsci and the German Frankfurt School, much of the latter of which was transplanted to southern California and parts of the American East Coast in the 1940s.
This variant of Marxism offered an explanation of the failure of the Western working class to rise in revolution as had been expected by Marxists. The answer it gave had to do with the purported cultural domination of that class by the ruling elite. The working class could not come to consciousness about its own domination because capitalist culture was too powerfully warping their worldview. This called for a renewed Marxist effort to radicalize culture, ideally through the work of what Gramsci called “organic intellectuals.” These would be drawn from the working class and therefore equipped both with academic learning and the visceral, revolutionary knowledge of class oppression. These organic intellectuals would present their radical ideas to the workers to challenge the “hegemonic” ideas capitalism foisted on them. They constituted a new Leninist vanguard, a cultural political class who could, because of their intimate relation to the downtrodden, break the grip of capitalism on the minds of the dominated class.
Wikipedia acknowledges some of this history, though it does so in a deceptive and ideologically motivated way. It recently made an addition at the top of the “Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory” page that reads: “‘Cultural Marxism’ redirects here. For ‘cultural Marxism’ in the context of social theory and cultural studies, see Marxist cultural analysis.” The page linked to that latter term recounts some of the actual history of cultural Marxism, though it carefully omits any discussion of the massive influence such ideas have had in American higher education. And the “Marxist cultural analysis” page also reiterates the falsehoods about the purported conspiracy theory, just in case readers who got to that page from the other missed it the first time.
All of this I have just recounted would be incredible in a world where there was any requirement for public sources of knowledge to approximate accuracy rather than pursuing crude ideological agendas. The category “cultural Marxism” certainly was used self-referentially, and positively, by many on the American radical Left before the term was discovered by their right-wing critics, after which they began running from it. It is not an invention of the Right, and it has nothing to do with antisemitism. The effort to connect it to that prejudice, without argument or any evidence whatsoever, is perhaps the most risible part of a generally laughable affair.
But the Wikipedia editors want to deny this. And it is telling that the main “expert” the Wikipedia writers invoke as support for their claim about “cultural Marxism” is herself fairly obviously a cultural Marxist.
Joan Braune apparently teaches in the “School of Leadership Studies” at Gonzaga University and works in the field of “Critical Hate Studies.” Braune has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Kentucky, her webpage at Gonzaga informs us.
More importantly, her webpage and the Wikipedia article notes both inform us, she has written a good deal on Erich Fromm, one of the prominent figures in the cultural Marxist Frankfurt School. This group were among the thinkers widely read and cited by the folks I knew on the far Left back in my grad school days, the people who openly admitted their influence by those they called cultural Marxists and their desire to see American society revolutionized. Braune unselfconsciously avows that she “works in Frankfurt School Critical Theory.”
So the person Wikipedia cites to back up the claim that cultural Marxism does not exist as a real phenomenon has written on one of the primary figures in cultural Marxism, as a partisan to his political cause. And she straightforwardly admits she is a “critical theorist” in the Frankfurt School tradition.
Braune’s PhD was awarded in 2013, which probably makes her rather too young to have had much historical experience during the period in which cultural Marxism/cultural studies became mainstreamed in American universities. Does she perhaps not know the true history of the term? Whatever the answer, those like the Wikipedia writers who are reading her in the pages of The Journal of Social Justice, where the work they cite on the “Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory” page appeared, doubtless need little encouragement to accept her claims. It fits quite perfectly with their preconceived view of the world.
Everyone with any significant reading on the Left and the Right knows the history I recounted above. I write this because too many people who want to talk about politics authoritatively lack that significant reading and are likely not to recognize what Wikipedia has done here for what it is.
I often wonder what teens today will think about the past after Wikipedia is through with them. These young people increasingly do not read books or anything else longer than online writings designed to be consumed (and then, in all likelihood, promptly forgotten) in under five minutes. They rely on sketchy online sources for most of their knowledge about the world. They are going to come to believe some remarkably incorrect things when it is all over, and that is not going to work out well for them or for the rest of us.
But that would be an amenable development for those today who seek to do the same work that the original cultural Marxists and their fellow travelers were intent on doing.