Marx at 200: Cultural Marxism’s Long Happy March Through the Institutions

Several founders and early members of the Frankurt School are seen in this 1965 file photo taken in Heidelberg, Germany. Pictured are Max Horkheimer, front left, Theodor Adorno, front right, Jürgen Habermas, back right, and Siegfried Landshut, back left.

By Paul Kengor Published on May 10, 2018

If you Google “cultural Marxism,” the first thing that pops up is a Wikipedia definition dismissing it as a “conspiracy theory which sees the Frankfurt School as part of an ongoing movement to take over and destroy Western culture.”

A conspiracy theory? No, it’s the dominant form of Marxism in America and much of the West today. It’s a form of Marxism so radical in its redefinition of human nature that Marx himself would blush and find it bewildering.

The Frankfurt School’s Cultural Revolution

What is this cultural Marxism? It began about 100 years ago in Germany with the birth of what came to be known as the “Frankfurt School.” These German Marxists thought orthodox Marxism was too limiting, too narrow. This rigidity kept them from initiating the cultural transformation they craved, including revolutionary changes in marriage, sexuality and family. Marx and Freud were the gods they believed would not fail.

Help us champion truth, freedom, limited government and human dignity. Support The Stream »

They looked to the universities as the home base from which their ideas could be launched. Rather than organize the workers and factories, the peasants and the fields and the farms, they would organize the students and the academy, the artists and the media and the film industry.

The Communists’ New Recruiting Ground

Recently the current chairman of Communist Party USA, John Bachtell let slip a rare admission: the CPUSA has a mere 5,000 members.

Yes, only 5,000. You could find more members of Unicorn Party USA.

Even more pathetic is that CPUSA has been pounding its chest lately claiming a “surge” in membership under the siege of President Donald J. Trump. Really? Some surge.

Of course, the CPUSA never had big numbers. At its heyday in the 1930s, it probably never had more than 100,000 members. That’s why communists have always sought out dupes among the broader liberal left. It’s why Marxist ringleaders like Angela Davis show up at the Women’s March not quoting Lenin but stumping for same-sex marriage and condemning “climate change.” Davis didn’t dare openly agitate for the KGB; she agitated for LGBT.

The communist movement has always needed liberals as props to enlist at rallies. Rarely could CPUSA ever have filled Central Park with its own members. Bachtell’s cohorts today might not fill a sandbox at a Manhattan playground.

The reason for that is good news: The original ambition of an economic/class-based revolution has failed in America. The bad news is that, instead, today’s Marxists — including those in CPUSA, once the home of classical Marxism — have gone cultural. No more stories about the oppression of the working class by the running dogs of capitalism. As I write, the lead article at CPUSA’s website is titled, “The Capitalist Culture of Male Supremacy and Misogyny” — a piece breathtaking in its cultural radicalism.

They’re not looking for factory workers, but for “cultural workers.” Forget the factory floor. That project failed long ago. Communists tried to organize the steelworkers, the autoworkers, the teamsters, the coalminers. It didn’t work.

The party’s new recruiting ground is the classroom floor. There the modern cultural revolutionaries are succeeding magnificently in redefining everything from marriage and family to sexuality and gender. Most stunning of all, it’s the parents — many of them conservative Christians — who are paying for the grand indoctrination with their lifesavings.

If you can’t down America one way, try another.

— Paul Kengor

They saw that society will not get to the classless society by economics alone. Capitalism would always blow away communism, and the masses would choose capitalism. They knew that the revolution requires a cultural war over an economic war.

Whereas the West — certainly America — is not vulnerable to a revolt of the downtrodden trade-union masses, it is eminently vulnerable to, say, sexual immorality and pornography. While most citizens of the West don’t want a revolution to redistribute the wealth, they wouldn’t be able to resist a sexual revolution. Put the bourgeoisie in front of a hypnotic movie screen, and it would be putty in your hands.

The threat of Hitler’s Germany drove the Frankfurt School out of Europe and into the welcoming arms of America’s left-wing academics. They came to New York City, specifically to Columbia University, already a hotbed of communist thought.

From there, the school spread their ideas to campuses nationwide. Their ideas would sweep up the ’60s New Left. One of them, Herbert Marcuse, became an guru to the radicals with his book One Dimensional Man. Those radicals today are tenured at our universities.

Gramsci’s March Through the Institutions

Not to be forgotten is the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Arrested by Mussolini, he spent the last 11 years of his life in prison. Samuel Gregg calls him perhaps “the most dangerous socialist in history.”

Gramsci also looked to culture. If the Left truly wanted to win, it needed to first seize the “cultural means of production”: the culture-forming institutions such as the media and universities and even churches. He saw societal transformation coming about by a “march through the institutions.”

Not until leftists came to dominate these institutions would they be able to convince enough people to support their Marxist revolution. “This part of his thesis was like manna from heaven for many left-wing Western intellectuals,” writes Gregg. “Instead of joining a factory collective or making bombs in basements, a leftist professor could help free society from capitalist exploitation by penning essays in his office or teaching students.”

Gramsci insisted that leftist intellectuals needed to question everything, including moral absolutes and the Judeo-Christian basis of Western civilization. They needed to frame seemingly benign conventions as systematic injustices that must be exposed. This is where we got professors fulminating against everything from “the patriarchy” to “white imperialism” to “transphobia.”

Cult of Critical Theory

In fact, so “critical” was the cultural-Marxist left of anything and everything that it would brand itself as “critical theory.” Today, there are entire academic departments and programs dedicated to “critical theory.”

Barack Obama’s alma mater, Occidental College, has a Department of Critical Theory and Social Justice, which at its website promises to instruct wide-eyed students in the principles of “Marxism, psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School, deconstruction, critical race studies, queer theory, feminist theory, postcolonial theory….” You get the picture.

Former Time magazine writer Michael Walsh calls it “the cult of critical theory.” It’s the guiding force for what he rightly calls “the subversion of the West.” To quote the ’60s radicals, hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go.

Gregg puts it well: The worst part of the Frankfurt School’s and Gramsci’s legacy is that their “outlook is now blankly taken for granted by millions of teachers, writers, even churchmen, who have no idea that they are committed to cultural Marxism.” They created “vast structures of cynicism.” Now those structures, “which honeycomb Western society today, will prove much tougher to dismantle than the crude cement blocks of the old Berlin Wall.”

They will indeed. The people of Berlin had no problem recognizing the concrete wrongness of the wall that corralled them. But try to tell those redefining marriage that what they’re advocating is concretely wrong.

The Never-Ending Search for the Newest Victim Class

In a crucial respect, classical Marxism and cultural Marxism will always bear an essential, enduring commonality. This explains a lot about today’s left.

Both classical Marxists and cultural Marxists see history as a series of struggles that divide the world into hostile and antagonistic groups of oppressors and the oppressed. Both seek out victim groups as the anointed group that will serve as the agent for emancipation in ushering in the new and better world. The Marxist must always be on the search for the victim class., It must always be made aware of its victimization. Its “consciousness” must be raised.

In classical Marxism, this was simple: the victim group was identified by class/economics. It was the Proletariat. It was the factory worker.

When even the workers choose freedom, undermine the culture that made them free.

In cultural Marxism, this hasn’t been so simple, because the culture is always changing. The group one year might be women, the next year a new ethnic minority, the next year another group. Today, cultural Marxists work hard to tap the “LGBTQIA-plus” movement as the championed victim group.

Thus, a cultural Marxist like Angela Davis — mentored by Herbert Marcuse — could stand at the Women’s March before a sea of young women in pink hats and recite a litany of popular grievances. In her casting about for victim groups, the former Communist Bloc cheerleader hailed Chelsea Manning, “trans women of color,” “our flora and fauna,” and “intersectional feminism,” and denounced “white male hetero-patriarchy,” misogyny, Islamophobia, and capitalist exploitation.

This is where today’s Marxists are toiling hard. They are working diligently on the cultural front. That’s where they are confident they can finally take down Western civilization and its Judeo-Christian bedrock. That’s the only way they can create the communist utopia the people never wanted when it was offered to them directly. When even the workers choose freedom, undermine the culture that made them free.


Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century. He is also the author of 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. A longer version of “Cultural Marxism’s Long Happy March Through the Institutions” originally appeared in The American Spectator.

Print Friendly
Comments ()
The Stream encourages comments, whether in agreement with the article or not. However, comments that violate our commenting rules or terms of use will be removed. Any commenter who repeatedly violates these rules and terms of use will be blocked from commenting. Comments on The Stream are hosted by Disqus, with logins available through Disqus, Facebook, Twitter or G+ accounts. You must log in to comment. Please flag any comments you see breaking the rules. More detail is available here.
  • Karen

    As I have to keep reminding you, your side has the entire federal government including the parts with all the guns. You have almost all billionaires and CEOs. You have the overwhelming majority of police departments. All that, and you’re in a state of pants-wetting terror of English professors. You have to keep creating monsters to justify the horrors you plan to visit on those of us who think that people other than rich white males deserve some of the good things in life. You really are pathetic, but you are pathetic with large weapons, so any reasonable person should be afraid of you.

    • Andrew Mason

      And as everyone else keeps reminding you, many parts of the federal government are adamantly opposed to Trump or anything remotely Conservative. Most of the billionaires and CEOs actually support the Democrats – note the campaign donations, how they’re flocking to California, or the activism of the Tech sector. And of course the Left controls the MSM near absolutely – Fox and Breibart are rare outliers. Then there’s academia which dictates what the young learn, and punishes those who express non-Leftist views. The issue isn’t whether rich white males are the only ones permitted the good things in life, but whether White males are permitted any of the good things in life or whether they should be treated as second class citizens. The Left controls the flow of information, leaps to attack anyone or anything that opposes their agenda, and heavily influences government policy. Any reasonable person should be very afraid of the influence the Left wields.

      • Karen

        You live in a fantasy world. You terrify me. Trump is going to declare martial law and cancel the midterm elections and you will think it is the best thing that ever happened. (And watch the dozens of comments telling me I’m delusional but none of you will actual deny that’s going to happen.)

        • Andrew Mason

          Pot meet kettle. Trump won’t declare martial law nor will he cancel elections – he has no grounds to and no power to do so without grounds. Don’t forget it was Obama that had the South preparing to respond to a declaration of martial law. It never happened, but there were many that thought Obama was going to declare martial law.

          • Karen

            When did Obama ever do anything like that? Are you tallking about that Jade Helm nonsense?

          • Andrew Mason

            Could’ve been Jade Helm. Clearly you’re aware of the concern over Obama declaring martial law though. By contrast conservatives simply don’t believe Trump has any interest in doing so.

          • Karen

            Furthermore, what will you all do when Trump tries this? I agree he has no grounds to do so, but I absolutely think he really, badly wants to do so. The diffference between liberals and conservatives is that we believe in actual, real, visible freedom for each of us to make our own decisions about life. We believe in corporations, which are NOT people in anything other than a very limited sense for certain legal actions, paying taxes and being forced to treat all their employees and competitors fairly — wage and hour laws, antitrust laws and such. We believe that billionaires should not control society, that men should not control women, and that parents should not control children. We believe that everyone is entitled to health care and education, because sick, ignorant people are prisoners. We even believe that very few things should lead to prison sentences. People who believe in those things don’t declare martial law.

            I know you will bring up abortion and gay marriage. Those things require much longer analysis, but on the first, women need to be able to control their own reproductive lives without male interference, and that includes terminating pregnancies. No, fetuses are not people with rights. On the second, if you are in the business of providing services to weddings or otherwise to couples, you cannot discriminate. Allowing discrimination against gay couples of necessity allows discrimination against interracial couples, couples marrying the wrong religion . . .

            Contrast that with your side. You believe, to use my favorite example, that husbands are supposed to control wives. You always respond with some assertion that no decent man would treat his wife badly, and I will answer with the fact that not all men are decent and no man is decent all the time. Anyway, your side is the one that loves authority and imposing restrictions on people. Why should I believe you won’t impose martial law?

          • pngmac

            Karen, Assuming that I am on what you call “your side,” I can assure you that I have never had the notion that I am “supposed to control [my wife],” and I would be very concerned if I were to hear any man say that. You are right that “not all men are decent and no man is decent all the time.” Because all humans are by nature sinful (can you name a person, with a single nature, who has not sinned?), it is equally true that not all women are decent and no woman is decent all the time. Is it “my side” that once proclaimed loudly “you cannot legislate morality,” and then some decades later is “imposing restrictions on people[‘s]” thoughts and motives in terms of hate crimes and political correctness?

          • Karen

            I’m genuinely glad we agree on human nature. As for the ‘legislate morality’ bit, I am convinced that legislation banning sex acts or most recreational drug use does a lot more harm than good. (Age of consent laws are another matter entirely. Agreement to do something requires capacity to make an effective agreement, which means both parties have to be old enough of to understand the nature of the act and what consenting to it means. I know there are some liberals and lots of libertarians who disagree with me, but at least I think they’re very wrong.)

            One of the reasons I hate Trump and his movement so much is that he, and the Tea Party that produced him, demonized compromise. (Fun fact: the world ‘compromiso’ in Spanish means both compromise in the English sense and commitment or promise. Es posible que hacer un compromiso para compromisar con sus enimigos.) Compromise is necessary to make any system work, but if we compromise with Trump, he treats that as a complete surrender to him. I cannot make a deal with someone who is going to insult me as a loser for making said agreement. I think there are lots of places were both sides can work together, like human trafficking laws, but both sides have to treat that like bargaining and not like battles.

          • Andrew Mason

            Whereas other people are convinced that regulating sexual relations are in the interests of society. Even you admit that limiting the age of consent is probably a good idea, though not everyone agrees with you, and it is clear that those of a paedophilic orientation are discriminated against.

            Actually Trump and the Tea Party aren’t responsible for demonising compromise. Chamberlain made it a dirty word back in ’38. Compromise in the face of evil simply gives evil the advantage. And this appears to be the view that the Left takes – they refuse to offer any compromise to the Right, but demand total compromise, especially when advocating for extreme evil. And since you’ve mentioned human trafficking, you’ve obviously missed the report that some on the Left are of the view that child trafficking should be legalised so as to make it safe and healthy. Want to rethink your absolute allegiance to the Left? 🙂

          • Andrew Mason

            Why would I need to plan anything? As I’ve said I don’t believe Trump has any interest in doing so. If liberals push then maybe they’ll give him grounds – Antifa engaging in terrorism for instance but just because Trump has to declare martial law doesn’t mean he wants to. Note for the record I don’t expect him to, but the Radical Left is unpredictable. Perhaps some of them want martial law declared so as to portray themselves as the victims? Actually no liberals don’t believe in actual, real, visible freedom for each person to make their own decisions about life – that’s conservatives. Liberals believe that freedom must be constrained – that speech and conduct must be limited, and thought criminals persecuted. I concur that billionaires should not control society, yet the Left are happy to see regressive billionaires controlling things. You say that men should not control women, and yet the Left champions woman abusers so long as they adhere to the feminist mantra. You say that everyone is entitled to healthcare but ignore the fact that that people are losing their healthcare because Obamacare has made their coverage unaffordable. You say you believe in education, and yet increasingly educational institutions teach what to believe and punish those who question accepted doctrine. You say very few things should lead to prison sentences, and yet you don’t say how wrongdoing should be punished, how the laws of society should be enforced or dangerous anti-social activity discouraged.

            Actually you’re the one bringing up abortion and homosexual marriage. Clearly you consider them important. Abortion has nothing to do with reproductive health and all to do with killing children. Even pro-abortionists recognise that fetuses are people, they just don’t find it convenient to admit that fact most of the time – it affects the abortion business model. No allowing disagreement with homosexuality doesn’t automatically mandate racism. Permitting business owners to refuse to support homosexual views or lifestyles is not a matter of discrimination. By contrast a government requiring people to support such things is criminal – a violation of freedom in regards to religion and speech, amongst others. To deprive people of religious freedom and insist that non-existent rights be given preferential treatment is a perversion of law and morality.

            My side? When did I saw that husbands need to control their wives? Clearly you have a bee in your bonnet!!! I agree that not every man is decent, that no decent man will treat his wife badly, but by the same token you appear to assume that every women is decent, and all the time. If ‘my side’ is the one that loves authority and dictating restrictions on people why is it that your side is the one pursuing ever increasing restrictions on who can say what, and what people can do? Why should ‘my side’ believe you have a genuine fear of martial law as opposed to a secret fascination with it – either because your side wants to impose it but presently isn’t in a position to, or because if a ‘conservative’ president imposed it, for whatever reason, your side would feel further justified in their claims of victimhood despite its conflict with reality?

          • Karen

            You state that liberals don’t believe in freedom. I said I think very few acts should be punished by prison, you respond by asking how ‘laws of society should be punished?’ By prison, but I think there should be very few criminal laws that result in prison sentences. I think that consensual sex and recreational drug use, to use two immediate examples, are not anyone else’s business.

            As for all women being decent, of course they aren’t. Husbands should have no authority over their wives and wives should have no authority over their husbands. Marriages should be egalitarian and left to the parties to decide who does what.

            Please cite any source that is arguing for legal punishments for speech? Liberals criticize conservatives all the time, but criticism and protest is not censorship. You are the ones who always rag on ‘snowflakes’ yet you scream that we’re censoring you every time someone carries a protest sign. No, you get to talk and write, but others get to respond, and those responses can be harsh.

            People have gotten fired for saying things, mostly by private businesses. If you believe in unrestrained free enterprise, then you have to accept that the businesses have the right to fire anyone for any reason. James Damore was not a martyr because Google fired him for saying that women were too dumb to work there. Either agree that employment practices can be regulated or accept getting fired for being sexist. Your choice.

            Finally, you do think Trump will declare martial law and you have no problem with that. You are a fascist.

          • Andrew Mason

            Prison is only one possible form of punishment. There’s also public humiliation, corporal and capital punishment, financial penalties, enslavement, mutilation, and other assorted measures. Some of these are used, some are considered immoral, but they are possible responses to misconduct and frequently a lot quicker and cheaper than prison. In the case of theft for instance a person or business takes a financial hit, and then taxpayers have to pay for the incarceration of the thief. Where is the justice there?

            Within the US, or generally? Anything to do with hate speech generally falls within the ‘punishment for expressing a wrong opinion field’. And there are advocates who hold that speech is violence, and so hateful speech is harmful and should be legally punished. The problem is that when the elites define expression of religious orientation as hateful for instance they victimise an entire subclass and establish privileged overclasses. This article – https://www(dot)huffingtonpost(dot)com/sean-mcelwee/hate-speech-online_b_3620270.html is focused on regulating online speech, and yet the problem is most tech companies are in left leaning areas and employ left or ultra-left leaning staff with the result that non-left speech is already being censored. Make it a matter of criminality and you see free speech banned on the grounds some consider it hateful.

            Except Damore wasn’t fired for being sexist, but for arguing against sexism, quotas, and providing inconvenient truths.

            No I’ve repeatedly said I don’t think Trump will declare martial law. The only scenario I can envisage where he might, note might as in also might not, declare martial law is in response to some sort of leftist insurrection e.g. terrorism by Antifa. If attempting to envisage a possible scenario where Trump might declare martial law constitutes me believing Trump will declare martial law and believing martial law is a good thing then you need to take your meds and lie down.

          • Andrew Mason

            Source arguing for legal punishments for speech? Just stumbled over this article: https://www(dot)campusreform(dot)org/?ID=10890

            Activists called the police twice against a free speech exhibition on a college campus and 2 university staff members also tried to shut it down. The Left holds that freedom only exists for them.

        • Ken Abbott

          And you accuse Andrew of living in a fantasy world? Karen, this is truly paranoid and disengaged from reality.

  • Sapient

    Excellent article!

    • Gerrard

      Yes very informative, exposing the historical roots of the ideological nonsense infiltrating our universities. Jordan Peterson has them nailed.

    • Stevart

      Read Camille Paglia’s JUNK BONDS AND CORPORATE RAIDERS: Academe in The Hour of the Wolf. For another take on Cultural Marxism.

The Christians I Knew Liked Rules Too Much
David Mills
More from The Stream
Connect with Us