Student protests at universities across the U.S. are ostensibly related to the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 and Israel’s military response. But there’s something else that’s being blamed for the uprisings: cultural Marxism.

Speaking to Sean Hannity on Fox earlier this week, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz blamed cultural Marxism directly, without offering a definition. In a previous appearance on Fox, he explained that this system of belief divides the world into two groups — oppressors and victims — and that student protesters see Palestinians as the victims oppressed by Israel.

Cruz is likely talking up cultural Marxism because he published a book on that theme last year. But he’s not the only person on the political right to link campus unrest to this ideology, or to warn of its dangers in recent years.

A 2022 report from the Heritage Foundation said that cultural Marxism poses a “far more serious and existential threat to the United States than did Soviet communism.” Jordan Peterson has spoken about it, as have other thought leaders on the right.

Those on the left, however, call this idea balderdash, “the newest intellectual bugaboo on the radical right,” as an article published in the magazine of the Southern Poverty Law Center put it.

It’s actually not that new — Pat Buchanan was using the term in his presidential campaign in the year 2000. But cultural Marxism has risen to the fore again, in part because Columbia University — the epicenter of the student protests — has a history of affiliation with Marxist thought. And while some on the left have dismissed the concept of cultural Marxism as a “far-right conspiracy theory,” there are, in fact, advocates of Marxism teaching in American universities, and the number of young adults who prefer socialism and Marxism to capitalism is on the rise.

Here’s a short primer on why the controversial German philosopher, born 206 years ago this week, is coming up in connection with campus protests in 2024.

When was the Frankfurt School at Columbia University?

Prior to World War II, a group of German scholars focused on neo-Marxist theory became collectively known as the Frankfurt School. According to an overview published by ThoughtCo., “It was not a school, in the physical sense, but rather a school of thought associated with scholars at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt in Germany.”

After Adolph Hitler came to power, the scholars moved their base camp to Columbia University, where it resided from 1934 to 1949, the New Republic explained in an article entitled “Frankfurt on the Hudson.” The scholarship most associated with this group of intellectuals is Critical Theory, which examines oppression and inequality in social structures, and the role of media and culture in shaping society; it is the ideological ancestor of Critical Race Theory, a recent front in the culture wars.

As described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Frankfurt School scholars “revised and updated Marxism by integrating it with the work of Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, and Friedrich Nietzsche while developing a model of radical critique that is immanently anchored in social reality. They used this model to analyze a wide range of phenomena — from authoritarianism as a political formation and as it manifests in both the nuclear family and deep-seated psychological dispositions, to the effects of capitalism on psychological, social, cultural, and political formations as well as on the production of knowledge itself.”

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The fact that many of these scholars were Jewish contributes to arguments that opposition to cultural Marxism is antisemitic, as an article by Bill Berkowitz in Intelligence Report, the magazine of the Southern Law Poverty Center, claims.

Berkowitz writes: “Right-wing ideologues, racists and other extremists have jazzed up political correctness and repackaged it — in its most virulent form, as an anti-Semitic theory that identifies Jews in general and several Jewish intellectuals in particular as nefarious, communistic destroyers. These supposed originators of ‘cultural Marxism’ are seen as conspiratorial plotters intent on making Americans feel guilty and thus subverting their Christian culture.”

But in political discourse on the right, the term has largely been divorced from its complex history and instead is being used to more broadly condemn “wokeness” and any progressive cause, especially those that focus on economic or social inequality.

And of course, when it comes to the student protests, the people crying “cultural Marxism” are defenders, not critics, of Israel and the Jewish people.

What does ‘cultural Marxism’ mean?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known use of the term cultural Marxism dates to 1938, when it was then described in the British Union Quarterly as “the preliminary bolshevisation of the mind, facilitated by the indiscriminate toleration-psychosis of liberalism, inherent in Social-Democracy, and leading to its final inevitable collapse.”

It has since been used by the political right to describe “a political agenda advocating radical social reform, said to be promoted within western cultural institutions by liberal or left-wing ideologues intent on eroding traditional social values and imposing a dogmatic form of progressivism on society,” according to the Oxford Dictionary.

In a 2018 article on the topic in The Hedgehog Review, Andrew Lynn noted that cultural Marxism is “centered in the academy” and is “said to hold sway over the professoriate in humanities and social science departments.” Their students are then sent forth into the world to proselytize Marxist cultural principles, which rose up to replace Marxist economic principles after their failure.

Marxism on campus

How many American professors are actually Marxists? Forbes reported that one estimate puts the number at 3%, although those who generally embrace Marxist or Democratic Socialist views are likely higher, and Marxist-leaning professors outnumber conservatives in some disciplines, like social science.

As Reason’s Robby Soave wrote in “Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump,” published in 2019, “Most people know that professors are more left-leaning than the average American: what they might not realize is that so many professors teach from an explicitly Marxist perspective or at the very least apply critical theory to the subject they teach.”

The socialist at the dinner table

As for the general public, the rise in young adults expressing support for Marxism is “disquieting,” according to the Acton Institute, which in 2020 reported on a five-fold increase in just one year, saying “nearly one-third of the members of Gen Z — Americans between the ages of 16 and 23 — deem ‘Marxism’ worthy of support. The term’s favorability has skyrocketed to 30% among Gen Z respondents, up from 6% in 2019.”

The same survey found that 49% of Gen Z approved of socialism, compared to 40% the year prior.

More recently, in 2022, Pew Research Center found shrinking support for socialism among all Americans, but noted a sharp generational divide: “While younger adults are more likely than older adults to say they have positive impressions of socialism, the opposite is true for capitalism. Just 40% of those ages 18 to 29 view capitalism positively; that is the lowest share in any age group and 33 percentage points lower than the share of those 65 and older.”

There is also a pronounced generational divide when it comes to Americans’ feelings about Israel and Palestine. In multiple surveys, young adults are more likely to sympathize with Palestinians than with Israelis. And notably, according to a report in The Washington Post, “Fourteen percent of 18- to 29-year-olds thought it was ‘very important’ for the United States to protect Israel compared with two-thirds of those 65 or older.” The same article, written by Frances Vinall, noted that one explanation for young Americans’ support of Palestine is their tendency to see the conflict “through a racial justice lens.”

Vinall quoted Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts University, who said many college students see the war as “a people of color — that is, the Palestinians — rising up against a white oppressor.”

In other words, Cruz wasn’t wrong to note a thread of cultural Marxism leading to the uprisings, which have led to the arrests of more than 2,000 people across the United States.

Nor was his argument hurt when social media sleuths discovered that one protester and Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University was interested in “theories of the imagination & poetry as interpreted through a Marxian lens.”