Over the past months, the culture warriors in charge of the Republican Party in the United States have intensified their legislative efforts to secure a white, nationalist Christian, and patriarchal order against a plurality of ideological threats. Having reversed the landmark for women’s rights that was Roe v Wade, they are focusing their energies on purging progressive perspectives (and factual histories) from American schooling. Implicitly concurring with the French philosopher Louis Althusser’s contention that education is the key “ideological state apparatus”, they have committed the formidable legal and financial resources of the US right to forbidding the teaching of any texts, authors or theories that cast critical light on a master narrative that enshrines 1776 as the unblemished origin of the land of the free.
There is a frantic but focused energy coursing through these efforts to expunge any challenge to what the black radical scholar Cedric J Robinson called the “forgeries of memory and meaning” that have historically shored up white nationalism in the US. The moral panics that have been promoted by the revanchist intelligentsia of the US right all have theory as their target. They operate by ascribing inordinate scope and sinister influence to frameworks originating in academic debates on race and gender, such as intersectionality, critical race theory (CRT), and queer theory. These are now believed to dominate corporate boardrooms, federal agencies, and education, from the pre-school to the professoriate.
Much of the legislative activity goes under the heading of divisive concepts: shorthand for the idea that any recognition and critical analysis of racism or gender discrimination is ipso facto discriminatory and corrosive of the common good. In establishing a chain of equivalence between racialised and gender-non-conforming others, on the one hand, and political, intellectual and economic elites on the other, these campaigns are a perfect vehicle for the right’s authoritarian insurgency. They perform populist outrage and channel prejudice, while posing no challenge whatsoever to social inequality and the concentration of wealth and power. As the social wage plummets, investing in psychological wages is a cost-saving measure like no other.
While the culture war playbook is remarkably consistent, down to the legal wording, it also generates a competitive arena, one in which Florida governor Ron DeSantis is successfully positioning himself to supplant Trump as the leader of a party committed to a strategy of ideological belligerence. Having promoted laws legalising motorists running over protestors (the “anti-riot” bill), turned deportation into spectacle by flying undocumented migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, and even adopted the defence of gas-burning stoves as a fulcrum for ressentiment against metropolitan elites, DeSantis has made his name inseparable from the watchword incorporated into his Stop-Woke law
An administrative coup at the New College of Florida designed to morph it into a conservative bulwark; the purging of black critical thought, activism and history from advanced placement (AP) courses in African American Studies; and now a bill proposing to ban gender studies, critical race theory and intersectionality from all state-funded higher education institutions – DeSantis has built his brand on shifting the culture war from a war of position to a war of manoeuvre. This terminology, drawn from the writings of the 20th-century Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, is not alien to the DeSantis project. The principal intellectual agitator in the right’s witch hunt against CRT, Christopher Rufo – appointed by DeSantis to the governing board at New College – has repeatedly invoked the one-time leader of the Italian Communist Party.
As with other such mentions of the Sardinian Marxist by the right it evinces no direct acquaintance with his writings, and follows a schematic template: having recognised the inevitable defeat of communist revolution in the West and its lack of traction among the working classes, Gramsci, the author of the Prison Notebooks, forged a strategy of elite takeover of key cultural institutions (schools, media, entertainment, publishing) by what National Review writer Nate Hochman has called a “Gramscian vanguard” set on sapping Western Christian liberal-democratic civilisation from the inside. Though analogous to the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory – Jewish-German Marxist philosophers in exile undermining America by seeding sexual disorder and black revolution – Rufo’s variant seems to mute the anti-Semitic dog whistle and accord black thinkers greater, if nefarious agency. According to his conceit, critical race theory was the product of mainly black law professors (especially Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw) adopting a Gramscian strategy to undermine American values for the sake of a nihilist mix of racial identity politics and anti-capitalism.
For Rufo, this Gramscian strategy has been so successful in the wake of the Sixties’ cultural revolution that no facet of the US state is immune. That is why, as he stated in a speech at Hillsdale College (the Trumpian higher education institution which stands as a model for DeSantis’s university putsch), “the solution is not a long counter-march through the institutions. You can’t replace bad directors of diversity, equity, and inclusion with good ones. The ideology is baked in. That’s why I call for a siege strategy.” This strategy demands rhetorical aggressiveness: it must mobilise grassroots resentment; its aim is to decentralise the education system in keeping with the tried and tested menu of home-schooling, vouchers, school choice and privatisation.
Some of Rufo’s radical-conservative co-thinkers have engaged in rhetorical acrobatics to argue that DeSantis’ executive activism is not a mark of statism, but a temporary aid to what Sixties activists referred to as the “long march back” of the right through culture and administration. But Rufo, for all of his ignorance about Gramsci, seems to have understood that Gramsci never suggested that the moment of coercion could be bypassed altogether. In fact, unable to develop a conservative bloc among educators and scholars, DeSantis and other Republicans have had to resort to frivolous if destructive fatwas against critique. The “long march” might be summed up as dominance without hegemony. After all, as Roderick Ferguson (one of the thinkers purged from the AP curriculum) has astutely noted: “When do you go after literature and speech via legal means? You go after literature and speech through the law when you realise you have lost ideologically.”
This right-wing appropriation of Gramsci’s name and of a caricatured précis of his conception of hegemony is not new, having already gained prominence in earlier iterations of America’s cultural infinity wars – back when “political correctness” was the bogeyman. As Gramsci scholar (and father of the current US transportation secretary) Joseph Buttigieg noted almost two decades ago, the fall of communism was greeted by conservative intellectuals with the warning that an overt Leninist strategy was being relayed by a covert Gramscian one. In See, I Told You So (1993), the right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh (recipient of the 2020 Presidential Medal of Freedom) declared that “Gramsci succeeded in defining a strategy for waging cultural warfare—a tactic that has been adopted by the modern left, and which remains the last great hope for chronic America-bashers.” He was echoed in Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West (subtitle: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization), which warned: “Gramsci’s idea on how to make a revolution in a Western society has been proven correct… the Gramscian revolution rolls on, and to this day, it continues to make converts.” For good measure, Buchanan also paired Gramsci with the philosopher Georg Lukács, whose promotion of a “radical sex education program” during the brief Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 supposedly set the template for the gender disorders of our time.
Conservative foundations proliferated this image of Gramsci as the evil genius behind the cultural triumphs of a left. They continued to fantasise – as the likes of Rufo still do – that social liberalism and anti-discrimination policies are a kind of Trojan horse for the abolition of private property and the demise of the US. In this plot, as John Fonte, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute declared, “the academy is unwittingly fulfilling the role of the modern prince outlined by Antonio Gramsci”. Theory, yet again, carries a halo of malice and subversion. It is un-American. And yet it is not just a phobic object, it is also a model to imitate. As Rufo has avowed, the aim is to “steal the strategies and the principles of the Gramscian left, and then to organise a kind of counterrevolutionary response to the long march through the institutions.”
Some have sought the sources for this mimesis and inversion of Gramsci in the French New Right and its chief theorist Alain de Benoist. The political movement advertised its “metapolitical” project as a “Gramscianism of the Right” in the early 1980s. The Nouvelle Droite’s emphasis on the primacy of “cultural power” and the “cultural terrain,” was echoed in French former far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s explicit reference to Gramsci’s notion that “ideological victories precede electoral victories” – repeated by his daughter Marine – and in former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s claim that he’d made Gramsci’s lesson his own (“power is won through ideas”). It has had wide currency across the European far-right, and was recently celebrated by Darya Dugina, the daughter of far-right Russian thinker Alexander Dugin, before she was assassinated in August 2022. It would also seem to resonate with the contemporary American right’s uses of Gramsci. But on closer inspection, the differences are significant: De Benoist’s project is a revolutionary-conservative one, which seeks to revitalise the right by inoculating itself with ideas of leftist provenance (anti-imperialism, for instance). Its challenge to the contemporary left is to argue that it has been neutered and possessed by a liberal hegemony. Inversely, the US right now depicts liberalism as the sheep’s clothing for the black queer marxist wolf.
[See also: In the ruins of anti-fascist hegemony]
If a proximate source can be located for the recent conjuring of Gramscian spectres it is more international in kind. As Buttigieg noted, one of the first texts in the US to foreground the left’s “Gramscianism” as a clear and present danger was a 1989 article by Catholic theologian, diplomat and conservative Democrat Michael Novak, entitled “The Gramscists are Coming”. Novak noted that much of this new Gramscian strategy had been developed in Latin America. There is a photograph of the notoriously unlettered Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in civilian clothes in his study, perusing a Spanish-language volume whose cover features an image of the Italian revolutionary, with the title Gramsci: The New Form of Marxist Penetration. In 1987, in response to an international colloquium on Gramsci organised by leftist intellectuals in Santiago de Chile a few months earlier under the shadow of the dictatorship, the academic pro-dictatorship establishment helped organise a two-week long seminar whose proceedings were later collected in the volume clutched by Pinochet, as well as in a special issue of the Catholic journal Communio (one of whose founders was the former pope Joseph Ratzinger). A year after the seminar, the Committee of Santa Fe, a group formed out of the Council for Inter-American Security (a think-tank that had been central to Ronald Reagan’s devastating counter-insurgency policies in Central and South America) followed its earlier strategic blueprint for US policy in the region with Santa Fe II: A Strategy for Latin America in the Nineties, a document that warned against a ‘Marxist Cultural Offensive’ that would take place under cover of liberal democracy by means of the infiltration of cultural institutions and the altering of a nation’s dominant values.
The pro-Pinochet party Unión Demócrata Independiente, founded by Jaime Guzmán (an architect of the 1980 anti-democratic Constitution, killed in 1991 by communist urban guerrillas), included in its declaration of principles an entry on “The New Face of Marxism”, which is formulated in terms reminiscent of the “siege strategy” being rolled out in Florida and elsewhere: “Marxism thus modifies its physiognomy towards more subtle approaches such as Gramsci’s, which advocate taking over free societies through the erosion of their fundamental institutions and the dominance of culture. To this end, it encourages the systematic destruction of Christian values, especially those related to the family and public and private customs. The weakening of marriage, the legalization of abortion and the permissiveness of pornography and drugs are symptoms that… are encouraged or taken advantage of by this new Gramscian expression of Marxism, which today threatens even the most developed countries in the West.” In 1992, in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda (originally founded as the organ of the Communist Youth of the USSR), entitled “How I would save Russia”, Pinochet echoed this sentiment, stating that communism was still alive but that its new Gramscian form was allowing it to pass by undetected, first filtering into the consciousness of intellectuals then into the population at large.
The recent upsurge in right-wing invocations of Gramsci is an instance of that fear and imitation of radical theories that has long defined the right and its counter-revolutionary self-image. It comes with the frisson of rebellion. As Hochman proposes, “the right will have to become comfortable thinking of itself as an insurgent outsider in American culture, just as the Gramscian vanguard was before the 1960s”.
Long before the text-based illiteracy of social media panics was a thing, the US right had already turned Gramsci into a meme. The latter bears roughly the same relationship to the nuanced, open and militant method of the Prison Notebooks as the adjective “Machiavellian” does to the Renaissance political philosopher’s Discourses on Livy. It is hardly to be expected that intellectuals so intent on impeding reading and criticism should be good readers in their turn.
The sources of this Gramscian meme in efforts to shore up US imperialism and neoliberal authoritarianism against democratic challenges are also worth reflecting on. Notwithstanding the know-nothing parochialism that marks much of the discourse of the US right, culture wars carry a geopolitical shadow. They did all throughout the 20th century when anti-communism went hand-in-hand with anti-black, anti-migrant and anti-queer policies. The idea of CRT as a black anti-capitalist takeover of the federal state and education according to a Gramscian playbook is a not-so-distant echo of the era of Hoover and McCarthy, and of the blurring of counter-insurgency at home and abroad that defined the Cold War.
The contemporary US right’s “siege strategy” depends on misrecognising liberal anti-discrimination policies and critical perspectives in education as a plot against America. But simply protesting rising authoritarianism on liberal grounds can turn into a fool’s errand when courts and legislatures have been occupied by intransigent reactionaries. While talk of a “Gramscian vanguard” is largely a conspiratorial fabrication of the right, it could also serve as a spur for a somewhat rudderless left to reflect on what hegemony might look like today, on what it would take to become the threat to capitalism, patriarchy and white nationalism which the right already takes it to be.
[See also: What Chantal Mouffe gets wrong]