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Review of Thomas Wheatland's The Frankfurt School in Exile, Part II: The Critique of Mass Culture

Kevin MacDonald

October 28, 2009

One of Wheatland’s strengths is his rich documentation of the strong connections between the New York Intellectuals and the Frankfurt School. Both groups were predominantly Jewish (the first generation Frankfurt School exclusively so), and both were associated with the anti-Stalinist left. However, they had somewhat different theoretical perspectives and overlapping associations. It is common among intellectual historians (e.g., Eric P. Kaufmann) to view the New York Intellectuals as the most important group advocating cosmopolitan racial ideology in the post-World War II era.

Prominent New York Intellectuals include the art critic Clement Greenberg, writer and critic Robert Warshow, philosopher Sidney Hook, Partisan Review editors William Phillips and Philip Rahv, and several forerunners of the neoconservative movement, especially Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. Wheatland shows that the some of the second-generation New York Intellectuals (e.g., Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, and Nathan Glazer) were well acquainted with the work of the Frankfurt School. Howe and Glazer had minor roles in the notorious Studies in Prejudice series discussed in Part I of this review.  

The Critique of Mass Culture

These linkages and cross-fertilization were especially apparent in the analysis of culture. The Frankfurt School viewed contemporary Western societies of the 1930s and '40s as “soft authoritarianism” — a phrase also used by  Tom Sunic in describing contemporary Western societies. From their point of view, the basic problem was to explain the lack of revolutionary fervor in Western societies. Quite clearly, orthodox Marxism was wrong: The predicted revolution hadn't happened.

This lack of fervor was particularly problematic because there was a considerable degree of personal freedom in Western societies: Theoretically at least, people had the freedom to be revolutionary, but instead they passively accepted the evils of capitalism.

These intellectuals developed the theory that control had shifted from obvious forms of external control (like gulags in the USSR) to control via the media — “secondary emanations of authority … namely newspapers, advertising, radio, etc.” (p. 79). Because the media was an expression of "late capitalism," it prevented people from seeing the world as good leftists should, and as a result they were unable to “break the cycle of injustice and domination” (p. 79).  

Early on Erich Fromm gathered survey data showing that working class Germans were not interested in revolution but were passive and prone to escapism. (Incidentally, Fromm seems to have been the originator of the most important ideas of the Frankfurt School. As noted in Part I of this review, he also came up with the disastrous idea of explaining ethnocentrism among Whites as due to family pathology.) The passivity and escapism of the working class were viewed as due to the failure of the culture, and particularly the media, to properly foment revolutionary consciousness. For example, during the 1930s, Herbert Marcuse wrote attacking “all bourgeois culture for its escapism, repression, and concealment of capitalism’s harsh realities” (p. 160). As discussed extensively by Elizabeth Whitcombe in TOO, the Frankfurt School criticized culture because it upheld a reactionary status quo.

Eventually, there was a general understanding among both the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals that mass culture — whether in the USSR (both of these groups were anti-Stalinist), National Socialist Germany, or bourgeois United States — promoted conformism and escape from harsh political realities; it “offered false pleasure, reaffirmed the status quo, and promoted a pervasive conformity that stripped the masses of their individuality and subjectivity” (p. 175). Obviously this fits well with the Frankfurt School ideas on the family: Again, there is a plea for individualists free from family and ethnic ties and in favor of non-conformity with the status quo.

These intellectuals promoted modernism in art at least partly because of its compatibility with expressive individualism, but also because they believed that it effectively opposed the culture of capitalism. Modernism was also seen as capable of alienating people from modern Western societies. As Elizabeth Whitcombe points out, “Adorno’s desire for a socialist revolution led him to favor Modernist music that left the listener feeling unsatisfied and dislocated — music that consciously avoided harmony and predictability.”

To be modern is to be alienated from the society of capitalism. The alienation of the New York Intellectuals is legendary. Norman Podhoretz was famously asked by a New Yorker editor in the 1950s “whether there was a special typewriter key at Partisan Review with the word ‘alienation’ on a single key.” 

In short, they were trying to make all of America as alienated as they were.

Both the New York Intellectuals and the Frankfurt School had nothing but disdain for traditional art. In Adorno’s words, they sought “the end of the order that bore the sonata” — the end of European high culture. And if the audience failed to appreciate modernism, it was their fault. For example, Adorno wrote that the failure of the audience to appreciate Schoenberg “pointed to widespread alienation and irrationalism that were pervasive in society” (p. 29). Only the revolution would make people psychologically whole again and in tune with a genuine aesthetic sense.

The view that modernism would ultimately usher in the revolution eventually faded when it became obvious that it would never be popular with the great mass of people. The view that, say, Schoenberg, could ever have become popular with the great mass of people can only be described as amazingly naïve. We just aren't wired that way.

(Incidentally, it's intriguing that Tim Page, a major promoter of  avant garde music [e.g., Philip Glass], has acknowledged that he has Asperger Syndrome, an autistic disorder associated with lack of social awareness or interest in people, combined with obsessive, repetitive, and [most importantly] idiosyncratic non-social interests. He is wired differently. Unfortunately for the modernists, very few people are wired like Tim Page. The fascinating question is how someone with a psychiatric disorder that puts him outside normal human interests and desires manages to get into a position to influence the cultural tastes of the wider public.)

But of course realistic ideas about natural human penchants and limitations have never been a strong suit of the intellectual left, dedicated as they are to the proposition that people can be shaped into virtually anything.

White Advocates and Cultural Alienation

In reading the views of the Frankfurt School on the importance of cultural control, it struck me that those of us attempting to preserve the traditional peoples and culture of the West are in a similar situation to the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals. Their complaints about the American culture of the 1930s through the 1950s  are mirror images of the complaints that we have now.   

Whereas the New York Intellectuals and the Frankfurt School felt alienated from the culture of the West, now we are the ones with feelings of alienation from the culture that has been so strongly influenced by these Jewish intellectual movements.

 

We are dismayed at the failure of the media to properly address White interests or even to allow expressions of White identity to be seen or heard in the mainstream media.

We are well aware that when there is a failure of media self-censorship (e.g., when media critic William Cash described the Jewish media elite as “culturally nihilist” in the Spectator in 1994), there are powerful campaigns to  punish the guilty parties and to get them to recant.

Just as the Frankfurt School theorized, the West has come under the control of soft authoritarianism. But now the  shoe is on the other foot: Power resides in the soft totalitarianism of the multi-cultural, multi-racial, anti-White left.

These Jewish intellectual movements decried the passivity, escapism, and conformity of American culture. Those of us who are White advocates are horrified that the vast majority of White people passively accept media messages filled with distorted images of Whites and their history. We are appalled that so many Whites are far more interested in escapist entertainment, ranging from sporting events to sci-fi thrillers, than they care about the future of their people. And we are dismayed by the conformity of the great mass of Whites who are terrified of being called a racist or in any way violating the current taboos of political correctness. We deplore the pathetic conformists striving to uphold the rules of a society deeply hostile to their own long term interests.

Rather than see a culture controlled by the "late capitalist" media,” White advocates see the culture of the West as controlled by a hostile media that advocates multiculturalism, the displacement of Whites, and the culture of Western suicide. And many of us believe that a very large influence on this culture stems not only from the influence of the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals, but also from Jewish ownership and production of the media.

There is thus a  common ground between these Jewish intellectual movements and those of us attempting to preserve the traditional people and culture of the West. We all agree in the importance of media control. As I concluded in an article describing the psychology of cultural control, paraphrasing a Bill Clinton campaign slogan: “It’s the culture, stupid.”

Control of the media is critical. If there were strong media messages advocating White identity and the legitimacy of White interests, things would turn around rather dramatically and rather quickly. This is because the psychological power behind a movement of ethnic defense is far greater than the motivation that can be mustered for a multi-racial, multi-ethnic communist revolution.

Such media messages would be able to tap into the natural wellspring of ethnic feeling. There is a deep psychological attachment to one’s people and culture — even among us individualistic White folks — that can easily motivate a mass movement of ethnic defense.

Often these feelings are implicit and unconscious rather than explicit and conscious. They manifest themselves in moving to neighborhoods where their children can attend school with other Whites. Or they manifest themselves in activities where they are able to enjoy the company and camaraderie of  others like themselves.

But these feelings are nevertheless real. And they are potentially very powerful. The revolution needed to reverse the cultural tides of the last decades would therefore be far easier to pull off than the communist revolution so ardently desired by the Frankfurt School.

If there is one central message from the post-World War II world, ethnicity and race matter. As Jerry Z. Muller has shown, there has been a strong trend toward ethnically based nations over the last 150 years, not only in the territorial adjustments in Europe following World War II, but around the world.

European Americans Defend Their Culture 

It’s interesting that these leftist critics of the media completely ignored the actual mechanisms of cultural control that were in place during the period when they were writing. The controls on culture had little if anything to do with the culture of "late capitalism." Instead, the traditional Anglo-American culture managed to retain its primacy during this period because of political activism on the part of Anglos in defense of their culture, often quite self-consciously directed against Jewish influence in the media.

Jewish influence on the media, especially Hollywood movies, weighed heavily on the minds of people like Henry Ford early in the 20th century. Public outrage at the content of Hollywood movies led to more or less successful controls on the moral and political content of movies until around the mid-1960s. The following passage from Chapter 2 of Separation and Its Discontents discusses this American Kulturkampf (references omitted but are available here):

During the McCarthy era, there was concern that the entertainment industry would influence American culture by, in the words of an overt anti-Semite, Congressman John R. Rankin of Mississippi, “insidiously trying to spread subversive propaganda, poison the minds of your children, distort the history of our country and discredit Christianity.”

The great majority of those stigmatized by the Un-American Activities Committee of the House of Representatives (HUAC) were Jews, many of them in the entertainment industry. A belief that “Jewish Hollywood” was promoting subversive ideas, including leftist political beliefs, was a common component of anti-Semitism in the post-World War II period, and indeed the push for the HUAC investigation was led by such well-known anti-Semites as Gerald L. K. Smith and Congressman Rankin. For example, Smith stated that “there is a general belief that Russian Jews control too much of Hollywood propaganda and they are trying to popularize Russian Communism in America through that instrumentality. Personally I believe that is the case.”

The substantive basis of the opinion of Rankin and others was that beginning in the 1930s Hollywood screenwriters were predominantly Jewish and politically liberal or radical — a general association that has been typical of Jewish intellectual history in the 20th century. The American Communist Party (CPUSA), which was under Soviet control during the period, sent V. J. Jerome and Stanley Lawrence, both Jews, to Hollywood to organize the writers and take advantage of their political sentiments. Jerome argued that “agitprop propaganda was actually better drama because Marxists better understood the forces that shaped human beings, and could therefore write better characters.”  Writers responded by self-consciously viewing themselves as contributing to “the Cause”  by their script writing. “But as much as the Hollywood Communist party was a writers’ party, it was also . . . a Jewish party. (Indeed, to be the former meant to be the latter as well).”

Nevertheless, during this period the radical writers were able to have little influence on the ultimate product, although there is good evidence that they did their best to influence movie content in the direction of their political views. Their failure was at least partly because of pressures brought to bear on Hollywood by conservative, predominantly [non-Jewish] political forces, resulting in a great deal of self-censorship by the movie industry. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, headed by Will H. Hays, was created in 1922 in response to movements in over thirty state legislatures to enact strict censorship laws, and the Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph I. Breen, was launched in response to a campaign by the Catholic Legion of Decency. The result was that producers were forced to develop projects “along the lines of a standard Hollywood genre while steering clear of both the Hays and Breen offices and the radical writer who may have been assigned to the project.”

In addition, the HUAC investigations of the late 1940s and early 1950s and the active campaigning of religious (Legion of Decency, Knights of Columbus), patriotic (Daughters of the American Revolution [DAR]), and educational (Parents and Teachers Association) groups influenced movie content well into the 1950s, including a great many anticommunist films made as a rather direct response to the HUAC investigations. The result was, in the words of one studio executive, that “I now read scripts through the eyes of the DAR, whereas formerly I read them through the eyes of my boss.” Particular mention should be made of the American Legion, described as “the prime mover” in attempting to eradicate “Communist influence” in the movie industry during the 1950s. The list of sixty-six movie personalities said to be associated with communism published in the American Legion Magazine caused panic in Hollywood and a prolonged series of investigations, firings, and blacklistings. 

The point here is that there were strong controls emanating from political conservatives and from religious and cultural traditionalists that kept a lid on Jewish influence on culture through the 1950s — doubtless much to the chagrin of the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals who prided themselves in their alienation from that culture.

This all ended when the culture of the left finally triumphed in the 1960s. At that point, when the multi-cultural, anti-White left had seized the high ground in the cultural wars, they had far less reason to engage in the types of cultural criticism so apparent in the writings of the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals. Hollywood and the rest of the American media were unleashed, and it must have became apparent to many on the left that passivity, escapism and (leftist) conformity weren't so bad after all.

Indeed, as Elizabeth Whitcombe suggests, there seems to have been some realization among the Frankfurt School intellectuals in the late 1940s and 1950s that popular culture could be utilized to “manipulate the masses in the directions that they wanted — toward liberal cosmopolitanism, breaking down racial barriers, and promoting Black cultural icons.”

Is Capitalism the Problem?

What would have surprised these intellectuals is that the culture of the left could co-exist with capitalism. As Marxists at heart, at least for most of their existence, they felt that it was necessary to destroy capitalism in order to usher in a revolution in culture that would affect the great mass of people.

But it turns out that capitalism was not the problem they faced any more than it is the problem White advocates face now. It is certainly true that capitalism requires control by a racially conscious political and intellectual elite. In the absence of such controls, capitalists may, for example, advocate mass immigration because of the purely economic benefits for individual capitalists.

Political control over capitalism was certainly apparent during the period from 1924–1965 when America reaffirmed that it was a nation of Europeans. Capitalism remained on a strong leash — a leash motivated by a deep desire for ethnic defense on the part of the great majority of European Americans.

Even when the immigration law was finally changed in 1965, business interests were notable for their absence. Far more important was Jewish activism motivated ultimately by perceptions of ethnic self-interest.

All of the great changes in culture over the last 100 years occurred within the capitalist system. Capitalism co-existed with immigration restriction from 1924–1965, and it co-exists with the open borders reality of recent decades.

Ethnic interests and cultural traditionalism were far more important than capitalism in defending the ethnic and cultural integrity of pre-1965 America. And the ethnic interests of the nascent Jewish elite were far more important than capitalism in undermining the traditional people and culture of America in the post-1965 era.

As Eric P. Kaufmann shows, the best explanation for the enormous shift in culture is that the left was able to seize the elite institutions of society — the media, the universities, and the political culture. In my view, this would not have happened without the intellectual and political activism of Jewish intellectual and political activists who not only identified as Jews, but also saw their work as advancing specifically Jewish interests. Certainly the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals are prime examples of Jewish movements that played important roles in this revolution.

The result of the countercultural revolution is that those who detest the cosmopolitan culture erected by these movements are now on the sidelines, feeling alienated, and decrying the passivity, escapism, and conformity of the contemporary culture of Western suicide. 

End of Part 2 of 3. Click here to go to Part 2. Click here to go to Part 3.

Kevin MacDonald is editor of The Occidental Observer and a professor of psychology at California State University–Long Beach.  Email him.

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