They know not the name of their church. They know neither their creed nor their scripture, for the vast majority of the middle class have limited awareness of the Frankfurt School, critical theory or cultural Marxism, despite the pervasive influence of such contrarian forces. While the economics of communism and socialism failed every test, the Culture War has been won by the Left, a one-sided fight ending not with a bang but a whimper.
As eloquently described by Michael Walsh in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace (named after Schubert’s first opera), much of Western society’s ills can be traced back to the Institut für Sozialforschung at Goethe University in Frankfurt. Here in the 1930s emerged a system of thought aiming to overturn of the existing order of society. Unlike the crudely determined constructors of the Soviet Union, Antonio Gramsci and fellows were akin to anarchists. However, liberation was only for the like-minded: psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom rejected liberal enlightenment values in favour of ‘socialist humanism’ (that is, humanism in the way that East Germany called itself a democratic republic).
Wherever they settled after fleeing Nazi Germany, the Frankfurters did not present a clear prospectus by which they might be hauled before the court of public opinion; instead, they practised something akin to the Islamic tactic of taqiyya. Cultural Marxists proceeded by stealth against a weakening establishment, exploiting its liberal principles and claiming victimhood whenever obstructed. Herbert Marcuse argued that government should withdraw ‘toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, etc.’. Opponents’ freedom of speech would be squeezed by the Marxist python, ensuring ‘intolerance against movements from the Right and tolerance of movements from the Left’.
And gradually they marched through the institutions. Mainstream politicians, mollifying their electorate by denial and deceit, simply acquiesced. However absurd on initial airing, the assertions of counter-culture agitators ultimately prevail, as seen in schools, social services, housing, television, advertising, academe, policing, throughout government and civil service, and the law. Walsh, an American scholar, has witnessed the elevation of critical theorists from campus culture to the machinery of Washington. The Cold War, on reflection, was lost in extra time.
In Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, Roger Scruton fired a peashooter at a gallery of once-fashionable left-wing ideologues who wrested authority in the humanities and social sciences: Habermas in sociology, Hobsbawn in history, Lacan in psychology. You might think, reading Scruton’s critique, that Louis Althusser, leader of the intellectual revolution in the 1960s, is irrelevant today. But that would be complacent. The circular logic and impenetrable discourse of those Left Bank bores and Frankfurt emigrés did not need comprehension to make its mark. Forget the plot, it’s the story that matters.
We are all guilty of thinking of ourselves as rationalists, when we really live more by experience than by broader reasoning. Walsh uses the example of The Godfather. Viewers of this epic film will describe the power struggles of a Mafia family and its deadly deeds. But that is merely the plot. The tale has deeper meaning, in the primal (and Biblical) theme of destructive love. On another theme, Star Wars and Wizard of Oz are basically the same story. Cultural Marxism takes advantage of our tendency to focus on immediate detail while a much greater phenomenon (the elephant in the room) is allowed to grow. By the time people wake up to the monster in their midst, it’s too late.
We are walking exhibits of the philosophy of idealism. The tree that falls in the forest: if the great trunk crashed to the undergrowth unheard or unseen by us, it didn’t happen. Nothing, according to 18th century sage George Berkeley, exists beyond our perception. Surely that’s not how we think? Yet consider attitudes to immigration, and the unsustainable influx of hundreds of thousands per year. People are like the frog in gradually heated water, eventually boiled alive. The success of cultural Marxism is in making you doubt yourself, resulting in self-censorship. Revolutionary thinkers of the 1960s attacked scientific hegemony and promoted the relativist doctrine of individual truth, but now idealism is used against you: you can report what you see, nothing more. And then it’s dismissed as anecdote.
Meanwhile we continue on our supposedly deterministic, linear path. The Left rarely uses phrases such as ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and ‘dialectical materialism’ nowadays, as more sentimental language is preferred. There are arcs of justice, and conservatives are on ‘the wrong side of history’. Language is a powerful tool, and whether we realise it or not, we are playing by the critical theorists’ rules.
Walsh’s book contrasts the creation and light of Milton with the nihilism of Marx. Like most insightful writers on our cultural malaise, he casts gloom on the reader. But there is also optimism in the human spirit, whether your salvation is in God or Joseph Campbell. We are not ants, and will never be content as pawns of ideological tyranny.
I often ask myself, what would George Orwell think? A man of the Left, Orwell saw the perils of a state oligarchy. More than anything, he valued candour, and the right to be candid. Ironically perhaps, social conservatives are carrying his torch today: The Conservative Woman, Guido Fawkes, Douglas Murray, Jordan Peterson, Ann Coulter. Spread their words widely – for they are the resistance.