While the ‘Common-Sense Group’ of MPs and Lords still retain the term, during the last few years the far-right conspiracy theory Cultural Marxism has fallen out of favour within mainstream British right-wing discourses. It has been largely superseded by the pejorative use of the term ‘woke’, which originated from the fight for racial justice in the USA. This blog post examines the transition from Cultural Marxism to woke and asks what does the derogatory use of so called ‘wokeism’ offer to its patrons that Cultural Marxism doesn’t?
Cultural Marxism is a long-standing far-right conspiracy theory. According to the American far-right, The Frankfurt School of Jewish Marxist intellectuals, who escaped Nazi Germany, initiated a plan to destabilise America from within by using their supposed control of the organs of culture, including education, the media, and churches, to attack Western civilisation and undermine pride in its past. The far-right sees the progressive civic and social movements that began in the 1960s – feminism, LGTBQ+ rights, black power, anti-colonial liberation, environmentalism, and pacifism as part of Cultural Marxism’s orchestrated effort to “destroy the American way of life as established by whites”.
The far-right circulated their theory internationally, particularly via the Internet. In 2011, Anders Breivik used Cultural Marxism to justify his murder of 77 teenagers. In his manifesto, Brevik referred 111 times to a blog written by Peder Jensen that claimed Cultural Marxists are “our mortal enemies”. The term is still prevalent in America. Writing for the Daily Caller (a right-wing news and opinion website based in Washington, D.C. founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson) Moses Apostaticus (a pseudonym for David Hilton) said in 2018:
“The theories of the Frankfurt School unified the vanguard of the 60’s countercultural movement and have since spread to every discipline in our universities, colleges and schools”.
Cultural Marxism, Hilton tells us, is:
“Based upon categorizing people into abstract groups and then creating a narrative of historical oppression between them. It is a fifth column inside these countries to destroy the foundations of Western culture. Its theories, which obsess about colonization, subjugation and oppression, have indeed colonized higher education in the West. Its purpose is social engineering must by an elite determined to remake society along ideological lines.”
Hilton wrote an article for The Spectator in Australia about how Cultural Marxism is even responsible for right-wing extremism itself. The article was subsequently deleted after his anti-Semitism was highlighted. He continues to write for a series far-right online blogs (Richards et al., 2021) including about Cultural Marxism. For example, within a post titled “The womb is Cultural Marxism’s gas chamber” he argues “racial and cultural identity is an inversion of the Nazi form of Marxism” but “instead of death camps though, our holocaust occurs in abortion centres and hospital”. He therefore “abhors the priestly class of intellectuals, academics and artists who spread Cultural Marxism” (Richards et al., 2021: 123).
Cultural Marxism has often surfaced in mainstream right-wing discourses in the UK. For example, in 2007, Paul Dacre, the then editor of The Daily Mail (a mainstream, mass market newspaper) claimed the BBC had been captured by Cultural Marxism. During his editorship, he published an explanation of “how the BBC fell for a Marxist plot to destroy civilisation from within”. The term made a high-profile return to the mainstream of British politics in 2019 when the UK’s most senior lawyer, The Attorney General, Suella Braverman, she said, “As Conservatives we are engaged in a battle against Cultural Marxism, where banning things is becoming de rigueur; where freedom of speech is becoming a taboo; where our universities, quintessential institutions of liberalism, are being shrouded in censorship and a culture of no-platforming”.
Despite its connotations, a minority of individuals on the Right in the UK are still unsure whether to describe their enemy’s ideology as Cultural Marxism or something new called ‘wokeness’. For example, Tombs tells his readers that “some call wokeness cultural Marxism”. This ‘some’ includes a group of 59 Conservative MPs and 7 peers who call themselves the “Common-Sense Group”. They wrote to The Telegraph newspaper to claim the correct term for wokeness is “Cultural Marxist dogma”. In America, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis calls “wokeness a form of Cultural Marxism”. However, in the UK wokeness has predominately superseded Cultural Marxism while performing an identical function - albeit without the antisemitic origin story. We are told the wokeness has captured Britain’s news media, corporations, the British civil service, public health bodies such as The NHS, and The Church of England.
Educational institutions are often singled out as engines of wokeness. The public is told university staff are prejudiced against conservatives, that universities "kowtow" to woke orthodoxy and capitulate to woke mobs by sacking academics. Universities are said to be dropping standards because they are woke, and are subsequently “patronising and racist”. Goodwin tells us universities are “infected” by Critical Race Theory, which, we are told, is another form of wokeism. It is also claimed universities oppress individuals, suppress free speech and are unwilling to tolerate free and open debate. The result, according to Goodwin, is “rigorous robust surveys” (produced by political think tanks such as The Policy Exchange and The Legatum Institute and not peer reviewed such as this one) show “athird of academics self-censor”.
So called ‘woke academics’ commissed by the National Trust to highlight the colonial links to its properties and artefacts are accused by The Common Sense group of MPs of indulging in “radical projects which disparage our nation” because they “despise the history of its people” and want to “rewrite our history in their image”. Baron Moore of Etchingham claimed National Trust had been “rolled over by extremists”. Tombs declared such “woke history” is “polluting our cultural springs”. Some people felt so angry about this issue that they sent the leader of the National Trust death threats.
Echoing Hilton’s concern for the presence of Cultural Marxism in schools, we are told by outlets such as RT and The Telegraph that wokeism has reached children by capturing their schools, which are said to be indoctrinating children with Critical Race Theory, lowering standards because they are woke, telling children to “avoid an open display of Britishness”, and teaching them to be “hostile to Britishness and symbols of British identity” thereby “destroying the foundational values of British culture”.
This alleged influence of wokeism has led Tombs to declare “the collapse of intellectual freedom in the West” because wokeness is “extending a deadening grip not only over the educational system” but over our “whole cultural life” and the “English-speaking world”. The publication Spiked! says we are witnessing nothing less than a “war against the Enlightenment” itself.
The reasons for this transition from Cultural Marxism to wokeism are unclear. Braverman was widely rebuked for evoking an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory and she hasn’t repeated the far-right trope since. Conservative writer Douglas Murray, dislikes the term Cultural Marxism not because he has “ever have ever heard a particular anti-Semitic tinge to the term”, but because he “tends to find single, totalistic explanations for massively complex events to be unpersuasive”. Yet wokeness offers a similar totalising explanation – even to Murray himself who tells us young people “are anxious and helpless” because they have been “indoctrinated by the woke cult” as part of the “War on the West”.
The history of “wokeness” reveals its early 20th century origins when it represented heightened awareness within Black American communities of racist discrimination and violence directed towards them. The #StayWoke hashtag in response to events in Ferguson in 2014 protests and a subsequent documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement helped popularise the term for social media users around the world. However, a backlash developed in America that accused some people of performing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter campaign or unjustifiably claiming to be oppressed. Perhaps the key to understanding the popularity of this form wokeness as a pejorative term is through thinking about what it represents to members of the anti-woke community who have imported this backlash into the UK.
This community constructs wokeness exclusively as an elitist and inauthentic luxury belief that presages hypocrisy, fake-victimhood, insincerity, narcissism and self-indulgence. However, as progressive activists in the UK rarely if ever refer to themselves as woke, the backlash targets anyone perceived to be participating in activities that anti-woke campaigners call woke, such as taking the knee. The concept of ‘wokeism’ therefore offers anti-woke campaigners a framework within which they can attack and, in their eyes, discredit anti-racist activism in way that allows them to appear to be morally superior to their audience and more ‘in-touch’ with people who, in contrast to the woke, they construct as ‘authentic’, ‘honest’, ‘plain-speaking’: the ‘ordinary working-classes’.
This positioning is often coupled with sympathy for whites who are constructed as victims of wokeism or what Goodwin calls a “sort of informal alliance between white elites, corporations and minorities against the white working class” . We are told that working class whites are “the most disadvantaged group in Britain” by spokespeople for their interests and tastes such as Toby Young.
But since the anti-woke community retains the right to arbitrate between what is genuine and what is fake without ever acknowledging that ‘the woke’ (whoever they are) may have something to be concerned about and it morally delegitimatizes and stigmatises everyone who doesn’t share its worldview: ironically mirroring the dismissal of people are said to have legitimate concerns about immigration who the anti-woke community say they represent. The anti-woke campaign is therefore synchronised with a wider reactionary politics that seeks to resist, for the “sake of social cohesion”, what Kaufmann calls “ethno-cultural change”.
Opponents of wokeism also claim it is a pseudo-religion. For example, Goodwin calls wokeness; “A pseudo-religious belief system which is organised around the sacralization of racial, sexual & gender minorities & prioritises subjectivity & lived experience over objectivity and empirical evidence”.
This frame has resonated within the anti-woke community. Laurance Fox, leader of the anti-woke Reclaim Party that is founded and financed by the hedge fund manager Jeremy Hosking, said wokeism is “a burgeoning religion with no repentance and no forgiveness, concluding that the “the Woke religion is evil”.
The perceived enforcement of wokeism is therefore compared to medieval and early modern violence including the “burning witches at the stake, lynch mobs, and self-flagellation”, the “Inquisition”, “Puritanism” and the Taliban’s more recent religious intolerance and violence. Some, such as Fox, compare wokeism to fascism: he “never understood before how Nazi Germany could happen” but now, thanks to wokeism, he does.
This framing performs a number of functions. It reinforces claims that ‘the woke’ are a zealous powerful, elite that is opposed to the ordinary people’s pride in ‘their’ past; freedom of speech, thought and conscience. Additionally, this definition helps the anti-woke present themselves as the opposite of a dogmatic religion: rational, guided by science, empiricism and the values of The Enlightenment, and only interested in resolving conflict through civil interlocution that is protected by the right to free speech. This also confers on the anti-woke the moral authority or even the duty to intercede on behalf of ‘ordinary’, ‘rational’ people whenever they see the ‘values of the Enlightenment’ being violated.
The concept of wokeism has therefore become a powerful discursive tool. It is used to confer moral authority on a group that includes professors, MPs, hedge-fund managers, barons and columnists who claim to be the anti-elite while trying to convince a very particular that its cultural investments and future are under attack from an ill-defined, morally inferior yet powerful, organised and dangerous outgroup that “infects” and “pollutes” all that is pure, won’t listen to reason and cannot be appeased.
The language of infection and pollution is particularly significant because as Kristeva informs us it is the language of abjection: the abject ‘does not respect borders, positions, rules’ and ‘disturbs identity, system, order’. Woke ideas are constructed as abject: a form disrespect that needs to framed as an inhuman: a pathogen that infects, or a disgusting foreign body that pollutes. Right-wing identity is then ‘established through the process of negation and rejection, where what lies outside the boundary is as significant (in its exclusion) as what is contained within it.’
There are issues within these discourses that require critical attention, such as low levels of educational attainment in former mining towns, which incidentally have been the subject of sociological study for decades before any Conservative MPs identified it as a contemporary policy failure. However, framing these issues within a Manichean, inflammatory and therefore dangerous moral panic that looks almost identical to Cultural Marxism helps no one.
Blog post by Huw Davies, Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh
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The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.