Should we stop talking about ‘Cultural Marxism’?

May 7, 2019 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

I’m going to have a go at a simple definition of Cultural Marxism (CM).

The main contention of Karl Marx was that power is controlled by a class of rich people (the bourgeoisie), who oppress the much larger class of poor people (the proletariat) and deprive them of liberty and their true humanity. A revolution is needed to overturn this situation and create a new order of equality and justice. Once this has happened, the State needs to carefully control politics and the economy, to ensure ‘correct’ thinking and behaviour among the citizens, and root out reactionary conservative forces seeking a return to the old order.

This has been tried in practice in a number of countries over the past 100 years, almost always with disastrous results (latest: Venezuela), where people end up being oppressed far more than before. As the 20th century progressed, many European intellectual philosophers realised this. They accepted the basic underlying premise that according to Marx and his followers there is a serious problem with the worldview and power structures of the West which seem to produce war and injustice.

The way to change this, and to usher in a better society, they said, is not political revolution and a change to a state-controlled command economy (as in Soviet Russia and Maoist China), but cultural change. Through gradual control of education, the media, arts, the law and other key areas of society, the worldview of a generation can be transformed, critiquing and rejecting ‘oppressive’ ideas (such as the historic Judaeo-Christian view on God, biblical text, human identity, sex, gender, marriage, family) and moving towards a new vision of ‘liberation and flourishing of humanity’ as defined by the new thought-guides. Hence ‘cultural’ rather than political/economic Marxism.

This definition is not perfect, but let’s move on to the debate around the idea, what it’s called, whether we should talk about it and how. Today’s polarised political climate has meant that rather than taking a nuanced and diffident view, accepting the historical and contemporary reality of CM but seeing it as one of a number of trends making up the a bigger picture, the phrase has become a weapon for both ‘sides’ in the culture war. For many conservatives, CM is sometimes used as an explanation for everything they see as wrong in society (ignoring the flaws in their own worldview), while those on the left, ironically the ones most influenced by CM, portray the idea of CM as a myth invented by far right extremists.

Why should Christians care? According to some church leaders, we don’t need to understand why there has been a cultural change in our society. The only thing we need to know is that nominal Christianity has collapsed, most people in our country don’t believe in Jesus and so don’t act like Christians, and all that is needed is evangelism. For those on the other side of the fence, many of the recent ‘progressive’ trends such as ‘equal’ marriage, ‘no-fault’ divorce, easy availability of abortion and hate speech legislation are self-evidently good and should be supported by the church.

But in fact, mature Christianity requires us not to ignore the contemporary ‘big ideas’ or uncritically accept them, but to analyse the culture around us and the ideas which shape people’s attitudes. We’re not like goldfish who don’t have the capacity to notice that the water around them is getting dirtier, or to ask why. We are able to do the “double listening” advocated by John Stott, where we hear the world with one ear and the word of God with the other. We are able to see, to feel, to reflect and speak on a culture and its underlying worldview, like Jesus himself who did not just speak positively about the Kingdom of God and his own identity as saviour and Lord, but also warned against wrong but influential thinking (“beware the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod” Matthew 16:5-12). Likewise the apostle Paul warned about being “taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Col 2:8), and showed his skills of cultural analysis in Athens, where he spoke showing his understanding of the mindset behind pagan temple worship (Acts 17:16f).

A good example of this can be found in recent UK government statements on persecuted Christians. They do not just identify the problem and offer sympathy, but name part of the reason for Western inaction on wrong thinking. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “I think it is partly because of political correctness we have avoided confronting this issue. I think there is a misplaced worry that it is colonialist to talk about a religion that was associated with colonial powers.’ And Bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen spoke of a “misconception that Christianity is an expression of white, Western privilege” when “In fact, Christianity is primarily a phenomenon of the global South and the global poor.”

Although they are not using the phrase, what Hunt and Mounstephen are identifying is an aspect of cultural Marxism, for which “persecuted Christian” is a contradiction in terms, like “minority vulnerable ruling elite”. We need a simple shorthand to describe the ideas driving our cultural change, which is resulting in the marginalisation of Christians, especially those with conservative views; the sex and gender revolution, increasing attempts to police speech and thought. “Political correctness” and ‘cultural Marxism’ are in the category of such shorthand.

But there are problems with the term ‘cultural Marxism’. Firstly, it’s hard to understand. The writings of Adorno, Gramsci, Marcuse, Derrida and others are notoriously impenetrable. Any summary, such as I attempted in the first paragraphs of this piece, is bound to be on one hand over-simplistic, and on the other it’s the kind of stuff that either loses people or sends them to sleep after two lines.

Those who make admirable and helpful attempts to explain CM and its effect on our culture, such as here, face another problem. Such is the power of social media and the effects of ‘groupthink’ that even a careful explanation of CM is attacked with a false logic: “Surely Marxism is good in that it aims to help the poor and end injustice?” the argument goes. “Therefore any criticism of Marxism must be associated with lack of care for the poor, minorities, the environment?”

A recent article on the otherwise excellent Gospel Coalition website claimed that because the disturbed young man who attacked a synagogue recently was in contact with far right groups and complained about CM in his social media posts, and because some of the original ‘Frankfurt School’ were Jewish, therefore anyone who talks about CM negatively must be an antisemite. This kind of crude association closes down any sensible discussion of ideas. It’s difficult to think of a better example of the chilling influence of CM than to see a conservative evangelical Christian denying the existence of CM. Worse, the writer effectively accuses any concerned Christian brother or sister using CM as an explanation for certain harmful ideas as sharing the same views as a violent fascist. This is a form of bullying and censorship, like those who want to rule out any analysis of a religious basis to terrorism as ‘Islamophobic’.

Our task is surely rather to expose the ideas of both the right and the left, and critique them from the perspective of biblical Christianity. But the point remains: is CM such a toxic phrase that it’s not a hill worth dying on, and better to use some other expression? Perhaps that depends on the audience.


See also: The progressive march of tyranny through the church, by Joe Boot, Christian Christian


We cannot be both Christians and Marxists, by Jason Morgan, Public Discourse

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