Cultural Marxism: Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, Emerging Worldviews 4

In the previous article, we looked at the emergence of various protests against modernity culminating in the emergence of postmodernism. We will return to the practical implications of these ideas in later articles. For now, though, we need to address the concept of Cultural Marxism.

The term Cultural Marxism (capitalized) refers to a theory that sees most of the anti-traditional cultural movements today as being rooted in a systematic Marxist plan to undermine Western society and to bring in a Marxist utopia. According to this theory, the strategy originates with Antonio Gramsci (1860-1937), a Neo-Marxist philosopher and a founding member of the Italian Communist Party. His thought is complex, but for present purposes a few of his key ideas are particularly important.

Antonio Gramsci

Marx had argued that the owners of the means of production maintained their position primarily through political and economic force, though other elements in society such as religion also contributed to their control over society. Gramsci expanded on this idea, arguing that the bourgeoisie maintain power primarily through their cultural hegemony, that is, their control over all facets of the culture and the promulgation of their values, and this explains why the proletariat revolution that Marx predicted had not happened. In effect, the workers have adopted bourgeois values as their own, seeing them as common sense, even though they run counter to their own interests.

For change to happen in society, the working class needs to develop its own culture based on its own self-interests. To do this, it needs to form alliances and compromises with other groups. The ideology it develops thus must extend well beyond narrow economic interests and address the moral and spiritual needs of people. Only when it develops such a counter-hegemony that can challenge and ultimately replace the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie will the communist revolution succeed.

Gramsci further believed that meaning comes from the interaction between human activity and larger historical and social processes. Knowledge is fundamentally social, that is, it is based on the relationships between people who hold the ideas. This comes very close to the postmodern view that truth is a social construct.

The bottom line here is that for social progress and the liberation of the worker to occur, the current culture and value system must be attacked and replaced with a new one that reflects the interests of workers and, more broadly, the oppressed. Establishing this new “truth” is critical to human liberation. It thus fits well with the trends we saw in the last article dealing with postmodernism.

The Frankfurt School

Gramsci’s ideas influenced the Frankfurt School, an approach to social theory and critical philosophy originally centered in the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany. Founded in 1923 by Carl Grünberg, a Marxist, the school was heavily influenced not just by Marx, but by Kant, Hegel, Freud, Max Weber, and others. Its work centered on the institutional conditions that allow social change. The school recognized that neither capitalism nor Marxism was adequate for the task, and so they attempted to do their analysis from a non-ideological perspective, at least in principle.

We see Gramsci’s ideas reflected in the early years of the Frankfurt School in the work of Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer defined Critical Theory as social critique with the goal of sociological change based on a non-dogmatic approach to intellectual liberation. Horkheimer argues that the dominant ideology in bourgeois society misrepresents social relations in ways that lend legitimacy to capitalist exploitation of the masses. This was essentially the same argument Gramsci makes about cultural hegemony, and Horkheimer’s intellectual liberation parallels Gramsci’s ideas about developing a counter-hegemony.

Horkheimer continued to influence the development of the Frankfurt School in later decades. His Dialectic of Enlightenment (1951), co-written with Theodor Adorno, was a sweeping critique of Western culture. He argued that Western society is built on domination and technological rationality. Through this, everything—including human persons and nature itself—is brought under human control. This has the effect of dampening class consciousness and promoting individualism, which in turn prevents social change. Mass culture and state capitalism, which addressed the fundamental contradiction in capitalism in Orthodox Marxist thought, further undermined the prospects of liberating the masses.

According to Horkheimer and Adorno, Critical Theory needed to explore the contradictions inherent in individualism with the goal of finding ways to promote human freedom and happiness. Echoing the themes of existentialism popular in the period, Horkheimer and Adorno argued that this is the only way to counter despair, even though it might not actually succeed in doing so.

Herbert Marcuse

Another key member of the Frankfurt School was Herbert Marcuse, a strong critic of Soviet Communism and many Marxist ideas. At the same time, however, he agreed with the basic Marxist goal of liberating the masses from the oppressive capitalist system.

Marcuse’s critique of capitalism was built on a synthesis of Freud and Marx. He agreed with Marx that capitalism dehumanized workers by turning them into objects, resources to be used for production. Marcuse took this further, arguing that workers had begun to see themselves as extensions of the things they made and thus had adopted a consumerist view of the world where life does in fact consist in the abundance of possession.

This, in turn, meant that the working classes have bought into the capitalist system which provides them with the goods they pursue. If social change is to occur, Marcuse argued, it would have to come from an alliance of radical intellectuals with the marginalized, ethnic minorities not integrated into the system, the unemployed, etc.

Marcuse argued that in these conditions, democracies could become totalitarian. While in general, he supported the idea of free speech, he argued that in a totalitarian democracy, it could be dangerous. Had someone withdrawn the right to free speech from Hitler, for example, it could have prevented Auschwitz and a World War. Toleration, then, had limits. As he put it, “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.”

Marcuse was very popular among radicals of various stripes in the 1960s and is considered “The Father of the New Left.” Pursuing that further would take us too far afield for the present.

Assessing Cultural Marxism

Given that many trends in current culture look very much like ideas that have been espoused by Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, and Marcuse, some have argued that there is a conspiracy afoot rooted in their thought and being implemented by the left. While this is theoretically possible, it is equally possible (and to me far more likely) that these thinkers have influenced thought on the Left, moving it in a particular direction, without there being a conspiracy behind it.

The influence of their ideas is perfectly understandable in light of the trends discussed in the previous article in this series. The easiest way to become a thought leader is to figure out the mood of a group before others do, and then provide an explanation of why they feel that way, ideally accompanied by a plan of action. This is as good an explanation of the impact of the ideas of Gramsci et al, as any other: they articulated the fear and frustration of their era in terms that explained the situation and that pointed a way forward.

To put it differently, rather than seeing Cultural Marxism as a conspiracy, particularly one that involves the Jews as some anti-Semites on the Alt-Right have claimed, it is best to think of it as a worldview that powerfully addresses many of the perceived problems in society from a left-leaning perspective, that is intellectually capable of adapting to new situations, and that includes an ethical component and a plan of action suited to the situation in the world today. Gramsci and the Frankfurt School helped solidify this worldview, but it only succeeded because it fit the mood of a certain segment of the society at the time.

In the next article, we will explore other aspects of the current form of the Cultural Marxist worldview with the goal of pointing the way to its role as an umbrella structure for emerging worldviews.


Glenn Sunshine, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and professor of history at Central Connecticut State University.

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