The culture wars: a Marxist analysis

Issue: 183

Judy Cox

Is Western civilisation under threat from an enemy within?1 An enemy that has been pampered, cosseted and nurtured within its all-too-liberal schools and universities, encouraged by “woke” teachers and indulged by tofu-eating academics? The Telegraph thinks so, declaring, “‘Woke’ is more than an insult, it’s a threat to our freedom”.2 Frank Furedi, revolutionary turned culture warrior, thinks so too, bemoaning “the woke crusade against Western civilisation”.3 Woke lefties are undermining the foundations of Western life, which is, of course, disarming Britain in the face of its mortal enemies. Doug Stokes, author of Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West, argues that “woke identity politics” has undermined the confidence and authority of the West.4 Russia and China have noticed the West’s ostentatious repudiation of its own achievements, traditions and values, just as the world enters a new era of great power competition.5

According to the liberal faction of the ruling class, it was not supposed to be like this. In the 1990s, globalisation was seen as an alternative to international conflict and ceaseless war, promising endless economic growth and greater personal freedom. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and their acolytes mapped out their Third Way, which combined economic neoliberalism with a promise to rise above the old left-right divisions. A central element of the Third Way was the idea of reforming society to reward individuals according to their capacities rather than reproducing traditional race and gender hierarchies. Yet, the promises of globalisation, of peace and prosperity, of a “post-racial”, and “post-feminist” equality have proved to be a dystopia shaken by multiple crises, intensifying inequalities, brutal wars and the rise of the new right.

Politicians with nothing real to offer their electorates became adept at deflecting anger by whipping up performative “wars” on ultralow emission zones, pronouns, the Royal National Lifeboat Institute and the National Trust’s vegan scones. The list could go on. Culture wars are morbid symptoms of the failure of successive governments of left, centre and right to address the needs of their electorates. The issues dragged into the culture wars are constantly evolving, but British political commentators have identified what they call “wedge issues”, which politicians see as having the potential to win over voters from other parties. These wedge issues include celebrations of British nationalism and the monarchy, defending the traditional family, whipping up Islamophobia and scapegoating refugees. Still, promoting these wedge issues does not guarantee electoral success. Incumbent parties of the right in Poland and Brazil (and probably soon in Britain) have been rejected by their electorates. That said, in general, the right has been more successful than the left in articulating anger against the system and coalescing this into new political movements.

Right-wing politicians have always used scapegoats to deflect discontent. Former British home secretary Suella Braverman’s talk of an invasion of asylum seekers spoke to a long-standing rhetoric of threat and violence, which stretches back to Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech.6 By invoking the idea of a broader culture war, they can construct coalitions of religious and political conservatives, uniting racists, anti-gender activists and climate change deniers behind a “compelling social narrative”.7 Judith Butler has described how, in the United States, the idea of gender has become a “phantasm” that expresses escalating multitudes of moral panics.8 If our way of life is under threat, we come together and organise to defend it. Dominic Sandbrook declared in The Daily Mail, “The culture war is one we MUST fight!”.9 The culture wars become more intense and more violent as the multiple crises rocking society become deeper and more prolonged. While the political centre ground disintegrates, the culture warriors become more determined to be the beneficiaries.

Culture wars: a brief history

Sociologist Irene Taviss Thompson argues that there are no culture wars, but rather just new iterations of old debates. There is some truth to this. Today’s culture wars can appear as the latest battle in a decades-long war waged by the political establishment to roll back the gains made in the great revolts of the 1960s.10 As Andrew Hartman argues in his history of the US culture wars, A War for the Soul of America, the detonator for that conflagration was the Vietnam War, in which some 57,000 US-Americans—young, working class and disproportionately black—died, along with some 3 million Vietnamese people.11 The revolts of the late 1960s were fuelled by a history of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, racism, and imposed conformity to gender and sexual norms. The urban uprisings and student revolts gave a voice to those for whom “the American dream is an American nightmare”, as Malcolm X wrote.12

A new left broke free of its Stalinist inheritance and developed new ideas of revolution based on the refusal to conform, the validity of identity, and global solidarity focused on figures such as Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon.13 The huge ideological impact of the protests swept into academia. In 1968, a six month-long strike by black students at San Fransisco State University succeeded in establishing the first Black Studies department. The following year, the Stonewall riots erupted, the Gay Liberation Front was launched and Carol Hanisch first advanced the slogan “The Personal is Political!”, highlighting the revolutionary idea that gender is not natural but rather made and thus can be unmade.14 The new left sought to transform every aspect of US culture, a project Malcolm X called the “un-brainwashing” of the whole society.15

This “un-brainwashing” was contested by the establishment. Republican Richard Nixon won the 1972 presidential election with a promise to renew faith in the US and to stop children being taught to be ashamed of their history.16 Seven years earlier, Daniel Moynihan, Nixon’s advisor, had achieved notoriety when he asserted that black communities were impoverished because of the lack of “family values”.17 By 1970, Moynihan was formulating his own war on “the adversary culture, which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation”.18 Nixon’s nostalgia for a lost national pride and Moynihan’s use of racist tropes to excuse structural inequality could easily come straight from the Fox TV and GB News playbooks today. Culture warriors may despise talk of climate change, but they are certainly adept at recycling old material.

After 1991, the external enemies of the US establishment appeared to be vanquished due to the collapse of the state capitalist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The idea of a culture war registered this shift in politics by replacing traditional notions of class conflict and the left-right opposition with battles based on the politics of morality and religion. The phrase “culture war” had already been used in a number of different ways since the 19th century. However, it was in the early 1990s that the term’s usage was revived with its contemporary connotation, for instance, by the publication of James Davidson Hunter’s highly influential Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (Basic Books, 1991). Thus, George H W Bush’s 1992 presidential election campaign focused on the necessity of fighting a “culture war” that was judged “as critical to the kind of nation we will be as was the Cold War itself”.19

The resurgent right wing was united by a focus on “un-American” popular culture. In 1992, an uprising erupted in Los Angeles when members of the Los Angeles Police Department, who had been filmed beating a black man, Rodney King, were acquitted by an all-white jury. At least 63 people were killed in the riots, 12,000 were arrested, and the damage to property ran to some $1 billion. Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan explained that the riots “came out of public schools from which the Bible and Ten Commandments were long ago expelled. It came out of rock concerts where rap music extols raw lust and cop-killing. It came out of churches that long ago gave themselves up to social action, and it came out of families that never existed”.20 Buchanan’s explanation for the riots neatly tied together the standard tropes of the culture wars: lefty schools, the demise of the family and, of course, that great threat to society, rap music.

Racism unpinned George H W Bush’s presidency, with the issue of crime and the war on drugs becoming thinly disguised justifications for increasing state racism, surveillance and incarceration. This racist agenda was invoked in pseudo-academic studies, including Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (Basic Books, 1984), which claimed that black US citizens were privileged by the welfare system, and The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, 1994), which argued that black people were trapped in poverty due to their supposedly low cognitive abilities.21 Racism was successfully mobilised by successive waves of US politicians. In the early 21st century, the so-called War on Terror provided the context for an intensification of Islamophobia and the framing of Muslims as both an internal and external threat.

Culture wars, however, are not just attempts to rehabilitate old racism or roll back freedoms won since the 1960s. The infamous US Alt-Right, which emerged during Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign, looked back to Pat Buchanan for inspiration while simultaneously mobilising the new right-wing communities that had coalesced on social media. The rising Alt-Right based itself on a distinction between “establishment conservatives” (also known as “Republicans In Name Only” or “RINOS”), who worship free markets and whose time is up, and “natural conservatives” who seek to protect “their” culture from the “intractable nemesis in the regressive left”.22 Trump’s victory in 2016, they crowed, demonstrated the existence of a “grassroots appetite for more robust protection of the Western European and American way of life”.23

This “robust protection” signalled something more dangerous than official politics. The culture wars waged by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and the Bushes aimed to win electoral victories and to facilitate the “normal” business of government: pursuing imperialist wars and attacking the living standards of working-class people. Today’s culture wars intensify long-standing conservative rhetoric to win elections, but also to mobilise movements willing to take extra-parliamentary action such as the failed insurrection staged by Trump supporters on the Capitol Building, Washington DC on 6 January 2021. There is an ever-present danger that culture wars will feed into fascist and populist movements that deploy violence to crush all progressive movements and overthrow liberal democracy.

British culture wars

The US rebellions of the 1960s found an echo in Britain. Thousands of young people took to the streets against war and oppression, imagined post-capitalist futures, and joined revolutionary socialist groups. As these movements retreated and the hoped-for revolution failed to materialise, many young activists became demoralised. Some found a home in the Labour Party, where they converged around Tony Benn’s unsuccessful campaign to become leader in 1982.

For much of the 1980s, high-profile industrial disputes ensured that the focus of political debate in Britain was the class war rather than the culture war. However, the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike in 1985 strengthened the idea that the once-powerful working-class movement was fatally wounded. The only realistic strategy for change, many on the political left claimed, was to radicalise the Labour Party and use municipal councils as vehicles for social change.

The municipal socialists of the 1980s had formed their politics in the mass movement against the National Front led by the Anti-Nazi League.24 The immediate threat of the National Front was averted, but racism continued to be a potent weapon in the hands of the Tory Party. In a pre-election interview in 1979, Thatcher made an overt appeal to racists when she said, “I think people are really afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture”.25

In 1981, racist policing sparked a series of uprisings across Britain’s inner cities. Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council, argued that the riots were not about black criminality, but rather came as a consequence of neglect, unemployment, racial discrimination and racist policing. He was pilloried as the “Trotsky of County Hall” and blamed for encouraging the riots.26 Livingstone and the Labour left also adopted a principled position towards the Irish Republican Army (IRA), arguing that it was made up of militant nationalists, not criminal terrorists, and they were denounced as apologists for terrorism. The right-wing media also lampooned Livingstone’s support for gay rights. The Sunday Express connected the two issues by calling him “an IRA-loving, poof-loving Marxist”.27 This homophobia was intensified during the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s, when the Tories whipped up a culture war against gay people. The outcome of this manufactured outrage was Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned the “promotion” of homosexual behaviour in schools, effectively enshrining homophobia in education into British law.

The Tory press magnified a sense of a rupture between left-wing politicians and taxpaying ordinary voters, whose money was allegedly being squandered on the “feckless and freaky”.28 This antagonism was encapsulated in the slogan “Political Correctness Gone Mad”, a cliché that became a parody. Anyone promoting equality, respectful language and inclusion was pathologised as the “looney left”. This offensive characterisation of mental health was central to media portrayals of those opposed to bigotry. However, many of the ideas that were so derided in the 1980s are now widely accepted. Gerry Adams, once a Republican prisoner in the Maze Prison, became a member of the guard of honour at Nelson Mandela’s funeral and shook hands with both Prince Charles and George W Bush. Same-sex adoption was legalised in 2002, and gay marriage was made legal in Britain in 2014. Other culture wars have erupted, particularly since the rise of Islamophobia as a component of the War on Terror. Political correctness, however, is now established as mainstream.

Culture wars pursued over the last decade have followed a similar fault line, but the “metropolitan elite” has replaced the “looney left”, and inherently conservative “Red Wall” voters have replaced the long-suffering taxpayers. Such characterisations conveniently obscure how Conservative Party governments have consistently ignored genuine grievances about the erosion of public services and the neglect of local communities. This generated a sense of betrayal and injustice that was exploited by the UK Independence Party and Nigel Farage, the stockbroker who posed as the champion of a British working class silenced by political correctness and left behind by the London elite.29 The Brexit vote in June 2016 was both an opportunity to give the finger to the business-as-usual establishment and a mobilisation of racism and xenophobic prejudices.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015 offered the prospect of a progressive alternative to the right wing. He was consistently vilified by the media and portrayed as out of touch with working-class voters. Repeated accusations of antisemitism intimidated the Corbynistas, and Corbyn himself retreated under the onslaught.30 At the 2019 general election, this created the space for Old Etonian Boris Johnson to pose as a man of the people who would “Get Brexit Done” and as an insurgent against the liberal establishment, which provided an alibi for the Tories’ own failures. However, Corbyn’s rise and fall, including the impressive extent of electoral support for his Labour Party in the previous general election in 2017, suggest that a more audacious anti-establishment left could have won significant support by calling for an end to austerity and by challenging oppression.

The anti-establishment establishment

The culture wars are intensifying in both the US and Britain. The unrelenting grind of making ends meet dominates our lives and generates frustration and bitterness; any security we might enjoy can be ripped away on the whim of a multinational or a politician’s misjudged budget. Mainstream political parties offer no solutions to economic, environmental and social crises. Despite some notable and sustained strikes, the labour movement has lacked the confidence and leadership to force major concessions. In this context, right-wing populists can pose as anti-capitalists by voicing opposition to both global corporations and progressive politics, which are seen as equally hostile to the interests of “ordinary” working-class families. The populist right is nourished by anger and despair. The more it feeds, the more it grows the capacity to pose as a disrupter, a catalyst for change, and a champion of the marginalised and left behind. This type of fake anti-capitalist posturing echoes that of fascist movements throughout the 20th century.31

Today’s culture wars juxtapose “normal”, gender-conservative people with corrupt elites and greedy corporate capitalists who force them to accept feminism, multiculturalism and gay rights. The targets of the culture war include transnational institutions, such as the United Nations and World Health Organization, and iconic figures of global capitalism such as Bill Gates and George Soros, who have also been the subject of antisemitic conspiracy theories. Hostility towards these establishment figures enables more recently arrived multi-billionaires such as Trump and Elon Musk to pose as insurgent outsiders. Media platforms associated with these self-styled outsiders are in reality the mouthpieces of the wealthy. For instance, GB News trumpets the slogan “Don’t let them silence us!”, but is jointly owned by Paul Marshall, who is worth £630 million, and investment firm Legatum. Wealth insulates media platforms from market failure; GB News made a loss of £42 million for the year ending 2023. Marshall also owns and subsidises Unherd, a magazine that gives a platform to reactionaries of all persuasions.32

These publications love to pretend that once-justified calls for greater equality have gone too far. Now, it is supposedly white, male heterosexuals who are the victims. Millionaire misogynists style themselves as self-help gurus and feed on men’s sense of grievance about their unfulfilled lives, offering easily grasped solutions: “Can’t get sex? Blame uppity women ruined by feminism! Can’t get a job? Blame positive discrimination for privileging black people!” Calls for white men to rise up and assert their “rights” can legitimise violence against women, LGBT+ people and black people. Such calls are strengthened by the more astute ideologues of the right wing, who appropriate the language of the political left. In the looking glass world of publications such as The Daily Mail and the Spiked website, transgender people are not only at “war with the family”, they are also waging “war on equality”.33 Right-wing commentators with no previous recorded interest in women’s rights leap to our defence, but only to legitimise their opposition to trans rights. Yet, transphobes and anti-gender activists share the same desire to “dismantle practices, institutions and policies which have sought to revise and expand freedom and equality”.34 Alliances based on intensifying the oppression of others can only strengthen the right wing and increase the harm they threaten.

How the left took over the world

According to the culture warriors, the “woke” left has captured all the major institutions of society. GB News presenter Andrew Doyle describes how “the evangelists of social justice” have taken control of “our major cultural, political, educational and corporate institutions, thirsty for opportunities to be seen to vanquish devils, be they real or imagined”.35 Doyle compares this to McCarthyite witch hunts in the 1950s—only this time, of course, the Reds are the hunters rather than the prey.36 To explain how the universally despised woke lefties have taken over society, the US far right has fomented the bizarre conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism. The Cultural Marxism in question emanated from a group of mostly Jewish Marxist intellectuals, known as the Frankfurt School, which included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm. They were forced to flee Nazi Germany in the 1930s, establishing themselves in the US, where they developed pioneering studies of popular culture and capitalist hegemony. With the exception of Marcuse, the Frankfurt philosophers were known for standing aloof from political engagement. Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács described the Frankfurt Marxists as having taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss”, where they could indulge their pessimism instead of engaging with any struggle for change.37 They might be surprised to find themselves accused of guiding generations of Marxists to cultural domination.

In a 1992 article, “The Frankfurt School and ‘Political Correctness’”, which some consider the origin of the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory, Michael Minnicino, an activist in the far-right cult around prominent conspiracist Lyndon LaRouche, wrote that the task of the Frankfurt School was “to undermine the Judeo-Christian legacy through an “abolition of culture”. The aim was nothing less than to “determine new cultural forms that would increase the alienation of the population, thus creating a ‘new barbarism’”.38 In the 21st century, this idea of Cultural Marxism developed into a conspiracy theory cited by, among others, far-right mass murderer Anders Breivik. Despite its associations with fascists and terrorists, the conspiracy theory has been dragged into the mainstream because it offers an ostensibly intellectual explanation of how lefties cheated their way to cultural hegemony. In 2019, while home secretary, Braverman wrote, “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”.39

In the last couple of years, Cultural Marxism has been joined by Critical Race Theory as the main ideological threats to society. The very mention of Critical Race Theory sends US Republicans into a lather. Trump called it “a crusade against American history” and an “ideological poison that will destroy our country”.40 Put simply, Critical Race Theory encourages people to approach history through the lens of racism. It developed in response to the enduring structural racism endemic in US institutions and wider society. Yet, the right wing wants to avoid any talk about the legacy of racism—much easier to blame Critical Race Theory for encouraging prejudice against white people and exacerbating racial divisions. Discussions of Critical Race Theory have been banned from schools in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. In the land of the free, in a country built on genocide and slavery, stained by the long decades of Jim Crow segregation and traumatised by the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, discussing racism is banned in the centres of learning attended by hundreds of thousands of children.

Like the idea of Cultural Marxism, a moral panic about Critical Race Theory has arrived in Britain. The secretary of state for trade in Rishi Sunak’s government, Kemi Badenoch, is certainly a fan. In 2020, she told the House of Commons that schools that teach Critical Race Theory could be breaking the law.41 She then told The Spectator that Critical Race Theory was infiltrating other institutions besides schools, including the National Health Service and the civil service. Bizzarely, Badenoch claimed that its teachings advocated a segregated society.42 The culture wars create a political framework in which, when the marginalised seek political representation, they are condemned as simply being part of the hated political establishment, while those attempting to challenge racism can be accused of sowing the seeds of racial division.

The anatomy of a moral panic

It is easy to spark moral panic: take a right-wing trope; add a story that can be (mis)interpreted to confirm that trope and, if the details are not shocking enough, spice it up; and express shock and horror about the story (remember, though, that the weaker the story, the louder the shock and horror must be). Then use the fake story to justify a wider criticism of woke, lefty excesses and create a sense of escalating crisis. This pattern was set by the Baa, Baa, Black Sheep saga in 1986, when workers at a parent-run nursery in Hackney questioned the nursery rhyme’s negative use of the word “black”. The story was picked up by the Daily Star and endlessly repeated until it achieved the status of an urban myth.43 This model of producing moral panic is now standard practice.

Doyle’s The New Puritans invites us to share his outrage at the way in which the Holy Land Grocer, a successful chain of Middle Eastern grocery shops in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was targeted by over-zealous Black Lives Matter campaigners simply because the owner’s daughter made “racially insensitive comments” on social media when she was a naive teenager. Yet, Lianne Wadi was not just a confused teen who made a mistake. She posted multiple tweets: “Top races you wish to eliminate. Ready, go! Jews, blacks, fats”;“#IfIWasPresident I would finish off what Hitler started and rule the world”; “Holy s**t. I just realised. blacks are just as bad as Jews. #GasEmAll”.44 Racist attitudes also permeated the owner’s attitude to their black employees and customers. A brief internet search is enough to demonstrate that Doyle’s “witch hunt” was a legitimate protest against the normalisation of overt racism and antisemitism.

The award for the (unintentionally) funniest example of a manufactured moral panic goes to a cartoon about police dogs, Paw Patrol. In June 2020, during the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, journalist Amanda Hess reported in The New York Times on growing calls to “euthanise the police dogs”.45 White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that the cartoon had been axed due to “cancel culture”.46 Yet, the story was untrue. By 25 July, the BBC reported that the makers of Paw Patrol were trying to reassure its many young fans.47

The animated pups of Paw Patrol are not the only fluffy creatures causing moral panics. In the summer of 2022, rumours of a “growing crisis” in public schools began to circulate in the US, with claims that schools were allowing children to identify as animals and become “furries”. Furries are people fascinated by anthropomorphic or cartoon animals. Some create fursonas, wear fursuits, and participate in online and in-person communities. Media portrayals of furries focus on their sexual attraction to anthropomorphised animals, but many furries say that there is no sexual element to their identity.48 Heidi Ganahl, the Republican nominee to stand to be governor of Colorado, accused schools in Jefferson County of providing litter boxes for furries, ignoring the school district’s denials. The district includes Columbine High School, the site of a mass shooting that left 15 dead in 1999. The state’s classrooms are stocked with small amounts of cat litter and other emergency supplies in case students are ever locked down in their classrooms and need to go to the toilet. Ganahl champions the right to own guns, but mocks schools forced to deal with the consequences when those guns are used.

In Britain, a similar moral panic about furries began with a leaked audio snippet of pupils at Rye College in East Sussex debating whether a person could identify as a cat. Within days, and thanks to a media frenzy led by The Sun and Daily Mail, Sunak and Keir Starmer were being asked about the furries. Never one to avoid the spotlight, Katharine Birbalsingh, the famously reactionary headteacher of Michaela Community School in Wembly, North West London, weighed in by telling The Daily Telegraph that she knew of a school where a pupil identified as “a gay male hologram”. All this happened despite Rye College itself saying no children had identified “as a cat or any other animal”. Faked stories spread by the media and manipulated by politicians stand as warnings of what happens when the “woke brigade” triumph. Tolerance and inclusivity inevitably lead to euthanised police dogs and furry domination.

Things never were what they used to be

Nostalgia is a key element of the culture wars: nostalgia for the entirely fictional idea of a simple time “when men were men” and women were happily oppressed. The culture wars have been described as a backlash against progressive movements, but, as Judith Butler notes, they are driven by a stronger wish to restore a fantasy of patriarchal power, fixed sexual identities and white supremacy.49 Nostalgia is weaponised to rehabilitate the British Empire. Back in 1982, Thatcher articulated nostalgia for the British Empire when she gave a speech celebrating victory in the Falklands War; according to her, some feared “Britain was no longer the nation that had built an empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well, they were wrong”.50 Faced with protests against the commemoration of colonialists such as Cecil Rhodes, Oxford University theologian Nigel Biggar wrote to The Times calling on the British to “moderate our post-colonial guilt”.51 As the Black Lives Matter movement demanded decolonisation of academia, Biggar told The Telegraph, “Academics fear being ‘mobbed’ if they stand up for the British Empire”.52 In other words, people disagreed with him, and he did not like it. The delusional Biggar likened himself to a dissident in Stalinist Russia and compared the “friends” who refused to back his stance to collaborators in Nazi Germany.53

In his 2021 book Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves, Peter Mitchell argues that empire is a “constant background noise to our culture”.54 Far-right politics attract those “harking back to the purity of a lost golden age, the fetishisation of its relics, the sense that it is immanent in the present and capable of realisation through some purgative act of violence”. The demand that people must be permitted to reassert the value of empire can shade into a fascistic worldview because “violence is encoded in the nostalgic imaginery”.55 Today’s culture warriors demand that the right wing is able to commemorate empire, nationalism and military victories, including the genocide of indigenous populations and mass murder in industrialised warfare.56

Nostalgia for the British Empire can feed into other preoccupations of the culture wars. Right-wing pundits such as Biggar expound a kind of academic version of the Great Replacement Theory.57 They argue that standards are slipping since excellent (white and male) students are being replaced by inferior (black and female) candidates due to political correctness. Biggar is the director of Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, which argues that creating safe spaces and not platforming offensive views strangles intellectual debate and has a morally enervating influence on students.58 Pro-colonialist and transphobic academics such as Biggar, Kathleen Stock and Niall Ferguson champion free space as long as they have the lectern. However, if people disagree with them and protest against their views, they revel in posing as martyrs to the cause of free speech. These victims of “woke” intolerance demand that academia provides a safe space for bigots and reactionaries, where they can be adequately protected from the challenge of inconveniently progressive students.

The new puritans: the myth of left-wing intolerance

The culture warriors depict the political left as censorious killjoys and zealots. The “problem” with the lefties is that they refuse to laugh along with dodgy banter and object to dehumanising language and prejudiced attitudes. The academics and commentators who proudly defy being cancelled by these zealots bravely dare to “say the unsayable” from the huge variety of national and international platforms made available to them. There are, however, limits to the right wing’s veneration of free speech. The very same culture warriors and governments that champion free speech also love banning anti-capitalist materials from the classroom, anti-racist teaching from schools and expressions of solidarity with Palestine from the streets. Freedom of speech, according to this view, is the freedom to humiliate and marginalise the oppressed, not to speak truth to power.

US culture warriors are very worried about the impact of all this left-wing intolerance on academia. In the inexplicably influential book The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Educaion Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (Simon and Schuster, 1987), Allen Bloom attacked the moral relativism that had supposedly taken over US universities and undermined rigorous enquiry, critical thinking and real knowledge. This relativism, Bloom argued, created a dangerous void that could be filled by demagogic radicals, whether they be the student leaders of the 1960s or Nazi brownshirts. Bloom’s inability to distinguish between progressive students and Nazis was further demonstrated when he compared the US of the 1980s to Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s, because both generated a “highly ideologised student population”.59 These historical comparisons might create the impression that Bloom developed a theoretical critique of progressive ideas in academia. Yet, most of his book is a self-indulgent and soporific rant against the corrupting influence of rock music.

In their 2018 update of Bloom’s work, Greg Lukianoff and John Haidt’s big idea is that student demands for social justice, with their “safe spaces”, intersectionality theories and call-out culture, are not justifiable attempts to combat historic inequalities. Rather, they are symptoms of mental instability that can be cured by cognitive behaviour therapy. Feeling marginalised or threatened? Then put down your “Black Lives Matter!” and “Reclaim These Streets!” placards, and get yourself some therapy! This pathologising of oppression reframes debates about challenging the racism and sexism inherent in the institutions of capitalism, urging a focus on preparing individuals to accept those institutions.

Some right-wing thinkers seek more high-minded evidence for the idea of left-wing intolerance than Bloom, Haidt and Lukianoff can offer, and these turn to Herbert Marcuse, a member of the Frankfurt School and mentor to famed black radical Angela Davis. Marcuse’s 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance”, has attracted some quite lurid headlines, including “How Marcuse made today’s students less tolerant than their parents”, “Marcuse-Anon: Cult of the pseudo-intellectual”, and “Malicious Marcuse”.60 Marcuse argues that a free exchange of ideas is impossible in a capitalist society. This is a question of material power: “The left has no equal voice, no equal access to the mass media and their public facilities—not because a conspiracy excludes it, but because, in good old capitalist fashion, it does not have the required purchasing power”.61 It is also because the prevailing ideas in society involve an unquestioned acceptance of entrenched attitudes generated by the ruling class, even when they erode the well-being and freedom of others. Genuine tolerance can only exist when these deeply rooted but harmful attitudes are no longer tolerated. “Not ‘equal’ but more representation of the left would be equalisation of the prevailing inequality”, Marcuse argued. Free speech and genuine tolerance for diverse views can only ever be aspirations when the media is dominated by huge corporations and eccentric billionaires, including a capitalist “common sense” that distorts ideas of normality and limits the audience for radical critiques of the status quo.

Identity, class and socialism

The right wing hates progressive identity politics. When Badenoch launched her Tory leadership campaign in July 2022, she did so with an attack on identity politics, which she declared was a threat to “our” values.62 “Is identity politics ruining democracy?”, asked political scientist Francis Fukuyama in Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Profile Books, 2018), as if the clamour for our identities to be acknowledged somehow threatens to overwhelm society.63 Marxist philosophers from Fanon to Nancy Fraser have analysed the corrosive effects of racism, sexism and colonialism on those who find their identities denied, marginalised and eradicated.64 In April 2024, Fraser, who is Jewish, had her invitation to take up a prestigious professorship at Cologne University in Germany cancelled because she signed a joint letter expressing solidarity with Palestinians. Fraser has distinguished the politics of “recognition”, the demands of a despised or marginalised social group for a just recognition of their distinct needs, and the politics of “redistribution”, the demand of an exploited class for a more equal distribution of wealth.65 Many people campaign for both recognition and redistribution—and some envisage a complete transformation of society, which goes beyond both. Identity politics can lead to resistance to racial, gender and national oppression and has the capacity to mobilise mass movements against systemic oppression. The Black Lives Matter protests, #MeToo movement and global solidarity with Palestine have changed how we talk about race, gender and imperialism.

However, those protesting over a lack of recognition and questions of identity can also follow a very different strategy, which emerged as the mass movements, riots and armed struggles of the 1960s and 1970s were being replaced by a strategy of “getting black faces into high places”.66 Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor is one of several black writers who have identified the “emergence of a black elite, bolstered by a black political class, that has been responsible for administering cuts and managing meagre budgets on the back of black constituents”.67 Parallel processes are apparent in the rise of neoliberal feminists such as Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg, who are both recent advocates of US imperialism and Israeli genocide. Their advancement has done nothing to tackle the inequality and poverty experienced by most women.

Some people belonging to racial minorities and some women and LGBT+ people have won increased access to cultural and political institutions. Language has also evolved. However, underlying economic inequality has not only persisted—it has worsened.68 Liberal feminists and anti-racists have often ignored cuts to social welfare and failed to address the anger of those let down by promises of economic growth. This has allowed the right wing to channel opposition to neoliberalism, offering welfare chauvinism (“look after our own first”) and a return to the traditional family. Both sets of policies invoke a supposedly better past and are meant to be considered alternatives to the erosion of welfare provision and the encroachment of the market on every aspect of life. Trump has been credited with creating white identity politics, which expresses a growing sense that whiteness is now looked down upon and threatened by demographic changes. Rather than enriching Marxist ideas of emancipation, identity politics can become detached from a radical critique of capitalism and can reinforce ideas of individual advancement, which justify structural inequalities.69

The energy and creativity of mass movements can also become commodified by the Public Relations departments of large corporations. One of many examples of this “hashtivism”, the deployment of radical hashtags by corporations as part of their marketing campaigns, was an Instagram post by Reebok: “We’re not asking you to buy our shoes. We are asking you to walk in someone else’s”. Mass movements can spark epidemics of virtue signalling, green washing, pink washing and so on, with corporations and public bodies making public gestures that associate them with progressive causes at very little cost and inconvenience. Of course, these gestures do not inhibit such institutions from continuing to perpetuate the class, race and gender inequalities endemic to capitalism. Billionaire banker Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, took the knee while continuing to claim his $31.5 million pay-check, defending the company against accusations of human rights violations and coughing up some $290 million to pay off women who accused the firm of complicity in Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking.70

No wonder some on the left have washed their hands of identity politics. Before his premature death in 2017, Marxist cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote an essay called “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, criticising the political left’s “witch-hunting moralism”. Identity politics, or what Fisher called “identitarianism”, freezes people into their existing identities, while the reassertion of class can liberate endless new possibilities. However, it would be a fundamental mistake to dismiss identity politics as the flimsy idealist icing on a sturdy materialist cake. Some forms of identity politics represent a genuinely emancipatory response to injustice and point toward the structures of capitalism as the source of inequality. Adopting a reductionist caricature of Marxism by dismissing radical identity politics runs counter to a rich history of revolutionary engagement with struggles against oppression and to the socialist spirit of forging links between diverse struggles.

There has never been a white, male working class motived only by economic interests. Today, as in the past, the global working class is black, brown, female, gay and trans as well as white and male. Our experiences of living and working together mean that many people remain resistant to culture wars, despite the manipulative rallying cries of the populist right. Viewed over the long term, public opinion tends to move away from the right on culture war issues, as the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey shows.71 For example, some 67 percent think a sexual relationship between two people of the same sex is never wrong, compared with 17 percent in 1983. The survey demonstrates that increasing numbers of people think that equal opportunities for women and for black and Asian people have not gone far enough, an obvious response to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. However, reactionary campaigns can also change minds. Support for the right of transgender people to change their birth certificates fell from 58 percent in 2016 to 32 percent in 2021, after an unceasing stream of transphobia in the media and parliament, reinforced by trans-exclusionary feminists. Still, a poll conducted in April 2024 revealed that voters are increasingly frustrated with politicians’ culture wars. Voters from a Tory marginal seat objected to Sunak “playing to a crowd” and being “disrespectful” on transgender issues and criticised attempts to distract voters from the real issues. Voters consistently identified the cost of living crisis, the NHS and job creation as much more important than “being saved from the woke mob”.72

The culture warriors may dominate both mainstream and social media, but their influence over the political views of working-class people remains partial, superficial and susceptible to argument and experience. People can be pulled behind right-wing ideas when they feel that the system is not working for them, but have no confidence that it can be challenged. When people act against oppression, austerity and the erosion of their working conditions, they can win popular support and shift ideas to the left.

Socialists have a unique role in uniting campaigns for economic justice with opposition to all manifestations of oppression. We must articulate the anger generated by the system’s multiple crises and direct it against the existing order, while building alliances between all the victims of capitalism. Russian revolutionary Lenin polemised against socialists who dismissed the 1916 Easter Rising of Irish socialists and Republicans: “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it… The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements”.73 It is a testimony to the power of working-class resistance that so many people organise, protest and rise up in solidarity with others in order to create a radically different future, despite the repressive intolerance of capitalism.

Judy Cox lives in West London. She has recently completed a PhD in women and the Chartist movement at the University of Leeds. She is the author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Haymarket, 2019) and Rebellious Daughters of History (Redwords, 2020).


1 Thanks to Esme Choonara, Joseph Choonara, Iain Ferguson and Rob Hoveman for comments and encouragement.

2 Iman, 2022.

3 Furedi, 2021.

4 Stokes, 2023.

5 Stokes, 2023.

6 Orr, 2024.

7 Thomson, 2018, p177.

8 Butler, 2024, p5.

9 Sandbrook, 2023.

10 Hartman, 2015, p6.

11 Hartman, 2015, p11.

12 Hartman, 2015, p10.

13 Hartman, 2015, p21.

14 Hartman, 2015, p29.

15 Malcolm X, cited in Harlem World Magazine, 2021.

16 Hartman, 2015, p5.

17 Hartman, 2015, p47.

18 Hartman, 2015, p51.

19 Hartman, 2015, p1.

20 Hartman, 2015, p199.

21 Hartman, 2015, pp113-115.

22 Bokhari and Yiannopoulos, 2016.

23 Bokhari and Yiannopoulos, 2016.

24 Petley, 2018, p9.

25 Petley, 2018, p19.

26 Petley, 2018, p27.

27 Petley, 2018, p32.

28 Daily Mail, cited in Curran, 1987, p119.

29 Davies and MacRae, 2023.

30 Kimber, 2021.

31 See Thomas, 2023.

32 Hughes, 2022.

33 Williams, 2023; Bartosch, 2023.

34 Butler, 2024, p11.

35 Doyle, 2022, p4.

36 Doyle, 2022, p9.

37 Jeffries, 2019.

38 Minnicino, 1992, p6.

39 Cited in Walker, 2023.

40 Anderson, 2021.

41 Trilling, 2020.

42 Nelson, 2020.

43 Curran, Gaber and Petley, 2005.

44 Nath, 2021.

45 Hess, 2020.

46 McEnany, cited in BBC News, 2020.

47 BBC News, 2020.

48 Hsu and Baily, 2019.

49 Butler, 2024, p14.

51 Mitchell, 2021, p121.

52 Mitchell, 2021, p109.

53 Mitchell, 2021, pp122-123.

54 Mitchell, 2021, p13.

55 Mitchell, 2021, p93.

56 Thomas, 2023.

57 See Orr, 2024.

58 Mitchell, 2021, p134.

59 Hartman, 2015, p233.

60 Kelly-Woessner, 2016; Taibbi, 2021; Daniels, 2021.

62 Walker, 2022.

63 Ignatieff, 2018.

64 Zeilig, 2024.

65 Fraser, 1995.

66 Haidar, 2022, p22.

67 Haider, 2022, p22.

68 Haidar, 2022, p83.

69 Haidar, 2022, p24.

70 Bain, Schoenberg and Robinson, 2020.

71 Butt, Clery and Curtice, 2022.

72 Aletha, 2024.

73 Lenin, 2015.


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