A user's guide to 'Cultural Marxism': How an arcane conspiracy theory from the far-right margins is fueling terrorism — and Trump's Twitter feed
The family of the accused Poway Chabad terrorist was profoundly anguished and confused by what he had done. "Our sadness pales in comparison to the grief and anguish our son has caused for so many innocent people," they wrote, in a statement released through the family lawyer. But the shock and confusion was most intense for them.
"Our son's actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold,” they wrote. “Like out other five children, he was raised in a family, a faith, and a community that all rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do. How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us ..."
It’s a terrifying mystery for America as well — but it shouldn’t be. As David Neiwert wrote at Daily Kos, under the title, “The new age of chain terrorism”:
The pattern is becoming frighteningly familiar: A white man, radicalized online at alt-right media websites and through social media into hateful white nationalist beliefs built around the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about “cultural Marxism,” walks into a mass gathering of his selected targets (which can be any of the perceived participants in the conspiracy, including liberals, Jews, Muslims, Latinos, any nonwhite person, LGBTQ folk, even moviegoers) and opens fire.
It wasn’t generic anti-Semitism that motivated the shooter, as a wave of right-wing blame-shifting. Even at the vigil for the victim, the Daily Beast reported that one participant “seemed to believe that anti-Semitism does not come from the right wing, but from the left,” claiming that “Fascism and socialism are the same sides of a different coin.”
Generic claims like that ignore hard facts. As Neiwert writes, a specific anti-Semitic narrative about “cultural Marxism” (meaning “Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms” by a cabal of Jewish intellectual émigrés from Nazi Germany, known as the Frankfurt School) is motivating these massacres, whose victims have included Muslims in New Zealand as well as Jews in America.
This is a narrative Donald Trump has long echoed, especially with his attacks on “political correctness.” For potential terrorists, it’s also embedded in a very specific, dynamically evolving matrix of right-wing political activity and institutions that marks out a wide range of other targets for retribution, up to and including mass murder.
Anyone who’s traditionally of lower status — women, minorities, non-Christians, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, etc. — is a potential target, since (in this worldview) they are “unnaturally” being elevated to equal status, thus threatening the “natural,” “God-given” order of things, as part of the cultural Marxists’ nefarious plot.
“I revisit this every few months, when a new act of foreign or domestic terrorism happens and the perpetrator cites "cultural Marxism" as a reason,” researcher Bruce Wilson tweeted, linking to a 2016 piece in which he cited multiple examples.
“’Cultural Marxism’ is now the grand unifying narrative for the hard, fascist & neo-Nazi right. It does the same work as did the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ forgery did, a century ago, to inspire Hitler & his Nazis,” he continued.
Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, used the terms “cultural Marxism” or “cultural Marxist” more than 600 times in his 1,500-plus-page manifesto. The Poway shooter only mentioned it briefly, but its themes echo throughout his far more modest six-page document. More importantly, the whole environment in which he was radicalized has clearly been influenced by the narrative, and partly even created by it.
Not quite so far removed as all that
Despite the Poway shooter's family’s claims, their religious tradition — a fundamentalist sect called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church — has troubling "dangerous, violent and undemocratic threads," as explained by religious studies professor Julie Ingersoll, author of “Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction” (Salon interview here):
No doubt the dark web, 4chan and the anons provide fertile ground for these young white men who become our homegrown terrorists, but as a scholar of religion who’s studied these groups for decades, I can tell you this version of Christianity isn’t entirely off the hook.
You won’t find slavery apologists in the OPC anymore but the denomination has remained a home for far-right versions of Christianity.
Ingersoll referred to the Southern Presbyterian tradition of Robert Lewis Dabney, a pastor and theologian who served as a Confederate Army chaplain, and is still a hero to many in the fundamentalist world. He "was decidedly and explicitly opposed to notions of social equality of all kinds as unbiblical," she said.
That same anti-egalitarian worldview was found in the thought of William Lind, the paleoconservative activist who coined the term “cultural Marxism” and did more than anyone else to shape the narrative, promote its spread and argue for its centrality. Lind was a colleague and collaborator of Paul Weyrich, an important figure in the history of the American right who co-founded the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Moral Majority, the Council for National Policy and the Free Congress Foundation, which he headed until his death in 2008. Lind headed a subsidiary of FCF called the Center for Cultural Conservatism, and successfully spread his ideas through multiple communication channels.
In 2003, Bill Berkowitz described the spread of the "cultural Marxism: concept in a paper for the Southern Poverty Law Center. it came from books like Pat Buchanan’s “The Death of the West,” white supremacist groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, intellectual hucksters like David Horowitz (at one time a Salon columnist), and Weyrich’s own considerable influence, most notably “a widely circulated ‘letter to the conservative movement’ [in 1999] in which he lamented the widespread popularity of the ‘ideology of political correctness’ and ‘the cultural disintegration that is gripping society.’”
Since then one could add Andrew Breitbart, Michael Savage and David Brooks (in faux highbrow style), along with torrents of repetitions on YouTube, Reddit, 4chan, 8chan and so on. In today’s right-wing universe, it would have been have been hard for the Poway shooter not to be exposed to this notion.
Launching a myth
But let’s go back to how it started. In the late 1980s, Weyrich and Lind started promoting cultural conservatism as increasingly central to the right-wing project. Then, in 1989, Lind co-authored the first of two significant papers in the Marine Corps Gazette on “fourth generation warfare,” as described and analyzed here by former intelligence analyst James Scaminaci. This helped pave the way for development of the “cultural Marxism” narrative, which was originally the product of a left-wing sectarian cult with a weirdly similar obsession that Lind was able to co-opt, as we’ll see in a moment. But first, we need to understand Lind’s approach through the lens of “fourth generation warfare.”
The idea was that successive generations of modern warfare were increasingly decentralized, with a high degree of boundary blurring appearing in the most recent incarnation. The first paper was primarily focused on traditional military concepts, such as “an enemy attacking the strategic rear of an opponent rather than the front and turning the enemy’s strength into a weakness — such as taking advantage of porous borders to enter the rear and the legal system affording the invaders protection.”
Notice the boundary-blurring there, as the legal system becomes defined as a military target. But there was more, Scaminaci noted: “Another aspect was ‘a direct attack on a nation’s culture,’ an example of which was drug trafficking and the ‘fifth column’ of drug buyers.”
If the cultural concerns that lead to Lind’s embrace of “cultural Marxism” were present in his first paper, they became predominant in the second one, published in 1994:
[Lind and his co-author[ argued that Yugoslavia-style wars were coming to America because “cultural radicals” (liberalism and Marxism, in other words) in the universities were creating a new ideology of “multiculturalism” or “political correctness.” One of the three key ideas of fourth generation warfare as it related to the United States was that multiculturalism represented abandonment of Judeo-Christian, Western culture and values here at home.
The other two ideas were the state’s loss of monopoly on war and the clash of civilizations, or as they put, “a world of cultures in conflict.” Though describing it as the clash between Christianity and Islam, it also represented the clash between liberalism and conservative traditional values. Multiculturalism would dissolve the bonds of national identity.
What happened between the two papers was Lind’s encounter with the raw material of the “cultural Marxism” myth, which originated in the left-wing cult around Lyndon LaRouche, most prominently in a lengthy 1991 article called "New Dark Age: Frankfurt School and Political Correctness" by Michael Minnicino. How Lind came across this obscure work remains unclear, but he made it his own. Apparently the Frankfurt School had played an important role in the LaRouche organization's paranoid fantasies, as a recent article by Andrew Wood describes:
The Frankfurt School — along with a revolving cast of co-conspirators like Queen Elizabeth II and Henry Kissinger — popped up repeatedly in LaRouche’s conspiracy theories over the decades. Even as LaRouche veered from left-wing sectarianism to right-wing Messianism, Marcuse and Adorno [two of the leading Frankfurt theorists] continued to haunt his demented and delusional worldview.
Although the theory mutated over time, LaRouche was obsessed with European oligarchs and British intelligence. Minnicino’s article dumps all that in favor of a more conventional international Communist background, which made it easier for Lind to pick up.
But "cultural Marxism" was not yet a narrative ready for battle, which was Lind's great accomplishment, as both Scaminaci and Wilson told me.
“I definitely believe that Lind was the vector,” Scaminaci said, picking up on what LaRouche’s cult had started. “Lind, for one thing, is only kind of an original thinker,” he said. Nor was he alone on the right in seeking inspiration from the left.
“Howard Phillips [a close ally of Weyrich’s] mined left-wing writings for his ideas and organizing concepts,” Scaminaci pointed out. “Seriously, the Christian Right is a bunch of Marxist-Leninists in religious-capitalist capes and cloaks. They have been slowly transforming the GOP into a ‘combat party’ while delegitimizing every opposing thought system.”
Wilson gives Lind a bit more credit. “Within two years of the article's publication, Lind was already at work not only rebranding it for popular consumption,” he said, “but considerably simplifying the narrative by stripping much of its overly abstruse qualities and repackaging it for individuals who, if not necessarily academically trained, were certainly intellectually inclined.”
More broadly, Wilson argued that "for all practical purposes, Lind can be considered the true architect of the 'cultural Marxism' conspiracy theory," and compares it to the way the secret police in czarist Russia adapted an 1864 French political satire to produce the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which was then repackaged for viral spread.
Wilson also underscores a point made above about the close relationship between his two overlapping projects. “Consider Lind's repackaging in context of his previous, 1989 articulation of the principles of fourth-generation warfare,” Wilson told me. “In light of that, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Lind created ‘cultural Marxism’ expressly as an ideological weapon intended to instigate fourth-generation Warfare attacks against the enemies he had designated in his 1994 Marine Corps Gazette article.”
The grand confusion
To fully appreciate what happened here, one must turn to the notion of projection — if not to Melanie Klein’s more subtle concept of projective identification. The evil machinations Lind saw in his fantasy version of the Frankfurt School were more than anything else just reflections of his own disowned contradictions and failings.
On the one hand, the Cold War ended, and suddenly there was no Communist enemy to fight. To continue fighting, a new enemy would have to be invented — and fighting, at some level, was all that Lind understood. Lind and Weyrich had already been arguing, even against other conservatives, for the primacy of culture, so the “cultural Marxism” myth satisfied multiple needs psychological, financial, organizational, and so on. All that had to be done was to project their motivations, their deviousness, closed-mindedness and lust for domination onto the Frankfurt School, rendering this coterie of renegade Jewish intellectuals as the authors of a sinister world-encompassing con game.
A second aspect of this projection is where it all leads. Lind is quite clear about this: “Cultural Marxism” aims to destroy society, to pit every different group against each other, and thus bring down the whole noble edifice of America — and beyond it, the Christian West. (He even warns his Marine readers, “We could end up with two, three, many Marine Corps: white Marine Corps, black Marine Corps, Christian Marine Corps, possibly even a gay Marine Corps.”)
Yet Lind’s own vision is virtually identical: the destruction of America and its fragmentation into smaller cultural enclaves. That was the “happy ending” Lind laid `out very clearly in a Washington Postop-ed (titled "Militant Musings: From Nightmare 1995 to My Utopian 2050”) that ran shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, and then in the 2014 novel, “Victoria,” that was derived from it.
In short, everything Lind says about those he rails against should be read primarily as a reflection of his own profoundly disturbed thinking. That is the core truth about the “cultural Marxism” myth.
A wider view
But it’s hardly the only thing that needs saying. Lind didn’t invent anything that was fundamentally new, he mostly fashioned new forms, as did the czar's secret police in Wilson's analogy. Lind's novel “Victoria” builds on the “cultural Marxism” myth, but at bottom it’s just another white race-war fantasy like “The Turner Diaries," with more literary pretension.
One might also argue that Lind's plans for fanning a violent race war have contributed to 21st-century political violence. But there's no reason to believe they made much difference, compared to the underlying driving forces that have brought repeated waves of political instability, violence, state breakdown and civil war to different societies over the last two millennia and more, as described in the work of Peter Turchin, such as “Secular Cycles” and “Ages of Discord” (Salon review here).
This — rather than Lind’s narrative invention — is the primary difference between 2019 and 1978, when “The Turner Diaries” was published, or the early 1980s, when Ku Klux Klan member Louis Beam first popularized the idea of “leaderless resistance.” We’re now in a period of heightened elite fragmentation, which is typified by, but certainly not limited to, the ascension of Donald Trump.
Leaderless resistance strategy, Scaminaci said, "posits that the federal government or an occupational government is the threat,” while “autonomous, anonymous cells form and magically — at the right time — carry out uncoordinated attacks.” But magic is not a strategic plan, so Lind and his mentor, John Boyd, had a fix in mind.
“The strategic situation today is completely the opposite," Scaminaci observed. "The federal government is controlled by a president ideologically closest to the Patriot militias and the white nationalists. Trump has been dismantling the intelligence elements that would monitor the white nationalists. He has demonstrated his complete willingness to delegitimize the FBI, CIA and to a lesser extent DHS." In Scaminaci's view, we are not seeing "leaderless resistance" but something considerably more dangerous: "scripted violence," dictated from above with just enough plausible deniability.
“The mass killers now are taking cues from Trump, from Fox News and from their own message boards," Scaminaci said. "If they are relying upon previous manifestos and memes, how deeply do we think they have thought this through?”
In short, Lind’s “cultural Marxism” narrative may well help fuel the increase white nationalist terror, but he’s no more a conspiratorial mastermind than were the Frankfurt School thinkers on whom he projected his fantasies. Paranoia about "cultural Marxism" is a significant factor in the pattern of rising violence we’re experiencing, but it’s much more a reflection of deeper forces. These attacks, Scaminaci noted, “are not effective in causing a civil war. They are useful to Trump,”
“Cultural Marxism,” in other words, is an important piece of the puzzle behind right-wing terrorism, but not the whole thing. Understanding what this term means and where it came from illustrates what form anti-Semitism has taken in our time, and how it no longer threatens only Jews, but all of democracy.