By Justin Looi
It is the early 20th century. The socialist revolution predicted by Marx has foundered outside the Soviet Union and capitalism is as deeply rooted as before. Antonio Gramsci, trying to explain it, writes about how “cultural hegemony” of the ruling class maintains enforces a social order; in his writings, the working class needed to come up with a social order of their own to counter the “common” sense of the bourgeoisie. Later, the Frankfurt School at Goethe University Frankfurt expanded this critique to all social values, including gender, family, sexuality and culture, to be a bourgeoise blunt to the people’s desire to revolt alongside religion. Culture, members said, needed to be changed from the top down by members of the working class.
Regardless of the validity of these claims, a right-wing conspiracy theory sprang from this largely rhetorical discussion: that Communists were secretly infiltrating Western institutions to undermine “Western” values. It started – unsurprisingly – in Nazi Germany, where “cultural Bolshevism” was used as a convenient scapegoat for post-World War I suffering, causing moral and cultural “decay”. It was vague, easily recycled, and fit into the umbrella anti-Semitism targeting the already minority Jewish population of Europe.
Even today, with the horrors of the Holocaust behind us, denialists and revisionists bring back the dusty conspiracy theory on messaging boards, social media and more recently, on the streets.
“Cultural Marxism” is not the only leftist concept bastardised and co-opted by the right wing to justify xenophobia and misogyny. Feminism is an uphill climb that was interconnected with the queer struggle from its very beginning, but privileged white feminists (and ironically, misogynists) have co-opted its language to attack trans and non-binary people. Corporations shamelessly utilise “rainbow capitalism” to appeal to youth via lead-generated consumer data. For every revolutionary struggle, there is a watered-down remodel palatable to the bourgeoisie status quo. Not only are they as paradoxical as mass-produced Che Guevara t-shirts, but they actively muddy the waters of activism and leftism.
Reclaiming terms from the far right is possible, but difficult, as the war of perception is heavily in favour of those with power and privilege. It takes constant, loud and uncompromising reminders for the left to even begin countering media strangleholds from Youtube algorithms and news pundits. More importantly, the privileged must put aside their need to be coddled and understand that the learning process comes from a place of anger, and from that anger blooms the need for justice and reparations.
Very often, leftist terminology is rooted in historical events, names, culture and philosophy. Their stolen versions are therefore more easily spread by definition, as it is easier to dismiss feminism as “shrill women” rather than sit through a detailed description of the multiple waves and aims of early 20th century suffrage movements. Simplifying liberation risks losing valuable nuance and intersectionality, though, so the responsibility still lies in the hands of those doing the learning. It is unfortunate that too many centrists misinterpret anger as a personal attack rather than part of the learning process.