Dr Simon Newman: Are We All Cultural Marxists Now?
I am now about to commit the cardinal sin for a Conservative, and discuss philosophy. Cultural Marxism: a philosophy which Conservatism has frequently opposed, but rarely understood.
Cultural Marxism as a term was apparently coined by the American military theoretician William S Lind. Its roots lie in the First World War, and it must be recognised as the most successful political movement of the twentieth century. From at least the 1960s onwards it has succeeded in an amazing transformation of Western society, and this transformation is still ongoing. Its most widely recognised manifestation is the phenomenon known as Political Correctness.
When the Great War broke out in 1914, revolutionary Marxists believed that the oppressed Proletariats of the combatant nations would join together in revolution against their national governments. Instead those Proletariats marched to their deaths in their millions in the cause of national patriotism. While the Great War did ultimately destroy many conservative national governments and pave the way for totalitarian dictatorships in nations including Russia, Italy and Germany, it did not destroy patriotism. In the 1920s the Marxists of the Frankfurt School identified the problem – the culturally inculcated values of the Proletariat, notably attachment to homeland and to family, were the main barrier to revolution. This meant (in a major break from classical Marxism’s economic-determinist approach) that to achieve revolution you first had to change the culture, by destroying the perceived legitimacy of the institutions which underpinned that culture. Thus cultural Marxism was born.
Cultural Marxism reached the USA with intellectual refugees from
Hitler’s Germany, and adapted itself as it encountered the black-white
racial divide in American society. It was brought to its current form
in the 1960s by followers of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. He
had formulated a battle plan for
the destruction of Western liberal-democratic society, that Enlightenment culture based on notions of objective, empirically ascertainable truth, freedom of thought, and nation-state patriotism:
1. “Positive tolerance”. A banding together of all ‘Left’ forces, defined as those forces seeking destruction of the Enlightenment, whatever their other goals, with the exception of Nazism (thus the requirement that Nazism be defined as a ‘Right’, or Conservative, force. Critical Theorists, radical feminists, classical Marxists and so on were not to criticise each others’ positions. Conversely, there must be a...
2. Zero tolerance policy for any position taken by ‘Right’, that is conservative, forces. Marxism adapts the Christian concept of meekness as a virtue so that weakness and oppression (by ‘Right’ forces) define virtue, but where classical Marxism restricts this to the Proletariat in their relations with Capitalism, cultural Marxism de-emphasises the role of the Proletariat and seeks an ever-expanding coalition of victim groups; racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sex, income, disability, immigrant and so on. The mantle of victimhood sanctifies all, and ultimately becomes so sought after that all seek to attain it.
3. The second major part of the cultural Marxist battle plan is Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions” – the takeover of the ‘commanding heights’ of Western society. From an initial bulwark in higher education, cultural Marxism in the UK has progressively gained control of thought and instruction in institutions including primary and secondary education, the media, the civil service, law and the legal profession, the government (in 1997), much of the judiciary and most recently the police.
Of the major institutions of British society, only the military has
apparently not yet fully aligned itself to cultural Marxist values and
thought processes. Interestingly, this raises a potential weakness of
cultural Marxism: it is a viral meme that is extraordinarily successful
at self-transmission, but it is
intended to destroy the perceived legitimacy of the very institutions which it infects. Inevitably, it harms the ability of those institutions to carry out their original core functions. In John Reid’s words, it renders them “unfit for purpose”. Perhaps surprisingly, that an institution has become unfit for rpose often makes little practical difference, at least in the public sector. In the public sector an inability to comply with stated objectives is normally attributed to inadequate resources, resulting in a demand for more resources, a demand that is normally met. For the growth of a public sector organisation, failure is often more beneficial than success.
The British military is at least a partial exception to this rule. Starved of funds and charged with succeeding at a myriad of tasks in the name of progressive interventionism, it is forced to take a goal-oriented approach, instinctively tending to reject ideology that would seriously harm its operational effectiveness. The U.S. military provides a contrast – relatively bloated with funds, process-oriented and rarely perceiving a serious risk of task failure, it has arguably proved more open than the British military to the internalisation of at least some cultural Marxist norms. Thus in fact the relative weakness of the British military may be in fact its greatest strength.
Turning to the political parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats largely adopted and internalised cultural Marxism during the 1980s and 1990s, with some resistance from classical Marxist and social democrat elements. Even today it is perhaps ironic that the grip of cultural M Marxism on the Labour government seems notably weaker than the iron grip it holds over the civil service, the BBC and other institutions of the public sector. Politicians seek and enjoy the exercise of power, while cultural Marxism seeks to deligitimise any exercise of power by Western liberal democracies, ‘bourgeois’ or Enlightenment democracies, that is not fully directed towards cultural Marxist ends. Friction, as evidenced in the controversy over the effects of the 1998 Human Rights Act, is thus unsurprising.
The Conservative Party, meanwhile, has in the past tended to instinctively reject cultural Marxism, while rarely if ever understanding what it was they rejected. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Conservative party for the most part operated under a strongly classical-liberal ideology derived from Hayek, that the government’s role (beyond national defence and the maintenance of basic order) was to secure to individual citizens choice in pursuing whatever particular ends to human flourishing those individuals sought. In a few cases, such as the sale of council houses, this ideology was actually implemented. In others, such as the education system, it was not.
The election of David Cameron clearly marks a major change within
the Conservative Party. The values of classical liberalism have
certainly been downplayed, if not abandoned. Furthermore, Cameron
frequently uses the terminology of cultural Marxism, such as the
description of UKIP members as
“closet racists”, and sometimes appears to share its beliefs.
The question then arises: is Cameron Conservatism cultural Marxist Conservatism? Commentators such as Simon Heffer and Peter Hitchens certainly seem to think so. Conversely, is it rather the reframing of classical-liberal values in cultural Marxist terms, in order to appeal to a British public conditioned by the media and education systems to think in cultural Marxist terms, but which retains a desire for liberty incompatible with the cultural Marxist project? It has been noted that fully cultural Marxist institutions such as the BBC, operating as they do under Gramscian ‘Positive Tolerance’, are rendered constitutionally incapable of criticising a political position from any perspective to the ‘Right’ of that position. So the BBC (unlike New Labour!) cannot attack Cameron for appearing soft on crime, overly concerned with climate change, soft on immigration, Europhile, and so on. Thus, while few BBC staffers are ever likely to vote Conservative, Cameron Conservatism has the potential to achieve what would once have seemed impossible. By making it almost impossible to attack Cameron Conservatism from the ‘Left’, it turns the cultural Marxist BBC, the Great Satan of traditional Conservatism, into an electoral asset.
The price, of course, is that Cameron Conservatism becomes increasingly distrusted on the Right. If Cameron Conservatism really does prove to mark cultural Marxism’s takeover of the Conservative Party, this distrust will have proved more than justified. Cultural Marxism explicitly seeks the destruction of the nation state, and if all three major British political parties subscribe to cultural Marxism it might seem that success in the cultural Marxist project will finally be assured. Perhaps time will tell.
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Melanie Phillips for her assurance that although many of the originators of cultural Marxism were Jewish, a discussion of cultural Marxism is not in itself anti-Semitic. The assertions of some cultural Marxists, that cultural Marxism cannot itself legitimately be critiqued, falls within the ambit of the ‘Positive Tolerance’ approach as discussed above.