Is the current left Marxist? In a provocative commentary, Bill Lind explores this genealogical question, and, unless I’m mistaken, the left and much of its media opposition would second his conclusions. Since Antifa describes itself as Marxist, when it’s not calling itself anarchist, and since leading figures of the Democratic Party, like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have certainly not shunned the Marxist label, it would seem today’s left is authentically Marxist.
But, except at its edges, the present left is not what it claims to be. Today’s left has a different origin and orientation from what has been historically understood as Marxist or Marxist-Leninist; and using that term to designate the characteristics of our current left is at best problematic. Neither Marxists nor Marxist-Leninist governments evidenced the cultural radicalism that today’s left expresses every day. Although there have been Communist Party members in Western countries who have been sexual exhibitionists, and even a brief period in Russia after the November 1917 Revolution when free love was allowed, generally communists have been on the conservative side of issues like homosexuality and the questioning of fixed sexual identities. The traditional left would have attributed our LGBT activities to “bourgeois decadence.”
In the Soviet Union and for a long time throughout the Soviet bloc, artistic experimentation was frowned upon, including music of the Second Viennese School’s twelve-tone technique, as well as abstract expressionism. Communist regimes sent gays to labor camps, and communist revolutionaries like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara raged against homosexuality and, in Guevara’s case, blacks.
It is hard to view these Marxist revolutionaries as precursors of the present intersectional left. Indeed, corporate capitalists stand much closer to this force than traditional Marxists do or did. Are the executives at PepsiCo, Citibank, and the NFL, who support Black Lives Matter (BLM) and wish to stamp out opposition from the cultural right, economic revolutionaries yearning for a socialist society? Pardon my skepticism!
Real Marxism has been about socioeconomic contradictions and transformations, not about the need for transgendered restrooms and the abolition of gender roles. Communist parties in Western Europe after World War II vehemently opposed the immigration of cheap labor from abroad, viewing it as an attack on the indigenous workforce. The current left, by contrast, is about open borders and filling Western countries with impoverished Third World populations as an act of contrition for white Christian racism, or as a source of so-called cultural enrichment.
The Soviet regime and Communist parties outside the Soviet Union condemned the Critical Theory philosophy of the Frankfurt School as a distortion of Marxism. One can only imagine what they would have thought of the further evolution of what Lind and others have styled “cultural Marxism.” Lind correctly observes that the Frankfurt School in interwar Germany provided the cradle for this movement, which tried to fuse Freud’s theories about sexual repression with socialist economics. But the result looked much more like a cultural war against reactionary social attitudes than a serious effort to plan a Marxist economy.
After Critical Theory migrated to the U.S. by way of Columbia University in the 1930s, it came to look even less like Marxism and much more like a prelude to our current cultural revolution. Some socialist boilerplate remained attached to this brand of thinking, but it became extraneous to its real message, which is the subversion of what seemed to me as a child in the 1950s to be a normal society.
I am unwilling to concede to cultural Marxists a Marxist pedigree simply because they have claimed that ancestry. Nowadays, media and political celebrities claim all kinds of labels for themselves, and one can easily prove the falseness of most of them. What makes a lesbian feminist on Fox News a “conservative” other than the fact that she appears on a generally Republican channel and claims that she votes for the GOP? What makes a culturally radical commentator on CNN a “liberal” other than the fact that some in high places decided to apply this term to themselves? What does columnist Jonah Goldberg have in common politically or philosophically with Edmund Burke, or for that matter, CNN anchor Jake Tapper with Thomas Jefferson? If I decide to call myself something I am not, it does not become any more true regardless of how much media support I can find to back me up.
I concede to Lind that today’s cultural radicals, who are unfortunately becoming mainstream, are of the left. They are leftists because they are driven by four defining leftist principles or practices. One is globalism or universalism, which in the case of the current left takes the form of a boundless revulsion for Western Christian society and its majority white population. The left in its essence denies particularity and the sanctity of local and national traditions.
The second quintessentially leftist principle that informs our cultural revolutionaries is the worship of equality as the highest value. One can easily imagine non-leftists recognizing some limited good in the idea of equality, for example, granting legal equality to all authorized citizens or subjects of a state. But the left is fixated on equality and seeks to harness political and educational power to obliterate human distinctions.
The third leftist principle or practice is the call for expansions of what they call human rights, since the historically grounded natural rights do not advance equality or “human dignity,” by which they mean the extinction of social and historical distinctions. This inverts Aristotle’s sage advice at the beginning of Book Four of the Politics, that laws (nomoi) should fit specific governments (politeiai). The leftist position is exactly the opposite: Long established customs and conventions should give way to what journalists and academics deem conducive to greater equality.
A fourth leftist belief concerns the putative fluidity and malleability of human nature, seen for example in the insistence that all gender identities are subject to change. Public administrators and courts must defend our right to redefine our gender whenever we want; and others should then be required to treat us in accordance with our changing gender identity. This last leftist belief stands in striking contrast to the conservative notion that human identities are rooted in tradition and nature. Perhaps nowhere more than in this emphasis on gender fluidity do we behold the most radical form of the left, perhaps in an even more grotesque manifestation than in such harebrained schemes as nationalizing the economy.
On Sept. 20, 2020 Post Millennial editor-at-large Andy Ngô reported that during a BLM riot in Portland, which consisted almost entirely of whites, demonstrators screamed “transblack lives matter!” as they burned an American flag. This rebellion took place in the name of boundless, fluid gender identity, and it was led by anti-white whites.
The idea that humans have yet to discover their hidden identities can be found in Marx’s early writings in which it is argued that “the species man” has been alienated from itself by the dominant form of production. Only moving toward a socialist society will make it possible for humans to discover who they truly are. The alternative view held by conservatives, as Russell Kirk stresses in The Conservative Mind (1953), is that human beings have a context to which they belong. We should not be seeking to reinvent ourselves. Even less should we demand that the administrative state enforce our latest fanciful conception of who we are upon our fellow citizens.
In an eloquent, self-published defense of the right, A Primer on the Right (2020), Robert E. Salyer correctly notes:
The Right asserts that actual life is a synthesis. Man is real, and Man is many. Human rights and duties are necessarily relational, implying the precedence of felt (i.e., non-empirically grounded) solidarity, society, and order.…There are no innate human rights.
Salyer is also on target when he asserts that right and left “disagree on the very purposes of community and of governance.” One seeks to preserve an already established community and the other hopes to impose “universal principles” through a global government.
Although there is no reason to celebrate Communist regimes or the human carnage caused by them, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states opened the door to the current left. The control exercised by the Soviets over European Communist parties kept the apostles of feminism and intersectionality from becoming the dominant forces on the European left until the end of the Cold War.
Our own left, meanwhile, was steadily preoccupied with the Cold War. For decades, if memory serves, our anti-anti-Communists were busy defending Communist regimes, criticizing the U.S. for “aggravating the Cold War,” or lamenting a return to “McCarthyism.” Although this Cold War left also showed at least intermittent interest in the black civil rights movement, the most persistent focus of leftist attention throughout this period was whitewashing Soviet aggressions and attacking American anti-Communists.
I still recall sitting among my fellow students and some junior faculty at Yale in the mid-1960s, listening to their arguments against the Vietnam War. Although it seemed to me this military involvement was not a wise strategic decision, the reasons for opposition offered by my companions left me aghast. Almost all of them were enamored with HỐ Chi Mính and his murderous Communist dictatorship, and they thought the American government was full of far-right admirers of Francisco Franco. Norman Podhoretz got this right in Why We Were in Vietnam (1982) when he noticed his fellow-critics of the Vietnam War were often drooling over our Communist adversaries.
After the collapse of Soviet Communism a more extreme left emerged, the consequences of which we are now enduring. Today’s left is far more radical than the one it replaced, and in its Western heartland it has become far more socially destructive than Marxism or communism. If Communists had to infiltrate Western governments during and after World War II, now the intersectional left virtually owns Western societies and governments.
This now-triumphant left happily plays race, gender, and hate-the-West cards, depending on which is the most useful tool for it to wreak havoc or increase its own power, and these two goals often go together. The question then becomes how to stop this pervasive force from further corrupting our institutions, particularly when so little pushback is in evidence. One precondition may be to recognize the modern left’s uniqueness and to stop equating it with “socialism” or “communism.” This archaic labeling may understate the danger.