Bill Berkowitz and Gale Bataille
William S. Lind’s 2014 novel titled “Victoria,” tells the story of armed resistance against cultural Marxism led by a group of Christian Marines as the American federal government collapses. Lind weaves a tale of knights wearing crusader’s crosses and singing Christian hymns brutally slaying the politically correct faculty at Dartmouth College, the main character’s (and Lind’s) alma mater: “The work of slaughter went quickly,” the narrator says. “In less than five minutes of screams, shrieks and howls, it was all over. The floor ran deep with the bowels of cultural Marxism.” For decades, Lind has beenone of the key perpetrators of the “cultural Marxism” narrative.
The conservative movement’s invocation of the threat of “cultural Marxism” has persisted for decades. Post-Marxist critical theorists of the Frankfurt School -- Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Walter Benjamin -- were targets of the right, thirty years ago. Now, right-wing (and other) critics of academia and the left are labeling Critical Race Theory, identity politics, so-called Social Justice Warriors, Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, and “wokeness” as manifestations of the scourge of “cultural Marxism.”
Eighteen years ago, Bill wrote a piece for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report titled “Culture Marxism Catching On.” The subtitle was “’Cultural Marxism,’ a conspiracy theory with an anti-Semitic twist, is being pushed by much of the American right” (https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2003/cultural-marxism-catching). Oh have the times changed … NOT! (Note: When recently Googling “cultural Marxism,” Bill’s Intelligence Report article was listed in the number two slot behind a Wikipedia entry; evidence of the rising interest in this topic.)
As The New York Times’ Samuel Moyn a professor of law and history at Yale and the author of “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World,” wrote in November 2018, “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.”
What is ‘Cultural Marxism?’
In his 2003 piece unpacking the history of the conservative movement’s intractable attack on “cultural Marxism,” Bill wrote:
The phrase refers to a kind of ‘political correctness’ on steroids — a covert assault on the American way of life that allegedly has been developed by the left over the course of the last 70 years. Those who are pushing the ‘cultural Marxism’ scenario aren't merely poking fun at the PC excesses of the ‘People's Republic of Berkeley,’ or the couple of American cities whose leaders renamed manholes ‘person-holes’ in a bid to root out sexist thought.
Right-wing ideologues, racists and other extremists have jazzed up political correctness and repackaged it — in its most virulent form, as an anti-Semitic theory that identifies Jews in general and several Jewish intellectuals in particular as nefarious, communistic destroyers. These supposed originators of ‘cultural Marxism’ are seen as conspiratorial plotters intent on making Americans feel guilty and thus subverting their Christian culture.
In a nutshell, the theory posits that a tiny group of Jewish philosophers who fled Germany in the 1930s and set up shop at Columbia University in New York City devised an unorthodox form of ‘Marxism’ that took aim at American society's culture, rather than its economic system.
The theory holds that these self-interested Jews — the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’ of philosophers — planned to try to convince mainstream Americans that white ethnic pride is bad, that sexual liberation is good, and that supposedly traditional American values — Christianity, ‘family values,’ and so on — are reactionary and bigoted. With their core values thus subverted, the theory goes, Americans would be quick to sign on to the ideas of the far left.
Far from being outdated and tossed onto the scrap heap of discredited right-wing hyperbole, the term “cultural Marxism,” remains at the ready in the conservative movement’s toolbox. As Joan Braune wrote in a 2019 article in the Journal of Social Justice titled “Who’s Afraid of the Frankfurt School? ‘Cultural Marxism” as an Antisemitic Conspiracy Theory,” (http://transformativestudies.org/wp-content/uploads/Joan-Braune.pdf) “Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed over seventy people in a car bombing and mass shooting of children in 2011, who first brought the term ‘Cultural Marxism’ to the world’s attention in his thousand-some paged statement of belief, which focused almost entirely on the concept.”
Braune, Ph.D., a Lecturer in Philosophy at Gonzaga University and a member of the International Council of Experts for the Gonzaga Institute for Hate Studies, and the author of several books, noted that “the theory of “Cultural Marxism” appears to have inspired a number of other white supremacist terrorists since then, including the alleged shooter in the attack on a synagogue in Poway, California in spring of 2019, who killed one and injured three others.”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Rich Higgins, an aide to Donald Trump, wrote a memo framing Trump's 2016 campaign as "a war on Cultural Marxism that needed to be sustained during his presidency."
The term, “cultural Marxism” transcends countries and generations: From early New Religious Right pioneer Paul Weyrich and paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, to Andrew Breitbart, Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, Washington State Representative Matt Shea, Alex Jones’s media outlet Infowars, and even members of Brazilian far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, who claimed that climate change is a Marxist plot. Jordan Peterson, the self-help guru and best-selling author, has devoted multiple YouTube videos to these ponderings.
One of the courses that Steve Bannon intends for his now hanging-by-a-thread The Academy for the Judeo-Christian West at Certosa di Trisulti, an eight-hundred-year-old monastery outside Rome, is called “Cultural Marxism, Radical Jihad, and the C.C.P.’s Global Information Warfare.”
So what is the real reach and impact of “cultural Marxism”? Matthew Sharpe tackles this question in his September 2020 essay at The Conversation titled “Is ‘cultural Marxism’ really taking over universities? I crunched some numbers to find out,” Sharpe, who works for Deakin University, in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship & Globalization, “conducted quantitative research on the academic database JStor, tracking the frequency of names and key ideas in all academic article and chapter titles published globally between 1980 and 2019.”
Sharpe had some interesting findings:
In 1987, Karl Marx himself ceded the laurel as the most written about thinker in academic humanities, replaced by Friedrich Nietzsche – revered by many fascists including Benito Mussolini – and Martin Heidegger, another figure whose far-right politics were hardly progressive.
Over the past 40 years, the alleged mastermind of cultural Marxism, Gramsci, attracted 480 articles. This compares with the 407 publications on Friedrich Hayek, arguably the leading influence on the neoliberal free market reforms of the last decades.
The “Frankfurt School” featured in less than 200 titles, and critical theorist Herbert Marcuse (identified by Uhlmann as a key transmitter of the cultural Marxist “virus” in the US) was the subject of just over 220.
Over the last decade, the most written about thinker was the neo-Nietzschean theorist, Giles Deleuze, featuring in 770 titles over 2010-19.
But the notoriously esoteric ideas of Deleuze - and his language of “machinic assemblages”, “strata”, “flows” and “intensities” - are hardly Marxist. His ideas have been a significant influence on the right-wing Neoreactionary or “dark enlightenment” movement.
Sharpe, writes: “A spectre of Marxism has survived the cold war. It now haunts the culture wars.” This may be an understatement. The Republicans and their right wing fellow travelers are counting on hyped up culture wars to fuel their comeback in 2022 and beyond. And so far, they seem to be seizing the momentum, or at the very least they are defining the terms of the debate.
Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland, California-based freelance writer covering right-wing movements. His work has appeared in BuzzFlash, The Nation, Huffington Post, The Progressive, AlterNet, Street Sheet, In These Times, and many other print and online publications, as well as being cited in several books.
Gale Bataille is a long time activist, social worker and mental health director for Solano and San Mateo counties. She currently consults to improve health access, equity and the integration of care in the public sector.