The activities of the Frankfurt School, the group of intellectuals which spawned the New Left, the movement that from 1968 onwards captured the cultural hegemony in the West, can be likened to the story of the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’.
This famous ballad by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is known in the English-speaking world primarily due to the cinematic rendering of it in Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, with Mickey Mouse in the title role. The creators of the ten-minute cartoon episode remained fairly true to the original, with these exceptions: Goethe’s apprentice does not fall asleep, and he hacks the bewitched broom in two only, not in innumerable splinters. A third deviation comes right at the end: In the original, the sorcerer doesn’t whack his wayward assistant with the broom. Instead, the returning senior wizard simply puts everything back in order. There is no mention of any sanction at all. Prompted maybe by Paul Dukas’ compelling and in parts spooky music (a symphonic poem composed 1897 specifically with Goethe’s ballad in mind), Disney’s filmmakers may simply have assumed the punishment and the other changes.
In the German-speaking world, one line of the poem is often cited when describing a development over which the instigator has lost control: ‘Die ich rief, die Geister, werd’ ich nun nicht los.’ Which translates into: The spirits which I summoned, I now cannot get rid of.
What’s interesting in this context is that Goethe wrote the ballad in the year 1797, according to Wikipedia as a warning to his contemporaries in view of developments in France after the revolution.
Disney’s Fantasia makes no mention of Goethe, although their version is quite obviously based on his poem. Possibly because, by the time the film was being made in 1940, talk of looming war made it inexpedient to mention the great German. Instead, the introduction simply says it is an ‘ancient tale.’
So, how does this ballad relate to the Frankfurt School and their doings in the real world? It is now half a century since the pivotal year of 1968, when people – mostly young and impressionable – across the whole West, inspired by the Frankfurt School, started their infamous ‘long march through the institutions.’ These ‘68ers’ can be divided into two groups: Sorcerer’s apprentices and hobgoblins.
The sorcerer’s apprentices are those who with their words change – not a broom, but – other humans into the equivalent of hobgoblins and set them in motion. The latter become the water carriers for the former, until a few of the apprentices (by far not all), appalled at the ‘terrible waters’ (‘entsetzliches Gewässer’) thus rendered, desperately try to dispel the new evil.
The representatives of the Frankfurt School, the intellectuals of the so-called ‘critical theory,’ are, or were, real life sorcerer’s apprentices. ‘Critical theory’ is not actually a theory but a school of thought, or rather a project. According to its leading theorist, Max Horkheimer (1895 – 1973), critical theory seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” According to the German Wikipedia page on the subject, the aim of critical theory is to “reveal the ideologies of the mechanisms of power and oppression” and to achieve a “rational society of responsible human beings.”
On the face of it, this all sounds well and good. However, if those really are the aims, why do we never hear anything from that group about our monetary system? Maybe I’ve overlooked something, but I don’t think any representative of the Frankfurt School has ever seriously grappled with, say, the Austrian business cycle theory. Indeed, the words ‘rational society’ indicate a very different tradition from that of the Austrians, namely that of Plato and his notion of philosopher kings, who were permitted unethical means, such as the ‘noble lie,’ to attain the overarching aim.
The only person who was in any way close to the attitudes of the Frankfurt School and who had seriously dealt with economics, was of a slightly earlier generation, namely John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946). Leading Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises once wrote an article titled ‘Stones into Bread: The Keynesian Miracle,’ in which he charges the British mathematician turned economist with exactly that: bragging to be able to perform an economic miracle akin to one of the demands with which Satan tempted Jesus Christ.
In other words, Keynes too was a sorcerer’s apprentice of the kind Goethe described. Ethically and morally too, he was of the same corrosive substance as the Frankfurt School thinkers. He was a serial philanderer and described himself as an ‘immoralist.’ As such, the Platonist Keynes anticipated what leading Frankfurt School representative Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979) propagated in his book ‘Eros and Civilization.’ Marcuse claimed that liberation of the ‘non-procreative Eros’ would lead to new, paradisiacal conditions, where alienated labor would disappear and be replaced by non-alienated libidinal work.
As Keynes despised principles, among others the principle of solid financing, he was an early representative of the present relativism and the modern sorcerer’s apprentice of magical money proliferation. Without this – today pervasive – deliberate inflation, there would be much less money illusion, much less loitering, much less financing of unproductive, dreamy, or even destructive activities and organizations. His cynical adage, in the long run we are all dead, is virtually the paragon of willful present-orientation and dismissal of the future, which is characteristic of the basic attitude to life among today’s representatives of the New Left, and of their followers, conscious or otherwise.
Marcuse, in turn, was the creator of the term ‘repressive tolerance.’ What he meant was that normal tolerance actually serves to marginalise and suppress the truth about our immiseration (or impoverishment) in the ruling system. Contrary to that, Marcuse established the term ‘liberating tolerance.’ He simply claimed that revolutionary minorities are in possession of the truth and that it is therefore their duty to liberate the majority from their fallacious views. Thus the revolutionary minorities have the right to suppress rival and supposedly harmful opinions. In addition, Marcuse also permitted the use of violence by this revolutionary minority. He legitimised this use of force as ‘defensive.’ It isn’t the beginning of a new chain of violence, he claimed, but the attempt to break an existing one.
This kind of misuse of language was typical of the Frankfurt School. Another example is immiseration. Because the Marxist theory of immiseration had been refuted by reality, the thinkers of the New Left switched from economics to psychology. Now they claimed that while capitalism had lead to material wealth, it had caused psychological and intellectual immiseration.
What is also striking, apart from the distortion of words and meanings, is the predominance of negativity. As the name indicates, ‘critical theory’ was always keen to criticise. Their utopia always remained very woolly. The reason for this is simple: Otherwise they would have had to admit that their vision was that of communism. Nevertheless, clear-sighted contemporaries realised this even in 1968. In that year, Erwin K. Scheuch edited a book about the ‘68ers and gave it the title ‘Die Wiedertäufer der Wohlstandsgesellschaft,’ meaning ‘The Anabaptists of the Affluent Society.’ In this book he wrote that the New Left wanted an ‘undifferentiated society,’ without division of labor. It seems that Marx’s vision that in future people would hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, farm livestock in the evening and criticise after dinner, is still the vision of the New Left even today.
However, the Frankfurt School suggested a different road to the communist paradise than that chosen by Lenin and Stalin in Soviet Russia. The direct intellectual precursors of the Frankfurt School, the Italian Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) and the Hungarian Georg Lukács (1885 – 1971), had recognized that further west in Europe there was an obstacle on this path which could not be eliminated by physical violence and terror: the private, middle class, classical liberal bourgeois culture based on Christian values. These, they concluded, needed to be destroyed by infiltration of the institutions. Their followers have succeeded in doing so. The sorcerer’s apprentices of the Frankfurt School conjured up an army of hobgoblins who empty their buckets over us every day. Instead of water, the buckets are filled with what Lukács had approvingly labelled ‘cultural terrorism.’
The hobgoblins of 1968 and the following years, mostly students, later became lecturers, teachers, media employees, civil servants and of course politicians. They and their later progeny are endowed with a sense of mission and the illusion of being on the side of moral righteousness. In thousands of more or less important, but always influential, positions of authority, they succeed in injecting entire generations with a disgust for their own culture and history, and a selective inability to think. With their allegedly liberating tolerance, they have torn down natural or culturally nurtured inhibitions and replaced them with state enforced prohibitions on thinking and acting. These in turn have almost completely destroyed the natural workings and defense mechanisms of a healthy society.
How could they have been so successful in such a short space of time? The sorcerer’s apprentices apparently managed to fill a psycho-spiritual gap in the market; they supplied a demand keenly felt by those they turned into hobgoblins. The market niche to fill was an apparent shortcut to paradise. The sorcerer’s apprentice in Goethe’s ballad transforms the broom into a hobgoblin, so that it can do the hard work of carrying water for him. Likewise, we are always tempted to find a shortcut to paradise. Just as Keynes did with his monetary policy, which would allegedly turn proverbial stones into bread.
The sorcerer’s apprentices of the Frankfurt School dreamt of a communist paradise on earth. Initially, among the hard left they were the only ones aware of the fact that this brutal path to paradise would fail. With the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, however, this failure was obvious to all. This was the New Left’s moment. It was only then that they got any traction and noticeable response. At least in Western Europe. In the US, this moment of truth may have come a little later. Gary North contends in his book ‘Unholy Spirits’ that John F. Kennedy’s death was “the death rattle of the older rationalism.” A few weeks later, Beatlemania came to America. However, the appearance of the book ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson in September 1962, which heralded the start of environmentalism, points to the Berlin Wall as the more fundamental game changer in the West. A few years later, the spellbound hobgoblins began their long march through the institutions.
Half a century after 1968, we see the catastrophic effects of this magic: a desire for instant gratification and a loss of meaning of life. The desire for instant gratification can be seen in the destruction of established institutions, especially the family, and in the countless number of abortions. Or in unbounded sexuality and the supremacy of the pleasure principle. Loss of meaning of life can be recognized in drug abuse, for example. Other effects are the dulling of the mind, a lack of general, all-round education, uncritical acceptance of claims that cannot be falsified, such as that of a supposedly man-made climate change, the acceptance of violence as a means of political debate and, of course, the cultural bursting of the dam concerning migration.
The sorcerer’s apprentices have become very quiet lately. Maybe some of them are shocked by what they have wrought. At least two of them could see what was happening even in 1968 and tried to stop the unfolding catastrophe. One of them was Theodor W. Adorno (1903 – 1969). The other was his student Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929). In the face of disrupted lectures and rising violence in general, they accused the radicals of ‘left-wing fascism.’ Like Goethe’s apprentice, they realised they had created a ‘spawn on hell’ (‘Ausgeburt der Hölle’). They tried to stop the hobgoblins with a new spell, but failed.
Currently, some people are trying to turn things around with other spells. The spells of these new sorcerer’s apprentices use magic words such as ‘nation’ and ‘the people.’ Like their predecessors, they believe that they can use the state as a magic wand, e.g. to force children into schools to learn certain world views, and everything will be all right again.
So far, none of them, neither the older nor the younger apprentices, are calling for the ‘master’ to return, as Goethe’s apprentice does in desperation near the end. However, the ‘cultural terrorism’ keeps flowing, and the ‘terrible waters’ are rising alarmingly. The legacy of the revolt of 1968 is a complete catastrophe for western civilization. This civilization had already been suffering from the disease of statism, but nevertheless had survived two world wars and one depression. Now, the culture war is finishing it off. The result is a society that still harbours some civilizing elements, but is no longer a civilization. It is merely a shaky structure that has not yet collapsed completely, but only because the hobgoblins have not yet managed to create a strong enough wave.
What can be done? First, we need to stop using the state like a magic wand. We have to urgently defund the hobgoblins. That means defunding, i.e. withdrawing the state from, the universities, schools and media that keep them on the move. However, there is something more fundamental we must do. We have to recognise that there’s no short cut to paradise. We have to call the ‘master.’ In Goethe’s ballad, this is a master sorcerer. Goethe himself seems to have been an agnostic. Nevertheless, I interpret this figure as the Creator. Disney’s film makers seem to have had a similar idea, consciously or not. The way they depict the master removing the water, accompanied by Dukas’ dramatic music, reminds the viewer of Moses parting the sea.
In his ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ C.S. Lewis has Aslan, the Christ-like lion, talk of ‘deeper magic’ that is more powerful than that of the White Witch. Mises’ Student Murray Rothbard spoke of ‘Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature.’ For those who believe, state-funded, forced egalitarianism is a revolt against God. To successfully combat this illusory magic, we ultimately need God’s ‘deeper magic.’
Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said, in a speech entitled ‘Godlessness: the first step to the Gulag’: ‘If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, … I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.’
In the face of the atrocities of the French Revolution, Goethe predicted in his ballad that, in the end, only the ‘master’ would be able to finally stop the march of the hobgoblins and make everything right again. We would do well to remember that when we attempt to put a stop to the New Left’s evil game.
The above is a translation and adaptation of a speech given by Robert Grözinger at the “eigentümlich frei” conference in Zinnowitz, Germany, on January 14, 2018.
Reprinted from Equity & Freedom.