It has long struck me how the Frankfurt School, a collection of Leftist émigrés from Nazi Germany, could have been so successful in dominating the curriculum of the American university and wielding so massive an influence over following generations of students. Its major figures, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, were the main authors of the political revolution of the 1960s which gradually filtered into the culture to produce the revisionist “narrative” and physical violence we observe all around us today.
The most publically significant spokesperson was Herbert Marcuse, whose One Dimensional Man, Eros and Civilization and his influential, totalitarian-inspired essay “Repressive Tolerance” planted the seeds of political and epistemic subversion in the fertile soil of American academia and, ultimately, in the marl of the cultural and institutional life. Marcuse argued in the essay that we must be “intolerant toward the protagonists of the repressive status quo.” By “status quo,” he meant classical liberal thought with its emphasis on tradition, individual autonomy, civic responsibility, and limited government, which he thought were responsible for deep-rooted social injustice. The narrative he developed was irresistible to his legion of acolytes.
The Frankfurters were the red brigades of the university Left, striving to fill their students’ minds with the doctrine of human and social perfectibility according to the egalitarian principles of their Marxist forbears, in particular the theories and ruminations of the Italian revolutionary thinker Antonio Gramsci and Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács. The Woke generation now rioting in the streets of Portland, Seattle, and other cities are their unwitting progeny, the shock troops of Antifa and BLM who never read Marcuse, let alone Horkheimer, Adorno, Gramsci or Lukács—and surely would be incapable of doing so with any comprehension. They have succumbed to a political virus of which they are unaware, fallen prey to a toxic narrative developed by the luminaries of the intellectual Left. This is what I would dub trickle-down intellectonomics, how complex thought (however specious) gradually leaks away into howls, bellows, and yawps.
There is no doubt that the crucial figures of the “Western Marxist” movement were brilliant men and erudite scholars, eloquent to a fault. They were right about some things, in particular about the rise of anti-Semitism as a function of a world sinking into barbarism. But how could they have been so wrong about America, working to transform the American Dream into the American Nightmare? Could they not see how their analysis of America’s ills was based not on a thorough and intimate knowledge of American life in all its variety and complexity but on the hoary concept of “commodity fetishism” and a theoretical explication of a mystical force Adorno called “negative dialectics,” an understanding of which could show how American society might be perfected?
Adorno believed that Western and American society could transcend its fundamental contradictions between labor and capital, between constraint and freedom, the compulsion to dominate both men and nature and the struggle for “unitary existence,” “in view of the concrete possibility of utopia,” as he wrote in Negative Dialectics. (Italics mine.) A “right condition,” he continued, could be freed from the inherent contradiction of “dialectic antagonisms.” Marcuse was much blunter. He was not interested in transcendence but repression—albeit in the name of that convenient Marxist evasion, a harmonious future. It must be said, however, that both men commanded a facility with language, combining complexity, expressiveness, and philosophic range, that few contemporary writers are capable of today. We should resist the temptation to dismiss their language as merely unintelligible or pretentious, yet their linguistic convolution is part of the problem.
Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan put the dilemma in a nutshell. “As men abound in copiousness of language,” he wrote, “so they become more wise, or more mad, than ordinary. Nor is it possible without letters for any man to become either excellently wise or . . . excellently foolish.”
The Frankfurters were excellently foolish, and the majority of our politicians, editors, public intellectuals, and corporate tycoons have imbibed their folly. With respect to the latter, as Rupert Darwall shows in Green Tyranny, “Capitalist wealth has been used to fund the Frankfurt School” to advance its own interests, primarily in the Green environmental industry; capitalists are subsidizing the very people dedicated to bringing them down. But this is true of the entire elitist cartel pushing the wages of intellectual abuse in our universities, media and political class. They have bought into the opiate narrative of the Left.
Social worker Judith Acosta puts the issue neatly when discussing the economic question with socialists young and old, who believe in “sharing the planet,” in doing away with free-market enterprise, in the free distribution of goods and services, and state ownership of the means of production: “They don’t concede that there is even such a thing as human nature, replete with base impulses. To them, humanity is perfectible (with a little government help and a lot of regulation).” She continues: “Human nature is bifurcated and fallen…there will be atrocities and power grabs no matter what economic system we have. The question more appropriately becomes…which economic and social system best deals with the reality of human nature, its innate indolence and selfishness, its ambition and creativity…So far, based on worldwide experience, a gently regulated capitalism seems to produce the most good for the broadest segment of humanity.”
But the Left will not concede to reality in attempting to advance its doctrine with mental sedatives like “social harmony,” “classless society,” “planetary village,” “unitary existence,” and so on. Its apostles and epigones have been thoroughly indoctrinated. And so their folly seems poised to prevail. We need to acknowledge that once in power the Left will enact policy predicated not on promoting the freedom and prosperity of the nation or recognizing the empirics of economic life but on a sweeping “narrative” of human perfectibility ushered in by an all-seeing aristocracy of political authoritarians. The Social Democratic “narrative” is an ideological tissue of unsustainable ideas, no matter how imposingly it may be formulated. Thanks to the Frankfurters and their infecting a generation of impressionable students with the illusion of human perfectibility and the dogmatic assurance of a self-regarding master class, excellent foolishness has become the air we breathe and the order of the day.