Saturday, August 19, 2023

Foundations of Modern Progressive Thought

 Foundations of Modern Progressive Thought:
From Social Justice, Woke, Intersectionality to Identity Politics.

1. The long march through the institutions

In the annals of revolutionary thinkers, few match the impact of Antonio Francesco Gramsci, who lived between January 2, 1891, and April 27, 1937. Notably, as a founder and once the leader of the Italian Communist Party, he became an emblematic figure who symbolized resolute resistance to Benito Mussolini's fascism. While imprisoned by the authoritarian regime from 1926 until his death in 1937, he penned what can be considered his magnum opus – the “Prison Notebooks” - more than 3,000 pages filled with a seductive blend of history and political theory.

It would be a tragic oversimplification to think that Gramsci simply stood in opposition to bourgeois values. Rather, he sought to convey that these values were not the quintessential or default values for a society. Lenin, with his pragmatic focus, believed culture was a mere sidebar to the larger political game. However, for Gramsci, culture wasn't a side act; it was the headline show. In his eyes, achieving cultural hegemony was paramount to obtaining genuine power. He keenly observed that a class could not gain dominance solely through pursuing economic ambitions or through unbridled force. A more sophisticated method was necessary: a class had to ascend by showcasing intellectual and moral leadership, crafting alliances, and yes, even making compromises. Borrowing a term from Georges Sorel, Gramsci termed this alliance of societal forces a "historic bloc". This bloc, in essence, was the linchpin that ensured the continuous reproduction of the hegemony of the prevailing class through a web of institutions, relationships, and ideologies.

Gramsci's focus on the political and ideological superstructure is a crucial mechanism in maintaining and breaking the chains of the economic foundation. He vociferously contended that to truly challenge the capitalist stronghold, it was paramount to erect a counter-hegemony. This wasn't about sheer opposition; it was about crafting an alternative, a counter-narrative to the prevailing bourgeois ideology. The peculiar nature of Russian societal structures, according to Gramsci, exempted them from this process since their ruling elite did not exercise genuine hegemonic power.

In a proclamation that would echo through the annals of history, Gramsci articulated, "Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity. … In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches, and the media by transforming the consciousness of society." It's essential to note that his proclamation, describing the current state of culture in 2023, was penned during his confinement from 1926 to 1937.

Fast forward to 1967, German sociologist and political student activist Rudi Dutschke coined the phrase "the long march through the institutions". A strategic blueprint for initiating revolutionary conditions, it aimed to dismantle capitalist society's grasp by permeating various societal institutions. Dutschke  promoted working against the established institutions while working within them, but not simply by 'boring from within', rather by 'doing the job', learning (how to program and read computers, how to teach at all levels of education, how to use the mass media, how to organize production, how to recognize and eschew planned obsolescence, how to design, et cetera), and at the same time preserving one's own consciousness in working with others. The term "long march" wasn't mere rhetoric; it was an ode to the prolonged endeavors of the Chinese communists, epitomized by their literal march across China.

Interestingly, while many draw parallels between Dutschke's "long march" and Gramsci's "war of position", concrete evidence linking Dutschke's familiarity with Gramsci remains elusive. Despite countless references to other revolutionary figures like György Lukács, Che Guevara, and Mao Zedong in Dutschke's writings, a conspicuous absence of Gramsci looms large.

The strategies laid down by figures like Gramsci and Dutschke remain a testament to the multifaceted nature of the communist manifestos – they do not merely intend to change governments but instead attempt to transform the very soul of societies.

2. Critical Theory

Amid the ocean of intellectual movements of the 20th century, none perhaps remains as poignant and provocative as the Frankfurt School, more rigorously referred to as Critical Theory. Originating from the proverbial corridors of the Institute for Social Research, affixed to Frankfurt's Goethe University in Germany, this movement was conceived in 1923, borne out of Felix Weil's munificence, and aimed to kindle the fires of Marxist analysis within German academia. But, with the Nazi regime's tightening noose in 1933, this intellectual bastion found refuge across the Atlantic, settling within the esteemed walls of Columbia University in New York City.

The luminaries of this philosophical force included figures like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and the potent Herbert Marcuse, to name but a few. By the time the 1970s dawned, a new guard, spearheaded by Jürgen Habermas, commenced, casting the Frankfurt School's intellectual net beyond its original confines, influencing scholarly methods across the European continent. During this metamorphosis, the American academic realm was not untouched. Richard Bernstein, a philosophical contemporary of Habermas, fervently adopted Critical Theory's agenda, infusing its essence into the academia, starting notably from the New School for Social Research in New York.

But it's Herbert Marcuse, the German-born philosopher, who deserves closer scrutiny. Associated intrinsically with the Frankfurt School's philosophy, Marcuse championed the New Left in 1960s America. His critiques often pierced the heart of conventional liberalism, most controversially via his "Repressive Tolerance" hypothesis published in 1965. Marcuse argued that the liberal concept of tolerance, which allowed for the free expression of all ideas and opinions, actually served to reinforce the existing power structure and maintain the status quo.

According to Marcuse, in a society where there is unequal distribution of power and wealth, the notion of "equal" or "neutral" tolerance simply perpetuates the dominant ideology and represses the oppressed. He believed that the ruling class, with the help of the media and other institutions, used the idea of tolerance to maintain their power and control over the masses, while suppressing any dissenting voices that threatened their authority.

In Marcuse's view, therefore, true freedom could only be achieved through "liberating tolerance," which would actively promote and encourage alternative, dissenting viewpoints, while challenging the dominant ideology. This would involve a form of "discriminatory tolerance," in which the oppressed were given more latitude to express their views than the oppressors, in order to redress the power imbalance.

His hypothesis captivated many, not least his most famous student, Angela Davis, who echoed Marcuse’s sentiments in her preface to “The New Left and the 1960s”:

While Marcuse's ideas were controversial and attracted criticism from some quarters, they were influential in the development of the New Left movement and continue to be discussed and debated in political and philosophical circles today.  Marcuse engaged with the civil rights movement and the emerging feminist, environmental, gay and lesbian, and other oppositional social movements of the era.

 One of the great challenges of any social movement is to develop new vocabularies. As we attempt to develop these vocabularies today, we can find inspiration and direction in Marcuse’s attempts to theorize the politics of language. In “An Essay on Liberation” he wrote: Political linguistics: armor of the Establishment. If the radical opposition develops its own language, it protests spontaneously, subconsciously, against one of the most effective “secret weapons” of domination and defamation. The language of the prevailing Law and Order, validated by the courts and by the police, is not only the voice but also the deed of suppression. This language not only defines and condemns the Enemy, it also creates him. . . This linguistic universe, which incorporates the Enemy (as Untermensch) into the routine of everyday speech can be transcended only in action.

Critical theory encourages dissidents to demand that society accept their changes in vocabulary and also to demand more latitude to express their views than their opponents.

3. Postmodernism

During the 1970s, the intellectual salons of France bore witness to an emerging philosophical storm. Taking inspiration from the likes of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger, a maverick group of thinkers, led by luminaries like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard, began to radically dismantle the established paradigms of modern philosophy. By the time the 1980s rolled around, these audacious ideas had not only traversed the Atlantic to find a haven in America with thinkers like Richard Rorty but had garnered a global resonance.

This intellectual movement, branded as "postmodernism," ventured where few had dared to tread. It was a brazen challenge to the very edifice of Enlightenment rationalism, an intellectual legacy that had held sway since the 17th century.  Postmodernism is associated with relativism and a focus on the role of ideology in the maintenance of economic and political power.  Postmodernists are "skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person".  It considers "reality" to be a mental construct. Postmodernism rejects the possibility of unmediated reality or objectively rational knowledge, asserting that all interpretations are contingent on the perspective from which they are made; claims to objective fact are dismissed as naive realism.

Deeply influenced by strains of critical theory, postmodernists viewed knowledge and moral systems through a lens of contingency, describing those systems as products of political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence.  Postmodernism is often associated with schools of thought such as deconstruction and post-structuralism.  Postmodernism relies on critical theory, which considers the effects of ideology, society, and history on culture. Postmodernism and critical theory commonly criticize universalist ideas of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress.  Schools of thought like deconstruction and post-structuralism found their lineage in the postmodernist canon. In essence, postmodernism, coupled with critical theory, presents a scathing critique of any pretense to an objective reality, immutable truths, or the infallibility of reason. 

An essential figure in this intellectual tableau was Richard McKay Rorty. A product of institutions like the University of Chicago (BA and MA) and Yale (Phd), Rorty's academic sojourns spanned the hallowed halls of Princeton, the University of Virginia, and Stanford.

Rorty rejected the long-held idea that correct internal representations of objects in the outside world is a necessary prerequisite for knowledge. Rorty argued instead that knowledge is an internal and linguistic affair; knowledge only relates to our own language.  Rorty argues that language is made up of vocabularies that are temporary and historical and concludes that "[...] since vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths."

4. Conclusion: The Accumulated Results

The long march through the institutions has been underway for over 100 years.  It is apparent that the collectivists have gained control of all institutions in society including but not limited to:

Elementary schools.

High Schools.


Government agencies and bureaucrats.

Elected officials.

Corporate management.

News media of all types.

Entertainment of all types.

Religious organizations.

The family.

Having control of the institutions provides the collectivists with the opportunity to control public discourse using the methods prescribed by critical theory.  Propaganda favoring the collectivist doctrine is promoted throughout all institutions and opposition to collectivist doctrine is censored and labeled misinformation or disinformation.  Finally, collectivists are able to redefine the vocabulary using postmodernist methods to define long held beliefs as false and new and unimaginable concepts to be true.


  1. Please enter your comments or questions below

    1. It is sad to think that rational discourse is not useful in conversations with Critical Theory advocates.

  2. Dear Mark...Thank you for your comprehensive summary. I lived in Germany during the Dutschke empowerment of the "ausserparlamentarische Opposition" ( extra parliamentary
    opposition). They won...the unelected bureaucratic machine rules, on Germany and in USA. I did not understand then, what the implications for the future were. I see it now.
    Thank you for tying it neatly
    Cordially Christel