It is growing more and more common to hear people repeating core elements of conspiracy theories. Many of these conspiracy theories grow from the fringes of right-wing extremist groups, then begin to creep into the mainstream through websites like Elon Musk’s Twitter (now renamed “X”), or through podcast personalities like Alex Jones, Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan, or through “influencers” on social media. They have grown even more prevalent since Donald Trump’s rise to power, as he himself promoted many of them from the Oval Office in Washington.
Indeed, conspiracy theories abound. Some appear ridiculous, such as “Area 51,” the “Mandela Effect,” or the “Flat Earth” conspiracy theories. Others are clearly more dangerous, like anti-vaccine conspiracy theories or the so-called “Great Replacement Theory.” Often many of these conspiracy theories are tied together and bleed into one another. Whatever they are, they ultimately blame social problems, real or imagined, on the secret schemes of a small group of shadowy elites.
Conspiracy theories present a problem that everyone interested in progressive social change should consider. It is important for people who want to change society for the better to be able to analyze what is going on, and since the ruling class does actually conspire, it is understandable that some conspiracy theories leave people confused. The rise of conspiracy theories coincides with a rise in public skepticism and distrust towards the government. And since the government is indeed untrustworthy, how do we tell what’s real and what isn’t? We should look at a few of these conspiracy theories and examine how we can tell fact from fiction.
First, on a fundamental level, how do we know anything? How do we know if what we think is correct or not? Marxism-Leninism provides us with a scientific theory of knowledge based on dialectical materialism. Knowledge is based on experience in social practice, in the class struggle, in production, and in scientific experimentation. Based on these experiences, we can formulate theories, test those theories against material reality in practice, and then use that practical experience to refine our theories. In doing this, we can come to understand the laws that govern different processes and find out how to interact with those laws to move forward effectively.
In the case of conspiracy theories, it can be helpful to understand a principle of critical thinking from philosophy called Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor basically says that if something could be explained equally well in more than one way, then the explanation that requires fewer guesses, assumptions and leaps is more likely to be true. So, when faced with any question, we should ask ourselves what we actually know about what’s going on, and what our guesses and assumptions are. If we find that there is another explanation that explains all aspects of the phenomenon equally well but requires less guesses and assumptions, we should operate from that explanation. The Chinese leader and Marxist theorist Mao Zedong put this another way when he said, with his characteristic directness, that we should “seek truth from facts.”
Let’s focus, then, on some of the more dangerous conspiracy theories. Take for example, the conspiracy theories currently promoted by U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. This is a man known to promote a host of conspiracy theories, from the idea that vaccines cause autism to the idea that chemicals in our water are responsible for turning children transgender. This is happening, according to these conspiracy theories, due to the maniacal schemes of a shadowy group of conspiring elites.
These assertions are not based on evidence, but that doesn’t matter to these people like RFK Jr. who promote them, because it takes far more time and effort to untangle and debunk them than to just throw them out there and see what sticks. They feed on conservative fear and uncertainty and protect themselves from rational and scientific refutation by saying that anyone attempting to debunk the theory must be in on the conspiracy or an agent of those who are.
Relying on conspiracy theories to whip up a political base is a strategy regularly employed by demagogues, from Hitler’s reliance on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to Trump’s promotion of ideas like the “Great Replacement.” According to this conspiracy theory, certain “elites” (here an anti-Semitic dog whistle) intend to engage in “genocide” against white people through policies of immigration.
The right-wing outcry against so-called “Cultural Marxism” and “woke” culture dovetails with this white genocide conspiracy theory, in that it argues that things like affirmative action and diversity, equity and inclusion programs are an insidious plot from “globalists” (another dog whistle) to oppress white people. This dovetails with another popular conspiracy theory, that left-wing protest is funded by the “globalists.” Often this has been expressed by saying that Antifa, Black Lives Matter and other groups are funded by George Soros. These theories all trace their roots back to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” based on a forged document detailing an alleged plot for Jewish world domination.
All of these conspiracies rely on spurious evidence and outright lies, and require a tangled web of guesses and assumptions to string together. They attempt to explain events in terms of conspiring groups of powerful elites, who are pulling the strings like super-villains right of comic books. In reality, history is driven by objective laws, not the whims of secret cabals.
Nevertheless, there is indeed a financial oligarchy that has come to dominate much of the world. But this isn’t some secret cabal operating from the shadows. It is the billionaire class of U.S. monopoly capitalists who control many of the world’s financial institutions. This class of monopoly capitalists use their money and power to control the levers of state power, to dominate the media, and to maximize profits at the expense of the rest of us.
They don’t rule from the shadows, but openly wage war against the poor and oppressed in broad daylight. And they don’t do this because they got together and decided to do some imperialism, but because the laws of motion of capitalism demand it. The growing crises of the capitalist system required imperialist expansion in search of super-profits to delay this rotten system’s inevitable demise. Ultimately, it isn’t the individual capitalists who determine things, but the overall, law-governed motion of the capitalist system.
The demagogue’s trick is often to rely on lies, and also on distortions based on half-truths. The monopoly capitalist class does indeed conspire to dominate the world. Its real conspiracies are well documented and clearly evident. Examples include the counterintelligence programs against communist and national liberation groups in the United States (COINTELPRO), or attempts to destabilize and overthrow governments that go against the interests of imperialism. The conspiracy theorists will then make all kinds of leaps from this without any evidence to make their claims. Further, they will twist and invert facts to support their ideas. For example, often anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists will claim that one arm of the alleged Jewish plot for world domination is to use “the Jewish lobby” to control the U.S. government. This is a distortion. The reality is that things are the other way around. U.S. support for Zionism and the Israeli apartheid state, is cynically used by U.S. imperialism to justify its foothold for hegemony in the Middle East. Between Israel and the U.S., it is the U.S that is in charge, as it uses Israel as a proxy for military control of the region.
What, then, is the point of these conspiracy theories? It isn’t difficult to understand. Trump used allusions to the white-genocide, “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory to scapegoat immigrants for problems like unemployment – problems which are rooted in capitalist crisis. These lies serve to justify inequality and national oppression that is visited upon African Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, native peoples and others.
Trump also used conspiracy theories to attack his political opponents. Early on, he was an outspoken proponent of “Birtherism” during Barack Obama’s presidency, a racist conspiracy theory which claimed that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and was thus not eligible to be president. He also promoted the idea there was a “deep state” conspiracy, which connected to the absurd QAnon conspiracy, to claim that the election was stolen from him in 2020 by an evil shadow government, from which he alone could save the American people.
Conspiracy theories are ideological. Ideology arises from the material base of society. Ruling class ideology has the function of reinforcing and reproducing that base. That means that bourgeois ideology props up the prevailing relations of production, the class relations of ownership and power, and the sum of existing social relations. This ideology is expressed in many forms through media, education and cultural institutions.
Capitalist ideology finds expression in the basic principles of liberalism and the tenets of the “American Dream.” But it is also served by the promotion of conspiracy theories. They are promoted by those who have an interest in distorting facts and spreading misinformation and confusion. While they often give the appearance of being outwardly subversive or anti-government, the reality is that the objective effect of the conspiracy theory is to misdirect people away from the real causes of their problems, rooted in the capitalist system itself. Instead they are sent on a wild goose chase, hunting for the clues of a secret cabal of shadowy conspirators.
In order to effectively organize and change society, we need to understand it and the laws that drive it. Ultimately the point of analysis is to change the world. The source and aim of Marxism-Leninism is the practical, revolutionary struggle of the working class. The broad masses of the people need to come to understand the nature of the class that oppressed them, and to understand that the way to defeat them, at the most basic level, is to act together in their own class interests. We have to identify the real enemy to know how to fight them. Conspiracy theories stand in the way of developing this class consciousness. They spread confusion where the advance of the class struggle demands scientific and sober analysis. The best way to fight the spread of conspiracy theories is to fuse the science of Marxism-Leninism with the movement of the multinational working class.
J. Sykes is the author of “The Revolutionary Science of Marxism-Leninism”. The book can be purchased by visiting tinyurl.com/revsciMLbook.