500 Marx statues in Trier. Credit: Hannelore Foerster / Getty

March 29, 2019   5 mins

The problem with terms – like all words – is that they are unreliable. Though they may appear to be fixed points, they move depending on circumstance, user and listener. Or as TS Eliot more expertly put it in Four Quartets:

“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.”

We saw a fascinating example of this when a Conservative MP received heavy criticism for using the term ‘cultural Marxism’. At a meeting of the Bruges Group this week Suella Braverman was reported to have said during a speech, “We are engaged in a war against cultural Marxism. We’re engaged in a battle against socialism.”

If you’re a regular at the Right-wing Bruges Group meetings, then this might seem fairly standard fare. But on this occasion, the meeting was attended by a Guardian journalist for whom the phrase stood out and she promptly alerted the Twitter-sphere that there had been an unacceptable term usage in Westminster.

The response was swift and the denunciation almost wholesale. Taking its lead from the Board of Deputies, The Guardian described the term ‘cultural Marxism’ as being “anti-Semitic“, while the New Statesman has described it as an “alt-right meme“. Also according to the New Statesman: “To people who have spent a modicum of time on 4chan, 8chan, YouTube, or Reddit, this sentence raised blaring, screeching alarm bells.”

And this may well be so. But many people do not spend even a modicum of their time on any – let alone all – of these platforms and I very much doubt that Ms Braverman does. Nevertheless, various charities that say they wish to tackle racism also attacked Braverman for using an allegedly racist term. Although it may not exonerate any person of all charges of anti-Semitism or racism, the likelihood of a daughter of immigrants who is married to a Jewish man (as Braverman is) knowingly using a racist or anti-Semitic term would appear to most fair-minded people to be a remote one.

There was some attempt to push back against this, with attempts to explain that the phrase was a perfectly well-known one which had been in mainstream circulation for decades time.  The journalist and editor Fraser Nelson explained that it was a term so standard that it was used by his lecturers at university.

The journalist Iain Martin agreed, explaining that the phrase “relates to the Frankfurt School (which came to the awkward realisation that markets work so Marxism needs to be, er, cultural, in our institutions)”.

Martin went on to say that he had first heard the phrase used in the late 1980s from “a Marxist tutor”.  The phrase is, he said, “widely used by conservatives (not extremists, conservatives) to indicate Marxism that is cultural”.

But other people disagreed. The journalist David Aaronovitch claimed that every time he had encountered the expression “in nearly half a century” it had been “from the mouth or the pen of someone the [sic] neofascist far right. It has been used to mean Jewish subversion via race-mixing and sexual perversion”. Martin and Aaronovitch got into an exchange on this. The latter expressed doubt that the former had indeed heard the phrase in the lecture hall. But Martin insisted. Well, Aaronovitch went on, he had last heard it “hissed” at him by “a BNP heavy at an election meeting in Maidenhead.”

This exchange and the whole brouhaha over the term is symptomatic of the age. A similar row has been taking place in the Netherlands where the word “boreal” has bizarrely had to have its Wikipedia page locked. This is due to the fact that the leader of the Forum for Democracy, Thierry Baudet, used the word in passing in his victory speech after his young party stormed to first place in the elections to the Dutch Senate.

The Dutch media and others heard an unfamiliar word and immediately started speculating as to its meaning. Dark connotations were drawn. Some pointed out that it simply meant “northern”. Others insisted that the word had once been used by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and, therefore, must be some kind of code. Much more of these code-words being deployed and the whole Netherlands might be triggered to rise from its slumber and become fascist…

The ‘cultural Marxism’ row has likewise descended not into what it might actually mean but into a quest to uncover the worst person to have used it. It’s the “Hitler said ‘good morning'” problem. If Hitler once said ‘good morning” – and he must have done – then is the phrase forever to be associated with the worst man who ever said it? Today’s answer would seem to be that nobody is quite sure.

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ was frequently used in the ‘manifesto’ of the Norwegian mass-murderer and terrorist Anders Breivik. The fact that Anders Breivik used it makes the use of the term more problematic – to use one of the words of the decade. But does it make it impossible to use? Or does it prove that no such thing has ever existed?

I would have said that it is fairly obvious – indeed undeniable – that a form of Marxism which sought to insinuate itself into the cultural, as opposed to political, sphere has long existed. That it can be traced to the Frankfurt school, among others, is also a part of political history.

It seems rather dishonest to claim that no such movement has ever existed. Though it is possible, if you grew up in a household of communists, as Aaronovitch did, that you would probably have heard a different political lexicon from that which Suella Braverman might end up deploying. Just as if you had never heard some BNP thug hissing about cultural Marxism you might never have realised that it might have moved from the lecture hall to the beer hall.

For my own part, I have heard the phrase fairly frequently and stay away from it. I have no doubt that such a phenomenon exists; I have read many of the texts from which it arises. And yet I have never felt quite comfortable using it myself. That isn’t because I have ever heard a particular anti-Semitic tinge to the term, and certainly not anything to do with “race-mixing and sexual perversion”.

I have avoided it because it has always seemed to me a little too over-simplistic. A year or more ago, somebody asked me after a talk why I had not referred at any point to ‘cultural Marxism’. I explained to them that firstly, I will refer to what I want to refer to, and second that although part of the concept is helpful I tend to find single, totalistic explanations for massively complex events to be unpersuasive.

In any case, this is dangerous territory. Political debate can barely occur in an atmosphere in which people assume words and terms to have distinctly different meanings. They slide, slip and decay.

But in the world we are in – where anybody might edit a Wikipedia definition, and where plenty of people are learning on the hoof about complex and disputed ideas – we need to try to agree on what words mean rather than define them for ourselves. And then use these definitions as the missiles with which to assail our political opponents.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.