Despite its origin in internet dramedy and gamers’ disdain for their trade press, it’s pretty clear by now that Gamergate has become another battle in the American culture war. This has been part of the anti-GG rhetoric from the start, as their unwavering collective effort to paint GG as a reactionary movement founded on misogyny, and almost all of the mainstream media outlets that reported on the subject reinforced that exact narrative. The pro-GG response has been much more varied and not focused solely on the culture war angle. However, it too has its own share of eager culture warriors, largely in the form of actual reactionaries peddling their own narratives and fallacies, and the one I’m concerned with here is cultural Marxism.
You literally don’t know anything about cultural Marxism
First, a simple explanation: cultural Marxism was a proposal of Frankfurt intellectuals of the Weimar Republic. Orthodox Marxism was staunchly materialistic, positing that material conditions shape a society and its culture, but the opposite isn’t true. The Frankfurt school argued that it was a mistake to ignore the influence of cultural production and flow in shaping society back and thus the material conditions themselves, and so included the study of culture itself, a quintessentially non-material factor, into their studies of history and society. That they wanted their ideas implemented in society at large as obvious, as that’s the goal of any school of thought in a social science. Situationists, neoliberals, existentialists, neoconservatists and a million other such movement sprung up in the 20th century.
Now how did a group of German eggheads came to become a shorthand for the good ol’ Vast Leftwing Conspiracy?
It’s not often that a Wikipedia article is an accurate summation of a topic, but honestly I could just link to the ‘Frankfurt school conspiracy theory’ page and do away with the first half of this post. But there’s always some new form of rationalization to explain why this tailor-made piece of propaganda is actually a perfectly fine argument, so let’s march onwards to this particular engagement in the Great American Culture War.
Here’s a shorter version if you don’t want to read the article: this misuse of “cultural Marxism” began with a critique on the Frankfurt school published in 1992 by a think-tank attached to Lyndon LaRouche of all people. This essay sought to blame the notion of political correctness (itself another term coined by the left and highjacked by rightwing pundits, but that’s another story), then just arrived on the mainsptream, on this group of Frankfurt academicians from the Weimar Republic. The LaRouchite essay didn’t, however use the term “cultural Marxism” itself. That feat was accomplished by members of the mainstream American rightwing in the mid-to-late 90s. Chief among them was William S. Lind, a lifelong culture warrior and think-tank employee.
You can find plenty of videos of Lind making this messy conflation of cultural Marxism political correctness with which to redbait in a post-Soviet world. This one being the most common one I’ve seen linked to.
So, even tho Lind finalized making this horrible mish-mash of half-baked ideas and brought it to the mainstream, the term didn’t really enter common usage. Instead was appropriated by far right circles as dogwhistle, sometimes for anti-semitism or anti-anyone-who-isn’t-white, but more often for just plain “anything vaguely leftist that I don’t like”. In this milieu of fringe far-right crackpots that the cultural Marxism/political correctness chimera got further conflated with another concept: multiculturalism, bête noire of the modern rightwing, especially in Europe.
So by now, the cultural Marxism/political correctness/multiculturalism idea was like a Voltron of despised enemies of the far right. And in this context, it reached the addled mind of Anders Breivik, he of the Oslo massacre of 2011. In his 1500+ pages-long manifesto, he uses these three terms almost interchangeably.
Of course, to blame the mainstream rightwing for this atrocity would be disingenuous, but unfortunately Breivik’s rampage was the event that popularized this misuse of “cultural Marxism” on the internet, where it’s now has become common parlance, including, to my chagrin, in Gamergate discussions. Even though Breivik himself was a Zionist, the old anti-semitic connotation remains to some extent.
And as the anti-GG side has relegated Gamergate discussion to the American culture war, opportunists of the rightwing persuasion are only too glad to bring their own memes (in the proper, Dawkinsian sense or otherwise) and canards to the battle.
Actually, you don’t know anything about any Marxism
But with beautiful doe eyes, shining with the spark of curiosity and inquisitiveness about this big beautiful world we inhabit and its many wonders, you look up at me and ask: “But I see what many in the anti-GG side are doing and it sounds like Marxism and it’s about culture. So isn’t it cultural Marxism?”.
And to that I say “No, three times over”.
The first reason is, I don’t think I’m making a controversial statement when I say Marxism is very badly-defined even by the lax standards of American public discourse. A common definition I see people using online is “separating people between oppressor and oppressed”, which strikes me as a basic misundertanding of what Marx wrote. What Marx did propose is the notion of class struggle as “the motor force of history”. Although obviously related concepts, class struggle and the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy are separate concepts; the latter is a notion is as old as history itself, as the myriad of revolutions and coups and slave revolts that have happened since the beginning of civilization attest, and the former is a frame through which to study said history.
The second reason, related to that distinction, is that Marx casts a long shadow. The reach of his writings reaches far, far beyond leftist activism, and made a massive impact on modern thought. His influence on philosophy and academics has been massive (to separate political activism from philosophy, some academics use the term “Marxian”). And this is precisely part of why the misuse of “cultural Marxism” is so widespread it fits into both red scare and ivory tower narratives, allowing pundits to redbait in an age when Marxists hold less power than in almost a century. It’s no wonder this whole propaganda effort involving “cultural Marxism” started in the 90s: right as America lost it’s biggest bogeyman, pundits dreaded the thought of losing their biggest source of red scare. Add some ill-defined mumbo-jumbo about “culture” and presto.
The third reason is, well, many of the people I see criticizing GG seem to have as firm a grasp on leftist ideas as the fine Arkansan folks in the picture above. I see the most privileged people playing at slacktivism on Twitter, Tumblr and elsewhere, and they do so in the most non-Marxist way possible: by ignoring class struggle and focusing on identity politics. An obsession with personal labels on everything regarding personal identity — sexuality, race, gender, nationality, what have you — more often than not hinders class consciousness, as it further fractionalizes its members.
This is not to say that some groups haven’t been oppressed in particular and specific ways, far from it. But such divisions, Marx noted, were not inherent to oppression in capitalism, which could reinforce or weaken this or that group based on its own expansion. A classic example being how the British Empire mastered the art of divide-and-conquer: some foreign groups were favored, some were systematically oppressed, some were assimilated and so on and so forth. The ever-readable War Nerd has several articles on the topic, so let me just point to two articles. But really, you should read every damn thing the War Nerd has written.
So, back to identity politics among these “social justice” slacktivists involved in anti-GG rhetoric. I see several of them coming from distinctly privileged families, with Lifschitz and Wu being the prime examples. And yet here they are misappropriating leftist rhetoric in a bizarre mirror image of the white man’s burden. Conveniently ignoring class struggle and focusing on identity politics, it makes the cynic in me think that the anti-GG core feels like a club of privileged kids misappropriating an extraneous culture (in this case, leftist ideas), twisting it and using it as leverage into an internet fad.
So this particular brand of social justice advocates I see on anti-GG seem to focus on one of the worst aspects of the American left — obsession with identity politics — while leaving out the core of Marxism, which is class struggle. They honestly seem to me to be a disgrace to the left, and it baffles me to see them labeled as “far left”.
“Cultural Marxism” as it’s used nowadays is the result of propaganda 101 tactics in order to redbait in the 21st century, and the people being accused of it are usually a far cry from being Marxists by any stretch of the imagination.