England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Where the culture wars come from and how to fight them

By Tom Costello

On 11 February, 16 year-old trans woman Brianna Ghey was brutally murdered. A day earlier, an attempted attack on refugees housed in a hotel in Knowsley brought into sharp focus the threat posed by the racist far-right. In response, thousands poured out into the streets locally and nationally in solidarity with refugees and trans people. Behind the grief and anger was the big question: how could this happen?

Cases like these are the brutal result of years of manufactured ‘culture wars’ waged by a right-wing establishment. Horrifically, Tory Deputy Chairman ‘30p Lee’ Anderson described those attempting to assault refugees in Knowsley as “good, family people”.

From Sunak’s new pledge to “stop the boats”, to hysterical attacks on LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education whipped up by the right-wing press, a platform of toxic culture wars looks almost certain to be the central plank in the Tories election platform come 2024.

In Scotland, the Sturgeon government’s attempted Gender Recognition Reform Bill’s passing triggered an onslaught of transphobic reaction, led in large part by the evangelical Christian right. What has since followed is an SNP leadership election dominated by contenders tacking to anti-trans positions. So where has all of this come from?

So where has all of this come from?

Although entering into wide conversation relatively recently in Britain, the term ‘culture war’ has a deeper history. Emanating from the US religious right, many have tried to pin the blame for the rise of culture wars in Britain solely on American influence. Although there is some truth to this, it does not give anywhere near the whole story.

This right-wing backlash comes in a context of deepening crisis in British society. None of the problems facing working people – skyrocketing bills, plummeting wages and growing deprivation have been solved or will be solved by either Sunak or Starmer. Workers are realising that our situation will only improve if we fight. A new generation are beginning to organise, which led to 700,000 on strike together on 15 March. 

For Gen Z – often derided as the “snowflake generation” – the system has never held any promise of a decent future. Knowing nothing but poor living standards, climate crisis and global wars, many are asking whether we need an entirely new system. A report from the Fraser Institute found that 53% of people aged 18-35 would choose a socialist system over capitalism, compared to only 27% who would reject socialism.

Impoverished, alienated communities whose access to decent wages, housing and services has been decimated by austerity face a future that continues to get worse. Particular insecurity can be felt by those fearful of rising crime levels, and by young men who are simultaneously told they need to live up to capitalist macho ideals and meanwhile are offered nothing in the way of well-paid well-respected jobs. 

The far right is making a conscious attempt to invent myths about refugees assaulting ‘locals’ in order to whip up events like those in Knowsley, to turn fear of abuse into fear of refugees. Right-wing figures like Andrew Tate seek to enrich themselves by spreading divisive ideas to the insecure and the alienated. This is the context in which these ideas have been floated.

Where does Marxism come in?

For Marxists, we seek to get to the very root of these problems by looking at how society is structured. The economic system we live under today, capitalism, is one whereby production takes place not for human need, but for profit. It does so in the interests of a small wealthy elite – the capitalist class – which makes its profits from the sweat and labour of working class people.

However they know this can’t go on forever without workers beginning to get organised to resist their exploitation. Capitalism needs an ideology to prop itself up, to spread confusion and to stop working class people from seeing their power. Perpetuated in the media, in advertising, through the state and elsewhere, capitalism tries to pressure workers with the idea that ‘nothing can change’, that capitalism is ‘human nature’. But also part of this is the propping up of bigotries and various forms of oppression, from racism, sexism, xenophobia and LGBTQ+phobia. In other words, the system needs scapegoats to survive and to divide working class people.

If council housing is crumbling, wages stagnating and hospital waiting lists building, the capitalist elite will always turn towards blaming migrants and refugees. Sometimes these are the same migrant workers who the bosses have deliberately paid less than other workers, in order to drive down wages for everyone and boost profits for themselves. Sometimes these are the same refugees who have been housed in accommodation which would be illegal to house British citizens in, making a handsome profit for slum landlords. If you see the migrant worker as to blame for the bosses paying you less, or migrants ‘taking homes’ as the cause of the housing crisis, rather than the lack of council housing and the profiteering of the landlords, you will be fighting other ordinary people instead of those who are actually to blame. Workers fighting workers is how the bosses like it, because we all lose and they gain.

Similarly it is no coincidence that in this time of ‘permacrisis’ and a growing feminist wave of resistance internationally, so-called ‘traditional family values’ have been aggressively pushed by the right seeking to build a bulwark of reaction against demands for gender equality.

This has a long history. In the 1980s, the Thatcher government paired its vicious anti-working class attacks with a war against “loony” gay rights activists, while allowing the AIDS crisis to wipe out thousands of queer lives. The print media today, largely run by deeply bigoted, right-wing multi-millionaires and billionaires like Rupert Murdoch are helping to set the tone for this war, tied to the hip with the Tories. 

While big business often promotes the ideal of the super-rich ‘girl boss’, the promotion of ‘family values’ (i.e. the subjugation of women and promotion of the enforced nuclear family) are still core to the maintenance of the system.

The ruling class want to continue underpaying work in those sectors with a high concentration of women workers such as care, cleaning and health. Pushing the idea that cooking, cleaning and other daily chores are jobs belonging to women in the home is central to this agenda, since it saves capitalism a lot a money. Oxfam estimates that the value of women’s unpaid work is around $10.9 trillion worldwide.

Flowing from this is the pushing of a restrictive and rigid gender binary, which almost always comes alongside the stigmatisation of those who fail to fit into their boxes – in particular trans and gender non-conforming people.

Solidarity, not ‘woke capitalism’

In short, this system is rotten, not just in the way it fails to meet the basic needs of society, but also in the twisted and unhealthy way it distorts human relationships. None of this however means that the system has ‘won’, or that nothing will change. Marxists believe quite the opposite. The culture wars are not an expression of a strong system, but one increasingly weakened by its own crises.

Socialist Feminist Alternative, which is linked with Rosa International and International Socialist Alternative stands for building a mass movement for liberation. This must include protest, occupations and strikes to resist misogyny, transphobia and sexism, with space for full democratic discussion about which ideas are needed to win real liberation. In the US we have been central to organising the fightback to the repeal of Roe v. Wade. In numerous countries through Rosa, we have built a combative socialist wing of the feminist movement, linking feminist issues with wider struggles.

We say that fighting for full liberation and for an end to the culture war will mean fighting back from below. Any so-called “ally” in the capitalist establishment, no matter how “woke” their image, does not have their interests at heart. In the US for instance, Starbucks, which paints itself as a ‘progressive’ corporation supporting its many trans workers, have viciously carried out a union-busting campaign against both trans and cis workers organising for union recognition.

This means linking up forces with those who hold the biggest power to disrupt business as usual: striking workers. A general strike in Britain, built through coordination and escalation, could send the Tories and their whole culture war tumbling.

For immediate and free access to gender-affirming care, we need to fight for an end to privatisation and outsourcing in our NHS. To provide the freedom to leave queerphobic and abusive households, to house refugees and all those in need, we need to fight to end the destructive Tory hotels policy and instead for a programme of mass council house building. To end the scapegoating which is designed to divide workers and destroy our solidarity, joint strike rallies and committees should boldly call for safe and legal routes and an end to the war on migrants and refugees’ rights, including with calls for mass community action to stop deportations.

In the unions, Socialist Alternative members have played a leading role in fighting for the movement to take a clear stance in solidarity with trans people. We have passed motions on this already in 10 union branches, with a motion on trans liberation to be moved at this year’s coming national Unison conference.

Our unions need to campaign against all manifestations of discrimination in our schools, at home and in society. Community protests should now be organised in our communities and outside our schools, led by striking workers, supportive parents and students demanding fact-based, inclusive and comprehensive sex education. 


As well as fighting racism and queerphobia, we need to build a new party of class struggle based on striking workers and movements against oppression, which can take on the bosses, Sunak and Starmer with a socialist programme.

This means fighting for public ownership and democratic workers control of the giant monopolies which dominate today’s economy. This would allow us to plan the use of resources in the interests of people and the future of the planet, rather than profit.

In a socialist society, the economic base for oppression and discrimination would be removed. This does not mean that all the rotten and backward ideas existing today would disappear overnight, nor would abusive power relations in the home and in society. But it would lay the basis for these diseases to be tackled at the root.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, led by the Bolsheviks, the socialist government led by workers and peasants understood this best. They went about challenging and uprooting the reactionary ideas of the old system.

Although many of these gains were later reversed by the Stalinist dictatorship, the Soviet government in these early years set about creating free childcare, a fully-funded health service for all and public housing to provide women and gender non-conforming people with the resources they needed to escape abuse and stigmatisation. All restrictions on LGBTQ+ relationships and sexual behaviour were repealed and divorce made free, simple and legal virtually overnight.

Today we can fight for this and much more. By nationalising the media corporations which churn out right-wing propaganda, taking them out of the hands of reactionary pundits and into democratic control, we would be able to break the perpetuation of these ideas at their root. By removing the capitalist class from power, we would remove the class which wages war and carries out imperialist interventions and creates the refugee crisis.

All of this is possible. But we need to get organised to fight for it now globally. In International Socialist Alternative we are aiming to do just that. Why not join us today?


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