Marxism is a political theory and method of socio-economic and historical analysis that originates from the works of 19th-century German philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
In this article I consider how Marxism helped shape Western culture in the 20th-century, and provide a commentary on the Marxist ideas that inform the culture war in the West today.
I sketch a brief history and overview of three critical neo-Marxist and post-Marxist schools of thought which extend the classical Marxist tradition and explain how they were embedded into Western institutions.
To conclude, I provide a short commentary on contemporary Marxist strategy in the contexts of identity politics and the present cultural moment.
The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory
Following the successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia of 1917, the Communist International (Comintern) questioned why there had been no subsequent socialist revolutions in sophisticated and advanced industrialised European countries like Britain and Germany.
In 1922, on Lenin’s initiative, European communists organised a meeting at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. Present at the meeting among others were Marxist theoretician, Georg Lukács, and German political activist, Willi Münzenberg.
Following the meeting in Moscow, the Comintern concluded culture and the media were the primary tools for oppressing the masses and the terrain upon which Marxists must in future fight for revolution in the West. They had determined advanced countries would not adopt socialism by economics alone, and the success of the revolution depended on a culture war.
In 1923, German-Argentine Marxist, Felix Weil, officially established and funded the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, known commonly as the Frankfurt School. The group created the School to clarify its revolutionary cultural programme and establish how best to execute its application.
Other notable members of the School included Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, and Jurgen Habermas, all of whom were academics steeped in the Marxist tradition but brought to the School distinct theoretical contributions.
In 1930, German philosopher and sociologist, Max Horkheimer, assumed control of the School and began mixing the theories of Sigmund Freud with the political economics of Karl Marx. The incorporation of other intellectual traditions such as Freudian psychoanalysis, feminism and existentialism into orthodox Marxism would eventually become known as neo-Marxism.
The growing threat of Hitler’s Germany eventually drove the School out of Europe. Its members fled to the United States, taking positions in major universities. In 1934, the Frankfurt School was reborn at Columbia University.
Universities became the institutions from which the School intended to launch its cultural transformation. Turning away from Marxist doctrine, rather than attempting to organise the working class, the School instead focused on breaking down traditional social ties.
It was a long-term project based on subverting institutions like the family, education, media, sex and popular culture. The School spread its radical ideas to campuses across the United States and beyond. Marx and Freud combined was the revolutionary ticket that would transform Western civilisation in the mid-20th-century.
In the 1930s, Horkheimer had posed the question: Who would replace the working class as the new vanguards of the Marxist revolution? It wasn’t until the 1960s that Herbert Marcuse answered the question by proposing a “coalition of minorities”.
Social movements which “railed against the establishment” gave the School a practical vehicle to release its revolutionary plan into the mainstream. For more than fifty years, the ideas that emanated from the School have had a profound impact on Western culture, fuelling conflict with the established order as its influence grew.
The School advocated destructive negative criticism of every sphere of life, designed to undermine Western civilisation and crush what they saw as the “oppressive” order of the ruling class. The group continued the work of the classical Marxists by cultural means, intending for their policies to “spread like a virus”.
So “critical” was the Frankfurt School of Western civilisation it would brand its analysis “critical theory”. Today, entire academic departments and humanities programs in the United States and Europe are dedicated to studying “critical theory” or its variants.
Many of the students taught by the School became teachers and professors themselves in the US and Europe. Who, in turn, taught another generation of teachers and professors. And so on. A situation for which I have first-hand experience.
On the BA degree course I completed at the University of Portsmouth in the UK was a social science unit on which we studied Marxism, the Frankfurt School, feminism, identity, multiculturalism, postmodernism, political and cultural economy. Most of these topics were taught to us by two self-confessed and politically-active Marxist professors.
At Occidental College in the US, where Barack Obama was once a student, the website proudly boasts the college currently instructs students in the principles of “Marxism, psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School, deconstruction, critical race studies, queer theory, feminist theory, postcolonial theory….”
Others educated by the Frankfurt School found positions in the media and government. This process of institutional entryism is what Italian Marxist philosopher and communist politician, Antonio Gramsci, referred to as “the long march through the institutions”.
Gramsci, Hegemony & the “War of Position”
Antonio Gramsci was was a mild-mannered academic who in the early part of the 20th-century wrote extensively on political philosophy, sociology and linguistics.
Gramsci is known best for his evolution of Marx’s concept of ideology with his writings on cultural hegemony in the Prison Notebooks – a series of essays written by Gramsci while imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime between 1929 and 1935.
Hegemony is the idea that the dominant ideology of society — the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and morals — reflect that of the ruling class. The dominant ideology justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural, inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.
Gramsci believed in the West a “War of Manoeuvre”, or direct assault on the state would likely fail, without a concurrent or preceding “War of Position” waged within civil society.
Gramsci recognised the critical terrain of revolutionary battle was not on the streets or in the economy, but the hearts and minds of the masses. To establish hegemony, Gramsci believed an insurgent movement must gain control of the culture and infiltrate public perception to impart its beliefs.
Gramsci encouraged socialists to question everything, particularly the moral absolutes of Western culture, to slowly radicalise attitudes towards cultural conventions as systematic injustices to be exposed. The strategy was intended to move public opinion towards socialism by establishing new, deeply rooted cultural norms. Gramsci believed only when the socialists came to dominate vital Western institutions could they expect to bring about revolutions in advanced nations.
Gramsci’s strategy has been taken up and used by socialists and Marxists but also social movements and parties across the entire political spectrum. Even Michael Gove of the Conservative Party invoked Gramsci as an intellectual buttress for his views on contemporary education in Britain, declaring him one of “two particular individuals who have influenced me more than any others”.
Laclau & Mouffe, Hegemony & Socialist Strategy
Argentine political theorist and philosopher, Ernesto Laclau, and Belgian political theorist and former lecturer at the University of Westminster, Chantal Mouffe, are most accurately described as post-Marxists and neo-Gramscians for their developmental contributions to Gramsci’s concept of hegemony.
Post-Marxism is a term the authors coined themselves in their 1985 polemic, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Much like the question posed by the Comintern back in 1922, Laclau & Mouffe set-out to diagnose why despite several successful socialist revolutions, socialism had failed to topple the capitalist global order.
The authors offered prescriptions for future populist movements in their struggles for emancipation and political power. As with the Frankfurt School and Gramsci before them, Laclau & Mouffe proclaimed the battle for socialism was occurring on a new landscape. They contended Marxist theory at the time was too centred on the class struggle and the “economic contradictions of capitalism”.
Again, like the neo-Marxist thinkers who preceded them, Laclau & Mouffe wrestled with how best to overcome this challenge and concluded the theory of class struggle needed to be modified to include exploited groups other than just the economic classes.
They attempted to answer the question of how to incorporate “political subjects” such as women, racial and sexual minorities, and anti-establishment groups into a socialist movement which classically identifies the working class as the prima facie revolutionary force. It was a question not unlike that answered by Herbert Marcuse with his concept of a “coalition of minorities”.
The neo-Marxists (or post-Marxists) had once again shifted the revolutionary emphasis away from economics to culture, focussing attention on the exploitation of different minority groups.
Laclau & Mouffe insisted it was only possible to advance towards revolution by creating a new conception of the “exploited class”, one identified not in traditional Marxist economic terms, but by “forms of domination different to that of economic exploitation.”
They sought to create a “coalition of minorities” to fight collectively against capitalism but also for the emancipation of those exploited and victimised by patriarchal and racist systems of oppression.
The addition of “new fields of struggle” would strengthen and advance the socialist movement by broadening “the necessary scope of the struggle to suppress all relations of domination and to create a genuine equality and participation at all levels of society” and herald a new age of “radical democratic politics”.
Laclau & Mouffe’s ideas were most keenly expressed in the Latin American populist New Left movements during the 1990s and 2000s. They lent intellectual support and strategic influence to among others, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Particularly noteworthy was that given to Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, who was said to have “made no decision of importance” without first consulting Laclau.
In Europe, Laclau & Mouffe’s ideas drove Syriza’s victory in Greece and the rise of Podemos in Spain, as recognised and cited as such by respective party strategists, Íñigo Errejón and Yanis Varoufakis.
Marxism in the Age of Identity Politics
No study on the changing face of Marxism and its evolution would be complete without a consideration of postmodern neo-Marxism. Two intellectual traditions with a difficult and complex relationship, and a topic to tackle another time in a dedicated article of its own.
For now, let’s bring the subject up to date in this piece and take a brief look at how Marxism has evolved in the present political and cultural moment by turning our attention to the age of identity politics.
Identity politics is a political approach and form of analysis that views the world in terms of the power relations and struggles which split society into hostile and antagonistic groups of oppressors and the oppressed.
It has a genealogy in political discourse that goes back to the 1970s and gained significant cultural relevance during the last decade, particularly in the US and UK.
Identitarians wage culture wars in the name of social justice and intersectionality over some of the most divisive issues of the time. Sexual orientation, gender, race and transsexuality being some of the most contentious. These wars play out in our workplaces, universities, schools, homes and political arenas.
Continuing in the traditions of the Frankfurt School, Gramsci and Laclau & Mouffe, the overwhelming number of Marxists today recognise identity politics as the most expedient terrain through which to deliver their views into the popular consciousness and the mainstream.
Ever the opportunists, Marxist seek out the most advantageous identity groups to serve as agents for emancipation and to continue the fight for socialism. The identity group with the latest claim or making the most noise at any given time is where Marxists will toil hardest, correcting the target group’s “false consciousness”, making them aware of their victimisation at the hands of the capitalist system.
As culture is ever-changing, this is an infinitely exhausting exercise for the Marxist. One moment they might prioritise the feminist movement, the next an ethnic minority, in yet another, gay rights activists.
Now Marxists are working hard to establish their influence in the LGBTQ+ community and the climate change movement. The Socialist Workers Party with their papers and branded placards will never be far away from a gathering of gender activists or environmentalists!
The legacy of the Marxist culture war in the 20th-century is so deeply rooted in Western society today. Just scratch the surface of the cultural zeitgeist and you’ll soon find its red interior. Look at a popular movement closely enough and you’ll discover evidence of a Marxist plan to co-opt it.
So effective has Marxism’s “long march through the institutions” been, Marxist ideas have become common sense, or hegemonic, as Gramsci, Laclau & Mouffe would call it. Many millions of people in the West take it for granted, not realising they’ve been subject to decades of Marxist ideological indoctrination.
The prospects for Marxism’s continuing influence on culture looks brighter than ever in the UK. According to the New College of the Humanities (NCH), a considerable proportion (60%) of the people at the top of their profession studied humanities, social science or art degrees.
Professor AC Grayling, Master of the NCH, said: “Much of the talent that goes into law, journalism, the civil service, politics, financial services, the creative industries, publishing, education, and much besides, is drawn from people who have studied the humanities.”
Given that humanities are the Marxists favoured academic route into many of the most strategically advantageous and significant positions of cultural influence, their “long march” is unlikely to halt any time soon.