The Intellectual Foundation of the West’s Slide into Tyranny, Part 2 of 3

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by Robert P. Murphy

As I explained last month in the first installment of this series, I am showing the reader that the various attacks on our liberties are part of a coordinated strategy that was conceived decades ago by avowed socialists. I realize that is a provocative claim, but it is easily demonstrated, as I show in this series. Last time, I focused on the founding of public schools in the US, and the agenda and legacy of the Fabian Society. In the present issue, I’ll focus on the long march through the institutions, a strategy of socialist infiltration of society through a gradual takeover of the schools, churches, news media, music and art, and the cinema.

“The Long March Through the Institutions”

According to Wikipedia, the slogan was actually coined around 1967 by communist student activist Rudi Dutschke. In his 1972 book Counterrevolution and Revolt, Herbert Marcuse—a member of the so-called Frankfurt School who said his best student was the famous Marxist activist Angela Davis—endorsed this strategy:

To extend the base of the student movement, Rudi Dutschke has proposed the strategy of the long march through the institutions: working against the established institutions while working within them, but not simply by ‘boring from within’, rather by ‘doing the job’, learning (how to program and read computers, how to teach at all levels of education, how to use the mass media, how to organize production, how to recognize and eschew planned obsolescence, how to design, et cetera), and at the same time preserving one’s own consciousness in working with others. (Marcuse 1972)

However, even though Dutschke may have been the first to coin the slogan in the late 1960s, the strategy itself was developed decades earlier by the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci—whom Dutschke himself credits as being an inspiration for his own views. This strategy of ushering communism into the U.S. through a gradual takeover of the cultural institutions is also associated with the so-called Frankfurt School. The rest of this article will elaborate on these individuals.

Prison Notebooks: Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci was a founding member of the Italian Communist Party, who was imprisoned by Mussolini’s Fascist government in 1926. From 1929-1935, Gramsci wrote a series of essays on culture, religion, history, economics, and political philosophy, which were published under the title Prison Notebooks.

Gramsci was a Marxist, but recognized that things were not progressing according to the dialectical laws of history. According to Marx, feudalism had given rise to mercantilism which in turn had birthed capitalism, and soon enough the material forces should have burst asunder giving rise to socialism—whether or not any of the comrades helped it along.

Gramsci theorized that there was something holding back the revolution in the advanced Western societies, such as Germany and the United States, preventing the proletariat classes in these countries from rising up as they had done in the backward Russia starting in 1917.

Gramsci argued for the concept of “hegemony,” in which the elites used various organs of society in order to manufacture “common sense” that supported the capitalist system.

Although it’s natural for fans of the free market to recoil from anything written by a Marxist, Gramsci’s analysis is actually very similar to that of Étienne de la Boétie, who is a hero to modern Rothbardians. In his 1576 Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, de la Boétie argues that the political authorities only have the power that their subjects grant them. After all, the ruling class is hopelessly outnumbered—they aren’t like the three Kryptonians dressed in black in Superman II; they could easily be overthrown if the people suddenly decided to turn on them.

However, even though ultimately the people have the power, and all governments are popular in one sense, there is still of course an important sense in which governments rely on coercion to maintain their power. This is why a modern-day fan of la Boétie could (a) object to unjust, coercive government while (b) maintaining that education alone can win the day, if only the masses could be made to see the case for freedom.

Now back to Gramsci. He too recognized this subtle interplay between coercion and consent—anticipating Noam Chomsky’s famous concept (and book of the same title) of Manufacturing Consent. He argued that the exploitative capitalist structure was maintained through a web of cultural hegemony supported by various institutions. This is why the average worker in a capitalist society would think his status as a wage-slave was just “common sense”—because his entire worldview had been molded by school, church, the media, etc.

Consequently, Gramsci wrote that the socialists could only take power if they first infiltrated and hijacked these various institutions. As a famous quotation attributed to Gramsci puts it: “Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity…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.”[1]

As this necessarily brief sketch of Gramsci should underscore, those of us who “see commies everywhere” aren’t being paranoid, as the smug critics would have you believe. No, there really are commies everywhere, and they’re simply following the written plan.

“Cultural Marxists”: The Frankfurt School

The “Frankfurt School” garnered its name because it originally started out as the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Founded in 1923 during the Weimar Republic, the intellectuals running the Institute decided in 1933 to move it out of Germany, because of the rising threat from Hitler’s regime. They first went through Geneva and ultimately landed in New York City—following the same path away from the Nazis as Ludwig von Mises would take.

The big idea associated with the Frankfurt School is the area of Critical Theory (with capital letters). In addition to Gramsci, another of its major influences was the work on “reification” of the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács (whose views are too difficult to summarize here but advanced readers can consult in the endnotes[2]). Some of the major thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School are Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. For our purposes, we will draw on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a quick introduction to Critical Theory:

Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. “Critical Theory” in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human “emancipation from slavery”, acts as a “liberating … influence”, and works “to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers” of human beings (Horkheimer 1972, 246). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many “critical theories” in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.

It follows from Horkheimer’s definition that a critical theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria: it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, all at the same time. That is, it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation. Any truly critical theory of society, as Horkheimer further defined it in his writings as Director of the Frankfurt School’s Institute for Social Research, “has as its object human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Horkeimer 1993, 21). In light of the practical goal of identifying and overcoming all the circumstances that limit human freedom, the explanatory goal could be furthered only through interdisciplinary research that includes psychological, cultural, and social dimensions, as well as institutional forms of domination. [Bold added.][3]

Those readers familiar with modern leftist intellectuals and their tendency to view everything—including not just labor contracts but also the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day—through the lens of “patriarchal white supremacy” will recognize the antecedents of this approach in the Frankfurt School.

To avoid confusing the reader, let me be clear that it is the opponents of the Frankfurt School and their modern-day intellectual heirs, who call them “cultural Marxists.” The defenders of the Frankfurt School thinkers argue in contrast that this terminology represents paranoid (and anti-Semitic) right-wing fear-mongering.

In any event, the term “cultural Marxist” signifies that these intellectuals moved beyond a critique of economic class relations in capitalist society, and instead infused a “struggle” dynamic into other areas of the culture, seeing the powerful exploit the weak in various contexts. Rather than focusing exclusively on the worker being exploited by the boss, the cultural Marxists also teach wives that they are being oppressed by their husbands, children that they are being oppressed by their parents and teachers, blacks and other minorities that they are being oppressed by the majority, and churchgoers that they are suckers being ripped off by their pastors.

Herbert Marcuse and Repressive Tolerance

To show how much the thinkers of the Frankfurt School laid the intellectual foundations of today’s slide into tyranny, let us extensively quote from a famous essay by Herbert Marcuse, originally published in 1965.[4] (As we noted earlier, one of Marcuse’s claims to fame at least among Americans is that he was the professor of Angela Davis, claiming that she was his star pupil.) Here is its opening paragraph:

THIS essay examines the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society. The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period–a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression. [Marcuse, bold added.]

Notice right off the bat we are in trouble. Later on we get more specifics on what Marcuse opposes:

Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence. The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives. The authorities in education, morals, and psychology are vociferous against the increase in juvenile delinquency; they are less vociferous against the proud presentation, in word and deed and pictures, of ever more powerful missiles, rockets, bombs–the mature delinquency of a whole civilization.

Notice that there is much for a libertarian reader to sympathize with; we too object to horrible government schools and the warfare of the modern American empire. But Marcuse isn’t going to rest content with leveling criticism against this oppressive system. No, he eventually concludes with this:

I have tried to show how the changes in advanced democratic societies, which have undermined the basis of economic and political liberalism, have also altered the liberal function of tolerance. The tolerance which was the great achievement of the liberal era is still professed and (with strong qualifications) practiced, while the economic and political process is subjected to an ubiquitous and effective administration in accordance with the predominant interests. The result is an objective contradiction between the economic and political structure on the one side, and the theory and practice of toleration on the other. The altered social structure tends to weaken the effectiveness of tolerance toward dissenting and oppositional movements and to strengthen conservative and reactionary forces. Equality of tolerance becomes abstract, spurious. With the actual decline of dissenting forces in the society, the opposition is insulated in small and frequently antagonistic groups who, even where tolerated within the narrow limits set by the hierarchical structure of society, are powerless while they keep within these limits. But the tolerance shown to them is deceptive and promotes co-ordination. And on the firm foundations of a co-ordinated society all but closed against qualitative change, tolerance itself serves to contain such change rather than to promote it.

These same conditions render the critique of such tolerance abstract and academic, and the proposition that the balance between tolerance toward the Right and toward the Left would have to be radically redressed in order to restore the liberating function of tolerance becomes only an unrealistic speculation. Indeed, such a redressing seems to be tantamount to the establishment of a “right of resistance” to the point of subversion. There is not, there cannot be any such right for any group or individual against a constitutional government sustained by a majority of the population. But I believe that there is a “natural right” of resistance for oppressed and overpowered minorities to use extralegal means if the legal ones have proved to be inadequate. Law and order are always and everywhere the law and order which protect the established hierarchy; it is nonsensical to invoke the absolute authority of this law and this order against those who suffer from it and struggle against it–not for personal advantages and revenge, but for their share of humanity. There is no other judge over them than the constituted authorities, the police, and their own conscience. If they use violence, they do not start a new chain of violence but try to break an established one. Since they will be punished, they know the risk, and when they are willing to take it, no third person, and least of all the educator and intellectual, has the right to preach them abstention. [Marcuse, bold added.]

As the long quotation above illustrates, we should not be shocked by today’s reporters telling us about “mostly peaceful protests” as the city burns in the background. These media figures are simply enacting the playbook that the Frankfurt School thinkers developed decades ago.

Conclusion

This essay has sketched the role of Marxist (or formerly Marxist) intellectuals in providing explicitly written strategies for ushering communism into the West by first infiltrating its various institutions. In my next and final installment in this series, I will explain two more pieces of the puzzle: the role of postmodernism and identity politics in the coordinated assault on the Western heritage of Judeo-Christian values and Enlightenment rationalism.

Endnotes

[1] This is a famous quotation attributed to Gramsci by various sources. See for example Roger Kiska’s article for the Acton Institute in 2019, available at: https://www.acton.org/religion-liberty/volume-29-number-3/antonio-gramscis-long-march-through-history.

[2] For a summary of Lukács’ thought see: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lukacs/

[3] See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Critical Theory at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/

[4] The quotations from Marcuse come from: https://www.marcuse.org/herbert/publications/1960s/1965-repressive-tolerance-fulltext.html