Why does the right keep pretending the left runs Britain? | Lea Ypi


Most of my students would struggle to name any “cultural Marxists”. The work of social theorists such as Theodor Adorno, pioneer of the so-called cultural turn in post-war Marxist studies, is barely taught in humanities and social science departments these days. But listen to both the mainstream and fringes of the political right and you’d get the impression that “cultural Marxism” is the reigning religion of the west. The term – the ideological enemy of rightwing terrorist Anders Breivik – has become a shorthand for a supposed leftwing takeover of everything, relentlessly invoked by politicians and commentators.

“There are many, there are many many, we see them all the time,” President Trump said in his latest Republican national convention speech, warning about the “wild-eyed Marxists” to whom Joe Biden would be unable to stand up, and who would constitute “a Trojan horse for socialism” in the United States. In the United Kingdom, the spectre of a Marxist takeover is also invoked across the rightwing spectrum, including the attorney general. Conservative commentators like to claim that the left in Britain “controls almost every institution”. What exactly is going on here?

“Control” cannot refer to the classical liberal notion of representative government: winning elections and forming governments that promote leftwing principles and policies. It cannot mean that because, when it comes to political representation, the left in Britain has been in opposition for the best part of the last 100 years. Even in the few cases in which it succeeded in winning elections, it did so while relinquishing traditional leftwing commitments, promoting an image of itself as competent and pragmatic, neither right nor left.

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Control can also not be meant in the Marxist sense of controlling the means of production, or determining the mechanisms of property and income distribution. Half of England is owned by less than 1% of its population. Millions of children go hungry. More than a third of British workers risk their very health in precarious, low-paid or unfulfilling employment. If this is what the left being “in control” looks like, how come throughout the pandemic capitalists are getting richer while workers die at disproportionate rates?

It must be something else then – and this is where another European thinker comes in useful. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci coined the term “cultural hegemony”, by which he meant the capacity to exercise influence in society through educational institutions, the arts or the media. When the right claims that the “left is in control”, it is pulling a Gramscian move: they know the left has no political or economic power, but claim that it nonetheless pervades society and culture.

For the right, those who question the legacy of the empire or making efforts to decolonise university curriculums have created a situation in which “the very underpinnings of western liberal democracies are being subverted and destroyed”. Instead of asking why so many of the songs we sing, roads we walk down and statues we pass contain traces of an injustice whose legacy continues to shape the present, Conservative MPs are urged to be “the vanguard” of the opposition to the left’s “remorseless cancel culture”.

It would be a formidable achievement for a left that has neither adequate political organisation (in both Britain and the US, the leading progressive parties, in opposition, are run by their centre or right factions) nor any kind of significant control over the economy to be culturally hegemonic. Ideas and discourses do not float in the air, they reflect wider societal patterns. The same ruling elites who shape politics and the economy also shape the intellectual debate. That’s why business and the sciences are the most subscribed courses at university (rather than any supposedly leftwing humanities), why the economy is unthinkingly covered in much of the press from the point of view of asset owners, why large corporations play a determining role in producing culture and the arts.

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If those who fan the flames of culture war cared about protecting culture, they would not have spent the last decade shutting public libraries. If they cared about knowledge and free speech they would not have engaged in campaigns to undermine the publicly funded education system, from elementary schools to university. If they cared about truth, they would not govern by lying. The fantasy of leftwing hegemony in rightwing countries is not about principles, but tactics.

“The wrong life cannot be lived rightly,” Adorno famously wrote in 1951. He meant that when oppression pervades social structures, isolated progressive struggles and piecemeal policies to enfranchise marginalised groups are always defeated; they are subordinated to the same logic of profit-making that produced their marginalisation in the past. Cultural Marxists explained how narratives developed to ensure that those who would have reason to protest against a failing system ended up being co-opted, and how progressive struggles lost ground just when they seemed to have gained momentum. They emphasised that it was not enough to focus on material oppression; one must also understand forms of injustice based on discourse, symbols and culture, and learn from the conflicts they provoke.

The culture war against “Marxism” does exactly what the original cultural Marxists warned that it would. It ensures that, having secured political power, and concentrated economic resources to the detriment of the many, the right can continue to ensure that capitalists remain unchallenged. When representative political institutions fail, and when the economic system faces its worst crisis since the Great Depression, the only way to secure compliance is to demonise leftwing alternatives. By trying to realise the false notion that “national values” are at risk of disappearing at the hands of powerful leftists, the right can mobilise support for those in power – despite the sorry state of the economy or disastrous outcome of public policy.

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“The splinter in the eye is the best magnifying glass,” was another one of Adorno’s famous aphorisms. The war against cultural Marxism exists to ensure we all turn blind.

•Lea Ypi is a professor in political theory in the government department at the London School of Economics



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