The Frankfurt School and Cultural Marxism

Franklin Einspruch, A commentator in The Federalist, describes me as a “circumspect conservative” scholar who has written responsibly about Cultural Marxism.  I’m also deemed to be a conservative who agrees with other conservative critics of the Frankfurt School on the harmful effects of this group’s radical ideas. But I must part ways with Mr. Einspruch when he tells us:  “It’s plain fact that political correctness and multiculturalism derive from notions hailing from the Frankfurt School, which in turn took most of its cues from Karl Marx.” Although I can discern a connection between feminist attacks on inherited gender roles and Frankfurt School views on sexual liberation, I’d have to question whether the present war against Christian, bourgeois institutions can be traced back in any meaningful way to traditional Marxism.

Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse (my teacher) and other members of the Frankfurt School in interwar Germany worked to fuse Marx’s theory of class struggle and the contradictions of capitalism with a Freudian-based vision of erotic pleasure. In this remarkable fusion, it is hard, at least for me, to recognize Marx’s socioeconomic critique. Marx was concerned about man’s alienation from his own work as a result of productive forces over which he had no control. The father of “scientific socialism” never focused on abetting sexual revolt or fighting the emotional repression created by sharp gender distinctions or the failure to give proper social recognition to homosexuals. Orthodox Marxists and Marxist Leninists from the 1920s on vigorously denounced the Frankfurt School and its exponents as social decadents posing as Marxist revolutionaries. Communist regimes would later engage in similar attacks on representatives and sympathizers of the Frankfurt school, such as the Hungarian radical literary figure Georg Lukacs.

They accused their targets of attack of subverting orderly human relations and would have nothing to do with their forced marriage of Marxism and eroticism. Not surprisingly, it was Communist regimes and Communist parties in post-World War II France and Italy that were among the harshest critics of what we now call “Cultural Marxists.” The term “Cultural Marxist” was meant to express derision for this sect; and Orthodox Marxists as well as the European Right seized on it to discredit the Frankfurt School.

In my studies, I examine how Cultural Marxists acquired respectability in the U.S., once they set up shop here. They gained recognition for fighting fascism as a cultural and emotional danger and for advocating for a progressive democratic society. Since the Nazis were violently anti-Semitic and since most of the Frankfurt School’s representatives in the U.S. were Jewish, much of the School’s energies after 1933 were focused on “preventing” the eruption of anti-Jewish “prejudice” in their adopted land. But the School also castigated prejudice against other groups, such

as blacks, social revolutionaries, homosexuals, and women who were revolting against what they viewed as the patriarchal family.

The best known English work written in this vein, The Authoritarian Personality(1950), an anthology of polemics warning against “prejudice” in American life, was sponsored by an emphatically liberal but also anti-Soviet sponsor, the American Jewish Committee. The same patrons also sponsored Commentary magazine. Among many others, distinguished sociologist Seymour Morton Lipset hailed TAP (and the series to which it belonged, Studies in Prejudice) as a blueprint for rebuilding American society. Contrary to what some may believe, Lipset was only slightly left of center politically. Even more interestingly, as cultural historian Christopher Lasch points out, Lipset praised the work spearheaded by Adorno in the U.S. as a means of fortifying the U.S. internally to fight Communism as well as the ideological vestiges of Nazism.

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