White-supremacist fearmongering about “cultural Marxism” continues to inspire violent attacks, from Norway to New Zealand. But the origins of the theory are American through and through.
In 2010, the intellectual historian Martin Jay wrote a short and illuminating column for Salmagundi on the increasing popularity of a right-wing conspiracy theory known as “Cultural Marxism.” Various paleoconservatives and fascists allege that Frankfurt School theorists, such as Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse, emigrated to the United States of America in the 1930s to implant the “Marxist” ideologies of political correctness, multiculturalism, and feminism. Jay traces the origin of this xenophobic and antisemitic conspiracy theory to a 1992 article called “The New Dark Age: The Frankfurt School and Political Correctness” by Michael J. Minnicino, who wrote and worked for the notorious Trotskyist-turned-fascist cult leader Lyndon LaRouche. Yet, back in 2010, “Cultural Marxism” seemed to be little more than just another amusing instance of right-wing intellectual quackery.
Six months after the publication of Jay’s column, the far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik carried out a series of murderous and explosive attacks in Norway to publicize his 1,500-page manifesto: 2083—A European Declaration of Independence. His screed blames “Cultural Marxism” for the mass migration of Muslims into mainland Europe, and even contains a reference to Minnicino’s essay. In the aftermath of Breivik’s attack, Minnicino—a now ex-member of the LaRouche movement—issued a public apology to disown his earlier work. He admitted that his research on the Frankfurt School had been “hopelessly deformed by self-censorship and the desire to in some way support LaRouche’s crack-brained worldview.”
Minnicino’s sense of regret and guilt over his contribution to the “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory is undebatable. What remains debatable, however, is Jay’s claim that Minnicino fired the “opening salvo.” In fact, the Frankfurt School has appeared in the LaRouche movement’s conspiracy theories since the early seventies. Not only that, but Minnicino had even written a three-part series on the Frankfurt School—“The ‘Authoritarian Personality’: An Anti-Western Hoax”—for LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review (EIR) in 1988. Although they never used the term “Cultural Marxism,” LaRouche, Minnicino, and others supplied the materials that the Free Congress Foundation paleoconservatives Paul Weyrich and William S. Lind would use to popularize the conspiracy theory in the late 1990s. A decade later, the “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory would be responsible for the deaths of seventy-seven people.
Since LaRouche’s death last month, political commentators have been grappling with his legacy and influence. Yet, none of them have plunged into the online archives of the LaRouche organization to investigate his role as the irrational progenitor of a conspiracy theory that continues to inspire far-right terrorism. The historical backstory of this conspiracy theory is as bizarre and incomprehensible as the political career of the man who created it. Unless one understands that it is a product of American history and politics, one will never be able to explain it fully, let alone exterminate it. As the American roots of “Cultural Marxism” are unearthed, it becomes clear that this conspiracy theory has less to do with, as initially thought, a revival and rebranding of Nazi “Cultural Bolshevism” propaganda (which treated modern art as crypto-communist conspiracy) and more to do with American left-wing sectarianism, Cold War-era counterintelligence operations, and LaRouche’s personal paranoia and delusions of grandeur.
The Frankfurt School—along with a revolving cast of co-conspirators like Queen Elizabeth II and Henry Kissinger—popped up repeatedly in LaRouche’s conspiracy theories over the decades. Even as LaRouche veered from left-wing sectarianism to right-wing Messianism, Marcuse and Adorno continued to haunt his demented and delusional worldview. In fact, studying his conspiratorial characterizations of the Frankfurt School offers an insightful angle on the story of LaRouche’s ideological transformation, which Dennis King, author of the 1989 book Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism, described as “the most extraordinary odyssey in the history of American extremism.”
In 1974, LaRouche mentions the Frankfurt School for the first time as part of a left-wing sectarian smear campaign calculated to discredit his opponents. According to a special report in EIR, Angela Davis was a CIA agent trained to infiltrate the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) and splinter the organization into a rabble of fascist gangs. Apparently, Davis was prepared for this role as a student of Frankfurt School mandarins—and CIA agents—Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno. When Davis was their student, Marcuse and Adorno subjected her to a “CIA zombie brainwash program” to ensure that she would follow a doctrine of “protofascist nihilism.” In other words, the CIA—through Marcuse and Adorno—wanted to transform Davis into a “Manchurian Radical.” The report goes on to claim that the CIA orchestrated Davis’s ban from teaching philosophy at UCLA and her subsequent imprisonment to boost recruitment for the CPUSA, which, in turn, diverted supporters from LaRouche’s own organization, The National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC).
“Conspiracy theories are the lifeblood of contemporary fascism.”
Although these allegations may seem absurd and outrageous today, some left-leaning readers in 1974 would have found them plausible and convincing. From 1956 to 1971, the FBI carried out a vicious counterrevolutionary campaign known as COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) to infiltrate, derail, and neutralize radical and subversive political organizations. LaRouche’s semi-rational fear of falling victim to these counterintelligence operations was exacerbated when a follower named Chris White suffered a mental breakdown and proclaimed that the KGB and MI5 had “brainwashed” him into assassinating LaRouche. Consequently, LaRouche suspected that his followers might betray him, and started to demand their complete and unquestioning loyalty.
In 1973, LaRouche sent his supporters on a violent campaign called “Operation Mop Up” to disrupt the meetings of rival left-wing organizations, such as the CPUSA, using nunchucks, chains, and baseball bats. LaRouche’s assertion that the Frankfurt School trained Davis to become a CIA agent was a kind of intellectual Operation Mop Up, in which he smeared his opponents and claimed that he was the authentic and rightful leader of the American left. Only LaRouche could be trusted to lead the revolution—everyone else was just a brainwashed CIA zombie out to get him.
Strangely enough, LaRouche may have fallen for a classic COINTELPRO trap. During this period, the FBI often falsified evidence to depict well-known left-wing activists as covert CIA agents and informants. These rumors were intended to provoke suspicion and sectarianism within the American left. Instead of resisting these counterrevolutionary tactics and forming coalitions with CPUSA and other radical groups, LaRouche isolated himself and his followers and developed a highly suspicious and irrational worldview. LaRouche’s conspiratorial condemnations of Davis mark the start of his journey from the organized left to the paranoid right.
The theme of the Frankfurt School as a secret brainwashing operation continues in one of LaRouche’s 1977 “Counter-Intelligence” reports, in which he declares that the New Left movement has degenerated into violent fascism. LaRouche alleges that British intelligence services established the Frankfurt School in the 1920s to assemble leading “British-agent intellectuals,” including Marcuse and Adorno. According to LaRouche, “Anglo-American” intelligence agencies wanted the Frankfurt School to develop an ideology that would inspire a “protofascist” New Left across Europe and the United States.
It is ironic that LaRouche was denouncing every other left-wing organization as “protofascist” while he was simultaneously turning his own movement into a fascistic cult of personality. Based on his own “revolutionary psychoanalytic discoveries,” he would subject his followers to ruthless and traumatic “ego-stripping” sessions designed to cure their “political impotence.” Through these sessions, he started to dominate and control his supporters psychologically as well as intellectually. In the late 1970s, NCLC publications started to print tirades against wealthy Jewish families, the State of Israel, the American “Jewish Lobby,” B’nai B’rith, and Judaism. King explains that prominent Jewish NCLC members feared the consequences of challenging LaRouche’s antisemitism. The Chris White affair and Operation Mop Up showed what happened to people who defied or opposed LaRouche. Consequently, LaRouche’s followers absorbed his conspiracy theories with criticism or complaint.
As the movement became more and more fascistic, LaRouche and his followers increasingly framed Frankfurt School thinkers as key players in a Satanic (read: Zionist) plot to destroy American culture and Western Civilization. In 1982, Christina Nelson Huth— then the Features Editor of EIR and a one-time candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates—published an essay in EIR claiming that Adorno was undermining the morality and morale of the American people through the promotion of soap operas. According to this theory, Adorno’s participation in the Princeton Radio Research Project contributed to the production of soap operas that would brainwash American audiences into the passive acceptance of destructive and oligarchical policies. The transformation of the American people into a docile and weak-minded mass would allow the “European oligarchy,” which founded and funded the Frankfurt School, to take over the United States without resistance. During the 1980s, the so-called European oligarchy—the British monarchy, in particular—became an important target of LaRouche’s conspiracy theories. Huth’s article demonstrates that his earlier theories about the Frankfurt School could be recycled to serve whatever political agenda LaRouche wanted to push; what originated as a smear against a political rival could be integrated into a story about the titanic struggle between the forces of Good (LaRouche) and Evil (Jews, oligarchs, and so on).
While he was serving jail time in Federal Prison for mail fraud in 1989, LaRouche proclaimed that he represented the only barrier standing between Western Civilization and the European oligarchy’s “New Dark Age” (the phrase that would become the title of Minnicino’s 1992 essay). According to LaRouche, the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács (associated with the Frankfurt School in many “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy theories) was the grandfather of this New Dark Age, because he conspired to undermine the cultural confidence of the West and create a World Communist State. Once the forces of the New Dark Age had demoralized and degraded the American people, the European oligarchy could impose a Malthusian regime of government to reduce the world’s population to one billion. To satisfy the wishes of his oligarchical paymasters, Adorno developed a Satanic Cultural Paradigm Shift doctrine that succeeded in creating a “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” counterculture from 1964 onwards. For LaRouche, promiscuity damaged morality, drugs impaired intelligence, and rock ’n’ roll corroded cultural standards. Only the virtuous intellectual elite of the LaRouche movement could reverse the deleterious effects of this cultural regression, and instigate a glorious New Renaissance of Western Civilization.
In recent years, fascists and white supremacists have accepted LaRouche’s mission of defending and restoring Western civilization. Breivik’s reference to Minnicino’s essay proves that his attack was motivated by a conspiracy theory that had festered within the LaRouche movement for decades. More recently, Brenton Tarrant—the eco-fascist who carried out a terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand—took inspiration from Breivik, and rearticulated this theory in his manifesto to proclaim that the Western education system has “long since fallen to the long march through the institutions committed by the marxists (sic).” (In these conspiracy theories, Rudi Dutschke’s proposal for “the long march through the institutions” is wrongly attributed to Antonio Gramsci, who, in turn, is wrongly associated with the Frankfurt School.) Neither Breivik nor Tarrant obtained their irrational and erroneous opinions on Marxism from interwar Nazi propaganda. They absorbed these views from the long-established discourse on “Cultural Marxism” within the American right, which has been perpetuated by figures such as the New Left apostate David Horowitz, conservative music critic Michael A. Walsh, and paleoconservative politician Pat Buchanan. Even if LaRouche’s EIR articles from the 1970s remain unread and unacknowledged, his specter haunts this discourse.
Conspiracy theories are the lifeblood of contemporary fascism. Instead of dismissing them as fairytales for white supremacists, we need to investigate the historical conditions that generated them. In this case, LaRouche resorted to conspiracy theories in reaction to the FBI’s egregious repression of left-wing organizations. Fascism spreads whenever radical leftist politics is sabotaged, silenced, and suppressed. Whereas fascism constructs scapegoats, we must identify the true culprits. The fight against fascism is the first step in the fight for revolution.