It’s cultural Marxism week at Spectator USA. The dialectic of Enlightenment, prodded by the Angel of History, has forced us to confront the false consciousness of late capitalism and to choose between Eros and Civilization, socialism and fascism. Yay!
If that sounds like drivel, it’s because it is. The meaningless bits in the previous paragraph are meaningful phrases in the mad Marxist dreamland of laugh-a-minute lefties Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, and that other one that Adorno wrote The Dialectic of Enlightenment with. Collectively known as the Frankfurt School, because between the world wars most of them worked at the Institute for Social Research, a Marxist think tank in Frankfurt.
The Frankfurt School invented the intellectual pestilences now known as Cultural Studies and Media Studies. They called their method Critical Theory or Social Theory. The gist of their interminable argument is that the reason the proles don’t join the revolution is that their thick heads are blunted by capitalist culture and sexual repression. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the New Left took it up, then populated the universities of America with vulgar Frankfurters whose pretentious, chippy warbling, instead of pulling down the boss class, has crushed enrollments in the Humanities, and produced generations of replicant professors who know nothing about their subjects, and not much about Marx and Freud either.
For the Nazis, the Frankfurter School and its vaguely Jewish exponents fell under the rubric of Kulturbolshewismus, ‘Cultural Bolshevism’. You can see why the Nazis might have thought this. But you probably wouldn’t characterize the Frankfurter style in your local English department as Cultural Bolshevism, because that would imply an endorsement of Nazi social theory. For the same reason, Americans now say ‘people of color’, because ‘colored people’ evokes the social theories of Jim Crow. And while we’re about it, we need an alternative to the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’, which has Soviet and Nazi origins. Here, the Frankfurters were right about the inadvertent consequences of speaking the language of tyranny in the name of freedom.
Which brings us to Jordan Peterson and ‘cultural Marxism’. Peterson uses ‘cultural Marxism’ as shorthand for left-wing ideology in the Humanities. So does Douglas Kellner, a professional third-generation Frankfurter at UCLA; see Kellner’s potted history of the whole tedious business, ‘Cultural Marxism and Cultural Studies’. And so did the Frankfurt School.
The phrase ‘cultural Marxism’ might even precede the Frankfurt School. Marx had applied his ideas to culture; the germ of ‘false consciousness’ theory lurks in Marx’s reflections on the French revolution of 1848 and his report on the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Frankfurters certainly didn’t invent the idea of a comprehensive Marxism of culture, either. The key ideas arose in the aftermath of World War One, from the Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukács, and the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. It was Gramsci who adopted the dreaded term ‘hegemony’, probably from Lenin, and devised the strategy now known as ‘the long march through the institutions’.
The problem is that in the 1980s, a hostile theory of ‘cultural Marxism’ developed on the right, and then spread right over the edge. William Lind of the American Conservative and the Free Congress Foundation seems to have been central to popularizing the idea that ‘multiculturalism and Political Correctness’ were the latest face of the Gramsci-Lukacs-Frankfurt program to destroy ‘Western culture and the Christian religion’ by mobilizing what Marcuse called ‘a coalition of blacks, students, feminist women and homosexuals’.
As with the Nazis’ Kulturbolshewismus meme, you can see what Lind is talking about, even if you dislike what he means. The idea of ‘political correctness’ has impeccably communist origins. The ideal of ‘multiculturalism’ emerged from the Third-Worldist mood of 1960s’ Marxism-Leninist-Maoism. But these are not coherent programs, and their subscribers, who struggle to organize a faculty meeting, don’t operate in organized terms. For Lind, however, the dots add up.
Using Frankfurt theory against itself, Lind claims that the cultural Marxists brainwash us: ‘Today, when the cultural Marxists want to do something like “normalize” homosexuality, they do not argue the point philosophically. They just beam television show after television show into every American home where the only normal-seeming white male is a homosexual (the Frankfurt School’s key people spent the war years in Hollywood).’
All the names on Lind’s list of conspirators against the West and Christianity happen to be of Jewish background: Freud, Lukacs, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and ‘the man behind the curtain — old Karl Marx’. In 2002, Lind even advanced his conspiracy theory before a receptive audience of Holocaust deniers. ‘These guys were all Jewish,’ he said. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi who massacred 77 people in 2011, pasted long sections of Lind’s writing in his manifesto. In 2015, Lind, writing under the name ‘Thomas Hobbes’, published Victoria, a novel of race-war against all in which white Christians expel the black population of Atlanta.
Since the late 1990s, ‘cultural Marxism’ has filtered into the mainstream from the racist alt-right. While a tiny number of academics have been one-upping each other with quotations from Lukács and Adorno, millions of online racists have redefined its public meaning. More recently, no one has been more influential in spreading its mainstream, non-racist use than Jordan Peterson.
I think that Peterson, who has spent most of his life on campus in the Frankfurter-rich field of psychology, missed the fringe redefinition of ‘cultural Marxism’, understood ‘cultural Marxism’ in its original, Frankfurter sense when he started throwing it about. I also think that Peterson should have known better by 2016, when he posted a link on Facebook to a Daily Caller story titled ‘Cultural Marxism is Destroying America’. Its opening sentence was: ’Yet again an American city is being torn apart by black rioters.’ The author of this and more than 20 other Daily Caller articles was the pseudonymous ’Moses Apostaticus’. In 2018, Jane Coaston of Vox exposed him as anti-Semitic conspiracist David Hilton.
This is the context in which I first read the words ‘cultural Marxism’ in the early 2000s. Not from Marxist theory in the ivory tower, but from online conspiracy theorists. It had already become a buzzword for racists who have never heard of The Dialectic of Enlightenment. That is why I have never used it, even when attacking the influence of Frankfurt theory in the academy. A neutral and more accurate term would be ‘neo-Marxism’.
Let’s face it: ‘cultural Marxism’ hasn’t floated into common parlance among conservatives because they’ve suddenly developed a taste for the cod-Baudelaire musings of Walter Benjamin. It’s floated in from the racist fringe on the Internet, the same fringe from which terms like ‘Zio’ have floated into left-wing parlance. This week, the Conservative MP Suella Braverman used ‘cultural Marxism’ in a speech to a Euroskeptic think tank, the Bruges Group: ‘As Conservatives, we are engaged in a battle against cultural Marxism, where banning things is becoming de rigeur; where freedom of speech is becoming a taboo; where our universities, quintessential institutions of liberalism, are being shrouded in censorship and a culture of no-platforming.’
Braverman is the brown-skinned child of immigrants from Goa and Kenya. She has a Jewish husband. I am certain that she didn’t mean to invoke an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, or to render it kosher by alluding to it in respectable society. She was only speaking in memes, as politicians have to do, especially conservatives hoping to catch the Peterson crowd. And it’s impossible to disagree with Braverman’s analysis, or her suggestion that some of the ‘ongoing creep of cultural Marxism’ comes from that ongoing creep Jeremy Corbyn, whose long march through the institutions has been succored by online racism and conspiracy theorizing. But I’d be fascinated to know where a decent person like Braverman learnt to summarize her analysis in the catch-all ‘cultural Marxism’. I imagine that when she apologizes, she’ll attribute it to false consciousness.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.