Cultural Marxism is a far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory which claims Western Marxism as the basis of continuing academic and intellectual efforts to subvert Western culture. The conspiracists claim that an elite of Marxist theorists and Frankfurt School intellectuals are subverting Western society with a culture war that undermines the Christian values of traditionalist conservatism and promotes the cultural liberal values of the 1960s counterculture and multiculturalism, progressive politics and political correctness, misrepresented as identity politics created by critical theory.
While the theory originated in the United States during the 1990s,( ) it entered mainstream discourse in the 2010s and is promoted globally. The conspiracy theory of Marxist culture war is promoted by right-wing politicians, fundamentalist religious leaders, political commentators in mainstream print and television media and white supremacist terrorists. Scholarly analysis of the conspiracy theory has concluded that it has no basis in fact and is not based on any actual intellectual tendency.
Aspects of the conspiracy theory
In the essay "New Dark Age: The Frankfurt School and 'Political Correctness'" (1992), Michael Minnicino explains the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory on behalf of the Schiller Institute, a political organization affiliated with conspiracy theorist and perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche. Minnicino said that the "Jewish intellectuals" of the Frankfurt School promoted modern art in order to make cultural pessimism the spirit of the counterculture of the 1960s, which was based upon the counter-culture Wandervogel, the cultural liberal German youth movement whose Swiss Monte Verità commune was the 19th-century predecessor of Western counter-culture in the 1960s. The historian Martin Jay pointed out that Daniel Estulin's book cites Minnicino's essay as political inspiration for the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.
In Fascism and Culture (2003), professor Matthew Feldman argues that the etymology of the term Cultural Marxism derived from the antisemitic term Kulturbolschewismus (Cultural Bolshevism), with which the Nazis claimed that Jewish cultural influence caused German social degeneration under the liberal régime of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) and was the cause of social degeneration in the West. Maxime Dafaure makes a similar point in "The 'Great Meme War:' the Alt-Right and its Multifarious Enemies" (2020).
In the essay "Cultural Marxism and the Cathedral: Two Alt-Right Perspectives on Critical Theory" (2019), the academic Andrew Woods notes that such comparisons are the most common way to analyze the antisemitic implications of the conspiracy theory, but he takes issue with calling it nothing more than a modern iteration of Cultural Bolshevism, saying that its antisemitism is nonetheless "profoundly American".:47 According to philosopher Slavoj Žižek, the term Cultural Marxism "plays the same structural role as that of the 'Jewish plot' in anti-Semitism: it projects (or rather, transposes) the immanent antagonism of our socio-economic life onto an external cause: what the conservative alt-right deplores as the ethical disintegration of our lives (feminism, attacks on patriarchy, political correctness, etc.) must have an external cause—because it cannot, for them, emerge out of the antagonisms and tensions of our own societies."
In The Wanderer article "The Frankfurt School: Conspiracy to Corrupt" (December 2008), Timothy Matthews said that the Frankfurt School was "Satan's work" and accused it of instigating a "culture war". The article accused the Frankfurt School of instigating:
- The creation of racism offences
- Continual change to create confusion
- The teaching of sex and homosexuality to children
- The undermining of schools' and teachers' authority
- The destruction of American national identity through immigration
- The promotion of excessive drinking
- Emptying of churches
- An unreliable legal system with bias against victims of crime
- Dependency on the state or state benefits
- Control and dumbing down of media
- Encouraging the breakdown of the family
Despite a lack of a link between the list and any academic movement, conspiracy theorists use Matthews' allegations to promote the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory in right-wing and alt-right news media as well as in far-right internet forums such as Stormfront.
Othering of political opponents
In "Taking On Hate: One NGO's Strategies" (2009), the political scientist Heidi Beirich said that the Cultural Marxism theory demonizes the cultural bêtes noires of conservatism such as feminists, LGBT social movements, secular humanists, multiculturalists, sex educators, and environmentalists, immigrants and black nationalists. In Europe, the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik quoted Lind's culture war conspiracy in his 1,500-page political manifesto 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, stating that the "sexually transmitted disease (STD) epidemic in Western Europe is a result of cultural Marxism"; that "Cultural Marxism defines Muslims, feminist women, homosexuals, and some additional minority groups, as virtuous, and they view ethnic Christian European men as evil"; and that the "European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg is a cultural-Marxist-controlled political entity." About 90 minutes before killing 77 people in the 2011 Norway attacks, Breivik e-mailed 1,003 people his manifesto and a copy of Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology.
In "Collectivists, Communists, Labor Bosses, and Treason: The Tea Parties as Right-Wing, Populist Counter-Subversion Panic'" (2012), the journalist Chip Berlet identified the culture war conspiracy theory as basic ideology of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party. As a self-identified right-wing movement, the Tea Party claims they are suffering the same cultural subversion suffered by earlier generations of white nationalists. According to Berlet, the populist rhetoric of regional economic elites encourages counter-subversion panics, by which a large constituency of white middle-class people are deceived into unequal political alliances to defend their place in the middle class. Moreover, the failures of free-market capitalism are scapegoated onto the local collectives, communists, labor organisers, non-white citizens and immigrants by manipulating patriotism, economic libertarianism, traditional Christian values and nativism.
In "Cultural Marxism and the Radical Right" (2014) and in "Cultural Marxism: A Survey" (2018), the political scientist Jérôme Jamin refers to conservative politician and media pundit Pat Buchanan as the "intellectual momentum" of the conspiracy theory, and to Anders Breivik as the "violent impetus". Both of them relied on William Lind, who edited a multi-authored work called "Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology" that Jamin calls the core text that "has been unanimously cited as ‘the’ reference since 2004." Jamin further explains:
Next to the global dimension of the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory, there is its innovative and original dimension, which lets its authors avoid racist discourses and pretend to be defenders of democracy. As such, Cultural Marxism is innovative in comparison with old styled theories of a similar nature, such as those involving Freemasons, Bavarian Illuminati, Jews or even Wall Street bankers. For Lind, Buchanan and Breivik, the threat does not come from the migrant or the Jew because he is a migrant or a Jew. For Lind, the threat comes from the Communist ideology, which is considered as a danger for freedom and democracy, and which is associated with different authoritarian political regimes (Russia, China, Cambodia, Cuba, etc.). For Buchanan, the threat comes from atheism, relativism and hard capitalism which, when combined, transform people and nations into an uncontrolled mass of alienated consumers. For Breivik, a self-indoctrinated lone-wolf, the danger comes from Islam, a religion seen as a totalitarian ideology which threatens liberal democracies from Western Europe as much as its Judeo-Christian heritage. In Lind, Buchanan and Breivik, overt racism is studiously avoided.
In 2017, it was reported that advisor Richard Higgins was fired from the United States National Security Council for publishing the memorandum '"POTUS & Political Warfare" that alleged the existence of a left-wing conspiracy to destroy Donald Trump's presidency because "American public intellectuals of Cultural Marxism, foreign Islamicists, and globalist bankers, the news media, and politicians from the Republican and Democratic parties were attacking Trump, because he represents an existential threat to the cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative in the US."
Political correctness and antisemitic canards
In the speech The Origins of Political Correctness (2000), William S. Lind established the ideology and the etymology of the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory. Lind wrote:
If we look at it analytically, if we look at it historically, we quickly find out exactly what it is. Political correctness is cultural Marxism. It is Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms. It is an effort that goes back not to the 1960s and the Hippies and the peace movement, but back to World War I. If we compare the basic tenets of Political Correctness with classical Marxism, the parallels are very obvious.
Concerning the real-life political violence caused by the conspiracy theory, law professor Samuel Moyn called it an antisemitic canard in the 2018 editorial "The Alt-Right's Favorite Meme is 100 Years Old". About the origins and history of the conspiracy theory, Moyn wrote:
Originally an American contribution to the phantasmagoria of the alt-right, the fear of 'cultural Marxism' has been percolating for years through global sewers of hatred. Increasingly, it has burst into the mainstream. Before President Trump's [NSC] aide Rich Higgins was fired last year , he invoked the threat of 'cultural Marxism' in proposing a new national security strategy. In June, [retired congressman] Ron Paul tweeted out a racist meme that employed the phrase. On Twitter, the son of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's newly elected strongman, boasted of meeting Steve Bannon and joining forces to defeat 'cultural Marxism.' Jordan Peterson, the self-help guru and best-selling author, has railed against it, too, in his YouTube ruminations.
According to Moyn, "[t]he wider discourse around cultural Marxism today resembles nothing so much as a version of the [Jewish Bolshevism] myth updated for a new age." Moyn concludes: "That 'cultural Marxism' is a crude slander, referring to something that does not exist, unfortunately does not mean actual people are not being set up to pay the price, as scapegoats, to appease a rising sense of anger and anxiety. And for that reason, 'cultural Marxism' is not only a sad diversion from framing legitimate grievances but also a dangerous lure in an increasingly unhinged moment."
The conspiracy theory of Marxist cultural warfare originated in the essay "New Dark Age: Frankfurt School and 'Political Correctness'" (1992) written by Michael Minnicinno,:30–40 published in the Schiller Institute's Fidelio magazine, a journal associated with the fringe American right-wing political activist Lyndon LaRouche. In a speech to the Conservative Leadership Conference of the Civitas Institute in 1998,[discuss] Paul Weyrich presented his conspiracy theory equating Cultural Marxism to political correctness. He later republished the speech in his syndicated culture war letter. In the United States, the conspiracy theory is promoted by religious fundamentalists and paleoconservative politicians such as William S. Lind, Pat Buchanan and Paul Weyrich as well as the alt-right, neo-Nazi and white nationalists organizations.
For the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, Weyrich commissioned Lind to write a history of Cultural Marxism, defined as "a brand of Western Marxism [...] commonly known as 'multiculturalism' or, less formally, Political Correctness" which claimed that the presence of openly gay people in the television business proved that Cultural Marxists control the mass media; and that Herbert Marcuse considered a coalition of "Blacks, students, feminist women, and homosexuals" as a feasible vanguard of cultural revolution in the 1960s. Moreover, the historian Martin Jay said in the Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: The Frankfurt School as Scapegoat of the Lunatic Fringe (2011) that Political Correctness: The Frankfurt School (1999), Lind's documentary of conservative counter-culture, was effective Cultural Marxism propaganda because it "spawned a number of condensed, textual versions, which were reproduced on a number of radical, right-wing [web] sites." He further writes:
These, in turn, led to a plethora of new videos, now available on YouTube, which feature an odd cast of pseudo-experts regurgitating exactly the same line. The message is numbingly simplistic: All the 'ills' of modern American culture, from feminism, affirmative action, sexual liberation, racial equality, multiculturalism and gay rights to the decay of traditional education, and even environmentalism, are ultimately attributable to the insidious intellectual influence of the members of the Institute for Social Research who came to America in the 1930s.
According to Joan Braune, Lecturer in Philosophy at Gonzaga University, Paul Gottfried, William S. Lind and Kevin MacDonald are three of the main proponents of the conspiracy theory. According to political scientist Jérôme Jamin, the three people most responsible for originating and promoting the conspiracy theory are William Lind, Pat Buchanan and Anders Breivik.
Andrew Breitbart, founder of Breitbart News, was a proponent of the conspiracy theory. Breitbart News has published the idea that Theodor Adorno's atonal music was an attempt at inducing the population to necrophilia on a mass scale. Pat Buchanan has promoted the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory as meant to "de-Christianize" the United States. Paul Weyrich promoted the conspiracy theory[discuss] as a deliberate effort to undermine "our traditional, Western, Judeo-Christian culture" and the conservative agenda in American society, arguing that "we have lost the culture war" and that "a legitimate strategy for us to follow is to look at ways to separate ourselves from the institutions that have been captured by the ideology of Political Correctness, or by other enemies of our traditional culture."
Anders Behring Breivik
In 2011, the conspiracy theory received renewed attention after 77 people were murdered during the Norway attacks. On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik justified his terrorism by citing Marxist cultural warfare as the primary subject of his political manifesto. Breivik wrote that the "sexually transmitted disease (STD) epidemic in Western Europe is a result of cultural Marxism", that "Cultural Marxism defines Muslims, feminist women, homosexuals, and some additional minority groups, as virtuous, and they view ethnic Christian European men as evil" and that the "European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg is a cultural-Marxist-controlled political entity."
Following the Norway attacks, the conspiracy was taken up by a number of far-right outlets and forums, including alt-right websites such as AltRight Corporation, InfoWars and VDARE which have promoted the conspiracy. The AltRight Corporation's website, altright.com, featured articles with titles such as "Ghostbusters and the Suicide of Cultural Marxism", "#3 — Sweden: The World Capital of Cultural Marxism" and "Beta Leftists, Cultural Marxism and Self-Entitlement". InfoWars ran numerous headlines such as "Is Cultural Marxism America's New Mainline Ideology?" VDARE ran similar articles with similar titles such as "Yes, Virginia (Dare) There Is A Cultural Marxism—And It's Taking Over Conservatism Inc."
Neo-Nazi and white supremacists also promoted the conspiracy and help expand its reach. Websites such as the American Renaissance have run articles with titles like "Cultural Marxism in Action: Media Matters Engineers Cancellation of Vdare.com Conference". The Daily Stormer regularly runs stories about "Cultural Marxism" with titles such as "Jewish Cultural Marxism is Destroying Abercrombie & Fitch", "Hollywood Strikes Again: Cultural Marxism through the Medium of Big Box-Office Movies" and "The Left-Center-Right Political Spectrum of Immigration = Cultural Marxism". Similarly, Richard B. Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, has promoted the conspiracy theory.
Entering the mainstream discourse
In the 2010s, Jordan Peterson popularized Cultural Marxism as a term by moving it into mainstream discourse. Peterson blamed the conspiracy for demanding the use of gender-neutral pronouns as a threat to free speech, often misusing postmodernism as a stand-in term for the conspiracy. Former Breitbart contributors Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, have promoted the conspiracy theory, especially the claim that Cultural Marxist activity is happening in universities.
Spencer Sunshine, an associate fellow at the Political Research Associates, stated that "the focus on the Frankfurt School by the right serves to highlight its inherent Jewishness." In particular, Paul and Sunshine have criticized traditional media such as The New York Times, New York and The Washington Post for either not clarifying the nature of the conspiracy theory and for "allowing it to live on their pages." An example is an article in The New York Times by David Brooks, who "rebrands cultural Marxism as mere political correctness, giving the Nazi-inspired phrase legitimacy for the American right. It is dropped in or quoted in other stories—some of them lighthearted, like the fashion cues of the alt-right—without describing how fringe this notion is. It's akin to letting conspiracy theories about chem trails or vaccines get unearned space in mainstream press." Another is Andrew Sullivan, who went on "to denounce 'cultural Marxists' for inspiring social justice movements on campuses." Paul and Sunshine concluded that failure to highlight the nature of the Cultural Marxist conspiracy theory "has bitter consequences. 'It is legitimizing the use of that framework, and therefore it's coded antisemitism."
Sociologists Julia Lux and John David Jordan assert that the conspiracy theory can be broken down into its key elements: "misogynist anti-feminism, neo-eugenic science (broadly defined as various forms of genetic determinism), genetic and cultural white supremacy, McCarthyist anti-Leftism fixated on postmodernism, radical anti-intellectualism applied to the social sciences, and the idea that a purge is required to restore normality." They go on to say that all of these items are ‘supported, proselytised and academically buoyed by intellectuals, politicians, and media figures with extremely credible educational backgrounds. ‘ They mention Richard Dawkins, Steve Harris, Steven Pinker and Christopher Hitchens as supporting various of the elements previously mentioned. Dominic Green wrote a conservative critique of conservatives' complaints about Cultural Marxism in Spectator USA, stating: "For the Nazis, the Frankfurter [sic] School and its vaguely Jewish exponents fell under the rubric of Kulturbolshewismus, 'Cultural Bolshevism.'"
Shortly after the Norway attacks, mainstream right-wing politicians began espousing the conspiracy. In 2013, Cory Bernardi, a member of the ruling Liberal Party, wrote in his book The Conservative Revolution that "cultural Marxism has been one of the most corrosive influences on society over the last century." Five years later, Fraser Anning, former Australian Senator, initially sitting as a member of Pauline Hanson's One Nation and then Katter's Australian Party, declared during his maiden speech in 2018 that "Cultural Marxism is not a throwaway line but a literal truth" and spoke of the need for a "final solution to the immigration problem."
In Brazil, the government of Jair Bolsonaro contained a number of administration members who promoted the conspiracy theory, including Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president's son who "enthusiastically described Steve Bannon as an opponent of Cultural Marxism."
In 2018, Sunday Telegraph editor Allister Heat wrote that "Cultural Marxism is running rampant." Assistant comment editor Sherelle Jabos of The Daily Telegraph also used the term. The Daily Telegraph published an anonymous civil servant who stated: "There is a strong presence of Anglophobia, combined with cultural Marxism that runs through the civil service." In the Sunday Times, Rod Liddle wrote that Britons are being brainwashed by the "delusions of cultural Marxism." During the Brexit debate in 2019, a number of Conservatives and Brexiteers espoused the conspiracy theory.
Suella Braverman, the Conservative Member of Parliament (MP), said in a pro-Brexit speech for the Bruges Group, a Eurosceptic think tank, that "[w]e are engaging in many battles right now. As Conservatives, we are engaged in a battle against cultural Marxism, where banning things is becoming de rigueur, where freedom of speech is becoming a taboo, where our universities — quintessential institutions of liberalism — are being shrouded in censorship and a culture of no-platforming." Her usage of the conspiracy theory was condemned as hate speech by other MPs, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the anti-racist organization Hope Not Hate. After meeting with her later, the Board of Deputies of British Jews said that she is "not in any way antisemitic." Braverman was alerted to this connection by journalist Dawn Foster, but she defended using the term. Braverman denied that the term Cultural Marxism is an antisemitic trope, stating during a question and answer session "whether she stood by the term, given its far-right connections. She said: 'Yes, I do believe we are in a battle against cultural Marxism, as I said. We have culture evolving from the far left which has allowed the snuffing out of freedom of speech, freedom of thought.'" Braverman further added that she was "very aware of that ongoing creep of cultural Marxism, which has come from Jeremy Corbyn."
Nigel Farage has promoted the cultural Marxist conspiracy theory, for which he has been condemned by other MPs and Jewish groups such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who said he used it as a dog-whistle code for antisemitism in the United Kingdom. Farage said that the United Kingdom faced "cultural Marxism", a term described in its report by The Guardian as "originating in a conspiracy theory based on a supposed plot against national governments, which is closely linked to the far right and antisemitism." Farage's spokesman "condemned previous criticism of his language by Jewish groups and others as 'pathetic' and 'a manufactured story.'"
In The War Against the BBC (2020), Patrick Barwise and Peter York write how the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory has been pushed by some on the right as part of an alleged bias of the BBC. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown cites Dominic Cummings, Tim Montgomerie and the right-wing website Guido Fawkes as examples of "relentlessly [complaining] about the institution's 'cultural Marxism' or left-wing bias. This now happens on a near-daily basis."
While acting as an aide to the then-President Donald Trump, Rich Higgins wrote a memo framing Trump's 2016 presidential campaign as "a war on Cultural Marxism that needed to be sustained during his presidency." Higgins wrote of a "cabal", an antisemitic trope, promoting Cultural Marxism that included "globalists, bankers, Islamists, and conservative Republicans" and had captured control of the media, academia, politics and the financial system as well as controlling attempts to tamp down on hate speech and hate groups through the Countering Violent Extremism government programs. Higgins also asserted that the Frankfurt School "sought to deconstruct everything in order to destroy it, giving rise to society-wide nihilism." Matt Shea, a Washington Representative from the Republican Party, is a proponent of the conspiracy theory as outlined in a conspiracy-minded seven-page memo by Higgins, the National Security Council staffer in the Trump administration who was fired after the document became public in July 2017.
A number of far-right terrorists have espoused the conspiracy theory. Other than Anders Behring Breivik, Jack Renshaw, a neo-Nazi child sex offender convicted of plotting the assassination of Labour MP Rosie Cooper, promoted the conspiracy theory in a video for the British National Party. John T. Earnest, the perpetrator of the 2019 Poway synagogue shooting, was inspired by white nationalist ideology. In an online manifesto, Earnst stated that he believed "every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race" through the promotion of "cultural Marxism and communism."
Academic Joan Braune has explained that Cultural Marxism in the sense referred to by the conspiracy theorists never existed, and does not correspond to any historical school of thought. She also stated that Frankfurt School scholars are referred to as "Critical Theorists", not "Cultural Marxists", and pointed out that, contrary to the claims of the conspiracy theory, postmodernism tends to be wary of or even hostile towards Marxism, including the grand narratives typically supported by Critical Theory.
Rachel Busbridge, Benjamin Moffitt and Joshua Thorburn describe the conspiracy theory as being promoted by the far-right, but that it "has gained ground over the past quarter century" and conclude that "[t]hrough the lens of the Cultural Marxist conspiracy, however, it is possible to discern a relationship of empowerment between mainstream and fringe, whereby certain talking points and tropes are able to be transmitted, taken up and adapted by 'mainstream' figures, thus giving credence and visibility to ideologies that would have previously been constrained to the margins."
While the influence of the Frankfurt School and critical theory are generally viewed by most political scientists to have had a considerable range within academia, they were directly in opposition to the theories promoted by postmodern philosophers, who are frequently identified by proponents of the conspiracy theory as leading examples of Cultural Marxism. In addition, none of its members were part of any kind of international conspiracy to destroy Western civilization.
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In 2015, Gerald Warner (the 'Tory intellectual' Scottish journalist) wrote an article for the American alt-right house journal Breitbart attacking the Frankfurt School of left-wing cultural theorists. His piece included this little gem: 'Theodor Adorno promoted degenerate atonal music to induce mental illness, including necrophilia, on a large scale.'
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