Cultural Pseudo-Marxism: Part 1

By Elizabeth P July 20, 2023

The term “Cultural Marxism” is frequently used in political discussions, but its meaning is obscure. Those on the Right claim that it signifies the infiltration of Western academia by Jewish Marxists from the Frankfurt School. They argue that their goal is to undermine the United States and Europe by utilizing Critical Theory to advocate for feminism, multiculturalism, LGBTQ+ identities, anti-white racism, and other perceived societal problems. Conversely, the mainstream Left regards this as a baseless far-right conspiracy theory and draws a parallel to the term “Cultural Bolshevism” employed in fascist propaganda. While both sides offer some valid points about Cultural Marxism, neither provides a complete picture.

Critical Theory vs Marxism

Critical Theory” refers to a social theory practiced by intellectuals from the Frankfurt School, associated with the Institute for Social Research in Weimar Germany. These theorists expressed dissatisfaction with both capitalism and communism, leading them to develop a new ideology aimed at societal development. Max Horkheimer, in his 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory,” first defined Critical Theory as a social theory that goes beyond explaining society as it is and instead seeks to critique and transform it. Horkheimer outlined the fundamental principles of Critical Theory, which include the criticism of societal flaws, identification of agents capable of effecting change, and the provision of goals for social transformation.

According to Critical Theory, ideology serves as the primary driver of oppression, and the objective is to analyze and overcome these ideas that hinder human freedom. In contrast, Marxism utilizes dialectical materialism to understand that these ideas merely reflect reality rather than determine it. In pursuit of the goal to liberate humanity from all forms of oppression, additional critical theories have emerged alongside various social movements, including the civil rights movement, feminism, and the gay and lesbian movement. However, a question arises: Do these critical theories genuinely aim to emancipate the oppressed masses, or do they in fact work to fragment the working class and divert revolutionary momentum?

Every successful socialist revolution has resulted in better material conditions for the entire working class, including women and ethnic minorities. However, a contrasting situation has unfolded in the United States, where critical theories have thrived within academia while capitalism remains the prevailing mode of production. Instead of progress, the majority of Americans have experienced a decline in their living standards, coupled with an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a privileged few. Despite its pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, Critical Theory has consistently served the interests of those who perpetuate human enslavement, while suppressing the achievements of Communist movements that have genuinely established societies oriented towards meeting the needs of the working class.

First, they came for the Communists…

Initially, when the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the Institute for Social Research chose to refrain from openly criticizing the government. Theodor Adorno believed that the regime would primarily target “the orthodox pro-Soviet Bolshevists and communists who had drawn attention to themselves politically” (Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 181). This observation was indeed accurate at that time, as the Communists were the first group to be sent to concentration camps. However, it didn’t take long for the Nazis to extend their persecution to the Jewish population. In the late 1930s, several Frankfurt intellectuals, including Horkheimer, Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, relocated to the United States to escape persecution due to their Jewish heritage. Walter Benjamin, on the other hand, did not join them. Benjamin relied solely on the Institute for his income, and one might expect that his colleagues would have taken his financial situation into consideration and made efforts to help him escape Nazi terror. However, evidence suggests that his fellow scholars had ideological motivations behind their decision to relocate to the US without him.

Benjamin maintained a close friendship with Bertolt Brecht, a Marxist playwright who openly criticized the Frankfurt theorists. Adorno harbored resentment towards Brecht due to his ideological influence on Benjamin. In a letter to Horkheimer on January 26, 1936, Adorno referred to Brecht as a “savage” and expressed his belief that Benjamin needed to be freed from his influence (Adorno and Horkheimer, Correspondence, Vol. I, 110). Two years later, Horkheimer informed Benjamin that he should anticipate a loss of funding from the Institute. Furthermore, Horkheimer claimed, shortly after transferring $50,000 to one of his own accounts, that he regretfully couldn’t provide financial assistance for Benjamin’s steamship ticket to escape to the United States and seek safety from encroaching fascist forces. In 1940, Benjamin tragically took his own life at the border between France and Spain, facing almost certain capture by Nazi forces. The leading Frankfurt intellectuals depicted his suicide as a tragic and incomprehensible personal decision, and claimed that they had tried to help him escape.

If Horkheimer were to rewrite Martin Niemoller’s famous poem, it would read something like this:

First they came for the Communists,

and I didn’t speak up,

because I hated Communists.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I fled to the United States,

leaving my more Marxist-aligned Jewish colleague to die.

It is possible that the Frankfurt intellectuals harbored animosity towards Brecht because he recognized their compromising stance, as summarized by Stuart Jeffries, as “prostitutes in their quest for foundation support during their American exile, selling their skills and opinions as commodities in order to support the dominant ideology of oppressive U.S. society” (Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, 136). When Horkheimer became director of the Institute in 1930, the Frankfurt School shifted its research focus away from comprehensive analyses of class struggle towards abstract investigations of culture and authority. This approach aimed to appease future donors by refraining from suggesting alternatives to capitalism or an end to imperialism. Upon Adorno’s initial emigration to the US, he worked for the Princeton Radio Project, which received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to investigate the impact of mass media on society. Marcuse, meanwhile, served in the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, during which he authored critical works on the Soviet Union, which were later published in his 1958 book Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis.

Supported by generous funding from the US government and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Frankfurt scholars were able to sustain their work throughout the early Cold War, eventually relocating the Institute back to West Germany in the late 1940s. The funds for this move were administered by John McCloy, who served as the US High Commissioner of Germany. In his earlier career as a Wall Street lawyer, McCloy had worked with various corporations operating in Nazi Germany, including IG Farben, the manufacturer of Zyklon B gas. Following the conclusion of World War II, McCloy granted clemency to several Nazi war criminals, enabling them to retain a significant portion of their former wealth and influence. With the transition from a fascist regime to a US-supported anti-communist government, West Germany provided a favorable environment for the Frankfurt School to continue its work and engage in new anti-communist endeavors, as will be explored next in this series on Cultural Pseudo-Marxism.

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Marx, Engels, Lenin