The following material is taken from my book Saints and Scoundrels, chapter 16.
On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, where the Berlin Wall separated the free world from the communist empire.
In one of the most memorable speeches in living memory, Reagan offered a direct challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev, general-secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. Gorbachev had claimed that he wanted to reform the Communist party on the principles of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). But Reagan believed that there was one thing left for Gorbachev to do to prove his earnestness.
“General Secretary Gorbachev,” Reagan entreated, “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev – Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Two years later, on November 9, 1989, East Germans began dismantling the Wall. As if in silent answer to Reagan’s words, Gorbachev did nothing to stop them. Earlier in the same year, Gorbachev had allowed the first open elections since 1917 to be held in the Soviet Union. Also in 1989 the USSR lost control of its satellite nations in Eastern Europe. For the next two years the free world rejoiced as it witnessed the systematic downfall of communism in Eastern Europe. Communism had failed. Reagan and the free world had won.
Or had they?
The communism of the Soviet Union had been based on the economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who had taught that the basic substructure of civilization was economic. All of history, they argued in The Communist Manifesto, had been characterized by the struggle between competing economic groups. In particular, this struggle found focus in the tension between the bourgeoisie (the wealthy and ruling classes) and the proletariat (the working classes). This struggle could resolve itself only by means of a working class revolution. Such a revolution would abolish private property and give the workers control over the means of production.
Communism, as such, never worked. Even during the heyday of the Soviet Union, the outcomes that Marx predicted never materialized. Yet even as the visible symbols of Marxism came crashing down at the close of the twentieth century, there was another, more subtle, version of Marxism coming to fruition. The apparent downfall of communism merely masked the imminent victory of a new variant, one that was less visible yet more subversive, less observable, yet more insidious. It was a type of Marxism that owed its genesis to the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937).
The Young Gramsci
Antonio was born in 1891, the fourth of seven children, in the Italian city of Ales, on the island of Sardinia. His childhood was far from happy. Antonio’s father was arrested for five years on a charge of embezzlement in 1898, leaving the family reduced to poverty. The family was forced to move to Ghilarza, where Antonio suffered an accident that left him hunched-backed and permanently stunted.
At eleven Antonio had to leave school and get a job to support the struggling family. He was later able to complete his schooling, distinguishing himself as an exceptional student. He earned a scholarship to study philosophy at the university at Turin, where he gained a reputation as a writer.
Like many of the youth in the Italian universities of the early twentieth century, Gramsci was attracted to the new revolutionary ideas. He wrote frequently about the views of Karl Marx, whose Communist Manifesto had been energizing workers throughout Europe ever since its appearance in 1848.
In 1914, three years after Gramsci moved to Turin, World War I broke out, triggering a series of events that would result in Marx’s socialist theories becoming a reality in Russia.
Gramsci and the Bolshevik Revolution
Revolutionaries in Russia were able to mobilize the working classes by exploiting the climate of discontent. Faced with the unprecedented casualties Russia was experiencing in the war, together with soaring inflation and fuel shortages, the exhausted Russians were amenable to the utopian promises of the revolutionaries.
When the Tsar was forced to abdicate in February 1917, it looked initially as though Russia might adopt a political system similar to that of America’s. A provisional government was set up, headed by moderate Constitutional Democrats drawn primarily from the middle-class and aristocracy. They emphasized free speech, freedom of religion, and advocated assemblies designed to maintain these and other liberties. However, the exiled Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) had other plans. He realized that the time was ripe to complete his agenda of a communist Russia, modeled on Marx’s idea of the classless society.
Lenin arrived on the scene from Switzerland in April 1917. He immediately set to work mobilizing small revolutionary councils peppered throughout the country, known as “soviets.” Lenin promised to redistribute land to the peasants, to transfer factories and industries from private owners into the hands of the workers, and to give the people “Peace, Land, Bread.” Increasing numbers rallied to his side.
By the end of October 1917, Lenin’s “Bolshevik” party had taken control of the various soviet councils in the capital, St. Petersburg, and in Moscow. During the night of November 6, they seized power in St. Petersburg. However, gaining control over all of Russia was another matter. It would take more than three years and a protracted civil war before Lenin and the communists (“Red Russians”) would achieve victory against the anti-communists (“White Russians”).
While Russia’s civil war – known as the Bolshevik Revolution – was raging in Russia, Gramsci was trying to foment revolution in Italy. Together with his friend Palmiro Togliatti he formed the Italian Socialist Party, in addition to starting the periodical, The New Order, through which he disseminated the ideas of the revolution. A year after the Bolsheviks won control of Russia and turned it into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Gramsci traveled to the nation as a delegate for the Italian Socialist Party.
Gramsci spent eighteen months in the Soviet Union, learning from the communists. Though he identified himself with the aims of the Bolsheviks and hoped that their goals could spread throughout the entire world, he held reservations about their brutal methods. Moreover, he could not detect the “class consciousness” that Marx had theorized about. He was dismayed that when the Great War had broken out in 1914, proletariat throughout Europe – including those previously aligned with Marxism – flocked to the cause of their own nations. He reasoned that had the working classes possessed the sort of class consciousness Marx had postulated, they ought to have understood that participating in the conflict was not in their best interests.
Liquidating Western Civilization
Before and after his visit to the Soviet Union, Gramsci came to realize that the problems standing in the way of communism becoming an international reality were more basic than mere class struggle. Most workers had deep loyalties that went far deeper than economic considerations – loyalties such as family and religion. “Mediating institutions,” like the church and family, served to insulate workers from the power of the state, blocking government’s attempts to bring the communist utopia. Even in the Soviet Union where Marxism appeared to work, Gramsci saw that it could only be sustained through the continual threat of terror.
At first Gramsci had sought for a solution that was consistent with traditional Marxist doctrine. However, he eventually came to see that communists like Marx and Lenin had things the wrong way around. Whereas Marx had argued that the substructure of civilization was economic, Gramsci came to see it as cultural and spiritual.
What this meant in practice was that power did not rest only with those who controlled the means of production: it depended on those who controlled the institutions and disciplines of culture, including philosophy, politics, art, literature, media, religion, and most importantly, the educational systems from elementary school to university. Only by concentrating on these domains could the heart and minds of the proletariats be reached and a classless society achieved. Gramsci saw that this would involve an attack on the very root of Western civilization: Christianity itself. This wasn’t just because Christianity was inexplicably connected with the principles of the free market, though that was part of the picture. More crucially, Christianity attached importance to transcendent truths and values, in direct opposition to Marxism’s insistence that everything valuable in life can be attained by tinkering with man’s external environment.
The cultural legacy wrought by Christianity thus made the proletariat immune to the liberating influences of Marxism. Even among those individuals who had abandoned the Christian faith, their basic instincts were still deeply rooted in the residual mores of Christian society. As Malachi Martin describes it in The Keys to This Blood:
“There would be no Marxist inspired violent overthrow of the ruling ‘superstructure’ by the working ‘underclasses.’ Because no matter how oppressed they might be, the ‘structure’ of the working classes was defined not by their misery or their oppression but by their Christian faith and their Christian culture.”
It followed, Gramsci realized, that the proletariat revolution could never succeed until the integrity of the culture that was blocking it had been compromised. Before the political hegemony of communism could emerge, the ideological hegemony of Christianity would first have to be dismantled. Workers must begin to see themselves as being separated from the ruling classes not through economics but through ideology. Marxist categories must first be internalized by the masses before they could be externalized by the socialist political parties. This could happen only to the degree that such categories came to permeate every level of society, becoming part of the very air people breathed. Once the new values formed the unchallenged assumptions, the collective “common sense” of society, could the aims of the revolution be brought to bear. When that happened, a revolution would not be necessary, for the people would willingly embrace the communist solution. To quote again from Martin,
“What was essential, insisted Gramsci, was to Marxize the inner man. Only when that was done could you successfully dangle the utopia of the “Workers’ Paradise” before his eyes, to be accepted in a peaceful and humanly agreeable manner, without revolution or violence or bloodshed.”
Gramsci’s strategy for “Marxizing” the inner man has come to be known as “cultural Marxism” to distinguish it from classical economic Marxism. In 1921, the same year that Gramsci founded the Italian Socialist Party, he had written about this method of cultural subversion:
Nothing in this field is foreseeable except for this general hypothesis: there will be a proletarian culture (a civilization) totally different from the bourgeois one and in this field too class distinctions will be shattered. Bourgeois careerism will be shattered and there will be a poetry, a novel, a theatre, a moral code, a language, a painting and a music peculiar to proletarian civilization, the flowering and ornament of proletarian social organization. What remains to be done? Nothing other than to destroy the present form of civilization. In this field, “to destroy” does not mean the same as in the economic field. It does not mean to deprive humanity of the material products that it needs to subsist and develop. It means to destroy spiritual hierarchies, prejudices, idols and ossified traditions.
From Parliament to Prison
Gramsci was in the Soviet Union in 1924 when Lenin died and Stalin seized the reigns of power. He decided to return to Italy, partly to protect himself against Stalin’s party purges. Because Gramsci had opposed the methods of classical Leninism, he knew it would only be a matter of time before Stalin’s police arrested him. But Gramsci also wanted to return to his homeland to join the struggle against the fascist Mussolini, whose party had held power since 1922.
Fascism was not too distinct from communism. The same year Mussolini’s party came to power Hitler had commented that the communists and fascists were brothers togehter in the reovlution for the liberation of the world. Fascism and communism were, in fact, rival brands of socialism. Both were left-wing political movements which had their origins in the legacy of the French Revolution. Both communism and fascism opposed the free market, both claimed to represent the way of progressive reform, both attempted to achieve their goals through an overthrow of the established order. Moreover, both were totalitarian, believing that government alone held the answer to all of life’s problems. (When Mussolini first coined the term “totalitarianism” it was not a pejorative slur, nor was it something connoting tyranny. Rather, he used the word to refer to a humane society in which everyone was taken care of and looked after by a state which encompassed all of life within its grasp.)
Where fascism and communism differed was in the single-factor explanation for ushering in the socialist utopia. For communism, the explanation lay in the glorification of the working class; for fascism, it was the glorification of the nation state and the races with which the nation was associated. In Italian fascism, the racist element arose comparatively late as a result of German influence. Fascism told all citizens that they were the victims of other nations and races; communism told the workers that they were victims of other classes. In calling on the workers of the world to unite as one, the Communist Manifesto had implicitly downplayed the importance of nationhood. By contrast, the means by which fascism sought to bring a planned economy was through calling the people of the nation to unite and whipping the masses up into a nationalistic frenzy.
Gramsci’s nemesis, Mussolini, had begun his career within the communist camp. But he had been influenced by the political thinker Georges Sorel (1847–1922), who argued that Marx’s contribution was not in describing what had to come about (he disagreed with Marx’s historical determinism) but, rather, a prescription for what could happen if the working classes were sufficiently inspired by Marx’s “energizing myth.” What was important was not whether a particular “energizing myth” was actually true, but whether it had the power to mobilize the masses. After observing the way workers flocked to defend their nations in 1914, Mussolini and other Italian Marxists became convinced that the nation-state would serve as a more compelling energizer than class consciousness for ushering in the socialist utopia. Mussolini thus abandoned Marxism for fascism.
In 1926, Mussolini’s party began a purge of all its political opponents. Gramsci was condemned as a communist and sentenced to twenty years behind bars. By sentencing Gramsci to prison, however, Mussolini was unwittingly perpetuated his legacy, for it was during his confinement that Gramsci wrote his most lasting and influential works. When he died in 1937, he left behind nine volumes of his writings.
A Different Type of Marxist
His time in prison had given Gramsci opportunity to reflect further on the problem of bringing the revolution to a culture so saturated in the principles of Christianity and the free market. In his Prison Notebooks he argued that effective control of the political and economic mechanisms of the state could only occur after what he called the “long march through the culture.” The Judeo-Christian culture of Europe would have to be made to implode slowly, anonymously, and gradually, so that people would be unaware of what was happening around them. Moreover, it would have to be done in the name of man’s dignity, liberty, and human rights. Only through years of steady chipping away at the foundation of Western society could the proletariat be oriented to look favorably on the communist solution. This process of undermining the social foundation would work through, in, and with the democratic mechanisms and political parties entrenched in the various nations, a position considered to be heretical by classical Leninists.
Gramsci realized and appropriated a truth that Solzhenitsyn would later articulate so profoundly: “evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters a political system.” In getting to the heart of the matter, Gramsci’s Masterplan resembles Huxley’s Brave New World more closely than it did George Orwell’s 1984. No force would be required to make the population subservient because they would be rendered cooperative by degrees. Gramsci considered it deeply offensive that leaders like Stalin could only maintain the workers “paradise” through a regime of terror. Under the blueprint Gramsci offered, government does not need to wrest culture into line like Stalin was doing even as Gramsci languished in prison, because culture itself would eventually provide the revolutionary government with its constituency. After a long process of cultural warfare the very infrastructure of Western culture could be exploited and funneled towards the goal of subversion.
Throughout the twentieth century, various individuals and institutions attempted to apply Gramsci’s strategy. The most successful of these attempts was the influential Frankfurt School.
Frankfurt and the Gramscian Strategy
The devastation and sheer futility of World War I, together with the Spanish Influenza that followed on its heels, produced a generation of exhausted and cynical intellectuals ready to embrace either the false optimism of fascism, or the scathing pessimism of cultural Marxism. Many who adopted the latter course grouped together in the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt in Germany (formally called Institute for the Study of Marxism). Their movement was characterized by a unique intellectual vision that came to be known as “the Frankfurt school.” That vision was essentially Gramscian, funneling the principles of cultural Marxism towards the liquidation of Western civilization.
The Frankfurt think-tank would come to include sociologists, art critics, psychologists, philosophers, sexologists, political scientists, and a host of other experts united in the aim of converting Marxism from a strictly economic theory into a cultural reality.
Among the intellectuals associated with the Movement were Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Leo Lowenthal, Wilhelm Reich and Georg Lukacs. What these men shared was a disillusion with the traditional Marxist doctrine of economic determinism. The failed revolution by German workers in 1919 seemed to indicate that a working class takeover was far from being the inevitability predicted by Marx. Echoing Gramsci, the thinkers of the Frankfurt school believed that the groundwork for this takeover would be laid by eviscerating the values on which Western culture was built. Georg Lukacs, who helped to found the school, said that its purpose was to answer this question: “Who shall save us from Western Civilization?”
When Hitler became chancellor in 1933 the school was forced to disband, relocating to Geneva. When most of its intellectuals later fled to the United States the institute was transplanted to Columbia University, where its ideas were disseminated throughout American academic life.
The Gramscian tactics of the Frankfurt school were remarkably cunning. On the surface of things, post-war America seemed like the last place that would give their anti-Western philosophy a hearing. After all, this was a time when the entire Western world, and especially America, was acutely conscious of the way fascism had nearly wiped out their civilization. By taking as his paradigm the pre-Christian primitivism of the “noble savage,” Hitler had represented the antithesis of Western values. Moreover, the Nazis rode to power on a wave of a fashionable neo-paganism and primordial tribalism that had presented itself as a secular alternative to the culture of the modern West. In a number of ways, therefore, the defeat of Hitler represented the victory of Western values. In America this victory was accompanied with the renewed cultural optimism characteristic of the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Such optimism manifested itself in the birth of the baby boomers, the production of happy films like “Singing in the Rain,” and the popular music of crooners such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
The genius of the Frankfurt School was its ability to convert this newfound confidence in American society into a force for sabotaging American society. The strategy involved a clever redefining of Fascism as an extreme right-wing heresy. According to this narrative, Nazism had been the outgrowth of a society entrenched in capitalism. (“Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism,” commented Frankfurt sociologist Max Horkheimer.) Cultures that attached strong importance to family, religion, patriotism and private ownership, they argued, were virtual seedbeds of fascism.
On purely historical grounds, this explanation of fascism was complete bosh. However, by mixing complex social theories with Freudian psychoanalysis and pseudo-scientific cultural analysis, and stirring in a heavy dose of historical revisionism, the Frankfurters produced a cocktail of ideas that effectively associated social conservatism with the Nazis. This association has stuck long after the psychobabble and pseudo-science that produced it has lain dormant in the garbage heap of discredited academia. The net result is that it became intellectually respectable for Americans to embrace many of Hitler’s goals, but to do so under the flag of an anti-fascist agenda.
The historical revisionism reached its height in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, the most well-known member of the movement. For him – and the academics who followed in his wake – the only answer to the problem of fascism was communism. “The Communist Parties are, and will remain, the sole anti-fascist power,” he declared. “. . . the denunciation of neo-fascism and Social Democracy must outweigh denunciation of Communist policy. The bourgeois freedom of democracy is better than totalitarian regimentation, but it had literally been bought at the price of decades of prolonged exploitation and by the obstruction of socialist freedom.”
The apex of the pseudo-scientific sociology of the Frankfurt School was Theodor Adorno’s book The Authoritarian Personality, written in 1950, after his move from Columbia to Berkeley. The book reported and evaluated a study of American society in which various individuals were polled using a questionnaire. Their answers indicated how well they scored on “the F-Scale.” F, of course, stood for fascism.
The purpose of the study was to identify and analyze the profile of the “Potential fascist character.” However, as Daniel Flynn pointed out in his discussion of the survey in Intellectual Morons, “what the authors took to be signs of fascism were merely indications of conservatism.” Sometimes the participants were simply asked whether they agreed or disagreed with certain statements. One statement was, “Now that a new world organization is set up, America must be sure that she loses none of her independence and complete power as a separate nation.” Those who answered that they agreed with this scored a point on the F-scale.
The study purportedly identified fascism as a specific psychological personality type, one that was deeply embedded in the authority structures of the patriarchal family and sustained by the conditions of the free market. Interestingly, the survey omitted to study any actual fascist characters.
What Adorno “discovered” was that America was virtually on the brink of lapsing into Fascism. Strong Christian families were among the telltale signs of a society on the verge of succumbing to the fascist impulse. According to the Frankfurt narrative, daughters obey their fathers only because their unresolved hatred of them has been converted into an attraction. This primes the culture for later falling under the spell of leaders like Mussolini and Hitler. The dynamic at work was articulated by the Frankfurt psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who suggested that “Familial imperialism is ideologically reproduced in national imperialism.” Max Horkheimer suggested similarly: “When the child respects in his father’s strength a moral relationship and thus learns to love what his reason recognizes to be a fact, he is experiencing his first training for the bourgeois authority relationship.”
The opposite of the fascist personality was what Erich Fromm called the “openness” of the healthy personality. “Open” individuals were those who noted “that man is the center and purpose of his life; that the growth and realization of man’s individuality is an end that can never be subordinated to purposes which are supposed to have greater dignity.”
The Frankfurt thinkers established that those who held conservative views were not just wrong, but neurotic. By converting ideas into pathologies, the Frankfurt school set in motion the trend of silencing ideas through diagnosis rather than dialogue.
‘Psychologizing’ their political opponents became a substitute for critical engagement.
It wasn’t just their political opponents who fell under the hammer of this type of psychoanalysis. By pioneering a discipline known as “Critical Theory,” the Frankfurt School was able to deconstruct all of Western civilization. Instead of showing that the values of the West were false, they diagnosed the culture as being inherently logo-centric, patriarchal, institutional, patriotic, and capitalist. No aspect of Western society from cleanliness to Shakespeare was immune to this penetrating critique. Even the act of whistling fell under the deconstruction of Adorno, who thought that whistling indicated “control over music” and was symptomatic of the insidious pleasure Westerners take “in possessing the melody.”
Reason itself was not without the taint of the authoritarian, fascist personality. Echoing what would later become a truism of Postmodernism social theory, Adorno and Horkheimer argued that fascism, like capitalism, was birthed in the Western cult of reason. They would be echoed by Marcuse in 1964, when he suggested that logic was a tool of domination and oppression. In place of rationality, they followed Nietzsche in asserting the primacy of the mythic, primordial, and spontaneous urges of pre-Christian society, which exactly paralleled the preoccupations of their fascist nemeses. For Marcuse, the reunion to a more primitive state also involved a rejection of personal hygiene and the freedom to embrace a “body unsoiled by plastic cleanliness.”
“A Worldwide Overturning of Values”
“Terror and civilization are inseparable” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. The solution to terror was therefore simple: dismantle civilization. Marcuse expressed their goal like this: “One can rightfully speak of a cultural revolution, since the protest is directed toward the whole cultural establishment, including morality of existing society. . . .” Georg Lukacs argued similarly: “I saw the revolutionary destruction of society as the one and only solution to the cultural contradictions of the epoch” and “Such a worldwide overturning of values cannot take place without the annihilation of the old values and the creation of new ones by the revolutionaries.”
Lukacs used the Hungarian schools as a front for reaping this redemptive cultural nihilism. Through a curriculum of radical sex education, he hoped to weaken the traditional family nucleus. History PhD William Borst recounts how
“Hungarian children learned the subtle nuances of free love, sexual intercourse, and the archaic nature of middle-class family codes, the obsolete nature of monogamy, and the irrelevance of organized religion, which deprived man of pleasure. Children were urged to deride and ignore the authority of parental authority, and precepts of traditional morality.”
Unlike the other members of the Frankfurt School, Lukacs took refuge in the Soviet Union after Hitler came to power. Meanwhile, those who had immigrated to the United States continued to develop ever more sophisticated methods for liquidating Western values. One of these – again echoing the genius of Gramsci – was to make oppressed groups feel that the world owed them something. What Marx did for groups defined by their economic status, the Frankfurt school did for groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender and minority status (Marcuse added homosexuals to the list).
The Frankfurt School sought to build a base among academics who were willing to write about these oppressed peoples. By encouraging these groups to think of themselves as victims of Western oppression, the Frankfurt School sought to harness their energy in the fight against Christian values. The itinerary was being set for Western culture to splinter into numerous competing factions whereby America’s diversity (previously regarded as one of its strengths) would become a fatal weakness. Under the shadow of Frankfurt, multiculturalism would shift from being descriptive to prescriptive – from describing a fact of American life to dictating policy. The former gave cohesion to American society, the latter would bring disintegration by fueling antagonism between different groups competing for legal privileges and exemptions.
During the 1960’s Herbert Marcuse popularized these ideas and disseminated them to college radicals. By mobilizing the anti-war movement, the quiet revolution of Gramsci began to increase in volume. The counter-culture adopted Marcuse as their intellectual guru, and he in turn provided the youth with a steady stream of propaganda to sanctify their movement. (It was Marcuse who originally invented the catchphrase “Make Love, Not War.”)
Instead of seeking to give the working classes control over the means of production, Marcuse sought to give groups aligned with the Left control over the intellectual infrastructures of the West. One of the ways he approached the goal was through redefining the notion of tolerance. Marcuse considered that the traditional way of conceiving tolerance –permitting another person’s viewpoint regardless of how one personally felt – to be “repressive tolerance.” What was needed instead was what he termed “liberating tolerance.” Significantly, liberating tolerance involved “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” Movements from the Left included various groups that Marcuse encouraged to self-identify as oppressed, including homosexuals, women, blacks, and immigrants. Only groups such as these could be considered legitimate objects of tolerance.
What emerged under the shadow of this new tolerance was a type of intellectual redistribution. Instead of redistributing capital from the middle class to the working class, as traditional Marxism had urged, the new tolerance followed Gramsci in seeking to redistribute cultural capital. Marcuse made no secret that these were his ultimate goals, reflecting once, “I suggested . . . the practice of discriminating tolerance in an inverse direction, as a means of shifting the balance between Right and Left by restraining the liberty of the Right. . . .” Marcuse also made no secret of the fact that he was willing to stamp out academic freedom in order to shift this balance of power. Significantly, he acknowledged that this new model of tolerance involved “the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies,” while “the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior. . . .”
By the 1960’s the ideologies forged at Frankfurt had become the dominant position for most of the college radicals. Many of them then entered academia, media or politics with the deliberate purpose of changing the world. The change they would bring would be along the lines that Aldous Huxley articulated in his foreword to Brave New World: “A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”
The Legacy of Cultural Marxism
A. N. Whitehead once described all of Western philosophy as simply a series of footnotes to Plato. It might be similarly urged that all of contemporary liberalism is merely a footnote to Gramsci. Indeed, his theories, mediated through the deconstructionism of the Frankfurt school, form the bedrock for the type of neo-Marxism fashionable today (though the term “Marxism” is no longer in vogue). As Gene Veith observed in Postmodern Times:
“Today’s left wing shows little concern for the labor movement and economic theory, unlike the Marxists of the last generation. Instead, the Left emphasizes cultural change. Changing America’s values is seen as the best means for ushering in the socialist utopia. This is why the Left today champions any cause that undermines traditional moral and cultural values and why leftists gravitate to culture-shaping institutions – education, the arts, and the media.”
There are many practical areas in which the legacy of cultural Marxism has found fruition today. One of these is in the network of tendencies that are popularly referred to as “political correctness.”
In his book The Retreat of Reason, journalist Anthony Browne gives a concise definition of political correctness. “Political correctness,” he wrote, “is an ideology that classifies certain groups of people as victims in need of protection from criticism, and which makes believers feel that no dissent should be tolerated.” Browne rightly identifies political correctness as a species of cultural Marxism. Instead of merely transferring wealth from the bourgeois to the working class, it has become politically correct for government to transfer power from the powerful to the powerless, or to groups perceived to be victims.
Browne’s analysis was echoed by Jonah Goldberg in his landmark study, Liberal Fascism. Goldberg showed that in the latter half of the twentieth century, civil rights shifted from describing a legal system that is color blind to race or religion, to describing a system that must show preferential treatment to those groups which are assumed to have “victim status.” The result has been “identity politics” and a new tribalism, whereby people define themselves by their group and then compete with those in other communities.
The legacy of Frankfurt is also felt in a pervasive bent towards what C.S. Lewis called Bulverism in God in the Dock, whereby an idea is attacked by identifying its source rather than refuting its grounds. Also known as the “genetic fallacy,” this tendency is manifested whenever an argument is silenced through diagnosis rather than discussion. One does not have to penetrate very deeply into our public discourse to see this trick at work. Following in the footsteps of Adorno and the Frankfurters, one does not need to show how a truth claim is false provided if one can label it as being “sexist,” “homophobic,” “patriarchal,” “racist,” “logo-centric,” or even “Islamophobic.” Such terms can be bandied about to short-circuit rational debate and render large swaths of public assumptions immune to analysis.
The power of these labels, even when they may be legitimately descriptive, normally functions to bypass critical engagement, stir up prejudice, and serves to harness the “new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions.” The result is frequently to induce a state of affairs described by George Orwell when he remarked that “at any given moment, there is a sort of all-pervading orthodoxy – a general tacit agreement not to discuss some large and uncomfortable fact.”
But above all, the arm of Frankfurt is seen in the antipathy to Christian values which permeates much of our current public discourse.
Lessons from Gramsci and the Frankfurt School
Gramsci and the Frankfurt School understood that culture is religion externalized and that culture is not spiritually neutral. There is a crucial lesson we can learn from this. Our art, language, architecture, technologies, economics, music, clothing, schools and every other aspect of culture all point to a certain worldview, whether it is explicitly acknowledged or not.
Another lesson we learn from Gramsci and the Frankfurt School is that a self-deceived man will always see in other people his own faults. One of the traits that the Frankfurt School took to be characteristic of the fascist character type was a rigid commitment to dominant values. Yet it seems undeniable that the ideology which emanated from the think-tank involved an exceedingly rigid commitment to the values of deconstruction. To the extent that they used reason to attack reason, and used the freedoms of the West as a safe haven from which to attack those very freedoms, the architects of Frankfurt became the prototypes for the postmodern embrace of contrarieties.
If Gramsci had lived to see the Soviet Union’s downfall, I don’t think he would have been surprised. The Soviets attempted to impose a communist regime on Europeans who still thought and functioned as capitalist Christians. Gramsci understood that in order to change the system of a society, you must first change the hearts of the people. That must be done through a process of persistent enculturation, beginning when children are very young.
President Ronald Reagan understood this principle. He understood that the root of the struggle between the communists and the free world was more than simple economics: it was a spiritual struggle rooted in the conflict of ideas. As Reagan put it in 1982,
“The ultimate determinate in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas – a trial of spiritual resolve; the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish and the ideas to which we are dedicated.”