Marxism — Cultural Marxism — and Protestant Theology

Cultural Marxism Is an OxymoronKarl Marx

By Dr. Gary North  2014

“A specter is haunting American conservatism. It is the specter of cultural Marxism”


  1. a visible incorporeal spirit, especially one of a terrifying nature; ghost; phantom; apparition.
  2. some object or source of terror or dread: the specter of disease or famine.


Let me start with a scenario. A group of theologians inside a Protestant denomination begin to preach the doctrine that Christianity is true, except for two doctrines: first, Jesus was not divine in any way, and second, the Bible is not literally true. What would you say about the orthodoxy of these people?expressionism

The West began to hear these arguments in state-funded German universities in the early 1800’s, but this basic approach for interpreting Christianity and the Bible had begun in the middle of the 17th century in England: the Tew Circle. This is not generally recognized in academia, but historically it was the case. The historical background was presented in a comprehensive form over 30 years ago in a book titled The Authority of the Bible, by H. G. Reventlow. The book and its author are virtually unknown to scholars, but the book is a masterful monograph.

sunset churchThis outlook began to be accepted more widely in American Protestant academic circles about 1875. It spread very rapidly. It became known as theological modernism, and by 1930, it had captured most mainline American Protestant churches above the Mason-Dixon line. The main exception was Missouri Synod Lutheranism, in which the battle continues.Darwin tree

Those who were members of non-mainline churches regarded this outlook as anti-Christianity. The most famous manifesto against it was J. Gresham [GRESSum] Machen’s [MAYchen] book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). He was correct.

The non-mainline churches began to grow. Growth in the mainline denominations slowed after 1925. Sometime around 1960, the year John D. Rockefeller, Jr. died, they began to shrink. Rockefeller, more than anyone else, had funded theological modernism after 1920; as we read in Shenkel’s book, The Rich Man and the Kingdom (1996). This shrinking process continues.

A similar infiltration/separation process occurred inside Marxism.

CULTURAL MARXISMoccupy and the elite

Marxists in the USSR in 1960 regarded the movement known as cultural Marxism with the same degree of skepticism that Bible-believing Christians regarded theological modernism. In other words, they denied that it was Marxism at all.

When you abandon the fundamental tenets of a particular ideology, and yet you attempt to retain that ideology’s name, because there are lots of adherents to that ideology, you will be regarded as an invader by the defenders of the original ideology.

Cultural Marxism is to Marxism what modernism is to Christianity. Anyone who regards cultural Marxism as Marxism has not understood Marxism. Yet it is common in conservative circles to do this. This is a strategic mistake because it is a conceptual mistake.

The heart, mind, and soul of orthodox Marxian socialism is this: the concept of economic determinism. Marx argued that socialism is historically inevitable because of the inevitable transformation of the mode of production. He argued that the mode of production is the substructure of society, and culture in general is the superstructure. He argued that people hold a particular view of society’s laws, ethics, and politics because of their commitment to a particular mode of production. The dominant mode of production in 1850 was capitalism. Marx named this mode of production. The name has stuck, even though original Marxism is culturally dead.

Marx gained support for his position precisely because it was purely economic/materialist. It abandoned all traces of historical explanation that were based on the idea that ideas are fundamental to the transformation of society. Marx believed that the deciding arena of class warfare is the mode of production, not the arena of ideas. He saw ideas as secondary outgrowths of the mode of production. His view was this: ideas do not have significant consequences. Take this idea out of Marxism, and it is no longer Marxism.

This is why it never ceases to amaze me that conservative analysts accept the idea of cultural Marxism. They go to the writings of the Frankfurt School to get footnotes to support this idea. The sharper analysts take it back to Antonio Gramsci’s prison writings in the 1930’s. He was officially a Communist. He was an Italian. He had spent time in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s, and he believed that the Leninist tradition was incorrect. The West had not proven to be a fertile ground for Communism, precisely because the West was Christian. He recognized clearly that until Christianity was broken as a primary commitment of the West, there would be no proletarian revolution there. History certainly has borne him out. It never came.

Gramsci argued, and the Frankfurt School followed his lead, that the way for Marxists to transform the West was through cultural revolution: the idea of cultural relativism. The argument was correct, but the argument was not Marxist. The argument was Hegelian. It meant turning Marxism on its head, just as Marx had turned Hegel on his head. The idea of Marxism in the earliest days was based on a rejection of the spiritual side of Hegelianism. It placed the mode of production at the heart of the analysis of capitalist culture.

I wrote a book on Marx back in 1968, when the counter-culture was growing rapidly. It was titled Marx’s Religion of Revolution. You can download the 1988 edition here: It was clear to me in 1968 that Marxism was a religion of revolution, a view that went back to the Cronos festivals of ancient Greece. Marxism was not a scientific analysis of society, including its economy. I spent no time on cultural Marxism. It would have been much easier to show the religious side of Marxism by spending time on the cultural Marxists. They clearly saw that these cultural issues involved religion in Western culture, which is an outgrowth of Christianity. But that would have defeated the purpose of my book. I was showing that original Marxism was a religion. To invoke cultural Marxism would have distracted the readers. Cultural Marxists would have made easier targets, but to discuss them would have weakened the argument in my book.

The cultural Marxists divided the Marxist camp. Their attack on culture may have been presented as a tactic, but it was more than a tactic; it was a strategy. It was a strategy based on the abandonment of original Marxism. I used this as an argument in my critique of the documentary, Agenda:

We can discuss this split in Marxism in terms of a particular family. The most prominent intellectual defender of Stalinism in the United States during the 1940’s and 1950’s was Herbert Aptheker. His daughter Bettina was one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement, which began in the fall of 1964 at the University of California, Berkeley. She became far more famous than her Stalinist father. That campus event launched the student rebellion and the counter-culture movement. But the very term “counter-culture” is indicative of the fact that it was never Marxist. It was an attempt to overthrow the prevailing culture, but Marx would not have wasted any time on such a concept. Marx was not a Hegelian. He was a Marxist.

She and her father split in 1968. When the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia, she opposed this. The mainstream Communist Party of the USA, where her father was a major figure, backed the USSR.

Years later, she wrote that her father had abused her sexually from age 3 to 13. Deep down in her father’s worldview, he was conducting his own personal Gramscian agenda. He was attacking Western culture in his own home. But this did not affect his orthodox Marxism. It affected his daughter’s.

Bettina Aptheker is now on the payroll of the University of California, and she teaches cultural studies: feminism. The movement she launched at Berkeley with Mario Savio died out in the early 1970’s. She is still a critic of capitalism, but her criticism is not based on the writings of Karl Marx. Neither was the counter-culture.


Let’s get it straight: Marx was wrong. Gramsci was right. But Marxism was not the primary cause of the counterculture. The counter-culture was based on culture. The alliance between theological modernism and the Progressive movement, which began in the mid-1880’s and peaked around 1920, was the theological underpinning of the roaring twenties. Then the Great Depression came. Then World War II came. When the boys came back from over there, after 1918, they were no longer committed to anything like Orthodox Christianity. When their boys came back from World War II, the cultural erosion that had taken place after World War I was pretty much complete. This had nothing to do with Marxism. Marxism was committed to a defense of cultural change that was based on changes in the mode of production. But there was no fundamental change in the mode of production in 1945, other than the rise of modern management, which took place during World War II. This consolidated capitalism; it did not weaken capitalism.

The problem is this: conservatives take way too seriously the claims of the cultural Marxists, who in fact were not Marxists. They were basically Progressives and socialists. They would have been the targets of Marx in 1850. He spent most of his career attacking people like this, and he spent almost no time at all in attacking Adam Smith, or the classical economists. He never replied to the neoclassical economists and Austrian School economists who appeared in the early 1870’s. Marx had plenty of time to respond to these people, but he never did. He spent most of his life attacking people who would be called today cultural Marxists. He regarded them as enemies in the socialist camp. He attacked them because they did not base their attack on capitalism in terms of his theory of scientific socialism, which rested on the concept of the mode of production.

Gramsci understood clearly in the 1920’s that if he stayed in the Soviet Union he would wind up in a Soviet concentration camp. He might even be executed. He realized that Stalin would have probably have killed him. So, he went back to Italy, knowing full well he would wind up in Italian concentration camp, which he did. The fascists let him read. They let him write. In doing so, they undermined Marxist Communism.

It is difficult to trace the historical influence of the Frankfurt School. Moving from a tiny sect to the general culture requires a study of complex causation. The basic movement towards cultural relativism began in the late 1880’s, and the marks of this were theological modernism and the Progressive movement. Freudian psychology was part of this by 1925. Freud was the justification for relativism; the Frankfurt School came later. Theological modernism gained more converts than the Frankfurt School ever did.

The counter-culture that began in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination was far more the product of the Rolling Stones than it was of the Frankfurt School. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll in the mid-1960’s replaced sex, beer, and rock ‘n roll of the late 1950’s. It was a powerful brew. Do not try to trace the counter-culture to the Frankfurt School. It is better to trace it to World War I, which uprooted the institutions of the West. What went on in the back seats of Model T’s after 1918 had more to do with the counter-culture than the writings of the Frankfort School.


Marx might have argued that it was the mode of production, as manifested more by the Model T than by anything else in American culture, which reshaped that culture. My argument is this: what went on in a handful of Protestant theological seminaries north of the Mason-Dixon line, beginning in 1875, had more to do with the counterculture than either the Model T or the Frankfurt school. This pushes the issue of culture back to where it belongs, namely, theology, which is why I began this discussion with the issue of theology. What people believe about the doctrine of hell has more to do with their behavior than what they believe about the relationship between the mode of production and proletarian revolution.

The West never came close to proletarian revolution. The Left likes to believe that it did. They like to argue that “Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism from itself.” This is another way of saying that John Maynard Keynes saved capitalism from itself. Both arguments are incorrect. Roosevelt and Keynes met only once. Roosevelt correctly assessed Keynes as a mathematician, not an economist. This was true. Keynes got his degree in mathematics, not economics. Roosevelt was the source of what we call Keynesianism, 1933-36, not Keynes, whose General Theory appeared in 1936. But scholars like to believe that academic arguments shape the world. They don’t. They conform what has already begun to take root in the thinking and practices of the general public.

When men decided that “thou shalt not steal” means “thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote,” the Keynesian worldview was born. This view is dominant today. Marxism is dead. So is cultural Marxism.

To win this battle, we must persuade men that, “thou shalt not steal” means this: it is immoral to steal, with or without majority vote.

This has nothing to do with the mode of production.


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