The Strange Transformation of Marxism


Below is my review of Paul Gottfried’s The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium. The review can be found in the April 2006 issue of Chronicles.


I have one major problem with Paul Gottfried’s latest book The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium and that is its title, which does not really fit the book. Prof. Gottfried describes how Marxism as an economic theory has lost its appeal, even among the Left, since the Second World War. Today’s leftists no longer advocate nationalization of the economy and anti-capitalist theories. In fact, they hardly care about economics at all, but focus on changing the moral and cultural foundations of Western society. This shift, Gottfried points out, originated with the so-called Frankfurt School, a group of originally German Marxist philosophers who settled in the United States in the 1930s, where they came to dominate liberal thinking, not so much by advocating anti-capitalist economic reform but rather by propagating social engineering.

Their ideas returned to Europe after WWII, together with the wave of American pop culture swamping the Old Continent, and have thoroughly destroyed traditional European culture and morality. In this way Europe’s post-war infatuation with America has been its undoing. The “incentive to social engineering,” says Gottfried, “has gone from the Old to the New World and then back again and in the process altered Europe even more dramatically than us.” That, to me, is the important message of this book, which deserves a large audience.

Gottfried is right when he says that the multicultural orientation of the contemporary European Left has little to do with Marxism as an economic-historical theory. Indeed, the traditional electorate of Europe’s old (Marxist) Left today overwhelmingly vote for the parties of the so-called “extreme Right,” while the new (post-Marxist) Left caters for a new electorate that is hostile to the traditional moral and cultural values of the old Left’s former electorate with its conservative social attitudes. This phenomenon, to which Gottfried draws our attention, is confirmed by sociological studies of the electorate of Europe’s highly succesful anti-immigration parties, such as France’s Front National, Belgium’s Vlaams Blok, Denmark’s Dansk Folkeparti, whose appeal resides in their opposition to multiculturalism and their defense of national cultural identity.

These parties are among those most critical of American liberal pop culture with its multicultural, hedonistic orientation. Interestingly, Germany lacks a similar party. Readers of Prof. Gottfried’s book will know why. He describes in detail how after WWII, American social engineers in the US occupational army in Germany applied the theories of the Frankfurt School to reeducate the Germans by developing programs designed to eradicate the cultural identity of the German people. The authorities in the former East-German GDR took greater pride in the heroes of Germany’s past than those in the West, for whom any pride in aspects of German culture and history was regarded as potentially dangerous and a highway to Nazism.

Apart from a long introduction and a conclusion, Gottfried’s book consists of four chapters, dealing with Postwar Communism, Neomarxism, the Post-Marxist Left and the Post-Marxist Left as a political religion. The latter is probably the most interesting for American readers, as it also was to me, an atypical – because pro-American – European. I think it clarifies why the post-Marxist, multicultural social engineering has wreaked such devastating damage in Europe during the past three decades, while America, where Frankfurter School philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse developed their destructive ideas, remained relatively unaffected. Instead of using the state’s power to alter the economic framework of society or promote income redistribution, the Frankfurter School proposed to use the state as a radicalizing cultural force.

According to Prof. Gottfried this shift from economics to culture means the death of Marxism, because Marxism is an economic theory. He claims that the views of the no-longer extant communist parties on women and family life resembled those of pre-Vatican 2 Catholics. On this point I disagree with prof. Gottfried. Though Karl Marx never propagated sexual promiscuity, homosexuality and other “alternative” lifestyles, it should be noted, however, that Ludwig von Mises in his 1922 book Socialism pointed out – correctly I think – that Socialism demands promiscuity in sexual life because it consciously neglects the contractual idea:

“Free love is the socialist’s radical solution for sexual problems […] The family disappears and society is confronted with separate individuals only. Choice in love becomes completely free. Men and women unite and separate just as their desires urge.”

The Socialist paradigm, which entails the deliberate neglect of any contract or moral principle that does not serve the current political objectives of the State, results in both the expansion of sexual liberty and the disappearance of economic liberty. Economic liberty and prosperity cannot exist unless people are true to their promises and the assumed set of moral rules by which partners are bound within a certain culture. Consequently, Socialism leads to the disappearance of all forms of partnership. Nothing is left but the individual and the State.

Gottfried does not address this, but it is interesting to read how Richard Posner in his 1992 book Sex and Reason observed that the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s became “aligned with those of the student radicals of the 1960s for whom sexual liberty and political liberty were, as they had been to their guru, Herbert Marcuse, two sides of the same coin, while economic liberty they considered a mask for exploitation.” Although Posner is a libertarian, who agrees with the outcome of the Supreme Court decisions on moral issues, he disagrees with the Court’s Marcusean arguments.

Whether or not Marcuse and the other Frankfurter School philosophers can be considered true Marxists (as Mises would argue) or not (as Gottfried implies) seems to me a matter of secondary importance. It is certainly true, as Prof. Gottfried writes, that the traditional European Marxist parties, when they had most of the votes of their traditional electorate, never attempted to change the traditional, almost Victorian social and moral behaviour of their blue-collar voters. It is also true that the European Left adopted this agenda when its leaders became white-collar intellectuals infatuated with what they perceived to be American culture, but what in essence is only the liberal fringe of American culture. An icon of the latter, for example, is the montly magazine Playboy, which is generally considered to be as American as apple pie and which is never regarded as a socialist, let alone Marxist, social engineering vehicle.

Nevertheless, in its editorial articles (which, I know, are not what the magazine was bought for) Playboy always clearly stated that its primary objective was to change traditional culture and morality. “Playboy,” said its founder Hugh Hefner in its 30th anniversary issue in January 1974, “is one of the most important and influential magazines in the world, in terms of the impact it’s had not only on social mores but as a champion of individual rights. We’ve supported countless civil liberties organizations, political reform, sex research and education, abortion reform before it became popular, prison reform, and the continuing campaign to reform our repressive sex and drug laws, as well as any number of charities and community-fund efforts.” This list reads like the typical political agenda of the European Left today. In another anniversary issue, in 1979, Playboy described its own history as “A Chronology of Social Activism.”

In his book Prof. Gottfried quotes the sociologist Arnold Gehlen, an old-fashioned anti-Communist German, who in 1972 expressed his anxieties as he looked at his people’s moral and cultural frailties. It was not the Soviet Union, but America that threatened Western Europe, Gehlen said:

“In Germany one sees the scrupulous absorption of American manners, illusions, defense mechanisms, Playboy and drug culture, and open enrollment in higher education, for here no less than there the intellectuals are directing the destinies of the countries more than anywhere else. Nonetheless, what we lack are the American reserves in national energy and self-confidence, primitiveness and generosity, wealth and potential of every kind. With our beaten-down history and our youth seduced by volatile phrases, with the top-heavy industry, which is international in character, nothing can keep us from losing our national identity.”

Contrary to what the title of Gottfried’s book proclaims, I do not think that Marxism is dead in Europe. It has only shifted its emphasis. When the Communists came to power in Russia in 1917, they tried to impose their economic as well as their social agenda. They abolished private property and also the family. In her 1969 book Sexual Politics the American feminist Kate Millett wrote about this episode: “After the revolution every possible law was passed to free individuals from the claims of the family,” including the legalisation of “free marriage and divorce, contraception, and abortion on demand.” As Millett explained: “Under the collective system, the family began, as it were, to disintegrate along the very lines upon which it had been built. Patriarchy began, as it were, to reverse its own processes, while society returned to the democratic work community which socialist authorities describe as matriarchy.”

Because these reforms were far too radical and unrealistic, the Soviets abolished a number of them after a few months, reinstituting marriage for instance. Today, it looks as if the economic agenda of Communism has become too radical and unrealistic, prompting the Left to accept the market economy. The radical social agenda of the Russian Communists in the 1918-1920 period which Millett praised – free marriage and divorce, contraception, abortion on demand – has, however, become fact. The disintegration of the so-called oppressive patriarchical society has become the realistic agenda that the Left is today pursuing to its extremes.

Gottfried’s book explains how this agenda came into being and how those who shaped it brought their ideas from Europe to America in the 1930s and 40s and then back again in the 1960s and 70s. Consequently this book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding what is going on in Europe today. Instead of calling it The Strange Death of Marxism, I would call it “the transformation of Marxism”, which has made socialism an even more dangerous monster than it used to be. Though these ideas, developed by European intellectuals in America, infected Europe via America, they have all but killed traditional European culture. Only a few remaining pockets have been spared. These we can find, as Prof. Gottfried explains, in social classes that have succeeded in preserving traditional class loyalties, whether these be aristocratic, bourgeois, or working-class. The latter explains the paradoxical phenomenon that the former Communist electorate of the now defunct traditional Marxist parties has remained relatively immune to the social engineering projects. As Gottfried says:

“Both inherited social roles and the accompanying behavioral models render problematic the inculcation of contemporary state-enforced creeds. It is hard to recode bureaucratically those who have learned to think and act as members of a functioning stratified society.”

The reason why America was not infected to the same devastating degree by what I would call the Playboy philosophy and what is basically the Frankfurt School ideology, is also answered in this book, though less explicitly. It has to do with what Arnold Gehlen in the quote above called “the American reserves.” America’s “conservative reserves” are far stronger than Europe’s, because America, unlike secular Europe, has remained rooted to a larger extent in traditional Christian values. I do not doubt that if these values continue to decline, American culture will collapse as European culture and civilisation have collapsed. The disappearance of Christianity in Europe has left a religious vacuum, which has been filled by Islam on the one hand and by what Gottfried calls “the post-Marxist Left as a political religion” on the other hand. What we will witness in Europe in the coming decades is a cultural war between the values of Islam and the secular “values” of the decadent, hedonistic post-Marxist Left.


The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium
Paul Edward Gottfried
University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 2005, xii + 154 pp


Karl Marx's father; Herschel, descending from a long line of rabbis converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in 1824. He was born in Trier (was inhabited in ancient times by Celtic people speaking Gaulish language) in Prussia (a historical region and former kingdom of north-central Europe including present-day northern Germany and Poland. Its ancient inhabitants, of Baltic stock, were conquered by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century). Marx early rejected the idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and turned toward materialism (thinking mainly about things, not caring about spiritual, thrifty and ungreedy values). Materialistic philosophy, on the other hand, explains the nature of the world as entirely dependent on matter, the fundamental and final reality beyond which nothing need be sought.


Soviet family policy

Paul Belien wrote:
"Because these reforms were far too radical and unrealistic, the Soviets abolished a number of them after a few months, reinstituting marriage for instance."

The Soviets did not abolish any reform after a few months. They learned the hard way.
From the very start of their rule, the Communists made marriage a simple formality, removed from all bonds with religion and ceremony. The decrees of December 17 and 18, 1917 permitted easy divorce. Incest, bigamy and adultery were dropped from the list of criminal offences. In November 1920 abortion became permitted without valid reasons. In 1926 the new Family Code introduced "the unregistered marriage".

In his 1946 book The Great Retreat Nicholas Timasheff wrote that about 1934, the detrimental effects of the antifamily policy "were found to endanger the very stability of the new society and its capacity to stand the test of war." The decrease of the birth rate and the rise of juvenile delinquency and abandonment of women could no longer be tolerated.

What followed was not only a retreat from the antifamily policy, but a movement towards the exact opposite.
Early in 1936, a campaign against abortion was started. Stalin wanted women to bear as many children as possible. In June 1936, freedom of abortion was abolished by law. The freedom of divorce was first curtailed (1936) and then almost abolished (1944). This second antidivorce law substantially increased the advantages granted to mothers of numerous children. Honorary titles were granted to mothers of seven or more children. In 1944, the institution of "unregistered marriage" was abolished, 18 years after its introduction in 1926 and 27 years after the first reforms.

Agree with Dan. An

Agree with Dan. An unquencable thirst for power seems to be demi-urge that motivates and consumes the Left, and all lesser gods, like family and prosperity, are thrown into the fire.

Fortunately, just as the Left's economic axis runs aground in the loss of prosperity, the cultural axis runs aground on the loss of children. Human nature itself seems to resist demi-urge's siren song.

I hate the term "conservative reserves" because it implies passivity. Cultural reserves have to be renewed and reintroduced into each succeeding generation. And let's be more specific what the "culture reserves" are; family, patriotism, formal Christianity.

State power

I always thought their goal was to break down the family in order to increase dependence on the state and increase the power of the state.


I would think it easy for them to drop the economic philosophy because it was never about economics, the main thrust was power; the economy was merely a means to that end.

re: state power

not only the family, but the state has entrenched itself in all kind of human institutions it should not have, like the workplace, schools, clubs etc., creating only envy and hate with those left aside or with those inflicted by the state.

What ails the West

Interesting.  I see the question of what ails the West primarily as one of civilizational self-hatred among the intellectuals, and self-doubt among the broader citizenry.  It springs in part from contempt for ordinary bourgeois achievement combined with modern free economies rewarding actual creation of value to buyers rather than the amassing of formal educational credentials.  I think ultimately that the most pernicious family of ideas is that from the multicultural/relativist family rather than the nihilistic personal gratification branch, but each is destructive in its own way, perhaps even more so in combination with the other.


I've alwasy thought that the Marxist left simply found a way to change tactics but not the ultimate goal of eliminating the acquisition and unfettered use of property. By changing society mores to a modern understanding would ultimately lead to some kind of overwhelming control of the economy by the state to further these egalitarian goals. For example a fair wage that would allow the barista and janitor to have the same standard of living as a college professor or skilled laborer. Since that is impossible then the goal would be to reduce the income of the middle and upper class until it is "fair" for all citizens. And all this without having to nationalize industry or property.