The idea of “Cultural Marxism” has been around for a while, but more recently it has become a weapon used by some christians to criticise secular culture and sometimes even fellow believers.
When it was used against me, I decided it was time to check it out.
Cultural Marxism as a weapon
Some conservative christians use this term to dismiss views they disagree with because they are leftist or socially progressive, and (these christians feel) are a threat to those living as christians.
For example, the conservative Australian Christian Lobby has “unmasked” Cultural Marxism in several videos, spoken of cultural Marxism as a “wicked, insidious evil” and described climate change as “cultural Marxist rubbish”.
So this is apparently serious stuff. Let’s get to the bottom of it.
The origins of Cultural Marxism
In the middle of the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution was coming to an end, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto. This pamphlet outlined their understanding of society and politics as class struggle, in which capitalists (the bourgeoisie), who own the means of production, use and exploit the working class (the proletariat) to make profits for themselves.
But eventually the proletariat will revolt and overthrow the bourgeoisie. Societal structures such as governments, church, private property and even family might need to be torn down because they provide support for capitalism. Marx & Engels further developed these economic ideas in Das Kapital (1867-1885).
There is no doubt that the working class was often treated harshly at the time Marx and Engels wrote, via long working hours, low pay, child labour, harsh, unsafe and unhealthy work environments, lack of sick pay, etc.
The trouble was, when their ideas were put into practice in Communism, they didn’t work out as predicted. Revolution was bloody and led to an estimated 100 million deaths. And in the end, just produced a new bourgeoisie.
Culture not economics
After World War 1 and the Russian revolution, a number of European philosophers and theorists re-examined Marxism, and came to the conclusion that before economic change there needed to be cultural change. This could be achieved by infiltrating society’s institutions.
From this came Critical Theory, an incisive social critique which reveals and challenges social structures. Its purpose was to undermine western capitalistic society and “liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”.
Critical Theory identifies forms of authority and injustice, for example, related to race, gender (feminism and queer theory), media, education or culture generally. For instance, Critical Race Theory identifies racial categorisations, legal and power imbalances, etc, that are barriers to achieving a society that is just, inclusive and egalitarian.
Critical Theory often forms the basis of academic studies in humanities. For example, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, who I have written about previously, was Professor of English and Women’s Studies, specialising in (among other things) postmodernism and Queer Theory.
Critics say the Critical Theory identifies problems but does little to point to solutions. But supporters say that identification of the problems is helpful and necessary.
It is a long century and a half journey from Marx to twenty-first century academia, and not all academics who now study Critical Theory are Marxists. Some say Critical Theory is still being taught to undermine western values, but others say it is used to support the values of first world societies, such as personal freedom, liberty and happiness.
Cultural Marxism and political conservatism
Deep opposition to cultural Marxism has become a feature of many political conservatives in the last decade. This takes several forms.
Perhaps the main populariser of using this term to describe more liberal views has been the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Peterson has a large following through his books, public lectures and YouTube videos, and so he has been influential. His work and influence go way beyond the politics of cultural Marxism (e.g. offering practical self help in a difficult world), but I am focusing on his ideas about cultural Marxism here.
Dr Peterson came to public prominence when he opposed Canadian laws designed to prohibit discrimination based on “gender identity and expression”. He said the law would force people to use certain gender pronouns, thus preventing free speech. He associated the law with political correctness (avoiding using language that may offend a group in society) and identity politics (political agendas based on a person’s racial, gender, class or other identity).
Dr Peterson has criticised socialism, feminism, and the idea of “equality of outcome”. He believes hierarchy is necessary and inevitable in society. He supports free market capitalism and “equality of opportunity”.
Peterson has warned that “Cultural Marxism Is Destroying America“. He thinks cultural Marxists have infiltrated academia with a totalitarian agenda to undermine western society, capitalism, freedom and traditional gender roles.
Others disagree with this assessment on factual grounds. This survey of academia concluded that “The last four decades have seen a relative decline of Marxist thought in academia.” This student’s experience was that Critical Theory was built on western values rather than being opposed to them.
Peterson has been often criticised for having a poor understanding of history and philosophy and not offering evidence for his views. His supporters would probably say this is just another attempt by cultural Marxists to stifle alternative views, but some of this criticism seems justified.
Another criticism often levelled at Dr Peterson is that he exaggerates the views he opposes, naming as “Marxist” anything that is socially or politically progressive or liberal.
Taking it further
This approach has been followed and strengthened by many other conservatives, especially some parts of the press. Words like “Marxist”, “socialist”, “liberal” and “libtard” have become common insults against anyone they disagree with, making it unnecessary to offer a genuine criticism. Anyone to the left of an extreme right view can be demonised in this way, and their view rejected without being considered.
For some, cultural Marxism is a conspiracy. It’s not only academics who want to bring down western society, but also the United Nations, Bill Gates, “global elites”, and so on.
In this way, the left vs right political battle becomes very personalised and polarised. Each side isn’t just fighting against people who have a slightly different political view, but against those who want to destroy all that we hold dear (the right fearing the left) or hold onto all that we know is evil (the left hating the right).
Things that are cultural Marxism
So conservatives might label as “cultural Marxism” anything they see as a threat to capitalism and western cultural values – feminism, Black Lives Matter, sensitivity to the wishes of the alternatively gendered, the sexual revolution, social welfare, universal healthcare, political correctness, people who claim to be victims, even climate science.
And the claim is that in some circles it is dangerous to go against the prevailing cultural Marxism: “These new values are being enforced in more active ways, too. If your opinion fails to align with a narrow set of new ‘orthodox’ ideas, you will pay the price in some way or another—whether that’s your reputation, your relationships, or increasingly even your livelihood.”
Case study: Black Lives Matter
The #BlackLivesMatter organisation was established in the US in 2013 in response to the acquittal of the police officer who killed black man Trayvon Martin. It aims “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes”.
As police violence against blacks continued, the movement spread across America, beyond the organisation. The hashtag and name have been taken up by other movements in other countries protesting white supremacy and white privilege, and seeking greater equality for all.
At least one of the three BLM co-founders has identified as a Marxist, and some of BLM’s rhetoric has that revolutionary zeal. But it is impossible to deny that black people in the US (and in Australia and elsewhere) have too often been given inferior status by the dominant whites and treated abominably. With so much disadvantage in the past and into the present, non-whites don’t have the same opportunities as whites. For this reason, many whites who are not Marxists have supported BLM.
The arguments about the ethics of BLM typify how cultural Marxism works. Conservatives condemned the movement when demonstrations turned violent and destructive, and some were quick to label BLM as Marxist.
The sheer “normality” and decency of whites who supported BLM made it difficult to label them as totally radical Marxists, and led conservatives to accuse them of being “woke” naive pawns in the hands of the real Marxists behind BLM. (“Woke” actually means to be alert to injustice, but the Murdoch press loves to use the word as an insult.)
And so the issues for the two sides are very different. The progressives want greater equality, justice and humanity, while the right wants law and order, patriotism and the status quo. Each tends to see the other as not just in disagreement, but as the enemy.
Christianity and cultural Marxism
Christians in the west have generally been opposed to Marxism, particularly in its Communist form, because it is generally atheistic and somewhat anti-church.
It isn’t always so of course. Some christians in Nazi Germany strongly opposed Fascism, and some christians in South America have supported socialism. But in the US, Australia, UK and other developed western nations, christians have more often in recent years been politically conservative.
So it isn’t surprising that many christians have joined the criticism of cultural Marxism. In most cases this means they are also supporting capitalism.
Jordan Peterson appears popular among many christians. In the US, white evangelical and Catholic christians who voted strongly for the Republican party and Donald Trump often raised the spectre of Marxism. And in Australia, the conservative Australian Christian Lobby commonly uses Marxism to describe and dismiss socially progressive ideas.
But is christianity really opposed to cultural Marxism?
Conservative western christianity has tended to focus a lot on sexual and gender ethics, so it is easy to see why it is opposed to the postmodern secular sexual and gender values.
And western christianity is relatively affluent in global terms, so it seems likely that many western christians feel they have a comfortable lifestyle to protect – and so they might support capitalism and law and order over socialism and social change.
But if we consider the teachings of Jesus, the picture changes:
- On two occasions recorded in the New Testament (Luke 7:36-50, John 8:2-11), Jesus defended a woman accused of sexual sin, and turned his attention on the men who condemned them. (It is true that John passage wasn’t part of the original John’s Gospel, but many consider it a genuine recollection of Jesus nevertheless.)
- Some of Jesus’ strongest teaching is directed against wealth, materialism and the abuse of power. His brother James was the same (James 5:1-6). They were certainly not capitalist!
- Jesus (Luke 4:18) and the apostles (James 1:27, Galatians 2:10) followed the Old Testament teaching where God is depicted as being on the side of the poor and oppressed and the prophets taught that the rich and powerful should act justly (Isaiah 10:1-2, Amos 5:10-24). So we are to care for the needs of others (Philippians 2:4).
- And even if we see others as enemies, we are still to love them and want the best for them (Matthew 5:44).
If Jesus was teaching today, I can’t help feeling that the Murdoch press would call him “woke”.
So we can question the conservative christian attempt to paint cultural Marxism as anti-christian. Depending on which values we believe most important, a good case can be made that Jesus was closer to socialism than capitalism. Whatever way we see this, the issue isn’t black and white.
Common values ≠ common beliefs
There are many different beliefs that form part of christian ethics, and likewise many different values that capitalists, Marxists and cultural Marxists hold dear. Sometimes christian belief will align with capitalist belief or leftist views, even though we may believe them to often be opposed.
That is no reason to call a christian a Marxist – we might just as foolishly call a Marxist a christian!
For example, I as a christian believe that blacks in the US and indigenous people in both USA and Australia have been badly mistreated. I believe the OT prophets, Jesus and James would speak out on their behalf. So while I don’t support violence, I do support protest, not because I want to bring down western democracy, but because I want them to receive justice.
Following Jesus in the 21st century
As I try to follow Jesus’ teachings and apply them to this complex 21st century world, I can’t help feeling Jesus and his apostles give us some clear guidance.
1. Judge each issue on its merits
There will rarely be a political or social viewpoint or movement which christians can wholeheartedly support or totally condemn. So we need to judge each issue on how it stands up to Jesus’ teachings.
Christians will legitimately agree with cultural Marxists in some of their analysis and solutions, not because we are Marxists, but because cultural Marxist analysis comes to a similar conclusion to christianity.
2. Check the facts
It is too easy, for people on all sides of any question, to read only their own side. That makes it too easy to believe all manner of evils about those who think differently, and even to believe in fantastic conspiracies. (It is a sad fact that some people we may be influenced by will deceive or misrepresent the truth, and yet some will trust them.)
We must move beyond that to a real commitment to truth, which comes from knowing the facts.
3. Don’t demonise
Categorising and demonising opponents has become a sad staple of more extremist politics. Donald Trump has specialised in it, calling opponents “Lying Ted”, “Sleepy Creepy Joe”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Lamb the Sham”, “Low-IQ Maxine”, and so on. We see the same approach in the conservative media and on Facebook, with words like “libtard”, “snowflake”, “Marxist” and “virtue signalling”.
The left isn’t immune from insults either, sometimes calling people who oppose their progressive agenda “bigots”, “misogynists” and “Fascists”.
I guess this is inevitable as passions are skilfully aroused. But it saddens me (and sometimes angers me) when I see christians joining in this war of insults. Worse, when I see christians demonising and creating deep divisions using pejorative labels.
For if I call someone a name and give them a label, I have dismissed any good motivation they have, accused them of something they may not actually think and cut myself off from actually understanding them. I have created a deep division in the body of Christ to support my political view.
Over and over again the New Testament encourages us to treat each other with respect (1 Peter 3:15, Philippians 2:3-4, Colossians 3:12) and to avoid thinking the worst of others (1 Corinthians 13:6).
Where to from here?
Each christian is responsible to God for how we interpret the revelation given to us, and how we choose to live ….. including how we vote.
We will do well to disregard claims that are built on anything other than the New Testament teachings and the guidance of the Holy Spirit – whether those claims come from patriotism, fear, group thinking, or anything else.
And we will do well not to adopt an adversarial mode and label those who disagree with us. Certainly we should avoid being divisive. Let us discuss our differences “with gentleness and respect” and on their factual and scriptural merits.
- Cultural Marxism: Imaginary Conspiracy or Revolutionary Reality? Robert Smith, Themelios. A comprehensive and fair summary from a conservative christian perspective.
- Why people talk of “cultural Marxism” when discussing Black Lives Matter. John Sandeman, Eternity News, June 2020.
- Postmodernism & Critical Theory; the Good, the Bad, the Traumatic. Joshua Burkhart, January 2019.
- Cultural Marxism and Cultural Studies. Douglas Kellner, UCLA.
- A Christian’s Guide to Cultural Marxism. Kurt Mahlburg, Cross & Culture.
- ‘Cultural Marxism’ Explained and Re-Evaluated. Galen Watts, Quillette, June 2018.
- Different views on Black Lives Matter:
- To Destroy America. Mike Gonzalez, City Journal, September 2020.
- PolitiFact: Is Black Lives Matter a Marxist movement? Tom Kertscher, Tampa Bay Times, July 2020.
- Despite being vilified in the rightwing media, Black Lives Matter will endure. Nesrine Malik, The Guardian, September 2020.
- Jordan Peterson:
- Jordan Peterson on video: Postmodernism and Cultural Marxism (July 2017), Marxism and cultural marxist tenets (January 2018).
- The Problem With Peterson’s ‘Cultural Marxism’. Olly Singleton, The Indiependent.
- Jordan Peterson Is Not Entirely Wrong about “Postmodern Neo-Marxism”. Jonathan Church, Areo, January 2020.
- Why Jordan Peterson Is Always Wrong. Ben Burgis & Matt McManus, Jacobin.
- Less Jonah, more Jesus. Martin Iles, Australian Christian Lobby, June 2020, and Why is the Australian Christian Lobby waging a culture war over LGBTQ issues? The Conversation, February 2021.