The Frankfurt School and the Proliferation of Alterity: Voices from the Right
[presented at the Alterity Conference, Genoa, Italy; July 2014]
– Michael McAnear, PhD*
In 2010 the National Association of Scholars in the US analyzed what incoming freshmen are asked to read as part of college orientation programs prior to their starting school. Surveying 290 programs, the analyses concluded that “[. . .] the preponderance of reading assignments promotes liberal social causes and liberal sensibilities. Of the 180 books, 126 (70 percent) either explicitly promote a liberal political agenda or advance a liberal interpretation of events. By contrast, the study identifies only three books (less than 2 percent) that promote a conservative sensibility and none that promote conservative political causes." Common knowledge holds that the academy is dominated by the Left, and conservative commentators all over the West bemoan this fact. In Germany, for example, the leftist 68rs—so named to mark the cultural upheavals of the late sixties—are resented by some for their long standing dominance. Even in 1990, an editorialist for the right-of-center Die Welt was writing that “The ideology of the 68rs has settled like fine dust … into every nook and cranny of society.” As to the reading lists mentioned above, the president of the organization conducting the survey wrote that it supports these programs on American campuses but wants them out of "the rut of promoting trendy causes." Something is wrong when "books on Africa outnumber books on Europe nearly six to one,” (Jaschik).
On the Right there is a compelling theory circulating to explain the Left’s dominance, a notion put forth not only in scholarly writings but of course spread on the Internet. The theory holds that the so-called Frankfurt School has exerted overwhelming influence in the West to shape cultural discourse in the academy, media, and society at large. This paper investigates the strong criticisms directed at the Frankfurt School and its legacy following more than a half century of prevailing influence in European and American academia, particularly in the social sciences where notions of cultural pluralism dominate the discourse. Conservative commentators have claimed that the Frankfurt School’s thrust has been entirely ideological, and it has eschewed empiricism to assault Western society through the production of countless identities—countless others—which are in explicit opposition to the dominant culture. Women’s liberation, the gay movement, minority interest groups and radical-progressiveness of all shades: conservatives view these as attacks on tradition and yet they are firmly ensconced in the academy and largely considered mainstream. But the overarching ideology of the ‘Other’ is defined solely by negation of the mainstream, say its critics. So, as the argument goes, the Frankfurt School’s formulation of alterity prevents authentic identity building because of its adversarial stance. The self is defined chiefly by what it is against, leaving scarce room for genuine self-affirmation and authenticity (Atzmon).
The opening salvo in this critique appeared in 1992 with the publication of Michael Minnicino’s “The Frankfurt School and Political Correctness” in the far-right American journal Fidelio. He writes that the “irrational adolescent outbursts of the 1960s have become institutionalized in a ‘permanent revolution’ [and] our campuses now represent the largest concentration of Marxist dogma in the world (3).” He traces this development to the 1920s, when the Institute for Social Research was established as a Marxist think tank associated with the University of Frankfurt and which became known as the Frankfurt School. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, global communism believed that the proletarian revolution would sweep into Europe and ultimately to North America. But it didn’t, so Frankfurt School theoreticians set out to implement Antonio Gramsci’s inspired judgment that social revolution occurs through the permeation and gradual command of the means of cultural production and policy-making, through cultural hegemony. Author Minnicini identifies the initial guiding light of the Frankfurt School, a Jewish Hungarian aristocrat-turned-communist named Georg Lukacs, a prolific cultural and literary critic who allegedly asked when joining the Communist Party during the 1st World War, “Who will save us from Western Civilization?” It appears the Frankfurt School had a bone to pick with the West from the outset.
Leading individuals associated with its formative years, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse were Jewish intellectuals like Lukacs, men whose backgrounds as Jews gave them imaginative insight into the predicament of the Other. Israeli philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem termed the Frankfurt School a “Jewish sect,” and its strong identification with Jewish identity has been examined closely by an American tenured professor at Long Beach State University in California. Kevin MacDonald, an evolutionary psychologist, published a scholarly trilogy in the 1990s studying the group survival strategies of Jews through millennia punctuated by persecution, discrimination and ethnic catastrophe. Essentially MacDonald wanted to know how the Jews managed to survive—and often thrived—when all other peoples of the ancient world have disappeared, and approached his study from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.
In a scholarly critique of his work, a reviewer for the Journal of Church and State states that MacDonald’s examination is an exception to prevailing scholarship, since the “enormity of the Holocaust has limited critical discussion on the topic of Jewish influence on culture, society, and politics. Very few critical studies have been released in the mainstream press, the plethora of scholarship on ethnicity and identity politics notwithstanding. One notable exception is the research of Kevin MacDonald, [who] seems to have made his most significant impact on the intellectual currents of what is often referred to as ‘far right’ and as such, can no longer be ignored” (Michael 780). Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center in the US names MacDonald “the neo-Nazi movement's favorite academic.”
In The Culture of Critique, the third book in the trilogy, MacDonald addresses the Frankfurt School. Relying mostly on primary sources from its leaders and on secondary sources usually from Jewish scholars, MacDonald marshals a wealth of evidence to conclude that its methodology and approach was purposefully unscientific and driven by morals. Its vaunted “Critical Theory” aimed at transforming society according to moral principles. “From the beginning there was a rejection of value-free social science research ([dismissively termed] ‘the fetishism of facts’) in favor of the fundamental priority of a moral perspective in which present societies, including capitalist, fascist, and eventually Stalinist societies, were to be transformed into utopias of cultural pluralism (157).”
But this vision of the future sounds rather grand, acceptable to a goodly few on the Right and presumably justifying all sorts of means to get there. This is because cultural pluralism preserves the dominant culture while allowing respect and integrity of minority cultures within it, a reassuring solution for conservatives in an age of globalization and mass migration. This definition of cultural pluralism stands in contrast to multiculturalism in which all cultures are viewed as equal and the dominant culture is in equal struggle with a vast many others, surely a horror scenario for reactionaries, racists and far-right extremists. Kevin MacDonald may be confusing cultural pluralism with multiculturalism, as many do. No matter.
His painstaking analysis of the Frankfurt School concludes that its activities fit into a larger pattern of “Jewish intellectual movements that have subjected the institutions of gentile society to radical forms of criticism” (5). From this perspective, then, multiculturalism may be seen as an assault on mainstream culture, a threat to gentile society. At the same time, its embrace of the marginal, the Other, dilutes anti-Semitism and safeguards against it because of the mechanisms of identity politics. The proliferation of self-identifying marginal groups along ethnic, gender and class lines will create the ideal conditions for fierce tribalism, a competitive state of affairs well suited to Jewish survival because of the Jews exceptional experience through millennia of tribal integrity and solidarity.
“As MacDonald sees it,” writes the reviewer for the Journal of Church and State, “Jews have figured prominently in adversarial cultural movements against the religious, moral, aesthetic, and behavioral norms of gentile society. MacDonald categorically rejects an overarching conspiracy a la The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and concedes that Judaism does not constitute a unified movement . . . He points out that not all segments of the Jewish community and not all Jewish social scientists have been involved in these movements. Nevertheless, he argues the basic thrust of Jewish activism has been to manipulate their surrounding environment in a manner that conforms to their interests. A central theme is that the leaders of these movements [like the Frankfurt School] saw their involvement as furthering Jewish interests, particularly the eradication of anti-Semitism (Michael 787).”
A good example of the Frankfurt School’s manufacture of anti-gentile indoctrination is found in its famed 1950 work, The Authoritarian Personality, a compilation of studies, an ideological project which MacDonald believes the School worked on since its beginnings. “Theories were developed in which behavior that did not conform to politically acceptable standards was conceptualized as an indication of psychopathology . . . pathology-inducing gentile culture was the source of all forms of psychiatric diagnosis and that anti-Semitism was the sign of a disturbed personality. The Authoritarian Personality studies built on this tradition with its ‘discovery’ that the failure to develop a ‘liberal personality’ and to deeply and sincerely accept liberal political beliefs was a sign of psychopathology” (231).
Disarmament of anti-Semitism frequently drives Jewish intellectual projects, according to MacDonald, regardless their scientific validity. Nonetheless, The Authoritarian Personality is widely cited to this day and inspires research interest in the social sciences. It has found other critics, to be sure. Famed conservative historian Christopher Lasch, for example, argued that by equating mental health with left-wing politics and associating right-wing politics with an invented “authoritarian” pathology, the book's goal was to eliminate anti-Semitism by “subjecting the American people to what amounted to collective psychotherapy—by treating them as inmates of an insane asylum” (453). Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has also commented, writing that it “adopted what eventually became a favorite Soviet tactic against dissidents: anyone whose political views differed from theirs was insane. According to its authors, it was Christian self-denial, and especially sexual repression that caused hatred of the Jews (27).”
The Authoritarian Personality: was it simply ingenious cultural manipulation? Through shaming, the stigma of mental illness if one dared harbor traits such as patriotic feelings, religious faith, and sexual probity? Did it seek to disarm anti-Semitism and advance cultural Marxism? Was it godless indoctrination? Yes it was, say these voices from the Right. When people are pried loose from their moorings in tradition because of shaming, subtle and direct, they are left in a vague whereabouts seeking identification and bonding. The adversarial ‘Other’ opposing the status quo offers now a homeland to the unmoored, and there are plenty of reasons to contest western culture: racism, colonialism, patriarchy, anti-Semitism, you name it. There are many ways to wage the politically correct battle, in the media, in the academy, in government. And so there are many fields of alterity for the indoctrinated to land, as the argument goes. And compounding this swirl of discontent is globalization and mass migration to the West—perceived surely as an invasion of the ‘Other,’ no matter whose side you’re on.
The eminent French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas sought to frame this onslaught with a prescriptive philosophy advocating extreme brotherly love toward migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. And while Levinas was not directly associated with the Frankfurt School, he is discussed at length in Richard Wolin’s The Frankfurt School Revisited, suggesting a link. Levinas’ 1995 work, Alterity and Transcendence, conceptualizes the ‘Other’ in eloquent lyrical prose, suggesting “that the entire course of Western thought has been a false path,” writes Wolin. “Consequently, ethics has occupied a derivative and subaltern role [to] theoretical reason.” So Levinas reverses the traditional hierarchy placing ethics on top, and for him ethics derives essentially from the claims of the Other. Wolin comments on this philosophy of alterity: “The face of the Other makes an infinite, pre-predictive moral claim on us … [Levinas] frequently speaks of the Other’s nakedness and destitution—to drive home the point that he or she stands totally at our mercy [. . .] and we can never satisfy the Other’s claims (120).” Casting the Other as helpless victim, and one who can never be repaid: this aims to disarm the xenophobe, the racist, the anti-Semite, if only temporarily.
Levinas claims that there is always an adversarial relationship with the ‘Other.’ “To address someone expresses the ethical disturbance produced in me, in the tranquility of the perseverance of my being . . . by the interruption of the ‘conatus essendi,’ the effort to be.” He acknowledges preeminence of the tribe, stating that “It is between strangers that the encounter takes place; otherwise, it would be kinship.” The dynamic with those outside the tribe concerns Levinas: “The greeting addressed to the other man is an invocation. I therefore insist on the primacy of the well-intentioned relation toward the other. Even when there may be ill will on the other’s part, the attention, the receiving of the other, like his recognition, mark the priority of good in relation to evil” (97-98). Levinas quotes fellow French Jewish philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, “We don’t have any rights; it is always the other who has rights (102).”
The utter reversal and disruption of the traditional hierarchy signaled here suggests that the Frankfurt School and its fellow travelers participate in the project of modernity as defined by Polish Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, winner of the Theodor Adorno Award of the city of Frankfurt in 1998. In his book, Modernity and Ambivalence, Baumann remarks “Obsessive negation is the positive feature of modern culture … The history of modern times is a history of the tension between social existence and its culture. Modern existence forces its culture to oppose it. This disharmony is precisely the harmony that Modernity requires.” It is this view of modernity that appears to promote Gramsci’s long-term aim of cultural hegemony. This is because the inherent revolutionary and chaotic nature of cultural Marxism and radical egalitarianism will in time pit culture against our existence in the here and now. And such a state of affairs is profoundly dispiriting to the Right.
Nick Griffen, the notorious leader of the far-right British National Party claims that the Frankfurt School has had “a catastrophically destructive effect on our entire civilization. It is behind so many of the problems we see, from social decay right through to mass immigration [. . .] It has built a rainbow alliance of grievances [. . .] finding different groups and persuading them that western society, the patriarchal society, capitalist society, the nation, and so on has in some way discriminated against them [. . .] an alliance of disparate groups, very often in fact mutually hostile and antagonistic or certainly with different interests.” These are sentiments suggesting profound political despair, a widespread attitude seen in any survey of the Right, which is often maligned for its anti-intellectualism—for good reason.
Karlheinz Weissman, preeminent New Right leader in Germany, accuses his colleagues of being ‘illiterate’ and calls for them to be more intellectually engaged. No longer can they rehash the same old point with just a few minor updates swiping at political correctness. No longer should they rest on what they believe is self-evident, namely, that “anyone who believes he stands for the right ideas because of his origins and his common sense will see little point in concerning himself with theoretical matters. In a pluralist society, however, values are determined by the person who has attained ‘cultural hegemony’ or who can declare what is politically correct” (Woods 34). So the Right begins now to study Gramsci closely, “seeking to promote its politics by influencing cultural values and by achieving a position of cultural hegemony,” writes historian John Foster at the University of Washington, Seattle. Their deep sense of failure in the culture wars leads me to conclude that many on the Right feel they themselves are the ‘Other,’ on the outside looking in, with despair.
*Michael McAnear is an Associate Professor at National University (La Jolla, California). He received his PhD in Germanic Languages from UCLA in 1994, writing his dissertation on the Jewish Austrian writer and holocaust survivor Albert Drach. His publications include 'Albert Drach and His Demons,' 'B. Traven: Idealism, Anarchy, and Estrangement,' 'Alienation and Right-Wing Extremism in Austria,' 'German Perceptions of Austria: Modeling Anti-Foreigner Sentiment,' and 'The Future Needs Tradition.”
Atzmon, Gilad. “On the Manner in Which the Jewish Intelligentsia Destroyed the Working Class (by mistake).” Video. Youtube. 10 March 1914. July 10, 2014.
Griffen, Nick. “EU-Frankfurt School Neo-Marxism.” Video. Youtube. 16 March 1911. July 10, 2014.
Foster, John. "The Rise of the Intellectual Right in Germany.” Rev. of Germany's New Right as Culture and Politics, by Roger Woods. H-German/H-Net. December 2007. Internet.
Jaschik, Scott. “What Freshmen Will Read.” Inside Higher Ed. 4 June 2010. Web. 10 July 10, 2014. <http://www.insidehighered.com/>.
Lasch, Christopher. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Print.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Alterity and Transcendence. New York. Columbia UP, 1999. Print.
MacDonald, Kevin. The Culture of Critique. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1998. Print.
Michael, George. “Professor Kevin MacDonald’s Critique of Judaism: Legitimate Scholarship or the Intellectualism of Anti-Semitism?” Journal of Church and State 2006. Print.
Minnicino, Michael. “The Frankfurt School and Political Correctness.” The Schiller Institute. 10 July 10, 2014. <http://www.schillerinstitute.org/>.
Wolin, Richard. The Frankfurt School Revisited. Oxford, UK: Routledge, 2006. Print
Woods, Roger. Germany’s New Right as Culture and Politics. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
Zitelman, Rainer. “Unterm Rad der Geschichte.” Die Welt. 15 Oct. 1990: Print.
 As quoted in Minnicino
 As quoted in MacDonald. 156.
 “Kevin MacDonald.” Southern Poverty Law Center. 11 July 11, 2014. <http://www.splcenter.org/>