Books

Mapping the Blob

The Long March draws together evidence that we half knew but shied away from

This book review was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The Brexit War is over, but the Culture War has hardly begun. Indeed, the celebrations marking the end of the first, the VE Day of our times, obscured the unwelcome reality that the opening battles of the second ended in abject defeats for the forces of light.

What, exactly, is the new enemy? We still have no clear definition, and its image has evolved. It was first sighted as “political correctness”, a widespread usage from the 1980s. It metamorphosed into the language of “woke”, popularised on Twitter from 2012. Its ubiquitous presence in the world of education was admitted after it was lampooned by Michael Gove as “the Blob” in 2013. Recently it became the “cancel culture”. We sense that these are all aspects of the same thing. But what thing?

Without a clear analysis, responses are likely to miss the target. But moves are afoot to generate just such an analysis, and to back it with organisation. Marc Sidwell’s timely and forceful book, published by a well-known think tank, is just such a development. It draws together much evidence that we half knew but shied away from acknowledging, and identifies its interconnectedness. It is a map of the Blob.

The Long March: How the left won the culture war and what to do about it, By Marc Sidwell
New Culture Forum £10

It responds to broad movements of values and practices after the collapse of the economics-defined Marxist idea of political revolution. In its place grew up ideas of cultural revolution, to be achieved through existing institutions rather than by overthrowing them. Sidwell has written an outline history of ideas that focuses attention on the individuals he argues were the authors of component parts of this movement.

It is often called “cultural Marxism”, but the label may give too much importance to that long-dead economist. More familiar is “critical theory”, operating in non-quantifiable areas of the humanities. Such critical theorists markedly failed to theorise themselves; but their premises were identified by their politics.

Sidwell traces the Blob back to Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist who saw that political revolution would be impossible without cultural revolution. In this account, Gramsci still exercises hegemony in British society through control not of coal mines and railways but of the BBC, the universities, the civil service, the Church of England, the schools.

The idea of compulsory sex education in state schools on a non-traditional model began with the Hungarian communist György Lukács, the aim being to subvert “so-called bourgeois, Christian sexual morality”. He helped launch the “Frankfurt School” in 1923, which also recruited Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer; they argued that “political and economic revolution was being waylaid by cultural institutions that were insufficiently radical”, and demanded their capture.

Oborne’s dystopian vision of 2008 — a homogeneous and monocultural “political class” — has become an inescapable reality

Moving to New York in 1935 to escape the Nazis, the School was influential in developing “critical theory”. It launched the “long march” in 1944 to prevent the US, as its émigré academics thought, from adopting Nazism. In Britain, powerful agents of entryism were the Fabian Society and the movement known as the New Left, which Sidwell sees launched in Britain by E. P. Thompson in 1959 and in the US by Herbert Marcuse in 1955, reasserting links between sexual liberation and political revolution.

This “laid the groundwork for the cultural experimentation that would define the Sixties”. Marcuse sanctioned intolerance towards what he termed “the rules of behaviour which tolerate destruction and suppression”, so opening the gates, as Sidwell argues, to the political violence that followed 1968. With Gramsci’s growing popularity in the 1960s, “the idea of a ‘long march through the institutions’ was finally named” by the German revolutionary Rudi Dutschke.

This, then, is a top-down model of social change, driven by major thinkers and their legacies. But should we add influences of the last few decades, notably the rise of natural rights theory? Future studies may also explore the bottom-up question: why did the educated of Western Europe and North America adopt and act on these academics’ ideas?

But top-down politics matter. Peter Oborne’s dystopian vision of 2008 — a homogeneous and monocultural “political class” — has become an inescapable reality. A managerial ethos replaced a professional ethos. Beyond the quangos, cultural Marxism created new fault lines in society over gender, race and sexuality. Such conflicts (diversity, inclusion, patriarchy, imperialism, slavery, trans issues, environmentalism) are now daily news. Conflicts over poverty, unemployment, capitalism, education, the franchise, religious nonconformity, belong to an older world. “Free speech” has evaporated and been succeeded by “hate speech”.

This book gives voice to the widespread sense that “a seismic election victory still hasn’t really changed the deeper structures of cultural power”. What is the solution? Sidwell looks to “a sudden, unstoppable shift in public opinion” like that which undermined communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, in technical terms a “preference cascade”. The timing of such cascades is unpredictable. But the groundwork for that one was laid over many years of underground argument.

Cultural Marxism created new fault lines over gender,  race and sexuality. Such conflicts — diversity, inclusion, patriarchy — are now daily news

Echoing James Hunter, Sidwell counsels: “Cultures are changed by networks close to the centre of elite power”; he recommends the formation of new institutions, individuals patiently “taking a stand”, and the exploitation of the economic crisis facing many “well-established institutions, especially in the media”. We should remember that the internet has hardly begun to achieve the revolutions that it promises. This book, and the people it empowers, may indeed inform and encourage just such a cascade in the UK.

Sidwell warns against the feasibility of any “long march through the institutions” from the right to unseat the incumbent left, or of any quick demolition of the quangocracy. He recommends instead the restructuring of the institutions. If so, the key figure in the future may be less Boris Johnson than Dominic Cummings.

If this culture war is ever seriously fought, its outcome, like all wars, is wholly uncertain. But what does seem certain is that if the Blob wins, it will launch the Second Brexit War. Is forewarned forearmed?

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