Brendan O’Neill

Don’t call Corbynistas ‘cultural Marxists’

Don't call Corbynistas ‘cultural Marxists’
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Suella Braverman, the Conservative MP for Fareham, said yesterday that the radical left is increasingly hostile to open debate and is now obsessed with ‘snuffing out’ freedom of speech. And how did the radical left respond to her comments? By trying to snuff out her freedom of speech. It was almost too perfect: a politician says lefties are easily offended and determined to shut down opinions they don’t like, and lefties respond by stamping their feet and saying, ‘I’m offended! Shut her down!’ Self-awareness isn’t the new left’s strong suit.

The Corbynista left’s main beef with Braverman’s comments, which she made during a discussion about Brexit organised by the Bruges Group, is that she used the term ‘cultural Marxism’. She said, ‘Yes, I do believe we are in a battle against cultural Marxism’. She described ‘cultural Marxism’ as a ‘culture evolving from the far left which has allowed the snuffing out of freedom of speech, freedom of thought. No one can get offended any more.’

And naturally, because they are nothing if not predictable, the left got offended. Loudly, melodramatically. ‘Cultural Marxism’ is an anti-Semitic trope, they said. It’s a sly term used by alt-right types to imply that Jews are taking over western institutions and destroying them from within, they insisted. The Guardian and New Statesman even pointed out that it was used by Anders Breivik, the racist mass murderer who slaughtered 77 of his fellow Norwegians in 2011. The nasty nod-and-winks came fast: Braverman had unwittingly revealed her loathing of minority groups and the fascist tendencies of certain Tories.

What a load of nonsense. Lumping Braverman in with Breivik just because they both use the words ‘cultural Marxism’ is like saying Corbynistas are of a piece with the two Islamist killers who slaughtered the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo: after all, don’t the Corbynista left and the Charlie Hebdo murderers share the censorious, medieval belief that it is really wicked — ‘punching down’ — to mock Muhammad and offend Muslims?

More to the point, ‘cultural Marxism’, historically at least, is not a term that has only been used by far-right idiots. I should say here that I really dislike the term ‘cultural Marxism’. I have never used it and never will. I bristle when I hear it. To me, it’s up there with ‘feminazi’, ‘libtard’, ‘gammon’ and other juvenile phrases used by both right-wing and left-wing people, in that it often tells you more about the speaker and his or her potential prejudices than it does about the target of their speech. And that’s because it has, by and large, been co-opted by hard-right people to push a conspiracy-theory view of how universities, political life and liberty itself came to be denigrated by nasty intellectual invaders. Its misuse has rendered it an unhelpful term.

However, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t once have some meaning and substance. Indeed, in the 1960s and 70s some of the most stinging critics of ‘cultural Marxism’, and the new left more broadly, were actual Marxists — left-wingers who disliked the drift of left politics away from economic matters and towards cultural ones. And here’s the thing: it is wrong to refer to Corbynistas as ‘cultural Marxists’, as Braverman did, because these people have nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism. But it is right to call them ‘cultural’. The re-emergent supposedly radical left in the UK is entirely in keeping with the cultural shift of the left in recent decades, where it has moved from talking about class and power to obsessing myopically and censoriously over cultural issues like sexist adverts, newspaper front pages, transgender toilets, and so on.

There was an important observation in the term ‘cultural Marxism’, certainly in the way it was used by left intellectuals. And that was that the left was increasingly abandoning the working classes and issues of economic rights in favour of using education and the media to re-arrange how the little people think and behave. And this sums up the Corbynista left beautifully. These woke bourgeois agitators are about as distant from working people as it is possible to be, and they get infinitely more agitated over Daily Mail columns, un-PC jokes and the right of someone who was born a male to poop in the ladies’ loo than they do over unemployment or the creeping disenfranchisement of millions of working-class voters by the Remainer establishment. (Indeed, some of them actively agitate for that disenfranchisement.)

This is one of the reasons why Corbynistas get so antsy about the term ‘cultural Marxists’ — they know in their heart of hearts that it captures something of their post-class, increasingly illiberal essence. I just wish people would drop the ‘Marxist’ bit. Let’s shake it up. Let’s call them the cultural left, or left authoritarians, or the post-class left, or the don’t-give-a-flying-fig-about-the-working-class left — those might be better terms to capture the woke, posh, patronising and censorious new left that Braverman was absolutely right to raise concerns about.