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The Alt-Right’s Favorite Meme Is 100 Years Old

‘Cultural Marxism’ might sound postmodern but it’s got a long, toxic history.

Anders Breivik seen during the audience in court, in Oslo, Norway in 2012.,Pool photo by Lise Aserud

At the chilling climax of William S. Lind’s 2014 novel “Victoria,” knights wearing crusader’s crosses and singing Christian hymns brutally slay the politically correct faculty at Dartmouth College, the main character’s (and Mr. Lind’s) alma mater. “The work of slaughter went quickly,” the narrator says. “In less than five minutes of screams, shrieks and howls, it was all over. The floor ran deep with the bowels of cultural Marxism.”

What is “cultural Marxism”? And why does Mr. Lind fantasize about its slaughter?

Nothing of the kind actually exists. But it is increasingly popular to indict cultural Marxism’s baleful effects on society — and to dream of its violent extermination. With a spate of recent violence in the United States and elsewhere, calling out the runaway alt-right imagination is more urgent than ever.

Originally an American contribution to the phantasmagoria of the alt-right, the fear of “cultural Marxism” has been percolating for years through global sewers of hatred. Increasingly, it has burst into the mainstream. Before President Trump’s aide Rich Higgins was fired last year, he invoked the threat of “cultural Marxism” in proposing a new national security strategy. In June, Ron Paul tweeted out a racist meme that employed the phrase. On Twitter, the son of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly elected strongman, boasted of meeting Steve Bannon and joining forces to defeat “cultural Marxism.” Jordan Peterson, the self-help guru and best-selling author, has railed against it too in his YouTube ruminations.

“Cultural Marxism” is also a favorite topic on Gab, the social media network where Robert Bowers, the man accused of shooting 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last month, spent time. Mr. Lind may have only fantasized about mass death as a comeuppance for cultural Marxists, but others have acted on it: In his 1,500-page manifesto, the Norwegian far-rightist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011, invoked “cultural Marxism” repeatedly. “It wants to change behavior, thought, even the words we use,” he wrote. “To a significant extent, it already has.”

According to their delirious foes, “cultural Marxists” are an unholy alliance of abortionists, feminists, globalists, homosexuals, intellectuals and socialists who have translated the far left’s old campaign to take away people’s privileges from “class struggle” into “identity politics” and multiculturalism. Before he executes the professors, the protagonist of Mr. Lind’s novel expounds on his theory to their faces: “Classical Marxists, where they obtained power, expropriated the bourgeoisie and gave their property to the state,” he says. “Where you obtained power, you expropriated the rights of white men and gave special privileges to feminists, blacks, gays, and the like.” It is on the basis of this parallel that the novel justifies carnage against the “enemies of Christendom” as an act showing that “Western culture” is “recovering its will.”

Some Marxists, like the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci and his intellectual heirs, tried to understand how the class rule they criticized worked through cultural domination. And today, it’s true that on campus and off, many people are directing their ire at the advantages that white males have historically enjoyed. But neither the defense of the workers nor of other disempowered groups was a conspiracy on its own, and never was there a malignant plot to convert the first into the second — which is what “cultural Marxism” implies. Deployed to avoid claims of injustice, the charge functions to whip up agitated frenzy or inspire visions of revenge.

And while increasingly popular worries about cosmopolitan elites and economic globalization can sometimes transcend the most noxious anti-Semitism, talk of cultural Marxism is inseparable from it. The legend of cultural Marxism recycles old anti-Semitic tropes to give those who feel threatened a scapegoat.

A number of the conspiracy theorists tracing the origins of “cultural Marxism” assign outsize significance to the Frankfurt School, an interwar German — and mostly Jewish — intellectual collective of left-wing social theorists and philosophers. Many members of the Frankfurt School fled Nazism and came to the United States, which is where they supposedly uploaded the virus of cultural Marxism to America. These zany stories of the Frankfurt School’s role in fomenting political correctness would be entertaining, except that they echo the baseless allegations of tiny cabals ruling the world that fed the right’s paranoid imagination in prior eras.

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The wider discourse around cultural Marxism today resembles nothing so much as a version of the Judeobolshevik myth updated for a new age. In the years after the Russian Revolution, fantasists took advantage of the fact that many of its instigators were Jewish to suggest that people could save time by equating Judaism and communism — and kill off both with one blow. As the historian Paul Hanebrink recounts in an unnerving new study, according to the Judeobolshevik myth, the instigators of communism were the Jews as a whole, not some tiny band of thinkers, conniving as a people to bring communist irreligion and revolution worldwide.

The results of such beliefs weren’t pretty. According to Professor Hanebrink, many aspects of the Judeobolshevik fantasy survived the Holocaust it helped bring about, just with the role of the Jews implied more euphemistically or replaced by new adversaries. As in Judeobolshevism, cultural Marxism homogenizes vast groups of shadowy enemies and assigns them a secret design to upend society. As in Judeobolshevism, those supposedly under threat are invited to identify themselves with “the Christian West” and surge in self-defense before it is too late.

The defense of the West in the name of “order” and against “chaos,” which really seems to mean unjustifiable privilege against new claimants, is an old affair posing as new insight. It led to grievous harm in the last century. And though today’s critics of “cultural Marxism” purport to be very learned, they proceed seemingly unaware of the heavy baggage involved in alleging that conspiracies have ruined the land.

That “cultural Marxism” is a crude slander, referring to something that does not exist, unfortunately does not mean actual people are not being set up to pay the price, as scapegoats to appease a rising sense of anger and anxiety. And for that reason, “cultural Marxism” is not only a sad diversion from framing legitimate grievances but also a dangerous lure in an increasingly unhinged moment.

Samuel Moyn (@samuelmoyn) is a professor of law and history at Yale and the author, most recently, of “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.”