America today is dominated by a system of beliefs, attitudes and values that we have come to know as “Political Correctness.” For many it is an annoyance and a self parodying joke. But Political Correctness is deadly serious in its aims, seeking to impose a uniformity of thought and behavior on all Americans. It is therefore totalitarian in nature. Its roots lie in a version of Marxism which sees culture, rather than the economy, as the site of class struggle.
Under Marxist economic theory, the oppressed workers were supposed to be the beneficiaries of a social revolution that would place them on top of the power structure. When these revolutionary opportunities presented themselves, however, the workers did not respond. The Marxist revolutionaries did not blame their theory for these failures; instead they blamed the “ruling class,” which had bought off the workers by giving them “rights,” and had blinded them with a “false consciousness” that led them to support national governments and liberal democracy.
One group of Marxist intellectuals resolved this apparent contradiction of Marxist theory by an analysis that focused on society’s cultural “superstructure” rather than on the economic “base” as Marx did. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs contributed the most to this new cultural Marxism.
Among Marxists, Gramsci is noted for his theory that cultural hegemony is the means to class dominance. In his view, a new “Communist man” had to be created through a changed culture before any political revolution was possible. This led to a focus on the efforts of intellectuals in the fields of education and media.
Georg Lukacs believed that for a new Marxist culture to emerge, the existing culture must be destroyed. He said, “I saw the revolutionary destruction of society as the one and only solution to the cultural contradictions of the epoch.... Such a worldwide overturning of values cannot take place without the annihilation of the old values and the creation of new ones by the revolutionaries.”
In 1923, Lukacs and other Marxist intellectuals associated with the Communist Party of Germany founded the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt University in Frankfurt, Germany. The Institute, which became known as the Frankfurt School, was modeled after the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. In 1933, when Nazis came to power in Germany, the members of the Frankfurt School fled. Most came to the United States and many became influential in American universities. The Frankfurt School’s studies combined Marxist analysis with Freudian psychoanalysis to form the basis of what became known as “Critical Theory.”
Critical Theory was essentially destructive criticism of the main elements of Western culture, including Christianity, capitalism, authority, the family, patriarchy, hierarchy, morality, tradition, sexual restraint, loyalty, patriotism, nationalism, heredity, ethnocentrism, convention and conservatism.
Critical Theorists recognized that traditional beliefs and the existing social structure would have to be destroyed and then replaced with a “new thinking” that would become as much a part of elementary consciousness as the old one had been. Their theories took hold in the tumultuous 1960s, when the Vietnam War opened a Pandora’s Box of reevaluaton and revolution. The student radicals of the era were strongly influenced by revolutionary ideas, among them those of Herbert Marcuse, a member of the Frankfurt School who preach the “Great Refusal,” a rejection of all basic Western concepts and an embrace of sexual liberation, and the merits of feminist and black revolutions. His primary thesis was that university students, ghetto blacks, the alienated, the asocial, and the Third World could take the place of the proletariat in the coming Communist revolution.
Marcuse may be the most important member of the Frankfurt School in terms of the origins of Political Correctness, because he was the critical link to the counterculture of the 1960s. His objective was clear: “One can rightfully speak of a cultural revolution, since the protest is directed toward the whole cultural establishment, including morality of existing society.”
When addressing the general public, contemporary advocates of Political Correctness – or Cultural Marxism, as it might just as easily be called – present their beliefs with appealing simplicity as merely a commitment to being “sensitive” to other people and embracing values such as “tolerance” and “diversity.”
The reality is different. Political Correctness is the use of culture as a sharp weapon to enforce new norms and to stigmatize those who dissent from the new dispensation; to stigmatize those who insist on values that will impede the new "PC" regime: free speech and free and objective intellectual inquiry.
Adapted from: "Political Correctness": A Short History of an Ideology," edited by William Lind (November 2004).