Since before Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began writing communist polemics, communism has had an intellectual component. It was influential among leftist students of philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and spread throughout Europe as a result of Marx's writings. This persisted throughout World War II among leftist exiles from Germany and occupied France, including Frankfurt School thinkers like Herbert Marcuse. Marxism today persists in post-colonial studies and critical race theory, including the work of Marcuse student -- and former Communist Party member -- Angela Y. Davis.
Historical Baggage and Disclaimer
Before Weimar Germany's collapse, popular anti-intellectualism grew. Paranoid rhetoric conflated intellectuals and Jews, focusing on imagined threats -- posed by "Jewish Bolsheviks" and "Jewish intellectuals" -- to German nationalism. It is necessary from the outset then to differentiate the actual history of Marxist thought from the antisemitism that fed Nazism. Neo-Nazi groups even today use "intellectual" as code for "Jew." Some Marxist intellectuals were Jewish, but most German Jews in the 1920s supported moderates. Communism's intellectual history both predates and postdates Nazism irrespective of historical baggage.
History's most important communist intellectual -- Karl Marx -- endured financial struggle, partly because his radical views made him a pariah in academia. Moonlighting as a journalist, he wrote about poor factory conditions in industrializing Germany. Though raised in the middle class, he lost three of his seven children to inadequate health care and nutrition. As years passed, other philosophers and social scientists observed deteriorating conditions for Europe's working poor, often coupled with the violent suppression of labor movements. Some became convinced that capitalism was broken and must be replaced by communism.
Nineteenth-century German and French philosophy were influenced by the grand theories of philosophers like liberal Immanuel Kant. In the decades preceding World War I, philosophy was dominated by what postmodern thinkers would later call "totalizing theories" -- that is, big theories meant to set the world right once and for all. Some were excited by the French Revolution. Communism was an intellectual development consistent with the utopianism of its time.
Universities and urban cultural centers in Germany fostered widespread interest in avant-garde, experimental forms of culture in the decades preceding World War II. Subversiveness and deviation from the status quo became more possible in Weimar Germany. It would be incorrect to suggest that philosophers attracted to communism were looking uncritically for a system -- any system -- to subvert the status quo. But the new bohemianism -- combined with dire economic circumstances -- made room for political extremism, whether in the form of anarchism, communism or right-wing German nationalism.
The Loss of Totalizing Theory
After 1945, faith in totalizing theory collapsed, and Marxist thinkers struggled to reconcile their idealism and lost faith. This happened in parts of Europe, and in the next center of intellectual innovation, U.S. Cold War paranoia meant many Marxists were purged from philosophy departments. Communist thought dispersed into left-leaning social science departments, literature and multi-disciplinary studies. It gained momentum through the work of post-colonial thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and among feminist critical theorists like Wendy Brown and Iris Marion Young.