“Cultural Marxism” is a right-wing conspiracy theory that accuses the Frankfurt School — comprised of thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse — of emigrating to the United States of America in the 1930s to implant the “Marxist” ideologies of political correctness, multiculturalism and feminism. Paleoconservatives, such as Paul Weyrich and Patrick Buchanan, promoted this theory to mischaracterize the accomplishments of the New Left, the civil rights movement and women’s liberation groups in the 1960s as illegitimate and un-American. Notably, the far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik cited cultural Marxism as one of the justifications for his devastating attacks in Norway in 2011.
Over the past decade, several academics and journalists have studied the role of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory within various radical-right movements. Yet the scope of their analyses remains confined to Anglophone examples. Although John E. Richardson and Jérôme Jamin strive to theorize cultural Marxism as a “transnational discourse” or “global conspiracy theory,” they overlook the use of this conspiracy theory in Latin America, especially in Brazil.
In his inauguration speech, President Jair Bolsonaro announced that he planned to liberate Brazil from “socialism, inverted values, the bloated state, and political correctness.” During his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro informed his supporters that cultural Marxism and its “derivatives like Gramsci-ism joined with the corrupt oligarchs to undermine national and Brazilian family values.” He casts cultural Marxism as the antagonist in his narrative of supposed cultural decline and portrays himself as the savior of traditional Brazilian identity and society.
In this way, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric fits Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyon’s definition of conspiracism as a “narrative form of scapegoating that frame the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm.” Yet Bolsonaro was not the first right-wing Brazilian scapegoater to sound the cultural Marxism alarm.
In 2002, the media polemicist Ovalo de Carvalho published an article titled “Do marxismo cultural” in the conservative Brazilian newspaper O Globo, in which he describes “cultural Marxism” as “the predominant influence in Western universities, media, show business, and publishing.” Carvalho proclaims that the Frankfurt School used its “macabre dogmas” to classify Western culture as a “disease” and spread an “atmosphere of suspicion, confusion, and hatred.” Carvalho’s scaremongering polemic casts progressives as agents of a secret plot to destroy Brazilian culture, language and religious faith.
Later that year, the left-wing Worker’s Party (PT) under the leadership of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known popularly as “Lula”) won the general election. Carvalho regarded Lula’s social welfare policies as an inexcusable expansion of state power and warned that PT would transform Brazil into a totalitarian socialist state. Subsequently, the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory became a weapon to demonize Lula and the PT.
Despite the PT’s impressive election victories between 2002 and 2014, their popularity started to wane from 2010 onward. Several corruption scandals, such as Operation Car Wash, led to general disillusionment. Bolsonaro, Carvalho and other Brazilian right-wing figures took advantage of these widespread feelings of antipetismo (anti-PT sentiment) to perpetuate the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory.
In a 2019 article for the paleoconservative literary magazine The New Criterion, Brazil’s foreign minister Ernesto Araújo declares that Bolsonaro’s electoral victory represents the downfall of Lula’s regime of cultural Marxism. According to Araújo, the PT enforced a “globalist” agenda that led to “the promotion of gender ideology,” “the humiliation of Christians” and “the displacement of parents by the government as the provider of ‘values’ to children.” Araújo interprets the PT’s legislative and judicial efforts to end discrimination against LGBTQ as a deliberate assault on traditional Christian “family values.”
Additionally, his remarks on the government’s alleged displacement of parental authority appear to be a veiled attack on Lula’s popular and effective Bolsa Familia(family allowance) program. Under the policy, impoverished families received a monthly grant for each of their children — up to a maximum of three — to attend school and get proper vaccinations. The policy benefitted some 52 million people. Araújo’s article demonstrates that members of Bolsonaro’s administration perceive increased social mobility and access to education as deadly threats to the traditional hierarchies of Brazilian society.
Education is a core theme of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory. Just as Weyrich and Buchanan claim that the Frankfurt School infected American college campuses with the virus of political correctness, Bolsonaro’s administration asserts that Brazilian universities have become infested with “cultural Marxism” and “gender ideology.” Whereas Weyrich and Buchanan blame Herbert Marcuse, Bolsonaro incriminates the late Brazilian radical educator Paolo Freire.
According to the Brazilian radical right, Freire injected Marxist ideology into the public schooling system during his stint as municipal secretary of education in Sao Paulo between 1989 and 1992. Consequently, Bolsonaro insinuates that Lula’s modest educational reforms, such as funding for underprivileged Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian university students, are part of a secret plot to convert young students to Marxism.
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In Bolsonaro’s administration, the cultural Marxism conspiracy motivates policy. Earlier this year, Brazil’s Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub threatened to withdraw funding from sociology and philosophy departments in universities. Several days later, he announced 30% cuts to funding for federal universities. Weintraub’s policies are part of a strategy to bully professors and students into quiescence and conformity. Incidentally, Weintraub endorses the witch-hunting tactic of recording the lectures of “cultural Marxist” professors.
The Brazilian people objected to these unjustifiable budget cuts. In response to Weintraub’s pronouncements, an estimated 1.5 million people attended countrywide protests. Widespread resistance to Bolsonaro’s regime demonstrates that many Brazilians do not believe that social welfare policies and progressive ideas are part of a malignant Marxist conspiracy. The cultural Marxism conspiracy is fundamentally anti-egalitarian, because it portrays any form of social progress or economic equality as evil and poisonous. Moments of resistance like these intimate that the radical right, and its patently flawed conspiracy theories, may be losing its allure.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.