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Who is Afraid of Cultural Marxism: What the Frankfurt School Can Still Teach Us

Today cultural Marxism, or “post-modern neo-Marxism” as it is sometimes called on days when one doesn’t care about aesthetic grace, is often invoked as a boogey man by many conservative commentators on the so called “dark web.” Jordan Peterson has characterized it as the danger of our times.  David Rubin has warned that the lunacy befalling the United States will continue until the specter of cultural Marxism is vanished.  And perhaps most vulgarly, former presidential candidate Ron Paul tweeted and then deleted a racist cartoon implying various ethnic groups were disseminating cultural Marxist ideas to undermine the integrity and strength of the United States.

These many and varied invocations of an apparently omnipresent and massively influential ideology belie the fact that very few of these commentators have given an especially robust account of what they mean when they discuss “cultural Marxism.”  Perhaps the most articulate and precise is Jordan Peterson. He claims that the post-modern thinking of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida (amongst others) emerged as a way to resuscitate Marxism in the aftermath of its collapsing moral credibility in the 1960s.  On this reading, post-modernism is simply Marxism as another name, but substituting class struggle for a more generalized conflict between the oppressed and the oppressor. This tidy narrative has struck many as appealing, probably because it draws a clear lineage between the foes of conservatism past and present.  Perhaps more crucially, these analyses provide a simple and convenient story in lieu of nuanced and complex analysis. This makes these analyses easy to understand and propagate, even if there is little substance to them when scrutinized for even a moment.

Clarifying the often conflated distinctions between Marxism, Cultural Marxism, and post-modernism is an important task. I have already discussed the distinction between Marxism and post-modernism and argued them to be intellectually quite different in an earlier essay for Merion West). In this essay, I am going to focus on something which could, with more justice, be called cultural Marxism-by which I mean the theorizing on culture by the Marxist authors and activists affiliated with the Frankfurt School of Critical theory.  I will argue they still have a great deal to teach us about modern and now post-modern society. I believe there is still a great deal even individuals on the right can learn from them, especially when trying to understand these strange and troubled times. This is in no small part because their twist on Marxist thinking, often combining it with eclectic theoretical sources, gives us unique ways to understand and possibly reinvigorate different concepts of reason that can be juxtaposed against the skepticisms and pessimism of the post-modern era.

What is the Frankfurt School?

It is important here to distinguish between the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School, and the authoritarian communism of figures like Lenin and Stalin. What became known-both formally and informally-as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory had modest origins prior to the Nazi era.  It was inspired by important predecessors such as Georg Luckacs and Walter Benjamin.  These were figures who were instrumental in the development of what became more broadly known as Western Marxism, which emerged in no small part as a reaction against the horrors of Stalinism. More theoretically, the essential contribution of Western Marxism was to move Marx’s theory away from its scientific and economistic pretensions, and more in the direction of philosophy and cultural analysis.  In History and Class Consciousness, Luckacs reinvigorated the study of Hegelian dialectics in the Marxist tradition, while in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and other essays Benjamin turned his probing intellect to the study of films, television, and other artistic mediums to show how they engendered a support for capitalism and, later, fascism.

The official beginnings of the School were in 1930 when the philosopher Max Horkheimer took over the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and took in a generation of talented but esoteric scholars influence by Marx’s writings. This included Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse, who would all go on to produce important works in the field.  With the rise of Nazism, the Institute fled to Geneva in 1933 and later to New York in 1935. With the Second World War raging across the globe Adorno and Horkheimer published the first masterwork of the school, Dialectic of Enlightenment, in 1944. This work is something of the manifesto for the school, although its unique take on modernity was later spun off in different directions by the different authors. Erich Fromm would go on to fame as a psychoanalyst who studied the psychological roots of fascism and totalitarianism in works such as The Sane Society.  Adorno would go on to write dense philosophical tracts like Negative Dialectics, alongside more accessible essays on the culture industry, television, and mass society.  These were often written with Horkheimer, who also produced the short book Eclipse of Reason on how the Nazis created a hyper-irrational society through destroying individuals critical capacities.  Herbert Marcuse combined Marxist analysis with the writings of Sigmund Freud in his Eros and Civilization, before becoming an intellectual superstar during the counter-cultural revolutions of the 1960s with One Dimensional Man. Today, the intellectual descendants of the Frankfurt School have moved past purely critical theory and are now often prominent defenders of what is sometimes called deliberative democracy; basically a more participatory version of European style welfare statism.  This includes writers and scholars such as Jurgen Habermas -a prominent critic of post-modernism- Axel Honneth, and Seyla Benhabib.

There are two features to notice about these cultural Marxist authors. Firstly, one should note the intellectual variety and eclecticism in their work. While all were in some way inspired by Marx and critical theories of capitalism, they each approached these issues in different ways. Some looked back behind Marx to the writings of Hegel and Kant for insight. Others looked forward to psychoanalysis and emerging schools of psychological thought.  Moreover, they were at least as concerned to understand the emergence of Nazism as they were criticizing contemporary liberal democracies. Saying that, they were eager to demonstrate that many inhabitants in liberal states were not as different from the fascists who emerged in the Weimar Republic as might seem comforting. Oddly enough, this is very proximate to what critics like Peterson have also claimed about our post-modern societies, though he strangely attributes a great deal of the blame for this to cultural Marxists and other so called “collectivists.” Secondly, the cultural Marxists of the Frankfurt School were emphatically not proponents of either irrationalism or romantic collectivism.  Many of them were indeed critics of rationalism as it was traditionally understood, but there was a progressive dimension to this. They felt that within modernity, rationalism had become flattened and instrumentalized, blunting its power and critical edge. In their works, the cultural Marxists were keen to reinvigorate the concept of reason so we would be better prepared to fight against social pressures to no longer think for ourselves and to simply conform to “mass society.” I will be looking a bit at what this means in the next few sections.

Enlightenment, Reason, and Capitalist Societies

In Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer claim that Western reason, at least as it has been understood so far, is deeply flawed.  This isn’t because reason itself is deficient or should be eschewed, indeed Adorno and Horkheimer will argue for quite the opposite. But they claim that since the advent of Western reason in the thought of the ancient Greeks, we have seen a gradual flattening of reason from a critical and individualizing capacity possessed by all of mankind into an instrumental tool for determining how best to satisfy my private desires.  Adorno and Horkheimer begin their book with an essay observing that this instrumental flattening of reason has its roots in texts like Homer’s Odyssey. In this epic poem, Odysseus uses his intelligence and cunning to successfully evade and evade any number of mythical opponents before returning to Ithaca and reclaiming his throne. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that this mythical tale already demonstrates how Western reason will gradually eat away at the human sense of the sacred and our veneration for nature and natural law.  Odysseus manages to outsmart the Gods and mythical beasts which determine everything that occurs in the world in order to achieve his ends.  In the same way, Adorno and Horkheimer will argue that our reason has gradually lead Western individuals to assume they can master nature to satisfy any desires they wish.

From this seed, Western reason gradually matured though its Classical, Christian, and ultimately scientific phases.  At each point, we gradually came to see ourselves less as beings who lived within nature and natural communities. Instead we saw ourselves as rational beings who were capable of mastering nature and the social world, organizing it according to our will. In the words of Francis Bacon, nature was not something to be venerated. It was material to be “put on the rack” and forced to reveal its secrets.  On this model knowledge gradually became closely affiliated with power.  For Adorno and Horkheimer the thinking of Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment and liberal thinker par excellence, crystallized this trends. For Kant, the world outside of ourselves was no longer even accessible to the powers of reason. It was a vague “noumenal realm” which we could never directly experience. What was accessible to us was the phenomenal realm of experience which existed exclusively in our mind, and which could be endlessly manipulated in accordance with our designs.  Despite adopting this subjectivist position, Kant still argued that we should orient our will to act in conformity with the moral law because God would reward use for doing so.  What Adorno and Horkheimer saw is that once you took God out of the picture, you were left with an individual who could no longer even be sure that the real world outside of themselves existed, but who could remain sure that his experiences of the phenomenal world could be forced into adhering to his will.

For the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, this specific conception of reason was at the foundation of everything that was wrong with society. Individuals saw themselves as capable of doing anything, yet bound by nothing.  The consequence of this was the gradual emergence of a capitalist society which was designed to cater to the private pleasures and desires of such flattened individuals. The instrumental pursuit of each person’s private self-interest became the highest goal we could aspire to. Industries emerged to both satisfy these desires and to create newer, more refined pleasures. One of the most insidious of these was the culture industry, which existed to produce entertaining forms of distraction that stimulated our senses while diminishing our urge to think very deeply about the social conditions within which we lived. Since the pursuit of pleasure was now the highest goal, forms of art and entertainment which projected different ideals than just getting the girl or making one’s millions became increasingly abstract and unprofitable.  Moreover, the culture industry also increasingly turned politics itself into a form of entertainment where we had the option to choose between several different political parties who promised their citizens that they alone had discovered the most effective platform for delivering the goods. In the words of Bill Clinton, politics became about the economy stupid, because what else was there?

This of course does not mean that the Frankfurt School theorists were irrationalists or relativists. Far from it. They wanted to demonstrate that what we understood as reason was often little more than instrumental rationality, and encourage us to think about how we could develop deeper and more sophisticated cognitive and critical tools to assess and change the world for the better.

Conclusion: What Can the Frankfurt School Teach Us?

The oddest feature of these conservative critiques of “cultural Marxism” is that many individuals in the Frankfurt School speak directly to the forms of alienation that many on the right claim to decry.  The cultural Marxists warned that we were gradually moving towards a society that was going to be managed by a affectless politicians and bureaucrats, all of whom would encourage us to cede political power in order to encourage greater economic growth and prosperity (at least in the aggregate) which would enable us to satisfy our private pleasures. They spoke about how the media and entertainment industries would gradually become disinterested in addressing real problems. They would instead try to provide endless distraction from the emptiness of pure selfishness by projecting disconnected fantasies about how romantic love could ameliorate all problems, or fixating on politicians who promised that they alone could alleviate the sense of alienation many people felt.  But these distractions and quick fixes would be unable to get at the root of the problem, since at base the media, politicians, and billionaire Presidents all depended on the status quo to retain their position and power. Indeed, many in the Frankfurt School worried that Western liberal citizens would become increasingly entranced by xenophobia and hatred of other peoples, since this was a convenient and simple target for their feelings of alienation and meaninglessness. We would do well to heed the warning of the cultural Marxists on this point; these quick fixes cannot resolve the more basic problems underpinning our society. The only thing that might result in substantive change is the reflective use of our critical reason to more aggressively tackle the rot that has festered into transparency.

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