U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Frankfurt School, Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories, and American Conservatism

Max Horkheimer (left) and Theodor Adorno

The Frankfurt School is probably familiar to most readers of this blog.  Those of us who went to graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s almost certainly encountered the ideas of Walter Benjamin, Max Horheimer, and Theodor Adorno.  And as early as 1941, when Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom became a surprise best-seller, the ideas of the Frankfurt School have had broad and deep influence in the United States.  It’s hard to imagine the American New Left without Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man.  And Horkheimer and Adorno’s ideas about the culture industry have long been a kind of commonplace in educated discourse, even as the more reception-oriented understandings of popular culture came to challenge them over the last quarter century.

But while I think I have a fairly good grasp of the Frankfurt School and its legacy, in reading coverage of this weekend’s terrorist attack in Norway, I discovered that there was one aspect of that legacy of which I was utterly unaware: the role that the Frankfurt School plays in right-wing conspiracy theories about a Jewish, Marxist attempt to destroy Western civilization. 

In a story on the website Crooks & Liars, David Neiwert, an award-winning independent journalist and blogger who tracks the far right and its connections to mainstream conservatism, writes that the 1,500 page manifesto of Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who perpetrated the Norwegian attacks, largely focuses on the threat of “Cultural Marxism.”  Neiwert quotes Chip Berlet, another investigative journalist who tracks right-wing networks: 

Breivik championed opposition to “Cultural Marxism,” a right-wing antisemitic concept developed primarily by William Lind of the US-based Free Congress Foundation, but also the Lyndon LaRouche network.
… The idea is that a small group of Marxist Jews who formed the Frankfurt School set out to destroy Western Culture through a conspiracy to promote multiculturalism and collectivist economic theories.

Neiwert goes on to note that the idea of “Cultural Marxism” has already filtered into much more mainstream conservative circles in this country.  In particular, Republican dirty trickster Andrew Breitbart has become a major vector for the idea of “Cultural Marxism” and the supposed iniquity of the Frankfurt School.

Breitbart’s recent book Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World! goes into some detail about the Frankfurt School, and has received much notice in the conservative media for doing so.

For example, in a favorable review of Breitbart’s book that appeared in the Washington Times, Wes Vernon notes that:

Mr. Breitbart fingers the people who later would aid and abet the importation of cultural and political poison to our shores. He “names names” of those in this drama who arguably were serious threats to the nation’s security.

The chapter’s 21 pages track an in-depth research on the influence of such intellectual rogues as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, Wilhelm Reich and their ilk.

The “Breakthrough” chapter is at its best when it traces the transfer to the United States of the German-hatched Frankfurt School, or the Institute for Social Research (ISR) funded by Felix Weil, a young radical from Frankfurt, Germany, who used money from his rich grandfather while preaching the downfall of the capitalist system.

The Frankfurt School “was really a precursor to John Podesta’s Center for American Progress, funded by the Hungarian-born George Soros.”

The Frankfurt School, from its new American home at Columbia University, soon repaid America’s hospitality by unleashing “critical theory” among the populace. That term was coined by Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer. Mr. Breitbart describes it as encompassing the idea of “criticizing everyone and everything everywhere,” or making “society totally unworkable by making everything basically meaningless.”

This book further informs us that the late, famous broadcaster Edward R. Murrow “helped ship in many of the Frankfurt School’s greatest minds.”

“They walked right into our cultural institutions,” according to Mr. Breitbart, “and [when they] advanced their leadership, their language, their lexicon,” too many ignored them. That is the most dangerous thing you can do with “a driven leftist intellectual clique.”

Vernon’s review gives you a sense of the extraordinary scope of this particular conspiracy theory.

A glance at the terrorist Anders Breivik’s 1,500-page, English-language manifesto reveals other links to mainstream American conservative rhetoric, as well.  “Political correctness” is an important Breivik theme. He associates this idea, too, with the Frankfurt School:

Just what is “Political Correctness?” Political Correctness is in fact cultural Marxism (Cultural Communism) – Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms. The effort to translate Marxism from economics into culture did not begin with the student rebellion of the 1960s. It goes back at least to the 1920s and the writings of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci. In 1923, in Germany, a group of Marxists founded an institute devoted to making the transition, the Institute of Social Research (later known as the Frankfurt School). One of its founders, George Lukacs, stated its purpose as answering the question, “Who shall save us from Western Civilisation?” The Frankfurt School gained profound influence in European and American universities after many of its leading lights fled and spread all over Europe and even to the United States in the 1930s to escape National Socialism in Germany. In Western Europe it gained influence in universities from 1945.

 There are obviously a lot of threads that one might pull in this story, regarding, among other things, the relationship between mainstream conservatism and the violent radical right, the strong base of antisemitism that (often silently) underwrites a lot right-wing rhetoric, the deep anti-intellectual and anti-academic tendencies in these modes of thought, and the peculiar role that Lyndon LaRouche and his minions have played in encouraging conspiracy theories of all sorts (they are also an important source for left-wing conspiracy theories about Leo Strauss and the Straussians). 

But rather than elaborate on any of these thoughts, I’ll stop at this point, having noted this peculiar, poisonous meme which shows no sign of dying off, even after it has been connected to this weekend’s deadly attacks.

22 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. So for the Right, Leo Strauss and his colleagues are the vanguard of an insidious Leftist takeover, and for the Left, Leo Strauss and his colleagues are a fountainhead of Rightist neoconservative thought.

    No wonder you find him an interesting subject.

  2. I can’t really see too many right-wing groups being animated by animus towards Horkheimer and Adorno.

  3. The Frankfurt school was so highly ambivalent about the right and the left that they were as radical as they were conservative. A reminder to read again The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay.

  4. “The Frankfurt School ‘was really a precursor to John Podesta’s Center for American Progress…'” You know a good conspiracy theory by the absurdity of its analogies.

  5. “animated by animus”

    God, that’s horrible. Whoever wrote that is a terrible writer, no better than a hack. He needs to find another line of work.

  6. “Animated by animus” is such an anachronistic aphorism that no one should become antagonistic towards its author, even the author himself.

    Today’s blog is brought to you by the letter A.

  7. As I listened to the radio this morning during breakfast, I heard an observation that is ironic in relation to Anders Breivik’s claims about inordinate political correctness in Norway: apparently Norway has no hate-speech laws—none whatsoever. And they have apparently been tolerating extreme right-wing hate speech for years without doing much about it. Then again, since reports are coming in that Breivik is perhaps insane, I shouldn’t be surprised about nonsensical claims in his manifesto. – TL

  8. It appears that Breivik was talking about a different kind of political correctness than the one I referred to above (i.e. in the classroom and not the public sphere).

  9. “I can’t really see too many right-wing groups being animated by animus towards Horkheimer and Adorno.”

    “Cultural Marxism” is synonymous with the Frankfort School, for them. So many of the folks who invoke “CM”, may not realize its roots,the phrase comes from the leading right-wing populist intellectuals like Glen Beck. (I think he mentions it in his book, not sure)

  10. Interesting reflections by William Saletan on Breivik and his connections to right-wing anti-Islamist blogger Pamela Geller. …Just to throw a little more fuel on the connections to hardcore, conspiracy-oriented conservatism. – TL

  11. One salient characteristic of this conspiracy theory — at least, I think it’s significant — is the tendency of its adherents to speak of “Political Correctness” (always with capitals) as a specific ideology devised by specific people. That is not specific to Anders Breivik; he’s just repeating what others say. The theory holds that Political Correctness is another name for Cultural Marxism, which was invented by the Frankfurt School. (I recently had an indirect argument with a subscriber to this particular theory — a friend of a friend’s friend. In the course of the discussion, I tracked down the 1992 Michael Minnicino article that seems to have started the whole thing.)

    The reasons I think this is significant are, first, that it makes it unusually easy to identify and trace the conspiracy theory in the wild; and second, that it’s just such a weird way of understanding ideology. It’s as if I were to charge that Greed was an idea invented in 1953 by the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. There’s some sort of fundamental intellectual confusion that merely “setting the record straight” can’t begin to unravel. Something has to be done to explain how ideas actually work, or there’s no hope of any progress in a discussion.

  12. Dave Neiwert is an excellent source on these things. He may be the leading journalistic expert on the Radical Right in the US.

    When I first heard about this conspiracy theory several years ago, it made some kind of warped sense to me that far-rightists would pick the Frankfurt School as a bogeyman of multiculturalism. The most prominent figures associated with them were Jewish and they understood themselves as Marxists as well as Freudians. Since the far-right equates even American liberalism with Communism, no amount of actual history would persuade them of a more nuanced picture. But two of the most famous Frankfurt School writers, Franz Neumann and Herbert Marcuse, worked for the US wartime Office of Strategic Services doing intelligence analysis on Germany. And anyone who has read (or attempted to read!) an essay by any of the three core Frankfurt School figures – Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse – will seriously doubt whether even the more intellectually inclined among the Christian nationalist crowd have much direct exposure to what they actually wrote.

    It appears that the crackpot right holds a particular grudge against the Frankfurt School for the “Studies in Prejudice” series, the results of a research project sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and led by Horkheimer, the most famous of which is The Authoritarian Personality. The AJC has made the texts available at their website: http://www.ajcarchives.org/main.php?GroupingId=1380

    Those studies dealt in part with Old Right isolationists groups. But their kindred spirit to the Tea Party of today is readily evident, particularly in Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator by Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman.

  13. It seems if you can make the argument that Cultural Marxism is a diseased un-American ideology infecting academic institutions, you can be suspicious of any of their “sciences” concerning global warning or homosexulity.

  14. A belated thanks for all the comments! I’m especially grateful for Jonathan’s elaboration on “Political Correctness.” For those who didn’t follow his link, that Minnicino article on the Frankfurt School and Political Correctness was published in the first issue of Fidelio, the journal produced by Lyndon LaRouche’s Schiller Institute. This reinforces Neiwert and Berlet’s case that LaRouche is a key player in the early promotion of these memes.

  15. An interesting update re: Minnicino. Chip Berlet–who I mention above–has been tracking the sources of Breivik’s (apparently largely plagiarized) manifesto. In the course of this he, too, bumped into Michael Minnicino’s article in Fidelio. It turns out that Minnicino has renounced his article on the Frankfurt School and Political Correctness, as well as his other work for LaRouche. Those interested can read Minnicino’s statement on this over on Talk To Action, which is where Berlet is posting his work on Breivik.

  16. A few more notes on all this.

    Berlet suggests that the most important source for Breivik’s manifesto (including its material on “Cultural Marxism” and “Political Correctness”) is William S. Lind, an antiwar paleoconservative who served on the Armed Services Cte legislative staffs of both Sens. Robert Taft, Jr. and Gary Hart. The key work that Breivik borrowed from apparently came from Lind’s days working for Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation, but he has also written for the paleoconservative journal American Conservative and for Alexander Cockburn’s Counterpunch. I guess politics makes strange bedfellows. Here’s Berlet’s post on the Lind-Breivik connection.

  17. Finally (for the moment at least) it turns out that Martin Jay has recently written about this issue: “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: The Frankfurt School as Scapegoat of the Lunatic Fringe,” Salmagundi, 169, (Fall 2010-Winter 2011).

    I haven’t had a chance to look at this yet (Salmagundi appears to be the last journal in America available only in hard copy, so I’ll have to trundle to the library to seek this out), but I’ll be fascinated to see what he has to say about this issue.

    [h/t again to Berlet who adds a reference to this piece at the end of his post on Lind linked above]

  18. Any true intellectual will eventually ask himself “can I intellectually defend my beliefs?”. Any intellectual who abides to political correctness will have to answer that question with a resounding “NO”. Whether or not the Frankfurt school is responsible for political correctness matters very little. The fact remains that it is marxism translated into economic terms, it is detrimental to western civilization while political correctness has produced no positive repercussions on society.

  19. Well, I’m grateful to you people for showing the origins of some conspiratorial ideas which have been current among right-wing circles in Brazil. Since some years ago, “Gramscian Revolution” has been a kind of theoretical panacea used to explain away every kind of minority movements and progressive cause.

  20. What utter nonsense. Do you people ever go back at reread this clap trap? Note how no one offers any factual counter to the ‘crazy swedes’ ideas, instead attempting to related one nutty guys actions with an entire group of thought. I would submit the Franfurt school has done its job well and eliminated the concept of ideas and arguments standing independent of the messenger. The Frankenfurrter school is opening marxist in the narrative of its origin and history. Marxism is a failure because it does not recognize the innate humanity of individuals and forces a collective view. The soviet union failed, China has failed, India failed when applying marxist principals. The franky school accepted the short comings of the economic principals of marx and attacked the humanity. They realized this is the foundation that needs to be changed to implement marxist utopia. Well no worries, what cann’t go on won’t.

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