Half a century ago the German sociologist Helmut Schelsky succinctly dissected the political strategy of left-wing radicals in West Germany and the West generally. His essay, “The New Strategy of Revolution,” remains one of the best summaries of an ongoing strategy of cultural subversion.
Directed towards the “conquest of the system,” the revolutionary strategy depicted by Schelsky, which was inspired by the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci and implemented by Rudi Dutschke, is premised on destroying the most significant features of political democracy for imposing hegemony over the people. It bids to root out the fundamental political and social ideals and the corresponding patterns of life of the major groups within the system by discrediting the values, intellectual outlook, and institutional foundations of these groups, their ideals, and even the most ordinary interactions of their members. A useful comparison may be drawn with what Thomas Farr calls “China’s Second Cultural Revolution,” where Xi Jinping’s government controls the commanding heights and is endeavoring to introduce a utilitarian, soft-power “social credit” system to fine-tune its control.
This “long march through the institutions” implicitly acknowledges a reality of civil society that is much neglected today. Society in the West has historically been governed not by a single central authority. Rather it takes shape through a fluid symbiosis of multiple self-governing institutions, which include municipalities, churches, guilds, universities, and various voluntary associations.
This is easily forgotten since, for generations now, these institutions have been increasingly subjected to centralized command structures. Yet the best defense against a conquest of the system is to nurture these “little platoons,” as Edmund Burke called them. Francis Lieber based his theory of institutional liberty on their vital contribution to a healthy system of “civil liberty and self-government.” Subsuming and coordinating all such institutions within a centralized authority structure—and the consequent shrinking of the intellectual “gene pool”—makes the system far more susceptible to conquest from within. Such phenomena as “regulatory capture,” “rent-seeking,” and “cronyism” should serve as a warning to the wise. Yet ideologues reserve their greatest censure, even invective, for this pluralistic variety and versatility.
Short of controlling what Lenin called the commanding heights, the new strategy must be carried out by a vague “revolutionary state of mind”—a Nietzschean transvaluation of all values—rather than, at least at first, a direct assault upon the institutions themselves. Its object is to subvert and, ultimately, convert.
The strategic goal of the left-wing radicals as far as these institutions are concerned is simply “the seizure of power,” i.e., the occupation of the crucial positions of authority and determination of their policies by fellow-believers, followers and sympathizers. The partial autonomy vis-a-vis the state and the economy enjoyed by these institutions, on the basis of certain fundamental rights such as the freedom of research, teaching, expression and belief, all of which have been won through long struggles, is the point of entry through which power can be gained.
The revolutionaries’ purpose is to transfer the decisive means of exercising power out of the hands of the system’s most capable trustees or, even more easily, out of the hands of those custodians who, as Kenneth Minogue observed in “How Civilizations Fall,” had already sold the pass to its foes. Julien Benda lodged a similar complaint against the cultural stewards of the 1920s for abandoning their posts in favor of lending intellectual and moral support to political passions centered on race, class, and nationality.
Universities historically have commanded the highest authority and respect within Christendom, which makes them a natural target. As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy noted in Out of Revolution (1938):
Surveying four centuries of German Reform, from 1517 to 1914, we find the German universities in the van of national thought, hopes and fears. Four hundred years of unbroken tradition made every capable German student think of the study of theology, philosophy or law as the road of honour.
Even more to the point is Rosenstock’s demonstration at the end of a section entitled “Why Teaching Is a Public Trust” of the mutual dependency of the citizen-forming and governing institutions.
Individual Preformation precedes political and collective reforms. The spiritual and invisible community preforms (= bildet) the individual; reforming one part of the visible world is the task of government. Thus, “Bildung” (preformation) and Staat (the organized body for reform) condition each other. Man passes through two different orders during his life: the order of the Church, instructing, teaching, informing him, but making no decisions whatever for him (“the Word is free”), and the order of the State, using him, appointing him, listening to him, and claiming his obedience.
From this description both the attraction and the vulnerability of the university and its academic freedom should be evident.
Church and state, which cooperated in giving birth to the Christian West, cooperated as well in launching and protecting the Protestant Reformation in Europe’s northwest quadrant, while the more radical social movements of earlier times also gathered strength. A century later, the Treaty of Westphalia brought the wars of religion to a close by effectively secularizing international politics. A century after that, the French Revolution devolved into a radical social and cultural upheaval that set the precedent for subsequent nationalist, democratic, socialist, romantic, racialist, and other ideological movements. The nineteenth century seesawed between romantic nationalism, which inspired the unification of Italy and Germany, and an imperial scramble for colonies. Both contributed to the centralization of political initiative. State-run social insurance under Bismarck and the rise of the Progressive movement in America are two byproducts of this impetus that gradually concentrated power under centralizing leaders.
As universities and other self-governing institutions increasingly came under the aegis of the state, their resulting dependency made the new strategy for revolution the most logical one for overturning the established order. The radicalization of the German-inspired American university system had already begun as early as 1905.
Let us now consider the matter in greater depth and detail. The cultural revolution is directed at three separate targets through the use of three different sets of means. It aims, first, at the conquest of universities, teachers colleges, communications media, entertainment institutions, and churches—the cultural sector—in order to convert, staff, and operate these institutions to serve revolutionary purposes. Teachers colleges already had a long history of behavior modification experiments that continue to reshape the standard curriculum.
Schelsky details the “why” and “how” of the conquest in a section entitled “The Self-Deception of the Liberals.” First, let’s consider the “why:”
Once these have been taken over—the revolutionaries all the while insisting that the autonomy of these institutions be protected and that challenges to their monopoly of the highest “interpretation of meaning” be beaten down—it is only a question of time until all educational institutions, the churches and the institutions which provide interpretation and entertainment, and which are staffed predominantly by university graduates, are also taken over.
Next, let’s consider the “how.” Just as cancerous cells convert the body’s protective safeguards into a means of reproducing and spreading the cancer, so the revolutionaries take over the system’s defenses from the inside.
This transformation of the moral standards of others into strategic weapons of revolutionary conflict and conquest is most successful among the exponents of liberal political values. This “thinking minority” has almost inevitably been forced into the role of an accomplice of the revolutionary movement which masquerades in the garb of moral values. It is forced into this role because its strengths—
tolerance towards the moral convictions of other persons, moderation, readiness for compromise and openness to the lessons of experience, on all of which the stability and effective functioning of democratic systems as well as their progress and well-being depend—cannot be sustained in severe revolutionary crises. The liberals are forced, willy-nilly, to take sides in an extreme, polarized situation, with the result that they deny their own postulates; they lock themselves out of their own house. The precipitation of an ideological polarization in liberal-democratic societies is a critical aim of the revolutionary strategy...