What is Cultural Marxism?
The term “cultural Marxism” is most commonly used by those on the right to critique leftist social movements such as feminism, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and others they perceive as degenerative cultural influences. Leftists, on the other hand, mock the concept as a “wing-nut conspiracy theory.” For the purposes of this discussion, it will not be necessary to flesh out in detail the historical and ideological development of cultural Marxism, which has already been done in many other articles such as this one by Jeffrey Tucker. A concise working definition will suffice.
Traditionally, Marxism as put forth by Marx himself divided people into economic classes. There were the bourgeoisie, the wealthy capitalists who owned the means of production, and the proletariat, the working-class masses who were supposedly oppressed by the bourgeoisie. Marx predicted that at a certain point, working-class discontent would boil over into a violent revolution to overthrow the hated bourgeoisie and establish socialism. Note that according to Marxist theory, there could be no such thing as “equal rights” for everyone. This was due to a concept of “class consciousness” that he proposed, where one’s socio-economic class prevented him from seeing reality as it was perceived by other classes. In other words, all reality was deemed subjective based on one’s socio-economic class. Of course, anyone with a functioning brain will realize this results in a performative contradiction (so to speak) known as the Liar’s Paradox, but such contradictions are commonplace with leftists. The major implication of this idea is that there is no possibility of rational dialogue between the “oppressed” proletariat and the “privileged” bourgeoisie because neither side would be able to see things from the other’s perspective. Anyone advocating for capitalism, therefore, could not possibly be doing so on a rational basis but because he was a capitalist stooge blinded by his privilege. According to Marx, the impossibility of rational argumentation meant that the bourgeoisie would have to be completely disenfranchised in a socialist order because otherwise the bourgeoisie would continue to fight for their class interests and use their “privilege” to reinstate capitalism. Therefore, a socialist order would have to be brought about by a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The difference between the traditional Marxist class theory explained above and cultural Marxism is quite simple. The theory itself remains the same in the case of cultural Marxism it’s simply applied to different categories. Instead of dealing strictly with socio-economic class, cultural Marxists focus on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability status, and a host of other cultural categories. Such thinking has given rise to “intersectionality,” a prevalent form of cultural Marxism which stresses a relation between the various “oppressed” classes of different demographics and the need for them to work together to overthrow the supposed white, capitalist, male, cisgendered, heterosexual, conservative, Christian patriarchy. As such, the “intersectional” cultural Marxist evaluates each person by placing him/her/”xir” on a totem pole of privilege vs. oppression. A white gay male, for instance, is more oppressed than a white straight male, but more privileged than a black gay male. Still more oppressed would be a black lesbian, and even further down the totem pole would be a black transgender lesbian, and even further down would be a black, Muslim, transgender, mentally disabled (or as they say, “neurodivergent”), morbidly obese lesbian. Essentially, the idea is that the more “oppressed” one is based on her position on the totem pole, the more deference and sympathy she ought to receive from society to rectify the alleged injustice of her oppression. For example, many cultural Marxists believe that whites ought to pay reparations to blacks as a form of collective restitution for slavery and Jim Crow laws. Moreover, the left promotes affirmative action initiatives and anti-discrimination laws, believing that if one is part of an “oppressed” group then he has a right to demand access to another person’s goods and services. Of course, for example, this doesn’t apply to “deplorable white male” Trump supporters nor Trump himself.
In short, cultural Marxism is simply traditional Marxist class theory repackaged in terms of cultural rather than economic classes. However, the end goal of bringing about a socialist society remains in place for the vast majority of cultural Marxists.
The Infiltration and Subversion of Academic, Religious, and Political Institutions
In the same way that traditional Marxists like Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky believed in the promotion of worldwide revolution, cultural Marxists today follow the words of Martin Luther King Jr., that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The logical implication of these words is that “justice” – that is, the leftist conception of it – will never be secured until the entire world is remade according to the multicultural, egalitarian vision of the left. Interestingly, this sentiment seems to be common among neoconservatives as well, who often speak of “spreading freedom and democracy” to countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. It is for this reason that neoconservatives may be categorized as leftists.
Cultural Marxists use very different tactics than the Soviet revolutionaries of old or the neocons of today. Rather than bring about revolution through direct military force, they exert slow and subtle influence on social institutions. The hope is that after generations of gradual subversion, these institutions will embody the Marxist values of radical egalitarianism and opposition to “bourgeois” social norms like the nuclear family. Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci, wrote at length about achieving revolution through cultural influence, which was referred to by his student, Rudi Dutschke, as the “long march through the institutions.” Although Gramsci and Dutschke were classical Marxists who adhered to the old class theory of socio-economic status, they too recognized the value of subverting traditional cultural mores in establishing a communist social order. For as Friedrich Engels claimed, the nuclear family was a capitalist invention based on unnatural hierarchy, and as Marx claimed, religion was the “opiate of the masses” which prevented them from rising up in revolution against capitalism. Thus, the two most central institutions in Western civilization, the nuclear family and the Christian church, would have to be overthrown to bring about a communist social order.
Hence, every institution of ideological influence whether universities, churches, or political organizations would have to be conquered by Marxism. For until these institutions reflected Marxist ideals, they would continue to serve as tools of “capitalist oppression”. Contemporary cultural Marxists believe they would also continue to embody racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, …etc. Thus, both classical Marxists and cultural Marxists believe the “long march through the institutions” is key to establishing their socialist utopia in the West.
One does not have to look far to see the effects of the “long march” through the university campus today. A brief glance through the articles published at Campus Reform and The College Fix in addition to statistics such as these provide plenty of evidence for the success of cultural Marxists in exerting leftist dominance in academia. Any readers who have graduated from or are currently in university can probably attest first-hand to the overwhelmingly leftist dispositions of the majority of students on campus. One need not be a right-winger to realize this is a problem. Left-leaning moderates like Jonathan Haidt and Conor Friedersdorf have, on multiple occasions, condemned the “coddling of the American mind” occurring on campuses which is particularly reflective of the Marxist disdain for rational dialogue with “oppressors.” Indeed, the university campus has become Exhibit A for cultural Marxist subversion. Multiculturalism, radical feminism, an ever-expanding list of genders and sexual orientations, endless campaigns to rename campus buildings, “social justice”, and “bias response teams” have become characteristic of the Marxist-infested university, where the Marxist “oppression/privilege” narrative dominates political discourse. Currently, only a few brave souls in academia, such as Jordan Peterson, remain to challenge the “progressive” orthodoxy.
Another institution which has been a prominent target for cultural Marxists is the Christian church. Demands for “racial reconciliation” among the evangelical sphere today have led many Christians to uncritically support the Marxist “Black Lives Matter” movement. “Social justice” as a whole, in fact, has gained quite a bit of ground among the church, partially due to the influence of progressive Christian sites like Sojourners, Patheos, Relevant Magazine, and the Reformed African American Network (RAAN). One will find most of the pet cultural Marxist causes championed on these sites, from feminism, to LGBTQIABCDEFGHIJK advocacy, to Black Lives Matter-style race baiting, and actual Marxist economic policies. The influence and rise to power of Pope Francis, who has enchanted progressives and alienated traditionalists with his considerably left-leaning political (and in some cases theological) views, is yet another example of cultural Marxism making its way throughout the Christian church. The Pope’s concern for the “oppressed” has led him to voice support for policies such as large-scale wealth redistribution, a global central bank, unrestricted migration into Europe, and even communism. Tom Woods, a traditional Catholic himself, recently recorded a podcast with George Neumayr, author of “The Political Pope”, discussing the far-left views, Marxist connections, hostility toward Vatican dissenters, and other troubling characteristics of Francis’ papacy. Fortunately, the disease of Marxism has not overtaken the church to the same extent as it has academia. Like Jordan Peterson in the academic world, there are many great Christian intellectuals who have continued to resist and push back against cultural Marxism over the past few decades, and many great books (such as this one and this one) published to dispel the claims of leftist Christians. Traditional Christians must remain vigilant if the advance of the Marxist Christian left is to be repelled.
Finally, cultural Marxist influence in political parties, think tanks, and other political organizations should be addressed. Through the relentless activism of the far left and their infiltration into these organization, the Overton window of public discourse has gradually shifted to the left. This is done with the aid of “reasonable moderates” in said organizations who either knowingly or unknowingly ostracize dissenters to the leftist orthodoxy as “right-wing extremist nutjobs.” These “reasonable moderates,” which include neocons like John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain in the Republican Party, fundamentally agree with the left in their overall philosophy of government but attempt to superficially distinguish themselves in name only. Irving Kristol admitted they “accepted the New Deal in principle,” as the “godfather of neoconservatism.” With the ascendancy of these “moderate” neocons, the Old Right – the only real opposition to the warfare-welfare state – slowly declined in influence. Today, anyone espousing the anti-interventionist views of Old Right champions like Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater are branded as extremists, isolationists, racists, …etc. from both the progressive and neoconservative left. Are these “moderate” politicians cultural Marxists themselves? Perhaps not. However, it is undeniable that their refusal to embrace or even debate the politically incorrect views of the Old Right (such as opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964) is fundamentally rooted in a fear of being brought to account by cultural Marxists. In fact, Rand Paul himself was moved to rescind his criticisms of the Civil Rights Act after blistering public criticism from those who accused him of being a racist for defending private property rights. The cultural Marxists themselves may not be many in number, but they exercise a massive amount of influence on public opinion, particularly with the help of a sympathetic (mainstream) media apparatus.
As many of the readers here are probably aware, libertarianism itself has undergone a split between the right-wing paleolibertarians (e.g. the Mises Institute, Lew Rockwell Column, The Property and Freedom Society, and Radical Capitalist) and the left-leaning or “moderate” libertarians (e.g. the Cato Institute, Reason Magazine, Libertarianism.org, Center For A Stateless Society, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, and the Libertarian Party itself). A more detailed history of the origins of this split can be found here, investigating the rise of the Koch-funded “Beltway libertarian” think tank-complex in opposition to the efforts of Murray Rothbard to keep libertarianism focused on philosophy and principles. The efforts of many libertarians to “moderate” their message has not resulted in the growth of real libertarianism but rather in the creation of many faux libertarians who have never read a single work of Mises or Rothbard and conceive of libertarianism as being “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” Hence, the rise of “libertarians” like Gary Johnson who support leftist, egalitarian initiatives like “anti-discrimination” (i.e. forced integration) laws, universal basic income, carbon taxes, and apparently “agrees 73% with what Bernie Sanders says.” Much of this was part of a failed attempt to attract disgruntled Sanders supporters rather than the “Never Trump” conservatives who would arguably have been much more receptive to a genuine libertarian candidate. The fact that Johnson was nominated in spite of his blatantly anti-libertarian support for anti-discrimination laws (which was brilliantly exposed by Austin Petersen in the debates) demonstrates the extent to which the Libertarian Party is willing to bend its principles to appease the egalitarian left. In short, the “moderation” of libertarianism to appease the demands of cultural (and economic) Marxists has only served to advance the cause of leftism, not libertarianism.
O’Sullivan’s Law and the Case for Right-Wing Libertarianism
After observing the success of cultural Marxist infiltration in the academic, religious, and political arenas, only one conclusion seems apparent: O’Sullivan’s Law, often dismissed as a right-wing conspiracy theory, is often true. The law states that any institution that is not expressly right-wing will eventually become left-wing over time. This is particularly evident in the “paleo” split in the libertarian camp – while the Koch-funded organizations have been veering left and away from the libertarian message for some time now, the more right-wing Rothbardian-affiliated groups like The Mises Institute and LRC have showed no signs whatsoever of wavering from principled libertarianism. Why is this? It’s hard to say for certain, but it can be roughly answered in the form of the following eight-step cycle (applied to the church as an example):
- Leftist ideas are introduced into a major conservative denomination through a few vocal members.
- Through heavy use of emotional manipulation and guilt-tripping, more and more members, and eventually entire congregations become leftist. Church discipline is not applied.
- Conservative leadership acts only after leftists begin taking over leadership positions.
- Initial resistance gives way to retreat, as conservatives decide to cut their losses and leave the denomination for a smaller, more conservative one.
- That denomination grows and eventually becomes a major denomination.
- Meanwhile, the successfully subverted denomination hemorrhages membership, as there are not enough leftists interested in Christianity or Christians interested in leftism to keep it alive after conservative exodus.
- In a number of decades, the newly burgeoning conservative denomination becomes the new target for leftist subversion.
- The cycle repeats.
This cycle provides a good explanation for why historically conservative denominations like the SBC and PCA are now the new cultural battlegrounds, given that the mainline denominations have all but succumbed to cultural Marxism. But why does the reverse never happen? Why is it that leftist organizations are rarely ever infiltrated by right-wingers? It is a difference of mindset. As mentioned before, the leftist attitude is embodied in the words of MLK Jr. that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Right-wingers generally do not exhibit this mindset, which is why their political efforts are more commonly focused around preserving their own way of life from statist social engineering than attempting to remake society as a whole into their own image. Traditional conservatives, such as the Taft-Goldwater Republicans, had a much more “live and let live” attitude, recognizing correctly that one “cannot legislate morality.” The left, on the other hand, is not content to simply “live and let live,” for doing so would be to allow “injustice” in some parts of the world, creating a “threat to justice everywhere.”
So, then, what is the solution? Should we as libertarians adopt the same subversive mindset of the left and begin infiltrating leftist institutions? Perhaps it might be possible. But such an endeavor is unlikely to succeed when public opinion is already so strongly opposed to libertarian and right wing ideas. Progressive ideas, as intellectually vacuous as they are, do have a naturally stronger emotional appeal to them. In other words, pushing the Overton window to the right seems to be much more difficult than pushing it to the left.
What if instead of attempting to reverse O’Sullivan’s Law, libertarians were to simply heed its warning and become explicitly right-wing? There is a danger to that as well, namely the risk that the libertarian message of private property rights and non-aggression will become “thickened.” However, it is certainly possible to create a “right-wing libertarianism” which asserts the value of right-wing causes without conflating them with the definition of libertarianism itself. An example of such a principled right-wing libertarianism would be the paleolibertarianism promoted by Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell in the 1990s. Rockwell outlines the ten principles of paleolibertarianism in his 1990 article “The Case for Paleolibertarianism” in Liberty Magazine:
“Briefly, paleolibertarianism, with its roots deep in the Old Right, sees:
- The leviathan State as the institutional source of evil throughout history.
- The unhampered free market as a moral and practical imperative.
- Private property as an economic and moral necessity for a free society.
- The garrison State as a preeminent threat to liberty and social well being.
- The welfare State as organized theft that victimizes producers and eventually even its “clients.”
- Civil liberties based on property rights as essential to a just society.
- The egalitarian ethic as morally reprehensible and destructive of private property and social authority.
- Social authority-as embodied in the family, church, community, and other intermediating institutions-as helping protect the individual from the State and as necessary for a free and virtuous society.
- Western culture as eminently worthy of preservation and defense.
- Objective standards of morality, especially as found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as essential.”
The libertarian must agree with the first six points, but most activists would be outraged by the last four. Yet there is nothing unlibertarian in them. A critic might point out that libertarianism is a political doctrine with nothing to say about these matters. In one sense, the critic would be right. The libertarian catechist need know only one answer to one question: What is the the highest political end of man? The answer: freedom. But no political philosophy exists in a cultural vacuum, and for most people political identity is only an abstraction from a broader cultural view. The two are separate only at the theoretical level; in practice, they are inextricably linked. It is thus understandable and desirable that libertarianism have a cultural tone, but not that it be anti-religious, modernist, morally relativist, and egalitarian. This tone rightly repels the vast majority of Americans and has helped keep libertarianism such a small movement.
While it is unlikely that the majority of Americans today would be as opposed to leftist cultural causes as in the 1990s, the fact remains that libertarianism is naturally more compatible with the right than with the left, as I have argued previously. Thus, insofar as right-wing cultural causes do not contradict the libertarian principles of private property rights and non-aggression, it would be prudent for libertarians to adopt at least a sympathetic stance toward them so as to better attract the demographics most likely to embrace libertarianism. Consider the Ron Paul movement of 2008 and 2012 which introduced so many, especially young, people to the ideas of liberty. Rather than focusing on pet leftist causes like recreational drugs, gay marriage, and open borders (to the ire of Brink Lindsey and Nicholas Sarwark), Ron instead focused on appealing to the Republican voter base and making the conservative Christian case for liberty and peace. That is not to say that he abandoned libertarian principles, of course, as he did voice opposition to the drug war and support for marriage privatization multiple times in his campaigns, but he did not attempt to pander to the left on the basis of those issues. This contrasts with the Johnson/Weld strategy of playing to the left in the hopes of converting Sanders-supporting socialists to libertarianism, which turned out to be an abysmal failure. While both campaigns were ultimately unsuccessful (atleast insofar as neither candidate was elected President), which one ended up growing the libertarian movement more? Ron Paul’s brand of Christian-conservative-libertarianism, or Gary Johnson’s half-Republican, half-Democrat libertarianism?
It is time for libertarians to halt the centrist posturing and futile (and counterproductive) strategy of pandering to the left. Libertarians need to realize that being right-wing need not conflict with thin-libertarian principles, and that aligning with the true right is the only way to effectively thwart the State and bring about a libertarian social order.