The list of developments for which "cultural Marxism" has been blamed includes the following: the LGBT rights movement, especially the legal push to eliminate sodomy laws and legitimize gay marriage; activism for transgender acceptance and recognition; the increase in divorce at the end of the 20th century and a decrease in nuclear family formation; African Americans protesting police abuse; art and music that fails to follow familiar genre conventions; increased depictions of a variety of races, genders, and sexualities in popular media; acceptance of immigrants and the cultural pluralism they bring; a lack of tolerance for nonliberal ideas on college campuses.
This bill of particulars is not new, especially from conservatives. The twist was to begin dragging Karl Marx into it. Here's how the narrative goes: After the horrific deaths of millions, global communism may have been discredited as a viable economic system, but its proponents want to sneak it perniciously through the back door via cultural decadence. Thus, political correctness is part of a lefty long con to take over America.
You have to give the conspiratorial right credit for clever rhetorical deck-stacking, at least. How can you approve of sympathetic gay people appearing in yogurt commercials if it's all a commie plot?
It may be comforting to believe your ideological foes are dupes of manipulative intellectual fiends. But declaring that advocates of multiculturalism, feminism, and gay rights are the pawns of dead Jewish communists is both mistaken as a matter of cultural history and foolish as a way to sell an alternate ideology. You won't win the day by treating people who merely disagree with you as stalking horses for socialist tyranny.
The Critical Theory Conspiracy
You might think that a history of cultural Marxism would start with Marx, but the poorly coiffed Prussian has almost nothing to do with this tale of insidious infiltration. Instead, the theory took off in the late 1990s due to speeches, essays, and books by William Lind, then with the Free Congress Foundation, and Patrick Buchanan, the firebrand conservative columnist, TV talking head, and sometime presidential candidate. (The idea, though not the name, was hatched earlier, in a 1992 monograph called "The New Dark Age: The Frankfurt School and Political Correctness." It was written by a disciple of the noted conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche.)
Lind and Buchanan claimed that various progressive social or legal changes—from sex education in public schools to speech codes on college campuses—are the deliberate result of a program set in motion decades ago by a squad of philosophers, musicologists, psychologists, and incomprehensible brainiacs arising out of a Marxist/Freudian ferment between the world wars in Europe.
That gang is known as the Frankfurt School, because they launched their Institute for Social Research at Goethe University Frankfurt in the 1920s. Their orbit included such recondite social philosophers as Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno.
The story goes that these eggheads saw that Marx's predictions about the contradictions in capitalism producing a proletarian revolt were failing to come true. They decided that traditional Western culture was keeping the masses from their revolutionary mission and needed to be annihilated. Religion, the family, traditional sexual mores, belief in objective truth—all had to be overturned. So they launched "critical theory" to demolish the sacred principles that made Western civilization great and pave the way for communist tyranny and an eventual stateless utopia.
Summing up what the Frankfurt School's clotted and confusing thinkers actually wrote or believed is beyond the capacity of a short essay (or even a long one). Luckily, it is also beside the point for understanding the conspiracy theory of cultural Marxism. Basically, these philosophers believed that knowledge and rationality do not necessarily stand outside history and culture, since everything we know arises from socially embedded perspectives.
This view indeed left all sorts of institutions and mores up for criticism, but that needn't be inherently a threat to Western liberty. As the popular Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums it up, "the task of critical social theory is to evaluate the degree of rationality of any system of social domination in accordance to standards of justice." This isn't in itself an unlibertarian idea, though its practitioners didn't take it to libertarian conclusions.
Adorno and Horkheimer, for example, hoped to discern the roots of the "authoritarian personality" through a mix of Marxism, Freudianism, and survey data. This attempt to understand disturbing trends in 20th century politics led their followers, aggravatingly, to write off virtually every nonprogressive attitude as "fascist" and to treat political differences as signs of mental defects. But in their analysis of the family, they weren't nearly as dismissive of the value of parents, especially as bulwarks against the totalizing power of the capitalist culture industries they feared and criticized. They blamed modern pop culture for warping the natural moral sense of the masses, much as modern traditionalists do.
Critical theorists' analysis of the powers of modern electronic media are interpreted by the conspiracy-minded as proof they intended to take those media over for communist goals, but a real Frankfurt Schooler would doubt that such a scheme could work within a capitalist system anyway.
Who Will Save Us?
One can spill gallons of ink on what followed from the Frankfurt School in academia. But for our purposes it hardly matters, because theories of cultural Marxism barely depend on anything those writers actually explored in their own work.
Nearly all the popularizers of the theory draw their analysis from ur-sources such as Lind's essays and Buchanan's 2001 book The Death of the West. The actual Frankfurt Schoolers mostly appear via a handful of out-of-context "incriminating" quotes that are used over and over. For example, Georg Lukacs (not a formal member of the school but an intellectual fellow traveler frequently roped in with them), in a preface to his obscurantist book The Theory of the Novel, wrote: "Who was to save us from Western civilization?" This cri de coeur from a man despairing of a world riven by the madness of World War I is supposed to be proof that modern cultural progressives are not pursuing what they think is right, or trying to rectify historical wrongs, but are deliberately seeking to destroy civilization.
Give the conspiratorial right credit for clever rhetorical deck-stacking, at least. How can you approve of sympathetic gay people appearing in yogurt commercials if it's all a commie plot?
The cultural Marxism obsession on the part of these conservatives is strictly surplus to requirements. American right-wingers hate multiculturalism and gay rights and radical feminism for their own sake, not because they were designed to pave the path for communism. But the story has the emotional advantage of allowing them to imagine that the trends they despise didn't arise from a long history of the social abuse of blacks, gays, women, and immigrants, but from sinister machinations of commies striving to enslave us. Never mind that the unstoppable traditionalist "cultural decline" of the last several decades has not gotten the United States any closer to public ownership of the means of production.
The Idea Has Consequences
Andrew Breitbart, who ran articles on his Big Hollywood site in 2009 headlined "Political Correctness is Cultural Marxism" and who appeared that year on Sean Hannity's Fox News show to declare that "cultural Marxism is political correctness, it's multiculturalism, and it's a war on Judeo-Christianity," was one of the major modern vectors of belief in the conspiracy. While subterranean cultural trends are difficult to pinpoint precisely, his media empire was likely one of the main incubators.
Despite Breitbart's efforts at spreading the idea, it hasn't really been widely adopted by more mainstream conservative politicians and media personalities. One potent exception is the psychologist and lifestyle guru Jordan Peterson, who seems to be alluding to the same general idea when he uses his preferred phrase, postmodern neomarxism.
The cultural Marxism conspiracy cultist who made the most hideous public impact was Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011. Breivik wrote in his 1,500-page manifesto that "you cannot defeat Islamization or halt/reverse the Islamic colonization of Western Europe without first removing the political doctrines manifested through multiculturalism/cultural Marxism."
Google Trends shows an uptick in internet searches for the phrase since the dawning of the Trump age in late 2015; they essentially doubled over the previous decade. The fever also infected the administration itself: Trump national security official Rich Higgins insisted in a 2017 memo that "Islamists ally with cultural Marxists because…they properly assessed that the left has a strong chance of reducing Western civilization to [Islam's] benefit." (The memo pissed off Higgins' boss, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, enough to get him fired.)
One of the more recent adherents to the theory—a more surprising one, since his public persona during his recent presidential campaigns sensibly avoided such cultural resentments—is the libertarian-leaning former Texas congressman Ron Paul.
In July, Paul's Facebook page featured a brief post attacking cultural Marxism. The argument offered was weak, even for the genre, while hinting at the general idea that progressive cultural trends were communist infusions: "Marxists just shifted their 'exploitation' schtick to culture: — women exploited by men; — gays exploited by heterosexuals — The old exploited by the young — and vice-versa — This list goes on and on."
But the post drew attention far beyond its intellectual merits because of the cartoon that accompanied it. Following the familiar trope of blaming negative cultural change on an invading nonwhite Other, the cartoon lined up classically offensive stereotypes of Jewish, black, Asian, and Hispanic characters punching out Uncle Sam. Their shared fist was branded with a hammer and sickle, and they were united in a shout of—you guessed it—"CULTURAL MARXISM."
An intern was quickly blamed for posting the picture, and the illustration disappeared. It was replaced with a generic sign reading "No Political Correctness."
That first unfortunate image highlighted the danger of mixing libertarian political concerns with worries about cultural Marxism. It's no accident that a theory that's basically about subversive foreigners with a different religion ends up attracting bigoted cartoons. But that second image touches on a place where the farrago of fears summoned by the phrase actually impacts individual liberty.
Most of what gets lumped under the heading of cultural Marxism is really about personal choices about lifestyle or belief, not politics. But "political correctness" frequently tumbles over into actual attempts to suppress expression, which is indeed worrying. And the conspiracists have a Frankfurt School theorist to blame for that: Herbert Marcuse.
Marcuse, who after World War II taught at major American universities such as Columbia and Harvard, and who is thus often fingered as the Typhoid Mary of cultural Marxism in America, advocated the suppression of nonleftist ideas. "Repressive tolerance," his paradoxical phrase, suggested that allowing sinister right-of-center ideas to spread was not true intellectual tolerance but its enemy.
Marcuse was hardly the first to come up with a justification for silencing one's political foes. "Repressive tolerance" is merely a contextual restatement of the ancient attitude that only true, appropriate, and acceptable ideas should be freely expressed. Marcuse stated his terrible notion with the kind of tribute vice pays to virtue, claiming the ideas he wanted suppressed made true tolerance impossible. But Marcuse didn't invent the idea that "error has no rights"—the very traditional Catholic Church did. Yes, he wickedly promoted "the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care," but that doesn't mean he's to blame for everyone who now wants enforced political correctness.
The commitment on the part of today's progressive undergrads to suppressing distasteful speech comes not from a deep understanding of some larger intellectual tradition with a goal of world domination but from a simple (if mistaken) calculus about the morality of hurting people. As frustrating as this attitude can be to civil libertarians, many students genuinely believe that certain expressions seen as hostile to oppressed minorities either directly cause actionable harm to those people or unjustly contribute to an overall atmosphere of danger for them.
It's comforting to believe the only reason people disagree with you is that some specific group of villains deceived them. But that misunderstands the mental barriers one must knock down to succeed at social change.
The defenders of free speech need to take on that idea. Insisting that advocacy of that worldview is part of a pathway to the dictatorship of the proletariat doesn't really help.
Dubious conspiratorial theories of ideological or social change are also bad for their own subscribers. It might be comforting to believe that the only reason people disagree with you is that some specific group of villains deceived them. But that comfort comes at the price of misunderstanding what mental barriers one must knock down to succeed at social change.
One of the lessons of the age of social media is just how powerfully the most rabid people on both left and right are driven by a pre-intellectual sense of disgust for their opponents. That disgust is exacerbated by conspiracy theories. It can be infuriating to be surrounded by a culture or political structure that seems to hate who you are and what you stand for. This is a late-breaking revelation for white Unite the Right types, whose recent experience mirrors the one gays, blacks, feminists, immigrants, and other Others have long described. Such a sense of unfair exclusion, not a desire to impose communism, better explains some of the phenomenon the right decries.
The Way Out
The Ron Paul who ran for president in 2008 and 2012 never spoke of things like cultural Marxism. Instead, he offered a way out of our unending culture war. As he said during a 2016 broadcast dedicated to the conspiracy theory, "Liberty means allowing [everybody] to make personal choices, social relations, sexual choices, personal economic choices." His message then, consistent with how he sold liberty as a candidate and congressman, was that libertarian tolerance should not be seen as a "threat." It should, he said, "bring people together."
There is a deep irony in seeing Marxism in a world overflowing with diverse cultural products and tolerance for a variety of human preferences. Paranoia about cultural Marxism tends to be imbued with an actually Marxist sense that the masses are plagued by "false needs." Real Marxists attribute this to capitalism. Anti–cultural Marxists blame long-dead intellectuals.
It's true that campus leftists have shifted some of their attention from specifically economic concerns to ones based in cultural identity. But to pretend that the broad grievances of gays, blacks, or women are based in communism rather than American history and a quest for dignity is to misunderstand the world around you, and that is never a good idea for those trying to change hearts and minds.
In Reason's pages in 1998, around the same time Lind was taking his story about the baleful influence of the Frankfurt School to the right-wing masses, the anthropologist Grant McCracken looked at the social change that was giving Lind heartburn. Seeing "anarchic, willful, recklessly individualistic behavior everywhere," McCracken noted that "for the political right it is compelling evidence that things have gone terribly wrong.…The world feels tippy, puzzling, dangerous, and odd."
"The right has targeted plenitude as the enemy," McCracken presciently argued. "The Rev. Pat Robertson famously suggested that feminism 'encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.' Pat Buchanan, campaigning for the presidential nomination, called Mexicans 'José' and emphasized each syllable of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's name. The right is not always so unsophisticated, but it has been inclined to harbor misgivings about 'outsiders.'…There is nervousness here—and a brute and thoroughgoing discomfort with difference."
As this cultural ferment has deepened and quickened, the conspiracy theory of cultural Marxism has spread further. McCracken tried to assure nervous men of the right that "the threatening outsider rarely proves an agent of chaos or the beginning of the end. We have brought virtually all these differences on board, and nothing changed. Civilization did not cease. We will invent many more differences, and these will prove absorbable too."
That's good advice, especially for those who should love liberty more than they love traditional notions about race, gender, and sexuality.
This is not to say that admiring traditional values marks one inherently as an enemy of political liberty; wanting to live traditionally, or believing that certain modern mores are not optimal for human happiness and flourishing, is perfectly compatible with a political dedication to freedom. But refusing to admit that others have legitimate, nontyrannical reasons for abandoning such mores leads one to confuse choices you disapprove of with threats to your freedom.
Lind himself, to his credit, offered in a 2017 article for Chronicles a peaceable, pluralistic way out of the "problem" of the changes he blames on cultural Marxists: a movement he dubs "retroculture," in which those who prefer the pre-1960s lifestyle choose to live together in fellowship, on their own, with the Amish as their lodestar.
All who want a tolerant civic peace in this vast and varied land should work to forge whatever way of life they choose on their own property or in their own communities, not insist that former outsiders who wish to be treated more fairly are merely doing so as a cover to impose communist tyranny. The fight for limited government in our culture can't be successfully fought in dogged, frightened opposition to freely chosen cultural plenitude.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Don't Blame Karl Marx for 'Cultural Marxism'".