Marxism’s exhausted legacy:
A conservative reads Norman Birnbaum

If there is really a such thing as “Cultural Marxism,” it is no doubt represented in the person of American socialist sociologist Norman Birnbaum, who has taught for a long time at Georgetown University. I happened to pick up his book The Radical Renewal: The Politics of Ideas in Modern America because it was either free or quite cheap. Also, it had a back-cover blurb by Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, which I enjoyed in my undergraduate political theory studies.

Recently I’ve been exchanging pleasantries on Twitter with a professed Marxist who is distressed by the lack of political solutions advanced by Marxists. I thought I would read this book on his behalf, since, if any discipline is likely to to advance political recommendations worth heeding, it is certainly sociology and not economics.

So I’ll be reading and blogging about this book with no particular program other than to explore and engage with Birnbaum’s ideas.

Acknowledgements & Preface

It is nice to encounter an academic with a realistic sense of his own dignity. Birnbaum in the acknowledgements thanks the people and institutions who at various times harbored him or otherwise offered aid and comfort. He mentions two professors at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin who “were good enough to extend a welcome despite the inability of their administration, for the better part of a year, to settle on a title for me. Was I a guest fellow, a guest scholar, or something else . . . ? Their unfailing courtesy despite this severe trial demonstrates that minor triumphs of scholarly content over bureaucratic form are possible.”

One must note that this book represents, certainly, the triumph of something over form. The editors of this book would have done well to eliminate all uses of the word “of,” because the whole preface is written in the most aggressively passive—nay, passive-aggressive style. If you would like to write for The Hipster Conservative, please understand that we have low standards, but not this low.

Birnbaum also thanks two institutions from which he took fellowships without ultimately producing any scholarly work. “They also serve who sit and think,” he avers:

Years ago, I had a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a book on the Marxist legacy. My Marxist legacy, in the event, was exhausted: the book was never written.

From which shameless but characteristic admission I take the title of this post. So imagine my disappointment only a few pages into this book, which rapidly promises to become a tedious slog, not at all the inspired radical leftism I was led to believe it would be. Birnbaum establishes his bona fides, which in his case consist in dismissive statements about the neoconservatives and explaining that he is really a real, Trotsky-admiring Marxist, although he has never belonged to a Communist party or Trotskyite group.

Chapter 1: Social Theory in the United States: The Legacy of the Recent Past

I. Introduction

“Cultural Marxism” conspiracy theorists often name the Frankfurt School of German Marxist intellectuals (Adorno, Horkheimer, Fromm, Marceuse, etc.) as the root of all that is odious in our politics today. Significant, then, that Birnbaum begins his discussion with a history of the Frankfurt School and their reception in America.

Adorno and his friends might not have deigned to recognize Birnbaum’s work as scholarship (They also work who sit and drink). Nevertheless, Birnbaum is somewhat enamored of them and the leftist following they perhaps unwittingly and indirectly inspired.

The author may be trying to ingratiate a particular audience, because he keeps dropping certain quite unnecessary phrases and comments which probably have some kind of meaning to the initiated; for instance:

“. . . those irrepressible generalists, the New York intellectuals.”

“It is now difficult to imagine, but in 1946 a Luce weekly, Life, could still print an attack on the art of Jean Dubuffet as subversive of Western culture . . .”

Not sure who Dubuffet is or why a critical article in Life gives Birnbaum the vapors. Or perhaps he yearns for the simplicity of 1946, when national periodicals had the moral wherewithal to criticize the avant-garde? Anyway, his main point seems to be that the Frankfurt School brought a different kind of Marxist critical theory to America: one more concerned with cultural critique than the pragmatic American leftism that predominated in the New Deal era. Birnbaum suggests that the Frankfurt school’s approach and insights were largely ignored by postwar liberals, who, while even embracing the avant-garde, again put a gauche, pragmatic American spin on everything.

Aside, while it is true that the American left in the 1960s was super lame, Birnbaum’s arch attitude and catty side comments are a bit rich coming from someone who did literally nothing for the cause of socialism in America while it was all going down–who has never “occupied” anything except well-endowed academic chairs.

I’m hoping that once we get into the meat of this book it will get more specific and interesting. Right now, it’s a bit of a dreary slog. Au revoir.

(To be continued)

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

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