It’s cultural Marxism week at Spectator USA. The dialectic of Enlightenment, prodded by the Angel of History, has forced us to confront the false consciousness of late capitalism and to choose between Eros and Civilization, socialism and fascism. Yay!
If that sounds like drivel, it’s because it is. The meaningless bits in the previous paragraph are meaningful phrases in the mad Marxist dreamland of laugh-a-minute lefties Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, and that other one that Adorno wrote The Dialectic of Enlightenment with. Collectively known as the Frankfurt School, because between the world wars most of them worked at the Institute for Social Research, a Marxist think tank in Frankfurt.
The Frankfurt School invented the intellectual pestilences now known as Cultural Studies and Media Studies. They called their method Critical Theory or Social Theory. The gist of their interminable argument is that the reason the proles don’t join the revolution is that their thick heads are blunted by capitalist culture and sexual repression. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the New Left took it up, then populated the universities of America with vulgar Frankfurters whose pretentious, chippy warbling, instead of pulling down the boss class, has crushed enrollments in the Humanities, and produced generations of replicant professors who know nothing about their subjects, and not much about Marx and Freud either.
For the Nazis, the Frankfurter School and its vaguely Jewish exponents fell under the rubric of Kulturbolshewismus, ‘Cultural Bolshevism’. You can see why the Nazis might have thought this. But you probably wouldn’t characterize the Frankfurter style in your local English department as Cultural Bolshevism, because that would imply an endorsement of Nazi social theory. For the same reason, Americans now say ‘people of color’, because ‘colored people’ evokes the social theories of Jim Crow. And while we’re about it, we need an alternative to the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’, which has Soviet and Nazi origins. Here, the Frankfurters were right about the inadvertent consequences of speaking the language of tyranny in the name of freedom.
Which brings us to Jordan Peterson and ‘cultural Marxism’. Peterson uses ‘cultural Marxism’ as shorthand for left-wing ideology in the Humanities. So does Douglas Kellner, a professional third-generation Frankfurter at UCLA; see Kellner’s potted history of the whole tedious business, ‘Cultural Marxism and Cultural Studies’. And so did the Frankfurt School.