The Dispatch: More from CWR...

On the troubling and growing popularity of cultural Marxism

The work to make people aware that Marxist communism not only was but still is a really nasty piece of work continues, but with many challenges.

Karl Marx Monument in Chemnitz, Germany. (animaflora |

Some years ago, Lee Edwards, a veteran conservative writer and a friend of mine, launched an organization, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, dedicated to “commemorating the more than 100 million victims of communism around the world and pursuing the freedom of those still living under totalitarian regimes.”

Today Victims of Communism is going great guns, with a small but capable staff and a number of programs and projects designed to make people aware that Marxist communism not only was but still is a really nasty piece of work.

It’s a message that needs frequent repeating. Especially now, when Marxism is alive and well on many college campuses and a disturbing presence in the movement protesting—with good cause, to be sure—serious abuses that have festered too long in America.

Lately in the pages of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly I came across an article that sheds interesting light on these matters. The work of Father Joseph Koterski, S.J., a former president of the Fellowship and a philosophy professor at Fordham University, it analyzes the “worrisome phenomenon” of what he calls “cultural Marxism.”

Noting that even to speak critically of Marxism is today regarded as “illiberal” in some academic circles, Father Koterski reports having used some of his pandemic-induced leisure to read Witness. For people with short memories, the book, a recognized classic, is the 1952 autobiography of Whittaker Chambers, the ex-communist whistleblower who caused a sensation in the late 1940s by disclosing that State Department official Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Controversial at the time, Hiss’s guilt is now recognized as established fact.

Among the book’s merits, Father Koterski says, Chambers explained “perhaps better than anyone else” why some well-intentioned people become communists.

“In ways that never cease to surprise,” he writes, “educated people have regularly found it possible to overlook the use of secret police, re-education camps, and the techniques employed for arranging a coup d’etat when they become convinced that only the human mind is capable of changing a world that badly needs changing….This materialistic vision makes it possible to rationalize all sorts of bloodletting out of the conviction that this will end ‘the bloody meaninglessness of man’s history.’”

And so, he says, violence is excused as “an inescapable tactic” of  social transformation  Even worse, he adds, is the harm done by media reporting that “incites or approves” mob action which ultimately threatens the existence of a free press itself.

Father Koterski also cites an influential article called “Repressive Tolerance” by Marxist intellectual Herbert Marcuse whose ideas played an important part in the campus uprisings of the 1960s. Marcuse argues for a form of selective toleration allowing free rein to the Left while at the same time “restraining” the Right.

Similarly, he says, the ideas of New Left thinker Theodor Adorno—who dismissed as “pathological phenomena” such things as such parenthood, family pride, patriotism, love of God, and traditional gender roles—have become “standard parts of [the] agenda pursued” in American academia today.

Chambers, who embraced Christianity after abandoning Marxism, said the heart of communism was its vision of “man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world.” In this way it exalted humanity “by the simple method of denying God.”

There is no doubt that as individuals and a nation, we need to do a better job of practicing justice and charity. But we also need constant reminders of horrors that witnesses like Whittaker Chambers and groups like Victims of Communism caution us not to forget.

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About Russell Shaw 286 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. People on the left simply do not care about the body count attributed to the views of Karl Marx. Tell them that the estimate is one hundred million dead people, and the response is silence.

    • Charles,
      According to the article, the reason why they don’t care is because they feel that a “short term” tyrannical means is necessary to usher in the permanent utopia. History, of course, demonstrates the stupidity of such thinking.

      Pointing this out might help bring them out of their silence.

    • Just as Marxism has killed millions, so has Christianity. History is full of stories of Christian zealotry murdering thousands of people. Think of the percentage of the world’s population killed in the crusades, expulsion of Jews from England and Spain, religious wars of the Middle Ages, forced conversions at the point of a sword in the Americas, and most recently, the conflict in Northern Ireland. Christians have been murdering each other since Christianity was legalized in Ancient Rome.

      The zealots of any ideology are dangerous. They are willing to destroy anyone who opposes their view of the ideology even though their view of the ideology is perverted or false.

      • Brush up on your history please. There is no comparison between any aspect of the church’s history and secular communism. Christians didn’t create a secret police force to terrorize and murder people; they never built gulags; they didn’t impose the Iron Curtain on half of Europe; and they never willfully exterminated 100 million people. Review your facts before making ridiculously false accusations please.

        • What are the differences between the techniques used in the Spanish Inquisition and those of secular communism? Both used informants to ferret out dissidents. One tortured and then burned them in auto-de-feys and the other tortured and then shot them. What is the difference between the gulags and Jewish ghettos throughout Europe? Both confined people against their will, restricted their movements, and forced them to work as dictated by the state. What is the difference between a secular communist state seizing property to itself and a Christian king doing the same. For example, when King Henry III expelled the Jews from England, all their property became property of the king and all outstanding debts payable to Jews were transferred to the King’s name. Secular communists built the Iron Curtain and the Catholic rulers of Europe built religious walls expelling any non-Christian from their country, I.e. England, Spain, Portugal. Secular communism purged and murdered non-Stalinist thinkers. The Catholic Church purged and murdered Cathars, Waldensians, Heugenots, etc. The Catholic Church’s zeal to purge Protestants from Europe lead to the 30 Years War and the deaths of millions with low estimate being 5 million and the high estimate is close to 18 million, 12-20% of Europe’s population at the time.

  2. In the Epilogue to his biography, Chambers tells the simple way he inoculated his son against the deceptions of Communism (or now Cultural Marxism):

    “What little I know of the stars I have passed on to my son over the years [….] Sometimes I draw my son’s eye to the constellation Hercules, especially to the great nebula dimly visible about the middle of the group. Now and again, I remind him that what we can just make out as a faint haze is another universe—the radiance of fifty thousand suns whose light had left its source thirty-four thousand years before it brushes the miracle of our straining sight.

    “Those are THE ONLY STATISTICS that I shall ever trouble my son with.
    “I want him to have a STANDARD as simple as stepping into the dark and raising his eyes whereby to measure what he is and what he is not against the order of reality. I want him to see for himself upon the scale of the universes that God, the soul, faith, are NOT simple matters . . . .I want him to remember that God Who is a God of Love is also the God of a world that includes the atom bomb and virus, the minds that contrived and use or those that suffer them, AND that the problem of good and evil is NOT more simple than the immensity of worlds [….]

    “I want him to know that it is his SOUL, and his soul alone, that makes it possible for him to bear, without dying of his own mortality, the faint light of Hercules’ fifty thousand suns (Witness, 1952, CAPS added).

  3. Cultural Marxism has been marching steadily through the institutions for more than 20 years, and the age of those being indoctrinated has been getting younger and younger. At this point dialectic is not enough.

  4. The problem with Marxism is the same as with all forms of socialism and the “new things” (socialism, modernism, and esotericism) that have infiltrated western civilization and culture since introduced as “the Democratic Religion” in the late 18th and early 19th century. There is no substantive difference between communism and socialism; Marx and Engels decided to use the term “communism” for their variety of “scientific socialism” (in contrast to the other forms of socialism that changed religion instead of abolishing it) because the followers of Robert Owen had (in their opinion) preempted the term socialism for Owen’s program of abolishing private property, organized religion, and marriage and family (as announced in Owen’s “Declaration of Mental Independence” speech on July 4, 1826 in New Harmony, Indiana).

    Observing the 1848 Revolution in France, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that there were thousands of individuals and groups all touting something different, but united under the common name of socialism. Edward Pease, historian of the Fabian Society noted that the only difference between what Marx was saying and the Fabian position was a matter of tactics, not goals and objectives. George Bernard Shaw, the most noted Fabian, claimed after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1931 as the guest of Stalin, that there was no difference between what Stalin was doing and what the Fabian Society hoped to accomplish. Ironically, a number of people have taken the writings of R.H. Tawney (on the Fabian Executive from 1920 to 1933) and E.F. Schumacher (Keynes’s protege, author of Fabian tracts and a member of the post-war Fabian government ridiculed by Evelyn Waugh in “Love Among the Ruins”) as somehow presenting an authoritative analysis of Catholic social teaching. Schumacher’s treatise on “Buddhist economics” and “New Age guide to economics” — “Small is Beautiful” — was even cited in the 1986 U.S. Bishops’ pastoral on the economy, “Economic Justice for All.”

    The list of individuals and groups that have distorted and twisted Catholic social teaching to fit an agenda shaped by the “new things” is virtually endless, but the bottom line is always the same, as Fulton Sheen pointed out in his first book, “God and Intelligence”. That is, the abstraction of humanity (a concept created by man for man) is deemed superior to the actuality of man created by God (a reality created by God for God). As Sheen explained, this upends reality, by placing a human creation above a divine creation, and turns God into collective man’s servant. God, as the solidarist Émile Durkheim declared, becomes a “divinized society,” and religion consists of the group’s worship of itself.

    The natural law ceases to be construed as based on God’s Nature, self-realized in His Intellect, and becomes based on faith in something accepted as God’s Will. When society itself is viewed as God, then whatever the most powerful demand becomes divine fiat, whether it be abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, forced eugenics, death camps, slavery, or anything else, as long as enough people with power accept it.

    • Whittaker Chambers agrees. In a letter to William Buckley (Sept. 14, 1954) he wrote: “what else is socialism but Communism with the claws retracted?”

    • Quit articulate, Michael. I, however, need to pose a question or two if it pleases thee. Is there any substantive difference between communitarianism and Individualism? If the answer is in the affirmative, then communism and collectivism have different goals and objectives. That will make some authors sound unanalytical. Japan a communitarian society have collectivistic philosophy yet operates with Adam Smith’s free-market capitalistic mindset.

      • Joseph, you ask, “Is there any substantive difference between communitarianism and Individualism?” From the perspective of personalism a la Karol Wojtyla, no. Both shift the focus away from the human person as (in Aristotle’s phrase) a “political animal,” i.e., a being with both an individual and a social nature. True, individualism and collectivism/communitarianism do this in different ways, but whether the focus is shifted to the abstraction of the collective or community, to an élite, or to the lone individual without reference to God or other individuals and society as a whole, it remains an abstraction, and thus diverts from the human person created by God to an abstraction created by man.

        As Hilaire Belloc noted in the Servile State (1912), when push comes to shove, there really isn’t very much difference — if any at all — between socialism and capitalism (properly understood; “free market capitalism” is an oxymoron). Capitalism and socialism will tend to move toward each other, each depriving ordinary people of capital ownership and thus power, and forcing as many as possible of the people into dependence on the wage/welfare system so deprecated by Dorothy Day, yet touted as the ideal by Keynes and the New Dealers.

        Ironically, where Belloc saw the danger of the Servile State as being in forcing people into the wage system whether or not they wanted to, the problem today (as the solidarist economist Goetz Briefs noted in his 1937 book, “The Proletariat: A Challenge to Western Civilization,” the task is trying to find enough jobs for everyone who needs one (or two, or six) and to fund the State welfare system for those who can’t. This, in fact, accounts for the massive government debt throughout the world today as governments struggle with trying to make unworkable Keynesian solutions work in the face of reality and the simple hard fact that you can’t get away from Adam Smith’s first principle of economics: “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.” This is the basis of Say’s Law of Markets, which acknowledges that if you want a sane economy, as a rule, if you consume you must produce, and if you produce, you must consume.

        The problem is that the assumption underlying the Servile State precludes people from becoming productive through capital ownership as posited by Chesterton’s and Belloc’s distributism, which may be summarized as a policy of widespread capital ownership. There is also the problem that neither Chesterton nor Belloc understood money, credit, banking, and finance, and never considered the possibility of people purchasing self-liquidating capital the way the rich typically do.

        So, you see, there really is no paradox or contradiction in, e.g., Japan’s communitarian society having a collectivist philosophy and having a capitalist economy (it’s actually Keynesian, not capitalist per se). It’s only a slight difference in which group owns (or controls, the same thing in law) capital, a small private sector élite (capitalism) or a State bureaucracy (socialism), and whether the capitalists use the economy to control the State, or the socialists use the State to control the economy. As Belloc pointed out in 1912, it doesn’t make any difference to the propertyless citizen. As Cobbet pointed out, when you own no capital, you’re a slave, no matter what you call yourself. Own or be owned.

  5. Do we not all need to better practice all the virtues
    —justice being one of four cardinal virtues? Prudence, fortitude, and temperance are in equal shortfall. Moreover, “charity” absent faith and hope, is distorted by humanistic theory and presents in secular models, ultimately in atheistic communism. That this is not explicitly taught denotes defensive and dangerous posturing, as the McCarthy boogeyman still too often intimidates educators. Reading Dr. Paul Kengor’s “The Devil and Karl Marx” should be—among others— required reading for any college entrant. Too bad, there is not a version for even younger students.

    • Myth is inherent in most ideology whether economics or religion. A sample is the premise that if you’re bereft of material ownership and must earn a wage to survive you’re a slave. A slave to the blessed landlord who by the way must also earn, whether or not from his clients. How can everyone possibly be guaranteed to own a home unless, like Adolf’s Volkswagen govt manufactures cheap prefab units for the laborer? Remember the now forgotten political ideal everyone must own a home? Forgotten because it wrecked the economy and left the poor in deeper debt. Aquinas was realistic when he presumed a society will have the more intellectual elite more apt to afford property, and the lesser who not only are fit for manual labor but are required for that dimension of a productive society. We need the ‘menial’ farm laborer to make the Imperial Valley produce, and the low level technician for manufacture. “Charity absent faith and hope, is distorted by humanistic theory and presents in secular models, ultimately in atheistic communism” isolated by Kengor embellished by Patricia Hershwitzky Ed.S. The singular ideal economic system doesn’t exist. Rather any system if morally coherent [Justice identified by Aquinas as the queen of virtues because it necessarily incorporates all the virtues is in effect love of neighbor] will manage production and consumption with equitable reward.

  6. Peter B has done great justice to Whittaker Chambers, with this surpassingly beautiful quote.

    Having read “Witness” I can only urge other Catholic people to read it, to hear a true and dramatic story of the drama of good and evil of an American man, in our own time, once allied with evil itself, and seeing The Lie, escaped with his life, and gave witness to Jesus, against “The-Lie-of-the-Marxists.”

  7. Great article. Marcuse and Adorno were associated with the Frankfurt School, the thinkers of which mixed the likes of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in an unholy concoction of poisonous thinking.

  8. “And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Acts 2:44-45

    The condemnation of Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:1-11.

    “ If he has any property, let him either assign it beforehand to the poor, or else by formal donation confer it upon the monastery, reserving nothing at all for himself, as becomes one who must know that thenceforth he will hold no power even over himself. Forthwith therefore, in the oratory, let him also be stripped of the garments, his own property, with which he is clad and be clothed with such as are the property of the monastery: and let those garments of which he was stripped be put away to be kept in the wardrobe, that if at any time, by suasion of the devil, he should consent to go forth from the monastery, which God forbid, he may then be cast forth unfrocked.”. Rules of St Benedict Chapter 58, Benedict of Nursia, 516

    People forget that the early church was a communistic society and that we are called to love and care for each other as God loves and cares for us.

    • What some people seem to forget is that the communitarian approach taken by the early Church (and continued within monasteries and other religious communities) is voluntary, Christo-centric, and oriented toward the Trinitarian communio, whereas Communism/Marxism is atheistic, anti-human, and totalitarian (that is, coercive), oriented toward the State. Or, in the case of cultural Marxism, aimed toward a sort of nihilistic expressive absolutism that relies on the secular State. There’s a reason the former leads to saints while the latter has resulted in some 100 million murdered.

      • This is lucid. You have attached the primitive Christianity to an eschatological eucharistic prayer of the ‘communicantes’. That makes communitarian, which is collectivism, which is a form of socialism accepted societal regulatory mechanisms.

    • The early Christians were not communists. They believed and worshiped God, while communists seek to destroy God. They owned private property(otherwise what would they be selling?), while the communist state owns everything. They shared their wealth, while communist governments take the wealth of others and give it to their cronies.
      Does North Korea, China or any other communist nation seem Christian to you? They kill people of faith,and mismanage the wealth of the nation so that many starve while the people at the top get all the benefits. The citizens of these nations do not enjoy the freedom of a child of God.
      Where could you live and practice being a Christian? You can not do it in a communist country.You can not do it in an Islamic country. And now even in the West it is becoming difficult to live as a Christian because of the infiltration of marxist communism within our culture.

    • Acts 2 was also temporary, not a permanently established community. People had remained in Jerusalem after Passover instead of going home. The scriptures provide no theoretical or theological justification for any form of communism

  9. Variations on a theme by Marx includes the basic idea of doing good for our fellow Man while not having to believe in God. Whittaker Chambers put it simply as exalting humanity by denying God. With that in mind [or out of mind] as described by Fr Koterski, the Marxist finds justification in using lethal means, riot and mayhem to advance what’s necessary for advancing a more just egalitarianism. Other variations are found in egalitarian democracy presumed enhanced by open ended Liberty. A concept that inherently defies true egalitarianism by suppression of others rights be it religion, or a right to life, or another’s rights, and even legacy when in agreement with social justice as in the toppling of Frederick Douglass’ statue. That lunatic premise simply for being distinct from the absolute egalitarian herd. A new variation is found, if we are to believe reports of the use of Russian Military chemical weapon Novichok to silence political opponents by Vladimir Putin. Vladimir who reinstituted worship of God in Russia yet, if responsible for recent poisonings must find it religiously plausible to counter his opposition. After all Vladimir Putin was protege to Yuri Andropov former KGB Chairman and later Chairman of the Supreme Soviet. It was Andropov who is alleged to have arranged the assassination of John Paul II. Our proximate threat in America is the lunatic nihilistic egalitarian Marxism behind and within the riots. All the more evident that if Justice is to be practiced it must be perceived exactly as revealed in the person of Christ.

  10. “In order for socialism to succeed, the family must first be destroyed.”
    ~Karl Marx

    Look around, folks. Educate the youth before it’s too late.

    • Yes, and that means focusing our new evangelistic efforts on the primary educators, the parents. It’s being done through good programs of “catequesis familiar.”

  11. Where could I find the article being discussed? It doesn’t appear to be online, or – if it is – it is not very easily found.

    The idea of cultural Marxism is more of a cultural issue than an ideological one. So long as the very basic understanding that human beings have an inalienable right to life is maintained, Marxism itself is relatively “toothless.” Of course, current unjust “laws” have been disrespecting life since at least 1973 on a nationwide level. This probably explains the cheapening of life in general.

    The function of cultural Marxism is to perpetrate injustice and the consequent societal dysfunction. The basic error appears to be that the world can be easily divided up into two groups: oppressors and oppressed. It follows that the oppressors can do no right, and the oppressed can do no wrong. Thus, the end of inequality and social justice will come when the oppressed manage to defeat the oppressors. Most people won’t consider using violence to accomplish this end, so the tactic has been to use “law” in the form of invidious discrimination (i.e. the sin of favoritism) and unjust employment dismissals to “overthrow” the “oppressors.”

    Who are the supposed oppressors? One can find out by checking out the possibly satirical I didn’t manage to get down to a score of 1 (most “privileged”), but one can be evaluated as a 3 if you are white, straight, male, “cisgender,” rich, young, able-bodied, English first language, born in USA, highly educated, very Christian, not Muslim, and not Jewish.

    Oppression by definition involves some kind of injustice committed by those in authority. Whether it involves illegitimate authority (e.g. a violent criminal) or abuse of authority by legitimate authorities does not matter. As such, none of the characteristics above has any direct relevance with oppression.

    The potential for oppression is most obvious and possible in situations where authority is largely unaccountable. Therefore, in the most of the United States the true potential oppressors are whoever makes the decisions in a business, judges, and prosecutors. The police could be listed as well, but they are somewhat constrained by the presence of other observers, and are much more likely to be scrutinized.

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