Culture Wars/Current Controversies

From Class to Identity: The Cultural Turn in the Left Thought Collective (1950s-1980s)

By Andrei Znamenski

The paper explores the political and ideological evolution of the mainstream left thought collective in the West. Heavily influenced by the classical Marxian paradigm prior to the 1950s, this collective gradually shifted to the matters of culture and identity between the 1950s and the 1980s. In the left ideological paradigm, this transformation became known as the “cultural turn”; some early left authors also referred to this shift as “Cultural Marxism.” Later, the latter became a favorite word of choice for scholars and writers on the right. Social scholarship on both sides of the political spectrum have frequently stressed the important role of the so-called Frankfurt School in pioneering the abovementioned transformation. This paper argues that, as far as the mainstreaming of the cultural turn, there were more important intellectual sources than that school. Among others, these sources included racialized Marxism of C.L.R James, William Dubois, and Frantz Fanon (1940s-1960s), W. Right Mills, and British Cultural Studies, which gradually phased out economic determinism and the class-based approach of classical Marxism by shifting attention to culture, identity, the Third World, race, and gender.
While authors like Lind singled out the Frankfurt School to be demonized as the major intellectual culprit, left authors, who have been peddling so-called neoliberalism, became similarly obsessed with searching for the shadow of the Mont Perelin society in any movement that advocated free market and individual liberty. The irony of the situation is that both pejorative memes “Cultural Marxism” and “neoliberalism” do describe social trends that have been unfolding in society. They are not the products of the grand conspiracies but reflect what has been going on in the intellectual culture and on the ground among various segments of society. Incidentally, several scholars (Keith Preston, Alexander Zubatov, Allen Mendenhall, and Dominic Green) have recently explored the content of Cultural Marxism, trying to separate the conspiracy elements from actual intellectual links between Marxism of old and the current cultural left. Although I believe that this term can be useful especially when we need to stress the continuity between the old Marxian socialism and the present day cultural left, who operate with many ideological pillars inherited from the old creed (e.g. oppression/domination narrative, false consciousness and so forth), it indeed might be too narrow. So, I personally prefer to use such broad definitions as the “cultural left” and “identitarian left.”

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