Marx at 200: Classical Marxism vs. Cultural Marxism

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Image credit: International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Public Domain

By Paul G. Kengor

Note: This article first appeared at The American Spectator.

This Saturday, May 5, marks the bicentennial of Karl Marx’ 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.”

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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.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

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