(First published in The Guardian.)
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.
What are they talking about? The tale varies in the telling, but the theory of cultural Marxism is integral to the fantasy life of the contemporary right. It depends on a crazy-mirror history, which glancingly reflects things that really happened, only to distort them in the most bizarre ways.
It begins in the 1910s and 1920s. When the socialist revolution failed to materialise beyond the Soviet Union, Marxist thinkers like Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs tried to explain why. Their answer was that culture and religion blunted the proletariat’s desire to revolt, and the solution was that Marxists should carry out a “long march through the institutions” – universities and schools, government bureaucracies and the media – so that cultural values could be progressively changed from above.
Adapting this, later thinkers of the Frankfurt School decided that the key to destroying capitalism was to mix up Marx with a bit of Freud, since workers were not only economically oppressed, but made orderly by sexual repression and other social conventions. The problem was not only capitalism as an economic system, but the family, gender hierarchies, normal sexuality – in short, the whole suite of traditional western values.
The conspiracy theorists claim that these “cultural Marxists” began to use insidious forms of psychological manipulation to upend the west. Then, when Nazism forced the (mostly Jewish) members of the Frankfurt School to move to America, they had, the story goes, a chance to undermine the culture and values that had sustained the world’s most powerful capitalist nation.
The vogue for the ideas of theorists like Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno in the 1960s counterculture culminated with their acolytes’ occupation of the commanding heights of the most important cultural institutions, from universities to Hollywood studios. There, the conspiracy says, they promoted and even enforced ideas which were intended to destroy traditional Christian values and overthrow free enterprise: feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights and atheism. And this, apparently, is where political correctness came from. I promise you: this is what they really think.
The whole story is transparently barmy. If humanities faculties are really geared to brainwashing students into accepting the postulates of far-left ideology, the composition of western parliaments and presidencies and the roaring success of corporate capitalism suggests they’re doing an astoundingly bad job. Anyone who takes a cool look at the last three decades of politics will think it bizarre that anyone could interpret what’s happened as the triumph of an all-powerful left.
The theory of cultural Marxism is also blatantly antisemitic, drawing on the idea of Jews as a fifth column bringing down western civilisation from within, a racist trope that has a longer history than Marxism. Like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the theory was fabricated to order, for a special purpose: the institution and perpetuation of culture war. We can even nominate an author for this lunacy: William S Lind, a polymath of the American hard right, who sought to put rightwing activism on a new footing as the cold war drew to a close.
In the late 1980s, Lind wrote a couple of monographs arguing that there was an emerging mainstream political consensus on free-market economics (due in part to the “disarray” of the traditional social-democratic left), but that many Americans across the political spectrum were dismayed by the decline in traditional values, the family and middle-class life. If conflict with the left could be shifted to the ground of culture, there was a chance of binding the right and even claiming some socially conservative voters who had traditionally voted for the Democrats.
When the Berlin Wall fell, it was time for Lind’s strategy of “cultural conservatism” to become a central strategy for US Republicans: it identified a new kind of social enemy for the right to mobilise against. The changing parameters of economic debate and the beginning of American decline demanded that conservatives embrace a politics “centred more, not less, on cultural issues” – the family, education, crime and morality. The fairytale of cultural Marxism provided a post-communist adversary located specifically in the cultural realm – academics, Hollywood, journalists, civil rights activists and feminists. It has been a mainstay of conservative activism and rhetoric ever since.
While Lind has recently become a more marginal figure, his story of cultural Marxism has proved durable and useful across the spectrum of right-wing thought because it offers so much.
It allows those smarting from a loss of privilege to be offered the shroud of victimhood, by pointing to a shadowy, omnipresent, quasi-foreign elite who are attempting to destroy all that is good in the world. It offers an explanation for the decline of families, small towns, patriarchal authority, and unchallenged white power: a vast, century-long left wing conspiracy. And it distracts from the most important factor in these changes: capitalism, which demands mobility, whose crises have eroded living standards, and which thus, among other things, undermines the viability of conventional family structures and the traditional lifestyles that conservatives approve of.
The story of cultural Marxism is also flexible and can be tailored to fit with the obsessions of a range of right-wing actors. As such, it’s one example of an idea from the extremes which has been mobilised by more mainstream figures and has dragged politics as a whole a little further right.
Anders Breivik killed young social democrats because he believed that their party was involved in a cultural Marxist plot to undermine traditional European values by means of mass immigration from the Islamic world. Prominent voices in the #Gamergate movement have invoked it to warn of what is really motivating the feminist and queer critics of game aesthetics and culture – a desire to purge the culture of “proper” masculine values. It can even chime with Cater’s dreary, pedestrian moaning about how a “graduate class” seeks to remodel authentic, “egalitarian” Australian culture.
The idea of a cultural Marxist conspiracy has also endured because, in the absence of a genuine clash of ideas about the way the economy should be run, it provides an animating idea for the political contest. For Cater to claim that Bill Shorten is a Marxist of any kind is laughable precisely because to the extent that the opposition leader is explicitly offering anything, it’s plainly just a slightly more cushioned version of the same underlying economic orthodoxy embraced by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. Until that changes, the right will always be able to offer their story of victimhood and conspiracy with some hope of success.