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A Strategy of Subversion

A Strategy of Subversion

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.[1]

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. 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.[5] Yet this pluralistic variety and versatility provokes the greatest censure by ideologues.

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 direct assault upon the institutions themselves.[6] 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.[7] 

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 

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.[11] 

From this description both the attraction and 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 Progressivism 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 German-inspired American universities had already begun as early as 1905.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] Teachers colleges already had a long history of behavior modification experiments that continue to reshape the standard curriculum.[15]

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.[16] 

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. . . .[17] 

According to Ralph de Toledano, the Frankfurt School pursued a similar strategy in Weimar Germany nearly half a century before Schelsky wrote: “The strategy . . . was to substitute for class economic warfare the assault by intellectuals on Western culture and civilization.”[18]

The Weimar Republic was to be the initial focus of Critical Theory. But the Frankfurt School and its Comintern masters miscalculated profoundly when they assessed National Socialism to be the last phase of monopoly capitalism, instead of the kin of Soviet communism. . . . The KPD [German Communist Party] and the Nazi party had worked hand-in-hand to bring down Weimar, and the Frankfurt School’s efforts at total corruption in Berlin had accelerated the process. The New World, frivolous and endlessly self-indulgent, was to be the new theater of operations.[19]

Crises do not have to be manufactured, although they certainly may be. Interest group leaders seeking political advantage over their opponents, subsidies through the common purse, or implementation of radical social and cultural change may ride a wave of opportunity into a new role as power brokers. Today’s rise of culture warriors illustrates Vilfredo Pareto’s “circulation of elites.”[20] On the other hand, unforeseen challenges may be used opportunistically to discredit leaders and managers within the system. Indeed, the management side of the system may itself be conquered by the means of a radicalized intellectual and professional culture. James Burnham saw this dynamic at work in what he called the “managerial revolution” as he sought to account for the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939. 

If we try to understand ideologies by merely taking their words at face value, as if they were scientific statements of fact, we can never comprehend history and politics Nor can we do any better by explaining great events as “inconsistencies” and hypocrisies. Faced with an ultimate challenge, with the first great war of the managerial society, Hitler and Stalin acted altogether correctly, from their point of view. Hitler’s first job is to drive death wounds into capitalism—into the “plutocratic democracies”—and to consolidate his strategic base in the European area. . . . Before getting on with the new, there must be assurance of the disintegration of the old. Representatives of the managerial future come temporarily together to grapple with the capitalist past before getting at each other’s throats. 

There is no other sensible explanation of the pact.[21]

The second target of the revolutionary strategy outlined by Schelsky “includes all those which are responsible for performing the classical functions of the state.” The objective is to disrupt the functions of the state or cripple it through the destruction of its self-confidence. “The new strategy believes that once it is successful, these institutions will fall into their power automatically.”[22] 

The aim is to weaken the capacity for self-defense of these traditional organs in the face of a revolutionary movement which operates through the use of techniques not directly involving the state but entailing the manipulation of particularistic interests. The “state” must be rendered suspect; it must be shown to be incapable of standing up to or coping with a flood of particularistic, sectional, and ideological demands. The most appropriate means of achieving this end is the exacerbation of demands for individual freedom and for the constitutional rights of the individual which have been established in the past against oligarchical resistance. The rights of the individual to his own protection and freedom are transformed into weapons for attacking the legitimate activities of the state. The judicial system, particularly the institutional system of constitutional and administrative law, designed for the protection of the individual against the abuses of the state, is probably not capable of resisting this strategic transformation of its political function; it is in consequence in danger of becoming an involuntary accomplice of the revolutionary strategy.[23] 

As a result, ordinary public officials may find that enforcing laws jeopardizes not only their personal safety but their jobs as well. Just as heads of state may be scapegoated, lesser officials might quickly discover they are expendable.[24] Selective enforcement of laws by timorous or time-serving public officials has a demoralizing effect on personnel and public alike. It has the consequence of delegitimizing the system and rendering it increasingly defenseless. 

The classical revolutionary strategy attempted, by revolutionary counterviolence, to break the power of the state to impose sanctions by means of its legitimate coercive powers. The present-day revolutionary strategy rightly regards this technique as antiquated.

In this new revolutionary strategy, violence has only two functions: it is either the carefully managed and apparently trifling harassment and threatening of the personal security of particular individual antagonists (“Psychoterror”), or it takes the form of specific acts of violence committed with the intention of provoking the police to respond by excessive, authoritarian countermeasures. In this way, the state’s use of its legal monopoly of force and coercion against even those individuals who have behaved illegally, is discredited, the state itself is fundamentally discredited and its representatives are deprived of the self-confidence in their own legitimacy which they need in order to fulfil their obligations.[25] 

The third prong of the strategy aims at intensifying demands placed on the economy, social security, and welfare.[26] The political instruments used may vary from rent control to raising minimum wages, pushing cap and trade carbon emissions legislation, blocking pipelines, banning nuclear plants, or promoting countless other laws and policies that impose disproportionate economic costs on businessmen, homeowners, and taxpayers. 

The revolutionary strategy, when it deals with these economic and welfare institutions, aims to dominate those who run them. In their own terminology, their goal is to exploit the labor of those whose work consists in the operation of these institutions. By “labor” here is meant the commodity-producing and service-producing activities of the workers, the activities of managers and enterprisers in the economy, the payment of taxes and contributions by the broad mass of the population, the provision of services by municipalities and welfare institutions, etc.

It seems improbable that these sharply defined interests in a society which like ours is organized in interest groups could be brought under control and exploited in this way. Yet there is a plausible strategic device for attaining this goal. This is the intensification of demands without regard to the functional and productive capacities of the institutional system. In a society in which the demands for social justice lie at the foundation of the value-system which guides the society, the further raising of the level of demands is always likely to win the effective support and call forth the hopes of broad sectors of the population which do not themselves have the responsibility for fulfilling those demands or for concerning themselves with their costs and structural repercussions.[27] 

All three components of the “new strategy of evolution” have become so pervasive by the 1970s—a time when the phrase “legitimation crisis” was common among neo-Marxists—that something akin to fatalism or a malaise was already subduing public expectations. It is as if the system had acquired a built-in escalator that increased costs, crises, and taxes. An attitude of dependency or despondency on the part of those who fail to stay competitive within the rapidly changing market has shrunk many people’s entrepreneurial horizons.

In this regard, the strategy of the German left bears a strong resemblance to other movements that have tipped the scales in favor of more authoritarian approaches. But they are nothing new. Consider the remarks of Alexis de Tocqueville when he addressed the Constituent Assembly in 1848, shortly after the overthrow of the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe: 

Democracy and socialism are not interdependent concepts. They are not only different, but opposing philosophies. Is it consistent with democracy to institute the most meddlesome, all-encompassing and restrictive government, provided that it be publicly chosen and that it act in the name of the people? Would the result not be tyranny, under the guise of legitimate government and, by appropriating this legitimacy, assuring to itself the power and omnipotence which it would otherwise assuredly lack? Democracy extends the sphere of personal independence; socialism confines it. Democracy values each man at his highest; socialism makes of each man an agent, an instrument, a number. Democracy and socialism have but one thing in common—equality. But note well the difference. Democracy aims at equality in liberty. Socialism desires equality in constraint and in servitude.[28] 

Tocqueville’s discussion of Babeuf’s communist strategy during the French Revolution is worth pondering. James Billington described Babeuf’s Plebeian Manifesto as “the first in the new genre of social revolutionary manifestos which would culminate in Marx’s Communist Manifesto in 1848.”[29] It concluded with a call for “total upheaval:” “May everything return to chaos, and out of chaos may there emerge a new and regenerated world.”[30] It is an open question whether, two centuries later, the new strategy of revolution offers anything more than a similar vague hope to put in place of what it subverts. 


[1]Helmut Schelsky, “The New Strategy of Revolution: The ‘Long March’ through the Institutions,” trans. Edward Shils, Modern Age (Fall 1974): 345-55.

[2]Ibid. One aspect of this is to create a counterculture and even a counter-establishment, partly by means of what Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn described as “identitarianism” and is now generally known as “identity politics.” Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974).


[4]See Steven Alan Samson, “Francis Lieber on the Sources of Civil Liberty,” Humanitas, 9 (1996): 40-62.

[5]See, e.g., Randall G. Holcombe and Andrea M. Castillo, Liberalism and Cronyism: Two Rival Political and Economic Systems (Arlington, VA: Mercatus Center/George Mason University, 2013).

[6]Schelsky 345.

[7]Ibid. 347


[9]Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs), trans. Richard Aldington (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969 [1928]).

[10]Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (New York: William Morrow, 1938) 402-03.

[11]Ibid. 405-06.

[12]See, e.g., Philip M. Crane. The Democrat’s Dilemma (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1964).

[13]For an analysis of similar strategies, see Steven Alan Samson, “An Imperium of Rights: Consequences of Our Cultural Revolution,” The Western Australian Jurist, 7 (2016): 171-91.

[14]Schelsky 347

[15]See, e.g., Paolo Lionni and Lance J. Klass, The Leipzig Connection: The Systematic Destruction of American Education (Portland, OR: Heron Books, 1980).

[16]Schelsky 349

[17]Ibid., 349; see Steven Alan Samson, “Edward Rozek: A Student’s Tribute,” Humanitas, XV, 2 (2002): 112-15; previously published in About Such Things, II, 2 (Spring 1998): 15-17.

[18]Ralph de Toledano, Cry Havoc! The Great American Bring-down and How It Happened (Washington: Anthem, 2005) 95.

[19]Ibid. 95.

[20]See James Burnham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1943) 238, 247.

[21]James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1960 [1941]), 200-01. See also Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means, The Modern Corporation and Private Property (New York: Macmillan, 1932).

[22]Schelsky 350.

[23]Ibid. 350.

[24]See, e.g., René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986 [1982].

[25]Schelsky 351.

[26]Ibid. 352.

[27]Ibid. 352.


[29]James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1980) 74.

[30]Ibid. 75.



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