No historian worth his honoraria ascribes major social change to a single factor. That is ideology, not history. Nonetheless, an ideology has been and remains a large cause of America’s cultural and moral decline over the past half century. It is an ideology whose origins, history, and goals are known only to a few academics, and it is an ideology that prefers not to be named. Indeed, it refuses to name itself. Known most commonly as “multiculturalism” or “political correctness,” it is in fact Cultural Marxism—Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms in an effort that goes back not to the 1960’s but to 1919.
Marxist theory had predicted that if another great European war broke out, the proletariat across Europe would rise up as one man to overthrow bourgeois liberalism and establish communism. But when war came in 1914, that didn’t happen. In 1919, two Marxist theorists, working independently, Antonio Gramsci in Italy and Georg Lukács in Hungary, explained why. They said that Western culture and the Christian religion so blinded the working class in Western Europe to its true class interests that communism was impossible until both could be destroyed. Gramsci called for a “long march through the institutions,” while Lukács, as deputy commissar for culture in the short-lived Bolshevik Béla Kun government in Hungary, asked, “Who will save us from Western civilization?” and proclaimed a program of “cultural terrorism” that included introducing sex education into Hungarian schools. He knew that if he could destroy a country’s sexual morals, he would take a large step toward destroying its culture as a whole.
Mussolini wisely threw Gramsci in jail and let him rot. But Lukács went on to have profound influence on a think tank established at Frankfurt University in Germany in 1923. Originally to be called the Institute for Marxism, its founders decided they could have more influence if they gave it a neutral-sounding name, the Institute for Social Research. This set the Institute, which soon became known as the Frankfurt School, on a course of hiding its real nature and intentions, which its heirs still follow.
At first, the Institute focused on orthodox Marxist topics such as the labor movement. But in 1930 a new director, a brilliant young thinker named Max Horkheimer, took over, and its work shifted radically. Horkheimer disagreed with Marx that culture was merely “superstructure,” determined by ownership of the means of production. Instead, he argued that it was an independent and highly important variable. He also said, heretically, that the working class would not be the agent of revolution because it was becoming part of the middle class. Horkheimer began the difficult intellectual task of translating Marx from economic into cultural terms, work that was quickly condemned by Moscow.
To assist in this immense task, Horkheimer brought in additional intellectuals who thought as he did. The most important was Theodor Adorno, who argued that because life under capitalism was by definition alienating, music, art, architecture, etc. must also be alienating in order to be “true.” As what we see and hear around us today testifies, Adorno’s influence was great. Two other recruits, Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm, helped the Institute cross Marx with Freud to declare that in Western culture everyone lived in a constant state of repression, from which they must be “liberated.” The results of their efforts began to become apparent in the 1960’s.
When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the Institute fled to New York, where it soon reestablished itself. There it began a series of “Studies in Prejudice,” which argued that every aspect of bourgeois society was based on one or more “prejudices” that had to be criticized relentlessly (“critical theory”). These studies provided the intellectual basis for the various “studies” departments that now litter the campuses of what were once serious universities. They culminated in Adorno’s vastly influential book The Authoritarian Personality. The research behind this book has been shown to be bogus, but its conclusion that any and all traditional ways of believing or behaving are “fascist” is now dogma in most intellectual circles. Adorno’s work came to have a great deal of influence over educational theory in this country, in which learning has been replaced with psychological conditioning. The Frankfurt School said explicitly that it does not matter whether children in school learn any skills or any facts. All that matters is that they leave with certain “attitudes.”
Shortly before the Institute had left Germany (to which it returned after the war), it had picked up a new member, a young graduate student named Herbert Marcuse. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Marcuse, who remained in the U.S., translated the highly abstruse work of Horkheimer and Adorno into books college students could easily read and understand. His book Eros and Civilization, which become the bible of the New Left in the 60’s, argued that by replacing repression with “non-procreative eros” and dumping the “reality principle” for the “pleasure principle,” we could create a society of no work and all play. Horkheimer had left open the question of who would be the agent of revolution, since the working class would not. Marcuse filled that void by saying the revolution would come from a coalition of young people, blacks, feminist women, gays, etc., the sacred “victim groups” of political correctness. In a famous essay written in the 1960’s, Marcuse argued for what he called “liberating tolerance,” which he defined as tolerance for all ideas and movements coming from the left and intolerance for all ideas and movements coming from the right. When the left today calls for “tolerance,” that is what it means.
Marcuse injected the Cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School into the Baby Boomers, and it remains the ideology of much of that generation today. You cannot defy it and be a member of the elite. Cultural Marxism’s death grip on education, both in the public schools and in the universities, ensures that it has been pumped into succeeding generations as well. Because it relies not on logical argument but on psychological conditioning, to which the video-screen media lend themselves well, it is difficult to fight. Anyone who rejects it has been conditioned to look into the mirror and see “another Hitler.”
For cultural conservatives, the question is not only how to fight Cultural Marxism but how to undo the damage it has done and restore our traditional culture. The answer is not to be found in another ideology. As Russell Kirk wrote, conservatism is the negation of ideology.
Nor are there any ideologies that would serve the goal of cultural restoration. Fascism was no less future-focused than is Marxism; both Mussolini and Hitler embraced the new. Were it possible to cobble together some sort of restorationist ideology, it could not compete with Cultural Marxism because the latter works through psychological conditioning, against which philosophical argument has no chance. No cultural conservative could seek to copy the left’s means and create conditioning mechanisms of our own, because psychological conditioning leads to a Brave New World regardless of what attitudes it is attempting to impart. That is not where we want to end up.
Nor is it possible for us to retake our society’s institutions from the Cultural Marxists. They took them from us while we slept, unaware of the danger. In contrast, they are manning (personing?) the battlements, expecting an assault and well prepared to repel it. In the death by a thousand cuts we watch being inflicted on President Trump, we see how the left reacts if conservatives post a win anywhere.
In war, when an enemy position is too strong to take, the best approach is usually to bypass it. There is a way to bypass the Cultural Marxists’ control of almost all mainstream institutions: Retroculture.
Retroculture is simply living again in the old ways, the ways in which most Americans lived up through the 1950’s. From lifetime marriage and family meals to regular churchgoing and proper dress, from hanging out the wash and cultivating a big garden to regularly visiting the art museum and the symphony with the children, Retroculture is the opposite of an ideology. It is concrete, not abstract. It deals with Cultural Marxism not by confronting it but by ignoring it. It says to all ideologies, “We’re not listening to you anymore. We’re just going to live in the old ways again, because we know those ways worked. The new ways, those developed from the 1960’s onward, have not worked. Goodbye.” Click.
In the May issue of Chronicles (“If the Center Cannot Hold,” Short Views) Tom Piatak quoted Bill Kraft, a central character in Thomas Hobbes’s novel Victoria:
You cannot create, or more precisely re-create, the world we want simply through words, least of all through the words of politicians. You have to do it by how you live. The Retroculture Movement is people—individuals, families, sometimes whole neighborhoods—striving to live again in the old ways, following the old rules.
Here Kraft expounds one of Victoria’s central themes: The highest power is the power of example. It is stronger than words, stronger even than the Cultural Marxists’ conditioning mechanisms. Lives lived well, in the old ways, following the old rules, will draw more people into doing the same.
Those who want to live Retro lives will of course work to remove the conditioning mechanisms from their homes. This means getting rid of most if not all video-screen devices. With all such devices the image is more powerful than the word, and the Cultural Marxists are masters of manipulating images: If they want to normalize homosexuality, for example, they just generate television show after television show where the only normal-seeming white male is gay. The 1950’s did have television, and a family wanting to recreate a 1950’s life can have one, too. Just watch shows from the 50’s, which are widely available.
The public schools are another conditioning mechanism many Retro folks will want to avoid, at least until Retroculture grows strong enough that people can create Retro schools. Homeschooling offers an alternative; many homeschool curricula offer a reasonable approximation of the education a child would have received in the public schools at mid-century. Homeschoolers are in some respects an early manifestation of Retroculture in that they have turned from the conditioning mechanism of today’s public schools to older, sounder ways to educate.
Retroculture adherents are free to choose any historical period they want to model their lives on, so long as it predates that “slum of a decade,” the 1960’s. Because many people rightly regard the 1950’s as our last normal decade, that will be their model. But any period in the short history of our country is accessible, because we know how people then lived. Attempting to enter the mind of someone living in the 18th century is likely to be more difficult than finding a chamber pot, but it is not impossible. (Emmett Tyrrell defined utopia as the 18th century with air conditioning and modern medicine.)
Retroculture is not impractical: Retro people will still go to the doctor and the hospital when they need to, shop at grocery stores if they live in the city, and drive if they live in the country. Most of these things are incidentals; they do not strike at the ways of believing, thinking, and living that made past societies work.
We already have a large and growing community of Retro fellow-Americans who do not drive: the Amish. I have Amish friends, and they live lives that are both comfortable and good. Their basic rule is a simple one: In every situation, they try to do what they think Jesus would do. If they could put bumper stickers on their buggies (they can’t), theirs would read, “We know what Jesus would drive.” As my Amish friend David Kline, who is editor of Farming Magazine, explains, they drive buggies instead of cars because they want life to be local. Local means real, and real is the ultimate foe of all ideologies.
Some readers will see a resemblance between Retroculture and Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” Both are in the same broad camp, because both involve departing from the direction American culture is taking. The main difference is that the Benedict Option is overtly Christian, while Retroculture is of itself secular. Because Christian faith and regular churchgoing were central to the lives of earlier generations of Americans, people who go Retro are likely to be drawn toward a church. In fact, a growing number of young families are looking for traditional church services instead of the dumbed-down, “It’s all about you!” blather dispensed by some megachurches. The Millennials and Gen-Xers are likely recruits for more than Retro church services; they know that, given the direction society is headed in, their future prospects are grim.
To serve them and many others, we need more than the concept of Retroculture: We need a Retroculture Movement. By offering fellowship in a common cause, the cause of cultural restoration, a movement protects individuals when Cultural Marxism says, “You’re all alone. No one else thinks as you do. You are sick; you need to see a psychiatrist.”
I wish my old colleague and friend Paul Weyrich were still among us. He was brilliant at creating new movements, including the New Right and the Religious Right. He could and would have built the Retroculture Movement that might give America a chance of survival. Someone else will have to turn Retroculture into a movement. But the need is there, the concept is there, and the market is there. We need a Bill Kraft to put them all together—and give us Victoria.
[AP Photo/Bloomsburg Press Enterprise, Jimmy May]