Type “cultural Marxism” into YouTube and it won’t be long until you come to a certain genre of video. “CULTURAL MARXISM: The corruption of America” is a low-production movie which asserts that “cultural Marxists seek to destroy American free-enterprise capitalism by undermining its economic engine, the Middle Class and this will lead – they hope – to the destruction of the basic building block of society: the Family Unit”.
A couple of videos down is Pat Condell, a well known reactionary YouTuber suggesting that “cultural Marxists” – a term that he doesn’t define – are “silencing” people, and unfairly using terms like “bigot” and “racist”. Dig a little further though, and you’ll find that, online at least, the deployment of “cultural Marxism” isn’t just a right-wing talking point, but also one that is used deliberately by the reactionary right.
According to these people, “cultural Marxists” – which can be anyone ranging from liberal politicians, the United Nations, the European Union, media companies like Marvel and even university professors – have the sole purpose of reshaping society, and eradicating “traditionalism”. It’s why you might have seen the term referenced in relation to refugees coming from Syria, or used to describe how modern feminism, in its quest to “eliminate sex differences”, is undermining the “traditional family” that had once made the west great.
For over 10 years, I have been familiar with the term “cultural Marxism”, and I have seen it develop from a term used in bizarre libertarian forums, Facebook groups and on sites like the imageboard 4chan; to a term that is now openly used by pundits in mainstream newspapers. In 2013, the then Times writer Tim Montgomerie wrote: “The 20th century was far from an overwhelming victory for the right. Though revolutionary Marxism died, its fellow traveller, cultural Marxism, prospered.” Meanwhile, in 2015 Toby Young wrote an article titled “If I were a cultural Marxist, I would think about giving up” for The Spectator, accompanied by a picture of the then Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Yet even with its presence in the mainstream media, it would have been easy to think that “cultural Marxism” was still a talking point rendered on the fringes of political discourse. That was until yesterday, when the term made an appearance in Westminster as the Conservative MP Suella Braverman told a meeting of the anti-EU think tank the Bruges Group: “As Conservatives, we are engaged in a battle against cultural Marxism…”
Perhaps to Braverman, this was just run-of-the-mill Conservative, anti-Corbyn rhetoric. But what she had inadvertently done is introduce one of the far right’s favourite talking points into respectable public debate. Arguably, she may have shifted the Overton window in a way that few people expected.
But where did “cultural Marxism” originate? In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, theorists like Gramsci and Lukacs had wondered why similar revolutions hadn’t taken place elsewhere – despite there being a burgeoning, established proletariat that was intently watching the displacement of the Russian Tsar.
According to Gramsci and Lukacs, the answer was that in some countries, the cultural conditions required for a revolution to take place were absent – that revolting against power was just as much about culture, as it was about resources and means. And, that if a global socialist revolution was to take place, cultural conditions would need to change – and for socialists, that meant being active in universities, and through cultural output like pamphleting and entertainment.
This notion was later developed by the Frankfurt school in the 1940s. Those academics – mostly Jews who were forced to flee Germany, and later became teachers and professors, built on Gramsci’s ideas using Marx and Freud, and argued that the dismantling of capitalism – which was needed for revolution to be successful – required rethinking the western ideals that upheld the system. It wasn’t just about power in the workplace. It was also about critiquing the role of the traditional family, gender roles and sexuality; all areas in which capitalism’s hold is reinforced.
Those who defend Braverman would like to use this synopsis to defend her statements. To them, Braverman is simply taking a conservative position – one of free markets, free ideas, and a defence of western values vis-a-vis a capitalist economy.
But what this analysis ignores is the appropriation of the term “cultural Marxism” and its use online today to describe so much more than just a band of left-wing academics. On messageboards like 4chan, in the comment sections on YouTube, and in the private chat rooms offered by gaming platforms on Discord, “cultural Marxism” isn’t just a historical footnote, but a popular conspiracy theory, often espoused by those with overtly antisemitic beliefs. These are the kinds of people who use antisemitic terms like “oy vey”, who will often post antisemitic cartoons such as the “hooked-nose Jew” and who will use triple-parentheses to highlight public figures they consider to have Jewish heritage.
In these online worlds – the ones that politicians and pundits are more often than not oblivious to, and few have any knowledge of – “cultural Marxism” is a catch-all term that refers to anything that isn’t overtly supportive of white traditionalism. As the New Statesman’s Sarah Manavis writes, online, “[cultural Marxism] became an easy label for those white supremacists looking for an umbrella term to describe the people at which their anger about diversity, feminism and religious freedom was directed. Cultural Marxist soon became a signal to mean anyone vaguely left-leaning – in some cases, even if this simply meant those who didn’t agree with white supremacy.”
Make no mistake. The transformation of “cultural Marxism” into a catch-all meme, one that is so imprecise and ill-defined, has meant that it can be weaponised by the most sinister and nefarious of individuals online, without consequence or reprimand from social media platforms. At the same time, its lack of definition – coupled with a poor understanding of its place in the online spaces that informs so much of our modern political conversations today – means that its existence in a context of rampant online antisemitism, anti-Muslim sentiment and fervent nationalist populism – is treated as secondary, if not inconsequential.
It means that Braverman, and indeed other politicians who use these terms, will not have to think about the kind of language they use and where it comes from. Moreover, they will not have to consider which kinds of people and groups their use of this seemingly innocuous term actually empowers.
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