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Errors of a Swedish Culture Warrior

Karl-Olov Arnstberg defends cultural Marxism from my critique.

Karl-Olov Arnstberg defends “cultural Marxism” from my critique.

I had hoped the paper I released in January would be the last time I needed to discuss the right-wing myth of “cultural Marxism,” but the Swedish ethnologist and fellow blogger Karl-Olov Arnstberg recently wrote a brief response to my post on the subject which, despite its vapid content, I feel obliged to comment on. Before doing so, however, I should preface this entry by noting that I’m far from fluent in Swedish and therefore needed to utilize a website translator to read Arnstberg’s post. And as a consequence of the crude interpretations such devices provide, there may be facets of Arnstberg’s argument which I’ve misunderstood. I apologize in advance if that occurred.

The primary method Arnstberg employs in defense of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory is a familiar one: he casts Marxism as an ideological precursor of postmodernism, thereby enabling him to link the approval relativism has been receiving in certain humanities departments in recent decades to Marxism in general, and the Frankfurt school in particular. Needless to say, this is a groundless accusation and an egregious conflation of three very distinct socio-philosophical traditions. The suggestion that classical Marxism can, in anyway, be interpreted as relativistic betrays a profound unfamiliarity with the theories that informed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s social and political thought. As even a cursory reading of their body of work instantly reveals, both men were staunch epistemological and ontological materialists, not relativists. Arnstberg should also be made aware of the fact that, in addition to being heirs of the Enlightenment and partisans of modernity, Marx and Engels were naturalistic thinkers, influenced by decidedly non-relativistic figures such as Charles Darwin and Henry Lewis Morgan. Indeed, Marxism is regularly criticized by the postmodern elite for producing the very meta-narratives they believe to be epistemologically impossible to sustain.

With respect to the Frankfurt school, the pessimism of modernity and antipositivism characteristic of its members might seem to position the Institute for Social Research considerably closer to the contemporary postmodern milieu, but this too would be an erroneous inference. To quote Martin Jay,

It would be mistaken, of course, to reduce the legacy of Critical Theory tout court to a prolegomenon to postmodernism, however we may define that vexed term. Habermas’s spirited defense of the uncompleted project of modernity, Lowenthal’s last warnings against ‘irrational and neomythological’ concepts like ‘post-histoire,’ and Adorno’s insistence on the distinction between high and low art and partisanship for modernists such as Beckett, Kafka and Schoenberg against the leveling impact of the Culture Industry, all make it plain that in many important ways, the Frankfurt School resists wholesale inclusion among the forebears of postmodernism. In fact, as Fredric Jameson has pointed out, it may well be the eclectic pastiches of Stravinsky (which Adorno despised) rather than the progressive innovations of Schoenberg (which he generally admired) that can be said to have anticipated a key feature of postmodernist culture. The central role of ‘ideology critique’ in Critical Theory is, moreover, relegated to the margins of most postmodernist theory, which lacks—or rather, deliberately scorns the possibility of—any point d’appui for such a critique, preferring instead a cynical reason, if indeed a reason at all, that attacks all transcendent positions as discredited foundationalism and mocks utopianism as inherently fallacious.[1]

Jay proceeds to write that a few of the theoreticians belonging to the school’s first generation may well have contributed to the aforementioned postmodern rejection of meta-narratives by way of their dismissal of Marx’s materialist conception of history, for instance, and that’s a concession I’m fully prepared to make. However, those theoreticians’ decision to discard such a crucial component of scientific socialism clearly represents a departure from Marxism on the Frankfurt school’s part, not an application thereof—thereby rendering the very term “cultural Marxism” of dubious currency. If Arnstberg is truly interested in the genealogy of postmodernism, I recommend he instead look to the French poststructuralists Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard, or to the radical subjectivism of John Berkeley, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the sophists before them.

Of course, none of this is pertinent to the central claim proponents of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory make, i.e., that the Frankfurt school has succeeded in Gramsci’s alleged strategy of infiltrating the hegemonic institutions of bourgeois society in order to subvert the sensibilities of young adults, therewith undermining the mores of Western civilization itself, in order to prepare the way for communist revolution. Towards that end, nowhere in his post does Arnstberg provide a scintilla of evidence corroborating the claim the Frankfurt school had anywhere near that level of influence on contemporary opinion makers, nor does he persuasively demonstrate why the bourgeoisie would permit an ideology inimical to its reproduction as a class to proliferate on the scale paleoconservative hucksters contend so-called “cultural Marxism” has. The only personality associated with the Frankfurt school to have ever reached a modicum of popularity was Herbert Marcuse, and even then it was chiefly relegated to segments of the New Left.[2] To be sure, students continue to be presented with material from Frankfurt school theoreticians, but as Paul Piccone notes:

Far from precipitating the projected qualitative change in cultural life, a substantial de-provincialization of social consciousness and a more democratic and participatory political reality, Western Marxism, Critical Theory and radical philosophy in general have smoothly blended into the otherwise bland, jargon-ridden and hopelessly conventional framework they originally challenged.[3]

In other words, theories derived from Frankfurt school intellectuals are largely consigned to impotent academic departments and taught primarily during courses on the history of ideas. To understand the source of the changes in culture underway, one must look elsewhere.

Arnstberg claims that rather than “discussing pressing issues,” Jason Wilson (another critic of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory) and I merely malign our opponents with unflattering labels. Now, I’ve openly admitted that my blog post “On the Myth of Cultural Marxism” is somewhat more polemical than a subject of this magnitude warrants, and I sought to remedy that with a paper nearing 7,500 words entitled “The Origins and Ideological Function of Cultural Marxism,” but I stand by the claims I made in my blog post. The fact of the matter is the vast preponderance of individuals who subscribe to the conspiracy theory under discussion are neo-fascists and paleoconservatives of various persuasions. Is that a sufficient reason to reject the conspiracy theory? Obviously not, and I never suggested otherwise, so I’m perplexed as to why Arnstberg would accuse me of such a transparent logical fallacy; perhaps the crux of my argument was simply lost in translation. What I wrote was that a belief in cultural Marxism has the potential to produce consequences markedly more calamitous than an espousal of equally farcical conspiracy theories, as the Utøya massacre attests.

Arnstberg is also incorrect to say I regard the notion of the Frankfurt school being the progenitors of political correctness as being inherently “racist.” It can be, e.g., when Kevin MacDonald explains it as a group survival strategy employed consciously or subconsciously by individuals of Semitic descent, but it doesn’t have to be. A further error committed by Arnstberg is his assertion that I don’t recognize the existence of political correctness per se. As I wrote in my paper, ‘political correctness’ can best be understood as a mechanism designed to regulate behavior in a manner which fosters racial tolerance while simultaneously solidifying belief that capitalism’s class divisions are structured along genuinely meritocratic lines—meritocracy being the bourgeoisie’s principal self-legitimating ideological construct in the 21st century. I’m also accused of not wanting to discuss the disruptive consequences of multiculturalism or “Jewish policies to prevent a second Holocaust,” both of which are explicitly addressed in my paper. Arnstberg is of the opinion that left critics are either too ideologically blinded or lack the fortitude to debate these matters publicly, and while that may be true of some, it certainly doesn’t describe me.

At one point, Arnstberg asks how the society I desire might look in practice. He mistakenly assumes what I envisage as the end of history is a “postmodern” society, characterized by him as an order consisting of “free immigration, multiculturalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, LGBTQ affirmation, feminism, environmental awareness, defense of human equality, and defense of animal rights.” How he came to the conclusion these concepts are exclusively postmodern in orientation, let alone that Marxism precipitated them, is, frankly, beyond me. I would, of course, prefer to live in a society which is cognizant of ecological imperatives, where racial and sexual discrimination have been minimized, and in which no nationality oppresses another—one has to wonder why Arnstberg seems to find these objectives disagreeable. Having said that, like traditional Marxists, I believe cultural transformations generally accompany modifications in society’s substructure, and that, within a communist commonwealth, they should be arrived at freely and democratically, not via government fiat. And contrary to what Arnstberg might think, I’m not under the naïve delusion humanity can ever construct a panacea, so my expectations of post-capitalist social relations are really quite modest. To get an adequate idea of what I actually do desire, I ask that Arnstberg study the history of the regions of Spain directed by the CNT-FAI between 1936-1939, the factory committees operating in Russia prior to the Bolshevik consolidation of power, the radically democratic polity achieved in the Paris Commune, or even the smaller scale examples of workers’ control exemplified in producer cooperatives. In short, I seek an economy devoid of exploitation and alienation, in which individuals self-manage the operations of their firms, production is democratically planned, and political policy is administered by a series of councils. A number of names have been assigned to what I’ve just described (council communism, economic syndicalism, libertarian socialism, etc.), but the content is what concerns me.

Next, Arnstberg outlines the ways in which he finds epistemological relativism to have been a pernicious force in the Western world and prattles on about the Syrian refugee crisis currently afflicting his motherland. Given his apparent reluctance to evaluate these issues from a materialist perspective and conspicuous sympathy for the theory of cultural Marxism, Arnstberg likely imagines Marxists and Jewish chauvinists to be the impetus behind these developments. It’s unfortunate that someone of his intelligence could seriously entertain such a preposterously idealist narrative, but it’s a common enough phenomenon.

In a final strange turn, near the end of his post Arnstberg equates moral universalism to postmodernity. If I had to wager, I’d say he missed the lessons in Philosophy 101 which covered the centrality of impartiality in the main moral doctrines when he was a university student, and how the epistemological relativism he laments more readily serves as a conduit to moral nihilism than it does to moral universalism.

[1] Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. xvii.
[2] Thomas Wheatland, a scholar of the Frankfurt school, doubts the extent to which Marcuse legitimately influenced even the New Left. See The Frankfurt School in Exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
[3] Paul Piccone, “20 Years of Telos,” Telos, No. 75 (Summer 1988), p. 13.


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4 thoughts on “Errors of a Swedish Culture Warrior

  1. Marko Ljubicic on said:

    There is little I would add to the topic of “cultural Marxism,” as Michael has already produced an extensive and incisive analysis of this asinine theory and its muddled proponents in this and previous commentaries. I would, however, venture that conspiratorial thinking in general can be largely attributed, in my estimation, to the atomized condition of the individual in capitalist society and the alienation that accompanies lives governed by impersonal market forces.

    Market anarchy obscures the true nature of capitalist production and imbues social interaction with an antisocial character. When you combine this innate property of capitalism with the direct ideological mechanisms of bourgeois society, the individual is left susceptible to profound false consciousness. Society appears to evolve in unpredictable ways, cultural changes seem manipulated by invisible hands, and conflicts abound despite the good intentions of regular people, let alone the sinister elites. The class struggle is shrouded behind the veneer of individualism and identify politics. The individual is left to fill in the explanatory gaps in our contradictory social, economic, and political consciousness according to his ideological and psychological predispositions.

    Because they are idealists of the worst kind, conservative ideologues–when they aren’t mere political hacks and cynical opportunists–are especially prone to falling for this trap, as seems to be the case with our Swedish friend. Since they also tend to be the most obscene apologists for capital, they often foist a model of “true, pure” capitalism versus the “corrupt, perverse, corporatist” system we observe today as a pitiful attempt to mitigate capitalism’s role in fostering the very cultural trends they so despise, rather than, as a materialist would, viewing the latter as the direct outgrowth of the former and not the product of the devious machinations of an obscure and defunct clique of German radical intellectuals that has long ago been relegated to the status of a mere curiosity for academics engaged in a few special areas of study. As Michael pointed out, political correctness can be entirely explained as a regulatory mechanism by Western liberal elites to maintain the social cohesiveness necessary to facilitate capital accumulation in the face of growing social diversification brought about by the development of capitalism itself (that is often politically motivated and fractious) and to promote a vision of capitalism as genuinely meritocratic–a system where anybody, no matter their background or identifying characteristics, can attain “success” if they simply apply themselves. This is why “politically correct” culture is nowhere enforced more strictly than in the workplace itself. Anybody remotely acquainted with the history of classical Marxism knows that it could never be described as “politically correct.” Marx and Engels themselves would likely be condemned by the liberal establishment for espousing views that would be considered positively gauche by modern liberal standards. The left-liberal excesses attributed to Marxism by right-wingers falls entirely on the shoulders of the New Left, not Marxism proper.

    Being a university student and having taken my share of humanities courses, I can attest that, at least in my part of the United States, there is no concerted effort afoot by faculty to inculcate students in the “toxic” ideas of Habermas, Marcuse, Adorno, and other Frankfurt School theorists. Their intellectual thought is hardly ever encountered outside of a handful of elective courses. Indeed, as Michael can probably corroborate with his own experience, while most faculty members tend to be left-leaning liberals and social democrats, conservatives and right-wingers are hardly a rarity. Furthermore, coherent Marxism exists in only a few scattered and marginalized university departments across the country. The detailed demographics will obviously vary according to the region of country and individual institution, but I think that’s a correct general statement.

  2. As always, I greatly appreciate the insightful contribution, Marko. You’re quite right in locating the source of conspiratorial thinking in alienation. Distinguishing essence from appearance is difficult even under the most ideal of conditions, so the atomized individual in bourgeois society is at a particular disadvantage when attempting to make sense of the political and cultural alterations before him.

    My experiences in higher education are analogous to your own. Only brief mention of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and a distorted, reductionist caricature of Marxism were ever presented in the material I was required to read. I don’t deny the possibility that, say, Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse remain topics of discussion in a few graduate level courses taught by professors who were active in the New Left (circa 1968) around North America and Western Europe, but I don’t believe this exposure has the transformative impact on students which conservative proponents of the cultural Marxism conspiracy contend. Nor do I believe the bourgeoisie would permit individuals with an agenda inimical to their reproduction as a social class to attain positions of mass influence. As I wrote in my paper, to the extent individuals affiliated with the Institute for Social Research had any influence in the ascent of cultural liberalism, it is because the concepts derived from their idiosyncratic readings of Freud and Marx were of service to capital in some capacity. Were they anything but, they would have surely been confined to subcultures and the avant-garde.

  3. Ethnic swedes and their culture is being replaced. Openly admitting of soon being a minority.

    You can argue about the terms that are being used online; ‘white genocide/the great replacement, cultural marxism’etc, but that doesnt change the fact that it’s real and a great demographic transformation is taking place all over western europe.

    • Jasper,

      In addition to questioning whether the concept is even a coherent one, my criticism of those who disseminate the “cultural Marxism” myth largely pivots on the narrative’s unsubstantiated explanatory value. If you bothered to read my work on the subject, you’d know I’ve never contended that mass immigration, and its attendant cultural and ethnic consequences, isn’t occurring, I’ve simply argued that Marxists (critical theorists or otherwise) have never been its catalyst—even if certain figures on the New Left celebrate the development.

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