'Cultural Marxism,' a conspiracy theory with an anti-Semitic twist, is being pushed by much of the American right.
Television commentator Pat Buchanan says it is being used to "de-Christianize" America. Washington heavyweight William Lind claims it is turning U.S. college campuses into "ivy-covered North Koreas." Retired naval commander Gerald Atkinson fears it has invaded the nation's military academies. Immigration activist John Vinson suggests it aims "to distort and destroy" our country.
"Cultural Marxism," described as a conspiratorial attempt to wreck American culture and morality, is the newest intellectual bugaboo on the radical right. Surprisingly, there are signs that this bizarre theory is catching on in the mainstream.
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.
The very term, "cultural Marxism," is clearly intended to conjure up xenophobic anxieties. But can a theory like this, built on the words of long-dead intellectuals who have little discernible relevance to normal Americans' lives, really fly? As bizarre as it might sound, there is some evidence that it may. Certainly, those who are pushing the theory seem to believe that it is an important one.
"Political correctness looms over American society like a colossus," William Lind, a principal of far-right political strategist Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation and a key popularizer of the idea of cultural Marxism, warned in a 1998 speech. "It has taken over both political parties and is enforced by many laws and government regulations. It almost totally controls the most powerful element in our culture, the entertainment industry. It dominates both public and higher education. ... It has even captured the clergy in many Christian churches."
From PC to Cultural Marxism
The idea of political correctness — the predecessor of the more highly charged concept of cultural Marxism — was popularized by the mass media in the early 1990s, highlighted by a 1991 speech by the first President Bush in which he warned that "free speech [is] under assault throughout the United States." By the end of 1992, feature stories on the phenomenon had appeared in Newsweek, New York magazine, The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly and the New York Review of Books.
The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial writers had recklessly pilloried a University of Pennsylvania academic as the personification of political correctness, said it posed a "far worse ... threat to intellectual freedom" than McCarthyism. In the pages of The Washington Times (see 'Defending Dixie'), Heritage Foundation scholar Laurence Jarvik wrote angrily that "storm troopers" were attacking "Western culture."
Of course, the phrase was basically a politically charged construct that was used to mock the left and even liberals. Challenges to gender bias, efforts to diversify the nation's universities, and similar policies were dismissed as attempts to turn the universities into "gulags" under the thumbs of left-wing thought police. The term was used to attack ideas while avoiding any discussion of their merits.
Although he didn't use the words "cultural Marxism," white nationalist Pat Buchanan (see description of The American Cause), helped frame the debate as a "culture war" in his inflammatory speech in support of the first President Bush's nomination for reelection at the 1992 GOP convention in Houston.
"There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America," Buchanan said in his nationally televised address. "It is a cultural war, as critical to the nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself."
But it may be William Lind, who has long worked at the Free Congress Foundation that his ally Paul Weyrich founded, who has done the most to define the enemies who make up the so-called "cultural Marxists." Ultimately, this enemy has come to embody a whole host of Lind's bête noires — feminists, LGBT people, secular humanists, multiculturalists, sex educators, environmentalists, immigrants, black nationalists, the ACLU and the hated Frankfurt School philosophers.
In July 1998, Lind told a conference of the right-wing watchdog group Accuracy in Academia that political correctness and cultural Marxism were "totalitarian ideologies" that were turning American campuses into "small ivy-covered North Koreas, where the student or faculty member who dares to cross any of the lines set up by the gender feminist or the homosexual-rights activists, or the local black or Hispanic group, or any of the other sainted 'victims' groups that revolves around, quickly find themselves in judicial trouble."
It's the Jews, Stupid
At the core of the far right's concept of cultural Marxism are the Jews. Lind made this plain in June 2002, when he gave a speech on the subject to a Washington Holocaust denial conference hosted by the anti-Semitic journal, Barnes Review.
Although he told his audience that his Free Congress Foundation was "not among those who question whether the Holocaust occurred," he went on to lay out just who the cultural conspirators were: "These guys," he explained, "were all Jewish."
Like Jews in general, the Frankfurt School makes a convenient antagonist — one that is basically seen as antithetical to all things American. The school, says social psychology professor Richard Lichtman of the Berkeley-based Wright Institute, is "a convenient target that very few people really know anything about.
"By grounding their critique in Marxism and using the Frankfurt School, [cultural conservatives] make it seem like it's quite foreign to anything American. It takes on a mysterious cast and translates as an incomprehensible, anti-American, foreign movement that is only interested in undermining the U.S.," he said. "The idea being transmitted is that we are being infected from the outside."
Not everyone who uses the cultural Marxism construct sees Jews in general at the center of the plot. But a 1998 book by California State University-Long Beach evolutionary biologist Kevin MacDonald — one of just two witnesses to testify on behalf of Holocaust denier David Irving in a famous 2000 libel trial — makes plain that Jews in general are implicated in what is seen as an attack on the West.
In The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Social Movements, MacDonald says that while all Jews are not guilty, the movements he attacks are indeed "Jewishly motivated."
In a chapter devoted to the Frankfurt School, MacDonald suggests that Jews criticize non-Jews' desire to form "cohesive, nationalistic, corporate gentile groups based on conformity to group norms" — with Frankfurt School principals painting this desire as a psychopathology — while they hypocritically pursue cohesiveness in their own group.
In other words, Jews foist multiculturalism on other people even as they cynically pursue a group strategy that rejects that ideology for themselves.
The idea, in MacDonald's construction, is that Jews in general are seeking to weaken anti-Semitism by sabotaging Gentiles' natural nationalistic instincts.
Similarly, the Frankfurt School is described as advocating sexual freedom, rebelliousness against family and other radical ideas for Gentiles, even as Jews themselves remain in tightly cohesive families — an idea that is tied tightly to Lind's view of the Frankfurt School as attempting to undermine Christian America.
Ultimately, MacDonald suggests that this kind of devious Jewish behavior is at least partly responsible for anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. "National Socialism developed as a cohesive gentile group strategy in opposition to Judaism," he writes. In a later book, MacDonald suggests that Jewish critiques of Gentile culture are a dangerous strategy that may ultimately produce ethnic conflict in America.
Although Lind rarely mentions the Jews in discussing cultural Marxism, he sounded a similar note in 1995, when he wrote a "futuristic fantasy" in which the United States, after developing "the stench of a Third World country," opts correctly to break up into racial mini-states. In now all-white New England, Lind wrote, "the majority had taken back the culture. Civilization had recovered its nerve."
Behind the Attacks
The most significant institutional support for the theory of cultural Marxism comes from Weyrich, Lind, and their Free Congress Foundation (FCF). Lind writes that the FCF "was the first Washington-based conservative think tank to ... develop a new cultural conservatism ... aimed directly at the causes of America's cultural decline."
In 1987, the foundation's first book was published on the subject: Cultural Conservatism: Toward a New National Agenda. Next came Cultural Conservatism: Theory and Practice, an anthology of essays. All this culminated in a videotape that attacked the Frankfurt School, "Political Correctness: The Dirty Little Secret."
Weyrich's role is significant. Over the last three decades, he has been instrumental in developing many of the right's most influential institutions. He helped fund the Heritage Foundation, now one of the most powerful think tanks in Washington. He is a founder of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-sponsored association of hundreds of conservative lawmakers. And he helped establish two key conservative coalitions: The Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the 1970s, and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition a decade later.
In 1999, Weyrich authored a widely circulated "letter to the conservative movement" in which he lamented the widespread popularity of the "ideology of political correctness" and "the cultural disintegration that is gripping society." Conservatives should separate themselves "from the institutions that have been captured by the ideology of Political Correctness," Weyrich argued.
At the same time, Weyrich has had a "habit of flirting with racists and anti-Semites that dates back to his early involvement with George Wallace's America Independent Party," according to New York Observer columnist Joe Conason. As one example, Conason cites a 2001 Easter E-mail sent by Weyrich to thousands of his supporters declaring that "Christ was crucified by the Jews."
A year earlier, Weyrich had blasted Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen for "adhering so slavishly to the line laid down by the Frankfurt School." Cohen's sin? He had criticized Charlton Heston, then the National Rifle Association spokesman.
"Surely [Cohen] must recognize that Political Correctness is an ideology ... that ... demands we all accede to many lies: that men and women are interchangeable, that there are no differences among races or ethnic groups within races (when those groups are taken as wholes, as PC demands), that homosexuality is normal," he wrote. "This is, in fact, the unholy trinity that Political Correctness requires we all bow down and worship: 'racism, sexism, and homophobia.'"
The Ripple Effect
Over the years, the idea of cultural Marxism has picked up speed. At an October 2000 campaign stop in Denver, Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan accused Native Americans attempting to block a Columbus Day parade of "cultural Marxism."
"America's history and heroes and Western civilization itself are under relentless attack," Buchanan told the Rocky Mountain News. "The violence of this political correctness is nothing less than cultural Marxism."
The following year, in his book The Death of the West, Buchanan described cultural Marxism as a "regime to punish dissent and to stigmatize social heresy as the Inquisition punished religious heresy. Its trademark is intolerance."
At around the same time, the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens produced a video — most of it a carbon copy of the FCF video on the same topic — called "Political Correctness: The Frankfurt School Story."
"Racism, sexism and chauvinism are powerful weapons in the Marxist psychological warfare against traditional American values," it said. "Political correctness, the product of critical theory, is really treason against the U.S. Constitution and against America."
Some "pro-South" hate groups have adapted the theory for their own purposes. Franklin Sanders, writing recently on the League of the South's Web page, did not use the words "cultural Marxism." But he did say that "Marxists," by calling slavery the worst evil known to man, were twisting reality to attack the South. And, Sanders warned darkly, "If the South goes, civilization goes with it."
By early 2002, F.C. Blahut, a writer for the anti-Semitic American Free Press, wrote that cultural communists, motivated by a "hatred of the West," were wrecking Western civilization. They were, he said, "parasitic Freudian Talmudists."
John Vinson, leader of the Americans for Immigration Control hate group, doesn't reference Jews in his own attacks. But he claims that "Marxists" have for a century "promoted large-scale immigration while sabotaging assimilation."
Whither Cultural Marxism?
Will the far right succeed in using the cultural Marxism label to demonize social movements and people whom it opposes? Despite the tone of underlying anti-Semitism, is this a theory that can bring radical ideas into the mainstream?
There are indications that this is happening already.
Paul Craig Roberts is a syndicated conservative columnist who is connected to several right-wing think tanks. In a recent review of Buchanan's The Death of the West, Roberts makes it clear that he has signed on to the idea. "Cultural Marxists," he says, "assault not only our history but also the family, the chastity of women and Christianity, important pillars of our civilization. Cultural Marxists use education, entertainment and the media to create a new people that shares their values."
David Horowitz, the leftist-turned-right-winger who heads the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture and edits FrontPageMagazine.com, adds that the Frankfurt School "believed only in destroying ... and if you look at today's campuses that type of nihilism is really the dominant theme."
Jim Kibler, a professor of Southern literature at the University of Georgia, joined in recently. Kibler told a reporter this spring that suggesting that those who support the Confederate flag are racists is the "propagandistic, cultural Marxist approach" that is used by newspapers, business and New South proponents.
It's not clear whether this diffusion of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory into the mainstream will continue. Certainly, the anti-Semitism that underlies much of the scenario suggests that it may be repudiated in the coming years. But for now, the spread of this particular theory is a classic case of concepts that originated on the radical right slowly but surely making their way into the American mind.
Bill Berkowitz, a regular columnist with Working Assets' WorkingForChange.com, is a free-lance writer specializing in right-wing political movements.