Don't Blame Karl Marx for 'Cultural Marxism'
The list of developments for which "cultural Marxism" has been blamed includes the following: the LGBT rights movement, especially the legal push to eliminate sodomy laws and legitimize gay marriage; activism for transgender acceptance and recognition; the increase in divorce at the end of the 20th century and a decrease in nuclear family formation; African Americans protesting police abuse; art and music that fails to follow familiar genre conventions; increased depictions of a variety of races, genders, and sexualities in popular media; acceptance of immigrants and the cultural pluralism they bring; a lack of tolerance for nonliberal ideas on college campuses.
This bill of particulars is not new, especially from conservatives. The twist was to begin dragging Karl Marx into it. Here's how the narrative goes: After the horrific deaths of millions, global communism may have been discredited as a viable economic system, but its proponents want to sneak it perniciously through the back door via cultural decadence. Thus, political correctness is part of a lefty long con to take over America.
You have to give the conspiratorial right credit for clever rhetorical deck-stacking, at least. How can you approve of sympathetic gay people appearing in yogurt commercials if it's all a commie plot?
It may be comforting to believe your ideological foes are dupes of manipulative intellectual fiends. But declaring that advocates of multiculturalism, feminism, and gay rights are the pawns of dead Jewish communists is both mistaken as a matter of cultural history and foolish as a way to sell an alternate ideology. You won't win the day by treating people who merely disagree with you as stalking horses for socialist tyranny.
The Critical Theory Conspiracy
You might think that a history of cultural Marxism would start with Marx, but the poorly coiffed Prussian has almost nothing to do with this tale of insidious infiltration. Instead, the theory took off in the late 1990s due to speeches, essays, and books by William Lind, then with the Free Congress Foundation, and Patrick Buchanan, the firebrand conservative columnist, TV talking head, and sometime presidential candidate. (The idea, though not the name, was hatched earlier, in a 1992 monograph called "The New Dark Age: The Frankfurt School and Political Correctness." It was written by a disciple of the noted conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche.)
Lind and Buchanan claimed that various progressive social or legal changes—from sex education in public schools to speech codes on college campuses—are the deliberate result of a program set in motion decades ago by a squad of philosophers, musicologists, psychologists, and incomprehensible brainiacs arising out of a Marxist/Freudian ferment between the world wars in Europe.
That gang is known as the Frankfurt School, because they launched their Institute for Social Research at Goethe University Frankfurt in the 1920s. Their orbit included such recondite social philosophers as Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno.
The story goes that these eggheads saw that Marx's predictions about the contradictions in capitalism producing a proletarian revolt were failing to come true. They decided that traditional Western culture was keeping the masses from their revolutionary mission and needed to be annihilated. Religion, the family, traditional sexual mores, belief in objective truth—all had to be overturned. So they launched "critical theory" to demolish the sacred principles that made Western civilization great and pave the way for communist tyranny and an eventual stateless utopia.
Summing up what the Frankfurt School's clotted and confusing thinkers actually wrote or believed is beyond the capacity of a short essay (or even a long one). Luckily, it is also beside the point for understanding the conspiracy theory of cultural Marxism. Basically, these philosophers believed that knowledge and rationality do not necessarily stand outside history and culture, since everything we know arises from socially embedded perspectives.
This view indeed left all sorts of institutions and mores up for criticism, but that needn't be inherently a threat to Western liberty. As the popular Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums it up, "the task of critical social theory is to evaluate the degree of rationality of any system of social domination in accordance to standards of justice." This isn't in itself an unlibertarian idea, though its practitioners didn't take it to libertarian conclusions.
Adorno and Horkheimer, for example, hoped to discern the roots of the "authoritarian personality" through a mix of Marxism, Freudianism, and survey data. This attempt to understand disturbing trends in 20th century politics led their followers, aggravatingly, to write off virtually every nonprogressive attitude as "fascist" and to treat political differences as signs of mental defects. But in their analysis of the family, they weren't nearly as dismissive of the value of parents, especially as bulwarks against the totalizing power of the capitalist culture industries they feared and criticized. They blamed modern pop culture for warping the natural moral sense of the masses, much as modern traditionalists do.
Critical theorists' analysis of the powers of modern electronic media are interpreted by the conspiracy-minded as proof they intended to take those media over for communist goals, but a real Frankfurt Schooler would doubt that such a scheme could work within a capitalist system anyway.
Who Will Save Us? (Read on and see also below)
The toxic, antisemitic legacy of 'Cultural Marxism'
Some Marxists, like the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci and his intellectual heirs, tried to understand how the class rule they criticized worked through cultural domination. And today, it’s true that on campus and off, many people are directing their ire at the advantages that white males have historically enjoyed. But neither the defense of the workers nor of other disempowered groups was a conspiracy on its own, and never was there a malignant plot to convert the first into the second — which is what “cultural Marxism” implies. Deployed to avoid claims of injustice, the charge functions to whip up agitated frenzy or inspire visions of revenge.
And while increasingly popular worries about cosmopolitan elites and economic globalization can sometimes transcend the most noxious anti-Semitism, talk of cultural Marxism is inseparable from it. The legend of cultural Marxism recycles old anti-Semitic tropes to give those who feel threatened a scapegoat.
A number of the conspiracy theorists tracing the origins of “cultural Marxism” assign outsize significance to the Frankfurt School, an interwar German — and mostly Jewish — intellectual collective of left-wing social theorists and philosophers. Many members of the Frankfurt School fled Nazism and came to the United States, which is where they supposedly uploaded the virus of cultural Marxism to America. These zany stories of the Frankfurt School’s role in fomenting political correctness would be entertaining, except that they echo the baseless allegations of tiny cabals ruling the world that fed the right’s paranoid imagination in prior eras.
The wider discourse around cultural Marxism today resembles nothing so much as a version of the Judeobolshevik myth updated for a new age. In the years after the Russian Revolution, fantasists took advantage of the fact that many of its instigators were Jewish to suggest that people could save time by equating Judaism and communism — and kill off both with one blow. As the historian Paul Hanebrink recounts in an unnerving new study, according to the Judeobolshevik myth, the instigators of communism were the Jews as a whole, not some tiny band of thinkers, conniving as a people to bring communist irreligion and revolution worldwide.
The results of such beliefs weren’t pretty. According to Professor Hanebrink, many aspects of the Judeobolshevik fantasy survived the Holocaust it helped bring about, just with the role of the Jews implied more euphemistically or replaced by new adversaries. As in Judeobolshevism, cultural Marxism homogenizes vast groups of shadowy enemies and assigns them a secret design to upend society. As in Judeobolshevism, those supposedly under threat are invited to identify themselves with “the Christian West” and surge in self-defense before it is too late.
The defense of the West in the name of “order” and against “chaos,” which really seems to mean unjustifiable privilege against new claimants, is an old affair posing as new insight. It led to grievous harm in the last century. And though today’s critics of “cultural Marxism” purport to be very learned, they proceed seemingly unaware of the heavy baggage involved in alleging that conspiracies have ruined the land.
That “cultural Marxism” is a crude slander, referring to something that does not exist, unfortunately does not mean actual people are not being set up to pay the price, as scapegoats to appease a rising sense of anger and anxiety. And for that reason, “cultural Marxism” is not only a sad diversion from framing legitimate grievances but also a dangerous lure in an increasingly unhinged moment.