Why Marxism Shifted from Economics to Culture
In his recent Reason magazine article, senior editor Brian Doherty assures readers that “cultural Marxism” is nothing but mere “paranoia” conjured up by the “conspiratorial right” to provide cover for their hate of “multiculturalism and gay rights and radical feminism.”
He openly mocks the idea that the unmistakable uptick in identity politics these last few decades has anything to do with “sinister machinations of commies striving to enslave us.”
One must be “mistaken” and “foolish,” according to Doherty, to believe that such concerted efforts to build coalitions based on racial, national and gender identities to replace the economic “class” identities of classical Marxism is anything more than “dubious conspiratorial theories.”
Doherty’s stance is especially puzzling, however, given the fact that socialist leaders have openly written about this strategy for decades.
Take, for instance, the 1985 book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, written by socialist theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Indeed, the ideas that inspired the book were captured in an article by Laclau and Mouffe published with the more telling title “Socialist Strategy, Where Next?” in the January 1981, issue of Marxism Today.
The article begins with the authors proclaiming that the “socialist political struggle” was occurring in a new landscape. They argued that “the traditional discourse of Marxism, centered on the class struggle and the analysis of the economic contradictions of capitalism, has had great difficulty coming to terms.”
Laclau and Mouffe wrestled with how to overcome this challenge and effectively “modify the notion of class struggle” to include groups not easily categorized into an economic ‘class’, vis-à-vis their relationship to the means of production.
Their desire was to figure out how to incorporate “the new political subjects — women, national, racial and sexual minorities, anti-nuclear and anti-institutional movements, etc.” into a socialist movement traditionally identifying people by class.
This new revolutionary strategy that evolved over time, the authors observed, demanded “the possibility of conceiving political subjects as being different from, and much broader than classes, and as being constituted through a multitude of democratic contradictions which the socialist forces had to take into account and be able to articulate.”
This sounds an awful lot like Ron Paul’s Facebook post Doherty cites, which read: “Marxists just shifted their ‘exploitation’ schtick to culture: ― women exploited by men; ― gays exploited by heterosexuals ― The old exploited by the young ― and vice-versa ― This list goes on and on.”
Curiously, Doherty mentions the cartoon accompanying the post while avoiding the actual content of Paul’s words. Several paragraphs later, however, Doherty begrudgingly admits what has been exceedingly obvious to even casual observers for decades: “It’s true that campus leftists have shifted some of their attention from specifically economic concerns to ones based in cultural identity.”
Directly after this telling admission, though, Doherty reverts to form by admonishing those that “pretend that the broad grievances of gays, blacks or women are based in communism rather than American history” simply “misunderstand the world around you.”
Laclau and Mouffe, however, would beg to differ with Doherty’s casual dismissal of any link between socialist revolutionaries and identity politics. Indeed, they insisted that the only way to achieve their socialist ends was to create a new conception of the “exploited class,” one that would be identified not in traditional Marxist economic terms, but by “forms of domination different to that of economic exploitation.”
Because, as the authors explained, this society “is indeed capitalist, but this is not its only characteristic; it is sexist and patriarchal as well, not to mention racist.”
“These new political subjects: women, students, young people, racial, sexual and regional minorities, as well as the various anti-institutional and ecological struggles,” Laclau and Mouffe continued, “not only cannot be located at the level of relations of production…on top of this, they define their objectives in a radically different way.”
Replacing an easily identifiable political ‘class’ like the proletariat that unites easily behind the “worker’s movement” created challenges for the new vanguard of the revolution, according to Laclau and Mouffe. With such a broad and diverse set of interests seeking demands for their respective groups (based on gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) there is a risk of each separate group becoming autonomous and merely articulating their specific demands.
A united front consisting of all these groups is needed to advance the socialist movement, for “the anti-capitalist struggle can only be strengthened by the addition of these new fields of struggle.”
This creates an urgency to re-brand what socialism is perceived to be so each of these groups can internalize it, Laclau and Mouffe argued.
This new unified socialist struggle “must consist of a vast system of alliances that are continuously redefined and renegotiated. But it cannot truly be consolidated without developing an ideological frame of reference, an ‘organic ideology’ to serve as cement for the new collective will.”
Consider the effort to co-opt the feminist movement. “It cannot be simply a question of adding women's demands to the existing list of those demands considered as socialist; the articulation between socialism and feminism must involve a radical transformation in the way socialism is customarily viewed, i.e., simply as the socialisation of the means of production. And this in turn means a change in the order of priorities that are today seen as fundamental,” they argued.
This new “organic ideology” and “change in the order of priorities” referred to by Laclau and Mouffe must “take into account the necessary scope of the struggle to suppress all relations of domination and to create a genuine equality and participation at all levels of society.”
Or, to put it in more familiar terms, the new socialist revolution must shift the “‘exploitation’ schtick to culture: ― women exploited by men; ― gays exploited by heterosexuals ― The old exploited by the young ― and vice-versa.”
Ron Paul had it right.
Doherty is either ignorant or naïve to spurn those who recognize today’s identity politics as a tool in the modern socialist movement. Prominent socialist theorists like Laclau and Mouffe have openly divulged this exact strategy for decades. It’s not foolish conspiracy mongering or mere “clever rhetorical deck-stacking” to accurately identify the identity politics of ‘cultural Marxism’ as the preferred strategy of modern day socialists.