50.50: Explainer

Foucault! Five leftist and feminist thinkers also inspiring the far Right

WikiLeaks files show how figures from Antonio Gramsci to Simone de Beauvoir are revered, as well as feared, by today’s ultra-conservatives

Aaron headshot.jpg
Aaron White
8 September 2021, 12.48pm
Illustration by Inge Snip

Wikileaks recently released 17,000 internal files from Spain-based ultra-conservative groups, providing an unprecedented look at the strategies of the far Right.

In 2019, openDemocracy revealed how these groups were working to boost the far Right ahead of the European elections by importing US ‘Super PAC’-style tactics. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see the names of American political strategists and European authoritarians in these files. But there are some surprising inclusions too.

Here are five major leftist and feminist thinkers – staunch opponents of fascism and patriarchy – that are also cited in the files, as unusual inspirations for the far Right.

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1. Margaret Mead

Margeret Mead. | Photo by: Lynn Gilbert. CC by 4.0

The famous American cultural anthropologist has been credited with helping inspire the 1960s sexual revolution – and getting academics to critically study gender and sexuality. Her own research showed, for example, how ‘traditional’ or ‘nuclear’ relationships and families were neither ‘natural’ nor culturally universal.

She was slammed by American conservatives in her day (and called a “dirty old lady”) for saying, for instance, that laws against marijuana use and abortion should be repealed nationwide. But the WikiLeaks files reveal that Spanish right-wing activists are today quoting Mead as a source of inspiration.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world; in fact, it’s the only thing that ever has” – this famous quote attributed to Mead appears on the slides of internal presentations and pamphlets about the possibilities of the internet “producing a revolutionary impact on the political life of a country”.

2. Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt | Photo by Barbara Niggl Radloff. Courtesy of Munchner Stadtmuseum. CC by 4.0

The German-born American political theorist publicly challenged totalitarianism in Europe during the 20th century and inspired a new wave of democratic political theory. She famously covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann (one of the key figures behind the Holocaust) for The New Yorker, describing him as embodying “the banality of evil” (becauses he seemed average and mundane to her, ultimately motivated by professional success rather than ideology).

As a celebrated and staunch opponent of fascism, Arendt isn’t someone you’d expect to be cited by contemporary far-Right activists. But the WikiLeaks files show how her work has been used to argue that liberal institutions and societies have normalised ‘immorality’ (the diverse sexual relationships, so-called ‘non-traditional’ families and women’s bodily autonomy that they see as ‘evil’).

Among the files is a presentation at the 2012 World Congress of Families (a summit of international ultra-conservatives and far-Right leaders), which cites Arendt in a tirade against against hate speech and anti-discrimination laws. She is also mentioned in a 2006 file criticising Spanish education policy for its inclusion of diverse sexualities and reproductive rights as “one of the worst totalitarianisms”.

3. Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault | Thierry Ehrmann - filmed by Etienne Perrone. CC by 2.0

The French philosopher is famous for his theories about disciplinarian societies and sexuality, describing the latter as something that isn’t objective but is shaped by history and culture. His books look at how power has normalised some sexual and gendered behaviour, and “pathologised’ others”– as well as resistance to this.

His work has influenced many feminist and queer theorists. But the WikiLeaks files show how ultra-conservatives have also read and cited him. The above-mentioned critique of the Spanish education system references how “Foucault paid great attention to this process [of social engineering]” and suggests that his ideas have been “appropriated” by those who are inclusive of diverse sexualities.

Like Arendt, he is used in these files to argue that liberal institutions, laws and norms that have space for diversity are in fact “totalitarian” mechanisms of control.

4. Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci | World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The Italian Marxist was a founding member of the Communist Party of Italy. His ideas about what he called “cultural hegemony” (how capitalists use culture, rather than or in addition to violence, to maintain their dominance), and battles over what is considered “common sense” have inspired generations of leftist activists.

Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime imprisoned Gramsci (who died in prison). But today’s far Right, it seems, both fear and revere his ideas. The WikiLeaks documents cite him both as a left-wing bogeyman and as an inspiration for how to strategically broaden ultra-conservative agendas and win real-world change.

In a 2011 speech, a leading Spanish ultra-conservative activist asks: “Why would anyone be interested in destroying the family or the Church?” To which he answers: “Gramsci explained it very clearly: the family and the church are the two main obstacles for the socialist ‘cultural revolution’ to win over people’s minds.” Another document talks about how to “adopt Gramsci’s method” to “change culture, with a perspective of life, family and religious freedom”.

5. Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir | CC0 by 1.0

A French writer, philosopher and feminist activist, De Beauvoir’s famous 1949 treatise ‘The Second Sex’ provided a detailed and inspiring analysis of women’s oppression. In the 1970s, she became a prominent member of France’s women’s movement, supporting the legalisation of abortion (which happened in 1974).

De Beauvoir’s works still sit on the bookshelves of feminists around the world. But, as the WikiLeaks files show, she’s also on the radar of ultra-conservatives – along with other influential feminist intellectuals and activists including Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony.

Their names appear in a document labelled ‘Abortion Facts’, produced by a Spanish anti-abortion group that – erroneously – describes them all as ‘Feminist for Life’ and claims that de Beauvoir once called abortion “a denial of feminine values”. This is certainly an unusual use of the feminist’s work – but she is, as we’ve seen, not the only progressive thinker that’s been studied, or abused, by the far Right today.

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