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The Frankfurt School Conservative

Paul Gottfried brings lessons from the left to bear against idols of the modern state.
The Frankfurt School Conservative

Academics have many shortcomings, one of which is a lack of literary style. Years of specialized research and jargon-filled writings drain the typical professor of any sense of savoir faire. There are exceptions, however. One is Paul Gottfried, professor emeritus of humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Gottfried’s articles and books are erudite, well written, and despairing. These qualities are on display in his latest collection, War and Democracy.

War and Democracy consists of 25 short essays and reviews written between 1975 and the present. The book is both an excellent introduction to Gottfried’s political thought and a primer for themes that are analyzed at length in his other books. If there is a common thread that ties these disparate essays and reviews together, it is that the conservative movement in America will remain ineffectual as long as traditional mediating institutions—family, ethnicity, church, community, region—remain weak and government continues to grow.

Although Gottfried’s political orientation has been right of center since his graduate student days at Yale University, his early writings and reflections show a political mind that was influenced by intellectual currents on the left. In his essay “The Marcuse Factor,” Gottfried gives a moving account of the positive impression Herbert Marcuse made on him as a graduate student. Though one of the leading lights of the leftist Frankfurt School, Marcuse’s ancient regime elegance impressed the young Gottfried.

This was true from the way he dressed to the gallant (but never lecherous) manner in which he spoke to female students. He oozed traditional German Bildung, with his extensive humanistic and linguistic erudition, which seemed to contrast sharply with the careerism and the narrow specialization that prevailed among his American counterparts.

Most importantly, it was Marcuse’s critical method that had a lasting influence on Gottfried. Gottfried explains that the Frankfurt School’s assumption that political behavior is constrained by historical context and power relations is an assumption that he continues to endorse, and one he has subsequently found in conservative writers like Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, and G.W.F. Hegel. It’s a view that clearly informs the analysis found in Gottfried’s books Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and After Liberalism.

Unlike the conservative critical method that is found in the work of figures like Burke, however, the critical method practiced by the Frankfurt School, and by extension Gottfried, is long on description and often short on prescription. Gottfried employs this method in critiquing leftist administrative and managerial social structures in the West, but it’s an approach that also accounts for the despairing attitude that comes across in Gottfried’s writings. The question that often arises after reading his brilliant analyses is: “what is to be done now that these structures have been analyzed?”

In his essay “The Patron Saint of White Guilt,” Gottfried makes some trenchant comments on the symbolic significance of the Martin Luther King Holiday. The fact that King’s birthday is the only national holiday devoted to a private citizen, says Gottfried, underscores the “iconic revolution” that the multicultural movement has initiated. While Gottfried acknowledges the wrongs of Jim Crow in the essay, he writes that the civil rights movement “provided a moral excuse to get federal bureaucrats and judges into the never-ending enterprise of reconstructing American society—an experiment that has now been extended to every aspect of our communal and commercial lives.”

Unlike Samuel Francis’s essay “The Cult of Dr. King” in his book Beautiful Losers, Gottfried’s essay does acknowledge that if the South had not been so inflexible on race relations there might have been less radicalization within the African-American electorate and the region might have appeared a less attractive target to “government social engineers.” Even the most ardent segregationist might have known that the most effective way to weaken an ethnic bloc is by extending certain privileges to its worthy members. Such distinctions were not made in the South. As Gottfried points out, “Jim Crow made few exceptions for worthy black would-be users of libraries and decent state universities.” In fact, federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement is a testament to the South’s past intransigence on racial matters.

Beyond the symbolic significance of the MLK holiday, Gottfried argues that King was quite courageous to take a stand against segregation but was unfit for the national role he plays today. The reasons given for his unfitness include his philandering, Communist affiliations and acts of plagiarism. However, despite King’s personal shortcomings, most Americans understand, as does Gottfried, that the MLK Holiday functions as a much needed salve: the enshrining of the civil rights leader has everything to do with absolving white guilt and placating African-Americans.

The two essays I have focused on reflect the type of concerns that have occupied Gottfried for more than three decades. The chronological order of the essays and reviews presented here allows the reader to see what ideas, personalities and books have shaped his conservatism. Although War and Democracy is a slim volume, its subject matter covers a wide range of issues that are topical and informative. From the ethnic origins of the neoconservative movement to liberalism’s penchant for centralized administration to the myth of Judeo-Christian “values,” Gottfried’s comprehensive knowledge of European and American intellectual history is impressive, and War and Democracy is a useful primer on the themes that are analyzed in depth in his other books.

Andre Archie is associate professor of ancient Greek philosophy at Colorado State University.



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