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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.