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"Theses on Cultural Marxism"

 Originally Appeared in: Social Text: 7 | Published: Spring/Summer, 1983

The theory and interpretation of culture is today embroiled in the institutional crisis afflicting the humanities. No single political or intellectual response is adequate, for the causes of this situation are multiple and develop unevenly. These causes include the national and international economy, the ideological and political tendencies now predominant in American society, and the transformations of the cultural sphere itself which have completely altered during the past century the context and significance of the intellectual undertaking called the humanities.

Every intellectual project within the contemporary university bends to pressures coming from the society as a whole. These pressures tend to manifest themselves as external, unreflected necessity. The more these pressures intensify the more illusory academic freedom becomes, for the real freedom of thought is felt only when thought erupts against unreflected necessity, whether the imperatives of the economic and moral order or the routines of everyday life within the educational and public institutions themselves. The retreat of intellectuals from political and social conflict exacerbates the power that the prevailing conditions of politics and society hold over them.

Of all the social pressures affecting intellectual work, the economic crisis of contemporary capitalism most completely assumes the guise of pure necessity. The managers of the national and world economy have lost their ability to control the surplus wealth of society; expressing itself as the “fiscal crisis of the state,” this unmastered economic trend has ripped through educational institutions, destroying critical and even traditional intellectual work. Such destructiveness continues to appear eminently rational, a simple calculation of budgetary constraints.

The vicissitudes of the economy will not, on the other hand, alone explain the crisis in education. An essential feature of the 1970s was a massive cultural counterrevolution which has had extraordinary consequences within academic institutions and among youth. There has followed in the 1980s an attempted ideological restoration as masses of people, particularly young people, have been forced to adapt to reality by lowering their expectations rather than recognizing that the prevailing order cannot meet their legitimate needs. During these same years there has been a recoil within universities themselves against everything that recalls the 60s – which just happens to include for our generation of intellectuals in the humanities and the qualitative social sciences virtually every important intellectual movement of the past thirty years. Administrators and establishment faculty have been eager to wipe out the memory and reminders of student revolt, of the call for critical consciousness….

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