What is cultural Marxism? The alt-right meme in Suella Braverman's speech in Westminster

Cultural Marxism is a long-standing meme popular among the alt-right. So how the hell did Suella Braverman end up saying it?

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On Tuesday, Conservative MP for Fareham Suella Braverman gave a speech at an event in Westminster which she said that, “As Conservatives, we are engaged in a battle against cultural Marxism…”

For many, this would have sounded like standard conservative dialogue – Marxists, anti-Corbyn sentiment, and references to class warfare that are typical right-wing messages you see in every Tory speech. But to people who have spent a modicum of time on 4chan, 8chan, YouTube, or Reddit, this sentence raised blaring, screeching alarm bells.

The term “cultural Marxism”, while seemingly benign, is an anti-Semitic meme that has existed for years.

When pressed about this reference to cultural Marxism she made in her speech, Braverman seemed to misunderstand the accusation and continued talking about the dangers of Corbyn, the EU, and May’s withdrawal agreement. But the comments caused a enormous backlash online, leaving many people with more questions than answers.

So what does “cultural Marxism” signal on the internet today? How did it turn into the beacon of anti-Semitism that it has now become? And how the hell did it end up in the mouth of Suella Braverman?

Cultural Marxism is a theory that started in the early 20th century, which was popularised in the aftermath of the socialist revolution (this great piece in the Guardian explains it in depth). The idea was that Marxism should extend beyond class and into cultural equality and that, through major institutions like schools and the media, cultural values could progressively be changed. The theory was later adopted by the philosophers at the Frankfurt School who posited that the only way to destroy capitalism was to destroy it in all walks of life; where, not just classes, but all genders, races, and religions could live in society equally.

While this may seem unimportant, the Frankfurt School’s adoption of – and modifications to – cultural Marxism is where the conspiracy theory truly begins. The Frankfurt School’s predominantly Jewish members of the school were forced to flee to America by the Nazis in the 1940s, where many went on to teach, write, and commentate in mainstream institutions. This, conspiracy theorists claim, is when cultural Marxists began to poison the West – and when cultural Marxists began their attempts to undermine its values.

Cultural Marxism’s move from political theory to full memeification was fast-tracked when it was used by mass murderer Anders Breivik. Breivik was the sole perpetrator of the 2011 Norway attacks in which 77 people died across several sites. Before committing his attacks, much like the Christchurch shooter, Breivik sent an enormous personal manifesto to a group of friends and family which outlined his anti-multiculturalist, racist, and misogynist ideals.

In the manifesto, he spends huge chunks of time crediting the writers who pushed cultural Marxist conspiracy theories into the mainstream. The 1,000-page document references “cultural Marxism” and “cultural Marxists” nearly 650 times.  

For the growing audience of anti-Semitic, alt-right white supremacists online, his musings have turned him into an icon – and “cultural Marxism” has become a foundational alt-right belief. It became an easy label for those white supremacists looking for an umbrella term to describe the people at which their anger about diversity, feminism, and religious freedom was directed. Cultural Marxist soon became a signal to mean anyone vaguely left-leaning – in some cases, even if this simply meant those who didn’t agree with white supremacy.

The meme has now become so ubiquitous in online spaces that it serves almost as a code; one that, to unknowing onlookers, it reads the same way “Marxist” would. Which is how it is likely that we ended up with situations like we did on Tuesday.

But Suella Braverman isn’t the first person in politics to inadvertently reference cultural Marxism while seemingly unaware of its connotations. One of Trump’s National Security Council officials was fired in 2017 for circulating a memo pushing conspiracy theories about “Islamists”, “globalists”, and “cultural Marxists”. Even as recently as July 2018, ex-American Presidential candidate Ron Paul tweeted a meme that referenced the conspiracy theory:

“The cartoon shows a group of men punching Uncle Sam with a giant red fist bearing a hammer and sickle. The men all feature racist stereotypes — one is Asian with slanted eyes, another is Jewish with a hooked nose, an African-American is drawn with exaggerated lips and a man with brown skin appears similar to a Neanderthal — and are shouting in unison ‘Cultural Marxism!’”

One of the great dangers of online radicalisation today is that much of the language that would send red flags is cloaked in layers upon layers of memes. And when our journalists, commentators, and politicians can’t understand the connotations, we end up with far worse than the gaffe we witnessed on Tuesday. We’ll probably never know how Suella Braverman ended up referencing cultural Marxism in an otherwise boilerplate Westminster talk, but we can be certain that, with the pace this language is moving at, she won’t be the last.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.