The Challenge of Cultural Marxism

The Challenge of Cultural Marxism

Last month the Affinity Social Issues Team were delighted to welcome Melvin Tinker as he joined them online to talk about the subject of his recent book, ‘That Hideous Strength: How the West was Lost’ and its highlighting of the dangers of ‘Cultural Marxism’. This is a transcript of what he said:

Let me begin by putting it to you that heresy together with its accompanying sisters – hysteria and persecution – is alive and kicking in the West.

For example:

·       The high priestess of modern feminism, Germaine Greer, has been excommunicated from the ‘church’ of feminism, and declared to be a ‘non-feminist’ by Eve Hodgson. Why? Because she dared to challenge the new orthodoxy that a man can become a woman either by declaring themselves to be so, or having a physical operation. The same has happened to J. K. Rowling, who has been designated a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist). As traditionally has happened with heretics, they are forced to recant or be silenced.

·       Global star Kanye West has been thrown out of the ‘church’ of black, denounced as being ‘non- black’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is because he said he admired the right wing political/cultural commentator Candice Owens and if that were not enough, he then went on to commit the cardinal sin by declaring himself an admirer of Donald Trump. The new political definition of black is that you cannot support Trump, no matter what you skin colour or genetic heritage.

·       The entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, though ‘married’ to a man, has been evicted from the ‘church’ of gay by Jim Downs, again for the same reason – he supports Trump so he can’t be gay, for ‘real’ gays are anti-Trump.

What is it that has led so many to disappear down the rabbit hole in order to embrace the semantic laissez-faire of Humpty Dumpty with a vengeance, such that words not only mean whatever we want them to mean, but become weapons of mass deception to denigrate those considered to be violators of the new sacred orthodoxy of identity politics – the brutal game in which winners are victims, and losers are the privileged? Welcome to the Orwellian World of cultural Marxism or neo-Marxism, or as it is sometimes called, Critical Theory.

Let me offer a simple definition of cultural Marxism. It is an ideology which believes that human beings need to be liberated from what are considered to be repressive social institutions like the family and the church, as well as traditional views and authorities which prevent the individual from realising their true self, fulfilling their inner desires and aspirations, becoming whoever or whatever they want to be – complete freedom.

There are three questions I want us to think about: Why has this revolution occurred; How has it happened and What are the possible responses?

The ‘why’ question

We may think of it like this: If you wanted to undermine Western Civilisation, rooted in the Judeo-Christian world view, how might you go about it?

How about labelling the whole of our past as sexist, racist, patriarchal and fundamentally unjust and so not worth preserving? How about persuading people that they will only be ‘free’ if the powerful are toppled from their positions of power and that power is redistributed amongst minority groups? How about getting people to believe that if they don’t ‘get it’ that anyone who’s a white, male, cis, able-bodied, heterosexual is loaded with privilege and power, they themselves have been brainwashed by the system, a sign that they need liberating and re-educating?

We have in operation the ‘doubting game’ – getting people to doubt those things which for centuries have been taken as givens and then present the glowing alternative which cannot be doubted – what is dubbed ‘radical democracy’.

The ‘how’ question: How has this happened?

To begin to formulate an answer we need to delve a little into communist history.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, in anticipation of a revolution in Germany, which failed. Das Kapital volume 1 followed in 1867. Half a century passed before the October Revolution of 1917 saw Russia become the first state where communists successfully seized power. But Russia was an agrarian economy, not an industrial one like Britain and Germany. And it was the industrial powers which Marx had regarded as vulnerable to revolution from below. For believers in Marxism, this posed a frustrating puzzle.

In 1921, after a successful career as a journalist and commentator for socialist newspapers, one of the key figures in the development of cultural Marxism, Antonio Gramsci, began to turn his attention to interests which were not just theoretical but practical. The world that drove Gramsci to develop his theories was that of inter-war Europe. He was facing two questions which would also vex the Frankfurt School, the group of academics and agitators which formally forged what is called Critical Theory, people like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse.

The two questions were these: First, why hadn’t the inevitable revolution Marx predicted taken place; and Second, how can communism be brought not just to Russia, but to the Western nations?

Marx believed that there was no such thing as a fixed human nature, rather that people were shaped like clay by their socio-economic conditions. In 1859 he had written, ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’ Gramsci took this one stage further which differed significantly from Marx, namely, that culture itself, influenced by a dominant group, is a major shaping force, not just political and economic factors. Putting it crudely, for Marx politics and economics shaped culture; for Gramsci, culture shaped politics and economics. As Andrew Breitbart has put it, ‘Politics is downstream from culture’.

Gramsci developed the key idea of ‘hegemony’ (from the Greek hegemon, ‘ruler’). This is the process by which a dominant class exerts and maintains its influence over people through non-coercive means such as schools, the media and marketing. It works by changing what people consider to be ‘normal’, those things which are just taken for granted as being ‘right’. It is the presumption which declares ‘Of course, everyone nowadays knows that…’ (fill in the blanks). The aim is to get people to think and especially feel for themselves that certain values and practices, such as same-sex marriage, the ability to define for oneself one’s gender and so on are ‘obvious’, ‘common sense’, ‘just’ or even ‘natural’. Then you do not argue about these things because it is assumed there is nothing to argue about. But if you do start arguing that, for example, homosexual practice is wrong, you will be howled at, as if you were claiming the world to be flat. No one believes that nowadays and so your viewpoint can conveniently be ignored or if you persist, action will be taken against you.

For Gramsci, change occurs by capturing society through infiltrating and dominating key culture-making institutions (churches, schools, the media) and civil institutions (the police, law courts, public services and so on). In short, it is a matter of winning society by changing its culture, hence cultural Marxism. However, once the cultural heights have effectively been captured, non-coercion can rapidly give way to outright coercion.

Here a crucial distinction was introduced by Gramsci between a ‘war of position’ and a ‘war of manoeuvre’. The war of manoeuvre was the conventional idea of a final revolutionary offensive that would impose a socialist system – like the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 Tsarist Russia. But for Gramsci, the revolution had to be preceded by the war of position, which sought to shape the cultural environment of a society to make it receptive to revolutionary ideas.

The ‘Gramsci strategy’ is made up of several elements:

•       Positive tolerance

In what was to become one of the foundational works of identity politics, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, wrote Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, which builds on Gramsci in order to find a way for the Left to establish its own hegemony to bring about what they term, ‘radical democracy’. They propose that given the social complexity that now exists, what is required to effect social change is not simply the mobilisation of a single class (e.g., the proletariat) but a bringing together under one umbrella all the diverse groups which are engaged in their own struggles: urban, ecological, feminist, anti-racist, ethnic, sexual minorities. They argue that the narrative which will enable the energy of these disparate groups to be harnessed for social change is the use of power. This, they claim, is a product of the social organisation of Western society which is not only capitalist but inherently sexist, patriarchal and racist. Even if there are tensions and contradictions between the groups they are not to criticise each other – they are to be positively tolerant. Whilst in recent years many shrill voices have been raised highlighting the ‘big three’ evils of our day (sexism, patriarchy, racism) it is the last one – that of inherent racism – which has for the moment taken centre-stage.

•       Zero tolerance

Zero tolerance of any position taken by the ‘Right’, that is, conservative forces; you don’t give them a chance or a voice (GB news). All those on the political right are labelled oppressors and those who are classed as minorities are the oppressed. What cultural Marxism does is to seek an ever-expanding coalition of victim groups: racial, ethnic, religious, gender, ad infinitum. The mantle of victimhood then sanctifies all, and so is ultimately sought after by all. Linked to this is a sense of entitlement by the members of the alleged victim group.

•       Capturing the ‘commanding heights’ of culture

This involves what has been called ‘the long march through the institutions’. Here is how one writer (Jefrey Breshears) describes the different stages in that ‘long march’ in the United States:

‘Throughout the 1960s, with the escalation of the Vietnam War, many college and university graduates enrolled in master’s programs in hopes of evading the draft, and some of the most radical eventually earned Ph.D.s with the intention of fundamentally transforming American society through the education system… Others opted to avoid the draft by enrolling in seminary and becoming ministers in liberal Protestant denominations or priests in the Roman Catholic Church… by the early 1980s they were firmly entrenched in most universities and attaining tenure… just as former Sixties activists came to dominate in higher education, they moved into key positions of influence in the mainstream media. As their cultural influence and power increased over time, they grew bolder and more aggressive.’

I think you see something similar having happened in this country, particularly the humanities in the universities and the media – especially the BBC (read Robin Aitkin’s The Noble Liar).

•       The destabilisation of language

This enables a new language to be devised by which the power of the elite can be exerted. The goal for Herbert Marcuse, was to, ‘break the established universe of meaning’. Think for example of the tectonic shift in meaning of the word ‘tolerance’. The old tolerance was the need for a society to accept the existence of different views. The new tolerance is the acceptance of different views. To accept that a different position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing, to accept the position itself as authentic means one is no longer opposing it. And those who oppose it are to be opposed.

•       The assigning of value to people according to their group identity (identity politics)

There is dark downside to such a categorisation which has been picked up by the former Marxist, David Horowitz:

‘By obliterating the particulars and casting parties as genders rather than individuals, the question of guilt and innocence is pre-ordained… In identity politics only collective rights matter – not individual rights. What matters is one’s membership in a ‘victim’ group or ‘oppressor’ group. Membership is based on characteristics the individual cannot change. Identity politics is a politics of hate and a prescription for war.’  

If you belong to a designated ‘oppressor group’ – for example, privileged white male – you are ‘guilty’ simply by virtue of belonging to that group, regardless of how you may have acted as an individual. At least if an individual considers actions he had previously taken to be morally wrong, then he can change or, to use the religious term, repent and so be offered forgiveness. Such a possibility however, is not open to a group, and so the designated ‘oppressor group’ must forever be burdened with a stigma so long as it continues to exist.

Laclau and Mouffe propose that part of the socialist strategy to bring about the new Hegemony of the Left is for what they call external ‘actors’ to those who are in unequal power relations to draw attention to the fact. Thus advocates of identity politics and intersectionality incessantly remind us that our societies are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic and the list goes on. These oppressions form part of an interlocking web which somehow must be unpicked if radical democracy is to be achieved. If you understand classical Marx as a battle between the ‘haves and the have-nots, ‘the cultural Marxist tension is between the ‘chavs and the chav-nots’.

There are three destructive effects of cultural Marxism:

First, everything becomes politicised and weaponised. In this respect Marx has won, in that everything has taken on universal political significance. This is now part of the intuitive way in which we all think about society – whether we are on the Right or the Left.

Secondly, we are doomed to perpetual conflict. The cultural Marxist focus on groups at the expense of the individual, coupled with the fact that equality of outcomes can never be realised, means that conflict will be endless. One of the desperate features of our society is that of grievance and vengefulness which are multiplied and amplified with breathtaking speed via social media. There is no end-game as such to Critical Theory: the game is the end – the constant destabilising of all claims to power in their various expressions.

Thirdly, truth is sacrificed on the altar of ideology and our hold on reality becomes increasingly tenuous. When Heather MacDonald, the author of The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Unsafe, was invited to speak at Claremont McKenna College in 2017, many students objected to her being given a platform because it would be tantamount to ‘condoning violence against black people’. The students wrote:

Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth – ‘the Truth’ – is a construct of the Euro-West…

So, claims to be concerned for truth are simply discarded as a case of ‘Euro-West construction’ in order to silence oppressed people groups. This is a clear instance of what C. S. Lewis terms, ‘Bulverism’. The fallacious nature of this is easily exposed by simply asking whether the statement that the alleged dichotomy between subjectivity and objectivity is itself an objective statement, in which case it is conceded that there is such a thing as objectivity and therefore not the sole preserve or construction of the Euro-West. If it is subjective, it can be discarded as being of little consequence and we can all move on. The important point is that reasoned discourse is at a discount thus leaving society vulnerable to the prey of those who have the loudest voice or the biggest clubs to beat you with via the social platforms now available.

In 1975 the sociologist Alvin Gouldner, published an article in the journal Telos in which he made an important distinction between revolutionary intellectuals and what he called the ‘intelligentsia’. The intelligentsia refers to members of the highly-educated middle class who inherit and manage the power that comes from the revolutionary ideas of the true intellectuals. The key word is ‘manage’. Gouldner writes, ‘It is not the proletariat who came to power under “socialism”, but first, privileged intellectuals, and, then, privileged intelligentsia.’ The intelligentsia don’t have all that much originality, he says, but they do have power using their technical and managerial skills to expand the ideas of the intellectuals in the name of ‘liberation’. Therefore, you have a new elite with a managerial mentality and skills in politics, education and the media. These are the ‘experts’ who are to be believed and obeyed. And whilst they may not be too drawn to the old socialist fallacy of the equality of economic outcomes, there is the delusional pursuit of the equality of social outcomes.

There are parallels to what is happening in our society and the former communist countries. Vaclav Havel was one of the leading members of the Charter 77 Movement which led to the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Their motto was ‘Live the Truth’. He was well acquainted with a government that held onto power despite its own bankruptcy, what he called a ‘post-totalitarian society’, one which was not a traditional dictatorship, but was still totalitarian in imposing its ideology on the citizenry. In 1978, he wrote The Power of the Powerless, a classic expression of life in a regime that didn’t work, but that required everyone to keep their mouths shut. It contains a famous passage about a greengrocer who puts up a sign supplied by the communist party, declaring ‘Workers of the world unite!’ What, Havel asks, does the sign really mean? His answer was:

Verbally, it might be expressed this way: ‘I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.’ This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers.’ A ‘post-totalitarian’ system that did not rely simply on direct force and intimidation to impose its will could, nonetheless, exert an unbreakable control over its citizens through this kind of requirement for ideological correctness. The greengrocer does not believe the sign, but fear of the consequences keeps him obedient. Further, the ‘ideological excuse’ – that the sign is superficially in favour of a higher cause – allows the greengrocer to lie to himself that his behaviour is not cowardice and a breach of conscience. If it said, ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient’, he would not be able to ignore the truth.

It does not require that much of a leap of the imagination to see how this translates into our context. Whilst most people may never have even heard of cultural Marxism, they are aware of beliefs and practices which are undergirded by it and are expressions of it – things like diversity, inclusivity, white privilege, black lives matter, trans rights and so on. Like Havel’s grocer they are also aware of what is expected of them in adopting and displaying the ‘signs’ which affirm and promote the progressive ideology. In part this explains the display of rainbow flags at police stations, Sainsbury’s stores and Anglican cathedrals. It is why National Trust workers are obliged to wear rainbow lanyards and football players are required to  ‘take the knee’.

Where do we go from here? This is the what question, what responses are open to us?

James Davison Hunter, who brought the term ‘culture war’ to popular prominence with his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, has shown that cultures are changed by networks close to the centre of elite power. Similarly, Peter Berger contends, ‘Ideas don’t succeed in history because of their inherent truthfulness but rather because of their connection to very powerful institutions and interests.’  Why is academia so important? It is because it constitutes a meeting point where elite power, top minds and new ideas interact. Small networks of very clever people – like the Frankfurt School – can come together and develop new ideas in a sustained fashion over several years.

One of the problems we now face is that because of the capture of our universities by the left, the post-totalitarian regime described by Havel is effectively in operation which makes it very difficult for alternative views which would challenge the status quo to be aired and so the power becomes further consolidated as dissent will not be tolerated. A recent example of this occurred in 2017 at Oxford University when Dr Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, organised a conference on ‘Ethics and Empire’ in which he drew together scholars from different disciplines to discuss the subject in a reasoned, academic manner. Biggar himself eventually published a paper which showed that British Colonialism was not all bad. The response from some of his colleagues at Oxford, and others around the world was such that you would have thought he had organised a conference to discuss the merits of National Socialism and the Holocaust! Nigel was genuinely surprised and shocked by the reaction. He later arranged another private meeting of academics inviting a junior member of an Oxford faculty who had just completed his DPhil. The junior member agreed to attend under the strict condition that his attendance was kept completely secret because, he said, there were two senior colleagues in his department who, if they knew he had even spoken to Nigel, would ensure that his academic career would end before it had begun.

What are the options?

1.     Faithful presence. This is favoured by Davison Hunter. He does not expect any great influence as a result but it is a position of integrity and will invariably involve great cost. And so rebels such as Laurence Fox, Andrew Doyle, and Douglas Murray are not to underestimate their influence and reach, especially with new social platforms being available (for the time being at any rate). The faithful presence stance would also cover the importance of bodies like the Christian Institute and Christian Concern which give public support and legal defence. A theological version of this has been put forward by Mike Cosper, called it ‘The Esther Option’.

2.     Faithful presence and alternative structures. This was Havel’s position. There was very little possibility of withdrawal for him and others like him anyhow, but he did envisage encouraging a ‘second culture’ with basic elementary, organisational forms, waiting in the wings as it were in order to step in when the post-totalitarian society finally collapsed.

3.     The Benedict Option, championed by Rod Dreher. He argues that the present spiritual crisis in the West is akin to that faced by society at the end of the fifth century at the time of Pope Benedict. He set up monasteries as a kind of ark to preserve Christian culture. He is adamant that this is not a ‘head for the hills’ approach, but a means of preparing Christians to get more serious about discipleship, becoming more distinctly Christian with the priority being the local community and churches modelling an alternative culture. Marc Sidwell makes two revealing points about this approach. First, it underestimates the reach of the social engineers which extends to the periphery of society. Secondly, although monasteries were physically isolated, they deeply connected to power, patronage and elite intellectual life and so were able to influence change because of that, along the lines suggested by Davison Hunter. If that is so, then the parallel between the present crisis in the West and the fifth century and a possible response is not so close.

4.     Do a Gramsci which appears to be what Marc Sidwell is advocating (The Long March: How the Left won the culture war and what to do about it). He says, ‘The most successful new institutions for lasting cultural change exploit the latest technology, but they also combine with elite connections, access to significant funding, top minds and the development of bold new ideas.’ He adds, ‘Changing the culture through the institutions is possible, but the only route that evidently works is at the highest level. It is expensive, demanding, uncertain and, above all, frustratingly slow.’ Indeed, it may be too slow given the continuing downward spiral of the culture wars with the rise of what Rod Dreher calls ‘soft totalitarianism’.

Of course, none of these options are mutually exclusive and, depending upon circumstances and opportunities, different people and groups will pursue different routes.

Melvin Tinker is Director of Theology for Christ Church Network in Hull.

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for July 2021. The whole edition can be found at  

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