It all seems plausible enough on the outside, especially for people conditioned to think of Communism as a conspiracy-driven enterprise aimed at overturning Western capitalist societies. Why wouldn’t Marxism, which is mainly devoted to economics, also have cultural component that complements its ultimate goal?
That’s the claim made, anyway, by right-wing pundits and thinkers who insist that “cultural Marxism” is the underlying belief system that brought multiculturalism to the modern world, and is now forcing it all down our throats as “political correctness.”
It’s become a common reference in recent years as conservatives have increasingly attacked multiculturalism in the public square. From Fox News to Breitbart to pop philosophers such as Jordan Peterson, “cultural Marxism” is increasingly identified as the source of everything wrong with modern liberal democracies.
The problem with these claims, however, is that they are fundamentally groundless. The only place that “cultural Marxism” actually exists is within a very narrow and relatively minor faction of academia, and in the fertile imaginations of the right-wing ideologues who see it as the wellspring of a nefarious conspiracy to undermine and eventually destroy Western civilization.
The whole concept is essentially a kind of hoax, a conspiracy theory concocted by radical white nationalists in the 1990s to explain the spread of multiculturalism, and nurtured by a combination of neo-Nazis and nativists over the ensuing years, as it gradually spread to mainstream conservatism through the activism of a handful of key players. It is also deeply anti-Semitic at its root, offering essentially an updated version of the classic “Protocols of the Seven Elders of Zion” conspiracy theory, postulating a scenario in which a cabal of elite Jews conspires in secret to inflict all the ills of modernity onto society for their own benefit.
An academic plot
The general outline of this conspiracy, according to the progenitors of the theory, is fairly simple: A group of Jewish academics, all Marxists with a base of operations at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main—known as “the Frankfurt School”—were responsible for concocting the ideas behind multiculturalism and “Critical Theory,” which they saw as a means for translating Marxist ideals into cultural values. During the 1930s, the story goes, they moved from Frankfurt to New York and Columbia University, and their influence became so profound that it now dominates both academia and modern popular culture.
Indeed, as they tell it, nearly all of the modern expressions of liberal democratic culture—feminism, the civil rights movement, the '60s counterculture movement, the antiwar movement, rock and roll, and the gay rights movement—are eventually all products of the scheming of this cabal of Jewish elites.
In reality, while the influence of the Frankfurt School is generally viewed by most political scientists to have had a considerable range within academia, especially regarding Critical Theory, this school of thought was directly in opposition to the theories promoted by “postmodernists,” who are frequently themselves identified by right-wing ideologues as leading examples of “cultural Marxism.” Nor were its members leaders of any kind of international conspiracy to destroy Western civilization. Contrary to the characterizations of the conspiracy theorists, most of the “cultural Marxists” of the Frankfurt School were sharply critical of the modern entertainment industry, which they saw not as a tool for their own ideology but as a kind of modern “opiate of the masses” that was antithetical to their values.
Moreover, multiculturalism was not the product of Critical Theory, but has much deeper roots in the study of anthropology, dating back to the turn of the 20th century. It became ascendant as a worldview in the post-World War II years, after it became apparent (especially as the events of the Holocaust became more widely understood) that white supremacy—the worldview it replaced—was not only inadequate but a direct source of wholesale evil. The people who are widely recognized as the founders of multiculturalism—particularly such anthropologists as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead—were not members of the Frankfurt School (though both were affiliated with Columbia), and their work had long preceded the war.
The idea of “cultural Marxism” as a plot to destroy the West originated with a handful of far-right thinkers in the 1990s. One of these was the conservative Jewish intellectual Paul Gottfried, who claimed in later years that he had identified with the right-wing bloc of the Frankfurt School, and had first complained about cultural Marxism as an insider. Gottfried (who is also credited with having helped coin the phrase “alt-right”) engaged in a debate with paleoconservative William S. Lind, an associate of far-right godfather Paul Weyrich and his Free Congress Foundation, questioning whether or not such thinkers could be properly labeled Marxists. Lind concluded that they could and should be (Gottfried disagreed).
In short order, Lind began developing a cottage industry around his “cultural Marxism” theory, promoting the idea on the internet, in speeches, and in videos. “Cultural Marxism is a branch of western Marxism, different from the Marxism-Leninism of the old Soviet Union,” he wrote. “It is commonly known as ‘multiculturalism’ or, less formally, Political Correctness. From its beginning, the promoters of cultural Marxism have known they could be more effective if they concealed the Marxist nature of their work, hence the use of terms such as ‘multiculturalism.’ ”
Eventually, Lind propounded on the topic at a Holocaust denial conference in 2003, where he explained to the audience pointedly: “These guys were all Jewish.”
Weyrich, who had already promoted the idea of “cultural conservatism,” also heavily promoted the idea, presenting it as the subject of a speech he gave in 1998 to the Civitas Institute's Conservative Leadership Conference: “Cultural Marxism is succeeding in its war against our culture. The question becomes, if we are unable to escape the cultural disintegration that is gripping society, then what hope can we have?”
This became the cornerstone in Weyrich’s call for conservatives to join in a “culture war” against liberals, joining the ranks of such paleoconservatives as Patrick Buchanan, the former presidential candidate who in 1992 had originally issued a call for such a “culture war” at the Republican National Convention.
Beginning in 2000, Buchanan picked up Lind’s and Weyrich’s idea and ran with it, incorporating his attacks on “cultural Marxism” in his writings, and began giving a number of interviews in which he laid all of the world’s ills at its feet. In his 2001 book The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, Buchanan described it as a “regime to punish dissent and to stigmatize social heresy as the Inquisition punished religious heresy. Its trademark is intolerance.”
The book ascribes nearly superhuman powers to “Critical Theory.” “Using Critical Theory, for example, the cultural Marxist repeats and repeats the charge that the West is guilty of genocidal crimes against every civilization and culture it has encountered,” Buchanan averred. “Under Critical Theory, one repeats and repeats that Western societies are history's greatest repositories of racism, sexism, nativism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, fascism and Nazism. Under Critical Theory, the crimes of the West flow from the character of the West, as shaped by Christianity ... Under the impact of Critical Theory, many of the sixties generation, the most privileged in history, convinced themselves that they were living in an intolerable hell.”
In addition to Buchanan and the paleoconservatives, the theory was also quickly adopted by white nationalists who began promoting the theory assiduously. The most notable of these was the far-right publisher Roger Pearson, a retired anthropologist and prominent eugenicist. Besides numerous eugenicist and supremacist books and journals, he published a book in 2006 by Frank Ellis titled Marxism, Multiculturalism, and Free Speech that laid out the basics of the “cultural Marxism” theory and claims. Ellis, a former Leeds University professor, claimed that “political correctness” could be traced to Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong, and that it was designed as an attack on the principles of free speech.
Other white nationalists, notably Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, academic Kevin MacDonald, and Peter Brimelow of VDare, likewise made discussion of “cultural Marxism” central to their arguments. Taylor railed against it and multiculturalism at a Council of Conservative Citizens convention in 1999. MacDonald discussed “cultural Marxism” at length in his book Culture of Critique and discusses it frequently in interviews and at his magazine, Occidental Observer. Brimelow mentioned the concept as early as 2003, and all the way up through 2017 was blaming it for the world’s ills, including the cancellation of a VDare conference.
It also gained wide play among right-wing conspiracy theorists, led by Alex Jones, who featured guest conspiracist Alan Watt on air in a 2010 show. Watt told Jones: “People really have lost a sense of dignity and self-respect, and definitely a common culture. That was part of the deep massive Communist move for multiculturalism. It wasn’t to be nice to other cultures, it was to help you destroy your own cohesive majority.”
“Get rid of all other cultures and replace it with a corporate Borg culture,” Jones surmised.
However, the concept also began moving into the mainstream of the conservative movement as early as 2008, mainly due to the contributions of Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the online news organization Breitbart News.
In his autobiography Righteous Indignation, Breitbart described his discovery, in about 2007, of “cultural Marxism” as his “awakening.” He told an interviewer in 2012, shortly before his death, that the concept was like “putting the medicine in the sherbet ... My one great epiphany, my one a-ha moment where I said, 'I got it—I see what exactly happened in this country.’ ”
Breitbart began holding forth at length in various venues about the evils of “cultural Marxism.” He appeared on Fox News and told Sean Hannity and his audience: “For much of the latter half of the 20th century, America dealt with Communism, which was economic Marxism. And what America was susceptible to during that period of time was cultural Marxism. Cultural Marxism is political correctness, it’s multiculturalism, and it’s a war on Judeo-Christianity.”
After Breitbart’s death in 2012, the news organization bearing his name continued its tradition of obsession with cultural Marxism; the subject remains a popular keyword among the website’s writers.
The concept of “cultural Marxism” first came to the public’s attention in a broad way in 2011, almost entirely due to one of the most heinous acts of terrorism in memory.
It began, on July 22, in Oslo, Norway, where a car bomb blast in the middle of the capital, at the offices of the prime minister, killed eight people and injured another 209. Then, less than two hours later, the man who had set off the bomb entered a youth summer camp on the lake island of Utoya, northwest of Oslo, disguised as a policeman and carrying an array of guns, and began slaughtering the teenagers who were there. In the end, he had killed 69 of them and another 110 were wounded.
Police arrested 32-year-old Anders Breivik. It soon emerged that not only was Breivik a frequent commenter on far-right websites, railing about the decline of civilization and nonwhite immigration into Europe, but he had left behind a lengthy, 1,500-page manifesto explaining why he had committed these acts. It was accompanied by a video.
Titled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” it was obsessed with “cultural Marxism” and its effects on Western civilization. “We are sick and tired of feeling like strangers in our own lands, of being mugged, raped, stabbed, harassed and even killed by violent gangs of Muslim thugs, yet being accused of ‘racism and xenophobia,’” he wrote. It cited a number of American inspirations, including such noted Islamophobes as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, as well as the various promoters of the “cultural Marxism” concept.
“As we all know, the root of Europe’s problems is the lack of cultural self-confidence (nationalism),” he wrote. “Most people are still terrified of nationalistic political doctrines thinking that if we ever embrace these principles again, new ‘Hitler’s’ will suddenly pop up and initiate global Armageddon ... This irrational fear of nationalistic doctrines is preventing us from stopping our own national/cultural suicide as the Islamic colonization is increasing annually ... You cannot defeat Islamization or halt/reverse the Islamic colonization of Western Europe without first removing the political doctrines manifested through multiculturalism/cultural Marxism.”
Breivik was found guilty of murder by the court (which declined to rule that he was mentally ill) and sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, he expressed the wish that he had been able to kill even more people. But he broke into tears when the video manifesto he had created was shown.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Patrick Buchanan chimed in: “As for a climactic conflict between a once-Christian West and an Islamic world that is growing in numbers and advancing inexorably into Europe for the third time in 14 centuries, on this one, Breivik may be right.”
Over the past three years, the idea of “cultural Marxism” as a real thing rather than a whole-cloth concoction has gained traction throughout right-wing media and among its pundits and thinkers. It also has become a mainstay of the belief systems of the alt-right.
Some of this spread has been on mainstream right-wing news outlets. During the 2016 election campaign, former game show host Chuck Woolery went on Fox News to complain about liberal ads being run against Donald Trump. He told the hosts of America’s Election HQ that it was all a product of “cultural Marxism,” in a breathless rant that was risibly afactual and ahistorical:
No one knows where this stuff came from. PC just kind of appeared. Well, it didn’t. It was the Frankfurt School, that’s where it appeared, and the Frankfurt School – it’s real interesting little piece. The Frankfurt School was in Germany, obviously, brought on PC, Marx picked it up and thought it was a great idea for his government. By the second World War, Hitler was such an anti-Communist that the Frankfurt School had to move, so they moved here, to the Columbia University campus. You will find the Frankfurt School on Columbia’s property. That’s where political correctness came from.
I like the history of all of this stuff so that I understand what’s happening today. I want to know who my enemy is. Our enemy is cultural Marxism.
[Fact-check note: Karl Marx died in 1883, long before the Frankfurt School was founded in the 1920s. He never led any government. No one “picked up” the school’s concepts as part of any government, prewar or postwar. There is no Frankfurt School on the Columbia campus; the Institute for Social Research, which is the School’s formal name, returned to Frankfurt in 1953.]
The theories spread throughout the right-wing mediasphere. At the Daily Caller, the website founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, articles explored the cultural-Marxism theories in detail with headlines like “Cultural Marxism is Destroying America.” At the Pajamas Media website, author Michael Walsh (whose book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, regurgitates the various Frankfurt School theories) attacked other journalists for pointing out that “cultural Marxism” was mostly a kind of hoax.
At the Federalist, one writer asserted that “Cultural Marxists are actually [postmodern] fascists,” and that “The problem isn’t what the Frankfurt School made of Marx, but what contemporary postmodernists made of the Frankfurt School.” At the longtime conservative mainstay American Spectator, writer Paul Kengor described “today’s Marxist revolution” as a “cultural” one: “Karl Marx’s vision may have ended in political and economic failure, but even he couldn't have anticipated his ongoing and perhaps ultimate triumph on the cultural front.”
It’s even played a role in the ongoing culture war arguments that have arisen over pop entertainment. “Cultural Marxism” has been blamed by angry alt-right fans for the multi-ethnic nature of the recent Star Wars films, leading to a #BoycottStarWars campaign that failed badly.
Right-wing pop philosopher Jordan Peterson, the Toronto-based lecturer whose book 12 Rules for Life is a nonfiction bestseller, has built much of his reputation as an enemy of multiculturalism and “cultural Marxism,” though he rarely uses the latter phrase, other than in mostly secondary contexts. Peterson prefers instead to attack “postmodernism” as the final outcome of misbegotten academic thinking: “Postmodernism, in many ways, especially as it’s played out politically, is the new skin that the old Marxism now inhabits,” he says in a video titled “Postmodernism and Cultural Marxism.”
In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson explicitly links postmodernism with the Frankfurt School. He also shared the Daily Caller piece describing cultural Marxism as killing America on his Facebook page.
The theory has also made its way into the halls of government under the Trump administration. In August 2017, a memo written by a Trump-appointed analyst named Rich Higgins at the National Security Council was leaked to the press, revealing that he was a believer in the “cultural Marxism” claims.
The memo was written to describe a nefarious plot against the new administration.
“This is not politics as usual but rather political warfare at an unprecedented level that is openly engaged in the direct targeting of a seated president through manipulation of the news cycle,” Higgins wrote. “It must be recognized on its own terms so that immediate action can be taken. At its core, these campaigns run on multiple lines of effort, serve as the non-violent line of effort of a wider movement, and execute political warfare agendas that reflect cultural Marxist outcomes.”
Higgins, who had previously held a position in the Trump campaign and was associated with former national security adviser Michael Flynn Sr., was among several high-level staff members who were fired in the internal furor that arose within the NSC over its authorship.
According to Foreign Policy, which first published Higgins’ memo, one of the administration officials who read it was Donald Trump Jr., who then passed it along to his father, the president. According to the article’s sources, Trump “gushed over it.” It also reported that when Trump later learned, from Fox News’ Sean Hannity, that the memo’s author had been fired, the president was “furious,” according to a senior administration official. “He is still furious.”