A “FUNDAMENTAL TRANSFORMATION OF SOCIETY”
(Oct. 7, 2020) — You may have heard the terms “Cultural Marxism,” “Critical Theory” or “Frankfurt School” bandied about. And while you might have an intuitive approximation of what these terms mean for America in the 21st century, there’s a good chance that you don’t know much about the deep theory, where the ideology comes from and what it has planned for America – and the world.
The underlying theory here is a variant of Marxism, pioneered by early-20th-century Italian Marxist politician and linguist Antonio Gramsci. Gramscian Marxism is a radical departure from Classical Marxism. One does not need to endorse the Classical Marxism of Marx, Engels and others to appreciate the significant differences between the two. He is easily the most influential thinker that you have never heard of.
Whereas Classical Marxism located what has been called “the revolutionary subject” (the people who will overthrow capitalism and usher in socialism) within the broad working class, primarily in what is now the First World, Gramscism takes a very different approach. This approach underpins most of the social unrest that is gripping America and the West today. In a sense, we are living through the endgame of a Gramscian revolution.
There are two important diversions that Gramscism has from more traditional Marxist thought: First, that economics was the base of culture and politics. Second, philosophical materialism in the Marxist sense where reality is effectively formed by the means of economic production.
For Gramsci, culture was more important than either economics or politics. This was what needed to be changed for there to be a revolution. As such, the weapon to be used for revolution was not the economic might of an organized working class, but a “long march through the institutions” (a phrase actually coined by German Marxist Rudi Dutschke), whereby every institution in the West would be subverted through penetration and infiltration.
Throughout this article, we will use the term “Cultural Marxism” as a catchall to refer to this phenomenon, because it is the most all-encompassing and does not limit us to discussing any one specific variation (Gramsci, the Frankfurt School or what have you). Finally, we should briefly mention that, the claims of Dr. Jordan Peterson notwithstanding, Cultural Marxism is ideologically distinct from postmodernism and deconstruction, both of which are hostile toward Marxism. We will not touch on either postmodernism or deconstruction in this article, though they certainly have been influential on the international left.
Antonio Gramsci, however, seems to be the best place to locate the genesis of Cultural Marxism proper. Gramsci was the son of an Albano-Sardinian low-ranking government official. Without engaging in too much psychoanalyzing, it is probably not a coincidence that the son of a low-ranking civil servant was able to see the power that low-ranking bureaucrats would have if all of them were guided by the proper ideology.
Gramsci attended the University of Turin where he studied linguistics – not philosophy or economics. Health and financial problems led him to leave his studies prematurely, shortly after he joined the Italian Socialist Party. In this period, as well as the period immediately following the Russian Revolution, Gramsci was a fairly standard Communist, though he did occasionally have disagreements with the party line, none of which are relevant to the development of Cultural Marxism. Beginning in 1924, he was the head of the Italian Communist Party. For this, he was arrested by the Fascist government in 1926, and sentenced to 20 years in prison under newly enacted emergency laws. He died in prison on April 27, 1937, at the age of 46, due to a number of untreated health problems.
It was in prison that Gramsci began formulating the core of his theory, which would later form the core of leftist thought throughout the West. In the Prison Notebooks, he broke from Classical Marxism, formulating a new and largely distinct ideology:
- Cultural hegemony is a more important factor in maintaining capitalism than economic or political hegemony.
- Cultural and social education of workers must be performed to create a class of worker-intellectuals capable of combating capitalism.
- Civil society is distinct from political society. The latter rules through domination and coercion, whereas the former rules through normalization and consent.
- A rejection of materialism (the primacy of the material world) in favor of a semi-mystical view of history, as well as a greater degree of cultural relativism.
- Further critiques of economic determinism (the notion that economics is the primary driver of human history and civilization) and philosophical materialism (the philosophical claim that the material world is either the only reality or the most important one).
Later theorists, including the famous Frankfurt School, which introduced elements of Freudian psychoanalysis, antipositivism (the notion that human society cannot be studied using the scientific method) and existentialism, a philosophical movement that posits that “being determines consciousness” and sees humanity as necessarily hemmed in by a variety of forces beyond their control.
There has been an attempt to smear the identification of the Frankfurt School and similar currents as Cultural Marxism as an expression of anti-Semitism and (of course) a “conspiracy theory.” While there are certainly anti-Semites who talk about Cultural Marxism, they often do so from the perspective of an obsession with the alleged “Jewish” nature of the intellectual tendency. We reject both the characterization of Cultural Marxism as somehow “Jewish” as well as the notion that its existence is a “conspiracy theory.” Nor do we propose that there is some centralized ideological cabal directing the contemporary left from a Cultural Marxist perspective. It is simply that these ideas have become fashionable among the left over the last 50 or so years.
Whatever one seeks to label the modern ideological underpinnings of the left, it is clear that it has its foundation in the ideas articulated by Gramsci, the Frankfurt School and their intellectual descendents such as Rudi Dutschke and others.
Gramsci’s Children: The Frankfurt School
People often refer to the Frankfurt School as some kind of nebulous ideological current. In fact, it was a discrete group of scholars working together at a specific period of time. While they shared many assumptions and conclusions, they were not entirely homogeneous, mostly in terms of their focus of study.
The Frankfurt School was, in fact, the Institute for Social Research, an adjunct facility of the Goethe University Frankfurt. It was the first fully Marxist research institution at a German university and it was funded through the generosity of well-to-do scion of an Argentine grain merchant, Felix Weil. The Frankfurt School is marked by an interdisciplinary approach. Rather than studying art, culture, politics and philosophy, they studied the interplay between them all from a Marxist perspective.
During the interwar period, the Institute was moved first to Vienna and then to New York City, where they joined Columbia University, to avoid the rise of fascism in Europe.
The first important figure for our purposes to come out of the Frankfurt School is György Lukács, the son of a wealthy Hungarian investment banker. He is frequently published under the name Georg Lukács. Lukács was no armchair theorist: He was a leading light in the Hungarian Revolution of 1917, as well as one of the leading theoreticians of the Hungarian Red Terror during the Hungarian Soviet Republic. After the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, he had a falling out with the international leadership of Communism. He later went to the Soviet Union, where he was detained and internally exiled. He returned to Hungary in 1945. His relationship with Stalinism is ambiguous and a hotly debated topic among historians, but he was the primary instrument by which the Hungarian Writers’ Union was purged.
His primary contribution to Cultural Marxism is reification, the notion that everything becomes an object under capitalism and that people under capitalism are more like things than human beings. He also said that Marxism would still be valid if it were proved to be false, because it is a methodology of social transformation above all else.
Another important figure in the development of Cultural Marxism is Herbert Marcuse. He is often referred to as “the Father of the New Left.” It is potentially worth noting that he worked for the Office of Strategic Services, which was the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Like Lukács, Marcuse had direct experience in revolutionary movements in postwar Europe. He was a participant in the Spartacist Uprising in Germany, which was an abortive attempt at forming a Soviet-style government in that country. Curiously, some of his work in the late 1920s and early 1930s was a collaboration with Martin Heidegger, who later became the sort of unofficial philosopher of the Nazi regime in Germany. A number of radicals have cited Marcuse as a major influence, including Angela Davis, Abbie Hoffman and Rudi Dutschke.
Marcuse’s most important contribution as far as we are concerned is the notion of “repressive tolerance.” In his A Critique of Pure Tolerance, Marcuse argues for something that will be familiar to readers of this website: Tolerance should only be applied to left-wing groups and ideas, while right-wing groups and ideas should be mercilessly suppressed. Specifically, he advocated for “withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements that promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or that oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.”
Marcuse is perhaps the most influential of the Frankfurt School thinkers in the United States. Anytime you hear a leftist explain why tolerance actually means intolerance, they’re channeling Marcuse.
Finally, there is Max Horkheimer. The son of a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family, Horkheimer’s father owned a series of successful textile mills in Stuttgart. He was drafted at the beginning of the First World War, but was rejected on medical grounds and then enrolled in Munich University. By 1926, he was in Frankfurt, and by 1930, he was a professor of philosophy at Frankfurt University. When the Institute for Social Research directorship became vacant, Horkheimer was elected to this position thanks to a mysterious endowment made by an anonymous wealthy businessman.
It was under Horkheimer’s watch that the Frankfurt School’s raison d’être became fusing the ideas of Karl Marx with those of Sigmund Freud. He was the father of Critical Theory, which is less a “theory” than it is a rhetorical technique of viewing everything – except, of course, Critical Theory – through a critical lens and an eye toward discrediting social institutions. Horkheiumer curiously (though perhaps not surprisingly) arrived at Critical Theory while appraising his own role as the scion of a bourgeois family who was ostensibly a proponent of proletarian revolution.
Perhaps the most didactically “Critical Theory” work of Horkheimer is Dialectic of Enlightenment. Among other things, it argues that popular, mass culture is a sort of mechanized and industrialized means by which authoritarian control is maintained over the broad mass of Westerners.
There are other figures in the Frankfurt School, however to catalog each and every one would make for a much longer text. We present the above three as exemplars of the intellectual tendency and a solid basis for understanding it.
The long march represents another significant shift in thought away from Classical Marxism. In Classical Marxist thought, the state is seen as an instrument of class oppression, which can be conquered and used by the proletariat as a weapon against the bourgeoisie. Classical Marxists did not seek to occupy the existing state and leverage it for their own purposes. Rather, the Classical Marxists believed it was necessary to destroy the instruments of the bourgeois state and construct a proletarian state in its place.
Some key concepts underlying this theory: First, the state is an instrument of class domination and, as such, is fundamentally based on economics or what Marx called the infrastructure. Everything else – culture, religion, art, politics – was superstructure or something built on top of the class-based, economic structure.
What’s more, “class” is not defined in relative terms, such as how much income one makes or even how much one owns, but rather on the relationship to production. A poor farmer was probably worse off than an urban worker, but was not a proletarian because he owned the means of production, even if these means were meager.
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was, in every meaningful sense, a Marxist revolution. A parallel state based on participatory workers’ organizations was led by a self-consciously revolutionary party to topple the existing state and erect a new one in its place. Indeed, Lenin acted on clear definitions from Marx about what constituted “the state”: “armed bodies of men,” that is to say, police, courts, prisons and the military. The Bolsheviks did not simply take the existing “armed bodies of men” and use them for their own purposes. Nor did the Communists of Eastern Europe. They destroyed existing institutions and replaced them with their own.
The bottom line of the difference between Classical Marxism and Cultural Marxism is that the latter sees the state as effectively neutral – something that can be taken over and used for its own purposes – while the former does not. Cultural Marxism is interested not in revolution in the classical 19th-century sense of throwing up barricades, toppling the monarchy and setting up guillotines. Its interests lie in cultural transformations, after which other transformations (political and economic) can take place.
The long march through the institutions is in many ways exactly what it sounded like. Proponents of Cultural Marxism were expected to go out there and ingratiate themselves into every aspect of society. Once there, whether this was in bowling leagues or board rooms, they would push their ideology and attempt to transform society. It wasn’t as dramatic or sudden as the revolution espoused by Classical Marxists and their Marxist-Leninist children, but it was considered both more effective and, more to the point, necessary for fundamental transformation of society. Once the cultural institutions had been changed, political and economic transformation could be enacted.
A final note: The change of the “revolutionary subject” is an important topic to consider. Whereas Classical Marxists were quite dogmatic about their belief that it was only the working class who could effect revolution, Cultural Marxists saw the revolutionary subject basically anywhere else, viewing the traditional Western working class as apathetic at best and actively reactionary, bordering on fascistic, at worst. This was not entirely limited to Cultural Marxists – the entire Trotskyist movement split after the Second World War over the question of whether or not the Eastern European states were revolutionary and whether or not peasant guerilla warfare was a path to revolution.
Cultural Marxists, however, saw the revolutionary subject virtually anywhere but the working class. Third world peasants, student radicals, the non-aligned movement, racial and ethnic minorities, homosexuals, the mentally ill and transsexuals – all of these and others have been considered the vanguard of cultural revolution around the world by the Cultural Marxists. The shift of the revolutionary subject from workers to virtually everyone else is effectively an attempt to create a political-coalition-meets-religious-cult centered around notions of victimhood.
Read the rest here.