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