I don’t have any investment in whether or not the term “cultural Marxism” usefully describes anything, but I don’t find Alan Jacobs’ rejoinder to Zubatov convincing. Too many academic arguments like this strike me as little more than an opportunity to show off one’s command of arcane scripture for its own sake. But, as Paul Johnson said about Marx in Intellectuals, “Virtually all his work, indeed, has the hallmark of Talmudic study: it is essentially a commentary on, a critique of the work of others in his field.” As Marxism increasingly loses its ability to say anything useful or meaningful about the world, any discussion that invokes the prophet’s name will likewise quickly disappear into the doctrinal weeds.
At any rate, after attempting to clarify the definition of “Marxism” according to the earliest writings of the patriarch, Jacobs says, “So, if we grant that Marx and Engels are Marxists…” Well, as long as we’re being pedantic, Marx himself said to his son-in-law Paul Lafargue, “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist,” so…? Besides, if “Marxist” can be used to describe something useful about twentieth-century political regimes, which, strictly speaking, all deviated from original principles and predictions, why couldn’t it be similarly adapted to say something useful about modern-day disciples of Gramsci and Lukács?
He continues quibbling with Zubatov:
It is equally clear that one can believe that an advocate “for the persecuted and oppressed must attack forms of culture that reinscribe the values of the ruling class, and disseminate culture and ideas that support ‘oppressed’ groups and ‘progressive’ causes,” without endorsing any of the core principles of Marx’s system. (There are forms of conservatism and Christianity that are as fiercely critical of the ruling class as any Marxist, while having no time for dialectical materialism or communism.)
True enough, but if you accept the widespread idea that Marxism is itself a Christian heresy dressed up in pseudoscientific 19th-century terminology, those particular differences seem unremarkable. My own impression, as I’ve said, is that Marx’s “single-minded, fanatical devotion to an abstract ideal of a transformed world strikes me as more akin, in today’s world, to that of radical Islamists than members of a political sect.” It probably does grant too much gravitas to our contemporary glib, self-styled revolutionaries to call them any type of Marxist; it seems the modern revolutionary struggle is mainly focused on highly-educated knowledge workers seizing the memes of production for the mundane purpose of distinguishing themselves from their peers. I think that shows the essential benevolence of capitalism, don’t you? Instead of sticking the severed heads of our ideological enemies on the city gates as a warning to others, we turn them into harmless accessories for disaffected youth to posture with.
Joking aside, I do want to note that the article by Samuel Moyn, which kicked this whole kerfuffle off to begin with, made the argument that the term “cultural Marxism” was mostly an anti-Semitic slur. For all the endless sensationalism in our media here about the supposed resurgence of fascism, it’s ironically amusing that the most anti-Semitic political movement with an actual chance of attaining state power is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, which, you’ll never guess, happens to contain an impressive number of unreconstructed Marxists. As a common Marxist phrase went, it is no accident, comrade.