While wading through the feverish swamps and fetid cesspits of the internet, you will likely come across the contemptuous and accusatory snarling phrase “cultural Marxism”.
Norwegian ultra-right terrorist Anders Breivik rationalised his actions by claiming his murderous rampage in 2011 was a defensive strike against cultural Marxism. Former Labor leader and current advocate for the racist Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Mark Latham promoted the viral toxic falsity of cultural Marxism to attack multiculturalism and immigration.
This term, in the view of the conservative right, constitutes a conspiratorial endeavour by multiple non-white and non-Christian forces to sabotage and ultimately overthrow white, Western Christian civilisation. There are, of course, numerous iterations of this view, but that is the central component.
Is there any truth to this? No.
So why propagate this myth? Because it serves as a scaffolding to unite the disparate and fractious groups of the conservative right around a single philosophical worldview.
As Jason Wilson of The Guardian explained, it provides a unifying theory for the conservative right to wrap themselves in the mantle of victimhood. Wilson said: “What do The Australian’s columnist Nick Cater, video game hate group #Gamergate, Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik and random blokes on YouTube have in common?
“Apart from anything else, they have all invoked the spectre of ‘cultural Marxism’ to account for things they disapprove of — things like Islamic immigrant communities, feminism and, er, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.”
The main themes of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory go back decades. They have emerged from the phantasmagoric world of the alt-right thanks to inordinate publicity given by mainstream “respectable” conservative politicians.
While conspiracy theories are rife in the septic-tanks of the alt-right, they become weaponised as political platforms when advocated, with numerous mutations, by the conservative right. The latter, informed by religious fundamentalist and fascistic inputs, becomes a platform for conspiratorial perspectives that toxify the wider society.
This mix has dangerous consequences.
So what is this mysterious and all-consuming conspiracy theory? Let’s attempt a working summation of this large subject.
A working definition
For all its various permutations, the basic core of this contemptuous snarl remains as follows: there exists a basic and unscrupulous alliance between feminism, socialism, mass immigration, multiculturalism, indigenous nations, Islam, identity politics, the LGBTI community — essentially anyone despised by the alt-right — to undermine the character of white, Christian nations by moving the arena of struggle from class to culture.
A series of culture wars, it is alleged, is the new tactic of the cultural Marxists, surreptitiously working their way through the educational and cultural institutions to take over the capitalist nations.
The notion that the universities are overwhelmingly staffed by radicals indoctrinating students in the tenets of Marxism is ludicrous.
If universities intended to churn out graduates ideologically committed to the goals of Marxism, then they have failed ignominiously. Capitalism has remained resilient throughout the decades since the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.
With that last point, we come to the main reason why the zany theory of cultural Marxism has gained traction.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990–91, the radical and conservative right needed a new enemy on which to fixate. Throughout the decades of the Cold War, the Communist system, as embodied in the USSR, provided a target on which the right could focus their obsessive rage.
With the removal of that target, they required a new rationale — and one was provided.
William Lind and Pat Buchanan, outspoken advocates for the radical Right, formulated an updated version of the old conspiracy theory — cultural Marxism was infiltrating and subverting capitalist society.
Class struggle was supposedly no longer the prime area of Marxian subversion. Culture became the new stomping ground for the pesky Marxists. Any expression of the multiethnic and sexual diversity of society could now be attacked as manifestations of the underlying agenda of cultural Marxism.
From its inception as a coherent philosophy, Marxism — or more correctly, scientific socialism — has provided a criticism of the cultural domination of capitalism. This is nothing new.
The detractors of Marxism, from the beginning, attacked this cultural critique as a product of the allegedly Jewish origins of scientific socialism. An outsized role was ascribed to the fact that the German labour movement contained, among its adherents and leaders, workers of Jewish background.
The notion that Jews form a distinctive conspiratorial formation is at the heart of numerous conspiracy theories and formed the basis for the earliest attacks against the doctrines of Marxism.
This core anti-Semitism has been resuscitated by the modern cultural Marxism conspiracy theory.
Mikhail Bakunin, an anarchist leader, attacked Marxism on the grounds that ostensible Jewish ethnocentrism prevented the Jewish people from fully participating in a project of cross-cultural and multiethnic worker emancipation.
This portrayal of Jews involved in a secret cabal to overthrow the existing order and implement their plans of domination did not start with Bakunin, but has formed a central component of many critiques of Marxism from the ultra-right.
From the 1920s, the Nazi movement — exemplars for today’s alt-right — propagated the myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism”, an alleged secretive grouping of Jews, this time in Bolshevik form, operating to overthrow capitalist society from within.
At its core, today’s cultural Marxism conspiracy theory contains an updated, recycled and modernised version of the old anti-Semitic Jewish cabal trope.
This is where we need to examine the so-called Frankfurt School, and the entirely deceitful portrayal of this branch of academia by the modern white supremacist right. We need to understand the role that this deception plays when elaborating why the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory is so toxic.
The Frankfurt School, more correctly known as the Institute for Social Research, was a grouping of German Jewish intellectuals who studied the influence and application of culture. They fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and continued their work in the United States.
These thinkers, coming from different intellectual traditions, tried to understand why the wider European proletariat did not rise up in revolutionary fervour in the 1920s. The role of culture was highlighted as a barrier to the consciousness of the working class.
The Frankfurt School’s major theoreticians also included examinations of gender roles and patriarchy, and drew upon the work of Sigmund Freud. A number of these scholars became neo-Freudians, elaborating and revising some of Freud’s basic ideas. This work became the springboard for further examinations of the instruments of cultural domination.
The alt-right has taken this school, and in particular its German Jewish scholars, as the incubator of a vast anti-Western conspiracy.
Let us presume that the German-Jewish intellectuals of Frankfurt School intended on subverting capitalist civilisation through the propagation of Marxist and feminist doctrines. What was the fate of the collective of philosophers and theorists of the Frankfurt School? If they ever did intend to undermine and overthrow Western civilisation, then we have to conclude that they failed miserably.
Rather than serving as a hotbed of leftist agitation, the Frankfurt School’s thinkers merged into the very institutions they were allegedly attempting to subvert. Only one, Herbert Marcuse, remained a Marxist for the entirety of his life. The others all sank into neo-Freudianism. Others, like Theodor Adorno, were openly hostile to the 1960s counter-culture and protest movements.
Indeed, the Frankfurt School was the progenitor of postmodernism, the ultimate repudiation of any kind of transformative political project. Postmodernism rejects all kinds of grand, totalising narratives — hardly the basis for a monolithic, surreptitious conspiracy aimed at taking over society.
Cultural diversity and conspiracy
All Marxist intellectuals have, at one point in their lives, examined the capitalist mechanisms of cultural domination in Western society. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci famously while imprisoned wrote books on this very subject.
Is there a fight back by the disenfranchised and impoverished against the dominant capitalist culture of consumerism? Yes. Expressions of cultural and gender diversity reflect the multiple identities of people in the working class.
Is there a secretive cabal of Jewish cultural Marxists intent on toppling Western civilisation? No, there is not.
Professor Samuel Moyn from Yale University wrote that the alt-right and their mainstream enablers advocate a conspiratorial worldview because it homogenises and combines various groups of people into a shadowy, secretive network to thwart “normal” white, Christian society.
The conspiratorial framework is quite flexible, and can be adapted to include any number of groups the alt-right loves to hate. Feelings of white resentment can be effectively channelled into attacking minority groups and scapegoats, rather than focusing on the capitalist system that has undermined the living standards of everyone.
[Rupen Savoulian blogs at Antipodean Atheist were a longer version of this article first appeared.]