The Origins of Cultural Marxism Saumya Dey
The Origins of Cultural Marxism: A Concise Account

We see that today the ‘cultural Marxist’ tendency, the enthusiastic endorsement of identity and cultural politics through the identification of oppressor-oppressed binaries dominates the political Left (definitely in India) to the extent that old style Communists do not seem overly bothered with the overhaul of the relations of production, proletariat and class struggle anymore.

Marxism and ‘Cultural Marxism’

What is Marxism? Let us say that it is an interpretation of history provided by Karl Marx that inspires a particular kind of politics. As an interpretation of history Marxism is materialistic. One may simply term it ‘historical materialism’. A genuine historical materialist will take a holistic view of the human drama unfolding through time. As the Australian Marxist Doug Lorimer writes, “Historical materialism does not deal with the separate aspects of social life, but with its general laws and the driving forces of its functioning and development….”[1] Central to the social holism of historical materialism, and the ‘laws’ that are generalized therefrom, is the idea of the socially determined nature of labor. According to Karl Marx, what separates man from beasts is labor – the conscious manipulation of the physical environment undertaken for the sake of sustenance. And labor occurs in a social context, in the sense that it is socially mobilized. In the words of Lorimer, being “purposeful, conscious activity” labor is “from the very beginning social in character and inconceivable outside society.”[2] This fact makes labor the manifestation of the “social relations of production” – these being the mutual relations human beings form during the production process.[3]The social relations of production, in turn, generate what historical materialists term ‘socioeconomic formations’. Lorimer, in an italicized sentence, defines a socioeconomic formation as “an integrated social system functioning and developing according to its own specific laws on the basis of the given relations of production.”[4] Marx had identified five of them in history, namely, Asiatic, slave, feudal and capitalist.[5] One can also see them being termed ‘modes of production’ in Marxist literature. Socioeconomic formations do not necessarily function harmoniously. Often new productive forces emerge inside a particular socioeconomic formation and come into conflict with the production relations that constitute it – the bourgeois (merchants) within feudalism and proletariat within capitalism are two germane instances. This results in class struggle in a socioeconomic formation. It takes the form of some classes seeking to defend the obsolete production relations and others trying to abolish them.[6] A social revolution occurs when state power is transferred from one class to another in a manner that the relations of production are completely transformed.[7] Marxist politics, in the context of bourgeois-capitalist societies, endeavors at precisely such a social revolution by deciding the class struggle between the capitalists and proletariat in favor of the latter so that they seize state power and abolish the capitalist relations of production. Most barbarities that have historically characterized Marxist politics have been committed on this pretext.

What is ‘cultural Marxism’? In one of my articles previously published by IndiaFacts, I had dwelt at length on this phenomenon. In At Service of Goddess Dulness: Victimhood Industry, ‘Cultural Marxism’ & Marginal Left I had identified ‘cultural Marxism’ as the intellectual basis of the global victimhood industry. ‘Cultural Marxism’, I had said, employs a theoretical device called ‘deconstruction’ to identify what it claims to be the ideological underpinnings of a culture or society (‘Brahmanism’ or ‘patriarchy’) and a set of victims (Dalits or women). It, thus, displays a proclivity for creating countless oppressor-oppressed binaries and pitting identity against identity. I had traced the beginnings of this tendency to ‘deconstruct’ cultures to the intellectual labors undertaken by the likes of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Jurgen Habermas at the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt, Germany. Beginning in the 1930s, the scholarship produced at this esteemed academic location had sought to holistically understand Western social formations and cultural production (uncovering their dominant ideological assumptions and power relations) in order to critique, and generate progressive possibilities within them. The dominant accent of this scholarship was materialist and, hence, Marxist – it had sought to understand Western culture and society with reference to capitalism. We see that today the ‘cultural Marxist’ tendency, the enthusiastic endorsement of identity and cultural politics through the identification of oppressor-oppressed binaries dominates the political Left (definitely in India) to the extent that old style Communists do not seem overly bothered with the overhaul of the relations of production, proletariat and class struggle anymore. One can, for example, see this commonly at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the last remaining red bastion of India where all the Communist parties – CPI, CPI (M) and CPI (ML) – have their students’ wings active. The All India Students’ Federation (AISF), Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and All India Students’ Association (AISA) do a considerable amount of ‘cultural Marxist’ propaganda at the JNU (constantly insinuating, for example, that the Indian state is ‘Brahmanical’ and ‘patriarchal’ and victimizes Dalits and women). The political Left, in other words, has seriously ventured into and endorsed identity and cultural politics. The everyday manifestations of ‘cultural Marxism’ around us, in media, academia, public debates and even popular culture (think of the dissing of Hinduism common in Bollywood), are but rooted in this endorsement – they are authored by the members of, or those sympathetic to, the Left. How did the Left come to be so? In the aforementioned article, I had argued that the Left has come to this pass due to its political marginality. In democracies across the world Communist parties are not quite the hot favorites of the electorates. If they exist at all, as they do in India, it is in a pretty moribund state. However, I wrote that article more than a year and a half ago. Since then I have come to realize that the Left’s endorsement of cultural politics (in India and elsewhere) has occurred through a long history. Its current political irrelevance has merely cemented it. This history is also the originary process of ‘cultural Marxism’. Let me concisely relate the salient episodes in it below – the ones that I have identified.

It all Began in a Prison Cell

There once lived in Italy a Marxist by the name of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). He was sent to prison in 1926 by the Italian Fascist regime. He remained there till 1935. Presumably, to kill time in prison, Gramsci took to penning his thoughts on politics, culture, Italian history and the relationship between the state and civil society. Long after his death, in the 1970s, many of these were translated into English and published between two covers as Selections from the Prison Notebooks. At a point in this book one finds Gramsci claiming that there is a relationship between the state, “ethics” (by which he meant culture and morals) and “productive forces” –

“…every State is ethical in as much as one of its most important functions is to raise the great mass of the population to a particular cultural and moral level, a level (or type) which corresponds to the needs of the productive forces for development, and hence to the interests of the ruling classes.”[8]

In simple language, Gramsci thought that “productive forces” only benefit the ruling class and attain their full potential only when the state subjects the general population to a culture and morality. In a functioning bourgeois-capitalist polity, for example, all citizens must possess some basic literacy and numeracy (aspects of culture), so that the industries might have a supply of labor, and respect private property (they must be so moral as not to take what is not theirs). Both ways, as Gramsci will have us believe, they will serve the interests of the economically and (by default) politically dominant bourgeoisie, since they will be the ones owning the industries and most private property. One can see here the germs of a malevolent idea – that culture and morality are, or could be, cynical instruments in the hands of the state to train the general masses for the sake of the “productive forces” and ruling classes who own them. How does the state implicate the population into a culture and morality of a certain level? Gramsci thought that this is done, along with various non-state means (“a multitude of other so-called private initiatives”), through schools and the courts of law.[9]

In the year 1930, while Gramsci was doing time in prison, Max Horkheimer assumed the Directorship of the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt, Germany (established in 1923 and commonly known as the ‘Frankfurt School’). In 1937, the year Gramsci died, he conceptualized ‘critical theory’, or, rather, a critical role for theory. I regard this intervention by Horkheimer another vital episode in the originary story of ‘cultural Marxism’. He seemed to understand “theory” in the broadest possible sense – as the creation and application of knowledge. He also outright dismissed the possibility of these being unbiased endeavors. Horkheimer argued that “social processes” provide the context for “theory formation” and made the following declaration:

“…the fruitfulness of newly discovered factual connections for the renewal of existing knowledge, and the application of such knowledge to the facts, do not derive from purely logical or methodological sources but can rather be understood only in the context of real social processes” (italics in original).[10]

To the extent that I am able to understand and paraphrase the above nugget of wisdom, it seems to amount to the following – development of existing knowledge through the discovery of fresh connections between facts and then its application upon more facts (to understand them?) is not determined by some objective ‘logic’ or ‘method’ but by “social processes.” What did Horkheimer mean by “social processes”? For him they meant the means and methods of industrial production which provide the context in which knowledge, or “theory”, is practically applied. As he wrote:

“…the application of the theory to the subject matter is not only an intra-scientific process but a social one as well… [It] is an activity that goes on, ultimately, not in the savant’s head but in industry. Such rules as that coal-tar under certain circumstances becomes colored or that nitroglycerin, saltpeter, and other materials have explosive force, are accumulated knowledge which is really applied to reality in the great industrial factories” (italics in original).[11]

As a corrective to this situation Horkheimer proposed a new ‘critical theory’ which will be “wholly distrustful of the rules of conduct” (italics in original) which society lays down for its members[12] and a theoretician who will present societal contradictions so as to stimulate change within society.[13] In simple language we can say that he imagined a type of knowledge which will be both skeptical of social mores and play an activist role within society.

In 1938, Theodor Adorno, Horkheimer’s colleague at the Institute for Social Research, published an essay titled “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” While Gramsci and Horkheimer had linked (‘deconstructed’)[14] culture, morality and “theory” to the requirements of production regimes, in this essay Adorno contemplated at length the ways in which capitalism had altered the performance and reception of an important aesthetic output of western societies, namely, music. He, for example, complained that in contemporary USA music, “with all the attributes of the ethereal and the sublime,” only “serves as an advertisement for commodities which one must acquire in order to be able to hear music”, these being piano scores and phonograph records.[15] Adorno also observed that classical musical pieces are being vulgarized in order to (cheaply?) enchant the listener[16], while the “conscious assessment” of the listeners is now “exclusively oriented” towards the “dominant fetish categories” in music.[17] In his view, one of the fetishes afflicting music was that of the “immaculate performance in the latest style.” As a result, a performance sounded “like its own phonograph record” with a “predetermined” dynamic.[18]It seems to me that his grouse was about musical performances losing their individuality and acquiring a mutual sameness in order to achieve an unblemished perfection. This is very likely indeed if they compete to sell the most number of tickets in a cut throat entertainment market. A “neurotic mechanism of stupidity”, on the other hand, was characterizing listening; it was manifest in the form of an “arrogantly ignorant rejection of everything unfamiliar….” Listening, thus, thought Adorno, had become “regressive”, and listeners, like children, repeatedly demanded “the one dish they [had] once been served.”[19] They were responding to music as consumers, and as all consumers they preferred the tried and tested product. Again, in 1948, Adorno teamed with Horkheimer to author a book titled Dialectic of Enlightenment. In this work, the two savants argued that advertising and commercial imperatives now controlled forms of cultural production such as films, radio programs, newspapers and advertising. These, in turn, created “subservience to the system to consumer capitalism.”[20]

In 1962, Jurgen Habermas, another Frankfurt School scholar, came up with a celebrated and extremely impactful study – The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. It dwelt on the transition from a “liberal public sphere which originated in the Enlightenment and American and French Revolution to a media-dominated public sphere….” The result of this transition was that, Habermas argued, a “site of rational debate” had turned “into one of manipulative consumption and passivity.”[21] Training a materialist, Marxist lens upon the value systems and knowledge and cultural production of Western societies, deconstructing them down to the logic of production regimes and mass consumption driven capitalism, was now becoming an established practice. By the mid-1960s, thus, scholarship on the lines of the Frankfurt School had begun to be produced in Britain, at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in the University of Birmingham (established in 1964 and commonly known as the ‘Birmingham School’). Like their colleagues across the channel, the scholars at the Birmingham School too observed how “a new consumer and media culture was forming a new mode of capitalist hegemony.”[22] But they did something more. They demonstrated how culture constitutes “distinct forms of identity” and focused on “how sub-cultural groups resist dominant forms of culture and identity, creating their own styles and identities.”[23] The practice of pitting identity against identity had had its inception. The critical and activist role that Horkheimer had visualized for “theory” had come to fruition. ‘Cultural Marxism’ had begun to strike roots in academia.

Meanwhile, in fact, a few years ago, something truly catastrophic had happened in world communism. On February 25 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had made a speech on the ‘cult of personality’ that had plagued the USSR in the Stalinist years. More importantly, he “gave a detailed account of Stalin’s crimes and paranoiac delusions, the torture, persecution, and murder of party officials….” This speech, writes Leszek Kolakowsky, the historian of Marxism, had a “bombshell effect” in the Communist world.[24] In neighboring Hungary, for example, there was a full-fledged uprising against the Communist regime (planted by Stalin in the aftermath of WWII). Rattled, the Hungarian Communists appointed the reform minded Imre Nagy the Premier. He sought to abolish one party rule in Hungary but the country was invaded by the USSR and totalitarian communist rule was restored. Nagy was later executed for “treason.” Twelve years later, in 1968, Czechoslovakia (now split into the Czech and Slovak Republics) suffered a similar fate when democratization attempts by another reform minded communist Alexander Dubcek were crushed by a Soviet invasion.

Khrushchev’s speech and the invasion of Hungary by the USSR catalyzed the emergence of the New Left. The folks in the New Left “condemned Stalinism in general and the invasion of Hungary in particular” while emphasizing their “fidelity to Marxism.”[25] Who were they, by the way? Kolakowsky identifies them as “various dissidents who sought to revive ‘true Communism’ outside the existing parties, as well as bigger and smaller Maoist, Trotskyist, and other groups.” The New Left was also made up of students who “while not identifying with Soviet Communism and often expressly disavowing it, used the phraseology of worldwide anti-capitalist revolution and looked chiefly to the Third World for models and heroes.”[26] The acme of the New Left was the year 1968 when tens of thousands of students rose in revolt across Europe. Paris was one city that witnessed a massive students’ uprising. So did Prague in Czechoslovakia (the reason why Dubcek initiated his reforms). Simultaneously, there was an explosion of activism. “The late 1960s and early 1970s,” write Robert Gildea and James Mark, “marked a moment of political and cultural radicalism during which the authority of governments, institutions and ways of thought were challenged across Europe.”[27] A lot of this “radicalism” worked with a cultural intent and attacked “the norms of the nuclear family, traditional gender roles and moral conformism” while seeking to “engage with communal living, sexual liberation, feminism and gay rights.”[28] To me, these activists appear to have been the same people who made up the New Left. This is since Gildea and Mark say that, though raised “in [a] left-wing or communist milieux”, they were “unhappy with the rigidities of Soviet communism….”[29] – they were young folks. Promotion of gender identity and sexual preference based politics, thus erupted in a big way and was embraced by Left activism because, I would say, it looked far seemingly humane cultural causes to distance itself from the inhumane Soviet order. In retrospect, I would argue, this phase can be termed one in which ‘cultural Marxism’ gained further coherence and strength. Left activism had now come to promote and address the concerns of the ‘victims’ of the traditional Western societies – women and sexual minorities. The victimhood industry, in other words, had begun to emerge.

The savants in their academic ivory towers did not remain untouched by the emergence of the New Left. British academia, for example, responded by founding a journal called the New Left Review (henceforth NFL). Its first issue came out in 1960. The editorial board of the NFL soon became a site of “substantive” disagreements over which of the two approaches – ‘structural Marxist’ or ‘history from below’ – are correct and ought to be adopted by historians. These disagreements turned out to be irresoluble and a member of the NFL’s editorial board, E.P. Thompson, one of the foremost British historians, quit in 1962. Though a Marxist, he advocated ‘history from below’[30] which will document the everyday lives and struggles of the common, non-elite masses. Thompson’s bête noires, the ‘structural Marxists’, were influenced by Lois Althusser, a French Marxist philosopher, who believed history to be “a process without a subject.”[31] As per Althusser, human agency did not count for much in historical developments and processes. Human beings merely acted out the inner logic of the structures of the socioeconomic formations they inhabited. Thompson, on the other hand, found Althusserian structuralism anathema. He gave due credence to human agency and the cultural forms it took. In his monumental study The Making of the English Working Class (published in 1963) he throughout gave due importance to culture as a “key constitutive element of the working class….”[32] In a tract he wrote in 1978, The Poverty of Theory, Thompson denounced Althusser as a Stalinist and defended his approach. He, for example, insinuated that the “origin” of the Althusserian “insight” that history is a process without a subject lies in the Stalinist text Marxism and Linguistics.[33] Being a Stalisnist, as per Thompson, was an awful thing. This was because, he wrote, the “very breath” of Stalinism “stank” of “inhumanity” since it had “found a way of treating people as the bearers of structures” and “history as a process without a subject.”[34] As corrective to this Stalinist tendency Thompson proposed a ‘humanist’ Marxist method and materialism which will give due importance to human beings’ values and culture. For, he argued, values arise within a “nexus of material life and material relations”[35] while culture too has a “material abode” in the form of “people’s way of life” and “familial relationships.”[36] At the threshold of the 1980s, thus, academic Marxism took a declared ‘culturalist turn.’ Since then ‘cultural Marxism’ has only grown and grown on the university campuses. I dislike it because, driven by it, most academics no more hold human beings’ culture, mores and faith important in their own right. To them these matter only to the extent that they help them understand a “nexus of material life and material relations.” This approach has severely impaired our capacity to comprehend the Sacred and the Beautiful. The political Left, on the other hand, has wholeheartedly embraced ‘cultural Marxism’ since it is a paper tiger propped up by the masters and pupils at the institutions of higher learning. They are now its main ideologues and activists and the Left does not have an option. The political Left has come to be so, of course, due to its irrelevance which is compounded by the fact that, in the West and elsewhere, the industrial working class does not at all take kindly to it anymore. The workers in the West make conservative political choices by voting for Donald Trump or Brexit. In India, the largest workers’ organization is the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, an affiliate of the RSS. Everywhere, the working class prefers culturally empathetic politics.


[1]Fundamentals of Historical Materialism. The Marxist View of History and Politics (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2006), p.25.

[2]Ibid., p.76.

[3]Ibid., p.93.

[4]Ibid., p.111.

[5] Ibid.

[6]Ibid., pp.127-128.

[7]Ibid., pp.128-129.

[8] Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds., Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (Chennai: Orient Longman, 2004), p.258

[9] Ibid.

[10] Max Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory (New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2009), p.9

[11]Ibid., p.10.

[12]Ibid., p.21.

[13]Ibid., p.29.

[14] They themselves did not use the word. It was coined later by Jaques Derrida.

[15] Theodor Adorno, “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” in The Culture Industry (New York: Routledge Classics, 2001), p.38.

[16]Ibid., p.41.

[17]Ibid., p.45.

[18]Ibid., p.44.

[19]Ibid., p.51.

[20]Douglas Kellner, Cultural Marxism and Cultural Studies (New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2013), p.11.

[21]Ibid., p.12.

[22]Ibid., p.16.

[23]Ibid., p.17.

[24] Main Currents of Marxism. The Founders. The Golden Age. The Breakdown (New York, London: W.W. Hurst & Company, 2005), p.1149.

[25] Ibid., p.1178.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Robert Gildea and James Mark, “Introduction” in Robert Gildea, James Mark and Anette Warring, eds., Europe’s 1968. Voices of Revolt (OUP, 2013), p.1.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Rebecca Clifford, Robert Gildea and James Mark, “Awakenings” in Europe’s 1968, p.22.

[30] Matt Perry, Marxism and History (Palgrave, 2002), p.109.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., p.101.

[33] E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory or an Orrery of Errors (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2010), p.108.

[34] Ibid., p.188.

[35] Ibid., p.236.

[36] Ibid., p.237.

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The author is Assistant Professor of History at O P Jindal Global University