Alexander Zubatov tries to rescue the term “Cultural Marxism” in this post, and I don’t think he succeeds. Now, he might succeed in defending some users of the term from some of the charges Samuel Moyn makes here, but that’s a different matter (and one I won’t take up here). I simply want to argue that the term ought to be abandoned.
Here’s Zubatov’s definition:
So what is cultural Marxism? In brief, it is a belief that cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures, so we must scrutinize and judge all culture and ideas based on their relation to power.
The problem here, put as succinctly as I can put it, is that you can take this view of culture without being a Marxist, and you can be a Marxist without taking this view of culture.
Taking the latter point first: in The German Ideology Marx and Engels state quite clearly that there is a relationship between the art that is produced at a given time and place and the overall character of that time and place:
Raphael’s work of art depended on the flourishing of Rome at that time, which occurred under Florentine influence, while the works of Leonardo depended on the state of things in Florence, and the works of Titian, at a later period, depended on the totally different development of Venice. Raphael as much as any other artist was determined by the technical advances in art made before him, by the organization of society and the division of labour in his locality, and, finally, by the division of labour in all countries with which his locality had intercourse. Whether an individual like Raphael succeeds in developing his talent depends wholly on demand, which in turn depends on the division of labour and the conditions of human culture resulting from it.
But notice that there is a lot more going on here than “underlying power structures.” Marx and Engels are making a rather commonsensical point, which is that the history and social organization of Florence meant that the work produced in it would (of course!) be different than the work produced at the same time in a society such as that of Venice. They are implying that those who really want to understand a work of art will make themselves familiar with the wide range of circumstances that form a given culture, only some of which are political or economic. Certain “technical advances in art” — the use of varying pigments, for instance — might arise in a given place less because of the economic conditions than because of a particular artist’s ingenuity.
To be sure, many later Marxists would get highly agitated by Marx and Engels’s use of the word “determined” in the passage just quoted. But a decade after The German Ideology, in an appendix to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx would clarify this point:
As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society, nor do they therefore to the material substructure, the skeleton as it were of its organisation. For example the Greeks compared with modern [nations] …. It is even acknowledged that certain branches of art, e.g., the epic, can no longer be produced in their epoch-making classic form after artistic production as such has begun; in other words that certain important artistic formations are only possible at an early stage in the development of art itself.
Marx believed that capitalism was an advance over feudalism, which was in turn an advance over more primitive forms of political organization; that did not mean that he thought Benjamin Disraeli a superior writer to Homer — or that you could explain Homer’s greatness by invoking the politics of his world. But if you want to understand a given work of art you need to pay attention to what Marx and Engels habitually called its “material conditions.”
So, if we grant that Marx and Engels are Marxists, we must then conclude that Marxists do not necessarily believe that “cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures.” And many later Marxists, including some of the ones Zubatov quotes, go even further in separating the superstructure of cultural production from the economic base. (Georg Lukács, for instance, was taken to task by Bertolt Brecht for writing criticism insufficiently attentive to the base and therefore to the revolutionary imperative: “It is the element of capitulation, of withdrawal, of utopian idealism which still lurks in Lukács’s essays and which he will undoubtedly overcome, that makes his work, which otherwise contains so much of value, unsatisfactory; for it gives the impression that what concerns him is enjoyment alone, not struggle, a way of escape, rather than a march forward.”)
Moreover, the one figure who did the most to consolidate the idea that all culture is deeply implicated in the “underlying power structures,” the power-knowledge regime, is Michel Foucault, and there has always been the suspicion on the academic Left that Foucault is actually a conservative.
It is equally clear that one can believe that an advocate “for the persecuted and oppressed must attack forms of culture that reinscribe the values of the ruling class, and disseminate culture and ideas that support ‘oppressed’ groups and ‘progressive’ causes,” without endorsing any of the core principles of Marx’s system. (There are forms of conservatism and Christianity that are as fiercely critical of the ruling class as any Marxist, while having no time for dialectical materialism or communism.)
I am not convinced by Moyn’s claim that there is something strongly antisemitic about the contemporary use of the term “Cultural Marxism” — though I’d be interested to hear him develop that argument at greater length. I tend to see there term deployed in the classic Red Scare mode of the McCarthy era: in some circles, now as then, there’s no quicker and easier way to discredit an idea than to call its proponents Commies. And that’s the work that the “Marxism” half of “cultural Marxism” does.