Monday, December 3, 2018

The neo-fascist origins of the demonization of the Frankfurt School

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Horkheimer and Adorno

In a recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times, Samuel Moyn, a professor of Law and History at Yale, pointed to the dangerous role that a neo-fascist conspiracy theory, once confined to the lunatic fringe, is now playing in the broader culture. The conspiracy in question has direct kinship with traditional anti-Semitic conspiracy theories dating back to the Middle Ages and having their most noxious resurrection in the Nazi era. It is a tale of the eternal wandering Jew who has no “natural roots” but who tries to poison and subvert the culture and traditions of Christian society with its doctrine of elitism and cosmopolitanism, all the while in service to a hidden agenda of world domination. After the Russian Revolution this conspiracy theory took the form of the plots by “Judeo-Bolsheviks” to conquer the world.  The current avatar of this conspiracy theory is the denunciation of something called “Cultural Marxism” which is ubiquitous on Fox News and the sewers of alt-right and fascist web sites. 

Moyn writes that whereas right-wing fantasies paint a picture of the existential threat of “Cultural Marxism”,

“Nothing of the kind actually exists. But it is increasingly popular to indict cultural Marxism’s baleful effects on society — and to dream of its violent extermination. With a spate of recent violence in the United States and elsewhere, calling out the runaway alt-right imagination is more urgent than ever.” [1]

The origins of “Cultural Marxism” according to this right-wing meme is identified with an intellectual movement that sprang up in post-World War I Germany, the Frankfurt Institute.

It should be kept in mind that when it comes to discussions of the Frankfurt Institute on Fox News and right-wing web sites what we are talking about is something far removed from a scholarly study of an intellectual movement that was launched in Weimar Germany by a group of social scientists who believed that the application of the methods of historical materialism could open new paths to the understanding of culture and ideology. We are rather talking about a conspiracy theory that strings together a few largely uncorroborated facts for which it then finds a connection with a mysterious agency hidden from view and working with a hidden agenda having the most ominous implications for ordinary people. Like many other recently concocted conspiracy theories, such narratives rely on scant evidence mixed with a heavy dose of fear and suspicion of the “other”.  The difference was nicely put in an article by Jamin Jérôme,

“In concrete terms, next to the history of Cultural Marxism as a welldocumented theory, developed by Marxist scholars and thinkers within cultural studies from the 1930s, another theory has emerged during the 1990s, and is particularly influential on radical forms of right-wing politics. It claims that the main goal of Cultural Marxism was much less honorable than merely academic research trying to understand the cultural dynamics of capitalism, and to many, it is seen as a dangerous ideology that has sought “to destroy Western traditions and values.” Since the 1990s, this particular interpretation has been promoted through a literature mixing conspiracy theories, academic sources, and conservative political stances. This literature has had its own life in some specific circles, reviews, and websites, moving beyond individual nations and languages, and is now quite independent of Cultural Marxism as a wellknown theory linked to the Frankfurt School.”  [2]


Moyn provides a few examples of the spread of this meme in the Trump years:

“Originally an American contribution to the phantasmagoria of the alt-right, the fear of “cultural Marxism” has been percolating for years through global sewers of hatred. Increasingly, it has burst into the mainstream. Before President Trump’s aide Rich Higgins was fired last year, he invoked the threat of “cultural Marxism” in proposing a new national security strategy. In June, Ron Paul tweeted out a racist meme that employed the phrase. On Twitter, the son of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly elected strongman, boasted of meeting Steve Bannon and joining forces to defeat “cultural Marxism.” Jordan Peterson, the self-help guru and best-selling author, has railed against it too in his YouTube ruminations.”

Moyn also points out that the logical step from fulminations against “Cultural Marxism” to terrorist attacks against its perceived agents has already been taken by neo-Nazi terrorists egged on by the fulminations of Fox News and Breitbart News.

Cultural Marxism” is also a favorite topic on Gab, the social media network where Robert Bowers, the man accused of shooting 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last month, spent time... In his 1,500-page manifesto, the Norwegian far-rightist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011, invoked “cultural Marxism” repeatedly. “It wants to change behavior, thought, even the words we use,” he wrote. “To a significant extent, it already has.”

We can add to this list of terrorists inspired by their hatred of “Cultural Marxism” the man who sent explosive devices in the mail to leaders of the Democratic Party and to George Soros.

How is “Cultural Marxism” understood in the narrative parlayed by extreme right conspiracy theories? A good definition was provided by the neo-fascist William S. Lind, the author of a fantasy novel featuring the slaughter of humanities professors in his alma mater, Dartmouth College. He writes,

 “Classical Marxists, where they obtained power, expropriated the bourgeoisie and gave their property to the state,” he says. “Where you obtained power, you expropriated the rights of white men and gave special privileges to feminists, blacks, gays, and the like.” It is on the basis of this parallel that the novel justifies carnage against the “enemies of Christendom” as an act showing that “Western culture” is “recovering its will.”

   The first time that the Frankfurt School is mentioned in relation to the conspiracy of “Cultural Marxism” dates back to a 1991 article in a publication sponsored by the Lyndon Larouche neo-fascist cult. [3] In the next few years this narrative of the subversive influence of the Frankfurt School and its threat to Western Civilization quickly spread through the Internet and became a meme on right wing web sites.  And while initially confined to the lunatic fringe it began to spread to the broader cultural thanks to its adoption by more mainstream right-wing figures like Pat Buchanan. 

It also dovetailed neatly into traditional anti-Semitic propaganda given that many of the leaders of the Frankfurt School were of Jewish heritage and had recognizably Jewish names. Martin Jay, who wrote the first history of the Frankfurt School describes the genesis of this meme:


“Larouche and his followers have, to be sure, always remained on the fringe of the fringe, too confused in their ideology to be taken seriously by either radical left or right, with little, if any significant impact on the real world. 

But the germ sown by Minnicino was ultimately to bear remarkable poisonous fruit. The harvester was the Free Congress Foundation, a paleo-conservative Washington think tank founded by Paul Weyrich, who was also in on the creation of the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority movement. Much of the financial support came from his collaborator Joseph Coors, who knew how to turn all that pure Rocky Mountain water into a cash flow for the radical right. The FCF sponsored a satellite television network called National Empowerment Television, which churned out slickly produced shows promulgating its various opinions.” [4]
Lyndon Larouche
Moyn notes the anti-Semitic overtones of the right-wing demonization of the Frankfurt School:

“A number of the conspiracy theorists tracing the origins of “cultural Marxism” assign outsize significance to the Frankfurt School, an interwar German — and mostly Jewish — intellectual collective of left-wing social theorists and philosophers. Many members of the Frankfurt School fled Nazism and came to the United States, which is where they supposedly uploaded the virus of cultural Marxism to America. These zany stories of the Frankfurt School’s role in fomenting political correctness would be entertaining, except that they echo the baseless allegations of tiny cabals ruling the world that fed the right’s paranoid imagination in prior eras.”

One can add George Soros to the pantheon of evil associated with right-wing attacks against “Cultural Marxism” even though Soros never had anything to do with the Frankfurt School. But he is of Jewish heritage and supports liberal causes and that was enough for the terrorist Cesar Sayoc to send him a pipe bomb in the mail.

 It should be borne in mind that the substitution of the culture war for the proletariat, while mainly a target of right-wing anti-communists, has also been embraced by nominally left-wing groups who have adopted an upside-down version of the same conspiracy theory. They bemoan the turn to culture and want to see a return to the proletariat.  Stalinist polemics against the Frankfurt Institute follow this same formula.  The right-wing wing bemoans the fact that their triumph in the Cold War has been robbed by the turn of the radical left away from the proletariat where their influence has expired, to the culture war, where they have won the ideological battle. But both versions of this conspiracy theory are, as Moyn points out, railing against something that hardly has any significant impact outside of some academic circles. One “left” version of the Frankfurt School conspiracy theory was embraced by none other than Fidel Castro in his later years. Martin Jay, the premier historian of the Frankfurt School relates how in 2010 Castro became enamored of a conspiracy tale woven by the obscure writer Daniel Estulin. Estulin placed the Frankfurt Institute at the center of a vast conspiracy orchestrated by among others the Bilderberg Group and the Rockefeller Foundation and whose aim was to bring into being a world government that they controlled.  According to the Associated Press,


"The excerpt [from Estulin’s book] published by Castro suggested that the esoteric Frankfurt School of socialist academics worked with members of the Rockefeller family in the 1950s to pave the way for rock music to 'control the masses' by diverting attention from civil rights and social injustice." [5]

Castro didn’t know it but the source of Estulin’s theory of the Frankfurt School was the same Lyndon Larouche inspired article by Minnicino.  Castro was rather ignorant of the Frankfurt School and did not realize that the narrative he had bought into about it was the polar opposite of what the Frankfurt School was doing. To quote Martin Jay,

“The most blatant absurdity in Estulin's scheme, ... was attributing to the Frankfurt School a position precisely opposite to what its members had always taken. That is, when they discussed the "culture industry" it was with the explicit criticism, ironically echoed here by Castro, that it functioned to reconcile people to their misery and dull the pain of their suffering. Whether or not the Frankfurt School's argument is fully plausible is not the issue here, but rather the pathetic miscomprehension of Estulin and the credulity of Castro in seeing them as agents of the Bilderberg project to make the world safe for capitalist elites.” [6]


The adoption in recent years of an ill-informed demonization of the Frankfurt School by nominally left-wing groups that blame this intellectual movement for a turn away from the ideals of the Enlightenment is but a mirror image of their demonization by the neo-fascists who blame the Frankfurt School for subverting the values of Western Civilization.

More than a decade ago I responded to another demonization of the Frankfurt School published by an online socialist newspaper. I noted that the scapegoating of the Frankfurt School in that publication bore a striking resemblance to the condemnation of one of its most well-known figures, Herbert Marcuse, by the conservative author Alan Bloom in his 1980’s book, The Closing of the American Mind. [7] I was not aware at the time that the Larouche organization had given birth to a far more sinister myth about the Frankfurt School than Bloom could ever have imagined and that this story would eventually go viral in the intellectual gutter of the extreme right.  It is not the first time that conspiracy theories find a common denominator in both right and left-wing circles. It should serve as a warning against the use of historical falsification to serve political ends. 


 Alex Steiner
Dec 3, 2018








[2] Jamin Jérôme, Cultural Marxism: A Survey,  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/rec3.12258
[3]  All the scholars who have investigated the origins of the conspiracy theory revolving around the Frankfurt School ascribe its origin to a publication of the Lyndon Larouche cult from 1991,
Michael Minnicino, "New Dark Age: Frankfurt School and Political Correctness," Fidelio, 1(1991-1992); reprinted by the Schiller Institute http://www.schillerinstitute.org/fid_91-96/921_frankfurt.html . See for instance Martin Jay, Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: The Frankfurt School as Scapegoat of the Lunatic Fringe, http://canisa.org/blog/dialectic-of-counter-enlightenment-the-frankfurt-school-as-scapegoat-of-the-lunatic-fringe. Also Jamin Jérôme, Cultural Marxism: A Survey,  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/rec3.12258
[4] Martin Jay, ibid.
[5] Quoted in Martin Jay, op cit.
[6] Martin Jay, ibid.
[7]  Downward Spiral, Chapter 1, page 24, note 23,

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