You know that thing when you’re stuck in a lift with someone and it breaks down and you’re alone, and then he mentions, offhand, that Cultural Marxists are trying to bring down Western civilisation? Yep, I know that situation – because I’m that man.
Following the sentencing of Anders Breivik, who used the phrase “Cultural Marxism” several times in his tortuously long book of self-justification, a number of articles have asked about the terrorist’s supposed hinterland and identified this obsession as a central theme.
On the BBC Matthew Feldman writes:
Literally hundreds of references to Breivik’s main enemy, “Cultural Marxism”, derive from the Christian Right in the US, while its allegedly anti-Judeo-Christian offspring, “multiculturalism” – for which, read “Islamification of Europe” – appears more than 1,100 times across Breivik’s 1,513-page manifesto.
And Daniel Triling argues in the New Statesman:
The “cultural Marxism” that Breivik blamed for Europe’s Muslim takeover is a conspiracy theory that was born in the US. It contends that a small group of Marxist philosophers associated with the Frankfurt school of critical theory plotted to destroy western civilisation by encouraging multiculturalism, homosexuality and collectivist economic ideas.
Although many don’t realise it today, the theory is anti-Semitic in origin and its early proponents emphasised that these philosophers were all Jewish. Breivik’s lengthy “manifesto” devotes an entire section to profiling Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and other Frankfurt school thinkers.
Generally, of course, if someone uses the term Cultural Marxism on an internet message-board, it is not a red light exactly, but certainly an amber one. Likewise bringing up the Frankfurt School does not automatically suggest a clean bill of mental health.
The influence of that group of (largely) German intellectuals is a very popular subject in the conservative blogosphere, and the wackier elements talk about it far more than the saner ones. Nevertheless, just because various wackos believe something, it does not make it untrue, nor does it mean those thoughts are confined to wackos.
The ideas of Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse, to name just two prominent Cultural Marxists, were very influential in creating the New Left of the 1960s and the radical campus politics of the 1970s. Although many of these ideas died from their own absurdity (paedophile liberation is not too popular these days) many have come to be influential or even dominant.
So many of the tenets of the modern Left can broadly be described as Cultural Marxism – opposition to tradition and hierarchy, radical gender politics, the Marxist theory of race, intolerance towards non-orthodox thinkers, the necessity of changing the language, the idea that criminals are victims of society, marriage is oppressive and exploitative, and nations are artificial, imagined communities. (And yes, this is quite a simple reduction).
This is not a conspiracy in any sense, merely the spread of memes, ideas that once would have been considered absurd or extreme but which have become accepted across institutions in recent years. They’ve become popular, primarily, because they identify areas of injustice within institutions and appeal to people’s sympathy for the underdog. Like Marxist economic theory, Cultural Marxism does tremendous damage because, while fantastic at analysis, it is weak on human nature and so fails to anticipate consequences (when institutions, whether country, church, families or law, fall to pieces, it is the weakest who usually suffer).
No one wakes up thinking “I’m going to destroy Western civilisation by undermining its institutions”, and if you think that they do, you perhaps need to turn off your computer. If you believe the threat of Cultural Marxism justifies murdering schoolchildren, you’re a psychopath. But if you just think it’s a bad idea, you’re not.
Nor an anti-Semite. Certainly, as Triling and others have pointed out, “Cultural Marxism” has been a phrase often used by anti-Semites, largely because most of the political thinkers involved in the Frankfurt School were Jewish. Likewise many of the Communist leaders in pre-war Russia and Germany were Jewish, in the former case a logical result of a reactionary regime which excluded lots of talented Jews and a church that persecuted them.
This explains why the Nazis were able to rouse a not especially anti-Semitic country (for central and eastern European standards, certainly) to hysterical levels of Jew-hatred. Germans in the 1920s and 30s were terrified of Communism, and as so many of the leading Communists were Jewish, the Nazis were able to present Bolshevism as a Jewish plot.
Does this make opponents of Communism anti-Jewish? Not at all, especially when one considers that Communist regimes in Europe, among them Stalin’s Russia and post-war Poland, routinely persecuted Jews. More importantly, many of the most important anti-Communist intellectuals of the 20th century were Jewish, including many of Austria’s finest, as were the refuseniks who helped to drag down Soviet Russia. So keen was the USSR to delegitimise Israel, the country where anti-Communist Jews were trying to flee to, that they had an entire propaganda department devoted to blackening Zionism, including successfully spreading the idea that Israel’s actions resemble those of Nazi Germany. Indeed many of the USSR’s most poisonously anti-Semitic ideas have been successfully disseminated on the Left.
The Left and Right both have their wackos and extremists, and anti-Semitism in particular grows sharply as people get closer to the dark side of the political moon.
And yet the frustrating thing is that the argument about extremism is so one-sided. Socialists are free to criticise aspects of capitalism without being tarred by association with Stalin or the Red Army Faction; we might disagree with them but no one seriously compares them with the pathological variations of their belief because of a slight, superficial resemblance. But if a conservative criticises Marxism, he’s basically Hitler. Still, that’s cultural hegemony for you.