Who’s afraid of Cultural Marxism?

Sure, it is an unhelpful phrase, but it is not inherently anti-Semitic.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

Guardian journalist Dawn Foster probably couldn’t believe her luck. There she was, in enemy territory, at a meeting of the Eurosceptic think-tank the Bruges Group, listening to Tory MP Suella Braverman. And then it happened. Braverman’s mask slipped. The Tory veil was rent. It was only a few words, barely a phrase, but it was enough. ‘Suella Braverman: “We are engaged in a war against cultural marxism. We’re engaged in a battle against socialism”’, tweeted Foster.

Just in case the significance of Braverman’s interjection was missed, Foster was on hand to explain in a follow-up tweet: “‘Cultural Marxism” is an extremely loaded term, used by the far/alt right, and a long-term anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. A member of government using it and linking it to Labour is really worrying.’

And, in part, Foster is right. The phrase ‘cultural Marxism’ does potentially allude to an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. It is not the same thing as ‘cultural Bolshevism’, the term the Nazis used for art, especially avant-garde and modernist art, that did not conform to their vision of blonde boys and rustic kitsch. Rather, its provenance is much more recent, emerging as it did, on the loonier right-wing fringes of the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s; in the speeches, essays and books of William S Lind, who claimed the Jewish emigres of the Frankfurt School had set in motion the destruction of ‘Western culture and the Christian religion’; and in Patrick Buchanan’s 2001 jeremiad The Death of the West, which, again, blamed a long-line of Marxian, Jewish thinkers for undermining, well, Western civilisation. All of which was taken up, and imbibed, by Norweigian mass murderer Anders Breivik, whose turgid and surely unread 1,500-page manifesto references ‘cultural Marxist’ and ‘cultural Marxism’ nearly 650 times, according to word searches.

Since then, this theory, such as it is, has continued to be propagated from the bedrooms of the alt-right, and given a largely oblivious endorsement by Jordan Peterson, who, in 2016, retweeted a Daily Caller article by ‘Moses Apostaticus’, in which Mr Apostaticus notes the historical subversion of ‘the nuclear family, traditional morality and concepts of race, gender and sexual identity’, before attributing blame:

‘This call to subversion was picked up by Marxist scholars based around the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. In the tumultuous milieu of Weimar Germany, theorists such as Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno and Georg Lukács integrated the theories of Sigmund Freud with classical Marxism to develop the foundations of critical theory, deconstructionism, post-structuralism and postmodernism. Known as the Frankfurt School, many of these intellectuals fled Hitler’s Germany for the United States where they were welcomed by Progressives and socialist intellectuals. The theories of the Frankfurt School unified the vanguard of the 1960s countercultural movement and have since spread to every discipline in our universities, colleges and schools. These theories, which obsess about colonisation, subjugation and oppression, have indeed colonised higher education in the West.’

It’s not true, of course. Postwar Western society was not undermined from without, by some sort of Freudo-Marxist diaspora. It was already undermined from within, already suffering a crisis of legitimacy, moral and political, faced, as it was, by the chronic failures of prewar laissez-faire capitalism, the horrors of the war, and, of course, the Holocaust itself.

As for the intellectual history, it’s just nonsense. Lukács was a committed Communist who later endured a vexed relationship with Stalinism; and the Frankfurt School were resolutely anti-Communist, with Adorno famously publishing a critique of Lukács in 1958 in, of all anti-Western places, the CIA-sponsored journal Der Monat. Yes, Marx and Freud were significant influences on all, but equally, if not more, significant were Kant and Hegel, Nietzsche and Weber, and, in the case of Marcuse, Martin Heidegger, who taught him in the 1920s. But that, of course, would ruin the daft contention that there was something specifically Jewish about all this cultural Marxist malarkey.

So ‘cultural Marxism’, in this sense, is as unpleasant as it is asinine, even by the standards of right-wing conspiracy theory. It sheds no light, and generates a lot of anti-Semitic heat.

But here’s the frustrating aspect to this whole rather forced controversy: is there not also an element of conspiracism on the part of those alighting on the use of the phrase ‘cultural Marxism’, and eagerly shouting ‘anti-Semite’ or ‘far-right’? Yes, in the hands of Anders Breivik, or among his alt-right fanboys in the damp, fetid corners of the internet, the anti-Semitic intent is all too clearly there. But in the hands of Braverman, whose own husband is, er, Jewish? Or Peterson, who has attacked anti-Semitic conspiracy theories? Or those others, like Sunday Telegraph editor Allister Heath or Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie, both of whose historical uses of the phrase have now been dragged into the light?

One doubts it. And not only because there’s little to suggest that any of these people are anti-Semitic, but also because, when deploying the phrase, they are drawing on its different, non-esoteric sense – the sense it has when it is used descriptively by Frankfurt School-inspired philosopher Douglas Kellner, or the sense it has when, say, Marxian literary critic Frederic Jameson talks of ‘the cultural turn’: namely, the sense that, at some point, usually located in the 1960s, the left turned away from economic critique and towards cultural criticism. For culture was where certain leftists, some of whom were indeed ensconced within the academy, felt the battle was to be fought. Not in and over the realm of production, at the level of material and social relations, but in and over the realm of consumption, at the level of symbols and representations. The result, at its most extreme, is a mode of politics concerned chiefly with culture wars, rather than class war, calling for this representation to be changed, or that symbol to be censored.

Isn’t this what Braverman is thinking of when she says that ‘as Conservatives, we are engaged in a battle against cultural Marxism, where banning things is becoming de rigeur; 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’?

This is not to say cultural Marxism is a useful or illuminating framing device. It is not. Those engaged in campus censorship and No Platforming are, as Brendan O’Neill explains, neither Marxist, nor, indeed, are they Frankfurt School-ed. Moreover, the phrase reinforces and entrenches rather than challenging the nasty identitarian conflicts in which we are so often mired today. And it overestimates the influence of academics and recondite texts.

But what it is not is a sign that far-right thinking somehow underpins and drives those defending free speech and challenging censorship. That really is a conspiracy theory too far.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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