“The Lord will raise a standard up and lead His people on.”
– King Alfred the Great
iquidating Western Civilization: The Legacy of the Frankfurt School
March 24th by Robin Phillips
Throughout the 20th century, various individuals and institutions attempted to apply the strategy of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci for undermining Western Civilization. (To read what that strategy was, visit my article ‘Antonio Gramsci and Social Marxism‘) The most successful of these attempts was the influential Frankfurt School.
The devastation, purposelessness 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 took 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 distinctive 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 all united in the aim of converting Marxism from a strictly economic theory into a cultural reality.
Among the intellectuals associated with the Frankfurt movement were Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbet Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Leo Lowenthal, Wilhelm Reich and Georg Lukacs. What these men shared was a common disillusionment with the traditional Marxist doctrine of economic determinism. The failed revolution of 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 through evacuating 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. The school relocated to Geneva, but after most of its intellectuals fled to the United States the institute was then transplanted to Columbia University, where their 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 had ridden to power on a wave of a fashionable neo-paganism, primordial tribalism and primitive folk culture that had presented itself as a secular alternative to the suffocating culture of the modern West. In a number of different ways, therefore, the defeat of Hitler represented the victory of Western values. In America and England 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 music of pop stars like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
The genius of the Frankfurt school was their ability to convert this newfound confidence in American society into a force for sabotaging American society. Their strategy involved a clever redefinition of Fascism as having been 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 seed beds of fascism.
On purely historical grounds, this explanation of fascism was complete bosh. However, by mixing incredibly complex social theories with Freudian psychoanalysis and pseudo-scientific cultural analysis, and then 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 would become 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 apex in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, the most well-known member of the movement. For him – and for 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 brought at the price of decades of prolonged exploitation and by the obstruction of socialist freedom.”
The Authoritarian Personality
The pseudo-scientific sociology of the Frankfurt School reached its apex in Theodor Adorno’s book The Authoritarian Personality, written in 1950 after he had moved from Columbia to Berkeley. The book was ostensibly a study of American society based on social research into “the F-Scale.” (F for fascism.) According to the research (conducted with questionable methodology) Adorno allegedly proved that fascism and conservativism have a natural psychological link.
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 Hitler and Mussolini. 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.”
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, were 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, 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 their approaches methods –which was again rooted in 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 getting 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 one of its strengths) would become a fatal weakness. Under the shadow of Frankfurt, multiculturalism would shift from being descriptive to being 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 tried to do this 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 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 the new paradigm 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 Forward 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, have formed the bedrock for the type of neo-Marxism that has become 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 where 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 gave 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 groups that are 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 20th century, civil rights shifted from describing a legal system that is color blind towards 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.
But above all, the arm of Frankfurt is seen in the antipathy to Christian values which permeates so much of our public discourse. In his chapter on Gramsci, perceptively subtitled ‘The Haunting of East and West’, Malachi Martin noted that
“In the most practical terms, he needed to get individuals and groups in every class and station of life to think about life’s problems without reference to the Christian transcendent, without reference to God and the laws of God. He needed to get them to react with antipathy and positive opposition to any introduction of Christian ideals or the Christian transcendent into the treatment and solutions of the problems of modern life.”
The Frankfurt school, like Gramsci, understood that culture is religion externalized and that it has no point of neutrality. Again, there is a crucial lesson that we can take away from this. Our art, language, architecture, technologies, economics, music, clothing, schools and every other aspect of culture all point to a certain worldview, whether that worldview is explicitly acknowledged or not.
The Frankfurt school teaches us 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 Western freedoms, the architects of Frankfurt became the prototypes for the Postmodern embrace of contrarieties.
Liquidating Western Civilization: The Legacy of the Frankfurt School
Rousseau and the Parenthood of the State, Part 1
Rousseau and the Parenthood of the State, Part 2
From ‘Christ of Culture’ to ‘Christ Against Culture’ (Evangelicalism and Secularism part 1)
Republicanizing the American Religion (Evangelicalism and Secularism part 2)
From Revivalism to Secularism (Evangelicalism and Secularism part 3)
This article will be appearing in the monthly magazine of Christian Voice, a UK ministry whose website is http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/. The article is reprinted here with permission.