Cultural Marxism: Real Thing or Far-Right Antisemitic Conspiracy Theory?

You may be hearing a lot about “Cultural Marxism” lately. Steven Bannon is all over it in his podcast War Room (See The Economic Nationalism of Steven K. Bannon for my views on Bannon). The New York Times denies there is even such a thing as Cultural Marxism. It’s an “far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory,” it claims. The NYTimes is not alone. The Establishment seems obsessed with denying this thing called Cultural Marxism, always pairing it with the rightwing of American politics. So the right has a view on a thing and that makes it what it is. Way to leverage an ideology in order to engage in denialism.

The online open source encyclopedia Wikipedia takes up the line: “In contemporary usage, the term Cultural Marxism refers to a far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory which claims that the Frankfurt School is part of an ongoing academic and intellectual effort to undermine and destroy Western culture and values. According to the conspiracy theory, which emerged in the late 1990s, the Frankfurt School and other Marxist theorists were part of a conspiracy to attack Western society by undermining traditionalist conservatism and Christianity using the 1960s counterculture, multiculturalism, progressive politics and political correctness.” (See Frankfurt School.) I don’t normally cite Wikipedia, but I have a point to make.

I can be of some help here. I am a Marxist—a libertarian Marxist not one of these New Left Marxoids. I have read deeply into the body of literature produced by the Cultural Marxists (you should see my library!). But perhaps more importantly, for more than quarter century, I have been on the inside of the style of politics emanating from the Frankfurt School. I am, after all, an academic in a public university, an institution that is, as you probably know, seriously woke. I am in a position to testify to the fact that Cultural Marxism is not a far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory. Quite the contrary.

Cultural Marxism, or Critical Theory, is a very real tradition in Marxism and really does work through the “1960s counterculture, multiculturalism, progressive politics, and political correctness” that animates activism to this very day. Get your hands on the 1965 neo-Marxist collection A Critique of Pure Tolerance, by Herbert Marcuse, Barrington Moore Jr., and Robert Paul Wolff. Read Marcuse’s essay in particular: “Repressive Tolerance.” It’s a call for political correctness. Marcuse was a prominent member of the Frankfurt School. From the Wikipedia entry on Marcuse: “His Marxist scholarship inspired many radical intellectuals and political activists in the 1960s and 1970s, both in the United States and internationally.” That essay I cited is just one instantiation of a large literature of illiberal scholarship that feeds the New Left ideology. There is no guessing here. Marcuse advocated a synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Heidegger (see his 1955 Eros and Civilization). That’s right. Heidegger. Don’t know who that is? Look into it.

Is Wikipedia pushing an “antisemitic conspiracy theory”? Hardly. Why would identifying Cultural Marxism as being influential on elite culture be antisemitic anyway? Because Marxist intellectuals are disproportionately Jewish? That doesn’t make Marxism a Jewish cabal. It’s insulting to say that people shouldn’t criticize or recognize the fact of Cultural Marxism because to do so is “antisemitic.” That’s like saying that we cannot criticize the Nation of Islam because its scholars are black. You’re skin color or ethnic identity does not immunize your ideas from criticism. Who said all Jews agree with Cultural Marxism?

I benefitted from Marcuse’s 1964 book One-Dimensional Man. It’s an important book (I like C. Wright Mills, Guy Debord, Richard Grossman, and Sheldon Wolin more, but you should read One-Dimensional Man). But it is not a book that challenges corporatism from a liberal standpoint. Not even from a Marxist standpoint (which is, on these issues, liberal; see my Defending the Digital Commons: A Left-Libertarian Critique of Speech and Censorship in the Virtual Public Square). I have also benefitted from other Frankfurt School scholars, especially the work of Franz Neumann, Walter Benjamin, Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer. I even appreciate the arguments of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. The notion that we’re supposed to deny that these ideas have profoundly influenced the mode of thinking of university administrators and professors of humanities and social sciences is asking us to participate in denialism.

I would be pulling my hair out if I were a young conservative coming through the modern woke general education program of today’s university. So much of what is taught as the Gospel truth amounts to compelled speech. Faculty are subjected to it, as well. Frankfurters have to be in for some criticism like everybody else. They have have a huge impact on our politics. What you are seeing on our streets today is in part thanks to their methods (and to destructive ideas of the French poststructuralist and postmodernists movement, Mao Zedong thought and the Cultural Revolution, and anarchist egoism/nihilism).

The Wikipedia entry on the Frankfurt School also contains the following: “The works of the Frankfurt School are understood in the context of the intellectual and practical objectives of critical theory. In Traditional and Critical Theory (1937), Max Horkheimer defined critical theory as social critique meant to effect sociologic change….” It continues: “The purpose of critical theory is to analyze the true significance of the ruling understandings (the dominant ideology) generated in bourgeois society, by showing that the dominant ideology misrepresents how human relations occur in the real world, and how such misrepresentations function to justify and legitimate the domination of people by capitalism.” And this: “In the praxis of cultural hegemony, the dominant ideology is a ruling-class narrative story, which explains that what is occurring in society is the norm.” Good stuff. Why run away from it? Because it gives too much away. Just don’t believe anything anybody says about it.

The problem with Cultural Marxism, for both the left and corporate power, is that Critical Theory does not separate out all the rational elements of the West—all the things Marx defended—from the deformation of liberalism by corporatism. Marx sought to overthrow capitalism to bring the values of liberalism into full manifestation by de-alienating man from man and man from nature. He never sought to overthrow values of liberalism themselves. Private control over capitalism is in contradiction to the values of modernity, of which Marx was an advocate. You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Given the perversion of socialism wrought by Cultural Marxism, whatever its insights, we have to recognize that, in practice, this direction has not on balance been a good thing. Indeed, Critical Race Theory is one of its obnoxious children. And this fathered Black Lives Matter. Just look at our streets today. This is not a revolutionary movement. It’s a corporatist-globalist wet dream. And that, comrades, is one hell of a paradox for something claiming Marxist roots.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

3 thoughts on “Cultural Marxism: Real Thing or Far-Right Antisemitic Conspiracy Theory?”

  1. I used to hear what we call Cultural Marxism referred to as Gramscism. I never used the term because no one had ever heard of Antonio Gramsci, especially the supposed Gramscists themselves, so the supposed genealogical relationship was false. Only bookish right-wingers knew anything about.
    That having been said anyone familiar with Marx can see that Critical Race Theory and the like are descended from him.

    1. Not from Marx. It’s a neo-Marxist construct. It is a departure from classical Marxism. Marx would never have adopted the core tenet of social justice thinking, namely that inequality is prima facie evidence of inequity. From this standpoint, a statistical disparity between demographic categories doesn’t merely suggest an unfair or unjust situation—it indicates it. Academic knowledge has been corrupted by the CRT practice presuming that racial disparity is itself evidence of racial bias. It accepts as true that which requires demonstration. This alchemy is produced by ideology. By shirking its burden, what CRTs call “the victim’s perspective” eschews consideration of explanations for disparity since the question has already been satisfactorily answered—the facts of persistent racial disparity becomes proof of systemic racism. The method is circular and fallacious. Critical Theory is religious-like. Marx was an atheist, humanist, and scientist.

    2. I don’t call this view Gramscian because I don’t believe Gramscian thinking falls in the same vein.

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