Hey! Cultural Marxism! II: Missed Connections, Research Time, 25/08/2017

The philosophers went to the universities. The group of thinkers at the centre of Perry Anderson’s short book Considerations on Western Marxism are, more commonly, called the Frankfurt School.

They're at the centre of the great right-wing conspiracy theory of our time – cultural marxism. Part of what I want to do with the next few posts is clarify my ideas about this conspiracy image – the product of Andrew Breitbart’s weird interpretation of this existentialist marxism.

The cultural impact of this angry, angry man fascinates me.
I’ll be getting back to Breitbart’s interpretation later on, riffing from his book Righteous Indignation. I want to stick with Anderson for now, because Anderson describes accurately the history of the Frankfurt School and the other theorists of Western marxism.

So when I left off yesterday, Stalin had just purged the entire Soviet Union of any communist philosopher with any originality of thought beyond dutifully transcribing and explaining ideological directives from the Central Committee. Those people were all dead by the end of the 1930s.

It’s not as though the study or continuation of marxist theory was doing much better in Europe. The central clique of these thinkers in the university sector were at Max Horkheimer’s Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Hence the name.

They ran into some trouble when Hitler came to power. So Horkheimer and the rest of his crew picked up whatever they could and moved to New York.

Here was the break in the Cold War’s West* between philosophical creation and community organizing among working class people. The main institution the theorists used to become community activists was the Communist Party of each country where they lived.

* And the Cold War wouldn’t even start for another 15 years.

Anderson wrote his book in the 1970s, so there was no sign on the
horizon of the ironic movement in universities happening today:
Squeezed by large-scale underemployment, many humanities
researchers are pursuing careers outside the university campus,
and many on the left are becoming journalists and activists.
Already, the link between philosophers and activists was getting strained. The philosophers no longer worked for the political parties or the radical newspapers. They taught in universities. But there was still the party itself, where the theorists could work with the folks who pounded the streets and the factory floors.

Uprooting the entire intellectual rank and file of the western European workers’ movement** across the Atlantic Ocean had two effects.

** Or killing them. Many of them were also killed. Taken out of their homes and shot. Bundled into a car in the middle of the night, tortured, and never seen again.

Here was the first effect. I don’t even know why I included that note about so many socialist philosophers and theorists being killed. Because I can just say it here. The rise of Stalin in Russia and Hitler in Europe resulted in many original thinkers getting bullets in their brains. That’s one obvious loss to the community of writers and activists.

The other loss was a bit more subtle. While Horkheimer and the other political refugees from Hitler’s Europe were working in New York, they had no Communist Party to draw on.

Now, there were plenty of communist parties and groups in the United States. But none of them had the unity of the European communist parties. It was a literal unity, another function of the social organizing work Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did in the 19th century. They built an international conference for all the communist parties of Europe. It strengthened the unity of the European workers’ movement’s social network.

The flaw of the marxist tradition – and all traditions named after a
person – is excessive fealty to Marx himself. It hobbles a thinker
or an activist from adapting to changing times.
None of that existed in the United States. Its movements for workers’ rights developed in very different directions in an extremely different set of cultures from those in Europe. Left-wing politics in the United States was much more fragmentary, with different parties across the states all holding different principles and doing their own things.

That lack of centralization had one big advantage – it made the workers’ movement more flexible. The core ideas could survive many different attempts to repress them, their devotees could adapt to the most hostile and unstable political contexts. Plus, the movement on a national scale was more immune to pressure and co-optation by Stalin.

Not to say that plenty of communist parties throughout the United States didn’t become puppets of Stalinism. Many did. Which is why the ideas and goals of a social democratic liberation movement mutated away from communist parties themselves. But that’s for later.

The problem was that there was no unified political party on a continental scale for Frankfurt School leaders and other left-wing intellectuals to latch onto. So by the end of the Second World War, the university-based philosophers of the workers’ movement lost all their material connections to politics.

This is where the irony sets in . . . . To be continued

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