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Marx at 200: Classical Marxism vs. Cultural Marxism

Paul Kengor · May 5, 2018

This Saturday, May 5, marks the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth, a cause for literal celebration in certain quarters of the academy.

It’s often charged among the political Right that America is going communist, or at least socialist, or toward some form of Marxism. My concern is less classical Marxism than cultural Marxism, a strain of communist thought that even most of those engaging in it aren’t consciously aware of. If you Google “cultural Marxism,” the first thing that pops up is a Wikipedia definition dismissing it as a “conspiracy theory which sees the Frankfurt School as part of an ongoing movement to take over and destroy Western culture.”

A conspiracy theory? Well, that merely affirms the point. The vast majority of those advancing cultural Marxism aren’t even aware they’re doing so. Tell them and they’ll either blankly stare or mockingly laugh at you as a conspiracy monger.

In truth, cultural Marxism not only exists but exists as a dominant form of Marxism in America and much of the West today.

Classical Marxism’s Decline

Classical Marxism, by contrast, continues to dwindle.

Just this week I caught a rare admission that slipped from the lips of the current chairman of Communist Party USA, John Bachtell. He said that CPUSA has a mere 5,000 members.

Yes, only 5,000. You could find more members of Unicorn Party USA.

Even more pathetic is that CPUSA has been pounding its chest lately claiming a “surge” in membership under the siege of President Donald J. Trump. Really? Some surge.

Of course, CPUSA never had big numbers. At its heyday in the 1930s, it probably never had more than 100,000 members. That’s why communists have always sought out dupes among the broader liberal Left. It’s why Marxist ringleaders like Angela Davis show up at the Women’s March not quoting Lenin but stumping for same-sex marriage and condemning “climate change.” Davis didn’t dare openly agitate for the KGB at the March; she agitated for LGBT.

The communist movement has always needed liberals as props to enlist at rallies. Rarely could CPUSA ever have filled Central Park with its own members. Bachtell’s cohorts today might not fill a sandbox at a Manhattan playground.

The reason for that is good news: The original ambition of an economic/class-based revolution has failed in America. And so, instead, today’s Marxists — including those in CPUSA, once the home of classical Marxism — have gone cultural.

It’s a form of Marxism so radical in its redefinition of human nature that Marx himself would blush and find it bewildering. As I write, the lead article at CPUSA’s website is titled “The Capitalist Culture of Male Supremacy and Misogyny” — a piece breathtaking in its cultural radicalism. And it personifies the communist movement’s thrust today.

Frankfurt School of Freudian-Marxism

So, what is this cultural Marxism, and how did it emerge?

It began not on May 5, 1818, with Marx’s birth but over 100 years later with the birth of what came to be known as the Frankfurt School.

These 1920s and 1930s German Marxists were Freudian-Marxists. For them, orthodox/classical Marxism was too limiting, too narrow, too controlled by the Soviet Comintern that strong-armed national communist parties. This rigidity prevented these more freewheeling neo-Marxists from initiating the cultural transformation they craved, including revolutionary changes in marriage, sexuality, and family. These Frankfurt-based theorists were left-wing intellectuals who looked to the universities as the home base from which their ideas could be launched. They spurned the church and looked to Marx and Freud as the gods they believed would not fail. Rather than organize the workers and factories, the peasants and the fields and the farms, they would organize the students and the academy, the artists and the media and the film industry.

One can look at the Frankfurt School’s cultural Marxism not as a replacement for classical Marxism but as the accelerator pedal that was missing from the wheezing, stalling vehicle. The cultural Marxist agrees with the classical Marxist that history passes through a series of stages on the way to the final Marxist utopia, through slavery and capitalism and socialism and ultimately to the classless society. But the cultural Marxist recognizes that communists will not get there by economics alone. In essence, cultural Marxists shrewdly realized that the classical Marxists would utterly fail to take down the West with an economic revolution; capitalism would always blow away communism, and the masses would choose capitalism. Cultural Marxists understand that the revolution requires a cultural war over an economic war. Whereas the West — certainly America — is not vulnerable to a revolt of the downtrodden trade-union masses, it is eminently vulnerable when it comes to, say, sex or pornography. While a revolution for wealth redistribution would be unappealing to most citizens of the West, a sexual revolution would be irresistible. Put the bourgeoisie in front of a hypnotic movie screen, and it would be putty in your hands.

The key figures of the Frankfurt School included Georg Lukacs, Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich — who literally wrote the book and coined the term The Sexual Revolution — Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and others. The formal school began in 1923 as the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt in Germany. Among its driving forces from within Moscow was Willi Munzenberg, the so-called Red millionaire. “We must organize the intellectuals,” exhorted Munzenberg.

And so they would. And how did they slide into America?

The threat of Hitler’s Germany drove the Frankfurt School out of Europe and into the welcoming arms of America’s left-wing academics. Most to all of the leading practitioners of the Frankfurt School were Jews who needed a safe haven from Hitler’s madness. So they and their institute came to New York City, specifically to the campus of Columbia University, already a hotbed of communist thought.

Pleading the case for them at Columbia was John Dewey, founding father of American public education and communist sympathizer. (Dewey described himself as a small “c” communist, objecting only to “official Communism, spelt with a capital letter.”) Thus, their primary area of operation would be the educational system — the schools, the universities, and particularly the teachers’ colleges. It was no coincidence that Columbia housed the nation’s top teachers’ college — a creation of John Dewey.

From there, the cultural Marxists spread their ideas to campuses nationwide. Their extremist notions would sweep up the ‘60s New Left, to which the likes of Herbert Marcuse became an ideological guru to the radicals who today are tenured at our universities.

Gramsci’s March Through the Institutions

Not to be forgotten in all of this was a critical figure, a non-German. At the age of 35, in 1926, Antonio Gramsci was arrested in his native Italy by Mussolini and would spend the last 11 years of his life in prison. Samuel Gregg calls Gramsci perhaps “the most dangerous socialist in history.”

Whereas Marx and his original followers were all about class economics, seeing wealth redistribution and the seizure of the means of production as the key to their vision, Gramsci looked to culture. If the Left truly wanted to win, it needed to first seize the “cultural means of production”: the culture-forming institutions such as the media and universities and even churches.

Not until leftists came to dominate these institutions would they be able to convince enough people to support their Marxist revolution. “This part of his thesis was like manna from heaven for many left-wing Western intellectuals,” writes Sam Gregg. “Instead of joining a factory collective or making bombs in basements, a leftist professor could help free society from capitalist exploitation by penning essays in his office or teaching students.”

And in a really radical stroke — one too radical for its own time but that would ultimately succeed — Gramsci and his heirs insisted that these leftist intellectuals needed to question everything, including moral absolutes and the Judeo-Christian basis of Western civilization. They needed to frame seemingly benign conventions as systematic injustices that must be exposed. This is where we got professors fulminating against everything from “the patriarchy” to “white imperialism” to “transphobia.” By the 21st century, even biological sex was no longer considered a settled issue. As I write, the New York City council offers public employees the option of choosing from 31 different gender identities. Of course, that’s nothing compared to Facebook, which at various times in the last three years has listed 51 gender options, 53, 56, 58, and 71.

There was no traditional institution off limits to the cultural Left.

In fact, so “critical” was the cultural-Marxist Left of anything and everything that it would brand itself as “critical theory.” Today, there are entire academic departments and programs dedicated to “critical theory.” Barack Obama’s alma mater, Occidental College, has a Department of Critical Theory and Social Justice, which at its website promises to instruct wide-eyed students in the principles of “Marxism, psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School, deconstruction, critical race studies, queer theory, feminist theory, postcolonial theory….” You get the picture.

For the cultural-Marxist Left, “critical theory” is the zeitgeist, the prevailing spirit of the age. Michael Walsh calls it “the cult of critical theory,” the guiding force of what Walsh describes as “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace,” the instrument for what he rightly calls “the subversion of the West.” To quote the '60s radicals, hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go.

Gramsci himself foresaw societal transformation coming about by a “march through the institutions.” In this, he was prophetic.

Sam Gregg puts it well: “The worst part of Gramsci’s legacy is that it has effectively transcended its Marxist origins. His outlook is now blankly taken for granted by millions of teachers, writers, even churchmen, who have no idea that they are committed to cultural Marxism.” And so, adds Gregg, “the vast structures of cynicism which Gramsci’s ideas have built, which honeycomb Western society today, will prove much tougher to dismantle than the crude cement blocks of the old Berlin Wall.”

They will indeed. The people of Berlin had no problem recognizing the concrete wrongness of the wall that corralled them. But try to tell those redefining marriage that what they’re advocating is concretely wrong.

The Never-Ending Search for the Newest Victim Class

In a crucial respect, classical Marxism and cultural Marxism will always bear an essential, enduring commonality — one that explains a lot about today’s modern Left.

Both classical Marxists and cultural Marxists see history as a series of struggles that divide the world into hostile/antagonistic groups of oppressors and the oppressed. Both seek out victim groups as the anointed group that will serve as the redeemer group. The victim group becomes the agent for emancipation in ushering in the new and better world. The Marxist must always, then, be on the search for the victim class that, in turn, must always be made aware of its victimization. Its “consciousness” must be raised.

In classical Marxism, this was simple: the victim group was identified by class/economics. It was the Proletariat. It was the factory worker.

In cultural Marxism, this hasn’t been so simple, because the culture is always changing: the victim group is constantly being searched for anew by the cultural Marxist. The group one year might be women, the next year a new ethnic minority, the next year another group. Today, there’s a hard push by cultural Marxists to tap the “LGBTQIA-plus” (People’s World frequently uses that label) movement as the championed victim group.

Thus, a cultural Marxist like Angela Davis — mentored by Herbert Marcuse — could stand at the Women’s March before a sea of young women in pink hats and recite a litany of popular grievances. In her casting about for victim groups, the former Communist Bloc cheerleader hailed Chelsea Manning, “trans women of color,” “our flora and fauna,” and “intersectional feminism,” and denounced “white male hetero-patriarchy,” misogyny, Islamophobia, and capitalist exploitation.

This is where today’s Marxists in America are toiling hard. They are working diligently on the cultural front. That’s where they are confident they can finally take down Western civilization and its Judeo-Christian bedrock.

From Factory Workers to “Cultural Workers”

In closing, consider this striking new term I recently encountered when perusing the latest “About” section of the website of People’s World, successor to the Soviet-funded Daily Worker and the leading mouthpiece of American communism. It singled out a label I hadn’t heard before: “cultural workers.” It states: “Today, People’s World offers a daily news platform for the broad labor-led people’s movement — a voice for workers, the unemployed, people of color, immigrants, women, youth, seniors, LGBTQ people, cultural workers, students and people with disabilities.”

They’re looking not for factory workers but for cultural workers. Forget the factory floor — that project failed long ago. Communists tried to organize the steelworkers, the autoworkers, the teamsters, the coalminers. It didn’t work.

Thus, the new recruiting ground is the classroom floor, the campus, the university, the schools. That’s where the cultural workers who can usher in the fundamental transformation are being found. These modern cultural revolutionaries are succeeding magnificently in redefining everything from marriage and family to sexuality and gender. And most stunning of all, it’s the parents — many of them conservative Christians — who are paying for the grand indoctrination with their lifesavings.

And 200 years henceforth, Karl Marx would be chuckling heartily at that irony.

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