I have one major problem with Paul Gottfried’s The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium: The title does not really fit the book. Professor Gottfried describes how Marxism as an economic theory has lost its appeal, even on the left, since World War II. Today’s leftists no longer advocate nationalization of the economy and anti-capitalist theories. In fact, they hardly care about economics at all; instead, they focus on changing the moral and cultural foundations of Western society. This shift, Gottfried points out, originated with the so-called Frankfurt School, a group of originally German Marxist philosophers who settled in the 1930’s in the United States, where they came to dominate liberal thinking, not so much by advocating anti-capitalist economic reform as by pushing social engineering.
Their ideas returned to Europe after World War II, together with the wave of American pop culture sweeping the Old Continent, and have since thoroughly destroyed traditional European culture and morality. The “incentive to social engineering,” says Gottfried, “has gone from the Old to the New World and then back again and in the process altered Europe even more dramatically than us.” That, to me, is the important message of this book, which deserves a large audience.
Gottfried is right in saying that the multicultural orientation of the contemporary European left has little to do with Marxism as an economic-historical theory. Indeed, the traditional constituency for Europe’s old (Marxist) left overwhelmingly votes today for the parties of the “extreme right,” while the new (post- Marxist) left caters to a new constituency that is hostile to the traditional moral and cultural values of the old left’s former electorate. This phenomenon, to which Gottfried draws our attention, is confirmed by sociological studies of Europe’s highly successful anti-immigration parties, such as France’s Front National, Belgium’s Vlaams Blok, and Denmark’s Dansk Folkeparti, whose appeal resides in their opposition to multiculturalism and their defense of national cultural identity.
These parties are among those most critical of American liberal pop culture, with its multicultural, hedonistic orientation. Interestingly, Germany lacks a similar party. Gottfried describes in detail how, after World War II, American social engineers with the American army of occupation in Germany applied the theories of the Frankfurt School to re- educate the Germans by developing programs designed to eradicate the cultural identity of the German people. The authorities in the former German Democratic Republic took greater pride in the heroes of Germany’s past than those in West Germany, for whom any pride in German culture and history was regarded as potentially dangerous and a highway back to Nazism.
Apart from a long Introduction and a Conclusion, Gottfried’s book comprises four chapters, which deal with postwar communism, neo-Marxism, the post-Marxist left, and the post-Marxist left as a political religion. The latter is probably the most interesting for American readers, as it was for me, an atypical (because pro-American) European. I believe it clarifies why post-Marxist multicultural social engineering has wreaked such devastation in Europe over the past three decades, while leaving America, where the Frankfurt School philosophers, including Herbert Marcuse, developed their destructive ideas, relatively unaffected. Instead of using the state’s power to alter the economic framework of society or promote income redistribution, the Frankfurt School proposed to use the state as a radicalizing cultural force.
According to Gottfried, this shift from economics to culture means the death of Marxism, because Marxism is an economic theory. He claims that the views of the no-longer-extant communist parties regarding women and family life resembled those of pre-Vatican II Catholics. On this point, I disagree with Gottfried. Though Karl Marx never propagated sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and other “alternative” lifestyles, it should be not- ed that Ludwig von Mises, in his book Socialism (1922), pointed out—correctly, I think—that socialism demands promiscuity in sexual life by consciously neglecting the contractual idea:
Free love is the socialist’s radical solution for sexual problems . . . The family disappears and society is confronted with separate individuals only. Choice in love becomes completely free. Men and women unite and separate just as their desires urge.
The socialist paradigm, which entails the deliberate neglect of any contract or moral principle that does not serve the current political objectives of the state, results in both the expansion of sexual liberty and the disappearance of economic liberty. Economic liberty and prosperity cannot exist unless people are true to their promises and to the assumed set of moral rules by which partners are bound within a certain culture. Consequently, socialism leads to the disappearance of all forms of partnership. Nothing is left but the individual and the state.
Whether Marcuse and the other Frankfurt School philosophers can be considered true Marxists (as Mises would argue) or not (as Gottfried implies) seems to me a matter of secondary importance. It is certainly true, as Gottfried writes, that the European Marxist parties, when they had most of the votes of their traditional electorates, never attempted to “reform” the traditional, almost Victorian, social and moral behavior of their blue-collar voters. It is also true that the European left adopted this agenda when white-collar intellectuals, infatuated with what they perceived to be American culture (but what, in fact, is only the liberal fringe of American culture), became its leaders. An icon for the latter, for example, is the monthly magazine Playboy, which is considered by many to be as American as apple pie and hence never taken for a socialist, let alone Marxist, vehicle for social engineering. Nevertheless, Playboy has always stated editorially that its primary objective is to challenge traditional culture and morality. “Playboy,” said its founder Hugh Hefner in the 30th-anniversary issue (January 1974),
is one of the most important and influential magazines in the world, in terms of the impact it’s had not only on social mores but as a champion of individual rights. We’ve supported countless civil liberties organizations, political reform, sex research and education, abortion reform before it became popular, prison reform, and the continuing campaign to reform our repressive sex and drug laws, as well as any number of charities and community-fund efforts.
This list of admired social causes reads like the typical political agenda of the European left today. In another anniversary issue (1979), Playboy described its own history as “A Chronology of Social Activism.”
Gottfried quotes the sociologist Arnold Gehlen, an old-fashioned anticommunist German, who in 1972 expressed his anxieties at his people’s moral and cultural frailties. It was not the Soviet Union but America that threatened Western Europe, Gehlen said:
In Germany one sees the scrupulous absorption of American manners, illusions, defense mechanisms, Playboy and drug culture, and open enrollment in higher education, for here no less than there the intellectuals are directing the destinies of the countries more than anywhere else. Nonetheless, what we lack are the American reserves in national energy and self-confidence, primitiveness and generosity, wealth and potential of every kind. With our beaten-down history and our youth seduced by volatile phrases, with the top-heavy industry, which is international in character, nothing can keep us from losing our national identity.
Contrary to what Gottfried’s title proclaims, I do not think that Marxism is dead in Europe; it has only shifted its emphasis. When the communists came to power in Russia in 1917, they tried to impose their social, as well as their economic, agenda. They abolished private property—and the family. In Sexual Politics (1969), the American feminist Kate Millett wrote of this episode: “After the revolution every possible law was passed to free individuals from the claims of the family,” including the legalization of “free marriage and divorce, contraception, and abortion on demand.” As Millett explained,
Under the collective system, the family began, as it were, to disintegrate along the very lines upon which it had been built. Patriarchy began, as it were, to reverse its own processes, while society returned to the democratic work community which socialist authorities describe as matriarchy.
Because these reforms were so radical and unrealistic, the Soviets were compelled to abolish a number of them after only a few months—re-instituting marriage, for instance. Today, it looks as if it is the communist economic agenda that has become too unrealistic, prompting the left to accept the market economy. The radical social agenda of the Russian communists in the period (1918- 20) that Millett praised—free marriage and divorce, contraception, abortion on demand—has, however, been accomplished. The disintegration of the so-called oppressive patriarchal society has become the “realistic” agenda that the left is today pursuing to its extremes.
Gottfried’s book explains how this agenda came into being and how those who shaped it brought their ideas from Europe to America in the 1930’s and 40’s, and then back to Europe again in the 1960’s and 70’s. Consequently, The Strange Death of Marxism is required reading for anyone interested in understanding what is going on in Europe today. I suggest, however, that what is really occurring is the transformation of Marxism, which has made socialism an even more dangerous monster than it was formerly. Though these ideas, developed by European intellectuals in America, came to infect Europe via America, they have all but killed traditional European culture. Only a few remaining pockets have been spared. We can find these, as Gottfried notes, in those social classes that have succeeded in preserving traditional class loyalties, whether aristocratic, bourgeois, or working-class. The latter instance explains the paradoxical fact that the former communist constituency for the now-defunct traditional Marxist parties has remained relatively immune to social-engineering projects. As Gottfried writes,
Both inherited social roles and the accompanying behavioral models render problematic the inculcation of contemporary state-enforced creeds. It is hard to recode bureaucratically those who have learned to think and act as members of a functioning stratified society.
The reason America has not been infected to the same devastating degree with the Playboy philosophy, which is basically the Frankfurt School ideology, is also given in this book, though less explicitly. It has to do with what Arnold Gehlen, in the above quoted passage, calls “the American reserves.” America’s conservative reserves are far stronger than Europe’s, because America, unlike secular Europe, has remained rooted, to a greater extent, in traditional Christian values. I do not doubt that, should belief in those values continue to decline, American culture will collapse as European culture and civilization have already collapsed. The disappearance of Christianity from Europe has left a religious vacuum that has been filled by Islam, on the one hand, and by what Gottfried calls “the post-Marxist Left as a political religion,” on the other. What we will witness in Europe in the coming decades is a cultural war between the religious values of Islam and the secular “values” of the decadent, hedonistic, post-Marxist left.
[The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium, by Paul Edward Gottfried (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press) 154 pp., $34.95]