As a long time veteran of political internet wars, both between right and left and intra-right, I have observed that at times some really silly arguments get repeated over and over despite their flimsiness to casual inspection. People presumably see these arguments made by others, judge them to be effective and then mindlessly repeat them without thinking them through. Thus they get perpetuated, and you repeatedly have to deal with them despite their weakness. I would give some examples, but I don’t want to provoke an argument about the validity of those arguments and sidetrack this essay.
This essay is about one particularly bizarre contention that I have recently been seeing with increasing frequency. By addressing it here, in the future I’m just going to link back to this essay every time it comes up, and save myself the headache of addressing it anew each time.
If you follow the happenings in the conservative Christian world much at all these day, you will be aware that there has been an increasing tendency among conservative Christian celebrities, for want of a better word, to embrace “social justice” causes and link them to Christianity. One could speculate about what is driving this, and debate how Christians should address some of these issues, but those are the subjects for other essays. This embrace of “social justice” causes had created a backlash among some conservative Christians who see this as a very troublesome trend. (I will dispense with the quotes around social justice from here on out for the sake of simplicity, but I am not conceding the legitimacy of the concept as it is currently promulgated.)
Those who see this as a troublesome trend will often accuse the social justice advocates of embracing and advancing “Cultural Marxism.” Here’s where the bizarre argument comes in. Increasingly I am seeing many, whether those actively advocating social justice causes or supposedly neutral observers, attempting to dismiss the charge of Cultural Marxism by claiming that Cultural Marxism is not a real thing and does not exist. Left-wing Social Justice Warriors have long dismissed Cultural Marxism as a right-wing conspiracy theory. These are not who I’m addressing here. These are not people who are arguing in good faith. The people I’m addressing are Christians who are presumably arguing in good faith. They are making the pedantic semantic argument that there can be no such thing as Cultural Marxism because Marxism is entirely an economic theory and doesn’t deal with culture, therefore Cultural Marxism cannot be a thing. With this declaration, the charge of Cultural Marxism is dismissed with a wave of the hand.
What makes this argument so bizarre when coming from the generally at least reasonably intelligent people who tend to concern themselves with theology, is that this is clearly not an argument against the existence of the thing. It is an argument about nomenclature. Even if we concede that Cultural Marxism is a misnomer and we should choose another term to describe it, that doesn’t make the thing itself not exist. There was a Frankfurt School. Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno, et al were real people. They clearly articulated a cultural strategy that we can see in action today.
The initial source of this argument appears to be Gary North, an economic historian who is well known in both Christian Reconstructionist and libertarian circles. This rings true because many of the people repeating North’s arguments often seem to be pretty Northian themselves, meaning they don’t necessarily actively embrace social justice and preen about their rightthinking moral virtue, but they clearly are naïve about the nature of the current threat. Those who have actively embraced social justice warrioring will usually just say that anyone who uses the term Cultural Marxism is either a conspiracy theorist and/or a racist and a member of the alt-right, a Neo-Nazi, a white-supremacist, blah, blah, blah…
From my rather cursory perusal of North’s vast bibliography, ground zero for the articulation of his argument appears to be a review of the movie Agenda: Driving America Down (2010) which was published by North in Oct of 2012. Agenda is produced by Curtis Bowers, and suggests that Communism did not pass away when the Soviet Union fell but remains a force that is still attempting to subvert America today. Unless I missed it, North does not use the words “Cultural Marxism” in this review, but he develops the arguments that he later uses when he argues against the existence of Cultural Marxism by name, such as this July 2014 article Cultural Marxism is an Oxymoron.
North’s intellectual stake in this seems to be his contention that orthodox Marxist Communism is a long dead and discredited purely economic theory that no longer represents a significant political force in this country, much less a danger to the US or the world. He claims that this was certainly true after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but he also suggests that the savvier observers of the international scene recognized this long before then. At some point these savvy observers recognized that the real adversary was not international Communism per se but rather an international globalist elite who are attempting to establish a basically oligarchic world order and were using the perceived threat of global Communism to this end. However much “conspiracy” you wish to inject into this later prospect, I will leave to the readers to decide, but I suspect you get my point. On these points, I believe North is entirely technically correct.
He further contends that the Marxist revisionists who attempted to update Marxism to modern realities by injecting cultural arguments and strategies, such as Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, were not Marxists at all, because by injecting culture they were rejecting orthodox Marxism which is entirely economic. Orthodox Marxism dismisses culture as a product of the primary driver of economics. The problem with this argument is that Gramsci and the Frankfort Schoolians readily admitted that they were not orthodox Marxists and were updating and modifying the system, which North acknowledges. So the charge that they are not orthodox Marxists, is basically no charge at all. The cultural school readily admits this. So what we have here is an entirely semantic argument. Is an admittedly heterodox update of a school of thought entitled to call itself by the name of the school of thought it is updating? I don’t know? You tell me? Were the neo-Freudians really Freudians at all? At what point does a heap cease to be a heap?
North uses a theological example in the second linked article above. I think another theological example is in order here. Christian Science is a “denomination” that arose from Christianity. It would be very difficult to argue otherwise. It did not arise ex nihilo. But it rejects or redefines essential elements of the historic Christian faith such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, etc. So is Christian Science really Christian? Well, it’s certainly not orthodox (small o) Christianity, but saying that it isn’t orthodox Christianity doesn’t make the thing itself not exist. So again, we have an argument about words, not things. The important point is, that while Christian Science is certainly not heterodox Christianity, Mary Baker Eddy was a real person. She wrote a real book entitled Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. There is still a large Christian Science church building in Boston. Many people joined the church and/or were influenced by its teachings. Many court cases arose from its teachings. It still publishes a respectable newspaper. Whether or not Christian Science is genuinely entitled to call itself Christian may have a lot to do with the state of the immortal souls of its adherents, but it is irrelevant when it comes to the actual reality of these things.
It strikes me that the limits of orthodoxy within a particular school of thought is the kind of debate that is best left to the adherents of that school of thought, not outside observers. Let orthodox Marxists dismiss the cultural components as heretical. Let the cultural component instruct the orthodox to catch up with the times and get with the program. Let Scotsmen determine who is entitle to call himself a true Scotsman. Heck, if you want to view this process in action, just go hang out at any libertarian site for 10 minutes or so.
To be fair to North, he does not actually argue that Gramsci and the Frankfurt School never existed or that a cultural battle is not taking place today. In fact, he concedes that they were actually the correct side in the grand debate. North concedes that culture is primary which is what authentic conservatives have always believed. Unfortunately, the people I’ve encountered who have adopted North’s argument regarding nomenclature, apparently don’t pick up on this nuance, because when debating the issue, they do seem to believe that the semantic argument that Cultural Marxism is a misnomer, is a sufficient refutation any time Cultural Marxism is invoked. The way that North writes so dogmatically about the issue and the way in which he is so dismissive of the modern influence of Communism may contribute to this confusion, but I don’t think it is fair to say that North makes this errant argument himself per se. At least not that I have seen.
That said, I really wish Dr. North would have a conversation with his acolytes and rein them in for the misuse of his argument. Not to name names or anything, but this conversation needs to include his son-in-law. (If he has written on the subject and I missed it, I apologize.) If a student of North sees the charge of Cultural Marxism, the appropriate response is, “That’s a misnomer and you should call it something else,” not “Cultural Marxism doesn’t exist so your argument is invalid.”