The Frankfurt School Was Not The Cause Of Progressivism

This is meant as a short reply to content shared among our readers on the topic of Cultural Marxism. I want to discourage misuse of terminology and correct some simplifications which I suspect might be harmful to those unfamiliar with other relevant writing on the topics of history, theory of politics, and sociology.

On Social Matter, we use progressivism as the preferred term for a wide array of left-wing ideologies and worldviews, as well as the dominant belief system of the modern Western world. It also includes the beliefs of most self-described conservatives. Currently, these worldviews are thought to be direct descendants of the egalitarian strains of Anglo-Christianity and some Enlightenment philosophy, that participated heavily in various undesirable European social and political upheavals from the 17th to the 19th century. Claiming to be the product of pure reason and universal human values, we believe it is currently best understood as a strange cult religion sharing a particular morality heavily contingent on the history of predecessor cults. Smaller cousin cults sharing the same roots and features spawned on a smaller scale and flamed out earlier. Like American Free Love Christian Communists.

Another clear sign of this is that it retains and relies on essentially religious and unjustified assumptions. An example would be Moral Progress, i.e., the belief that the “moral arc” of history bends towards “justice,” having developed from Providence, the assumption of God’s intervention to shape history. We also see several clearly recorded transitional stages of development from the old worldview to the new one, such as recognizable UN aspirations being in 1942 described and seen as Super-Protestant.

Leftism sometimes also has a special wider use. James A. Donald speculated that much like Progressivism is a recognizable outgrowth of Anglo-Christianity that has resulted in destructive outcomes, the Gallician traditions might have given rise to the particular flavor of the French Revolution. That ideological lineage is said to be mostly extinct and has been replaced in modern France by Anglo-descended leftism. I have elsewhere similarly speculated on another extinct lineage of leftism outside the Western world among the Mazdakists.

An established church is a system of social institutions that generates and disseminates the normative belief system of a society and with it certain behaviors and values. It is either indistinguishable from the state or has its support in formal and informal privileges.

The term Cathedral was coined by Mencius Moldbug to refer to the 20th-century version of the established church still existing today in the West. Sometimes it is used in a narrower sense, specifically a life-cycle that is posited to exist in democracies where the media and educational institutions create certain beliefs and disperse them among the population. Then via the state, these translate into power and legitimacy for the institutions. This power and legitimacy can then be used to more effectively ingrain the next batch of ideas. When it comes to the truth value of the beliefs, the cycle has no good tether to reality, instead over time collapsing them into the set of ideas that can most effectively grant power to opinion generating institutions.

I have few objections to /pol/ infographics like this one beyond disputing their usual framing. The one linked is an acceptable ideological mapping, that in large parts fits quite well with my understanding of some of the social phenomena, ideas, and institutions included. However, it includes some parts of the Cathedral and some components that are not part of it, so its fault lies in not making the previously described insanity generating cycle clear. A much more damning criticism is that it falsely implies that real democracy or elimination of foreign subversion, if only tried, might solve most of the negative consequences it bemoans.

This is incorrect. This is especially true on the example of mass immigration that it explicitly uses in this way, since there is a direct and inbuilt incentive in a democracy for anyone who wants to grab power to extend the franchise as much as possible. Because of natural human tribalism, importing large amounts of new voters creates instant new voting blocks that can easily be harvested for electoral victories and other kinds of political influence.

It could be understood to imply that only the Frankfurt School was feeding into rising insanity during the 20th century or that various leftist ideologies were not problematic before then. This isn’t directly contradicted by the linked infographic.

This seemed notable, because there are relatively large and loud ideological groups firmly holding the belief that things only went bad in the 1960s and put the entire problem at the feet of the Frankfurt school. They don’t in practice seem very interested in the kind of exploration of truth that I want to engage in, rather being motivated for immediate action, through the means of changing mass opinion, political struggle and various kinds of activism. This kind of opinion warfare is gambling in terms of pay off. Like all gambling games the house wins, and the house is Communist. I don’t know yet how I would go about changing society for the better, but this doesn’t seem the correct approach. The notion commonly held on these political sites, that the Frankfurt school is solely responsible for social decay in recent decades is just wrong.

The Frankfurt school was first a social science research institution and then a school of Neo-Marxist social theory; it was an organized group of essentially Communist intellectuals, who set out to systematically alter society by using social science both as a tool and also as a political weapon to attack and change social structures they understood as necessary for the existence of capitalism. They both studied society with the hope of finding ways to do this and attempted to produce research and work that would cause social reform to actualize it. Note this doesn’t require the work to be an accurate description of reality. A corruption of epistemology and goals occurs. The formal purpose of a captured relevant social science was the unbiased study of reality. The actual purpose was to carry out revolution. The bottom line is written before the “impartial” investigation that follows.

Certain influential books flowed from the Frankfurt School, namely The Authoritarian Personality (1950) by Theodor Adorno that was part model, part propaganda, written with the aim of arguing that the only way to avoid totalitarianism is to demolish exactly those structures they had previously identified as supporting capitalism. Conveniently focused and packaged as anti-Fascism.

In the early years following World War II, the halls of power were quite open to various suggestions on the best approach to the denazification of Germany. And once this was done, well why not be extra safe and apply it at home?

As a side effect of implementation in policy, they became considered foundational texts in many areas of study. Combined with organized entry and purging of ideologically disaligned individuals, we do see a capture of academia, which conveniently is also an educational institution. Whatever change that takes place, absent disruptions, is self-replicating.

There is a reason they had so little difficulty with the task, though; many working in those institutions were already sympathetic to similar ideals.

Looking at the economics, anthropology, and psychology of the 1930s-1950s is sufficient for one to realizes there is in fact no bright shining line dividing fallen and unfallen social science in 1960. There is indeed an introduction of some new ideological tools, but not the approach itself. Unrelated leftist groups and ideologies had captured parts of academia for similar purposes before–some in the 19th century, or even earlier, as can be observed in 18th century philosophy.

Many of these, like the Utilitarian push for women’s suffrage, were comparably successful in reshaping society. The particular ideology everyone calls Progressive, the one from the 1900s, had proposed societal reforms that were in themselves already perfectly sufficient to destroy it in the long run.

The symptoms of social decay many bemoan in the 1960s of course far predate it. Together with enabling beliefs, they waxed and waned and sometimes lead directly to the later stage, likely even without a helping hand. A visceral example relating to the sexual revolution and gender relations can be found in this paragraph by James A. Donald:

The eighteenth century view of women was that they were the uncontrollably lustful sex, that given half a chance they would crawl nine miles over broken glass to have group sex with their demon lover. In the Victorian era, this was replaced by the doctrine that women were naturally pure and chaste, except that evil lecherous men forced their vile lusts upon them. This resulted in the abrupt removal of controls on female misbehavior. Women, such as the protagonist of “Pride and Prejudice” were allowed to be “out” while fertile age and single, giving them every opportunity for twentieth century style misbehavior. The evidence produced in the case of the divorce of Queen Caroline suggests that they did in fact misbehave, but, lacking cameras everywhere, it was possible to get away with denying this fact. Queen Caroline attended a ball naked from the waist up, and returned to her hotel with someone she met at the ball, but the official truth remained that she was a chaste woman cruelly mistreated by her lecherous and philandering husband. In view of what Queen Caroline got up to and got away with, and in view of the lack of controls on the protagonist of “Pride and Prejudice”, we may suppose a covert sexual revolution in Victorian times, going public in 1910, in part because cameras were getting usable.

By now, I hope I managed to present some of the reasons why theories recently written about the Frankfurt School are an insufficient and misleading explanation for leftist drift. As such, they are bad guides to potential action.

At the same time, I know this post also isn’t sufficient for the full argument. That would probably take up several books, but it should be enough to help people find some important missing parts.

The Frankfurt School did not cause Progressivism. But it did help make it worse.

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  1. Another excellent article from you guys at Social Matter, and timely. Thanks Anton. The doctrine of the Social Gospel and its influence in the formation of Progressivism in the United States laid the groundwork for the postwar success of Marcuse, Adorno, et al. As Moldbug identified, I believe correctly, the origins of Progressivism in the US at least lay ultimately with the Puritans.

    If we are to ever eradicate the root virus of leftism, we must address its basic belief structure. The pattern of memetic mutation of leftism, at least as far as I can discern, is that opposition to its latest iteration provides the feedback mechanism for its next mutation. An example is opposition to Marxism-Leninism generating the National Socialist movement in Germany. Upon the discrediting of mainstream National Socialism, Cultural Marxism became hegemonic. The dialectic keeps unfolding as its roots are never cut out, only its dead branches, thus enabling new shoots to emerge.

    I am not dogmatic in this viewpoint as it is not completely formed in my thinking. Any criticism or feedback on this view of how leftism develops would be welcome. I would dearly love to find the heart of this beast, so better to kill it.

  2. Good argument against the Jews did it argument is in the form of the question who emancipated the Jews.

  3. Bravo and well-said, Anton. There is no patient zero, no Typhoid Mary we can blame for the scourge of Leftism; it is a systemic disease of Modernity. For example, the same turn away from economics and towards the cultural sphere that we see in the Frankfurters also took place, and at around the same time, in the strain of French Leftist thought that came to be known as “postmodernism”- which, in American hands, came to serve as the theoretical formalization of Leftist identity/victim politics and provided the methodological instrumentality for the destruction of the Western Canon in the humanities (“deconstruction”), and as such did a *lot* more immediate political and cultural damage to our societies than Marcuse et al. ever did.

  4. Leftism/rightism all comes back to the Wandervogel trying to leave the stench and noise of industrialization; as well as to the jingoist propaganda of empire;

    Anarchism vs Socialism is the totality of politics. With Fascism often being totalitarian socialism, and libertarianism often being anti-communist anti-collectivist. Removal of terms like Cultural Marxism and a traditional sense of party politics can only be good for getting at the root of ideas, without being hindered by ideology.

    For instance Anarchism vs Socialism is really Individuals vs Tribes.

    1. Pseudo-chrysostom August 25, 2016 at 5:51 pm

      >getting at the root of ideas, without being hindered by ideology.

      Presuming you can stand ‘outside’ of ideology is pure ideology.

  5. Pseudo-chrysostom August 25, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    The frankfurt school is a particularly egregious example of modernity, and hook-nosed hand rubbers are particularly egregious exponents of modernity.

    Waffling over who predates who is really quite besides the point; you would not want them around in any case.

    Chinese were using gunpowder before other peoples, but quite evidently europoids were a lot better and using and advancing it than they or anyone else were.

    1. “modernity” requires a bit more defining in your hands, I think. The Frankfurt school is not ‘an example of modernity’, as pernicious as modernity is. It is an example of satanism. That moderns have trouble recognizing and defending themselves against forces they don’t believe in is certainly a problem, but then you’ve simply pushed off the problem to ‘but then how does modernity occur?’

      Spengler got his answer, which wasn’t really an answer, it was a statistical model: “Statistically all civilizations have this cycle” (except those that don’t; in his case, those that never made it that far. This is not important to his theory.)

      Still, arguing this essentially sets everything as causeless, which requires a counter-factual approach to history, which is similar in character to Whig history.

      Thus we return to the essential questions, and who ‘comes before’ whom is valid because a domino does not topple itself, though sometimes they fall in parallel.

      1. Pseudo-chrysostom August 25, 2016 at 9:27 pm

        Gnostics, solipsists, leftists, satanists, and other synonyms.

        >Still, arguing this essentially sets everything as causeless

        Nonsense. The assertion is simple: pragmatically speaking, it would be beneficial not to have them around in any case.

        Amongst nrxers, is not ecumenical skepticism, expressed in various ways such as patch working, anti-dialecticism, and exit advocacy, not an animating principle? There is really no basis for arguing against advocating hebrews go their own way amongst their own people. Thank you, but no thank you, neither of us has to buy what the other is selling.

      2. Pseudo-chrysostom August 25, 2016 at 9:44 pm

        >Thus we return to the essential questions

        The essential questions are predisposition of powers (teleologies out in the wild []), what peoples have what tendencies to what degrees, what phenomena have greater or lesser degrees of inevitability amongst them.

  6. Certainly true. The Frankfurt School prospered in the US simply because its seed fell on a propitious soil.
    I’d rather situate the origin of Progressivism at the beginning of the Renaissance and its defining philosophy, Humanism.

    1. That’s something I hadn’t thought of for a very long time Cristina, and may get to something like an ultimate cause for modernity. Thank you.

    2. Marcus Montisursinensis August 28, 2016 at 4:44 pm

      Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn thought that Hussitism (Bohemia, beginning of the 15th century) was the first outburst of leftism. Even before, however, old heresies of gnosticism and dualism were occasionally revived (waldensians, cathars, bogomils), yet suppressed.
      The well-known “Albigensian crusade” was strategically inconclusive despite its tactical military success as long as Philip II was the king of France. One one hand, he was preoccupied with the north/west i.e. John of England, not with Raymond of Toulouse. On the other hand, as a Catholic, Philip did not perceive the entire war as anything personal. His successor Louis VIII was much more devout. Besides, his father got rid of the English. The counts of Toulouse were exhausted when Louis VIII and then his widow as the regent for their son St. Louis IX took personal interest to subjugate the next Raymond. At the beginning of the 13th century, the majority of the king’s forces consisted of the warrior caste nobility. Most important men at the court were either noblemen or clergymen.
      At the beginning of the 14th century, with Philip IV, “civil servants” such as Nogaret or de Marigny became powerful ministers. When such men came from nobility, it was lesser and/or impoverished nobility, and their qualification was not military skill. High+low versus middle conflict, always smoldering somewhere, receives a perfect catalyzer, the civil service, enemy to the warrior nobility caste. However, his army that lost the Battle of Golden Spurs (1302) was still a typical feudal army, with noblemen as mounted horsemen and the infantry raised by the noblemen.
      The wealth rose. St. Louis IX was the first French king to mint a golden coin, ecu (“the shield”). At the same time Florence started minting golden florins, while Venice started to mint golden ducats. The reign of St. Louis coincided with the lifetime of Thomas Aquinas. At that time, I would say that the primacy of Reason over Will was still the opinion of the learned and the wealthy. Louis IX was the grandfather of the aforementioned Philip IV. And here, with his civil servants, I see the beginning of decay. Two decades after Philip’s death, Emperor Louis IV would be vigorously celebrated by Marsilius of Padua and (also) Occam. This time the academia takes its glory.
      Then comes the Black Death, in 1346. And after that, around the beginning of the 15th century, the Western European thought seems to be changed. The spirit of Humanism and the so-called Renaissance spirit is the spirit of nominalism, of will being supreme to reason, of enriched merchants hanging out with artists (for pure pride) and poor men of letters (always in need of a sponsor and always willing to sign a tripartite contract: income and glory for the man of letters, vindication of sins turning into glory for the sponsor and the soul of both for the Devil, the third party). Less glorious and less paid was the service of the men of letters for Kings of France or Holy Roman Emperors or for various monarchs-tyrants of Italy (beside the republics Venice and Genoa, and Florence ruled by the merchant Medici family, other major rulers were a hired podestà or condottiero who soon turned into a tyrant, later being recognized as a duke or count: the Visconti and Sforza families of Milan; the Este of Ferrara and Modena, the Gonzaga of Mantua, the Malatesta of Rimini, Roman families Colonna and Orsini engaging in the politics of Rome while simultaneously ruling a nearby city). While the importance of horsemen slowly faded, mercenary armies emerged, paid both by wealthy republics (Venice) and kings (the French, after Agincourt, eagerly accepted not only the alliance with Scotland but the idea of recruiting warlike Scottish lesser noblemen as mercenary soldiers, including cavalry, formerly consisting of the king’s vassals). In England, the caste of warrior noblemen died off in the War of Roses. The noblemen of Henry VIII were mostly ennobled civil servants.
      So, what caused the nominalist “spirit of humanism”? Was it the Black Death as an example of Taleb’s “black swan” event? Was it that Power (in the sense of de Jouvenel) was finally enabled by circumstances to weaken the warrior noblemen caste? Was it the fact that wealthy merchant class emerged? Was it the fact that more money was available? Was it the change of warfare? Human choices depend much more on status and ideas than economic incentives; yet minds and conscience depend on socio-economic status).

  7. As a relative newcomer to this website, I suppose it’s time to out myself – I am a Pragmatic Centrist, which is a lonely vice (pause for the shocked silence). I admit that I find the texts and the comments to them interesting, but keep coming up against the same problem. Anton’s text, and its added comments is typical – modernism, progressivism, humanism, the Renaissance, Jewish, Black and womens’ emancipation are all described as self-evidently “bad”, and are blamed for for the perceived decline of the Western, or more accurately, the White World. To this pile we can add Anglo – Christianity, the Quakers, Queen Caroline, and Jane Austen.

    As a (very) amateur student of history I find this unconvincing. It is exactly at the time that all these “isms” and “ologies” grew and developed in Europe, say the last 500 years, that from being an economically, culturally and militarily weak member of the Global community on the Western tip of Eurasia, European Civilization eventually dominated virtually every corner of the World.

    What is even more interesting is that the type of society proposed to deal with this perceived decline in many of the texts is a return to a stratified, monarchic system, culturally and ethnically uniform, with an established religion which would structure the spiritual and psychological landscape of the subject population. It is precisely these kinds of societies, however, that were unable to withstand the European expansion in this period. They either collapsed (Aztecs, Incas), submitted to foreign rule (India, North Africa, the Dutch East Indies, and a host of other territories), or were compelled to Westernize to survive (Russian Empire, Japan, and in the 20th Century, Turkey, much of the Muslim World and China)

    So, in simple terms guys, what am I not seeing?

    1. Degeneracy.

      I can’t speak for the community here, but this would be my response. You are citing material wellbeing as evidence of ‘progress’. How are our families doing? How uplifting is our culture? How spiritually rich are we? How beautiful are our buildings? How just and honest are our social practices? How vibrant are our communities?

      There is a deadness at the heart of modernity. Many feel it, but misattribute its source. The idiot socialists blame the alienation of capitalism. I blame our inhumanity, our worship of false gods and our Faustian pact with equalitarian ideologies. Others may frame it differently.

      1. Moses – “Degeneracy” – OK, that’s good for starters. BTW, I wasn’t particularly thinking of material wellbeing as evidence of Western supremacy, but rather the whole gamut of the influence of that civilization on others – ideas, technology, finance, administration, science, mathematics, that were the envy of the World.

        “How are our families doing? How uplifting is our culture? How spiritually rich are we? How beautiful are our buildings? How just and honest are our social practices? How vibrant are our communities?” Absolutely valid questions, that no doubt were asked in every society in times past, and should be regularly asked in the future – no argument.

        “There is a deadness at the heart of modernity”. Not sure what you mean by that, although I’ll accept the sadness or despair of that statement. You, and many generations before you, are products of Modernity – you cannot change that, and you can’t go back. The only thing you, and others that think like you can do is move forward, and nudge your life towards what you think has value. If enough people think and feel like you then change will happen – but it will be nothing like the past.

        1. Moldbug can answer you much better than me:

          If you get addicted, there’s an easily searchable compendium of his writings here:

    2. I think Europe’s rise predated any of these liberal modern programs you cite. Spain conquered the Aztacs as an essentially homogenous medieval monarchy. Similar trends of expansion occurred elsewhere. The old colonial empires were already rising. I read somewhere that Western Europe already possessed the highest per capita GDP in the world by 1350. The trends towards dominance were already in motion before the enlightenment, democracy, racial pluralism, or feminism were imagined.

      1. Christian – I don’t think Spain’s population was particularly homogeneous at the beginning of Colonial expansion – apart from the Basques and the Catalans, there were cosiderable Jewish and Arab populations that were nominally Christianized but still far fron a homogeneous whole. There were sizeable Flemish and Italian communities in Spain – Columbus himself was, of course, Genoese.

        I have no knowledge of per capita GDP estimates of 1350’s Spain, but 1350 is a strange time to consider, It was the height of the Black Death throughout Eurasia, and the European, particularly Mediterranean states, including Spain, were particularly hard hit by rapid population decline. Some estimates are that in urban areas in Spain the population declined by 75-80% in the four year period 1348-52. Clearly, with such a population decline per capita GDP will rise, but wealth born out of such a disaster is not particularly impressive.

    3. Some of the examples below are just basic arguments of conservatism/tradition vs. liberalism/modernity, but anyway.. here are some things I think about:

      1. Moral relativism vs. absolutes: How have our morals changed over time? What about that change has been positive/negative? Is the rate of change increasing? How much change should we accept? When, if ever, do we need a correction? How would a correction take place?

      2. Capitalism: Capitalism has done a lot of good for the West, but how far should we go with capitalism? Should we see capitalism as a tool (putting people to work to serve a higher purpose) or should we see capitalism itself as a goal (unchecked materialism, consumerism, creating institutions that are too big to fail, keeping this system running at all costs, etc.)?

      3. Multiculturalism: Should we keep pushing multiculturalism (via immigration, education, pop culture, etc.) until we’re “all the same color”, or should we allow people the freedom to associate with the people they naturally feel a bond with?

      If tradition vs. modernity is a pendulum, I feel like we know how far tradition swings (from looking at a few thousand years of history), but have no idea where modernity will take us. Modernism and liberalism are the dominant forces in politics and culture. New conservative movements like neoreaction are asking a lot of good questions and have some new approaches outside of mainstream conservatism. As a fellow centrist (and former liberal) I hope movements like neoreaction can restore some balance!

  8. “So, in simple terms guys, what am I not seeing?”

    That the trajectory of our own, Modern societies seems to be leading to a place where they will become too internally incoherent to be able to continue to function. Where the old, static type of civilization had *vulnerabilities*, ours seems to be positively *suicidal*.

  9. I used to be a adamant preponent of the Cultural Marxist theory of recent social decline, but I have felt uncomfortable with the idea for over a year. It’s true that there is a 1960s devide after which decline accelerates, but it’s obvious that most of these trends existed before the Frankfurt School. I think “Cultural Marxism” is a convenient label for those trying to find a name for the devolutionary forces.

  10. First of all, the graphic linked by /pol/ was very funny and borderline eschatological.

    This article conveniently obfuscates the origins of the Frankfurt school in order to call into question their understandings of situations they had personal firsthand experience with. For example this slight against Adorno’s book, ‘Conveniently focused and packaged as anti-Fascism.’. Yes, because why would a man whose institution which was founded in Germany before WWII know anything about fascism in 1950. Especially when Walter Benjamin committed suicide because of the war.

    I’ll leave it at that. Stormfront with a thesaurus.

  11. Alan & Dissenting Sociologist – Alan writes about the “pendulum swings” of social and political trends, and Dissenting Sociologist writes about the “internal incoherence” that Modernism causes. Both are closely related, and describe the dynamism of societies in constant flux, moving hither and thither, with no sense of a stable center which we can hold on to. Human beings have a deep psychological need for a level of stability, and frequently look back at some apparently stable period in history where, from to-day’s perspective, “things” were better.

    The problem is, they never were. Recorded history is long enough for us to pick and choose the “good” and the “bad”, and synthesize something that approaches our ideal. The reality is that all societies, everywhere, and in all time frames were confronted with challenges which had to be dealt with. To simplify Arnold Toynbee, it was a process of “challenge, response, and resolution”. The challenge itself can be major or minor, but is confronted, dealt with, successfully or not, and incorporated into the life of a community. It can be as major as a foreign invasion, a new religion, the introduction of gunpowder or movable type, or as apparently minor as the introduction of the stirrup, the iron plough or the yoke for oxen, which had just as profound an effect on human society.

    Many of the respondents of this website rue the Renaissance, and the Rationalism and Modernism that followed. Well, these things happened – we are all the children of these processes and we can’t unmake them. What is more, the process is accelerating, particularly since the industrial revolution, and even more so with the birth of the age of electronics. The dream of living in some Victorian or Medieval fantasy World will never happen. Even the most conservative electronics experts believe that some kind of artificial intelligence will come into being in the next quarter Century. I believe THAT is our future, for better or for worse.

  12. There is no such thing as “Cultural Marxism”. It is an artificial thing created by the CIA in the early stages of the Cold War in order to act as counter against the Soviet-Stalinist brand of communism. Cultural Marxism is nothing but a CIA invented and funded intelligence operation that functions as a tool of American Liberal Hegemony.

  13. If you can replace “human rights” with something sane you’d solve a lot of problems.

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