Philosophy, Top Stories

‘Cultural Marxism’ Explained and Re-Evaluated

It has become a common trope to decry the prevalence of ‘Cultural Marxism’ in the academy as well as in wider Western culture. Jordan Peterson has gone so far as to say that Cultural Marxism threatens the very bedrock of Western civilization. Although the concept gets thrown around quite a lot in contemporary discourse, it is rarely defined in clear terms. And when it is defined, too often it is caricatured for ideological purposes by both the Left and Right. Although any attempt to explain and evaluate a contested phenomenon like Cultural Marxism is bound to be biased to some extent, a reasoned re-assessment uncoupled from polemic is overdue.

Although ‘Cultural Marxism’ is in no sense a monolithic entity (we might be better off speaking of Cultural Marxisms), what defines it as a social theory, essentially, is a certain theoretical presupposition: that culture (ideas, religious beliefs, values, etc.) is in the last instance determined by one’s position in a class or social hierarchy. Or, in Marxist terms, the superstructure (in this case, what I am calling culture) is, in some sense, a mere reflection of the base (what orthodox Marxists would equate with the relations and means of production).

Tracing the emergence of Cultural Marxism is a complicated and controversial affair, and there is much disagreement over who has had the most influence in shaping its contemporary expressions. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify some of the key figures that have shaped this intellectual movement.

In Germany during the 1930s, a group of neo-Marxist thinkers developed Critical Theory, which they held to be a necessary instrument in the liberation of human beings from the throes of capitalism. These thinkers became known as the Frankfurt School, which was associated with the writings of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, George Lukacs, and Herbert Marcuse (among others). Adorno and Horkheimer became well-known for their critique of the ‘Culture Industry‘—a term they used to describe the use of popular culture to manipulate Westerners into acquiescing to the dictates and norms of a capitalist society.

Meanwhile, Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci and, later, French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser argued that culture plays a pivotal role in the reproduction of capitalism—in their own ways, these thinkers challenged the orthodox Marxist unidimensional emphasis on economics at the expense of the capitalist society’s superstructure. Gramsci is well-known for his theory of hegemony (the notion that the culture of the ruling class is not coercively imposed upon the lower classes so much as assented to, voluntarily), while Althusser is famous for arguing that “Institutional State Apparatuses” such as the education system, the church, and the family work to disseminate and perpetuate capitalist ideology.

These thinkers influenced—and were challenged by—subsequent neo-Marxist scholars such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and Stuart Hall, all of whom became known for their hand in developing the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded in 1964. Since the 1960s, cultural studies has morphed into a vast field of scholarship, characterized by theories and methods as diverse as critical sociology, postmodernism, post-structuralism, feminist and queer theory, post-colonial scholarship, affect theory, as well as literary criticism. Thinkers as diverse as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, gender theorist Judith Butler, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and post-colonial thinker Edward Said are now accepted as part of the Cultural Studies canon. Although it would be doing an injustice to the diversity of these thinkers and the field of Cultural Studies as whole to characterize them as merely ‘Culturally Marxist,’ their scholarship today can be understood as espousing the Cultural Marxism’s basic theoretical presuppositions.

Of course, Cultural Studies is not the sole field in which Cultural Marxism, as I have defined it, is found. It is also taught in departments as diverse as anthropology, sociology, gender and women’s studies, education, history, geography, and philosophy. Accordingly, it is fair to say that Cultural Marxism, understood as a certain kind of social theory, is relatively commonplace in the humanities and social sciences, and also within the wider culture—that is, it has become a common lens through which many on the Left understand society. This does not mean, of course, that most progressives today have a comprehensive understanding of Gramsci’s thought, or that they are committed to the project of liberation as articulated by the Frankfurt School; it means only that the theoretical presupposition that I outlined earlier has seeped into the wider progressive milieu so such an extent that is often taken for granted.

Unlike Jordan Peterson, however, I am not convinced that Cultural Marxism is wholly evil. Rather, it is useful for some purposes, and not for others. In order to make this case, I will focus on the work of one particular scholar, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Although some might contend Bourdieu is not a Cultural Marxist (during his lifetime he railed against certain tenets of Marxist philosophy), he is nevertheless committed to the presupposition that culture is used to reify and perpetuate class hierarchies. I have selected Bourdieu as a representative example of this kind of thinking because he remains incredibly popular within the social sciences today, especially within the sociology of culture and education.

Given his expansive body of work I’m only going to focus on Bourdieu’s theory of the educational system. Well known for his theories of social distinction and cultural capital, Bourdieu argued that society should ultimately be understood as a space of domination, whereby distinct social groups compete for power. He further argued that the education system should be thought of as a complex of institutions and practices which serves to reproduce the power relations of a given society. According to Bourdieu, this occurs because the ruling class dictates what is to be culturally valued (the forms of art, religious beliefs, etiquette, and ways of speaking that are considered profound, tasteful, or appropriate) and what is not. Moreover, the children of elites grow up being socialized into this culture, whereas the lower classes do not. Bourdieu’s way of putting this is that the children of elites are bequeathed a high amount of cultural capital whereas less privileged children inherit a low cultural capital—none of which they actually earn. So, the educational system is said to reproduce this social inequality by academically rewarding the children of elites for their (unmerited) cultural capital, and punishing lower class children for having none.

At this point, it is useful to step back and concretize what Bourdieu is saying. As social analysis, there is in fact much of significance here. Basically, Bourdieu claims that the children of elites do better academically, not because they are smarter, but because they have been socialized to say and do what an elite consensus decides is correct. In some ways, this makes sense. For instance, I grew up in an upper-middle class home in Canada. As a result, I was exposed to a panoply of art forms and had a number of cultural experiences (i.e. traveling around the world) that cumulatively granted me a high amount of what Bourdieu would call cultural capital. Additionally, I had the privilege of spending lots of time with my parents’ friends (also upper-middle class) from whom I picked up unspoken forms of etiquette, cultural tastes, and general mores of behaviour. As an adult, this allowed me to feel at ease with the well-to-do, and to adapt to the unspoken social norms of the Canadian upper-middle class. Of course, I didn’t choose this; I was just lucky enough to grow up in a privileged home.

Bourdieu’s Cultural Marxism helps identify mechanisms by which inherited advantages might reproduce unmerited social inequality, and this is what makes it useful as a social theory. But at the same time, there are aspects of Bourdieu’s framework that are deeply flawed. Where I think Cultural Marxism goes wrong is that it fails to adequately appreciate a number of facets of a complex social and cultural reality. Here are a few:

It reproduces the most reductionist forms of orthodox Marxism: Bourdieu makes the case that the culture valued by elites merely reflects their own economic and social interests, and that it is therefore arbitrary. From this, it follows that we can reduce the content of their culture to their position in the social hierarchy. This is how we end up with a crude neo-Marxist analysis that informs the worst forms of identity politics today: Cultural Marxism of this variety is the kind of social analysis which views all culture—be it taste in art, religious and spiritual beliefs, or even moral values—as merely reflective of, and therefore entirely determined by, one’s position in what Bourdieu calls the system of social relations. This framework expands on Marx’s theory of class conflict to encompass a framework of social conflict, whereby distinct identity groups (sexual, gendered, racial, etc.) are in constant competition for positions of domination and power within the social hierarchy.

It has trouble making sense of both social change and social mobility: This has been a notorious problem for Bourdieu, and one for which he has been heavily criticized. If our identities and beliefs are merely reflections of our position in a class or social hierarchy then how do we explain social change or mobility? Cultural Marxism of this kind denies individual agency, and thereby leads to social determinism. And, in so doing, it undermines its own cause. For no one seeking emancipation for marginalized groups should endorse a deterministic worldview (unless they espouse a historical materialism like that of Marx, which few today are willing to do).

Cultural Marxism as a political strategy is incoherent: Cultural Marxism seems to offer an analysis of society which reduces individuals to their position in the social hierarchy, which in turn constrains or even precludes individual agency. But, at the same time, the project of critique—that is, of engaging in social analysis in order to uncover its hidden logic in the pursuit of liberation—seems to presuppose individual agency. But why engage in critique if one believes people’s values are socially determined and that they are therefore unpersuadable? This may be why Cultural Marxists prefer to speak of changing ‘the system’ as opposed to persuading or changing individuals. But this approach simply raises a different question: how do you intend to change the system unless you can first convince individuals (especially those of different social groups) to help you do so? No doubt this is why some on the Right fear that Cultural Marxism necessarily implies coercion (and potentially violence). However, I take the view that most progressives who view the world through this lens are not interested in fomenting violent revolution; they simply haven’t recognized the contradictions in their position.

Cultural Marxism, although useful for understanding certain aspects of modern society, endorses a worldview at odds with democracy: Recall Bourdieu’s view of the education system. Although it may be true that, in some school systems, students are rewarded for arbitrary reasons—i.e. they know the right cultural references, speak with a desirable accent, or have the right last name—surely this is not the sole basis upon which most students are rewarded. The problem then is that Bourdieu makes no distinctions between arbitrary and non-arbitrary cultural values and beliefs. For instance, if one is socialized in a home where the habits of hard work, diligence, temperance, autonomy, and self-restraint are valued, this is not arbitrary. Indeed, these are values that democratic societies ought to endorse because they are the values that a free and open society requires if it is to function properly. Whether or not we are born into a family that values such things may not lie within our control, but it would be wrong to reduce it to an arbitrary form of cultural domination. These values are better understood as what Hunter Baker calls “a different kind of privilege.”

Bourdieu is right to say that meritocracy can, in some instances, act as a guise for a wholly arbitrary system of value which rewards the privileged for their familiarity with the ‘right’ cultural references (this was even more the case in, say, early twentieth century France). But modern school systems, although imperfect, are examples of places where the values and habits that help to forge active and engaged citizens are used as metrics for measuring excellence. This is all to the good.

In sum, I don’t believe that Cultural Marxism, as a tool of social analysis among many, should be summarily discarded. It is useful for helping us to understand the mechanisms by which inequality is reproduced, and indeed for achieving a more socially just world (understood here in a left-liberal sense). But we ought to be wary of claims that it captures social reality in its entirety. By making no distinctions between arbitrary and non-arbitrary values and culture, and by denying individual agency, it is wholly unsatisfactory as a comprehensive worldview. It reduces individuals to cogs in a machine of domination whereby social groups are either winners or losers, and individual liberty is merely a fool’s fantasy. This is why I favour a cultural sociological approach to studying culture and its role in society, associated with classical sociologist Emile Durkheim, rather than Karl Marx. A progressive liberal, Durkheim embraced the values of social and economic equality, but unlike Marx did not view society as characterised by eternal class or social conflict. Moreover, because he recognised that a just liberal democracy requires virtuous citizens with particular dispositions and habits he adamantly distinguished between arbitrary and non-arbitrary values. In my view, this makes Durkheim’s analyses of culture far more useful and relevant to the progressive cause than those of Marx. But, in general, an ecumenical approach to social theory is preferable; there should be no one way to understand society.

It is hard to assess whether Cultural Marxism, considered as a total theory of society, is really a threat to Western civilization. Although I believe it’s far more common than many on the centre-Left realize, its more histrionic critics on the Right overemphasize the dangers it poses. Here, it is important to distinguish between prevalence and social impact. I agree that many on the Left analyze social life through a Cultural Marxist lens, but this does not mean they live accordingly. Cultural Marxism, at its best, is simply a heuristic for analysis, and not a practical worldview with which to understand and organise one’s life.

Indeed, Cultural Marxism as a worldview often produces a quite depressed and dysfunctional personality. I therefore worry more about the impact it may have on the psyches of its most committed adherents than I do about those who reject it. How a person looks at the world can deeply affect their well-being, and the organising principles of Cultural Marxism can be difficult to live with because they leave individuals both hyperaware of injustice as well as distraught by how little power their analytical framework affords them as individuals.

So my guess is that those who subscribe to Cultural Marxism as a literal worldview are few and far between. It is more likely that the majority of progressives, like myself, recognize its validity as a tool of social analysis, but when it comes to living our lives and making sense of our relationships, we leave it at the door.


Galen Watts is a PhD Candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Program at Queen’s University, Canada. He studies the social and political implications of contemporary spirituality. You can find his website at