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On Cultural Marxism


Why do so many people — not only academics but well-meaning people in general, and in a curious way, so many religious — not see marxism as problematic?

marx1334Karl Marx statue unveiled in Trier to honour
the 200th anniversary of his birth

Besides providing numerous and often unexpected opportunities for practical charity, the restrictions on normal activities during the pandemic have offered us time to take up some of the books we always meant to read.  One of the best that I have found is Witness by Whittaker Chambers.1  It is valuable not only for the insight it gives into the notorious case of Alger Hiss, but for the light it shines on such questions as why people become marxists, communists, or social revolutionaries.

One may never have had the chance to travel to places like Venezuela or Cuba, but even a modest acquaintance with the history of the twentieth century makes clear the failures of classical marxism.  Yet, to voice such a thought in academic circles is generally taken to be illiberal.  And it is not only remarks about marxism as such that draw this sort of ire.  To assert that marriage is possible only between a man and a woman is taken as if it were an attack on the rights of oppressed minorities and a violation of the standards of civility required for public reason in democratic society.  To hold that felons should not have the right to vote often gets labeled as racism.  It is not rare to be suspected of disregarding transgender rights if one dares to say that men and women are intrinsically different.  Interestingly, however, it is in this last sphere that we are starting to find some significant pushback against the dysfunctional academic establishment when the parents of athletic daughters start to rebel against intruders in their school track meets. 

What links these varied issues is the worrisome phenomenon of today's cultural marxism.  The terminology here is tricky, but the danger is real.  Its adherents often claim other labels for themselves, but the actual positions they take seem to me to justify the use of this common designation.  Where classical marxism focused on capitalist economics and championed class warfare between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, cultural marxism has broadened its perspective to champion the cause of various "oppressed minorities" in their struggle against "majorities" and "privileged" groups that are deemed their "oppressors."  The term thus refers to a broad movement that advocates revolutionary social transformation of many types.  Its intellectual roots are to be found in such figures as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and other thinkers of the Frankfurt School that generated an approach called "Critical Theory" to address the perceived shortcomings of classical marxism.  The influence of this approach is manifest in the political campaigns of figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Why do so many people — not only academics but well-meaning people in general, and in a curious way, so many religious — not see marxism (whether in its classical form or in what Roger Scruton called "reconstituted marxism"2) as problematic?  Reading Chambers's Witness put this question for me in a new way.  About halfway through the book there is a very endearing scene.  In 1934 Chambers was directed to take up a crucial role in the underground "apparatus" that had been set up in Washington, D.C., to infiltrate important sectors of the American government.  To be close to his operatives and yet to find more affordable housing than was available in a city then choked by the influx of those who had come to administer President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs, Chambers chose to move his young family from New York to Baltimore. 

Shortly after moving in, he was advised by the landlord to hire "a colored girl" to help with their new baby.  What was apparently a common practice in "Charm City" immediately raised questions for Chambers and his wife: as communists, was it right for them — indeed, for anybody — to employ servants at all?  "The answer was, of course, that a servant is a worker like any other, and workers live by working.

Thus, by insisting on acting as Communists must, we found ourselves unwittingly acting as Christians should. I submit that this cuts to the heart of one aspect of the communist appeal.

Much more serious was another question: how could we in conscience pay the shockingly low wages paid in those days to such help we had in mind?" (357).

Even after deciding to pay a little more and despite his fear of the questions that doing so might cause, there was a further issue on which Chambers felt he could not compromise: "What should our conduct be toward Negroes whom I, as a communist, insisted on treating in every way as equals?" (358).  He decided that they must take their meals at the same table with their new maid, Edith Murray, and in all other ways treat her as someone who worked with them rather than for them.  Regardless of the embarrassment that she felt, this became the household's practice.  For Chambers, who had become a Christian by the time of writing this book, the episode was revealing: 

In any case, what we had to give her was not a place at our table.  What we had to give her was something that belonged to her by right, but which had been taken from her, and which we were merely giving back.  It was her human dignity.  Thus, by insisting on acting as Communists must, we found ourselves unwittingly acting as Christians should.  I submit that this cuts to the heart of one aspect of the communist appeal. (358) 

The last sentence in this passage speaks volumes.  In many of those who have lost the spark of religious faith, there still remains certain elements of the earlier formation of their consciences.  In reading passages like this in Witness, we can better understand how Chambers's attraction to communism was similar to what has drawn so many people in our day toward figures like Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez.  Even where real love for Christ and his Church that are the source of reliable conscience-formation has waned, many have retained from earlier training a sense of the need to respect human dignity, to have compassion for the indigent, and to care for the suffering.  Where the Gospel of Jesus Christ urges us to these tasks precisely for love of God and of all whom God loves, the social gospel of marxism and liberation theology preaches them as a way to honor the demands of conscience without the perceived clutter of religion and free of its burdens.3  Curiously, then, there is reason to think that the remnants of Christian conscience formation is an important source of the attraction that some people feel toward marxism and various forms of socialism.  As has so often been true in the history of Christianity, if only we lived our faith better, there would be much greater love for Christ and the Church. 

Chambers's point in this particular vignette is at one with the general thesis of the book as a whole: communism is a faith, and the source of its attraction is its vision of a pressing problem.  At the root of conversion to marxism for many people is a sense that the world is sick and needs to change.  Whatever their own political commitments, various pop culture figures have voiced this precise sentiment in recent days.  While other forces in the world seem to have lost the power to inspire conviction and to demand sacrifice, new forms of cultural marxism have inspired devotion.

For me, what Chambers explains, perhaps better than anyone else that I know, is why people become marxists.  It is not that they are stupid or morally depraved.  It is not that they have heard nothing about the horrors of various communist regimes.  In fact, part of the strategy of the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory has been to mount parallel criticisms of capitalism and of Soviet socialism, as if they are somehow on par.4  Even when crimes on a scale unparalleled in human history are acknowledged as part of the public record, many educated and well-meaning people adopt it on the presumption that such crimes are a thing of the past and that its ideals can now take purified form.  Violence on a smaller scale gets excused as an inescapable tactic for bringing down oppressive structures of law and order in the name of social transformation.

According to Chambers, many of those who joined the Communist Party or its unofficial underground did so "chiefly for moral reasons".(8)  As a kind of faith, cultural marxism makes an appeal that goes far beyond anything in the writings of Marx and Lenin, beyond the vagaries of dialectical materialism, beyond the labor theory of value and the theory of the general strike.  In ways that never cease to surprise, educated people have regularly found it possible to overlook the use of secret police, re-education camps, and the techniques employed for arranging a coup d'état when they become convinced that only the human mind is capable of changing a world that badly needs changing. 

For some people, the connection that I have drawn here between marxism, socialism, and communism will be questioned, if not rejected outright.  But tempting as it is to excuse coercive practices in our own day and to label only the use of totalitarian techniques as excesses, there is something instructive about examining the rationalizations used for justifying coercive measures in times of crisis.  One can detect disturbing similarities in the curtailment of civil liberties in the current pandemic and in the campaign of the People's Republic of China to rein in the protest movement in Hong Kong. 

Chambers offers a deeper way to understand the danger by contrasting a materialist vision with a theistic one: 

The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.  It is the vision of man's mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world.  It is the vision of man's liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man's destiny and reorganizing man's life and the world.  It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man's mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals.... Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.  (9-10) 

Paradoxically, the practicality of this materialistic vision makes it possible to rationalize all sorts of bloodletting out of a conviction that this will end "the bloody meaninglessness of man's history."  For Chambers, the tools that it turns into reality are wonderful products of the mind that God gave to humanity: science and technology.  What makes these disciplines useful for the realization of the marxist vision is an intrinsic aspect of the method that makes them so powerful, no matter the purpose for which they are used: "the rigorous exclusion of all supernatural factors in solving problems" (11).  Like all great revolutions, the marxist vision occurs in the human mind long before it is manifest in action.  Revolutions, conspiracies, lies, innuendo — all these are merely methods for realizing the vision and would have no meaning apart from the end they serve.  Realizing the marxist vision requires a faith not in God but in the future as what gives people the strength to struggle against the inertia of the past that they find embodied in social, political, and economic forms that block the road to humanity's next great forward stride.

It is precisely from his own years in the communist movement that Chambers came to grasp the nature of the basic marxist vision so clearly and to see through its elaborate rationalizations regarding the unrestricted use of power and violence.  What makes marxist regimes work, he shows again and again in Witness, is the fear that they cultivate.  It was precisely in recognition of the paralyzing force of fear that Pope John Paul II was intent upon countering with his resilient message of "Be Not Afraid" during his first trip back to his Polish homeland in 1979 and then countless times in his speeches and writings for the rest of his papacy. 

Although the appeal of marxism for many people is based not so much on abstract doctrines as on situations of desperation and on a summons to offer one's total dedication to an ideal, it remains important to understand its tenets intellectually, especially for the sake of making a sound comparison with the free institutions that we cherish.  At issue are not only the hearts but also the minds of individuals. 

During the period about which Chambers wrote — the period of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War — marxist communism operated from Russia as a home base.  Marx formulated his general laws of history in nineteenth-century conditions, but even if the specific sort of capitalism that he was discussing, to a great extent, no longer exists, the principles that he articulated have guided generations of marxists as the range of interest has grown and shifted.  The infiltration into America began with refugees from the Frankfurt School who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and settled in New York, at Columbia University and other institutions of higher learning.  Although they did not believe that a communist revolution could easily succeed in a country like the United States, they proposed a "long march through the institutions" of American society — government, religion, media, education, entertainment and religion — as a way to create the conditions necessary for revolution and social transformation.

Although they did not believe that a communist revolution could easily succeed in a country like the United States, they proposed a "long march through the institutions" of American society — government, religion, media, education, entertainment and religion — as a way to create the conditions necessary for revolution and social transformation.

Coming to a deeper grasp of the dangerous phenomenon of cultural marxism may well involve the study of texts that are far from our own penchant in matters of intellectual concentration.  One of the crucial sources, I think, is Herbert Marcuse's essay Repressive Tolerance.5  An original member of the Frankfurt School, he writes in this essay about the need for intolerance of traditional perspectives as oppressive.  He stresses the importance of censoring conservative viewpoints and working carefully to diversify the curriculum, precisely so as to subject every form of traditional social norm to critique while championing post-colonialism, radical feminism, and an openness to diverse sexual orientations and sexual experimentation.  In that essay he outlines many of the items that are now standard parts of agenda pursued in academic institutions.  Given the veneration nowadays paid to the notion of the tolerance of difference, it would be interesting to bring Marcuse's essay on intolerance to broader attention.  But even that might not help, if the desire for a certain outcome makes one blind to the performative contradiction involved in tolerating intolerance.6

Another important source with which to become acquainted is a pair of volumes edited by Theodor Adorno under the title The Authoritarian Personality.7  It has been an extremely influential text in social and political psychology, and his own essays are studies in taking the normal constituents of personal identity, such as parenthood, pride in one's family, love of one's own country, love for God, and even adherence to traditional gender roles as pathological phenomena.  For alternative stances to be encouraged, he notes the need for such traditional parts of self-identity to be handled as culturally created norms rather than as natural manifestations of personal maturity.

In much of the literature of this sort, cultural marxism requires the cultivation of suspicion about common language and the redefinition of terms.  Not long ago, for instance, we saw the studied efforts at redefining "family" and more recently the redefinition of "marriage."  As scholars, it is not enough for us to notice these cultural trends.  It can be extremely helpful to point out to students and to write in our essays about the organized campaigns of the theorists who devised these innovations, if only to show that they are efforts at propaganda.  In the pro-abortion movement, for example, we have seen this sort of semantic gymnastics, as William Brennan showed at length in his book Dehumanizing the Vulnerable.8 

There is also much to learn from Pope Benedict XVI's sophisticated strategy for handling the hermeneutics of suspicion by his carefully crafted responses to Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, the great masters of suspicion, in the first of his encyclicals, Deus caritas est.  In more traditional forms of scholarly argument, one tends to provide a clear thesis, well-defined terms, a formal argumentation, and an array of evidence for the thesis under discussion.  When one disagrees with arguments of this types, one needs either to attack the validity of their reasoning or the truth of their premises or the adequacy of the evidence.

In much of the literature of this sort, cultural marxism requires the cultivation of suspicion about common language and the redefinition of terms.

But the distinctive feature of the masters of suspicion is to raise suspicions about the motives of their opponents by making charges whose plausibility rests more on resentment than on evidence or argument.  In such a strategy, the rhetorical power arises from putting one's target on the defensive.  If the one attacked makes only a modest response, it can seem that the accused is really guilty and simply incapable of mounting any more of a defense.  On the other hand, a vigorous response can easily suggest that one is just trying to hide something under the very energy of the reply.  Benedict tries to find a middle course.  He offers an extremely clear but rhetorically modest explanation of Catholic doctrine that exposes the misrepresentations that are invariably part of the smokescreen laid down by the masters of suspicion.  He then provides stories of a number of Catholic saints and martyrs whose sacrifices are above suspicion. 

In this way Deus caritas est counters Freud's attacks on Christianity's alleged fear of eros by explaining the authentic Christian view of sexuality and love (§§2-18).  He counters the marxist use of resentment (for example, in the famous phrase "religion is the opium of the masses") by admitting what Marx has right in his social critique while noting where Marx went wrong (§§26-28, 31).  Third, he attacks the nihilism of Nietzsche's perspectivalism in taking all truth claims merely to be assertions of power and in denying the possibility of objective (let alone eternal) truths on the ground everyone must speak from some standpoint within some history and culture (§§28-29). 

There is, of course, a kind of performative contradiction involved in perspectivalism, for it claims to offer a generally valid explanation even though this position is rooted in the clam that no generally valid explanation is ever possible.  The stories about Mother Teresa, Don Bosco, and Vincent de Paul (§§36, 40) add not only a human touch but an unanswerable set of examples that the suspicions raised against Christianity are groundless.  These stories also provide memorable support for the important distinction that Benedict champions throughout Deus caritas est, namely, the distinction between justice and charity.  A Christian's obligations in charity, after all, go far beyond any obligations of justice, but the source of the obligation is entirely different.  The obligations of justice arise from the natural law of giving to another what is due.  The obligations of charity arise from God's command that we love our neighbors as ourselves and give to those in need.  This is a distinction often lost in the treatments of "social justice" by the proponents of cultural marxism and one that is regularly mishandled in treatments of Catholic social teaching.

What may we hope for?  In Christ rests our deepest hope.  In Chambers's Witness we have an account not only of the factors that led to his conversion to marxist communism but also of the events that led him out of it and back to Christ.  By reason of its purpose as a defense of his own truthfulness, much of the volume is given to reporting the details of life in the Communist Party and life in the underground.  But at just the right points in his narrative we also find a penetrating account of what led him away from that life.  Part of the story is the growing horror of friends who were lost in the regular cycle of Moscow-ordered purges.  But an even more deeply telling part is highlighted by being given its own short but independent section.

The stories about Mother Teresa, Don Bosco, and Vincent de Paul add not only a human touch but an unanswerable set of examples that the suspicions raised against Christianity are groundless.

Called "The Child," this portion of the narrative recounts the time in early 1933 when his wife told Chambers that she thought she had conceived.  It was, he explains, taken for granted in the movement that it was morally wrong for "a professional revolutionist" to have children, and abortion was a commonplace of party life.  "Abortion," he writes, "which now fills me with physical horror, I then regarded, like communists, as a mere physical manipulation" (325).  Further, in the background for Chambers was the spectre of what his brother had said just before his suicide: "For one of us to have a child would be a crime against nature" (325).

When his wife came back from her checkup, she reported in a quiet and noncommittal way that the doctor said that she was in good physical shape to have a baby.  The truth slowly dawned on him: "Do you mean," he asked her, "that you want to have the child?"  Bursting into tears, she pleaded with him: "we couldn't do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart."  As wild joy swept over him, "reason, the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, crumbled at the touch of the child.... If the points on the long course of my break with Communism could be traced, that is probably one of them.... The child we all yearn for..., even before her birth, had begun, invisibly, to lead us out of that darkness which we could not even realize, toward that light, which we could not even see" (326-27). 


  1. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1952). 
  2. Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). 
  3. See, for example, Enrique Dussel, "Liberation Theology and Marxism," trans. Irene B. Hodgson & José Pedrozo, Rethinking Marxism 5, no. 3 (1992): 50-74. 
  4. There have been many fine books that trace the strategy and tactics of Critical Theory, including: Carl Boggs, Social Movements and Political Power: Emerging Forms of Radicalism in the West (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1986) and Paul Edward Gottfried, The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium (Columbia, MO: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2005).
  5. Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance," in A Critique of Pure Tolerance, ed. Robert Paul Wolff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965). 
  6. On this point, a friend recently reminded me about Avicenna, who wrote that anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten and that to be burned is not the same as not to be burned. See Avicenna, Metaphysics, I, commenting on Aristotle, Topics I.11.105a4–5. 
  7. Theodor W. Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality, in collaboration with Betty Aron, Maria Hertz Levinson, and William Morrow (New York: Wiley, 1964 [1950]).
  8. William Brennan, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives (Chicago: Loyola Univ. Press, 1995). 


koterskiRev. Joseph Koterski, S.J. "On Cultural Marxism." Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly (vol. 43 no.2).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Father Koterski.

The Author

koterskiFather Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University and Editor-in-Chief of the International Philosophical Quarterly. His areas of interest include Metaphysics, Ethics, History of Medieval Philosophy. Among his books are An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy: Basic Concepts. For The Teaching Company he has produced lecture courses on Aristotle's Ethics, on Natural Law and Human Nature, and Biblical Wisdom Literature.

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