- Marxist discourse and “cultural Marxism” is overwhelming America. This article is a short history of Critical Theory from Marx to cultural Marxism.
- Karl Marx said that society is an economic struggle between two classes: the laborers and the wealthy businesses owners. Laborers should engage in a “class struggle” to overthrow their capitalist overlords (along with Christianity, families, and nations). An egalitarian utopia would ensue.
- Antonio Gramsci observed the failure of communism to take root in the West. He adapted Marxism by making the class conflict about dominant vs. weak cultural classes instead of dominant vs weak economic classes. His revision is called Neo-Marxism or “cultural Marxism.”
- The Frankfurt School, a consortium of Marxist academics, invented Critical Theory as another update to Marxism. Critical Theory criticizes society in an effort to affect change. The change Critical Theorists wanted was to rid Western society of its capitalistic roots and traditional morality.
From Marxism to Cultural Marxism
There is a lot of talk today about “Critical Theory,” “Cultural Marxism,” and how Marxist thought is overwhelming our universities and our society. This article is for anyone who needs an explanation of how all of this relates to Marxism, as well as what the Benedict Option has to do with it. (Don’t know what the Benedict Option is? Read this.)
This article stops short of discussing Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, Whiteness Studies, and other modern offshoots of Critical Theory. The purpose of this article is to connect Marx to Neo-Marxism and Critical Theory. To learn more about contemporary critical theory, go here.
Fair warning: these are difficult subjects if you are new to them. This article is a 30,000 foot overview of the subject, but it is difficult nonetheless.
Marx and Communism
Karl Marx (1818-1883), the mind behind communism, believed that the main thrust of world history was the economic conflict between the working class (proletariat) and the wealthy business owners (bourgeoisie). As Marx saw it, the upper class unjustly exploits the lower class by profiting off the latter’s labor. Marx believed that the lower working class should fight to overthrow the wealthy upper class in a great “class struggle.” A crucial aspect of the class struggle as Marx understood it is that violence would be necessary for the lower class to overthrow the upper class.
The class struggle and the violent overthrow of the upper class was not the end goal of communism. Marx’s communism is a vision of an egalitarian utopia based on shared land, shared labor, and shared wealth. There is no private ownership in communism. A communist society would operate on this principle: “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” What this means, roughly speaking, is that someone in a communist society would voluntarily produce for the community whatever they have the ability to produce, and would have free access to take whatever they needed.
Abolition of the West
It is important to note how revolutionary Marx’s communism is. Not content to abolish capitalism and all private property, Marx also intended communism to abolish families, abolish religion (especially Christianity), abolish nations, and even abolish eternal Truths. Marx envisioned a permanent break with the past and the dissolution of every institution and identity (national identity, religious identity, family identity) that could compete with communism’s egalitarian utopian vision.
Fate of communism
Every attempt at implementing communism has failed miserably. By some accounts, communism has resulted in the deaths of over 100 million individuals. Actual economic and political communism does not find wide supported today. (Though socialism, the middle stage between the class struggle and full communism, where the state owns the means of production, is currently enjoying a renaissance). While communism might not be as influential an ideology as it once was, some of Marx’s ideas have left a considerable mark on history. We will look at how Marxism has filtered down to our time through several individuals and movements.
Italian Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), writing in the 1920s and 30s, adapted Marxism for the West. Gramsci (along with other communist supporters) saw that classical Marxism was not going to work in the West. His revision of Marxism is called Neo-Marxism or “cultural Marxism.”
Why communism would not work in the West
One reason communism would not work in the West was the presence of a large middle class in capitalist economies. The large middle class did not allow society to fit neatly into the poor laborers vs. rich owners dichotomy, which is a fundamental tenet of communism’s critique.
Second, Gramsci saw that the support for capitalism in the West was buried deep in civil society. Families, schools, fraternal orders, churches, and other societal institutions supported a culture-wide narrative that understood capitalism as part of what makes the West successful. Thus, Gramsci understood that Western culture, and not just Western politics, were inclined towards capitalism and not communism.
In sum, Gramsci saw that culture in the West supported capitalism, and capitalism supported a broad middle class. Therefore, communism’s core idea of class struggle between the haves and have-nots had no purchase.
Gramsci’s solution was to refocus Marxism on cultural institutions. He reasoned that, before communism could take hold politically and economically, it had to take hold culturally. Gramsci also realized that, for Marxism to ever take hold of culture in the West, the West’s foundational Christian worldview would have to be defeated. Christianity’s support for capitalism was so strong that communism would never take root in a Christian country. So, both Christianity and the cultural institutions of the West that support capitalism would have to be overcome. Only then could the communist revolution begin.
Gramsci’s adaptation is called Neo-Marxism, or sometimes “cultural Marxism.” It retains the Marxist focus on the class struggle. It is “Neo-” or “new” because in place of an economic class struggle, Gramsci focused on a cultural class struggle. Gramsci realized that Marx had it backward: economics was downstream of culture, not the other way around. For Gramsci, before you can engage in the economic struggle to institute communism, you have to first win the cultural struggle over the resistance to communism. To put it as simply as possible, neo-Marxism (or cultural Marxism) means applying Marxist theory to culture.
The long march…
To achieve the de-Christianization of the West, Gramsci looked to intellectuals to begin “the long march through the institutions” (coined by Gramsci follower Rudi Dutschke in 1967). The goal was to gradually colonize and gain control of key societal institutions. Here is a quote from Gramsci:
“In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.”
And just for good measure, here is another Gramsci quote:
“Socialism is precisely the religion that must kill Christianity.”
At least he was forthright in stating his goals and how he would achieve them.
Summary of Gramsci’s logic
- First, Christianity and the cultural institutions that support capitalism must be undermined.
- Second, this is achieved by slowly taking over institutions by individuals who are partial to Marxism. Society is changed through the newly-controlled institutions.
- Third, Christianity, capitalism, and civil society are slowly destroyed. The cultural vacuum that is left is filled by Marxist ideology.
- Finally, the culture is ready for political communism.
How Gramsci changed Marxism
Gramsci improved upon Marx in at least two ways: first, he changed the focus from an economic struggle to a cultural struggle. Gramsci realized that you cannot get to the economic struggle if you do not first win the cultural struggle. Second, he supported a long, subversive ideological battle to Marx’s quick, violent revolution. The end result for both men, however, was the same: the end of Christianity, the end of capitalism, the end of the West, and the rise of communism.
The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory
Gramsci was not the only person working to update Marxism for the 20th century. Nearly contemporaneous with Gramsci, though mostly separate from him, was a group of Marxist-inclined academics called the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School invented what is known as Critical Theory.
Overview of the Frankfurt School
Several Marxist academics, Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse chief among them, banded together to start a Marxist research center in Frankfurt, Germany. The name of the institute was “The Institute for Social Research.” This title was less forthcoming than the planned original name, “The Institute for Marxism.”
When the Nazi regime came to power, the group fled Germany and, in 1935, settled at Columbia University in New York City. When WWII ended, the members spread to different parts of the world and continued writing about Critical Theory up into the 1960s.
These men were attempting, like Gramsci, to create a new Marxism that would succeed where classical Marxism failed. What they came up with was Critical Theory.
Definition of Critical Theory
The definition of Critical Theory sounds harmless enough: an academic tool that allows people to critique society with the hope of changing society for better. When academics, such as a sociologist, use Critical Theory, they are not merely hoping to describe society. Critical Theory is about criticizing society with the goal of forcing change in a new direction.
Why Critical Theory is a dangerous ideology
Critical Theory is potentially dangerous as an ideology because of the ways the Critical Theorists thought society needed to change. As noted before, the Critical Theorists were Marxists, through and through. So, like all Marxists, they believed the change that Critical Theory needed to make in society was to erase the capitalist ideology embedded in Western, Christian culture. The criticism coming from Critical Theory was not neutral – it was anti-Christian and anti-capitalist.
Critical Theory and Marxism
So, what does Critical Theory have to do with Marxism (beyond that the Critical Theorists were Marxists)? First, like Marxism, Critical Theory utilizes the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy to describe society. Second, Critical Theory critiques all of society as it currently is: tradition, authority, and morality – all must be challenged. Third, it is utopian. Critical Theory dreams of a future where there are no hierarchies or disparities between people, a liberated future of perfect equality.
Why does this matter?
The history of Marxism, Gramsci, and Critical Theory is important because it is an ideology that competes with Christianity. This ideology has spread widely through the West over the past few generations and shows no signs of letting up.
Here is just one example of the lasting impact of Critical Theory: Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955). Eros and Civilization served as part of the intellectual foundation for the 1960s sexual revolution and gay liberation movements. The main idea of Eros and Civilization is that people must throw off repressive, traditional morality in favor of sexual liberation. The end goal is not just sexual freedom; the hope was that, in the process of embracing sexual freedom, the repressive institutions of traditional marriages and families would be destroyed.
It is impossible to overstate how incompatible the ideology of Eros and Civilization is with Christianity. The criticism of traditional sexuality, the destruction of marriage and family, and the subversion of societal morality in general are all corrosive to the Christian worldview. This is the legacy of Critical Theory and cultural Marxism.
This article is too short and paints with too broad a brush. It does not capture the substantial differences between the people who subscribed to “Critical Theory.” And while the project as a whole is difficult to square with Christianity, not all their ideas were incorrect. Furthermore, the line that connects Marx, Gramsci, Horkheimer, Adorno, et al., to modern-day society is more complex and nuanced than this article could capture.
The main point of this article is to show how classical Marxism turned into cultural Marxism (and Critical Theory), and show why that is dangerous for America. As in classical Marxism, cultural Marxism hates the West, Christianity, democracy, and capitalism. Cultural Marxism wants to supplant all the ideas and all the institutions that make the West the West. Marxists have nearly finished the “long walk through the institutions” in the schools, universities, media, and governmental bureaucracies, leaving the West with broken, dying, or radicalized institutions. Cultural Marxism paved the way for all the generations who came of age after the 1960s to have Marxist thinking incorporated into their worldviews.
The bitter fruit of cultural Marxism is apparent all across the West:
- The prioritization of social change at the expense of Truth
- Political correctness and identity politics dominating our discourse
- Absolute sexual liberty is unquestioned and downright applauded
- “Tolerance” getting redefined into something that is downright intolerant.
- The cultural revolutionaries among us utilize shaming and shouting over reasoning and orderly debate.
- The motivation to destroy America (or at least sever every tie to America’s “oppressive” past).
This is the legacy of Marxism in our culture.
Contemporary Critical Theory
After the Frankfurt school, a new generation of academics took the ideas of Critical Theory and applied them to many different fields – Feminism, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, Post-Colonial Studies, Whiteness Studies, among others. These fields, termed “Contemporary Critical Theory” by Neil Shenvi, will be discussed in the next article.
What about the Benedict Option?
The Benedict Option is about creating intentional Christian communities that can withstand the onslaught of secular, progressive (post)modernity. Critical Theory and cultural Marxism are foundational to the philosophical worldview that is attacking Christianity and traditional morality. It is imperative that Christians understand what they are dealing with when it comes to Critical Theory and cultural Marxism.
The insidious part of Critical Theory and cultural Marxism is that they do not wear their Marxism on their sleeve. Rather, they couch their revolutionary ideology in language like tolerance, equality, love, acceptance, etc. And, it has found its way into our cultural discourse, replacing Christian morality as the default morality of the West. Christians must understand who the enemy is and how the enemy works. Then, they must fight to keep the enemy out of their Benedict Option communities and churches.