“Cultural Marxism” and the Marxian Revolutionary Idea
Some recent personal experiences have been nagging at me — like a series of synchronicities — to get around to posting something about this matter of the Marxian revolutionary idea as this idea pertains to the boogeyman and canard of “cultural Marxism”, which is a nonsense phrase. It is a nonsense phrase except in his one respect of the Marxian revolutionary idea which even conservatives have ironically appropriated through a kind of cultural osmosis so that now even conservatives come to think of themselves as being “revolutionaries”.
The Marxian revolutionary idea, which is a matter otherwise quite distinct from “Marxism” more generally, is something we need to understand within the broader historical context of the Age of Revolutions. We are not yet done with this Age of Revolutions. We have one more to come to complete the series historically begun with the Lutheran or German Revolution also known as “the Protestant Reformation”. This coming revolution will seal and bring closure to the Modern Age. It is already in preparation, and is intensifying.
What’s a revolution? And what, more precisely, is the Marxian revolutionary idea? You can learn quite a bit about the nature of revolutions from reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions or Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man. The Marxian revolutionary idea rests upon another principle, which is the process of radical changes in the means of production — ie technology or media.
The essential Marxian revolutionary idea is given in an oft quoted passage from The Poverty of Philosophy: “
M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen, or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy
This last statement is the decisive one for understanding the Marxian revolutionary idea — radical changes in media or the “means of production” (sometimes called “infrastructure”) that radically change also the “mode of production” — the structure of social relations sometimes called “the superstructure” (capitalism, feudalism, socialism, oligarchy etc). This is the idea that informs, for example, Marshall McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message”. This is the Marxian revolutionary idea that McLuhan also distilled from his teacher Harold Innis, author of The Bias of Communication and Empire and Communication. These two works are rather critical and essential texts for students of communications, if not sociology more generally.
Like Jacques Ellul, who wrote extensively on the technological system, Innis took the Marxian revolutionary idea of radical changes in the means of production, and the dialectical relation between the means (techne) and the mode (culture) and applied this to the study of communications technologies or media, and how different media also correlate with very different perceptions and structures of space and time — what we call “reality”. As you might conclude from that, this is also highly relevant to Jean Gebser’s studies of different ages and civilisational types as different “consciousness structures” as spacetime Gestalts or patternings.
“Artefacts” is another term for “means of production”. In The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser read the artefacts of civilisations, including their grammars, as indicators to its mode of consciousness and perception. Changes in those grammars, and their associated artefacts, were taken as indicators into a restructuration or reorganisation of space and time and thus of our consciousness and mode of perception of “reality” and of the nature of social relations consequently.
The modern Age of Revolutions is closely associated, then, not only with the invention of perspectivism in the Renaissance, but also the printing press — the Gutenberg Bible. The development of perspectivism and the printing press gives you a quite different sense of reality — of the structure of space and time — than a strictly oral culture. It’s not the same “reality” at all.
Revolution in Marx, then, is not an arbitrary process, but follows from radical changes in the means of production which induce insufferable contradictions or dissonances in “reality” between the past and the future — the handmill or the steam-engine for example — and the same processes are underway between industrial era technologies or media and electronic technologies and media. This clash of times and Ages was especially true of the Russian and the Chinese Revolutions, where modern industrialism attempted to co-exist with serfdom and feudalism, Tsarism or Confucianism.
There is an ironic sense in which the phrase “cultural Marxism” is true, inasmuch as the Marxian revolutionary idea has come to be accepted more broadly. No one practiced it under the guise of “creative destruction” as the Neo-conservatives, and it wasn’t accidental that many of the movers and shakers in the “new conservative” or “new right” movement were former Trotskyites who embraced Trotsky’s idea of “the permanent revolution” as this same principle of creative destruction (used largely to justify the Iraq War and “regime change”).
It is very naive to think that you can have continuous and revolutionary changes in the means of production without also radical and disruptive changes in all social relations and relations of production. This is the double-think and self-contradictions of the social conservative, especially, who embraces with enthusiasm the ever-changing means of production while thinking he or she can conserve all the conventional and traditional social relations or authority structures.
A revolution is an alteration of our sense of reality (and consequently of ourselves or “human nature”)– a reorganisation or restructuration of spacetime itself and the meaning of space and time.
So, it is quite apparent today that there is a real tension between the Fossil Fuel or Industrial era and the incipient “Electronic” or Quantum Logic Era — if we want to put it that way.
The Marxian revolutionary idea that has “infiltrated” — one might say — almost all contemporary thought is this affinity or contingency between the media or “means of production” and the pattern of social relations or the mode of consciousness and perception. The reason why we still seem to persist in our naivete about this relationship being separate is probably owing to the persistence of a false mind-body, subject-object dichotomy introduced largely by Cartesian metaphysical dualism, which originally philosophical dualism has now decayed into duplicity and double-think.
We might say, paralleling Marx, that if the Industrial Era gave you the bureaucrat as a social type, the “technotronic era” gives you the technocrat as a social type (and thus, also, the “technocratic shaman”, as Algis Mikunas described that in his essay “Magic and Technological Culture”).
Many students of society do employ the Marxian revolutionary idea as a useful diagnostic tool to understand the changes in capitalist society. That, however, doesn’t make them “Marxists”, (except among the naive and the illiterate, although I suppose you could call that “cultural Marxism”). They may well accept Marx’s diagnosis but not his prognosis for the causes and cures of alienation. For similar reasons, we can appreciate much of Nietzsche’s thought as useful without becoming “Nietzscheans” (godforbid), or acknowledging the divinity of Christ without identifying as “Christian”. Of course, there are many who don’t want you to understand any part of it at all — even, and especially, the true and useful bits.
The reason for that is simple. They are feeling very insecure about their status these days.