It was the 19th-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel who forcefully argued that human selves do not exist in isolation as self-conscious beings, but only have self-consciousness as they relate to others. Here is how he expresses it in his Phenomenology of Spirit: “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (111).
The term “cultural Marxism” has recently entered the mainstream vocabulary of orthodox Christianity. A staple of the media of Twitter and blogs, it seems to have gone the way of all sophisticated ideas when reduced to a few hundred characters and placed in the hands of those with too much time to troll yet not apparently enough to think. It has become a verbal bullet, designed to kill any opponent on the left, much as “white privilege” has come to be used to hit those on the right.
Yet the emergence of the term, and even its deployment in inconsequential Twitter exchanges, points to an interesting and perhaps disturbing pathology of our times. Indeed, it witnesses to the fact that, while Karl Marx and his progeny may have lost the economic battle, a good case can be made for saying they’re winning the cultural struggle.
In this sense, we all live in Marx’s world now.
When Everything Becomes Political
To explain what I mean, it’s helpful to sketch some history. It was the 19th-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel who forcefully argued that human selves do not exist in isolation as self-conscious beings, but only have self-consciousness as they relate to others. Here is how he expresses it in his Phenomenology of Spirit: “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (111).
To cut through the jargon and to put this simply, Hegel is saying that we know who we are by the relationship we have to others—our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, our colleagues, and so on. To be Carl Trueman is to exist in a network of specific relationships with other specific people, such that if I try to imagine what it would be like to be me but to have different parents, different friends, and so on, my head starts to spin. That person, whoever he might be, would not be me.
So what has this to do with cultural Marxism?
Karl Marx—Hegel’s most famous one-time disciple—turned Hegel on his head (and thereby, he argued, put him the right way up). And that move had profound consequences. Like Hegel, Marx believed that human identity is constituted by social relationships; but—and here is the crucial move—those social relationship are not, as with Hegel, determined by thought, by ideas. They are, at root, material—specifically, they depend on the nature of one’s place in the economy.
This might sound like a fairly abstract point, but it is in fact a matter of great practical importance. If I’m constituted by my social relations, and all social relations are at root economic, then all social relations are also political. That means that everything that makes me into me is political as well. The notion that some social organisms—say, the family, or the church, or the Boy Scout troop—are pre-political, that they fulfill an important function not directly related to politics and stand outside the scope of political struggle, is thereby ruled out of bounds from the start. Culture—and everything in it—is a matter of politics, of the overall shape of society, of who oppresses and who is oppressed.
In light of this history, it can be argued that, culturally speaking, Marx did win—because his vision of a society where everything’s political is our world. From cake-baking to what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms, from the gendered membership of school sports teams to the ordination requirements of a church to the casting of an actor in a movie, everything has taken on universal political significance. This is now part of the intuitive way in which we all think about society—whether we’re on the right or the left. Once one side decides, for example, that the Boy Scouts needs to admit girls in order to break down gender inequalities, then those who oppose this change aren’t acting in a politically neutral way. They too are taking a political stand.
This is why there is so much pressure for churches to speak to whatever is the political issue of the day. We live in Marx’s world—a world where the cultural imagination is gripped by the idea that everything is political. Silence in today’s climate on any issue by anybody in any institution is unacceptable, for to take no political stand on anything in our world is in fact to take a political stand—a stand for the status quo.