What is the nature of the contemporary Leftist movement currently advancing across the United States and its empire under a bewildering variety of names including ‘Progressivism’, ‘Social Justice’, ‘Anti-Fascism’, ‘Anti-Racism’, ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Critical Race Theory’, and ‘Wokeness’ among others — while receiving logistical, financial and political support from almost the entire corporate media, the Democratic Party, the global education system, Silicon Valley, the Fortune 500, the global cultural sector and parts of the legal system?
In a recent essay, the Israeli political thinker and activist Yoram Hazony made the case for conceiving “the movement presently seeking to overthrow liberalism” as “an updated version of Marxism,” arguing that its politics recapitulate Marx’s political theory in four crucial ways: the central polemical dyad of oppressor/oppressed, a doctrine of false consciousness obscuring this dyad, a revolutionary program of the ruthless reconstitution of society, and a utopian vision of a post-revolutionary disappearance of class antagonism. The new version has “moved beyond the technical jargon that was devised by 19th-century Communists” but the essential framework has remained the same. Today, “racialist categories such as whites and people of color” are used to designate “the oppressors and the oppressed in our day,” but the political drive continues to depend “entirely on Marx’s general framework for its critique of liberalism and for its plan of action against the liberal political order. It is simply an updated Marxism.”
Hazony’s analysis follows previous theories of ‘cultural Marxism’ where the post-war adoption of Gramscian strategies of a ‘long march through the institutions’ is held to conceal a political continuity with Bolshevism. Perhaps conscious of activists’ efforts to deflect this critique by associating the term with antisemitism, Hazony has eliminated the prefix, while rehearsing the main lines of the argument. But how plausible is it?
Notwithstanding the protests of those who wish to read Marx as a humble philosopher, or understand the true Left as a working-class movement and the contemporary version as a neoliberal corruption, the reality of some relationship between the contemporary Left and historical Marxism is undeniable. Besides for Hazony’s own claims, key features of the contemporary movement recapitulate classical Party devices, including the term Antifascism (the invention of the Stalinist Comintern, which organized ‘Antifascist’ militias through the German Communist Party, against the ‘social fascists’ of the Weimar-era SPD) as well as the idea of racism, popularized by Leon Trotsky in The History of the Russian Revolution, and deployed aggressively in America by the USSR in the Cold War as part of a strategy to intensify social divisions. This tactic, too, is now being replayed, but this time by a political, military, and corporate elite who in the last several years have channeled hundreds of millions of dollars towards BLM militants and the production of racially divisive propaganda.
Nonetheless, stripped of contemporary reference points, both of these strategies are older than Marxism. The history of ruling elites working with mercenary criminals to attack middle-class interests, for example, extends to Akhenaten’s Egypt. Aristotle observes that slave owners divide their teams into men of different races in order to prevent them from uniting. These same tactics are today employed by Amazon, a vocal supporter of BLM. In June, Jeff Bezos declared he was “happy to lose” a customer who objected to the tech giant’s support for the movement; two months earlier, a leaked internal report had revealed that increasing workforce diversity lowers the risk of their Whole Foods stores unionizing.
A general pattern repeats itself: Marxism participates in the strategies Hazony delineates. But it does not invent them.
Although Marxism constituted, to some extent, a revolutionary moment in political philosophy with its turn away from interpretation to action, and its endorsement of violence over political speech (an endorsement reiterated by the current generation of militants, who similarly refuse the possibility of the classical idea of persuasion) its main principles emerge from a religious tradition.
The vision of a revolutionary program of the reconstitution of society corresponds to a Messianic logic of the suspension of the Law while the utopian vision of a post-revolutionary disappearance of class antagonism is originally a Millenarian vision. The idea of a polarized central antagonism derives from Manichaean cosmology, and recurs across the history of Millenarian movements, which rigorously separate their adherents from outsiders, and violently police the barrier. The doctrine of false consciousness obscuring divinity can be found in forms of Gnosticism, hence Eric Voegelin’s famed analysis that totalitarian movements are fundamentally gnostic in nature.
Marx is not the ‘demon’s name’ but only the most familiar form of a complex of older and deeper tendencies that precede it — and express themselves through it. In the context of this history, Marxism constituted an incredible development but not an original invention. Transforming something very ancient to the circumstances and the concepts of its time, and in a different way to ours, it was able to express in a new language old demands.
As a religious man himself, on some level, Hazony is no doubt aware of this; as such the thrust of his argument is perhaps best understood tactically, as an attempt to revive the old, anti-Communist Cold War alliance between liberals and conservatives, a goal which in fact he explicitly states. Yet in his forgivable eagerness to fight on a familiar terrain, he is also falling into a trap. It is noteworthy that BLM explicitly advertises their allegiance to Marxism, but as Mike Whitney points out, they do not employ Marxist terms or pursue a Marxist strategy. “Have you ever heard them talk about ‘historical materialism’, ‘social relations’, ‘capitalist accumulation’, or any of the other concepts that are central to Marxist ideology? No,” argues Whitney. Yet these were the only features that really distinguish Marxism as a unique set of ideas. Antifa not only avoids saying anything about contemporary economics but targets for repression those who do, in defiance of Horkheimer’s famous useful aphorism: “He who does not wish to speak of capitalism should be silent about fascism.” An equivalent point can be made with respect to the concept of ‘cultural Marxism’: is it really so plausible to imagine an intellectual sympathy between figures like Adorno and Gramsci, and Judith Butler and Ibram X. Kendi?
The suspicion arises that the new movement advertises their own questionable Marxism for the same reason Hazony opposes it, that is: to appeal to the romance of the same revolutionary mythologies that Hazony rejects but which the American Left splash around in. Not only that, but that the same reasons which have enabled what Hazony calls Marxism to successfully adapt to new circumstances, and shrug-off a century of a hundred-million murders as easily as an intersectional college student slips off her dress for a webcam, also prevents his analysis from succeeding strategically. Although repulsive to Hazony, Marxism does not and cannot evoke the same horror beyond the already convinced anti-totalitarian camp, insofar as it is also, paradoxically, repulsion which attracts the rebellious to ‘Marxism’ in the first place: this in fact is the source of its power.
Hazony’s approach advances upon, but also corresponds to recent liberal attempts by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose in particular to identify the roots of the new Woke ideology in post-modernism. But what is post-modernism but a kind of radicalized hyper-liberalism? In both cases, what needs to be recognized is the extent to which ideological dogmatism presents a semi-conscious expression of a form of critique, just like a hammer is not really understood properly by staring intently at it but by grasping it.
In this respect, Marxism can be seen as a kind of coping mechanism, or a paranoid structure, which as Freud reminds us, is itself the expression of a recovery from a breakdown, as opposed to the agency of the breakdown itself. At the heart of this issue, and what our analysis needs to trace itself back to, is a spiritual shortfall, as opposed to a purely political enemy: what we are dealing with are symptoms, when we need is to address the cause. “To hold the thinkers of the modern age, especially the nineteenth-century rebels against tradition, responsible for the structure and conditions of the twentieth century is even more dangerous than it is unjust,” remarks Arendt. “The implications apparent in the actual event of totalitarian domination go far beyond the most radical or most adventurous ideas of any of these thinkers. Their greatness lay in the fact that they perceived their world as one invaded by new problems and perplexities which our tradition of thought was unable to cope with.” To this end, it is necessary, not exactly to forget about Marxism — but rather to paradoxically recognize it as more of a friend than an enemy, despite its past barbarities.
For reasons related to our own historical horizon, the drama of the Cold War, our nostalgia for the secular theology of MAD, and the horror of own specific problem as it comes to face the limitations of our critical imagination, Marxism retains a grip on our analytical faculties. But in the tightness of this grip, something else eludes our grasp. Ultimately, Marxism is only one expression in the broader history of communism — one whose greatest historian remains Norman Cohn. What is this violently murderous structure of power, identity, and rage, whose elements can be identified everywhere, from the European witch trials to revolutionary Paris, to the Moscow trials and the Maoist cultural revolution?
When writing about Ur-Fascism, Umberto Eco drastically misjudged his target. Far from constituting a historical invariant, Fascism, developed originally by Italian Marxist Mussolini, and unknown before or since, was never anything more than a micro-variation of Communism, similar to Stalinism, or Trotskyism, or (to apply an older vocabulary) Anabaptism or Calvinism — hence the intense mimetic rivalry between the Bolsheviks and the Axis powers. Italian fascism in particular was never anything more than a specific historical moment in interwar industrial Europe, as a demobilized veterans combined with the contradictions of the Risorgimento and liberal political weakness to attempt a modernist somersault — but ‘Ur-Communism’, this perpetual gravitation to the power of a nihilistic secularizing drive, has a longer, deeper history. Marx attributed its cause to capitalism, or alternately liberalism — while Hitler said that it was Semitism, and now, we find it categorized as “whiteness,” but it travels under many different names and always to the same effect: a cyclical or progressive liquidation of traditions and organic customs, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” racing towards the generation of a synthetic pagan religion, culminating in the ecstasy of mass extermination.
Passing through nihilism in pre-revolutionary Imperial Russia, or post-modernism in late imperial America, naked humanity returns to Communism, the eternal answer to a question no-one asked, or else forgot to ask: unmet religious craving. This is why, John Maynard Keynes, on visiting the USSR in the 1930s, is able to recognize its simultaneous economic illiteracy and its religious dimension, manifested now in the materialization of the Cheka, playing Dostoevsky’s Demons. “Perhaps we really are Assyrians,” Osep Mandelstam was already wondering by 1922. “Is this why we can look on with such indifference at mass reprisals against slaves, captives, hostages, and heretics?”