The origins of “cultural Marxism”

The phrase, that is, not the thing it refers to. I was previously under the impression that the term was coined recently by the conservative press; as it turns out, neither of the two parts of that statement are true.

The earliest use indexed by Google Books appears in 1948, in the fourth volume of The Modern Quarterly, a British Communist paper:

The League itself unites the progressive writers of Germany and is the main organ of cultural Marxism—its editor is Bodo Uhse, and on its editorial committee are such men as Johannes Becher, Alfred Meusel and Klaus Gysi.

Klaus Gysi is the father of Gregor Gysi. “The League” is probably a reference to the Kulturbund zur demokratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands, whose name is sometimes translated as “Cultural League for the Democratic Renewal of Germany”. But this isn’t the usage we’re familiar with today.

The next example appears in 1961, in volume 57 of a journal that was founded in 1962, and Googling the relevant sentences turns up a JSTOR article from 1982, which does not appear to contain the phrase. But here are the sentences anyway.

Weiner goes to the philosophical root of the problem, bringing together cultural Marxism and political sociology. Collective action provides the conceptual and empirical connection between the two approaches.

A fellow with the improbable name of Richard R. Weiner wrote a book called “Cultural Marxism and political sociology” in 1981, so this is probably an error on Google’s part.

There is another mention in 1963, in “Theme and method in the allegorical novels of Rex Warner”:

Of course it is true that, as the clouds of World War II darkened, as Spain fell to totalitarianism, and as Moscow proved itself more and more ideologically alien to these Britons, hope for socialism, or “cultural Marxism,” died out among these …

But Google doesn’t give any more of a preview, and the context isn’t clear as to whether

It appears next (and, in its unambiguously familiar form, first) in 1964, in volume 246 of Punch:

Even Raymond Williams, who is often loosely bracketed with Hoggart as a “literary sociologist,” has a much firmer ideological foundation for his work, based as it is in the modified “cultural Marxism” of the New Left.

The modified “cultural Marxism” of the New Left! Raymond Williams was a New Left member—and, oddly, an active Welsh nationalist.

There’s a passing mention of “the humanistic, ‘cultural’ Marxism of the contemporary New Left” in London Magazine in 1966.

Then in 1967, in Literature and Society by Walter Laqueur and George Lachmann Mosse, its first appearance without scare quotes:

Cultural Marxism was most pervasive during the 1930s in New York literary circles, particularly among the generation of critics which came of age during the early years of the depression. …

One lasting effect of cultural Marxism in the 1930s was the greater sociological content in the discussion of the problems of American intellectuals.

Use of the phrase continues after that, and increases sharply in the early ’90s. Here’s an example from 1981, taken from a book by Lydia Sargent:

In her essay, “Cultural Marxism: Nonsynchrony and Feminist Practice,” Emily Hicks argues that the marriage of Marxism and feminism leads to a narrow formulation of their respective oppressions and a narrow understanding of the dynamics of society. Hicks states that a cultural Marxism is needed to reach and incorporate broader groups of people into a socialist movement: people who do not all have the same politics or the same political needs. Nor the same socialist vision. A Marxism that cannot reach more people with its theory and practice will become irrelevant. With an analysis of current political and economic trends viewed through the concept of nonsynchrony, Hicks shows why it is that despite a huge dissatisfaction with capitalism among certain sectors of the population (gays, working women, blacks) there is not necessarily a huge outpouring of support for a radical alternative. Hicks discusses why some women will make radical demands for childcare, birth control, [and] equal pay but will also feel a tremendous antagonism towards the women’s movement claiming forcefully that they are not “women’s libbers”. Hicks argues strategically for the need to build broad non-exclusive organizations struggling for progressive change.

The essay was published a year earlier. Emily Hicks studied under Herbert Marcuse from 1978 to 1979.

And here’s an example from 1984:

I found “cultural Marxism” as pursued by Raymond Williams, Gramsci, Habermas, Lukacs, and others immensely suggestive, yet ultimately unsatisfactory.

So there you go.


8 responses to “The origins of “cultural Marxism”

  1. Pingback: The origins of “cultural Marxism” | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » Chaos Patch (#113)

  3. Robert Mariani May 10, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    I’m pretty sure that the older usages of the term referred to something other than what conservatives refer to today. Like, building cultural artifacts like plays or books that are enmeshed in beliefs about the class struggle. An early version of the (now-nuked) Wikipedia article on it showcased that.

  4. nickbsteves May 10, 2016 at 8:39 pm

    1) Invent serious-sounding, vaguely defined phrase
    2) Use for a generation in a variety of confusing ways
    3) When opponents finally notice phrase, invent new serious-sounding, vaguely defined phrase
    4) Opponents look stupid fighting against/rooting out first phrase

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  6. Pingback: What is Marxism? | nydwracu niþgrim, nihtbealwa mæst

  7. Elixtos4 May 11, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    However, it is interesting to note the similarity between the English phrase “Cultural Marxism”, and the phrase Kulturbolschewismus, or Cultural Bolshevism, used by the Nazis as early as the 1920s. Here is a text example.

    • Morra Thomason (@outtodoor) June 9, 2016 at 3:13 pm

      In June 1945, the Soviet military administration in the Soviet occupation zone founded the “Cultural League for the Democratic Renewal of Germany” [Kulturbundes zur demokratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands]. At first, the league did not advocate overtly party-political positions; rather, it was generally opposed to Fascism and was supposed to be open to artists and intellectuals from all zones. Until 1958, it published the influential cultural magazine Aufbau. Later, it developed into the GDR’s central mass organization for culture.”

      All of this seems to be a particularly German thing, from the Rudi Dutschke quote and his politics (and that link to Gramsci) to the GDR now being referenced (which is interesting because it seems that Hitler used similar terms before the war but to the polar opposite ends (killing democracy, freedom, rights, “progressive” non-christian ideas). Then after the war those ideas were re-encouraged and flow through to today. So are we normalizing now or have we established a new normal (welfare and equal opportunity of employment)?

      Changing the label won’t necessarily change the debate; in the end it’s still just left vs right… and by the sounds of it there was never much of any intent to the term Cultural Marxism beyond them being the words at hand (it almost seems like a more accurate term would have been just around the corner if not for conservative politics, the left have can and do accuse each other of being repressive ect too).

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