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Mackubin Thomas Owens: Tolerating only the ‘correct’ ideas

When I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the mid-1960s, our sister campus at Berkeley was roiled by what came to be known as the “free speech movement,” a string of ongoing protests against the university administration arising from student demands to lift restrictions on political speech. This episode is seen as the genesis of the student activism of the 60s and 70s.

Fast forward to today, where both college students and faculty have successfully curtailed free speech on college campuses. What accounts for this astounding reversal? One answer is the mainstreaming of a fellow whose books I had to read in my college days: Herbert Marcuse, who among other things advocated something called “repressive tolerance.” In classic Orwellian double-speak, Marcuse, a German émigré who is seen as the godfather of the 1960s “counterculture,” argued that tolerating all ideas — the essence of reasonable discourse that traditionally has defined the mission of the university — was in fact repressive, since it did not “privilege” the “correct” ideas. True tolerance, Marcuse argued, “would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” This of course is the essence of the “political correctness” that afflicts academia today.

Marcuse is just one character in a splendid new book by Michael Walsh, “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West.” Others include sociologists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, and “sex therapist” Wilhelm Reich, all members of the “Frankfurt School,” the Institute for Social Research, who sought refuge in America from Nazi Germany. But once ensconced in the American academy, the Frankfurt boys proved to be the sort of parasite that eventually kills its host.

These “cultural Marxists” recognized that Marx’s target, the working class, would never buy into their argument. Communism had always been imposed by force. So instead, the Frankfurt boys exploited American intellectuals, who had always exhibited a sense of inferiority relative to Europe. This was indeed fertile ground, making it easy for them to effect what the Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci, called the “long march through the institutions,” most importantly the academy but also popular culture.

As George Orwell observed, “there are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” So it was with their overly intellectualized and emotionally juvenile approach to the world, the pernicious and reactionary philosophy of Critical Theory, which has unleashed a swarm of demons onto the American psyche.

Walsh argues persuasively that Marcuse and his ilk sought nothing less than the overthrow of both the moral and political orders of the West. Their ideology demanded, for philosophical reasons, a relentless assault on Western principles, including Christianity, the family, conventional sexual morality, and nationalist patriotism, which the Frankfurt boys saw as roadblocks on the path to revolution.

The book’s title comes from the name of a little known opera by Franz Schubert, “Des Teufels Lustschloss.” For Walsh, the Devil’s Pleasure Palace represents the utopian promise of “social justice,” equality for all, and the end of poverty. Of course, the reality is far different, revealing itself as a Potemkin Village, an illusion that conceals the corpses of the untold millions who have died in the attempt to found the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, but divorced from God.

Walsh takes us from high culture to low, but he focuses on the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Mephistopheles of Goethe’s Faust. Walsh calls the latter a literary adumbration of Marx, the Father of Lies who seeks to convince others to rebel against the evidence of their minds, hearts, senses, and self-interest. And so it is with the Frankfurt boys.

What have the Frankfurt boys wrought? Among other things, a coarseness of speech and dialogue, lowered standards of both personal behavior and cultural norms, and the shrunken horizons of the future. We also see their handiwork in today’s campus fascism. As Marcuse taught, free speech matters only when the Left is out of power. Meanwhile, Marcuse’s grandchildren — today’s students — easily bully Marcuse’s children — today’s professors and administrators — because the latter have always accepted the premises of the former. Now they are reaping what they themselves have sown.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, a monthly contributor, is the dean of academics of the Institute of World Politics, in Washington, and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in Philadelphia.

This article was first published in the Providence Journal and can be found here.