Expecting to have another discussion on Joyce, I found Seminar Room 1A converted into a shady candle-lit hall, crammed full of Marxist and feminist iconography. Rows of students were gawping mindlessly at the rainbow banners, raised fist icons and red hammer-and-sickle flags draped across the far corners of the room. Spreading their arms, the lecturer stood on a raised podium. Flanking them were enormous portraits, one of Vladimir Lenin and the other of Judith Butler. The seminar began:
‘Comrades! Sisters! In order to continue the struggle against the patriarchy, I expect you have all learnt by heart our grand postmodern-leftist counter-strategy?’
Drained of their capacity for free-speech, the students bobbed in blind nodding rows. Trembling, I raised my hand: ‘But… isn’t a grand scheme contradictory to postmodernism?’
‘Silence! Cis-white scum!’ I was abruptly seized by two of the sturdiest Social Justice Warriors and dragged out to the corridor, pleading for mercy. ‘Expect only a one-way ticket to a gulag!’ they cackled from their chamber. As I was hauled away, shrieks of ‘Destroy Capitalism!’ echoed down the hallway in a nightmarish discord.
Believe it or not, whether it is for alt-right denizens of the deep web or prominent Telegraph, Mail and Breitbart columnists this melodrama realistically portrays the university experience. There is genuine fear of a crypto-feminist overthrow of higher education as posing an existential threat to our western way-of-life and, per reactionary thinking, it is ideologically charged by the menacing creed of ‘Cultural Marxism’. Regrettably, this conspiracy has enamoured right-wing media as the perfect ammunition with which to smear intellectuals and critical thinking itself; it fabricates a tyrannical and hidden leftist agenda on which conservatives can pin the blame for everything they see as ‘degenerative’ about progressive politics in universities and wider western society.
‘cultural marxism divides the genders through obsession with an imaginary patriarchy, casting all men as the real enemy.’
Perspectives on Cultural Marxism from the right-wing blogosphere are varied. Angles of attack range from anti-PC conservatives to anti-Semitic Euro-fascists. The rough right-wing consensus about the inception of Cultural Marxism is that a small group of Marxist philosophers associated with the post-war Frankfurt School, like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and others, conspired to subvert and eradicate western civilisation with critical academic theory. Left-wing intellectuals hijacked cultural institutions (from universities and schools to art galleries and TV media) and used them to weaken native heritage by spreading ‘foreign’ notions of post-structuralism, post-colonialism, aesthetic relativism, feminism, queer theory and Marxism. Political correctness and multiculturalism was then unleashed onto the public sphere, and our way-of-life became contaminated from within. Everything that encompasses western society, from free enterprise to the nuclear family, and from Christian values to parliamentary democracy, are under threat of collapse.
As the dubious reasoning continues, university lecturers and media bosses with their brainwashed legions of young left-wing ‘Social Justice Warriors’ are threatening the stability of the nation. The ideology of Cultural Marxism divides the genders through obsession with an imaginary patriarchy, casting all men as the real enemy. Post-colonial perspectives on race have ruptured western race-relations by setting poverty through the binary narrative of White Oppressor/Black Oppressed.
‘the genuine history of the frankfurt school is nowhere near the sinister pantomime the right dress it up to be.’
Objective traditional morality, so the narrative continues, is then dismantled by post-structuralism and post-modernism, in favour of a relativist scepticism of all grand narratives and moral authorities. But at the same time, the Left is totalitarian in its use of excessive language policing and PC culture to silence dissent and crush native values. A programme of Cultural Marxist brainwashing is even occurring in our schools, as Calvin Robinson, a teacher and spokesperson for the Government’s ‘I Chose to Teach’ campaign warns: ‘Our young people are being indoctrinated to a left-wing mentality from a very young age’. The conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism also incites swathes of hysteria on popular reactionary internet circles, with YouTube personalities alerting millions of fans and conservative lecturers to an emerging jack-booted ‘left-fascism’ in the Humanities departments of universities everywhere.
The conspiracy is often framed as an apocalyptic ‘Culture War’. No longer is it simply the typical economic struggle, it is our innate cultural identity that is at the frontline against the ‘alien’ Marxist insurgents. Writing for the Daily Mail, right-wing columnist James Delingpole takes up arms and declares:
‘And isn’t it only fair that we should be a bit more considerate to the sensitivities of other races, religions and creeds? No, it’s an act of cultural suicide. Most of us may not realise this but the ideological left certainly does, for it has long been part of its grand plan to destroy western civilisation. The plan’s prime instigator was the influential German Marxist thinker… Herbert Marcuse.’
‘the frankfurt school was founded, not so much to seize victory, but to contemplate failure.’
Delingpole’s empty hyperbole (and his fascistic concern for cultural purity, as if there is a necessary contest between races) is augmented in far-right mass-murderer Anders Breivik’s manifesto ‘2083 – A European Declaration of Independence’. But their theoretical enemy remains the same. Before killing 77 young social democrats in 2011, Breivik held Cultural Marxism responsible for the alleged Islamisation of Europe and emphasised a Jewish plot that was systematically destroying western racial identity and committing White Genocide through intensified Muslim immigration. Breivik’s cliché of Semitic-Bolshevism as mortal threat to nationhood is expected given the convenient Jewish family history of many of the Frankfurt School’s principal thinkers.
The genuine history of the Frankfurt School is nowhere near the sinister pantomime the Right dress it up to be, and many of its leading figures would have been stunned, if not slightly confused, to find that their theories had achieved such a degree of revolutionary success.
The Frankfurt School were a collection of mostly German and Jewish Marxist thinkers who had experienced the prelude to World War II in Europe, fleeing in exile to America to escape the Nazi takeover. The School was founded, not so much to seize victory, but to contemplate failure. Why, after the collapse of living standards in the Great Depression of 1929, did the German people not rise up against the shambolic market system and choose to step up their own domination in Nazism instead? Why did the socialist experiment stall into brutal dictatorship in the Soviet Union? Is the western mantra of the compatibility of free enterprise and human nature really enough?
‘How are barricades and the disruption of lectures going to defeat the post-industrial might of advanced global capitalism?’
Their insights combined Freudian psychoanalysis with Marxist theory to explore what Theodor Adorno called the ‘Culture Industry’, where the assumed free-choice of western culture can be dissected for unconscious interventions of capitalist ideology. We have the ‘freedom to choose what was always the same’ they claimed in Dialectic of Enlightenment. We live in a globalised market where duty to the nation has been replaced with sovereignty of selfhood and freedom of choice, but what kind of choice? Not for any meaningful structural renewal, but only for new varieties of commodity that, as Frankfurt School biographer Stuart Jeffries argues, ‘spiritually diminish us, and keep us obligingly submissive to an oppressive system’. This soulless anti-individualism that right-wing revisionists like Prof. Jordan Peterson see in the schemes of Marxist academics, the Frankfurt School discovered in everyday capitalistic life. They had no grand plan for cultural dissolution, but rather a critical method of understanding the world which we experience through the naturalised lens of capitalist ideology.
What also makes the Cultural Marxist charge on the Frankfurt School historically problematic is the level of infighting in the Left during the turbulent period of 1968, the inactivity of some of the leading Marxist intellectuals at the time and contemporary ignorance of what the thinkers of the School actually believed in.
In the late 1960’s, a rift developed between the radical student Left and the Frankfurt School intellectuals. Student leaders believed that now was the time to commit universities into revolutionary action and overthrow capitalism. The agitation went so far that Adorno wrote of one incident where a student, who preferred to study rather than protest, had his room smashed up by student radicals. On the victim’s wall was scrawled: ‘Whoever occupies himself with theory without acting practically is a traitor to socialism’. The Frankfurt School however, weary of getting caught up in the destructive enthusiasm, were critical of what they saw as the feeble practice of the student revolutionaries. How were 19th century style barricades and the disruption of lectures going to defeat the post-industrial might of advanced global capitalism? For Adorno, it was critical thought that was truly subversive and not the physical struggle of the student radicals.
‘nearly all the institutions Cultural marxism is accused of undermining, the frankfurt school sought to defend’.
In the violence of these student movements the intellectuals saw the resurgence of the authoritarian personality they had experienced in pre-war Europe. Blaming the Frankfurt School for ‘collectivist anti-free speech’ Cultural Marxism falls flat when we have a group of Marxists condemning the lack of respect for individuals in the fanatical socialist movements of 1968. This misunderstanding of the ideas of the Frankfurt School shows in some of the loudest reactionary attacks against the institution, as Jeffries discovered in Telegraph columnist Ed West’s tirade against Cultural Marxism:
‘Nearly all the institutions West charged Cultural Marxism with undermining, the Frankfurt School sought to defend. Adorno and Horkheimer defended the institution of the family as a zone of resistance against totalitarian forces; Habermas sought out the Catholic Church as an ally for his project of making modern multicultural societies work; Axel Honneth… stresses equality before the law as a precondition of human flourishing and individual autonomy’.
‘postmodernism decodes oppressive discourses’.
Where to begin with the fictional social pollutant of Cultural Marxism itself? It is true that postmodernism and Marxism were theorised to great effect as a critical double-act against entrenched conservative values. But this terrifying collectivist dystopia the reactionaries rage about cannot realistically be brought about by a marriage between postmodern irony and class consciousness. Postmodernism in particular (something that was clearly born out of western culture, rather than some diseased import from the Third World as some imply) with its attitude of scepticism and mocking irony, can’t be expected to overthrow western civilisation when it lacks sincere social alternatives to supplant predominant ideologies.
Postmodernism — and by extension its schools of thought including queer-feminism and post-colonialism — decode oppressive discourses and delegitimise traditional authorities. But these schools of thought have proven not so capable at replacing the old orthodoxies (nationalism, religious values, free market enterprise and so on) that they have so viciously discredited. Postmodernity is a condition perpetually on the offensive, with no heartfelt substitute of its own, as Hanzi Freinacht wrote: ‘In the postmodern era we usually settle for anti-thesis, a proposal dismissed is a job well done’.
‘i resent the pervasive idea that safe spaces are leftist devices to restrict free-speech’.
Additionally, western capitalism clearly sees the profitability in subsuming the progressive feeling associated with postmodernism with identity politics, a rewarding new zone of market enterprise. Does this make capitalism subject to Cultural Marxism as the reactionaries claim? Or is it capitalism’s relentless self-reproductive ability at work, expanding into and reinventing movements of radical emancipation into sleek, youthful, plasticised commodities. It is part of the latest trend to be in favour of LGBT and racial equality. This, in part, stems from corporatised progressive action, not Cultural Marxism. Don’t listen to the reactionaries. Capitalism loves group identity.
On campuses, it is true that many university lecturers are biased towards varying forms of Marxism, but does this necessarily make them all principled agitators, a revolutionary covenant of Reds? When they are more concerned for their jobs during the unstable fluctuations of the current market, their Gender Studies module doesn’t exactly become a bastion of the communist upheaval. I also resent the pervasive idea that safe spaces are Leftist devices to restrict free-speech; so many political and cultural figures on each side of the spectrum have condemned their usage and both right and left-wingers have had their visiting lectures revoked for provocative discourse. It should be plainly obvious that safe space non-engagement with opposing positions, and even disturbing fringe theories, will do little both for personal development and for the growth of radical social movements. The charge on schools indoctrinating the youth through offering different perspectives on history and literature, including Marx and Wollstonecraft, is in striking contradiction to the Right’s usual demand for more free-speech and acceptance of diverse opinions.
I ask that you use the hard empirical science that is smugly fetishized by anti-theorists. Do you honestly think that the last thirty years of neoliberal globalisation, boom and bust cycles that leave an oligarchic class untouched, the perverse necessity of austerity programmes, even further remits of the media being subjected to Rupert Murdoch’s corporate cabal, and eight billionaires owning as much wealth as half the entire human race, are examples of a winning Left?