Cultural Marxism – the delusional conspiracy theory motivating the Alt-Right

While wading through the feverish swamps and fetid cesspits of the internet, you most likely will come across the contemptuous and accusatory snarling phrase ‘cultural marxism’. This term, in the view of the conservative Right, constitutes a conspiratorial endeavour by multiple non-white and non-Christian forces to sabotage and ultimately overthrow white, Western Christian civilisation. There of course numerous iterations of this view, but that is the central component.

Is there any truth to this? No. So why propagate this myth? Because it serves as a scaffolding to unite the disparate and fractious groups of the conservative Right around a single philosophical worldview.

Anders Breivik, the Norwegian ultra-right terrorist, rationalised his actions by claiming that his murderous rampage in 2011 was a defensive strike against cultural Marxism. Mark Latham, former leader of the Australian Labour Party and current advocate for the racist One Nation group, promoted the viral toxic falsity of cultural Marxism to attack multiculturalism and immigration.

As Jason Wilson of The Guardian explained, it provides a unifying theory for the conservative Right to wrap themselves in the mantle of victimhood. Wilson states that:

What do the Australian’s columnist Nick Cater, video game hate group #Gamergate, Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik and random blokes on YouTube have in common? Apart from anything else, they have all invoked the spectre of “cultural Marxism” to account for things they disapprove of – things like Islamic immigrant communities, feminism and, er, opposition leader Bill Shorten.

The main themes of the ‘cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory go back decades, and they have emerged from the phantasmagoric world of the Alternative Right thanks to inordinate publicity given by mainstream ‘respectable’ conservative politicians. While conspiracy theories are rife in the septic-tanks of the Alternative Right, they become weaponised as political platforms when advocated, with numerous mutations, by the conservative Right. The latter, informed by religious fundamentalist and fascistic inputs, becomes a platform for conspiratorial perspectives that toxify the wider society. This mix has dangerous consequences.

So what in the hell is this mysterious and all-consuming conspiracy theory? Let’s attempt a working summation of this large subject.

A working definition

So what is meant by the phrase ‘cultural Marxism?’ For all its various permutations, the basic core of this contemptuous snarl word remains as follows: there exists a basic and unscrupulous alliance between feminism, socialism, mass immigration, multiculturalism, indigenous nations, Islam, identity politics, the LGBTQIA community – essentially, anyone despised by the Alt-Right, to undermine the character of white, Christian nations by moving the arena of struggle from class to culture. A series of culture wars, it is alleged, is the new tactic of the cultural Marxists, surreptitiously working their way through the educational and cultural institutions to take over the capitalist nations.

The notion that the universities are overwhelmingly staffed by Marxists indoctrinating students in the tenets of Marxism is ludicrous. If the universities intended to churn out graduates ideologically committed to the goals of Marxism, then they have failed ignominiously. Capitalism has remained resilient throughout the decades since the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. With that last point, we come to the main reason why the zany theory of ‘cultural Marxism’ has gained traction.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, the radical and conservative Right needed a new enemy on which to fixate. Throughout the decades of the Cold War, the Communist system as embodied in the USSR provided a target on which the Right could focus their obsessive rage. With the removal of that target, they required a new rationale – and one was provided. William Lind and Pat Buchanan, outspoken advocates for the radical Right, formulated an updated version of the old conspiracy theory – ‘cultural Marxism’ was infiltrating and subverting capitalist society.

Class struggle was no longer – supposedly – the prime area of Marxian subversion. Culture became the new stomping ground for the pesky Marxists. Any expression of the multiethnic and sexual diversity of the society could now be attacked as manifestations of the underlying agenda of ‘cultural Marxism’. 

Anti-Semitism repackaged and updated

From its inception as a coherent philosophy, Marxism – or more correctly, scientific socialism – has provided a criticism of the cultural domination of capitalism. This is nothing new. The detractors of Marxism, from the beginning, attacked this cultural critique as a product of the allegedly Jewish origins of scientific socialism. An outsized role was ascribed to the fact that the German labour movement contained, among its adherents and leaders, workers of Jewish background.

The notion that Jews form a distinctive conspiratorial formation is at the heart of numerous conspiracy theories – and formed the basis for the earliest attacks against the doctrines of Marxism. This core anti-semitism has been resuscitated by the modern ‘cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory.

Mikhail Bakunin, the anarchist leader, attacked Marxism on the grounds that ostensible Jewish ethnocentrism prevented the Jewish people from fully participating in a project of cross-cultural and multiethnic worker emancipation. This portrayal of Jews involved in a secret cabal to overthrow the existing order and implement their plans of domination did not start with Bakunin, but has formed a central component of many critiques of Marxism from the ultra-right.

From the 1920s, the Nazi movement – exemplars for today’s Alternative Right – propagated the myth of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism‘, an alleged secretive grouping of Jews – this time in Bolshevik form – operating to overthrow capitalist society from within. Working mainly within the realm of culture, this plot involved spreading doctrines intended to dilute the white Christian nature of Western societies.

At its core, today’s cultural Marxism conspiracy theory contains an updated, recycled and modernised version of the old anti-Semitic Jewish cabal trope. This is where we need to examine the so-called Frankfurt school, and the entirely deceitful portrayal of this branch of academia by the modern white supremacist Right. We need to understand the role that this deception plays when elaborating why the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory is so toxic.

The Frankfurt school and cultural studies

The Frankfurt school – more correctly known as the Institute for Social Research – was a grouping of German Jewish intellectuals who studied the influence and application of culture. They fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and continued their work in the United States. These thinkers, coming from different intellectual traditions, tried to understand why the wider European proletariat did not rise up in revolutionary fervour in the 1920s. The role of culture was highlighted as a barrier to the consciousness of the working class.

The Frankfurt school’s major theoreticians also included examinations of gender roles, patriarchy, and they drew upon the work of Sigmund Freud. A number of these scholars became neo-Freudians, elaborating and revising some of Freud’s basic ideas. This work became the springboard for further examinations of the instruments of cultural domination. The Alt-Right has taken this school, and in particular its German Jewish scholars, as the incubator of a vast anti-Western conspiracy.

Let us presume that the German-Jewish intellectuals of Frankfurt school intended on subverting capitalist civilisation through the propagation of Marxist and feminist doctrines. What was the fate of the collective of philosophers and theorists of the Frankfurt school? If they ever did intend to undermine and overthrow Western civilisation, then we have to conclude that they failed miserably.

Rather than serving as a hotbed of leftist agitation, the Frankfurt school’s thinkers merged into the very institutions they were allegedly attempting to subvert. Only one, Herbert Marcuse, remained a Marxist for the entirety of his life. The others all sank into neo-Freudianism – others, like Theodor Adorno, were openly hostile to the 1960s counter-culture and protest movements.

Indeed, the Frankfurt school was the progenitor of postmodernism, the latter the ultimate repudiation of any kind of transformative political project. Postmodernism rejects all kinds of grand, totalising narratives – hardly the basis for a monolithic, surreptitious conspiracy aimed at taking over society.

Cultural diversity and conspiracy

All Marxist intellectuals have, at one point in their lives, examined the capitalist mechanisms of cultural domination in Western society. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, famously wrote books while imprisoned on this very subject. Is there a fightback by the disenfranchised and impoverished against the dominant capitalist culture of consumerism? Yes. Expressions of cultural and gender diversity reflect the multiple identities of people in the working class. Is there a secretive cabal of Jewish cultural Marxists intent on toppling Western civilisation? No, there is not.

Professor Samuel Moyn from Yale University wrote that the Alt-Right, and their mainstream enablers, advocate a conspiratorial worldview because it homogenises and combines various groups of people into a shadowy, secretive network to thwart ‘normal’ white, Christian society. The conspiratorial framework is quite flexible, and can be adapted to include any number of groups the Alt-Right loves to hate. Feelings of white resentment can be effectively channeled into attacking minority groups and scapegoats, rather than focusing on the capitalist system that has undermined the living standards of everyone.

The St Kilda neo-Nazi rally, the swamp of the ultra-right and the Ukip-ization of Australian politics

In the course of 2018, a number of hate preachers had uninterrupted access to the Australian media outlets, and were able to spread their messages of hate and intolerance far and wide. These preachers were able to disseminate their vitriol because of the active complicity of sections of the Australian political and media establishment.

Oh, and by the way, none of the hate preachers in question were Muslim – they were white. While in this day and age, the term ‘hate preacher’ is normally associated with Islamic clerics, that description can equally be applied to the more effective – and better publicised – hate preachers who were business suits. Do not focus exclusively on religious garments to identify those whose message is one of racial and ethnic hatred.

In St Kilda, a south-eastern suburb of metropolitan Melbourne, a neo-Nazi rally was held by about 150 ultra-rightists and racists. The gathering was met with anti-racist protestors, and the original goal of the neo-fascists – to incite racial violence – was defeated. While it is tempting to simply ignore developments like this, it is important to elaborate the political significance of such gatherings.

The rally was attended by racist Senator Fraser Anning, who has gone on record advocating a return to a ‘White Australia’ policy. In his first speech to the federal parliament, Anning condemned multiculturalism, denounced the Muslim community, and called for a reintroduction of a white-only immigration system in Australia. Anning, one of a number of ultra-rightist and racist politicians, has been condemned by the Australian political establishment.

The current stand-in for the position of Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, issued a statement about the neo-Nazi rally, condemning the ‘ugly racial protests’. Note that the PM did not explicitly denounce the fascist gathering, but – like US President Trump in the wake of the Charlottesville race riot – condemned both sides as equivalents. This incident serves to highlight the role of the mainstream Australian political parties in aiding and abetting the political circumstances that gave rise to neo-fascist groupings, like the ones at St Kilda.

This perverse equation of racist militants with anti-racist protestors is a sign of the times in Australian politics. The demonization of refugees and asylum seekers, the constant attacks on immigration as a security issue, and the promotion of xenophobia by the corporate media have fan the flames of the ultra-rightist and racist groups. While the neo-Nazi groups may be small in number and remain on the fringe, it is the complicity of the mainstream that needs to be examined.

The St Kilda rally, and the presence of a united front of disparate ultra-rightist groupings, is an inevitable consequence of the Ukip-ization of Australian politics. The latter is not my invention, but a concept originated by British sociologist and blogger, Richard Seymour. Ukip is a specifically British creation that originated in the bowels of the Tory financial elite, and has pushed British politics in a xenophobic and ultra-rightist direction. We can see similar trends here in Australian politics. Stoking paranoia about Muslim immigrants as ‘potential terrorists’ and whipping up social anxieties about refugees is not unique to Ukip, but a characteristic of the major political parties in Australia as well.

Hate preachers

At the beginning of this article, we spoke about the presence of hate preachers in Australia in the course of 2018. One particular example of this variety of species is Nigel Farage, founder and former leader of Ukip. He came to Australia and conducted a speaking tour in September last year. His trip was sponsored by sympathetic Australian businesspeople, and Farage was given respectful coverage in the Australian media.

He travelled to a number of Australian capital cities, where he was able to recycle his message of vitriolic hate. It is true that he was met by enthusiastic counter-protesters, the latter actually confronting the politics that Farage promoted – a job that the media failed to do.

The most appalling aspect of his speeches, apart from his racism, was his attempt to position himself as a defender of working people. Ukip, in a similar way to far right parties across Europe, adopt a leftist mask to disguise their pro-business and neoliberal politics. Farage, in finding a supportive audience in Australia, seeks to direct public anger about the inequalities and injustices of capitalism onto the most vulnerable – immigrant communities, welfare recipients and refugees.

The far right has a long history of cynically appropriating leftist-sounding phrases – even talking about ‘revolution’ to disguise its nature as a revolt of the oligarch. Farage himself is a former investment banker and multi-billionaire, who presents himself as a ‘rebel’ against the mythical ‘politically correct’ cosmopolitan establishment.

Another hate preacher who was able to gain a sympathetic audience in Australia was Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief of staff, campaign adviser and alt-right ‘theoretician’. Interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Bannon was basically given a free pass, and the interview failed to confront his racism. Bannon went to great lengths to deny that he is a racist, or that his political platform contains any hint of racism. That is quite interesting, because in 2018, at an international conference of ultra-rightist parties, Bannon proudly declared that he wears the label racist as a badge of honour.

Bannon is nothing if not a clever and cynical media operator. His main target, in his interview, was China, and its supposed rising influence in Australia. Tapping into the long and dark history of anti-Asian sentiment in Australia, Bannon repeatedly stressed that Australia was the ‘tip of the spear’ in America’s drive against China. While stopping short of urging a direct military confrontation, Bannon nevertheless took a belligerent stand against China, drawing on recent hysteria about a purported Chinese military presence in Vanuatu. Never matter the hundreds of American military bases sprawling across the Asia-Pacific.

The American ruling class has been ramping up the militaristic rhetoric against China in recent years, because of the latter’s growing economic and technological clout. China has opened up to foreign capital and investment, and has participated in international economic relations with numerous countries. Chinese ‘market socialism’ has caused intense trepidation in Washington, not because it presents a military threat, but because China can mount a serious challenge to American economic interests. Bannon sought to include Australia in America’s new Cold War – against China.

There is no shortage of hate preachers in Australia – Andrew Bolt, a columnist for the Herald Sun and syndicated radio show host, regularly spouts his hatred for migrants in his columns. Whipping up fears about mythical ‘African crime gangs’ in 2018, he went on record to denounce immigration as a form of colonisation. In this endeavour, he was reflecting the thinking of major figures in the ultra-conservative Liberal government, such as Peter Dutton, the current Home Affairs minister. The media’s racialized reporting about crime has consequences for the South Sudanese, and other African communities in Australia.

The ultra-rightist swamp

Jason Wilson, writing in The Guardian newspaper, states that we must call out a fascist movement, even though it is still small and disparate. These groups may be fractured today, but with a uniting set of theories centered on racial resentment and anti-multiculturalism, these groups can combine. Aided and abetted by political and media figures who regurgitate hysteria about immigration and trash refugees, these groupings can gain a wider audience. Ignoring them would be the height of folly. As John Passant stated in his article regarding this issue:

Ordinary workers and others have to unite around the common goal of stopping fascism from spreading and getting a bigger audience before it is too late — too late for Jews, Africans, Muslims, women and the organised working class. Unite now.