Alex Antic, a Liberal Party senator for South Australia, recently gave a speech to parliament in which he detailed his reasons for entering public life, declaring: “I was tired of watching the political class, including some polyester conservatives, allow the tide of cultural Marxism to wash over us.” To most people these would seem unexceptional sentiments, but online these simple words created a stir. Within the hour a former ABC journalist, a current Guardian journalist and a professor at ACU took to Twitter to proclaim that in using the term “Cultural Marxism” Senator Antic was spreading an anti-Jewish “right-wing conspiracy theory”—a bizarre accusation considering that Antic had immediately followed these comments by praising Judeo-Christian values.
These knee-jerk responses reveal an interesting truth: we really aren’t supposed to talk about Cultural Marxism. And I do mean really. The wider Left and especially those residing in newsrooms or the halls of academia really, really don’t want you to talk about it. They’ve gone so far as to edit the Wikipedia page for the term so that it is now titled “Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory” and the first line declares that even mentioning the term is “far-right” and “anti-Semitic”. Search for the term on the Guardian Australia website and you will see the spittle-flecked denunciation the term evokes from amongst our betters.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Yet as far as one can tell, none of the facts around the theory itself seem to be in much doubt. In fact you can find almost the exact same theory referencing mostly the same thinkers under the Wikipedia entry for “Western Marxism”. It seems that this is one of those (ever more common) things that it’s acceptable for the Left to talk about but suddenly becomes unacceptable when the rest of us notice it.
So where did the term “Cultural Marxism” come from? Moreover, what is it? And why don’t they want you talking about it?
Back around the turn of the twenty-first century, an American, William S. Lind, began giving a series of speeches to respectable conservative audiences on the topic of what he called “The Origins of Political Correctness”. Lind had spent a large proportion of his life in Washington analysing defence policy for the United States Senate Committee on the Armed Services. Despite never joining the military himself Lind had served as a mentor for generations of young American officers and was one of the original proponents of the massively influential “fourth-generation war” theory.
Lind wasn’t some fringe crackpot, so when he began explaining his new analytical concept of “Cultural Marxism” people paid attention. His contention was really quite simple: that the classical “Economic” Marxist analysis so dominant amongst the intellectuals of the early to mid-twentieth century had morphed into something new and extremely powerful.
Economic Marxism states that the entire world is controlled by an exploitative elite that oppresses everyone else. According to this theory the elite maintains its power through control of finance, the media, the banks, corporations, the education system, law enforcement and the military. This parasite class uses its dominance of these institutions to keep the oppressed divided and obsessed with trivialities so that they can never rise up. Distracted by tabloids, blinded by advertising, addicted to soap operas, numbed by sports and circuses, the submerged peoples are brainwashed into a false consciousness that prevents them from ever realising who their real enemies are.
In economic or classical Marxism the oppressive enemy is the bourgeoisie and the system that keeps them in power is capitalism. In Cultural Marxism the oppressive enemy is white males (particularly straight white males) and the system that keeps these awful human beings in unearned “privilege” is called “white supremacy” or “whiteness” or sometimes just “racism”. All success is unearned. All wealth is the product of exploitation and needs to be “redistributed” to those who really deserve it. By virtue of existing in the system in which they have succeeded, both white people and the bourgeoisie are evil (presumably white bourgeoisie are some sort of super-duper evil). Only the unsuccessful oppressed can ever be “good”.
This switch sure shocked a few people. Quite a few radical Baby Boomers who in the 1970s were certain that they were on the virtuous “oppressed” side of the ledger have woken up in the twenty-first century to discover that without changing anything about themselves (or even making much money) they’ve suddenly become “evil oppressors”.
So what changed? How did this evolution happen?
Lind traced the seeds of the transformation back to the First World War. It can be difficult today (especially in the English-speaking world) to understand the dominance of Marxist thought on the continental Left in the years leading up to that global conflict. Almost every good leftist intellectual in Europe at the time accepted at least some broad version of the Marxist or socialist worldview.
Nearly everyone in those circles was convinced that an outbreak of war would lead to revolution in at least one of the industrially advanced nations of France, Germany or Britain. When this didn’t happen they were disillusioned; but then the wave of revolutions and attempted revolutions in eastern and central Europe after 1917 gave them hope. When most of those didn’t pan out either, the smarter Marxists went away and had a think. Lind in particular singled out from amongst these thinkers the influence of the brilliant theorists Antonio Gramsci of Italy and Georg Lukacs in Hungary.
Gramsci and Lukacs came to much the same conclusion. The workers had failed to create a socialist paradise because they had been too distracted by unimportant trivialities like family, religion and nation. Gramsci in particular identified that it was the institutions of Western society (especially those of education and religion) that did the most to decide what a society considered “normal”. Gramsci and Lukacs were extremely influential and their thought inspired left-wing academic types across the continent.
Some of those intellectuals would go on to form what would eventually become known as the Frankfurt School, a German think-tank for Marxists. Seed money was provided by one of the usual lefty rich kids who can be counted on in these situations and after an initial “Marxist Workweek” in 1923 (attended by Lukacs himself) the “Frankfurt Institute for Social Research” was born.
William S. Lind correctly pointed out the links between the transformation of orthodox Marxism into its cultural form and the Frankfurt School notables Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer. But I think he focused on them a little too much. It’s true that “Critical Theory” as it is taught in modern universities is usually credited to these Marxist thinkers, but they were simply parts of a much wider cultural, social and structural trend that was overtaking the West.
After all, Lukacs wasn’t only hanging around in Germany attending shindigs funded by the idle sons of the merchant classes. He had also joined the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic as “People’s Commissar for Education and Culture”. In between advocating the mass murder of the “oppressive classes” Lukacs managed to find a job in the revolutionary government for his student Karl Mannheim, who in turn was the primary influence on the American academic C. Wright Mills. Mills coined the term “New Left” in 1960 and spent the last years of his life before passing away in 1962 exhorting the next generation of educated leftists to adopt a cultural rather than economic Marxian view of society.
In all of Mills’s later works one can see repeated the idea that the proletariat were no longer the revolutionary force, and that the new agents of change were the university students. People were listening. Three months after Mills died the soon-to-be-extremely-famous “Students for a Democratic Society” (SDS) launched their Port Huron Statement. Point four of the statement could have been written by Mills himself:
A new left must include liberals and socialists … The university is a more sensible place than a political party for these two traditions to begin to discuss their differences and look for political synthesis.
Americans aside, the over-emphasis on the Frankfurt School also ignores what has probably been one of the greatest foundations of the Cultural Marxist analytical model taught at every university in the Western world today: the French. Not all the French are bad, of course. But if we go back to Gramsci we can trace his influence like a blood-red line through to his student by proxy, the mentally ill, wife-murdering communist academic Louis Althusser. Despite being a monster who strangled his spouse, Althusser was incredibly influential in France and around the world. Through his teaching position at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure he was able to indoctrinate some of the most influential intellectuals of the late twentieth century. Among a crowded field including Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida the stand-out among Althusser’s students was a brilliant but damaged young hedonist named Michel Foucault.
If you don’t know who Foucault is, you probably haven’t attended a university in the last thirty years (and especially not in the humanities). In the first decade of the twenty-first century he was the most referenced humanities academic on earth. His influence on everything from education to law to sociology has been devastating. Althusser introduced the young Foucault into both his particular brand of Gramscian Marxism and to the French Communist Party. The former had an impact, but the latter didn’t stick. Unlike his mentor Foucault would end up quitting the party after three years, as it was in his view not nice enough to homosexuals.
It is almost impossible to overstate the influence of Foucault on the evolution of what would become Cultural Marxism and its popularity amongst the upper echelons of educated Western society. Every Australian law student educated since at least the early 1990s has been forced to trawl through his turgid musings on the prison system and (worse) has been taught to see them as authoritative. With Foucault we finally see the full transformation of the original “Marxism with a focus on culture” line of thought into the wonderful intersectional panoply of anti-white male “wokeness” discourse we see today.
It explains a lot about modern Australian society if you consider it a product of too much Foucault. The man after all repeatedly advocated for the legalisation of pedophilia and spent his spare time and money purchasing under-age Tunisian boys to molest.
The problem with pinning the Cultural Marxism of today entirely on the Frankfurt School as Lind did is twofold. First, it oversimplifies the massive social and cultural evolution that occurred as middle-class Baby Boomers usurped the mantle of the radical Left from the working classes. And second, it allows the academic and media Left to dismiss you as an anti-Semite, since almost every intellectual associated with the “Institute for Social Research” was born Jewish.
The massive social and philosophical drift since the early twentieth century that has created Cultural Marxism and its child, the modern “woke” culture, can’t be blamed on a few guys from Frankfurt. Marcuse may have had an impact on the 1960s New Left but even in academic circles Adorno and Horkheimer are generally considered minor figures today. The damage was not so much from their own thought but from the thought of those they influenced. They were bubbles on a wave, not the wave itself.
The denial of the Left and the furious squeals of “anti-Semitism” and “conspiracy” are attempts (conscious or not) to conceal a simple truth. The phenomenon William S. Lind imperfectly described at the turn of the century is now obviously the philosophy of the entire Western elite. It now so dominates our societies that you can baselessly denounce and smear anyone who even mentions the term and expect to get away with it. “Cultural Marxism”, “woke-ism”, “political correctness” or whatever else you might wish to call it has become the toxic water in which we poor fish are now forced to swim.
Perhaps the furious manner in which so many academics and journalists react to such a simple term betrays a certain fear on their part—a silent terror pushed down deep in the back of their minds that if ordinary people are allowed to see what Cultural Marxism is and the effect it is having, they might decide they don’t like it. After all, throughout the ages there has been nothing a pampered elite has feared more than a mob of angry peasants with torches and pitchforks.