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Archive for January, 2019

Mendenhall throws in the towel: The reality and reputation of Cultural Marxism

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 10, 2019

The Fish, the Ocean, and Cultural Marxism

“Is Cultural Marxism real?”  That is the question which the intellectually well-endowed Allen Mendenhall asks, and answers in the affirmative.  Whether or not this is good news depends on what is really meat by “real.”  Is the “real” in question a stamp of authenticity, as per “the real deal” or is it something more sinister, a negative reality better expressed as “the clear and present danger.”  In lieu of a direct answer to this question, Mendenhall gives us a brief walk through the last century-and-a-half’s developments in the humanities and social sciences, just in case anyone was sleeping.  What is seemingly at issue is whether or not these developments are uniformly circumscribed  within the ambit of “Cultural Marxism.”  Again, Mendenhall answers yes, that for better or worse, we live in a world where the cultural turn of Marxism has become the cynosure of all social thought.

It doesn’t take a genius, or even an Allan Mendenhall, to understand why the phrase “Cultural Marxism”, as opposed to the movement it describes, has been brought into question by those who would prefer to keep their actions and allegiances tacit.  Whenever a phenomenon becomes ubiquitous in the world, and assuming that it might be viewed as noxious in certain quarters, it behooves those in sympathy with the phenomenon to hide its existence, or at least to deny that it has any special defining characteristics.  Rendered nameless and invisible, the phenomenon recedes into the background noise of existence and is thus insulated against overt criticism.  Or as people say these days, “it just is what it is.”

Allan Mendenhall and other scholars (he mentions Alexander Zubatov), are wise to this recent ploy and willing to call it out as a denial of reality.   Clearly, Cultural Marxism is more than just a cypher, a mythological snark roaming through the ruins of what were once called the Western Humanities.  It has a demonstrable pedigree, names, dates, books, and manifestos…aside from manifest consequences.  Ostensibly,  Mendenhall seeks to refute the premises and program of the Cultural Marxists,  a critical enterprise which can only commence after the object of criticism has been acknowledged.  However Mendenhall goes further and conveys the attitude that Cultural Marxism must be respected, at least in the basic sense that any scientific enterprise must respect the object of its investigation, whether the intent of the investigation be positive or critical.  In his own words,

“Scholars versed in [the] Theory [of Cultural Marxism] are reasonably suspicious of crude, tendentious portrayals of their field.  Nevertheless, these fields retain elements of Marxism that, in my view, require heightened and sustained scrutiny.  Given estimates that communism killed over 100 million people, we must openly and honestly discuss those currents of Marxism that run through different modes of interpretation and schools of thought.  To avoid complicity, moreover, we must ask whether and why Marxist ideas, however attenuated, still motivate leading scholars and and spread into the broader culture.”(1)

The question of complicity

The last sentence from the above quote is noteworthy for its candor.  By declaring “In order to avoid complicity…” Mendenhall has acknowledged the danger of any engagement with Cultural Marxism, an engagement which is in some ways analogous to those who dabble in the occult in order to “research” and “refute” the occult.  It is the perennial dilemma of those who seek to unravel a cat’s cradle by adding complexity to complexity until it becomes an insolvable Gordian Knot, or one of those silly but effective Chinese puzzles which trap your finger in a tiny tourniquet.  After all, Cultural Marxism would not have become a predominant force within the humanities unless it had the ability to subtly absorb and convert its harshest critics.

Precisely because the danger that Mendenhall alludes to is terrifyingly real, we are justified in holding him to his word.   Is he complicit? No matter how earnest his dismay at the present academic culture might be, does Mendenhall’s survey of the subject serve to refute or, conversely, to legitimate the hegemony of the left over our so-called humane letters?  His essay is a concise and usable survey, one that could be handy for an aspiring undergraduate to use as a “crib” in discussing the various fields of the human and social sciences as they developed, or were perverted, in the course of the last few generations.  Though already a miracle of economy, I will try my hand at further simplifying the essay’s contents.

According to Mendenhall the relevant trends in the humanities and social sciences can be grouped under neo-Marxism, Structuralism, Deconstructionism, and the New Historicism.  These taxa should be enough to show that the Cultural Marxist world-view is not a single set of ideas, rather, that it consists of a large number of people attempting to look at human behavior from a variety of perspectives.  Those of us who have studied in these fields are aware of this variety, and those new to the subject shouldn’t be surprised.  Even for critics of Cultural Marxism, this variety of thinkers and theories can be a legitimate source of intellectual stimulation and interest.  Hence any naive critic who assumes that the obnoxiously “politically correct” tenor of higher education derives from a single source can be easily refuted.

However this representative naive critic, allegedly inhabiting what Zubatov called “the dark, dank silos of the far right” while certainly (like the Cultural Marxists themselves) more than mythological, also serves Mendenhall as a straw man against which his sophisticated and variegated treatment of neo-Marxist schools is shown to full advantage.   Again, there is nothing wrong with this, as long as one doesn’t allow one’s awe at the variety and creativity of error lead one into an attitude of endearment.   In the systematic study of intellectual error, as with the study of medical pathology, the variety of the phenomena should not lead to engrossed fascination.  It should not make one forget that the thing you are dealing with is something fundamentally bad.

The unifying framework

Variety tends to exculpate.  The slogan “Let a thousand flowers bloom” gives us a warm and optimistic feeling, and gratifies our libertarian conscience, even if we are mentally aware that the person who coined the phrase (Mao Tse Tung) was a bloody tyrant.  When intellectuals are introduced to Cultural Marxism in a variety of flavors, they are more apt to savor than criticize them.  Yet, as even Mendenhall understands, behind all these collectable cognitive butterflies lurks a master theory.  Indeed, this is Theory with a capital T since he admits,

Despite the bewildering range of controversies and meanings attributed to it, cultural Marxism (the term and the movement) has a deep, complex history in Theory.  The word “Theory” (with a capital T) is the general is the general heading, for research within the interpretive branches branches of the humanities known as cultural and critical studies, literary criticism, and literary theory–each of which includes a variety of approaches from the phenomenological to the psychoanalytic.(2)

So these schools of thought, in spite of their surface variety, are united at their apex by something called “Theory.”  And what is “Theory”?  Mendenhall gives us a reasonably concise and accurate definition of “Theory” when he alludes to interpretive approaches in the social sciences and the humanities.  What should arouse our suspicion is that we now have a definition of something which has no name.  “Theory” is not a name.  Etymologically and historically “theory” derived from an ancient Greek verb, which once applied to the mystical contemplation of a god (i.e., theos, zeus).   However in early modern usage “theory” became a noun roughly corresponding to what Kuhn later clarified with his (then, 1962) neologism “paradigm.”  In other words, a “theory” was a  scientific conjecture about the nature of reality, a conjecture which might, or might not, be backed up by subsequent evidence.

In post-modern usage “theory” seems to have lost the hypothetical and tentative connotations which it once had for modern science.  Insidiously, it has become synonymous with the unquestioned foundation of the human sciences, and perhaps soon the physical sciences as well.  Yet common sense informs us what is now called “Theory” was once just one competing paradigm among many.  Mendenhall’s failure to name the paradigm and his complicity in referring to it as simply “Theory”  leaves him with little more than gentlemanly condescension towards his more leftward adversaries.  Apart from this condescension he can also share with his readership a sense of dread, dread of a beast which is once again on the march, the same beast which notoriously slaughtered 100 million in the course of the 20th century.  Then again, we might get lucky the next time around.

Naming names, The Hermenutic Invasion

While Mendenhall’s stance may not constitute willful complicity, neither does it provide any salient argument against Cultural Marxism.  With the mention of “Theory” we have come full circle.  Having pinned down Cultural Marxism as something identifiable, Mendenhall (following Zubatov) has preserved the possibility of criticizing the Left Academy.  Retaining the possibility of criticism isn’t much, but it is better than nothing.  However Cultural Marxism is itself only the consequence of something further upstream, something which Mendenhall is unwilling to name specifically, although he alludes to it using the originally nondescript term “Theory.”  Hence we are confronted with the same sort of problem which had been solved by the willingness to identify Cultural Marxism, but on a higher level, the problem of the unnamed common denominator.  Hence we must unmask “Theory” as no more than one theory among others, or to use Kuhn’s nomenclature, a paradigm.  As always, the consequence of not identifying a ubiquitous phenomenon is to render it natural, normal…or better yet in the case of mischief, invisible.

Before it became “Theory” the paradigm in question was called Hermenutics, or Cultural Hermenutics to distinguish it from the Hermeneutic branch of Theology which dealt with interpretation of the Bible.  Since Christians and Jews believe in an objective revelation, hermenutics in the the old style remained a sifting and seeking of truth, though necessarily approximate and incomplete.  In contrast, Cultural Hermentutics, as inspired by Martin Heidegger and elaborated by Hans George Gadamer is restricted to a framework immanent to this changing and contradictory world,  it is therefore an interpretation by the subjective, of the subjective, and for the subjective.  Thus its touchstone is not a natural order, whether or not such a natural order is discovered by either science or revelation or both.  Rather, it sees reality as the outcome of social and cultural self-creation, a kind of collective poetry in motion.  While this may seem charming at first blush (think of Boazian anthropology in the first half of the 20th century) a consistently subjectivist world-view ultimately leads to an outcome where there is no objective criteria through which to  resolve inter-group conflict.  This is the point at which we have arrived in American higher education, where ostracism has supplanted debate as a means of ensuring group consensus.

Mendenhall is well aware of this catastrophic outcome, and his essay highlighting the dangers of misidentifying Cultural Marxism is clearly intended to stem or even turn back the tide of academic persecution.  Yet oddly he fails to trace the present intellectual climate back to an arbitrary decision in favor of the interpretive paradigm, a.k.a., Hermenutics.  For him, Theory with a capital T seems to be something we must acquiesce in, just as if it were a force of nature.  Accordingly, we must accept that the only possible basis of the human sciences is interpretation, and our job as non-Marxists is to engage Marxists in dialogue, enlarging their scope of thought and bringing them around to a more charitable understanding of their fellow human beings.  To me this seems at best quixotic, and at worst complicit.

I don’t know Allan Mendenhall, who seems to be an earnest and engaging person, and I am not sure why he has pulled his punches in quite just the way he does in Cultural Marxism is Real.  I certainly don’t think he relishes complicity, or views himself as such.  None the less there are certain centrifugal forces which draw one towards the center of our post-modern world.  I have a hunch that Mendenhall, in addition to his aversion to Marxism, has an equal and opposite aversion to Positivism, and the way in which modern higher education has been turned into an adjunct facility for corporate research.  I can understand that as well.  Cultural Hermenutics promises the humanist (in all senses of that word) autonomy.  It promises a vast principality which is safe from the predation of the hard sciences.  Fine.  There is no compelling reason for humanists (qua professionals) to believe in the circulation of the blood or the sphere of the Earth.  However there is one science that it behooves humanists to pay homage to, and that is lowly and despised economics.  It was through the postern gate of economics that Marxism crept in and spoiled the utopian garden of the humanists.  God willing, I hope to explore the relation between hermenutics and economics in a future post.  For the time being I am sure that I have given poor Dr. Mendenhall too much of my attention already.


(1) from Cultural Marxism is Real by Allan Mendenhall James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Jan. 4, 2019  https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2019/01/cultural-marxism-is-real/

(2) ibid.




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