The Frankfurt School, aka ‘Cultural Marxism,’ Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories, and American Conservatism

The Frankfurt School, Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories, and American Conservatism
Max Horkheimer (left) and Theodor Adorno

The Frankfurt School is probably familiar to most readers of this blog.  Those of us who went to graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s almost certainly encountered the ideas of Walter Benjamin, Max Horheimer, and Theodor Adorno.  And as early as 1941, when Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom became a surprise best-seller, the ideas of the Frankfurt School have had broad and deep influence in the United States.  It’s hard to imagine the American New Left without Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man.  And Horkheimer and Adorno’s ideas about the culture industry have long been a kind of commonplace in educated discourse, even as the more reception-oriented understandings of popular culture came to challenge them over the last quarter century.

But while I think I have a fairly good grasp of the Frankfurt School and its legacy, in reading coverage of this weekend’s terrorist attack in Norway, I discovered that there was one aspect of that legacy of which I was utterly unaware: the role that the Frankfurt School plays in right-wing conspiracy theories about a Jewish, Marxist attempt to destroy Western civilization.

In a story on the website Crooks & Liars, David Neiwert, an award-winning independent journalist and blogger who tracks the far right and its connections to mainstream conservatism, writes that the 1,500 page manifesto of Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who perpetrated the Norwegian attacks, largely focuses on the threat of “Cultural Marxism.”  Neiwert quotes Chip Berlet, another investigative journalist who tracks right-wing networks:

Breivik championed opposition to “Cultural Marxism,” a right-wing antisemitic concept developed primarily by William Lind of the US-based Free Congress Foundation, but also the Lyndon LaRouche network.
… The idea is that a small group of Marxist Jews who formed the Frankfurt School set out to destroy Western Culture through a conspiracy to promote multiculturalism and collectivist economic theories.

Neiwert goes on to note that the idea of “Cultural Marxism” has already filtered into much more mainstream conservative circles in this country.  In particular, Republican dirty trickster Andrew Breitbart has become a major vector for the idea of “Cultural Marxism” and the supposed iniquity of the Frankfurt School.

Breitbart’s recent book Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World! goes into some detail about the Frankfurt School, and has received much notice in the conservative media for doing so.

For example, in a favorable review of Breitbart’s book that appeared in the Washington Times, Wes Vernon notes that:

Mr. Breitbart fingers the people who later would aid and abet the importation of cultural and political poison to our shores. He “names names” of those in this drama who arguably were serious threats to the nation’s security.

The chapter’s 21 pages track an in-depth research on the influence of such intellectual rogues as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, Wilhelm Reich and their ilk.

The “Breakthrough” chapter is at its best when it traces the transfer to the United States of the German-hatched Frankfurt School, or the Institute for Social Research (ISR) funded by Felix Weil, a young radical from Frankfurt, Germany, who used money from his rich grandfather while preaching the downfall of the capitalist system.

The Frankfurt School “was really a precursor to John Podesta’s Center for American Progress, funded by the Hungarian-born George Soros.”

The Frankfurt School, from its new American home at Columbia University, soon repaid America’s hospitality by unleashing “critical theory” among the populace. That term was coined by Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer. Mr. Breitbart describes it as encompassing the idea of “criticizing everyone and everything everywhere,” or making “society totally unworkable by making everything basically meaningless.”

This book further informs us that the late, famous broadcaster Edward R. Murrow “helped ship in many of the Frankfurt School’s greatest minds.”

“They walked right into our cultural institutions,” according to Mr. Breitbart, “and [when they] advanced their leadership, their language, their lexicon,” too many ignored them. That is the most dangerous thing you can do with “a driven leftist intellectual clique.”

Vernon’s review gives you a sense of the extraordinary scope of this particular conspiracy theory.

A glance at the terrorist Anders Breivik’s 1,500-page, English-language manifesto reveals other links to mainstream American conservative rhetoric, as well.  “Political correctness” is an important Breivik theme. He associates this idea, too, with the Frankfurt School:

Just what is “Political Correctness?” Political Correctness is in fact cultural Marxism (Cultural Communism) – Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms. The effort to translate Marxism from economics into culture did not begin with the student rebellion of the 1960s. It goes back at least to the 1920s and the writings of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci. In 1923, in Germany, a group of Marxists founded an institute devoted to making the transition, the Institute of Social Research (later known as the Frankfurt School). One of its founders, George Lukacs, stated its purpose as answering the question, “Who shall save us from Western Civilisation?” The Frankfurt School gained profound influence in European and American universities after many of its leading lights fled and spread all over Europe and even to the United States in the 1930s to escape National Socialism in Germany. In Western Europe it gained influence in universities from 1945.

There are obviously a lot of threads that one might pull in this story, regarding, among other things, the relationship between mainstream conservatism and the violent radical right, the strong base of antisemitism that (often silently) underwrites a lot right-wing rhetoric, the deep anti-intellectual and anti-academic tendencies in these modes of thought, and the peculiar role that Lyndon LaRouche and his minions have played in encouraging conspiracy theories of all sorts (they are also an important source for left-wing conspiracy theories about Leo Strauss and the Straussians).

But rather than elaborate on any of these thoughts, I’ll stop at this point, having noted this peculiar, poisonous meme which shows no sign of dying off, even after it has been connected to this weekend’s deadly attacks.


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