Volume 44 - Issue 3

Cultural Marxism: Imaginary Conspiracy or Revolutionary Reality?

by Robert S. Smith


What are we to make of Cultural Marxism? This article seeks to answer that question, first, by outlining the key elements and legacy of classical Marxism; second, by exploring the neo-Marxism of Antonio Gramsci; third, by assessing the main ideas and impact of “the Frankfurt School”; and, fourth, by offering some reflections on (i) the links between these thinkers and various contemporary developments, (ii) the wisdom of employing the term Cultural Marxism, and (iii) how Christians should respond to the current “culture wars” that are polarizing the Western world.

The development of ideas and their links to the movements they generate or justify is often a messy process. It can be notoriously difficult to identify the precise relationship between this school of thought and that social phenomenon or to quantify the impact of particular individuals on larger social changes. Consequently, intellectual historians need to be alert to a number of dangers: mistaking correlation for causation, confusing partial understandings with more comprehensive ones, and offering reductionistic readings of complex ideological and cultural shifts. None of this, however, means resigning ourselves to skepticism. With patience, humility and skill (and often a little hindsight too!), mapping the movements of the past and evaluating their effects on the present can be done—even if never perfectly and only ever provisionally.

Nonetheless, it is not surprising that some historical reconstructions are more contested than others and different explanatory categories are deemed more or less helpful, depending on how coherent they are and how much is being claimed by them. Indeed, some terms (especially if they accrue divisive political overtones) can become what the New Zealand philosopher, Jamie Whyte, has called “boo-hooray words”1—words that provoke an almost visceral reaction of either disgust or delight, denunciation or celebration.

Such is the case with “Cultural Marxism” (also known as Neo-Marxism, Libertarian Marxism, Existential Marxism, or Western Marxism).2 From one perspective, this polarized reaction is puzzling. Cultural Marxism is a well-established term in academic circles and has appeared in the titles of numerous books and articles that treat it either dispassionately or favorably.3 It simply refers to a twentieth century development in Marxist thought that came to view Western culture as a key source of human oppression. As such, Cultural Marxism is nothing more than the application of Marxist theory to culture. But over the last decade or more, the term has become increasingly explosive—so much so that on 30 December 2014, Wikipedia’s editorial team took the rather extraordinary step of archiving its rather tame entry on the subject!

So why the commotion? The short answer is, due to its deployment by people like Jordan Peterson, Cultural Marxism has come to function as “shorthand for left-wing ideology,” particularly as this manifests in a range “progressive” developments and social justice causes.4 For this reason, most on the “left” side of the contemporary culture war not only hear Cultural Marxism as an accusatory “snarl word” (which it often is) but dismiss its validity, describing it as “a uniting theory for rightwingers who love to play the victim”5 or “a conspiracy theory with an anti-Semitic twist”6 or “the ultimate post-factual dog-whistle.”7 Others still, without disputing the phenomena behind the term, argue that calling it “Marxism” is historically inaccurate and conceptually confusing.8

What are we to make of all this? Is Cultural Marxism a misnomer? Is it an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory? Or is it an accurate way of describing a real ideology that is making a very real impact on our world? And, if the latter, how should we regard it and respond to it? This article will first outline the basic elements and legacy of classical Marxism. Second, it will explore Antonio Gramsci’s development of Marxist thought after WWI. Third, it will examine the key ideas and impact of the German neo-Marxist think-tank known as “the Frankfurt School.” Fourth, it will offer some reflections on (1) the links between these thinkers and various contemporary developments, (2) the helpfulness of employing the term Cultural Marxism to explain these developments and (3) what Christians should do in light of the “culture wars” that are currently polarizing the Western world.

1. Understanding Classical Marxism

1.1. Introducing Karl Marx (1818–1883)

Karl Marx was born in the Prussian town of Trier on May 5, 1818. He was the eldest child of Heinrich and Henriette Marx, a Jewish couple who had converted to Christianity—albeit to a very liberal form of Lutheranism—so that Heinrich (the son of a rabbi) could continue working as a lawyer. The family, therefore, was at best only nominally Christian and, although he was baptized in 1824 and sent to a Lutheran school, Karl was raised in an essentially non-religious home. Sometime in his childhood, he became an atheist and remained so for the rest of his life.

In 1835, Marx went to Bonn University to study law. The following year he transferred to Berlin University to study the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) under the tutelage of Hegel’s former student, Bruno Baur (1809–1882). In line with his teachers, Marx soon came to embrace the idea that history follows a natural and inevitable dialectical process. However, in contrast to Hegel’s idealism—which regarded matter as dependent upon mind and history as the progressive self-realization of an absolute Mind, Marx proposed (what was later called) dialectical materialism—a view which saw matter as primary and change as inherent in the nature of material reality.

It is for this reason that Marx is said to have “turned Hegel upside-down” or (in his words) “right side up.” Here’s how Marx put it, in 1873:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite.… With me …, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.… With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.9

1.2. Marx’s Diagnosis of the Problem

Two factors helped solidify Marx’s interest in economic theory. The first was his association with the early communist movement in Paris, out of which grew a life-long friendship and working partnership with Friedrich Engels (1820–1895). The second was the fact that in the initial phases of industrial capitalism, not only were working conditions frequently dangerous and unhealthy, but work arrangements were often cruel and exploitative. Consequently, “wealth inequality soared as the industrialists … made excessive profits while denying their workers sufficient income to flourish.”10

This led Marx to view the fundamental human problem through two lenses: oppression and alienation. Oppression is a consequence of living in a society of stratified classes, an arrangement exacerbated by the exploitation inherent in capitalism. The capitalist class (the bourgeoisie), as the owners of the means of production, use the working class (the proletariat) to make profits for themselves. This is done either by under-paying the workers or by adding value to their products. Such oppression leads to a four-fold experience of alienation for the worker: first, from the act of production; second, from the product made; third, from other workers; and fourth from his or her Gattungswesen (species-essence)—i.e., humanity.

Although capitalism had intensified this problem, Marx contended that the problem itself was nothing new. Due to the inequitable realities embedded in the class system, human societies have always been marked by division (e.g., between the “haves” and the “have-nots”) and injustice (e.g., with the rich exploiting the poor).

1.3. Marx’s Outline of the Solution

What, then, was Marx’s solution to this problem? Marx was convinced that the capitalist system contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. Continued exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie would lead to mounting resentment. This would eventually and inevitably boil over into a proletarian revolution in which the bourgeoisie would be violently overthrown and out of which a new, classless society would finally emerge.

Marx’s “dialectical materialism” embraced the related concepts of “historical materialism” and “economic determinism”—language which inferred that the transition from capitalism to communism would be unstoppable due to the natural “evolution of the material forces of production.”11 Nevertheless, he clearly believed that violence was a necessary part of the process. He thus spoke freely of “the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie,”12 and even felt justified in inciting such violence. This is borne out by the closing lines of The Communist Manifesto:

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Elsewhere in his writings, Marx is even more explicit, declaring that “there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.”14 Furthermore, between the time of revolutionary terror and the arrival of a communist utopia, a transitional government of the working class—what Marx’s colleague, Joseph Weydemeyer, called “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—would also be necessary.15

But, supposedly, all the trauma and bloodshed would be worth it. For in the wake of capitalism’s demise, a truly humane society would appear, governed by the principle: “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!”16 In such a society, all land, industry, labor and wealth would be held in common and freely shared. Nothing would be privately owned. This is why “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”17

Such an abolition would also bring about another of Communism’s stated goals: the eradication of the family. Marx and Engels were aware that “even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.”18 Nevertheless, they were unmoved by charges of destroying “the most hallowed of relations” and replacing “home education by social.” The family had to, and indeed would, go. For “the bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement [private property] vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.”19

1.4. Marx’s Catastrophic Legacy

What, then, can be said of Marx’s legacy? Despite being voted “thinker of the millennium” in 1999 and having had his 200th birthday celebrated around the world in 2018, the short answer is that his legacy is appalling. Everywhere his ideas have been implemented—be it Russia, China, Cambodia, Cuba, Burma, the Congo, Zimbabwe, East Germany, North Korea or Venezuela—the results have been nothing short of catastrophic; dystopian not utopian. With a body count of around 100 million, the Marxist experiment has led to more deaths than any other ideology our world has ever known.20

Furthermore, attempts to exonerate Marx—as if the problems only have to do with corruptions of his philosophy—betray a disturbing ignorance of the facts. True, Marx was not personally responsible for Stalin’s Gulag or Mao’s Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, but his ideas certainly were (as is clear from the speeches and writings of these followers).21 For once you abolish private ownership and replace it with state control of the economy, not only is society is deprived of the incentives that drive it forward and help it function, but people are robbed of what is rightfully theirs. Other rights and freedoms soon disappear, and the end result is, unavoidably, totalitarian.22

Yet it is unlikely that any of this would have troubled Marx. For despite having much to say about exploitation and oppression, he seems to have been more or less indifferent to human misery. According to the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski (himself a former Marxist), “evil and suffering, in [Marx’s] eyes, had no meaning except as instruments of liberation; they are purely social facts, not an essential part of the human condition.”23 Such indifference appears to have been symptomatic of the fact that Marx was driven less by a love for the proletariat and more by a hatred of the bourgeoisie.24

1.5. Reasons for Marxism’s Failure

Motivations aside, Marx’s economic philosophy is riddled with numerous flawed assumptions and mistaken claims. As subsequent history has repeatedly shown,

Economics is not a zero-sum game, and wealth is not the sum total of the use-value of commodities. Additionally, Marx’s notion of an abstract labor value and the general value form, based on the cumulative effects of all labor, as opposed to either particular labor or the demands of the market, are both fallacies. And finally, he clearly misunderstood the relationship between commodities, money, and capital.25

Moreover, Marx was wrong about virtually everything he predicted. For example, he claimed that the working class would increase in number and decrease in wealth, while the capitalist class would decrease in number and increase in wealth. Neither happened. He also predicted that socialist revolutions would first take place in the most advanced capitalist nations (Britain, America and France). Instead they took place in some of the least developed regions of the world (Russia, Latin America, and parts of Asia).26

But Marx was more than a false prophet (as Karl Popper rightly called him);27 he was an intellectual fraud. As has been painfully demonstrated ever since the 1880s, when two Cambridge scholars first started “fact checking” his work, Marx was chronically dishonest in his use of the sources, and regularly engaged in the deliberate distortion of data. Why would he do this? Paul Johnson explains:

The facts are not central to Marx’s work; they are ancillary, buttressing conclusions already reached independently of them. Capital … should be seen, then, not as a scientific investigation of the nature of the economic process it purported to describe but as an exercise in moral philosophy.… It is a huge and often incoherent sermon, an attack on the industrial process and the principle of ownership by a man who had conceived a powerful but essentially irrational hatred for them.28

None of this is to deny the inspirational nature of Marx’s vision, or that he got some things right. Indeed, his “condemnation of the evils of child labor and the scandals of abuse and of indifference on the part of those who had the means to correct a myriad of society’s ills” is admirable.29 The problem, however, is that he is too often wrong and, as Johnson concludes, “can never be trusted.”30 Moreover, his philosophy has spawned a range of reductionistic conflict theories that tend to exacerbate (if not create) the very problems they claim to address. And yet, despite the fact that his “Godless, loveless, materialism has left a devastating legacy for the world,”31 not only does Marx’s reputation survive but among millennials his ideas are making a marked comeback!32

2. The Neo-Marxism of Antonio Gramsci

In the early part of the twentieth century, however, many of Marx’s most ardent disciples were fast becoming aware of insoluble problems with classical Marxist theory. This brings us to the inter-war neo-Marxists and, in particular, to the contribution of the Italian Communist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci.

2.1. Introducing Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937)

Born in Sardinia in 1891 to a working-class family, Gramsci became politically aware in his teens. Nevertheless, it was not until 1913 (at the age of 22) that he first joined a political party: the Italian Socialist party. Although he was an able student with a very sharp mind, a combination of health problems and financial difficulties, together with his growing political commitment, led him to abandon his studies in early 1915.

At this point Gramsci gave himself fully to political activism and quickly rose to prominence in the Italian Communist party. In 1919, he founded the party newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo (“The New Order”) and, in 1924, become party head. It was during these years that he was both befriended and influenced by a contemporary Hungarian Marxist, György Lukács.33

Although Gramsci had at one time worked closely with Benito Mussolini, once the Fascist regime came to power in 1922, Gramsci came to be regarded as a serious threat to national stability. He was eventually arrested in 1926 and charged with attempting to undermine the Italian state. At his trial, the government prosecutor is reported to have said: “For twenty years, we must stop that brain from working.”34 After conviction, he was sent to the prison island of Ustica.

He was released some eight years later, in 1934, but in a very weakened state. He would only live for another three years, dying in 1937 at the age of 46. But despite the deprivations he experienced in prison, the bulk of his writing took place there. The Prison Notebooks (as they came to be called) were the result. However, it was not until 1948 that they were first published, and not until the 1970s that they were translated into French, German, and English.

2.2. Gramsci’s Diagnosis of the Problem

Although slow to emerge, The Prison Notebooks have come to have a profound effect upon subsequent generations. It is, therefore, important for us to understand their main thesis and what happens to classical Marxism in Gramsci’s hands.

While in prison, Gramsci turned his mind to the question that haunted classical Marxism: Why hadn’t Marx’s predictions worked out in practice? Why, for instance, hadn’t the Russian revolution of 1917 replicated itself in other Western European nations? The answer, Gramsci believed, lay in the persistence of capitalist ideas embedded in the institutions of “civil society” (e.g., the family, the church, trade unions, the education system)—all the consensus-creating elements of society that are independent of “political society” (e.g., the police, the army, the legal system).35

The problem, then, was that the “culture” of Western society was blocking the proletarian uprising. As Gramsci wrote in The Prison Notebooks: “The state was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses.”36 Furthermore, these “fortresses” were inseparable from the west’s Christian heritage and, despite the secularizing impact of the Enlightenment, remained undergirded by a latent Christian worldview. Consequently, until Christianity’s “cultural hegemony” was broken, no communist revolution would take place and no utopia could arrive.

All of this required a major rethink of Marx’s philosophy. Marx clearly believed that religion dulled people to their oppression by giving them hope beyond it. It thereby dampened their revolutionary instincts (hence his calling it “the opiate of the masses”). Yet his doctrines of “historical materialism” and “economic determinism” also gave him an unshakable belief in the natural escalation of class conflict and, therefore, the inevitability of revolution. For Marx, then, the material conditions of economic existence (“the base”) determine all other aspects of society (“the superstructure”).37

2.3. Gramsci’s Outline of the Solution

What Gramsci realized was that this was back to front. Although there might be an interplay between material life conditions and intellectual life processes, it is the latter that largely determines the former. Otherwise put, culture is not downstream from economics, but economics is downstream from culture. What this meant was that Marx was fundamentally wrong, and Hegel was essentially right. Gramsci thus turned Marx upside down (or right side up).

The significance of this inversion of classical Marxism is profound. What it means is that if you want to change the economic structure of society, you must first change the cultural institutions that socialize people into believing and behaving according to the dictates of the capitalist system. The only way to do this is by cutting the roots of Western civilization—in particular, its Judeo-Christian values, for these (supposedly) are what provide the capitalist root-system. In short, unless and until Western culture is dechristianized, Western society will never be decapitalized.38

How might this be accomplished? By an army of Marxist intellectuals undertaking (what was later called) “the long march through the institutions of power”;39 that is, by gradually colonizing and ultimately controlling all the key institutions of civil society. As Gramsci put it, “In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.”40 The larger goal, however, is control of all the major institutions of political society as well (e.g., the police, law courts, civil service, local councils). Gramsci referred to this process as “becoming State.”41

The program, then, at least in theory, is simple: subvert society by changing its culture and change its culture by infiltrating its institutions. The goal is likewise clear: destroy capitalism and replace it with a communist counter-hegemony. This is why many see Cultural Marxism as an accurate description of Gramsci’s neo-Marxist philosophy. “The long march through the institutions” is likewise regarded as an apt summary of his strategy for establishing the necessary conditions for a socialist takeover and the (supposed) arrival of a communist utopia.

2.4. Digging Deeper into the Details

What will this mean in practice? Gramsci was clear that it will necessarily involve the destruction of all hierarchies. As one of his biographers has put it, the marginalized must “rouse themselves to bring down the entire hierarchical system that has prevailed in various forms from the beginning of civilization.”42 But the goal here is not merely a flattening of the system, but a flipping of the system; the creation of what Gramsci called a “periphery-centred society.”43 In other words, insiders must be turned into outsiders and underdogs into overlords. Likewise, oppressors must now be oppressed and those formerly privileged must have their privileges taken away.

Above all, Christianity must be replaced by “the total praxis of socialism.”44 As Gramsci wrote in 1916: “Socialism is precisely the religion that must kill Christianity. [It is a] religion in the sense that it too is a faith … [and] because it has substituted for the consciousness of the transcendental God of the Catholics, trust in man and his best strengths as the sole spiritual reality.”45 What this “trust” really means, however, is “an immense allocation of power to those appointed to ‘administer’ things.”46 This is clear from the way Gramsci employs Machiavelli’s notion of “The Prince” as his preferred way of talking about the new ruling class—which, for him, meant the communist party:

As it grows, the modern Prince upsets the entire system of intellectual and moral relations, for its development means precisely that every act is deemed useful or harmful, virtuous or wicked, depending on whether its point of reference is the modern Prince and whether it increases the Prince’s power or opposes it. The Prince takes the place, in peoples’ consciousness, of the divinity and of the categorical imperative; it becomes the basis of a modern secularism and of a complete secularization of all of life and of customary relationships.47

2.5. Assessing Gramsci’s Influence

What might we say about Gramsci’s influence? A recent article in New Statesmen describes him as “the Marxist thinker for our times.”48 Is this an expression of hope or a reflection of reality? As we have already seen, it took some decades for The Prison Notebooks to be translated and disseminated. But once they were, their impact has been “strikingly diverse and enduring.”49 Indeed, according to Frank Rosengarten,

By the 1950s, and then with increasing frequency and intensity, his prison writings attracted interest and critical commentary in a host of countries.… Some of his terminology became household words on the left, the most important of which, and the most complex, is the term “hegemony” as he used it in his writings and applied [it] to the twin task of understanding the reasons underlying both the successes and the failures of socialism on a global scale, and of elaborating a feasible program for the realization of a socialist vision.50

Gramsci has also been a major influence on a range of philosophers, historians, sociologists, educationalists, and, especially, cultural theorists.51 Indeed, the whole discipline of “cultural studies” is largely the result of his influence and his impact on the humanities and social sciences has been nothing short of immense.52 As Andrew Roberts summarizes, “Gramsci was perhaps the most important communist thinker in the West since Marx himself, whose views he modernized and adapted for the twentieth century, and nowhere were his ideas followed more effectively than in academia.”53

How, then, might we evaluate this influence? From one point of view, Gramsci’s neo-Marxism is a significant improvement on classical Marxism, in that it advocates what Gramsci called a “war of position” instead of a “war of manoeuvre”; that is, sustained ideological subversion rather than violent political revolution. However, this is simply a difference of means, not of end. The goal remains the same: the destruction of Western culture and the replacement of the Christian church with the communist state.

Furthermore, as superficially comforting as it is to think that this could somehow be accomplished bloodlessly, it is (arguably) even more insidious. For this is a revolution by stealth; an exercise in systematic brainwashing by sustained subversion from within. As Angelo Codevilla writes: “forceful seduction, not rape, is Gramsci’s practical advice regarding ‘cultural hegemony’ … Gramsci means to replace Western culture by subverting it, by doing what it takes to compel it to redefine itself, rather than by picking fights with it.”54

Here, then, is a strategy for the communist conquest of capitalist cultures. Nor was Gramsci alone in thinking along these lines. While he was languishing on Ustica, a group of German Marxist intellectuals, quite unaware of The Prison Notebooks, was exploring similar ideas. This brings us to a consideration of the work of the Frankfurt School.

3. The Frankfurt School

3.1. The Institute for Social Research

The origins of the Frankfurt School can be traced to 1923, when the radical Hungarian Marxist, György Lukacs, was invited to chair a week-long symposium in Frankfurt, Germany. Out of this came a vision for a Marxist think-tank and research centre, modelled after the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. The centre was originally to be called “The Institute for Marxism.” But for public relations purposes, a more benign name was finally chosen: “The Institute for Social Research.” Because of its founding location and original link with Goethe University in Frankfurt, the Institute is commonly known as “the Frankfurt School.” Stuart Jeffries thus describes it as “part Marxist cuckoo in Frankfurt’s capitalist nest and part monastery devoted to the study of Marxism.”55

While the early work of the Institute moved in a classically Marxist direction, this all changed in 1930 when Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), a young philosophy professor at Frankfurt University, took over as Director. Under his leadership, the School quickly moved in a decidedly neo-Marxist direction. Historian of the Frankfurt School, Martin Jay, sums up the change this way:

If it can be said that in the early years of its history, the Institute concerned itself primarily with an analysis of bourgeois society’s socio-economic sub-structure, in the years after 1930 its primary interests lay in its cultural superstructure. Indeed the traditional Marxist formula regarding the relationship between the two was brought into question by Critical Theory.56

We will explain Critical Theory in greater detail shortly. In brief, it is a form of biting social critique aimed at exposing and dismantling the corrupt foundations and oppressive nature of capitalist society. In his 1937 essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Horkheimer put it like this:

The critical theory of society is, in its totality, the unfolding of a single existential judgment. To put it in broad terms, the theory says that the basic form of the historically given commodity economy on which modern history rests contains in itself the internal and external tensions of the modern era; it generates these tensions over and over again in an increasingly heightened form; and after a period of progress, development of human powers, and emancipation for the individual, after an enormous extension of human control over nature, it finally hinders further development and drives humanity into a new barbarism.57

In other words, like Gramsci, Horkheimer was convinced that the major obstacle to human liberation was the capitalist ideology embedded in traditional Western culture. That, fundamentally, was what needed exposing, criticizing and changing.

To help in this task, Horkheimer recruited a range of up-and-coming Marxist intellectuals—notably, Theodore Adorno and Herbert Marcuse (whom we will meet shortly)—who could help to blend classical Marxist doctrines with both Darwinian sociology and Freudian psychology. The aim was to produce a new, synthesized form of Marxism that would do the job that classical Marxism failed to do; radically transform Western culture and so help pave the way for a communist utopia.

Nevertheless, under Horkheimer’s leadership, the Institute headed in an academic (rather than political) direction. Indeed, Horkheimer was convinced that political independence from the communist party was necessary for the school’s intellectual freedom to be maintained. Therefore, the work of its members took the form of published books and articles, rather than manifestos and calls for action. In 1931, the school also launched its own journal, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (Journal of Social Research), with Horkheimer taking the role of editor.

In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, most members of the Frankfurt School (being not only communists but also Jewish) were forced to flee the country. Initially, they relocated to Geneva, where they already had a satellite campus. But eventually they settled in the United States and, in 1935, the Institute for Social Research affiliated with Columbia University, New York City, and its journal was renamed Studies in Philosophy and Social Science.58

In 1941, Horkheimer moved to Los Angeles for health reasons, and was soon followed by Adorno and Marcuse. In 1951, given that the war was now over and the Nazi regime long gone, Horkheimer and Adorno returned to Frankfurt to resume their work and, in 1955, Adorno took over as the Institute’s Director. Marcuse, however, stayed behind in the US, first taking up a teaching post at Brandeis University in Boston and, in 1965, another at the University of California, San Diego.

But before we look further into Marcuse’s work (especially his impact upon the 1960s revolution), it will help us to learn more of some of the other members and associates of the Frankfurt School and their main contributions to the cultural Marxist cause.

3.2. Introducing the Key Players

3.2.1. György Lukács (1885–1971)

We begin with György (or Georg) Lukács, not because he was himself a member of the Frankfurt School but because he chaired the week-long symposium that led to its founding. As an acquaintance of Gramsci, it is just possible that Lukács was something of a conduit through which some of Gramsci’s ideas found their way into the Institute for Social Research. But this is not certain. Indeed, as Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (1923) reveals, he still held to the classical Marxian tenet that it is “not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”59

What is especially noteworthy is Lukács’s brief stint, in 1919, as the People’s Commissar for Education and Culture under the Bolshevik regime in Hungary. In the few months that he occupied this role, Lukács launched a very particular program with a very particular purpose. The program was called “Cultural Terrorism” and its purpose was “the annihilation of the old [cultural] values and the creation of new ones by the revolutionaries.” For Lukács, “the revolutionary destruction of society” was “the one and only solution to the cultural contradictions of the epoch.”60

One of the chief goals of Lukács’s short-lived campaign was the destruction of Judeo-Christian sexual ethics and the weakening the bourgeois family. To this end, he introduced a radical sex education program into all schools. As a result, “Hungarian children learned the subtle nuances of free love, sexual intercourse, and the archaic nature of middle-class family codes, the obsolete nature of monogamy, and the irrelevance of organized religion, which deprived man of pleasure.”61 Women were called to flaunt traditional sexual mores and wives to rebel against their husbands.

Lukács’s program met with strong opposition, not only from the Catholic Church but from the general population. Ironically, it most offended and alienated the very people who were meant to take up the revolutionary cause: the working class. But none of this tempered Lukács’s determination to destroy capitalism in any way possible and as quickly as possible.62 Indeed, such was his commitment to Marxist ideology (which he described in terms of “conversion”)63 that he quoted with approval the words of the German idealist philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte: “If theory conflicts with the facts, so much the worse for the facts.”64 In other words, for Lukács, “even if recent research had disproved—decisively and once and for all—every one of Marx’s substantive claims, then the intellectual standing of Marxism would remain intact.”65

According to Roger Scruton, the only way to account for such blind dogmatism is to see that “the root fallacy of Marxism, the belief in a real ‘essence’ of which our social life is only an ‘appearance’, had colonized Lukács’s brain, and taken the form of an immovable religion.”66 Therefore, Scruton continues, “with Lukács we have to do not with the anti-bourgeois snobbery of a Foucault.… We have to do with hatred. And while this hatred embraces all the ‘appearances’ of the ‘bourgeois’ world, it is directed beyond and behind them, to the hidden devil that they conceal. The devil is ‘capitalism’, and hatred of capitalism is total and unconditional, justifying every moral breach.”67 Consequently, “Communist ethics,” declared Lukács, “makes it the highest duty to accept the necessity to act wickedly.”68

3.2.2. Erich Fromm (1900–1980)

Erich Fromm was a social psychologist who, despite having declared himself an avowed atheist at the age of 26, maintained a deep and abiding interest in theology and wrote several books on the relationship between religion and psychoanalysis. He became an associate of the Frankfurt School in 1930 and was the first to attempt an integration of Marxian and Freudian thought. He was also one of those who not only sought refuge in the United States but remained there until only a few years before his death.

While mostly remembered for books like The Art of Loving (1956) and The Heart of Man (1964), one of Fromm’s life concerns was to provide a penetrating analysis of the (supposed) capitalistic roots of totalitarianism. Thus, in Escape from Freedom (1941), he argued that early capitalism created a social order that bred a sadomasochistic and authoritarian character of which Luther and Hitler were prime examples. He also claimed that the authoritarian character experiences only domination or submission and sees all differences, whether of sex or race, in term of either superiority or inferiority.69

His views on human sexuality, at least in his earlier writings, were also marked by a radical constructionist outlook. For instance, “Fromm contended that sexual orientation is merely a social construct, that there are no innate differences between men and women, and that sexuality and gender roles are socially determined. Furthermore, he argued that sexually repressed societies discourage sexual experimentation and practices such as homosexuality due to manmade legal codes and moralistic taboos that are psychologically inhibiting and counter-productive.”70

Interestingly, in later writings, Fromm backed away from some of his more extreme notions and, in fact, became increasingly socially conservative. He likewise “began to spiritualize sexuality into ‘loving relationships’ as a result of his interest in matricentric cultures.”71 These shifts led Marcuse to criticize him for capitulating to conformity and reinforcing the status quo.72 Nevertheless, as much as any member of the Frankfurt School, “Fromm remained true to the concrete moment, the humanistic spirit, and the transformative purpose of critical theory.”73

3.2.3. Theodor Adorno (1903–1969)

Theodor Adorno was something of a polymath (or “renaissance man”), being equally at home in philosophy, sociology, psychology, literature, poetry, and musicology. As such, he embodied the interdisciplinary ideal of the Frankfurt School within his own person. Arguably “the most dazzling philosophical mind of the age,” his “influence on contemporary understandings of critical theory is without parallel.”74 In terms of his larger intellectual project, Adorno “was intent upon articulating the inherently flawed character of civilization while rejecting every attempt to identify the individual with the collectivity.”75 Indeed, he was deeply concerned with the way in which mass culture produced conformity and passivity in individuals, and so became the seed-bed of political totalitarianism.76

It was this particular concern that motivated Adorno, along with several other members of the Institute, to author The Authoritarian Personality (1950).77 Based on analytical studies of German society that were begun in 1923, the book claimed to have identified (what Adorno called) “a new anthropological type”—the authoritarian character. This character was a product of capitalism, Christianity, conservatism, the patriarchal family and sexual repression. And, according to the Frankfurt School, it was precisely this combination that induced the prejudice, anti-Semitism and fascism that had engulfed Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

Because the authoritarian character was the exact opposite of the desired revolutionary character, it was important to be able to identify those who possessed such a character. To this end, Adorno constructed a 30-item personality test called the “F-Scale” (Fascist-Scale), which claimed to measure the nine different personality variables that determine whether or not one is a fascist. These are:

  1. Conventionalism: Rigid adherence to conventional, middle-class values;
  2. Authoritarian Submission: Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the in-group;
  3. Authoritarian Aggression: Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values;
  4. Anti-intraception: Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded;
  5. Superstition and Stereotype: The belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate; the disposition to think in rigid terms;
  6. Power and “Toughness”: Preoccupation with the dominance/submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness;
  7. Destructiveness and Cynicism: Generalized hostility, vilification of the human;
  8. Projectivity: The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses; and
  9. Sex: Exaggerated concern with sexual “goings-on.”

However, despite its claim to measure prejudice and anti-democratic tendencies at the personality level, the validity of the F-Scale has been challenged by a range of psychologists and social scientists. Both its ideological nature and its attempt to associate societal processes with personality characteristics have been severely criticized. If it can be said to reveal anything, it is perhaps a better indicator of conservatism than it is of authoritarianism.78

However, according to Jay, The Authoritarian Personality was really trying to study “the character type of a totalitarian rather than an authoritarian society.”79 In this light, it can be faulted for drawing an exclusive connection between authoritarianism and fascism. Why not communism also? As Jay asks: “Why was political and economic conservatism seen as connected with authoritarianism, while the demand for state socialism was not? In short, why was the old left-right distinction upheld, when the real opposition was between liberal democracy and totalitarianism of both extremes?”80

Answers to these questions are not obvious. But given that the members of the School were generally (even if not sufficiently) skeptical of the soviet experiment, it is most likely that their personal experience of Nazi Germany made them hyper-sensitive to dangers on the right but far less attuned to equal dangers on the left.

3.2.4. Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979)

Like Eric Fromm, Herbert Marcuse was convinced that for cultural liberation to be complete sexual liberation was vital. This, at least, was the case he sought to make in Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955). As the subtitle reveals, the book was a further attempt to combine neo-Marxism with neo-Freudianism.

Despite its density and opacity, Eros and Civilization eventually caught the attention of the 1960s counterculture and soon became one of the founding documents of the sexual revolution. It also helped to bring the work of the Frankfurt School to the attention of numerous student activist groups, and their various writings into colleges and universities around the world. Thus, of all the members of the Frankfurt School, it was Marcuse who did the most to provide the intellectual justifications for the adolescent sexual rebellion of the 1960s, and Eros and Civilization became the textbook.

The main thesis of Eros and Civilization is that the only way for human beings to escape the one-dimensionality of advanced industrial society is to rebel against “technological rationality” (i.e., the repressive values of capitalist morality),81 and to liberate our erotic side, our sensuous instincts. This means casting off sexual restraint in favor of “polymorphous perversity”—a term Marcuse borrowed from Freud.82

Given its origins, it is important to understand what Freud himself meant by this expression. He explains, “What makes an infant characteristically different from every other stage of human life is that the child is polymorphously perverse, is ready to demonstrate any kind of sexual behavior, with any kind of pleasure, without any kind of restraint.”83 But the child is not meant to remain like this, argued Freud. Indeed, maturation and “civilization” emerge only after such polymorphous perversity is restrained and responsibly rechanneled. Moreover, in Freud’s mind, such restraint and rechanneling are profoundly necessary; for heterosexual procreation is necessary for the continuation of our race, and so heterosexual coupling is essential for civilization itself.

In Marcuse’s view, however, true sexual liberation involves not a disciplining of our polymorphous desires but their indulgence. The goal is “to make the human body an instrument of pleasure rather than labor.”84 For human emancipation is tied to “the primacy of pleasure and the liberation of Eros.”85 Behind this thought was the conviction that because advanced capitalist society had effectively de-eroticized the human body (except for the genitals), liberation required “the eroticization of the entire organism.”86 As Marcuse explained, “this spread of the libido would first manifest itself in a reactivation of all erotogenic zones and, consequently, in a resurgence of pregenital polymorphous sexuality and in a decline of genital supremacy.”87

Marcuse is open about the fact that this “change in the value and scope of the libidinal would lead to a disintegration of the institutions in which private interpersonal relations have been organized, particularly the monogamic and patriarchal family.” Nevertheless, he did not believe that the “transformation of the libido” would lead to “a society of sex maniacs.”88 Supposedly, “eroticizing previously tabooed zones, time and relations, would minimize the manifestations of mere sexuality by integrating them into a far larger order.” Indeed, “the libido would not simply reactivate precivilized and infantile stages, but would also transform the perverted content of these stages.”89

And yet, as far as Marcuse is concerned behaviors traditionally regarded as “perversions” (like coprophilia and homosexuality), particularly when employed in “a free libidinal relation,” can be expressed in ways that are “compatible with normality in high civilization.”90 He even speaks affirmingly of the classical Greek notion that “the road to ‘higher culture’ leads through the true love of boys.”91 It is little wonder that Marcuse is regarded as having had a major influence not just on the sexual revolution of the 1960s in general, but on the gay liberation movement in particular.92

Marcuse was well aware of the political dimension of the kind of sexual revolution he was advocating. This is apparent in the “Political Preface” to the 1966 edition of Eros and Civilization. Here he insists that if we are to maintain “mental health” and “our capacity to function as unmutilated humans” our instincts must be expressed, not repressed. He thus calls upon Western youth to “live and fight for Eros against Death,” and to engage in “counter-organization.” He concludes by saying: “Today the fight for life, the fight for Eros, is the political fight.”93

Marcuse’s other lasting political contribution was his radical redefinition of tolerance, argued most forcefully in his 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance.”94 Repressive Tolerance was Marcuse’s way of referring to the kind of indiscriminate, “pure” tolerance championed in classically liberal societies, typified by the writings of John Stuart Mill, and expressed in the famous saying (wrongly attributed to Voltaire): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In Marcuse’s estimation, while such a view of tolerance may sound good in theory, in practice it actually fosters inequality and serves the cause of oppression. How so? Because “the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.”95 Therefore, the only way to overcome this problem is by “censorship, even pre-censorship.” This is the way of “Liberating Tolerance.” Marcuse expands on his thinking as follows:

Tolerance cannot be indiscriminate and equal with respect to the contents of expression, neither in word nor in deed; it cannot protect false words and wrong deeds which demonstrate that they contradict and counteract the possibilities of liberation. Such indiscriminate tolerance is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion; it is indispensable in the scientific enterprise, in private religion. But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behaviour cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.96

Marcuse goes on to explain that such “liberation” would not only mean “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” but also the oppression of those who “oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.”97 In other words, “liberating tolerance” means (and Marcuse is completely candid about this) “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.”98

Here, again, we see something of the extent of his commitment to a “root and branch” disintegration of Western culture. As Marcuse himself put it,

One can rightfully speak of a cultural revolution, since the protest is directed toward the whole cultural establishment, including the morality of existing society … there is one thing we can say with complete assurance: the traditional idea of revolution and the traditional strategy of revolution has ended … What we must undertake is a type of diffuse and dispersed disintegration of the system.99

3.3. Understanding Critical Theory

There is considerably more that could be said not only about the central figures of the Frankfurt School (i.e., Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse) but about other members and associates too (e.g., Friedrich Pollock, Walter Benjamin, Leo Löwenthal, and Jürgen Habermas). But in order to evaluate their work as a whole, we need to return to their chief collective enterprise: the development of Critical Theory.

As noted earlier, Critical Theory is a form of incisive social critique which aims at undermining the status quo in the hope of changing it for the better. It thus stands opposed to (what Horkheimer called) Traditional Theory, which aimed only at explaining society. The way here had been paved by Marx, who in the last of his famous “Theses on Feuerbach” had criticized philosophers for only having sought to interpret the world, when “the point is to change it.”100 Critical Theory was also indebted to Marx in that it took its starting point from his injunction to engage in a “ruthless critique of everything existing.”101 Like Marx, Horkheimer had no idea what kind of a world such criticism would produce. Yet he was convinced that it would “liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”102 Critical Theory was thus avowedly utopian, aimed at creating “a world which satisfies the needs and powers” of all people.103

What must not be missed, however, is that, despite its (hoped-for) positive outcomes, Critical Theory is an essentially negative exercise. It is intentionally destructive and only accidently constructive. In part, this negativity reflects the pessimism of Adorno and Horkheimer, who feared that “the possibility of radical social change had been smashed between the twin cudgels of concentration camps and television for the masses.”104 Consequently, Critical Theory was long on trenchant, unremitting criticism of any aspect of Western culture that was deemed to be oppressive or dehumanizing, but short on alternative proposals. The reason for this lop-sidedness is provided by Marcuse at the very end of One Dimensional Man:

The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal.105

3.4. Assessing the Work of the Frankfurt School

Assessing the work of the Frankfurt School is no simple task. Not only did members come and go (and one, tragically, committed suicide),106 but the line between members and associates was not always clear. Furthermore, even those who belonged to the inner circle sometimes had strongly differing opinions and also underwent significant developments in their thought. The Frankfurt School was, thus, neither uniform nor fixed in its views. Horkheimer, for example, became increasingly theological in his reflections over time and even flirted with Catholicism toward the end of his life.107

Nevertheless, the primary project of the Frankfurt School was clear and unwavering: to identify the economic and social structures that had been created by industrial capitalism and to critique the ideas that defended the disparities of class and race.108 For this reason, the label “Cultural Marxism” is an entirely fitting description of the school’s philosophy. This is evident from Stephen Bronner’s summary:

The Frankfurt School called outworn concepts into question. Its members looked at cultural ruins and lost hopes and what hegemonic cultural forces had ignored or repressed. They demanded that those committed to the ideal of liberation respond to new contingencies and new constraints. They also intimated the need for a new understanding of the relation between theory and practice.109

Of course, no proper assessment of the Frankfurt School can be made without appreciating the historical context in which it developed, and its work was carried out. Living through the horrors of World War I (1914–1918), the failed Spartacist Uprising in Germany (1919), the experience of the Great Depression (1929–1939) and the rise of both Nazism and anti-Semitism (1932–1945) gave the members of the Institute plenty to critique and genuine reasons for pessimism. The dislocation of being “émigré scholars,” the destructiveness of World War II and, finally, the Jewish Holocaust (1939–1945) only added to their anxieties. For all these reasons, “it appeared to the Frankfurt School as if Western civilization had generated not human development but an unparalleled barbarism.”110 Critical Theory needs to be understood against this backdrop. It is a reactionary theory, generated by the emotional, intellectual and, indeed, civilizational traumas of the first half of the twentieth century. The subtitle of Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1951) illustrates the point powerfully: Reflections on a Damaged Life.

Moreover, even after their move to the US, when the focus of the inner circle’s concerns shifted to the domination of the “cultural industry” and the manipulation of mass society, their criticisms were not without point. For example, Horkheimer and Adorno’s conviction that “the system of cultural production dominated by film, radio broadcasting, newspapers, and magazines, was controlled by advertising and commercial imperatives, and served to create subservience to the system of consumer capitalism” is difficult to gainsay.111 Likewise, their contention that, under such conditions, the apparent freedom to choose “everywhere proves to be freedom to be the same” is also salutary.112 Finally, their concern for the fate of the individual in mass society is insightful and commendable.

Nevertheless, a recognition of valid insights ought not to be confused with an endorsement of the Frankfurt School project as a whole. As we have seen, the general consensus of its members was that Western civilization was effectively responsible for all the manifestations of aggression, oppression, racism, slavery, classism and sexism that marked post-industrial society. Marcuse even went so far as to call democracy “the most efficient system of domination.”113

Such a view, however, is not only simplistic but an indefensible misrepresentation of historical reality.114 While majoritarian systems always have the potential to become tyrannous, and the track-record of Western civilization is far from unblemished, to demonize the key elements and attainments of Western culture—e.g., Christian morality, family, hierarchy, loyalty, tradition, the rule of law, sexual restraint, universal suffrage, property rights, patriotism, capitalism, and technology—is both myopic and ungrateful. Furthermore, criticizing an imperfect system when you have no idea how to build a better one is more than idealistic; it is irresponsible. On this point, Scruton’s assessment of the general approach of the Frankfurt School is worth quoting at length:

By constantly notching up the critique of American capitalism and its culture, and making only muted or dismissive references to the real nightmare of communism, those thinkers showed their profound indifference to human suffering and the unserious nature of their prescriptions. Adorno does not explicitly say that the “alternative” to the capitalist system and the commodity culture is Utopia. But that is what he implies. And Utopia is not a real alternative. Hence his alternative to the unreal freedom of the consumer society is itself unreal—a mere noumenon whose only function is to provide a measure of our defects. And yet he was aware that there was an actual alternative on offer and that it involved mass murder and cultural annihilation. For Adorno to dismiss this alternative merely as the “totalitarian” version of the same “state capitalism” that he had witnessed in America was profoundly dishonest.115

To make matters worse, the school’s skepticism extended beyond a general critique of Western civilization to a specific critique of Western rationality. Indeed, they charged “instrumental reason” (i.e., practical or scientific reason) with producing the oppressive industrial culture of capitalism, as well as a heartless domination of nature.116 While there is, once again, some substance to this critique, it is dangerously one-sided (for instrumental reason is just as easily used for good as it is for evil) and, ultimately, destructive of the scientific method and all it has produced.

In addition to this, the charge is philosophically vague, as Critical Theory never really defined what it meant by reason, nor its relationship to truth. Perhaps the explanation for this is that (in Horkheimer’s mind at least) there is no absolute truth; rather, each historical era has its own truth.117 This led him to the conclusion that “logic is not independent of content”118 and that truth “is whatever fosters social change.”119 But such a position is not only inherently amoral (for if followed consistently, anything could be justified on this basis!) but self-refuting. As philosopher and political theorist Nikolas Kompridis writes,

Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment steered the whole enterprise, provocatively and self-consciously, into a skeptical cul-de-sac. As a result they got stuck in the irresolvable dilemmas of the “philosophy of the subject,” and the original program was shrunk to a negativistic practice of critique that eschewed the very normative ideals on which it implicitly depended.120

Beyond this, there is also the problem of hypocrisy. The members of the Frankfurt School were highly privileged individuals, each benefitting from the commercial success of his father and the education that wealth provided. And yet, their entire intellectual enterprise was “Oedipally fixated on bringing down the political system that had made their lives possible.”121 While such rebellion was not without its reasons, did they practice their own theory? The short answer is “no.” As Jay writes, “Despite their fervent expressions of solidarity with the proletariat that appeared throughout their work in the pre-emigration period, at no time did a member of the Institut affect the life-style of the working class.”122 In other words, “the Institut’s members may have been relentless in their hostility toward the capitalist system, but they never abandoned the life-style of the haute bourgeoisie.”123 Curiously, then, despite being intellectual iconoclasts in the Marxist tradition, the school “denied the necessary connection between radical theory and the proletariat.”124 This denial earned them the ire of many classical Marxists, prompting Lukács to refer to the school as the “Grand Hotel Abyss.”125

Furthermore, as we have noted, the writings of the Frankfurt School are plagued by an unresolved tension between utopianism and pessimism—a tension that sometimes reflects differences between different members of the school and at other times appears within the works of individual authors.126 While the tension is partially comprehensible when viewed as a dialectic between what is and what could be, the future is always vague and, ultimately, unrealizable. Consequently, Fromm’s and Marcuse’s prescription for sexual liberation “tends towards utopian word magic—‘if only the world could be like this’—whether it be Fromm’s world filled with loving persons or Marcuse’s world after the abolition of surplus repression and the performance principle.”127 Ultimately, then, the overall message that emerges from the school is one of hopelessness. As Adorno concedes, the “negation of the negation, that dream of alienation returning to itself which motivated both Hegel and Marx, must remain frustrated.”128

Finally, Marcuse’s belief in the right of revolutionary minorities to suppress the “repressive” opinions of the majority is not only anti-democratic and inherently unjust but “a doctrine which if it were widely held would be an effective barrier to any rational progress and liberation.”129 It is also profoundly elitist, for it ultimately forces Marcuse to see the majority of people “not as semi-rational human beings … but rather as irrational objects of manipulation … The majority must be liberated from themselves by the Marcusian minority which alone is rational.”130 Even more troubling is the fact that Marcuse’s “radical case against intolerance makes those radicals who espouse it allies of the very forces which they claim to attack.”131 In this sense, Critical Theory turns out to be a manifestation of the very disease of which it purports to be the cure.

3.5. The Lasting Impact of The Frankfurt School

What, then, can be said regarding the lasting impact of the Frankfurt School? In a provocative speech given in January 2018, the German journalist, Robert Grözinger, likened the impact of the School to the story of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.132 For Grözinger, one line of Goethe’s original poem is particularly poignant: “The spirits which I summoned, I now cannot get rid of.”133 In Grözinger’s view, the members of the Frankfurt School set in motion a whole generation of “hobgoblins”—the (so called) “68ers”—but, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, were increasingly appalled by the “terrible waters” they had unleashed.

There is strong evidence of this, especially in the cases of Adorno and Habermas. For example, in a 1969 interview, Adorno distanced himself from the revolutionaries, declaring, “When I made my theoretical model, I could not have guessed that people would try to realise it with Molotov cocktails.”134 Indeed, so much did the revolutionaries replicate the repression they were (supposedly) reacting against that Adorno regarded the same “authoritarian personality type that thrived under Hitler and its attendant spirit of conformism to be alive and well in the New Left and the student movement.”135 Similarly, when faced with repeatedly disrupted lectures at the Institute and ever increasing violence in the streets, Habermas went so far as to accuse the radicals of “left-wing fascism.”136

The gap between the Frankfurt School and their progeny widened further still after Adorno called the police on a group from the Socialist German Student Union who had occupied a room at the Institute and refused to leave. In a letter to Marcuse (dated 19 June 1969), he too accused the student radicals of fascist-like tactics, including “calling for a discussion, only to then make one impossible” and “the barbaric inhumanity of a mode of behaviour that is regressive and even confuses regression with revolution.” In a final letter to Marcuse (dated 6 August 1969—the day of Adorno’s death), he described the larger movement as being “mixed with a dram of madness, in which the totalitarian resides teleologically.”137

Marcuse, however, took a very different view. In a letter to Adorno (dated 4 June 1969), he argued that “there are situations, moments, in which theory is pushed on further by praxis—situations and moments in which theory that is kept separate from praxis becomes untrue to itself.” This, for him, was one of those moments. He, therefore, expressed pride in the influence that the Frankfurt School had exerted on the student movement, and criticized Adorno for labelling the student radicals as “fascists” and especially for calling the police on them. He also made clear that he was willing to tolerate their destructiveness because, in his view, “the defence and maintenance of the status quo and its cost in human life is much more terrible.”

This response should not have surprised Adorno. As seen in our sampling of Marcuse’s writings, he was always of a more radical stripe (increasingly so in the late 1960s/early 1970s) and “far more willing to foresee that the eclipse of the liberal state might be positive, a way to discover and explore the instinctual life of freedom.”138 Indeed, such was his hatred of capitalism that he had long set himself the task of “erasing the residues of puritan morality as well as the constraints of the Protestant ethic.”139 This was the only way he could imagine “the triumph of play over work, of emotional fulfilment over economic performance, of Eros [Desire] as a viable rival to Thanatos [Death].”140

However, Marcuse realized that the working class could no longer be relied on as the instruments of social change; they had become too deeply integrated into the capitalist system. But, he believed, “certain other groups, not so well integrated, could provide the spark which would awaken others: intellectuals, students, minority groups, Third World nations.”141 Therefore, Stephen Whitfield writes,

In 1964 he looked for the agents of change among those without stakes in an “advanced industrial society.” Three decades after the German proletariat had failed to stop Nazism, Marcuse’s revolutionary faith was limited. It was invested in “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted,” and even in “the unemployed and the unemployable.” To this rather baggy list, he would add oppositionists who were marked neither by homogeneity nor unity: the middle-class white youth who formed the New Left in Europe as well as the United States; the black underclass in the ghettoes; the National Liberation Front in Vietnam; and the Cuban revolutionaries. Marcuse praised them all for subscribing to what he called “the Great Refusal.”142

In light of this, it is “easy to see why Marcuse was to become popular during the 1960s—the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and the student revolt all spoke for his theory.”143 Consequently, at the Paris riots of May 1968 students held up placards with the names “Marx/Mao/Marcuse” emblazoned on them, “hailing a new revolutionary trinity.”144 Nor is it surprising that Marcuse gave his public support to the leader of the Communist Party USA and member of the Black Panther Party, his former student, Angela Davis. Therefore, as much as he rejected the title, TIME magazine was right to call him “the guru of the New Left.”145

Marcuse’s impact also extends far beyond the 1960s. The main reason for this is that he “tutored a generation of young radicals, who, after the 1960s, gained a toehold in tenure by writing university press books.”146 Moreover, these radicals not only became lecturers and authors, they also became “teachers, media employees, civil servants and of course politicians.” As a consequence,

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.147

This, for Grözinger, is part of the reason why the Frankfurt School’s “hobgoblins” are still with us and the “terrible waters” of Cultural Marxism continue to rise.

4. Concluding Reflections

4.1. Cultural Marxism: Fact or Fiction?

It is time to return to our questions: Is Cultural Marxism a myth? Is it a misnomer? Is it an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory? Or is it an accurate way of describing a real ideology that is making a very real impact on our world? And, if the latter, how should Christians respond to it?

It would be both simplistic and unwarranted to lay the entire blame for the contemporary crisis in the West at the feet of either the Frankfurt School or Antonio Gramsci. Many others theorist and activists have made significant contributions (e.g., Sartre, Beauvoir, Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, Kristiva, Said, Badiou, Rorty, Butler, etc.) and numerous historical and technological streams have helped feed our current cultural and political divisions—not least, the advent of social media.148 Furthermore, in regard to the Frankfurt School, since the 1970s, and particularly under Habermas’s leadership, its focus and energies have moved in a very different direction.

Nevertheless, as ongoing interest in their work testifies,149 there is no denying that the first generation of the Frankfurt School (in general) and Marcuse (in particular) have played a significant role in shaping the contours of the current Western civilizational divide. Political correctness,150 the new intolerant-tolerance and ever-increasing erotic liberty are part of their legacy.151 Similarly, Gramsci’s ideas have also borne very real (and not particularly appetizing) fruit—not least in the arena of identity politics, intersectionality and the rise of victimhood culture (today’s versions of “class consciousness”), as well as in the fact that, in the fields of media and academia (and politics too), the “long march through the institutions” is virtually complete.152

The answer to our first two questions, then, is straightforward: rightly understood, Cultural Marxism is neither a myth nor a misnomer. While not a label worn by either Gramsci or the Frankfurt School, it helpfully describes the particular form of Marxist ideology they pioneered, and it is a label many of their disciples have been more than happy to apply to them and to wear themselves.153

4.2. What about the Conspiracy Theories?

The answer to the third question, however, is more complex. There are numerous Cultural Marxist conspiracy theories, especially surrounding the Frankfurt School—some superficially plausible, others patently laughable (like the one is which Adorno wrote all of the Beatles’ songs), some blatantly anti-Semitic and others just plain scary (like Anders Breivik’s Manifesto).154 In light of this, there is some justification for describing Cultural Marxism as “a viral falsehood used by far-right figures, conspiracy theorists, and pundits to explain many ills of the modern world.”155

Of course, the main problem with all conspiratorial versions of Cultural Marxism is the same: for something to be a conspiracy it needs to be a secret. But there never was anything secret about the publications of Gramsci, the members of the Frankfurt School or any of their disciples. Their writings were and are readily available and repay careful reading. I am not, however, wanting to downplay the seriousness of the subversion these thinkers were advocating, nor am I denying the reality of plots (both human and demonic) against the Lord and his anointed (Ps 2). But I am doubting the existence of a faceless cabal of Cultural Marxists covertly operating behind the scenes of Western society. Rather, contemporary proponents of Cultural Marxism (whether or not they own the label) are usually loud and proud, making no secret of their aims and ambitions.156

As to the anti-Semitic versions of a Cultural Marxist plot, not only are these plainly racist but they fall prey to their own twisted version of identity politics—for they use the actions of a handful of individuals to smear an entire ethnic group! Furthermore, not all members of the Frankfurt School were Jewish (e.g., Habermas), and Antonio Gramsci was Italian.

Therefore, to all who are too easily drawn into a conspiratorial mindset, the prophet Isaiah’s challenge is pertinent:

Do not call conspiracy
everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
and do not dread it.
The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread. (Isa 8:12–13)157

4.3. This Calls for Wisdom

Given the existence of conspiratorial explanations of the nature and goals of Cultural Marxism, is there a case for avoiding the term and using an alternative (e.g., neo-Marxism or Critical Theory)? In my view, there is no inherent problem with the label, but Christians ought to be careful with how (and to whom) it is applied. It really can function as a kind of “weaponised narrative” that paints anyone who gets tagged with it as being “beyond the pale of rational discourse.”158 It can even be a way of dismissing fellow believers who display a concern for justice or environmental issues or who are mildly optimistic about the possibilities of cultural transformation.159 We should certainly discuss and debate such matters, but Carl Trueman is right: “Bandying terms like ‘cultural Marxist’ … around simply as a way of avoiding real argument is shameful and should have no place in Christian discourse.”160

Furthermore, given that God alone knows people’s hearts, we should be slow to demonize the motivations of those who pioneered this form of neo-Marxism—even if we have good grounds for critiquing their judgment. In regard to the Frankfurt School, as we have seen, these thinkers were deeply affected by their experience of Nazism and anti-Semitism (and especially the evil of the Holocaust) and so were highly suspicious of mass movements, mass culture and anything remotely totalitarian. In short, they were reacting to what they thought (sometimes rightly) were the problems of our world and proposing what they believed (often wrongly) were the solutions.

This highlights the most important issue of all. Alasdair MacIntyre once described Marxism as “a secularism formed by the gospel which is committed to the problem of power and justice and therefore to themes of redemption and renewal.”161 The problem, however, is that its diagnosis is superficial, and its cure fatal. For this reason, Marxism, whether in classical or cultural form, can be viewed as a corruption or parody of the gospel—replete with its own false prophet (Marx), false Bible (Das Kapital), false doctrine (dialectical materialism), false apostles (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Marcuse), and false hope (a communist utopia).162 Therefore, the fact that Cultural Marxism is a real ideology making a real impact on our world is not good news.

4.4. How Should Christians Respond?

What, then, is the way ahead?163 First, Christians need to realize that we have a far more penetrating analysis of both the problem and the solution. For in Scripture we have a divine diagnosis of the fundamental human sickness—universal slavery to sin—and God-given knowledge of the remedy—the Lord Jesus Christ. This does not mean that we have nothing to learn about oppression and injustice from other quarters, but it does mean that we better understand both the underlying cause and its ultimate cure, and so have an infinitely better hope to proclaim.

Second, while we are not to cast “pearls before pigs” (Matt 7:6), we must not only be ready to answer those who inquire about our hope (1 Pet 3:15), but to “preach the word … in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). For the gospel is still the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Rom 1:17). Furthermore, the reaction of our hearers is not our responsibility; only faithfulness is. And, as we learn from both Scripture and history, “sometimes faithfulness leads to awakening and reformation, sometimes to persecution and violence, and sometimes to both.”164

Third, in terms of what H. Richard Niebuhr labeled a “Christ the transformer of culture” approach, there is scope for us to go one better than the Frankfurt School and develop what Christopher Watkin calls “biblical theory”; a theory that not only critiques contemporary culture but provides a more compelling vision for true human flourishing.165 Otherwise put, we need to explain our culture through the Bible that we might better explain the Bible to our culture.166 The goal of such “kategorics” (or “offensive theology”) is “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

Fourth, while there may be wisdom in pursuing some version of “the Benedict Option,”167 most of us can learn to engage in fruitful neighborly conversation or workplace discussion about moral, social and spiritual issues. Some may even be in a position to impact public policy formation—perhaps in schools, businesses or some level of government.168 In all our efforts to serve the common good, it is imperative that we show a better way; one that models civility, speaks graciously, avoids an “us-versus-them” mentality and, if possible, transcends political polarization.

Finally, as turbulent as the current cultural waters may feel, we all have an ongoing responsibility to pray for our world (both its citizens and its governments) and to exercise godly influence in the way we live, love, listen, speak, write, protest and vote.169 While we have solid biblical reasons for seeing ourselves as “strangers and exiles on earth” (Heb 11:13), “we must not exile ourselves, and we certainly must not retreat into silence while we still have a platform, a voice, and an opportunity. We must remind ourselves again and again of the compassion of truth and the truth of compassion.”170

Each of these points deserves elaboration and others could be added to them. But whatever combination of opportunities and responsibilities God grants us, Os Guinness’s summation of the challenge we face and the response it demands is pertinent:

Our Western nations have both forgotten God and forgotten where they have come from. Now they are attempting to complete the process of severing the roots of Western civilization, destroying its root system, poisoning its soil and ruining its entire spiritual, moral and social ecology. Our Western societies may persist in forgetting God and rejecting his way. But whatever our societies do around us, we are to remain faithful … and therefore unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable and unclubbable.… Let us then determine and resolve to be so faithful in all the challenges and ordeals the onrushing future brings that it may be said of us that we in our turn have served God’s purpose in our generation.171

[1] Jamie Whyte, Bad Thoughts: A Guide to Clear Thinking (London: Corvo, 2003), 61–62.

[2] As far as I’ve been able to discover, the term “Cultural Marxism” was first employed (if not coined) by Trent Schroyer in The Critique of Domination: The Origins and Development of Critical Theory (New York: George Braziller, 1973). See, especially, ch. 6: “Cultural-Marxism: The Contradictions of Industrial ‘Rationality’” (pp. 199–223).

[3] For example, Richard R. Weiner, Cultural Marxism and Political Sociology (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1981); Ioan Davies, “British Cultural Marxism,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 4 (1991): 323–44; Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Emily Hicks, “Cultural Marxism: Nonsynchrony and Feminist Practice,” in Women and Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, ed. Lydia Sargent (Montreal: Black Rose, 1981), 219–38.

[4] Dominic Green, “What’s Wrong with ‘Cultural Marxism’?,” Spectator USA, 28 March 2019,

[5] Jason Wilson, “‘Cultural Marxism’: A Uniting Theory for Rightwingers Who Love to Play the Victim,” The Guardian, 19 January 2015,

[6] Bill Berkowitz, “‘Cultural Marxism’ Catching On,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 August 15 2003,

[7] Chris Zappone, “Cultural Marxism—the ultimate post-factual dog whistle,” Sydney Morning Herald, 10 November 2017,

[8] Gary North, “Cultural Marxism Is an Oxymoron,” Gary North’s Specific Answers, 1 July 2014,

[9] Karl Marx, “Afterword to the Second German Edition,” in Das Kapital (1873), in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), 102–3.

[10] Kenneth J. Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 50.

[11] Marx, Capital: Volume One, 494.

[12] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, reprint ed. (1848; Oxford: OUP, 1992), 15.

[13] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 39.

[14] Karl Marx, “The Victory of the Counter-Revolution in Vienna,” Neue Rheinische Zeitung 136 (November 1848), While some of Marx’s later writings suggest a more gradual and evolutionary (as opposed to violent and revolutionary) way from capitalism through socialism to communism, he never resiled from his earlier statements.

[15] Elsewhere Marx makes clear that this “dictatorship of the proletariat” is what he means by “socialism.” See “The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850” (1895), in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 1:139–242.

[16] Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875), in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), 2:24.

[17] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 18.

[18] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 21.

[19] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 22.

[20] Matt Ridley, “Marxism Belongs in History’s Bin after 100 Years of Hellish Failure,” The Australian, 2 January 2017,

[21] It is certainly true that “Marx’s theory contributed strongly to the emergence of totalitarianism, and that it provided its ideological form.” Leszek Kolakowski, “What’s Left of Socialism?” First Things (October 2002):

[22] George Reisman, “Why Nazism Was Socialism and Why Socialism Is Totalitarian,” Mises Institute, 11 November 11 2005,

[23] Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth, and Dissolution, trans. P. S. Falla (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 1:338.

[24] See Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (London: Phoenix, 1988), 69–75.

[25] Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism, 56.

[26] For a longer and more detailed list of Marx’s failed predictions, see Kolakowski, “What’s Left of Socialism?”

[27] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 294.

[28] Johnson, Intellectuals, 63.

[29] Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism, 57.

[30] Johnson, Intellectuals, 68.

[31] David Robertson, “Should Christians Celebrate the Birthday of Karl Marx?,” Christianity Today, 7 May 2018,

[32] “Millennial Socialism,” The Economist, 14 February 2019, 9–10; “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property,” The Economist, 14 February 2019, 16–20.

[33] For discussion of György Lukács, see section 3.2.1 below.

[34] Christopher Hill, “Antonio Gramsci,” The New Reasoner Spring 4 (1958): 107.

[35] David McLellan, Marxism After Marx (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 203–4

[36] Notebook 7, §16, cited in Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 238.

[37] In Marx’s words, “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, reprint ed. [1859; Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976], 3).

[38] See further, John Fulton, “Religion and Politics in Gramsci: An Introduction,” Sociological Analysis 48 (1987): 197–216.

[39] This phrase was first used by Rudi Dutschke, a prominent spokesperson of the German student movement of the 1960s and a great admirer of Gramsci.

[40] Cited in Damien Tudehope, “What’s Left of Western Culture? Just about Everything,” The Spectator, 9 October 2017,

[41] Notebook 25, §5, cited in Pietro Maltese, “A Pedagogy of the Subalterns: Gramsci and the Groups ‘on the Margins of History,’” in Antonio Gramsci: A Pedagogy to Change the World, ed. Nicola Pizzolato and John D. Holst (Cham: Springer, 2017), 188.

[42] Dante Germino, Antonio Gramsci—Architect of a New Politics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1990), 68.

[43] Germino, Antonio Gramsci, 179.

[44] Fulton, “Religion and Politics in Gramsci,” 202.

[45] Antonio Gramsci, “Audacia e Fede,” Avanti, 22 May 1916; reprinted in Sotto la Mole: 1916–1929 (Turin: Einaudi, 1960), 148, author’s translation.

[46] Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 206.

[47] Notebook 8, §21, cited in Guido Ligouri, Gramsci’s Pathways, trans. David Broder (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 216.

[48] George Eaton, “Why Antonio Gramsci is the Marxist Thinker for Our Times,” New Statesman America, 5 February 2018,

[49] F. B., “The Strange Afterlife of Antonio Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks,’” The Economist, 7 November 2017,

[50] Frank Rosengarten, “An Introduction to Gramsci’s Life and Thought,” Marxists Internet Archive,

[51] For example, Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Stuart Hall.

[52] Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, 208.

[53] Andrew Roberts, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (New York: Harper, 2007), 476.

[54] Angelo M. Codevilla, “The Rise of Political Correctness,” Claremont Review of Books 16.4 (2016): 40.

[55] Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (London: Verso, 2017), 71.

[56] Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 21.

[57] Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory” (1937), in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (New York: Continuum, 2002), 227.

[58] During the years of American exile, Horkheimer also “insisted that the M word and the R word (Marxism and Revolution) be excised from its papers so as not to scare the Institute’s American sponsors” (Jeffries, Hotel Grand Abyss, 72).

[59] Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 3.

[60] György Lukacs, “Mon chemin vers Marx” (1969), Nouvelles Etudes hongroises (Budapest, 1973), 8:78–79, cited in Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács—From Romanticism to Bolshevism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: NLB, 1979), 93.

[61] William A. Borst, The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2004), 105.

[62] György Lukács, Record of a Life: An Autobiographical Sketch, ed. Istvan Eörsi, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 1983), 60.

[63] Lukács, Record of a Life, 63.

[64] Georg Lukács, Tactics and Ethics: Political Writings, 1919–1929, ed. Rodney Livingstone, trans. Michael McColgan (London: NLB, 1972), 27.

[65] David Leopold, “Dialectical Approaches,” in Political Theory: Methods and Approaches, ed. David Leopold and Marc Stears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 108.

[66] Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, 119.

[67] Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, 120.

[68] Cited in Frank Borkenau, World Communism: A History of the Communist International (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), 172.

[69] Eric Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Henry Holt, 1941), 63ff.

[70] Jefrey D. Breshears, “The Origins of Cultural Marxism and Political Correctness: Part 2,” The Areopagus (2016), 31,

[71] Robert Bocock, Freud and Modern Society: An Outline and Analysis of Freud’s Sociology (Dordrecht: Springer, 1976), 149.

[72] See Herbert Marcuse, “Epilogue: Critique of Neo-Freudian Revisionism,” in Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon, 1955), 238–74.

[73] Stephen E. Bronner, Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 12.

[74] Bronner, Critical Theory, 15.

[75] Bronner, Critical Theory, 15.

[76] Jay, Dialectical Imagination, 218.

[77] Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality, ed. Max Horkheimer and Samuel H. Flowerman (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950).

[78] See, for example, Ferdinand A. Gul and John J. Ray, “Pitfalls in Using the F Scale to Measure Authoritarianism in Accounting Research,” Behavioral Research in Accounting 1 (1989): 182.

[79] Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, 247.

[80] Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, 247–48.

[81] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 85–86.

[82] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 226, 263 and passim. Marcuse also uses the terms, “polymorphous sexuality” (xv, 201, 211) and “polymorphous eroticism” (215).

[83] Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), cited in Albert Mohler, “The Age of Polymorphous Perversity, Part One,” Albert Mohler, 19 September 2005,

[84] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, xv.

[85] Simon J. Williams and Gillian A. Bendelow, The Lived Body: Sociological Themes, Embodied Issues (London: Routledge, 1998), 104.

[86] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 208.

[87] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 201.

[88] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 201.

[89] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 202.

[90] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 203.

[91] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 211.

[92] See Kevin Floyd, “Rethinking Reification: Marcuse, Psychoanalysis, and Gay Liberation,” Social Text 19.1 (2001): 103–28.

[93] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, xxv.

[94] Herbert Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” in A Critique of Pure Tolerance, ed. Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr., and Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon, 1965), 81–117.

[95] Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” 94.

[96] Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” 88.

[97] Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” 100.

[98] Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” 109.

[99] Herbert Marcuse, “On the New Left,” in The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume 3, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 2005), 124.

[100] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962), 1:15.

[101] See Marx’s letter to Arnold Ruge (Kreuznach, September 1843).

[102] Max Horkheimer, “Postscript” (1937), in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (New York: Continuum, 2002), 244.

[103] Horkheimer, “Postscript,” 246.

[104] Ian Craib, Modern Social Theory: From Parson to Habermas (Harlow: Pearson, 1992), 209.

[105] Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Routledge, 1991), 261.

[106] Once Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) became convinced that he could not escape Europe and would soon be handed over to the Nazis, he took his own life with an overdose of morphine tablets.

[107] Bronner, Critical Theory, 10.

[108] Stephen Whitfield, “Refusing Marcuse: 50 Years After One-Dimensional Man,” Dissent (Fall 2014):

[109] Bronner, Critical Theory, 113.

[110] Bronner, Critical Theory, 4.

[111] Douglas Kellner, “Cultural Marxism and Cultural Studies” (2004), 6,

[112] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 136.

[113] Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, 56.

[114] See, for example, Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values (London: SPCK, 2016).

[115] Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, 143–44, italics original.

[116] Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (London: Verso, 2012).

[117] Max Horkheimer, “On the Problem of Truth,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, trans. G. Hunter, M. Kramer and J. Torpey (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 177–215.

[118] Max Horkheimer, “Dämmerung,” in Dawn and Decline: Notes 1926–1931 & 1950–1969, trans. M. Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 18.

[119] Jay, Dialectical Imagination, 63.

[120] Nikolas Kompridis, Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 256.

[121] Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, 18.

[122] Jay, Dialectical Imagination, 35.

[123] Jay, Dialectical Imagination, 36.

[124] Jay, Dialectical Imagination, 292.

[125] Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, trans. Anna Bostok (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 22.

[126] For example, “In Adorno’s philosophy the hope is of the eventual, but impossible, reconciliation of human and society … It is, if you like, a tragic philosophy of history, but not necessarily a pessimistic one” (Ian Craib, Modern Social Theory, 227).

[127] Bocock, Freud and Modern Society, 158.

[128] Jay, Dialectical Imagination, 278.

[129] Alasdair MacIntyre, Marcuse (London: Fontana, 1970), 90.

[130] Charles Taylor, “Marcuse’s Authoritarian Utopia,” Canadian Dimension 7.3 (1970): 51.

[131] MacIntyre, Marcuse, 91.

[132] Robert Grözinger, “The Frankfurt School and the New Left: Sorcerer’s Apprentices and Hobgoblins,” Equity & Freedom, 5 February 2018,

[133] German: “Die ich, die Geister, werd ich nun nicht los” (lines 91–92).

[134] Cited in Jay, Dialectical Imagination, 279.

[135] Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, 4.

[136] To better understand Habermas’s justification for using this label and the phenomenon that gave rise to it, see Russell A. Berman, “From ‘Left-Fascism’ to Campus Anti-Semitism: Radicalism as Reaction,” Democratiya 13 (2008): 15–16.

[137] The 1969 correspondence between Adorno and Marcuse regarding the German Student Movement has been translated into English by Esther Leslie and may be found here:

[138] Whitfield, “Refusing Marcuse.”

[139] Whitfield, “Refusing Marcuse.”

[140] Whitfield, “Refusing Marcuse.”

[141] Craib, Modern Social Theory, 210.

[142] Whitfield, “Refusing Marcuse.” The internal quotes are taken from Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, 260–61.

[143] Craib, Modern Social Theory, 210.

[144] Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, 4.

[145] Joan Braune, Erich Fromm’s Revolutionary Hope: Prophetic Messianism as a Critical Theory of the Future (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2014), 41.

[146] Ben Agger, “Accidental Hero: Marcuse’s ‘One-Dimensional Man’ at 50,” Truthout, 9 September 2014,

[147] Grözinger, “The Frankfurt School and the New Left.”

[148] See Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin, 2018); Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).

[149] For example, Stuart Jeffries, “Why a Forgotten 1930s Critique of Capitalism Is Back in Fashion,” The Guardian, 9 September 2016,; Stuart Walton, “Theory from the ruins,” Aeon, 31 May 2017,; Stuart Walton, Neglected or Misunderstood: Introducing Theodor Adorno (Alresford: Zero Books, 2017).

[150] “Political Correctness” has long been associated with communism. Leninists used it to describe steadfastness to party affiliations, Stalinists used it to evoke a sense of historical certitude, and Mao Zedong used it in his Little Red Book.

[151] Connections have also been drawn between the writings of the Frankfurt School and various other social and ideological developments—e.g., postmodernism, environmentalism and second-wave feminism. On postmodernism, see Craib, Modern Social Theory, 214–15, 225–27. On environmentalism, see Stephen T. Schroth and Michael J. Whitt, “Frankfurt School,” in Green Technology: An A-to-Z Guide, ed. Dustin Mulvaney (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011), 191–94. On second-wave feminism, see Douglas Kellner, “Erich Fromm, Feminism, and the Frankfurt School,” Illuminations: The Critical Theory Project (N.D.): Folder/kell8.htm.

[152] Tudehope, “What’s Left of Western Culture?”

[153] Kellner, “Cultural Marxism and Cultural Studies,” 7.

[154] Regarding the origins of the various Frankfurt School conspiracy theories, see Martin Jay, “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: The Frankfurt School as Scapegoat of the Lunatic Fringe,” Salmagundi 168/169 (2010): 30–40.

[155] Zappone, “Cultural Marxism.”

[156] See Pat Byrne, “Safer Schools or a Radical Marxist Sexual Revolution?,” You’re Teaching Our Children What?, 1 March 2016,

[157] “Conspiracy” here probably refers to the coalition mentioned in Isaiah 7:2. However, it could also be translated “league” and so be the term Ahaz was using for his alliance with Assyria. Whatever the case, Alec Motyer’s comment is apposite: “Isaiah and his disciples are to have no part in a fear-ridden society but to be conspicuous for a different life-style, unmoved by the fears around; a calm in the midst of life’s storms and menaces” (J. A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah [Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993], 95).

[158] Zappone, “Cultural Marxism.”

[159] See, for example, Carl Trueman’s defense of Tim Keller: “Is Tim Keller a Cultural Marxist?,” White Horse Inn, 8 October 2018,

[160] Carl Trueman, “We All Live in Marx’s World Now,” The Gospel Coalition, 19 March 2019,

[161] Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism: An Interpretation (London: SCM, 1953), 18.

[162] I am indebted to Melvin Tinker for this insight. See That Hideous Strength: How the West Was Lost: The Cancer of Cultural Marxism in the Church, the World and the Gospel of Change (Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 2018), 33.

[163] In addition to the points that follow, see the helpful ten-point summary of “ways ahead” in D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 161–76.

[164] D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 228.

[165] Christopher Watkin, Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 142. Editor's note: a review of Thinking Through Creation may be found in this issue of Themelios, pp. 629–32.

[166] Watkin, Thinking Through Creation, 138. R. Albert Mohler’s daily “Briefings” are one example of how this can be done.

[167] That is, engaging in “strategic withdrawal” in order to develop “creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them” (Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation [New York: Penguin, 2017], 2).

[168] For a series of insights into the complexities and possibilities of such engagement, see Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 196–200.

[169] I am not suggesting there is always only one way a Christian should vote. It will depend on the issue and the options. Normally, given that human solutions to social and political problems are only ever partial at best and often create new problems in the process, Christians should not only listen to and learn from each other, but also give each other freedom to disagree as to the best way forward.

[170] R. Albert Mohler, We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong (Nashville: Nelson, 2015), 151.

[171] Os Guinness, Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 222–23.

Robert S. Smith

Rob Smith is lecturer in theology, ethics & music ministry at Sydney Missionary Bible College in Sydney, Australia, and serves as Ethics and Pastoralia book reviews editor for Themelios.

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