Speaking to the National Conservatism conference on Monday, Conservative MP Miriam Cates used the phrase “Cultural Marxism”. She is far from the first Conservative MP to use it. Four years ago Suella Braverman, now the Home Secretary, referred to it in a speech, and the term also featured in a letter from a number of Conservative MPs to the Telegraph in 2020.
Each time it has been used there has been a clamour to either level a charge of antisemitism or defend against one (even when no such charge has been made). Regrettably, few appear to have taken the time to understand the provenance of the phrase and to learn the lessons from its use.
In short, Cultural Marxism can be and has been used as an antisemitic phrase, to confer antisemitic meaning or as an antisemitic dog whistle. Because of that, it should be avoided. That said, it isn’t only used in antisemitic contexts, and of course, those using it are not automatically, or always, antisemites.
There is little clarity on the origins of the phrase but some suggest it was developed by philosophers in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and then taken forward by a group of thinkers at the Frankfurt School (more formally the Institute for the Study of Marxism) at the University of Frankfurt. Here one of the leading students, Herbert Marcuse, and his colleagues would consider the relationship between Marxism and culture, agitating for change in the face of their disillusionment with the status quo in the west.
Having fled to America to escape Hitler, these thinkers developed their reasoning. What followed was catnip for the hippy movement, a focus on pleasure and a distaste for work. Marcuse then developed notions of “repressive” and “liberating” tolerance, a somewhat confusing concept whereby censoring right-wing groups or ways of thinking was considered the trigger to a revolution for cultural capital – and this anti-right agenda is perhaps what Braverman and Cates had in mind when using the phrase (that they didn’t say so is cetainly unhelpful, at best).
The history of the phrase does however have a darker side. Concerns that Germany had suffered cultural collapse in the early 1930s was one of the feeders for Nazi populism. Kulturbolschewismus (cultural bolshevism) and Jewish bolshevism were used by the Nazis to sow conspiracy theories about a perceived attack on German cultural heritage, and a plot to spread cultural and other revolution. That antisemitic conspiracy theory has since mutated and holds Jews (as well as others) not only as communist sympathisers but as conspiring through media and elsewhere to pursue a particular leftist agenda and undermine Christian values or the West generally.
Attacks on Marcuse and idea of "cultural Marxist" conspiracies re-emerged in the 1990s. They were used by the British National Party among others. The terrorist who murdered dozens of young people in Norway referenced "Cultural Marxism", as did the terrorist who carried out anti-Muslim attacks in Christchurch. It has also been used across the alt-right - and by groups on the right that are not antisemitic.
Some, including on the left, are happy to adopt the phrase as a badge of pride. Others, on the right, think the term entirely mundane. In some cases, such as in academia, it is used as a descriptor for a particular way of thinking or set of ideas. Some use it as a codeword for political correctness.
The truth is that the phrase can be and is used in a multitude of ways. It is not necessarily antisemitic but it is often used in antisemitic ways, to signal an antisemitic way of thinking. One simply cannot escape that it is, and has long been, used as a signal for an anti-Jewish conspiracy.
To this end, if public figures want to use this tainted phrase, they should understand the baggage that comes with it, and its multiple interpretations. MPs were emailed an Antisemitism Policy Trust briefing to try to ensure that these incidents did not occur.
Andrew Percy MP, the Conservative Vice-Chair of the party, wrote in this very publication about the term. There are many ways of conveying meaning. Anyone using the phrase "cultural Marxism" has a duty to explain, in detail, what they mean when they say it – it might just be easier finding another form of words.
Danny Stone MBE is the Chief Executive of Antisemitism Policy Trust