In the U.S and most of the West, the cultural left (used loosely to include movements like feminism, secularism, being pro-diversity and pro minority-rights, the LGBTQ movement, being pro-immigration, etc....) and the economic left (socialism, marxism, pro-big government and regulation, etc...) usually go together, although there doesn't seem any a priori reason why that should be the case. In fact, in some cases, it seems contradictory to me, see "Does the idea of a welfare state fundamentally conflict with an open immigration policy?" for example.

I found several videos on youtube that put all of the cultural left issues I mentioned under the general heading of "Cultural Marxism" - and they claim that this is part of a more or less deliberate move by Marxist thinkers, who turned to cultural issues after the failure of traditional Marxism as exemplified by the failures of communism in the U.S.S.R and China. By bringing up social issues and challenging traditional values, these thinkers presumably wanted to undermine western society, eventually leading to its breakdown and finally paving the way for the foretold workers revolution. They all single out the Frankfurt School as being the main driver behind all this.

These videos, however, from their tone and language, all seem more like right wing conspiracy theories, than like any serious philosophical lectures.

Moreover, from what I've read and seen, several members of the Frankfurt school (Adrono, Horkheimer, and later Habermas) actually had something of a socially conservative bent, almost pining for earlier times, when western society had other sources of meaning and values besides capital (For example Adorno and Horkheimer's critique of mass media and its use of sexuality for marketing, and their somewhat elitist views on art). I didn't get the impression that they wanted to "do away with the family" or "drive today's youth towards sexual hedonism" - as many of the above mentioned videos claim.

My questions are then:

  1. Is there a philosophical reason why cultural left and economic left go together, or is it a historical coincidence? Do they share any fundamental principles other than changing the status-quo?
  2. It seems to me that Left Hegelians seem to align with the cultural left, and Marx started out as a Left Hegelian, before going to formulate Communism. Is there a relation between the two? Is that the origin of the correlation?
  3. Is there any merit at all to the idea that the various aspects of the cultural left in today's Western discourse did indeed originate with the Frankfurt School? Did members of the Frankfurt school really want to overthrow Western values (and my reading of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Habermas is wrong) ?
  • It helps to make a study of liberalism, and as shorthand think of true liberalism as what we call libertarianism in America. Think of let-do, or laissez-faire in both the social and economic sphere. "Cultural Marxism" is simply red-baiting. Don't be misled by this usage. Ignore it.
    – Gordon
    Nov 3 '17 at 3:27
  • 1
    As mostly just an aside, I've always found that people confuse "left" and "right" because they interchange what you've labeled as cultural and fiscal. I've always found that using the political compass model, where fiscal and social issues are on different axes, makes the language being used a lot clearer. Viewing it like this, it's obvious that there is authoritarian left as well as liberal left (with left referring to the economic spectrum). And "cultural Marxism" 99 times out of 100 is a buzz word (buzz phrase?) that certain demographics on the right use to smear certain people on the left.
    – Not_Here
    Nov 3 '17 at 3:30
  • It isn't a priori that social liberalism and economic leftism go together, look at authoritarian leftist societies like the soviet union. Similarly it isn't true that either of the right sides are a priori, there's fascism and there's anarcho captialism. I really think that rewriting the terms on a two dimensional axis helps the conversation be a lot clearer. And for what it's worth, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… this has a lot of good citations.
    – Not_Here
    Nov 3 '17 at 3:34
  • I honestly think that it's just an example of sloppy use of words from both sides. For example, this is exactly the issue that happened recently when the two Youtubers David Pakman and Sargon of Akkad got in an argument about Stalinism. As I recall, Pakman said in a video that Stalin was left on economic policies but he wasn't truly left because he was authoritarian and then Sargon got upset and said that Pakman was trying to make a no true Scotsman fallacy for Stalin being a leftist. Again, if they used the political compass, two dimensional definitions, the argument would evaporate.
    – Not_Here
    Nov 3 '17 at 3:45
  • Marxism is not pro big government; this is to fade away. You just have to keep in mind that Marxism was meant for Germany first, really. Germany came to industrialism late, but they did it quickly. Everybody thought Germany would be first. Marxism must have an industrial (capital) base to take over, as capitalism followed feudalism, Marxism follows capitalism. The man who saved the industrial west from socialism/communism was Ludendorff.
    – Gordon
    Nov 3 '17 at 3:46

I think there is a correlation basis, although I am hesitant to call it philosophical. Let me reframe the issue: there is no doubt that social/cultural and fiscal liberalism are logically independent, so the question is why they are correlated in populations statistically. The reason can be psychological, or historical, or philosophical, or all three combined. It is well known that what is called "economic liberalism" in Europe corresponds to "fiscal conservatism" in the US, and the US "liberalism" is known there as "social democracy". This reflects an older alignment, cultural laissez-faire used to go with economic one, so the current alignment is not permanent.

It seems that the ethical faultline of personal responsibility vs social solidarity does favor this alignment, but we should be careful with putting some "deep" philosophical basis under it considering how historically fleeting it is. Coleman's blog associates social/fiscal with negative vs positive rights, those requiring government to leave one alone vs those requiring government to act, and accuses the misaligned socially liberal fiscal conservatives of hypocrisy, “I support the plight of the marginalized, so long as I don’t have to do anything about it”. Similar emotional appeals were made by feminists, minority, working poor and LGBT advocates. Rorty, no Marxist but a leading philosophical post-modernist in the US, even suggested turning "solidarity" into a pillar of cultural politics, see Has, as Richard Rorty hoped, solidarity successfully replaced objective truth as the aim of cognition? But the extent of his political influence is questionable.

"Cultural Marxism" is a derogatory term coined by known conspiracy theorists, so I would not take their word seriously:

"This conspiracy theory hinges on the idea that the Frankfurt School wasn't just an arcane strain of academic criticism. Instead, the Frankfurt School was behind an ongoing Marxist plot to destroy the capitalist West from within, spreading its tentacles throughout academia and indoctrinating students to hate patriotism & freedom."

Moreover, the influence of the Frankfurt school in the US was minimal, but the realignment happened there as elsewhere. And we have a mirroring fiscal/social alignment on the conservative side as well, it is hard to credit the Frankfurt school for that.

The Economist did a non-scientific straw poll of Texas Republicans with the advantage that participants gave their own speculations as to the reasons for the alignment:

"Permissive social attitudes... lead to the kind of behaviour that causes outcomes like family breakdown, which in turn leads to government spending, which in turn leads to dependency. (Progressives, by contrast, would be more likely to argue that government programmes are a response to social problems, rather than a cause; this is an evergreen and perhaps insoluble debate.)

For others, both sets of issues came down to the argument that values and behaviour are mutually reinforcing. "We all only have one character inside us," said Bob Hall, a delegate whose business card described him as a Christian constitutional conservative. "It comes down to personal responsibility." Dwayne Collins, a delegate from Edith, echoed that view. "If you don't keep your financial house in order," said Mr Collins, "The whole thing will fall apart."

This seems to confirm the ethical responsibility/solidarity divide. But ethics and social psychology do not refract through the lens of political philosophy straightforwardly. Chen and Lind conducted a study The Political Economy of Beliefs: Why Fiscal and Social Conservatives/Liberals Come Hand-in-hand, and reached some nuanced conclusions:

"Religious provision of social insurance may explain why fiscal and social conservatism align in the times and places that they do. We find evidence that religious groups with greater within-group charitable giving are more against he welfare state and more socially conservative. The alignment disappears when there is a state church and it reverses for members of a state church (social conservatives become fiscal liberals).

This reversal is unlikely to be due to omitted variables: In two quasi-experiments, increases in church-state separation precede increases in the alignment between fiscal and social conservatism. We construct a model where elites increase church-state separation or create a constituency for lower taxes if religious voters exceed non-religious voters. Welfare state crowds out religious participation, leading to multiple steady states where some countries sustain high church-state separation, high religiosity, and low welfare state, and vice versa".

  • Equality is probably the conceptual glue.

Marxism, well-intentioned but difficult to apply via human agents, particularly in pre-"information age" societies, was, in part, about reducing economic disparity.

Social liberalism has the same core motivation, with the emphasis on social normalcy, as opposed to material equality.


I'm sorry. I cannot give you a complete answer because it would take too long, but you yourself have taken an essential step just by your observations, and by asking your specific questions. First, I would say to read "Failure of a Revolution, Germany 1918/1919" by Sebastian Haffner. Library Press (1973), trans.of "Die Verratene Revolution", Scherz Verlag (1969). Then try to find and read this book: Title: Rubel on Karl Marx : five essays, Author: Rubel, Maximilien, Publisher: Cambridge Press,Pub date:1981. If you can find and read these books, from a library or wherever, then you will have what very few people have, and the other two hundred books you read on these subjects (Marxian studies, Marxism, socialism, communism, etc.) will make a lot more sense.

The progressive world ended in the months after WWI. After this time, real freedom, real choices, they were at an end. I think it will take a great shock before we can return to something like that lost world, if we ever do. In the meantime you have a choice of soft drink flavors, hamburger toppings, "political parties", car colors, floor coverings, shoe varieties, and things like that.

(This is another book I can highly recommend: Title: America enters the world : a people's history of the Progressive Era and World War I, Author: Smith, Page. Publisher:McGraw-Hill,Pub date:c1985.)

Frankfurt School: Here it is helpful to remember that Habermas was most fond of Marcuse. Peter Lind's book, Marcuse and Freedom is good. Adorno and Horkheimer: see, Habermas, Autonomy & Solidarity p. 78; Joan Braune's book on Erich Fromm is good. Martin Jay's interview of Leo Lowenthal (book) is good.

To your question no. 3: No. Overthrow how? What Western values are you talking about? Instrumental reason, a system of total delusion?

Habermas: p. 78 aforesaid; "Optimism? It is true that I do not share the basic premise of critical theory...the premise that instrumental reason has gained such dominance that there is really no way out of a total system of delusion*, in which insight is achieved only in flashes by isolated individuals." *Verblendungszusammenhang

As Habermas said indirectly, he was more optimistic than Horkheimer and Adorno at the time, and he develops his theory of communicative action, but as things have turned out as the years have passed since Autonomy & Solidarity, and his The Theory of Communicative Action, who knows? I have not kept up with Habermas's later work. Habermas offers a possible way out, The Theory of Communicative Action is on the shelf. See also: Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas, MIT (1981).

Okay, enough of the Frankfurt School! Now to a quote on liberalism and property: "The individual that liberalism has sought to protect is always, so to say, free to "purchase" his freedom in the society it made; but the number of those with the means of purchase at their disposal has always been a minority of mankind. The idea of liberalism, in short, is historically connected, in an inescaple way, with the ownership of property." Harold Laski in "Rousseau and Marx and other writings", Galvano Della Volpe, Humanities Press (1979), p. 77.

No property, no money, and you can have all the rights in the world but you can't enforce them, and you can't enjoy your rights. Corporations, the rich etc, those with property have real rights. It's a public myth that lawyers take just about all cases on a "contingency fee". So it's an easy thing for politicians to grant rights, gay rights, women's rights etc., that for most people are merely formal. Under capitalism real rights are connected to property.

  • Regarding Frankfurt School, I beg to differ: Adorno and Horkheimer mainly did criticism, i.e. tried to show how thought has been distorted by reason in all social relations. Habermas took linguistics, sociology, and other sciences and looked for another kind of rationality that enables us to regain positive freedom, i.e. has closer ties to Ayer, Kant and Existentialism. Here, there is a tension between describing historicism and (a kind of) rationalism. That is why Habermas had to turn to Adorno, who was quite open-minded, since Horkheimer rejected him due to his philosophical views.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 3 '17 at 10:46
  • @PhilipKlocking If we differ it's not by much. The only sentence I might take issue with is your last sentence, and here I agree about Horkheimer.
    – Gordon
    Nov 3 '17 at 14:19
  • @PhilipKlocking I should say, I did not know about Ayer's influence, if I did know, I've forgotten it. As far as Englishmen, I would have said Peter Winch and Wittgenstein, who I will lump in with the English. Regarding Adorno, Philip I am sure you have studied this closely, I am not suggesting you are wrong. AlexanderSKing: Jurgen Habermas, Autonomy&Solidarity, Editor, Intro. by Peter Dews, Verso, New Left Books (1972). And the books by or about Habermas, MIT Press.
    – Gordon
    Nov 3 '17 at 15:40
  • Philosophy of language in general is quite important for Habermas' opus. Regarding the information on how he got his place in Frankfurt: it is second-hand information from my professor, who personally discussed with H at several points. He told that Horkheimer was against accepting H's doctoral dissertation, which he deemed too Kantian and analytical. No one but Adorno, who saw the intellectual potential, dared to oppose him, so he ended up being a doctorate under him (not for too long iirc, i.e. H left the department at some point. May have been the habilitation instead of doctor as well.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 3 '17 at 15:52
  • @PhilipKlocking. Thank you for this information. I see hardly any real disagreement. Autonomy&Solidarity is an interview of Habermas about this period. He is frank, but polite. He simply completes the picture. He discusses Adorno, who was a difficult character to engage with, and he was even more set in his philosophical ways when Habermas was in Frankfurt. Very good book.
    – Gordon
    Nov 3 '17 at 20:46

It's largely historic. If you look at the equivalent in the ex-Warsaw pact countries you see that (what you call) cultural right tends to align with economic left and vice versa. What you're mostly seeing is a split between a traditional/conservative grouping and a liberal/modernising grouping.

There are some logical connections though. For example, it follows that someone wanting to use laws to affect social change e.g. with LGBT rights, also is comfortable with the state being significantly involved in people's private lives. It is harder to reconcile a small government philosophy with significant anti-discrimination legislation though not impossible (I tend to that view for example).

Similarly, it is reasonable to assume that someone who wants to affect social inequality needs to be willing to use the state, and particularly the state's finances, to effect that change. Again, a small goverment/laissez-faire approach is hard to reconcile with, say, a significant welfare state.


The "left" as we understand it is about equality. It makes little sence to be in favour of economic equality but for some reason be against the rights of Blacks, women, gay people, etc. It makes also little sence to defend equality between gay and straight aristocrats, or equality between poor men and poor women, but be against eliminating the inequality between the poor and the rich.

"Big government" only relates tangentially to the fight against inequality (the moderate left usually believes the State can be instrumental in lowering inequality levels - which is true in the short term). But many leftists are against any kind of State, even the "minimal" State of neoliberals.

I fear that Left Hegelianism faded into unimportance too early to have any relation to what you call "cultural left". The only Left Hegelian who seems to still attract some reading and discussion is Max Stirner, and while his followers may or may not partake the "cultural leftist" mores, they are hardly important in that context. The others seem to me to only retain a historic, academic, interest

"Cultural Marxism" is an invention of the far right (of Olavo de Carvalho, I think). It has nothing to do with reality, rather deriving from a very incompetent (mis)reading of either Gramsci (who never said or wrote anything similar) or Marcuse (who was a Frankfurt School member, though way more radical than Adorno or Habermas, but whose views of the "sexual revolution" of the sixties are quite critical - he was the coiner of the expression "repressive dessublimation", after all). Evidently, "the left" never gathered in some kind of congress to decide, "hey, political revolution isn't working, let's turn everybody gay and transex, this way we are going to sneak into power". The whole idea is indeed quite reminiscent of conspiracy theories of the "Learned Elders of Zion" kind and quality, to be honest.

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