Left and Right

Critical Theory and the Newest Left

By Alexander Stern Hedgehog Review

What the Frankfurt School has to say about bureaucratic progressivism.

“Cultural Marxism” is often invoked by some on the right to explain the rise of “woke” politics in universities, newsrooms, and corporations. According to this well-rehearsed line of criticism, the fixation on race and gender, the erosion of free speech, and the high-pitched frenzy of political correctness and cancellation, are nothing less than a communist plot. But while the heavy-handed conflation of progressivism with Marxism should be recognizable to anyone familiar with the history of red baiting, this account mangles an intellectual legacy that actually has the resources to resist the distorted form of progressivism currently gaining influence.

One prominent version of the right-wing critique goes something like this. The thinkers of the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxian philosophers, sociologists, and critics prominent in Germany and the United States at mid-century, despaired of the failure of proletarian subjects to develop the class consciousness that would enable revolution. Led by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, these critical theorists turned their attention instead to cultural institutions. They reasoned that Marxism needed to take root in the culture before it could mount its political challenge. Fast-forward seventy odd years and their masterplan, we’re told, is near completion.

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