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Marxist cultural analysis is a form of cultural analysis and anti-capitalist cultural critique, which assumes the theory of cultural hegemony and from this specifically targets those aspects of culture which are profit driven and mass-produced under capitalism.
The original theory behind this form of analysis is commonly associated with Georg Lukacs, the Frankfurt School, and Antonio Gramsci, representing an important tendency within Western Marxism. Marxist cultural analysis, taken as an area of discourse, has commonly considered the industrialization and mass-production of culture by the "culture industry" as having an overall negative effect on society, an effect which reifies the reactions of the audience, driving them away from developing a more authentic sense of human values.
The tradition of Marxist cultural analysis has occasionally also been referred to as "cultural Marxism", and "Marxist Cultural theory", in reference to Marxist ideas about culture. However, since the 1990s, the term "Cultural Marxism" has largely referred to the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory, an influential discourse on the far right without any clear relationship to Marxist cultural analysis.
Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist philosopher, primarily writing in the lead up to and after the First World War. He attempted to break from the economic determinism of classical Marxism thought and so is considered a key neo-Marxist.
Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state and the bourgeoisie as the ruling capitalist class use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. In Gramsci's view, the bourgeoisie develops a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the "common sense" values of all and maintain the status quo. Gramsci asserted that hegemonic power is used to maintain consent to the capitalist order rather than coercive power using force to maintain order and that this cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.
E. P. Thompson's Marxist humanism as well as the individual philosophies of the founders of the Birmingham School (Stuart Hall, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams) provide the influences for British Cultural Studies as housed at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham. The Birmingham School developed later than the Frankfurt School and are seen as providing a parallel response. Accordingly, British Cultural Studies focuses on later issues such as Americanization, censorship, globalization and multiculturalism. Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957), Williams' Culture and Society (1958) and Thompson's The Making of the English Working class (1964) form the foundational texts for the school, with Hall's encoding/decoding model of communication as well as his writings on multiculturalism in Britain arriving later but carrying equal gravitas.
The Birmingham School greatly valued and contributed to class consciousness within the structure of British society. Due to their positions as literary experts, Hoggart and Williams were called as witnesses during R v Penguin Books Ltd, a court case concerning censorship in publishing, the outcome of which is widely regarded as defining Britain in the 1960s as a "permissive society". They argued on the side of freedom of language and against censorship.
Within Hoggart's major work, The Uses of Literacy, he laments the loss of an authentic working class popular culture in Britain, and denounces the imposition of a mass culture by means of advertising, media and Americanisation. He argues against the concept of 'the masses' which he claims is both condescending and elitist. Later referring to this change in cultural production as "massification" and saying it "colonized local communities and robbed them of their distinctive features." Whereas the Frankfurt School exhorted the values of high culture, the Birmingham School attempted to bring high culture back down to real life whilst avoiding moral relativism.
Within more recent history, Marxist cultural analysis has critiqued postmodernism and identity politics, also known as recognition politics, claiming that redistributive politics should retain prominence within their discourse. Jürgen Habermas, an academic philosopher associated with the Frankfurt School, is a critic of the theories of postmodernism, having presented cases against their style and structure in his work "The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity", in which he outlays the importance of communicative rationality and action. He also makes the case that by being founded on and from within modernity, postmodernism has internal contradictions which make it unsustainable as an argument.
Frankfurt School Associate, Nancy Fraser, has made critiques of modern identity politics and feminism in her New Left Review article "Rethinking Recognition", as well as in her collection of essays "Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis" (1985–2010).
Main article: Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory
While the term "cultural Marxism" has been used in a general sense, to discuss the application of Marxist ideas in the cultural field, the variant term "Cultural Marxism" generally refers to an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Parts of the conspiracy theory make reference to actual thinkers and ideas selected from the Western Marxist tradition, but they severely misrepresent the subject. Conspiracy theorists exaggerate the actual influence of Marxist intellectuals, for example, claiming that Marxist scholars aimed to infiltrate governments, perform mind-control over populations, and destroy Western civilization. Since there is no specific movement corresponding to the label, Joan Braune has argued it is not correct to use the term "Cultural Marxism" at all.
In Norway, Anders Behring Breivik quoted the conspiracy usage of "Cultural Marxism" in his political manifesto 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, which he emailed to 1,003 people just 90 minutes before killing 77 people in his bomb and gun attacks in Oslo and on Utøya. In more mainstream political parlance, cultural conservatives claim to have identified "Cultural Marxism" as the theoretical basis for aspects of cultural liberalism.
Cultural Marxism, and Critical Theory more generally with which it has a close signification, have both a direct link with the Frankfurt School and its Marxian theorists. Initially called the "Institute for Social Research" during the 1930s, and taking the label the "Frankfurt School" by the 1950s, the designation meant as much an academic environment as a geographical location. As Christian Bouchindhomme puts it in its entry devoted to "Critical Theory" in Raynaud and Rials' Dictionnaire de philosophie politique, the Frankfurt School has been more a label than a school, even if it referred to a real academic environment:
Marxist cultural analysis, as it emerged in post-war Western and Eastern Europe, was a reaction to the tendency within Soviet-style Marxism to treat culture as a mere secondary epiphenomenon of economic relations, of classes and modes of production. Western European Marxists led the way. The humanist Marxism of the New Left, which first emerged in the late 1950s, increasingly engaged with anthropological conceptions of culture that emphasized human agency: language, communication, experience, and consciousness. By the 1960s and 1970s Western cultural Marxism was engaged in a dialogue with structuralism, post-structuralism and semiotics.
Some of the most suggestive criticisms of the path taken by many followers of the Birmingham School (not of its founders) emphasize that they have let themselves be caught out by a certain textual condition, where the text seems to acquire a self-contained condition, overlooking the connection with social contexts. Therefore, Fredric Jameson emphasizes the need to recover the critical theory of culture that comes from Marx, Freud, the School of Frankfurt, Luckács, Sartre and complex Marxism, and suggests redefining cultural studies as cultural Marxism and as a critique of capitalism. For this, the economic, political and social formations should be considered and the importance of social classes highlighted (Jameson, 1998).
One of the issues associated with the Cultural Marxist conspiracy is that Cultural Marxism is a distinct philosophical approach associated with some strands of the Frankfurt School, as well as ideas and influences emanating from the British New Left. However, proponents of the conspiracy do not regard Cultural Marxism as a form of left-wing cultural criticism, but instead as a calculated plan orchestrated by leftist intellectuals to destroy Western values, traditions and civilisation, carried out since at least the 1930s (Berkowitz, 2003; Breitbart, 2011, pp. 105–135).
When looking at the literature on Cultural Marxism as a piece of cultural studies, as a conspiracy described by Lind and its followers, and as arguments used by Buchanan, Breivik, and other actors within their own agendas, we see a common ground made of unquestionable facts in terms of who did what and where, and for how long at the Frankfurt School. Nowhere do we see divergence of opinion about who Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse really were, when they have met and in which universities. But this changes if we look at descriptions of what they wanted to do: conducting research or changing deeply the culture of the West? Were they working for political science or were they engaging with a hidden political agenda? Were they working for the academic community or obeying foreign secret services?
The concept of Cultural Marxism seeks to introduce readers unfamiliar with – and presumably completely uninterested in – Western Marxist thought to its key thinkers, as well as some of their ideas, as part of an insidious story of secret operations of mind-control[...]
The Cultural Marxist narrative attributes incredible influence to the power of the ideas of the Frankfurt School to the extent that it may even be read as a kind of "perverse tribute" to the latter (Jay 2011). In one account, for example (Estulin 2005), Theodor Adorno is thought to have helped pioneer new and insidious techniques for mind control that are now used by the "mainstream media" to promote its "liberal agenda" – this as part of Adorno's work, upon first emigrating to the United States, with Paul Lazarsfeld on the famous Princeton Radio Research Project, which helped popularize the contagion theory of media effects with its study of Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. In an ironical sense this literature can perhaps be understood as popularizing simplified or otherwise distorted versions of certain concepts initially developed by the Frankfurt School, as well as those of Western Marxism more generally.
Although some members of the Frankfurt School had cultural influence—in particular, some books by Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse were influential on some activists on the New Left in the 1960s—"Cultural Marxism" conspiracy theories greatly exaggerate the Frankfurt School's influence and power. Furthermore, there is no academic field known as "Cultural Marxism." Scholars of the Frankfurt School are called Critical Theorists, not Cultural Marxists. Scholars in various other fields that often get lumped into the "Cultural Marxist" category, such as postmodernists and feminist scholars, also do not generally call their fields of study Cultural Marxism, nor do they share perfect ideological symmetry with Critical Theory. The term does appear very occasionally in Marxist literature, but there is no pattern of using it to point specifically to the Frankfurt School--Marxist philosopher of aesthetics Frederic Jameson, for example, uses the term, but his use of the term "cultural" refers to his aesthetics, not to a specific commitment to the Frankfurt School. In short, Cultural Marxism does not exist—not only is the conspiracy theory version false, but there is no intellectual movement by that name.3
Cultural Marxists, the conspiracy theorists believe, now control all areas of public life, including the media, schools, entertainment, the economy, and national and global systems of governance. Not only does this theory vastly overestimate the influence of a small group of intellectuals, the conspiracy theory trades on the Frankfurt School's perceived Jewishness and amplifies antisemitic tropes.