The Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous rampage and the apologia that he drafted shortly before have intensified the debate about the term “cultural Marxism.”
Those who oppose the use of term insist that Breivik has revealed the “hate” that characterizes all users of this loaded designation. They claim that anyone opposing “cultural Marxism” is expressing their hatred for Third World immigrants, homosexuals and a long list of other various victims of Western discrimination. For example:
Norway terrorist Breivik was an ardent subscriber to theories of 'Cultural Marxism', By David Neiwert July 23, 2011 05:00 PM
Anders Behring Breivik: Soldier in the Christian Right Culture Wars, by Chip Berlet, July 23, 2011
In other words, we are to believe that people who speak about “cultural Marxism” are bigots trying to turn the clock back to the 1930s and 1940s, when generic fascists and European nationalists were free to kill Jews and other marginalized groups.
What is under attack, we are told, is the attempt by truly democratic governments and enlightened political elites to accommodate diverse cultures and lifestyles. This humane effort is being smeared as “cultural Marxism”—particularly when those engaged in this activity present a properly critical view of the racist, homophobic bourgeois societies that existed before the present reforms.
Those on the other side of this question are equally engaged. But, unlike their opponents, they don’t enjoy the effusive support of public administrators, educators, and the media.
The critics of “cultural Marxism” are targeting what they see as the intellectual roots of the cultural pollution that has overwhelmed their civilization and onetime-intact communities. The roots of this force, these critics argue, go back to the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which was organized in interwar Germany, and to the influence its adherents exercised, especially in exile in the US after 1935.
Exponents of what the Frankfurt School called “critical theory”—like Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and Erich Fromm—were considered by orthodox Marxists to be fake or ersatz Marxists.
But the self-proclaimed radicals of Frankfurt School did adopt orthodox Marxist-Leninist theory in depicting the bourgeoisie as a counterrevolutionary class. Like orthodox Marxists, they viewed the world, arguably simplistically, in terms of interest groups and power relationships. Like orthodox Marxists—whose break from Victorian classical liberalism in this respect was shocking in a way that is easily overlooked after the totalitarian experience of the twentieth century—they explicitly eschewed debate in favor of reviling and if possible repressing their opponents. (This is fundamental to the Marxist method: although it claims to be “scientific”, it is in fact an a priori value system that rejects debate and its concomitant, “bourgeois science”. Hence “political correctness”—the most prominent product of “cultural Marxism”.) They supported, at least in principle, a socialist i.e. government-controlled economy. And they inclined, in varying degrees, toward the Communist side during the Cold War. (Marcuse, who cheered the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, was an outright Stalinist—as I can confirm from personal knowledge as his onetime student.)
Still and all, the Frankfurt School, and especially its second generation as represented by the fervent “anti-fascist” Jürgen Habermas, has been far more interested in social engineering than in government ownership of the means of production distribution and exchange—the classic definition of socialism. From The Authoritarian Personality, edited by Adorno and his collaborator Max Horkheimer and brought out in 1950 by the American Jewish Committee (then and now funders of Commentary), to the repeated attempts by Habermas and his fervent followers to make German education politically useful to the anti-national Left, the Frankfurt School has focused on “anti-fascist” attitudes and behavioral patterns. Whether this can be extracted from Communist practice, or from Marx’s materialist view of class and history, are open questions.
But whatever the case, Frankfurt School-intellectuals rallied to Lenin’s Russia and later sympathized variously with the Communist DDR , were close to, if not always members of, the German Communist Party, and traced their work back to Marxist concepts. In short, they were social reformers in a hurry who also claimed to be Marxists.
I would however note that we’ve allowed things to happen that go well beyond anything that the founding generation of the Frankfurt School might have wanted. To my knowledge the original members never called for gay marriage or for handing over Western countries to hostile non-Westerners. Nor did they exhibit the loathing for ethnic national identities that has become characteristic of the multicultural Left (and the Respectable Right).
In my memoirs Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers, I recall Herbert Marcuse’s perplexed reaction to ardent feminists in his class as they expounded their sexual liberationist views. He may have been a Stalinist but he was not a total maniac. Although chaos had to be unleashed to destroy a repressive capitalist society, Marcuse thought (at least before he went out to California and became dotty) that something would have to be put in the place of what had been subverted, and that something would require social order.
There was also a right wing of the Frankfurt School, with which I once identified myself. Those who stood within that tradition were anything but "cultural Marxists," for example Max Horkheimer, one of the cofounders of the Frankfurt School, who later in life became a staunch anti-Communist and anti-egalitarian. Whereas the mainstream Frankfurt School critics fired away at repressive bourgeois institutions like the nuclear family, the mavericks on the right attacked Enlightenment rationalism and impersonal bureaucracies—what I have called “the managerial state.”
There were furthermore sources that could be located in the masters which served to justify this deviation from the beaten track. In Dialektik der Aufklärung (1943) [PDF] Horkheimer and Adorno call attention to the bridge leading from rationalist reforms and system-building to the modern total state. Adorno comes back to this theme in Minima Moralia (1974), a work in which he levels a critique against totalizing visions of the modern world.
Perhaps most Politically Incorrect of all, Adorno published a notorious essay in 1936 mocking “jazz” as a prime example of vacuous modern culture. The Left, which continues to treat Adorno as an iconic figure, has spent decades trying to explain away his obvious revulsion for black art forms. Clearly this cultural critic would not have joined the current swooning over the artifacts of black life, were he alive today. Unlike the modern emotional, name-calling multicultural Left, the Frankfurt School did produce serious reflection as well as rebels against bourgeois decencies. In fact Western intellectuals and politicians may have become too radical to fit the term “cultural Marxist”. They have reached new frontiers of madness, together with our social and cultural institutions.
Is it possible, however, to talk about “cultural Marxism” as a purely descriptive term? Does “cultural Marxism” describe in a neutral enough fashion the movement of ideas that came out of the Frankfurt School and which has gained a powerful hold on Western countries?
In my book, The Strange Death of Marxism, I argued that these ideas established themselves as leftist programs and progressive rhetoric throughout Western Europe, Canada, and the US before the fall of the Soviet empire. They evolved into a form of leftist radicalism that could coexist with consumer societies and mixed economies, because they focused on culture and society much more than they did the economy. Frankfurt School ideas have encouraged a war without quarter against bourgeois institutions and national identities—but that war does not necessarily require far-reaching change in the structure of the economy.
Thus the GOP complaint against Obama, that he’s really a “socialist,” misses a larger point. His administrative and judicial appointments strongly suggest this black leftist president has allied himself with social radicals who can fairly be described as “cultural Marxists”.
That being said, there are reasons that one might choose to retire the term in question. The standard works on the Frankfurt School and its disciples, such as Martin Jay’s Dialectical Imagination and Rolf Wiggershaus’s encyclopedic Die Frankfurter Schule: Geschichte. Theoretische Entwicklung. Politische Bedeutung do not use the designation “cultural Marxist.” Wiggerhaus does talk about “Marxist social theorists,” the term that his subjects embraced in characterizing themselves. But in all probability they simply saw no reason to switch to “cultural Marxist”.
And it became more difficult during the Cold War and Soviet occupation of East Germany, when the German academic Right played up the self-admitted Marxist association of the Frankfurt School in order to discredit it. By the 1960s “Kulturmarxist” had become a term of abuse on the German academic right. They taunted Frankfurt School representatives as mere yappers, flakey intellectuals pretending to be Marxists. Among those making this charge were social thinkers of some distinction, like Helmut Schelsky and socio-biologist Arnold Gehlen.
Ironically, the term “cultural Marxist” had served the same function of abuse much earlier. As I noted above, in the interwar period, the Communists went after the Frankfurt School mercilessly for their lifestyle radicalism and avant-garde fashions, denouncing them (not without reason) as bourgeois decadents. The Communists insisted that these “critical theorists”, whatever they were doing, were not teaching Marx’s scientific theory of socialism.
Little did either group of critics suspect how successful the object of their attacks would soon become in taking over Western societies, through educational, social and political institutions
So Anders Breivik was very far from the first to apply the term in question in a less than complimentary way to those he intended to disparage.
However, despite this semantic history, it still seems to me that “cultural Marxist” may still be applied in a non-derogatory and impartial manner. For example, the discussion of it found in Wikipedia, which is certainly no collection of rightwing opinions by rightwing contributors, is entirely non-judgmental.
The entry discusses a disagreement between William Lind and myself on whether cultural Marxists are actually Marxists in any meaningful sense. Bill takes the position that they are, while I disagree—to quote me in The Strange Death of Marxism, “Cultural Marxists” have “moved beyond Marxism … into a militantly antibourgeois stance that operates independently of Marxist economic assumptions”. I think they should be viewed as heretics or a breakaway sect (like Mormonism?)
But our debate has nothing to do with differing ideologies, since the two of us hold almost identical political views. I simply come down in the company of orthodox Marxists in stating my judgment, while Lind seems to accept a more expansive definition.
It is hard for me to imagine that the founders of the Institute, when they began their enterprise in 1923, would have objected to being called “cultural Marxists”. They defined themselves as social-cultural critics and theorists who had been influenced by Marxism. Why would “cultural Marxist" be an inaccurate way of characterizing their identity or vocation—before that term acquired a pejorative sense?
Similarly, it seems to me that we entirely justified in describing leftist vigilante groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC—$PLC to VDARE.com) as “cultural Marxist”. They may or not have views on government control of the economy, but they are unmistakably totalitarian in their drive to suppress and destroy deviationists from the party line on race, gender, “discrimination” etc.
A final argument for retaining the term: we should not surrender any more ground to leftist shrieking and blackmail. For the last forty years, the Left has had its way semantically completely—except perhaps for the popular acceptance of the terms “politically correct” and “War Against Christmas”. We abandoned Negro for black and then for African-American; we were browbeaten into calling homosexuals “gays” and pushed into celebrating cultural-social disintegration as “diversity.”
Why allow the “anti-fascist” enemies of freedom in Europe and America to take away the term “cultural Marxist” and force us to use in its place their own flattering description of what they like?
If they want to reject our term for something more soothing to their ears, then that’s all the more reason to hold on to it.
An observation made by Schelsky decades ago still holds: once the Left becomes sovereign over meaning (Deutungshoheit), then all discussion must take place on its turf.
This, of course, is why the Left hates the fact that the term Political Correctness has entered the language—and why they are fighting so hard to discredit to the concept of the War On Christmas.
Let’s not give up “cultural Marxism”! By now, it sounds refreshingly non-leftist.
Paul Gottfried [ email him ] recently retired as? Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism His most recent book is Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America