In his bestselling new book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How The Radical Left Conquered Everything, Christopher F. Rufo describes a pivotal moment in the history of critical theory: the 1969 break between two of its leading thinkers: Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno. The men were early members, and for decades, leaders, of the ‘Frankfurt School,’ a leftist school of thought concerned with the failure of Marxists to anticipate fascism and the ongoing strength of the capitalist system. They found their answer not in the economic materialism of Marx, but in deeper psychological tendencies that, they said, made capitalism self-perpetuating. Our own notions of self were so thoroughly and increasingly dependent on the fetishism of consumerism that any effort to transcend it was practically unimaginable.
In the moment that Rufo describes, Adorno found himself beset by a ‘New Left’ who viewed him as a proxy for the university administration, and indeed, the entire power structure. In his correspondence with Marcuse, Adorno complained that he had to call the police when a group of protesters occupied a room in the Institute. He asked his popular colleague to come back to the Institute to assuage the concerns of the students. In response, Marcuse wrote: “if the alternative is the police or left-wing students, then I am with the students.” He admitted the protesters were far from revolutionaries, not even capable of ‘pre-revolution,’ and that his support was simply empathy for their “suffocating and demeaning” situation. In response, Adorno said that his friend was “deluding [him]self” and that “the student movement in its current form is heading towards that technocratization of the university that it claims it wants to prevent, indeed quite directly.” The institution’s response to the students’ radicalism, in other words, would result in less, not more academic freedom for radical thinkers. Soon afterwards, aggravated by indignities including topless protesters humiliating him in his own lecture hall, Adorno retreated to Switzerland.
It is important for Rufo to illustrate this split between Marcuse’s optimism and Adorno’s pessimism, to make Marcuse seem more revolutionary. But this is greatly overstated, as can be seen in the very next letter Marcuse wrote. He made it clear that he too saw dangers in the students’ ignorant enthusiasm: “You know me well enough to know that I reject the unmediated translation of theory into praxis [revolutionary activity] just as emphatically as you do.” Both men, as critical theorists, were skeptical of the possibilities of a revolution that might overturn the capitalist system.
These are unhelpful facts for Chris Rufo, but as the conservative movement’s most important intellectual today, he has experience in forcing facts to fit his narrative. He has been instrumental in Governor Ron DeSantis’ transformation of Florida higher education and the “Don’t Say Gay” law aimed against supposed ‘groomers’ in the state’s public schools. Whenever you see a Republican talk about critical race theory or the horrors of DEI, they are echoing the ideas of Rufo. So I was interested to read his book, and to learn whether it would provide a compelling justification for his wide sweeping political program.
America’s Cultural Revolution is centered around the critical theorists he identifies as progenitors of the cultural revolution that is now presumably destroying America. His goal is to show that these theorists were the primary influences behind today’s DEI programs and other efforts aimed at increasing equality. His technique is to select the most ostensibly offensive quotes from their careers and whatever references he can find of sympathy to the Soviet Union, China, and other communist states. This tactic is especially strained given the core belief of anti-totalitarianism shared amongst the critical theorists (particularly Marcuse, who wrote a book about the Soviet Union). Then, he reveals that the ideas of his subject have invaded the American educational system, government, and big business.
This structure is intended to make DEI programs seem dangerous and revolutionary, the kind of thing that you wouldn’t want to expose your kids to. Rufo needs to play up these dangers in order to make his own extreme proposals, like banning books and firing teachers, seem necessary to fight back against a direct threat to America’s ideals. Thus, the critical theorists must be portrayed as revolutionary communists aiming to take over the country.
Throughout his book, Rufo describes two related concepts: the “long march through the institutions,” originated by German student leader and Marcuse ally Rudy Dutschke, and the “war of position,” theorized by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who was a posthumous influence on the critical theorists. Both, in Rufo’s telling, call for the infiltration of key institutions, from universities to government bureaucracy so they might dictate their ideas onto an unwitting public. He describes former revolutionaries from the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army finding positions of power to enact their cultural revolution. The goal is the creation of an alternative to capitalist domination that might overturn it.
The problem that Rufo faces is that the Frankfurt School was not revolutionary, a fact much observed by their orthodox Marxist contemporaries. Despite their differing sympathies toward the student activists, a key commonality among the early critical theorists was their pessimism towards the possibility of actual revolution. This manifested in their use of the negative dialectic, which led them to believe that the efforts at social change were sufficiently unlikely that even well-meaning efforts could be co-opted or result in a backlash. Rather than reach for a positive synthesis, the negative dialectic concludes that all concepts and categorizations are inherently contradictory.
The negative dialectic can be understood in opposition to the Hegelian dialectic, which represents the progression of human freedom in accordance with Weltgeist, the world-spirit, from which Marx drew from for his revolutionary optimism. Unlike that of Hegel, the critical theorists’ negative dialectic has no definitive ending or progression towards some kind of utopia. In marked contrast to the Hegelian dialectic’s total identification of categories with their underlying instances, the negative dialectic questions our habitual association of individual items with the concepts in which they are included. By continually pointing out ways in which they are not identical, the result is awareness of the non-totality of any concepts and categories. As Marcuse writes in Reason and Revolution, the negative dialectic’s “function is to break down the self-assurance and self-contentment, to undermine the sinister confidence in the power and language of facts.” The goal was the development of a deep cynicism that questioned the realities that underpinned the capitalist order.
Adorno applied the negative dialectic in his views on utopia. He recognized that utopian change was impossible. The system will weaken its impact so only small changes would occur. That was why he refused to offer a normative vision of a post-capitalist world, knowing that capitalism self-perpetuated itself through its control of the superstructure to make everything a product to be sold. In a radio interview with fellow critical theorist Ernst Bloch, Adorno argued that “what people have subjectively lost in their consciousness is the ability, quite simply, to imagine the whole as something that could be totally different.” People could simply not conceive of a genuine utopia. Whatever change they pushed for would be within the exploitative constraints of the capitalist system, so its impact would be minimized.
A good example of critical theory’s skepticism of the potential for social progress within the context of capitalism is Adorno’s writing on popular music. Adorno believed that art traditionally represented a space which operated beyond the confines of capitalism. He saw this in Arnold Schoenberg’s (deliberately challenging to the listener) twelve-tone system of classical music composition, which could reflect his own philosophy. When the industry co-opts these forms into product, it becomes a crucial element in the maintenance of the capitalist system, self-perpetuating and reifying the hegemony.
The 1936 essay “On Jazz” is Adorno’s diatribe against a genre that offered no promise of social change. He argued that its syncopation, improvisation, and the “anarchy” it represented disguised a standard, commodified popular music product with no possibility for revolution. While it may seem that jazz was derived from Black music forms that represented a form of resistance to their predicament, Adorno contended that it was a facade to invite the interest of white audiences. He argued that “syncopation is not, like its counterpart, that of Beethoven. The expression of an accumulated subjective force which directed itself against authority until it had produced a new law out of itself.” Rather, it represented “learning to fear social authority and experiencing it as a threat of castration—and immediately as fear of impotence—it identifies itself with precisely this authority of which it is afraid.” In other words, jazz was not a challenge to the social order like Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, but rather enforced the existing hegemony.
Adorno’s assessment of jazz has aged poorly, but it represents his view on how a seemingly revolutionary movement can cause the complete opposite of its stated intentions. Here we might return to the leftist program so criticized by Rufo. The problem with his theory of an American cultural revolution is that we are nowhere closer to a Communist state. The rich continue to get richer. The violent revolutionaries, in marked contrast to the 1960s, are on the far right. None of this would have surprised the critical theorists.
As they would see it, DEI programs that Rufo criticizes as revolutionary are cosmetic additions to the capitalist superstructure, disguising what is essentially the same oppressive system that existed before. By accepting the most token modifications, capitalism inoculates itself from the possibility of genuine change. The resistance is paid off in exchange for their obedience within the system (so Angela Davis, who features heavily in the book, is now hawking overpriced hoodies and shirts). Transformation is prevented from taking place at all.
Rufo anticipates and agrees with this criticism at rare points in the book. He describes workplace training at Walmart, and how executives participate in training on systematic racism, white privilege, and the oppression of racial minorities throughout American history. Rufo cites CEO Doug McMillon talking about how these efforts were intended to “‘[shift] power, privilege, and access’ in American society.” He then indicates the fundamental hypocrisy of these efforts given Walmart’s exploitative history. “Corporate executives sensing the momentum of the critical theories in the universities and the necessity of protecting themselves from the federal civil rights bureaucracy, make concessions to the ideology with the intention of flattening it, co-opting it, and rendering it harmless.” This is precisely the critique that the critical theorists might deliver.
Given these inconsistencies, why does Rufo maintain that there is a strong influence between the critical theorists and modern DEI programs? It is because he does not appreciate the negative dialectic and the way it underpins all of critical theory. Had Rufo taken into consideration its importance to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, he would have probably found different people to blame for America’s cultural revolution.
Rufo is correct that the critical theorists have left an impact on our culture. The negative dialectic brings with it a pervasive ethos of contra-revolution that questions the necessity of any action whatsoever to create radical change. György Lukács, an orthodox Marxist, famously described Adorno as a resident of the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” able to, as Stuart Jeffries describes in his book of the same name, “retreat into a non-repressive intellectual space where they could think freely… a melancholy one since it is borne of a loss of hope and change.” Their ideology was nothing more than one of “programmatic impotence,” far from capable of inspiring the sort of cultural revolution that might challenge the capitalist order.
This commitment to function permanently as unhappy and even irritating outsiders is echoed in much of our contemporary discourse. Online culture is pervaded by a sense of cynicism, in viewing modern life as nothing more than a hell we are consigned to with no possibility for change. The ‘shitposter,’ arguing that there is no difference between Trump and Biden and rejecting political discourse entirely, is expressing precisely the arguments that Adorno would likely have believed if he was alive today. Rufo argues that the left has conquered our institutions, establishing a link between the critical theorists and DEI programs today to argue that they have won. But rather than mount a cultural revolution, the descendants of the critical theorists have no interest in waging a war at all.
Featured Image is Mural of Theodor Adorno by Justus Becker and Oğuz Şen. Senckenberganlage, Frankfurt, by Vysotsky