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Dead But Not Gone

The Strange Death of Marxism, Paul Gottfried, University of Missouri Press, 154 pages

It sometimes happens that the worst characteristic of an otherwise valuable book is its title. Such is the case with Paul Gottfried’s latest work, The Strange Death of Marxism. Instead of Marxism’s obituary, what Gottfried has actually written is the story of its transmutation into—well, into exactly what remains in dispute. Whatever it might best be called, it is clearly the basis for the political correctness and multiculturalism that have become the state ideology in most of Europe and the United States.

Along the way, Gottfried does chronicle the death of classical, economic Marxism-Leninism both in and beyond European Communist Parties. There are no surprises here; postwar revelations of Stalinist horrors coupled with a rising prosperity that enabled European workers to join the middle class undermined the powerful French and Italian Communist Parties of the 1950s, along with those in most other countries. Maoist and Castroite attempts to internationalize the workers’ revolution by translating it into Third World liberation kept Marxism-Leninism on life support for a while, but it was already brain dead. By the time the Soviet Union fell in 1989, classical Marxism had long since been stuffed and mounted, like Lenin. Not even the Chinese Communist Party takes it seriously anymore.

Were that the main substance of Gottfried’s book, it would amount to little more than the usual ho-hum academic work. In fact, it is very much more. What Gottfried really presents is the history of Marxism’s bastard offspring, political correctness, and the institution most responsible for its birth, the Frankfurt School. In so doing, The Strange Death of Marxism joins Lorenz Jäger’s superb new biography of Theodor Adorno in making the intellectual history of the most radical of anti-Western ideologies accessible to a nonacademic audience.

Gottfried traces the rise of PC and multiculturalism through Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukacs, the Frankfurt School, and others, showing how Marx’s economic determinism evolved into an obsession with the unholy trinity of “racism, sexism, and homophobia,” which now demands endless sacrifices. The first way station was what Gottfried calls “neomarxism”:

    Neomarxists called themselves Marxists without accepting all of Marx’s historical and economic theories but while upholding socialism against capitalism, as a moral position …. Thereafter socialists would build their conceptual fabrics on Marx’s notion of “alienation,” extracted from his writings of the 1840s …. [they] could therefore dispense with a strictly materialist analysis and shift … focus toward religion, morality, and aesthetics.

What happened next is a matter of dispute, more over terminology than anything else. As Marxism became PC and multiculturalism, did it turn into cultural, as distinguished from economic, Marxism, or did it, as Gottfried contends, move so far beyond Marx as to constitute post-Marxism? Gottfried writes,

    Is the critical observation about the Frankfurt School therefore correct, that it exemplifies ‘cultural Bolshevism,’ which pushes Marxist-Leninist revolution under a sociological-Freudian label? To the extent its practitioners and despisers would both answer to this characterization, it may in fact be valid … but if Marxism under the Frankfurt School has undergone [these] alterations, then there may be little Marxism left in it. The appeal of the Critical Theorists to Marx has become increasingly ritualistic and what there is in the theory of Marxist sources is now intermingled with identifiably non-Marxist ones …. In a nutshell, they had moved beyond Marxism … into a militantly antibourgeois stance that operates independently of Marxist economic assumptions.

Here Gottfried is both right and wrong. He is correct that the cultural Marxism we know as political correctness has left Marxism-Leninism and orthodox Marxist economics behind. It did so early; by the late 1910s, Gramsci and Lukacs perceived that culture was not merely “superstructure” but a separate and important variable, and in 1930 Max Horkheimer, the Frankfurt School’s new director, said that the working class would not be the basis of a revolution.

But Gottfried writes, “In defense of this project as a Marxist one, it might be said that its practitioners regarded themselves as revolutionary disciples of Marx and took pains to place their work into a Marxist framework.” Perhaps we should simply take them at their word.

While much has been written about the Frankfurt School’s move from Germany to the United States after Hitler came to power and its subsequent influence here, Gottfried breaks some new ground in his look at the boomerang effect. How is it that Jürgen Habermas, Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s successor at the Frankfurt School, has good things to say about America? As Gottfried writes,

    Immigration reform for the benefit of Third World populations, followed by laws aimed at curbing discrimination against racial minorities and recognition of feminist and gay rights, began in the United States about ten to fifteen years earlier than in Western Europe.

Far from being a bastion of church-going cultural conservatism, the United States has become the world leader of the culturally Marxist revolution, to the point of attempting to impose secular democracy and women’s rights on the Islamic world by force of arms. Gottfried rightly traces European cultural Marxism back to the American-designed re-education of the Germans after World War II, of which Habermas proudly proclaims himself an heir. If some European countries have now gone farther than the U.S. in making cultural Marxism the state ideology—any dissent from which risks a term in prison—America had much to do with injecting the poison into the European body politic. This time it was Horkheimer and Adorno who arrived on the sealed train.

In his last chapter, Gottfried argues that the “soft despotism” of cultural Marxism, the spirit of Huxley’s Brave New World, is a political religion. That is a fair description of ideology in general; all ideologies are anti-Christ, false Christianity promising heaven on earth through man’s own efforts. Despite labeling cultural Marxism “post-Marxism,” Gottfried acknowledges that “the appeal of a Communist god remains a critical point of reference for explaining the current European parliamentary left.” The transmuted effect of this god is that

    Those who are secure in their pure intentions also understand the pervasive evil of their Euro-American or German identity. It is something that must be devalued and eventually removed from human relations, in the transition to a global society that will ‘enrich’ the Western world by replacing it.

Nor is this goal confined to the European Left:

    Prominent American neoconservative journalist and author Stephen Schwartz has argued in the National Review that those who are fighting for global democracy should view Leon Trotsky as a worthy forerunner.

In the end, Gottfried ends up proving the opposite of the thesis in his book’s title. Uncle Karl may be buried, but he’s far from dead.


William S. Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation in Washington, D.C.