No greater boogieman has existed within the contemporary mindset of the American right-wing psyche than Marxism. Without the formation and subsequent rise of the Soviet Union, it’s plausible that America may never have experienced neoconservatism. As such, opposition to Communism (i.e. Marxism and Socialism) has been a bedrock of American conservatism since the Cold War.
Put another way, had Marx not been “appropriated” by the Bolsheviks in 1917, as Russell Berman put it, to justify a revolution, then Marx may have been a small footnote in the annals of history. This perspective is baffling in the greater scheme of conservatism because it’s a shout out to the fact that Marxism has hitherto been affected by theoretical changes by would-be dictators.
Yet, the ubiquity of labeling any left-wing position as “Marxist” is well known. It’s the right-wing’s version of “fascism.” This does little to propagate any genuine understanding of Marx, or his theoretical lens. While the marketplace of ideas ought to be free, as it is the foundation by which a healthy democracy is built from, conservatives are committing fraud by perpetuating the incessant notion that Marxism is dangerous.
“Marxism”, therefore, has become a catch-all phrase that seemingly refers to Marxism (which can include or not include Engles), Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, Juche (which replaced Marxist-Leninism in Korea), socialism, democratic socialism, anarchism (and varying flavors), left-libertarianism, or anything, frankly, left of center.
Of course, being opposed to communism made intuitive sense during the Cold War, which is why it was supported on a multi-partisan basis. Liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and fascists all seemed to agree that communism was a threat to the entire world. And why shouldn’t it have been viewed as a threat? Estimates have varied from 3-million to 20-million deaths committed by the Soviet Union of its own people. The only people willing to suggest that Soviet Russia represented the will of any people (other than a political elite) are intellectual liars, historical revisionists, and fringe ideologues.
While fear of communism made intuitive sense, the furtherance of this fear is anything but intuitive. Arguably, the continued opposition to Marxism seems to be a residual effect of conservatism’s insistence on tradition, so much so that it hinders a person’s ability to address the future head-on. Or, more importantly, any capacity to compromise on economic matters, or criticisms. That is to say that anticommunism continues to be prevalent because it is now tradition, not because it’s a fair critique. Tradition in the name of democracy and freedom, and tradition in opposition to tyranny. Of course, this appeal to tradition is at the expense of intellectual honesty and good faith argumentation.
As Ben Shapiro put so succinctly, “facts don’t care about your feelings,” and by all appearances, feelings propagated by tradition – rather than fact – seems to uphold this continued rhetoric. This tradition has fundamentally ignored the evolution of Marxism from the very birth of so-called communism.
Ben Burgis suggests in Quillette suggests that “Marx Deserves Better Critics.” This is a fair suggestion. Marxism is not what’s wrong with left-wing American politics. The appropriation by would-be dictators and the right-wing propaganda of that appropriation has muddied a valid critique of capitalism as we know it. In effect, any “attempt” by the political right to understand race relations, socio-economic matters, and identity politics on the part of the left is unwittingly ignored all on the basis that it’s rooted in Marxist theory.
Separating Marxian Economic Theory from Marxian Criticisms of Capitalism
Marxism can first and foremost be summarized as a critique of capitalism. Beyond Marx’s perspective, that revolution was a necessary step from the transition from capitalism to communism, he was himself revolutionary in his thinking. A distinction ought to be made, however, between the economic theories developed by Marx & Engels, and the critiques made against capitalism. Too frequently, it seems, the theoretical baby is thrown out with the valid criticism that makes up the bathwater.
In order to understand communism or socialism, one must first understand Marxism. Before one can understand Marxism, one ought to have a general idea of what a variety of things mean, such as means of production, mode of production, private property (as opposed to personal property), the labor theory of value, dialectics, dialectical materialism, as well as some elements of Hegel, classical English political economy, and French socialism. A good primer on this is Mike Duncan’s third episode in his Revolutions podcast The Three Pillars of Marxism.
That said, even though Marx never referenced the “labor theory of value” – which was something developed by Adam Smith and David Ricardo (capitalists) – he fundamentally landed on the idea that it was labor that created value. Surplus labor, therefore, led to surplus value ergo profit. In practice, labor impacts the cost of something via production, but it does not impact the actual value of a commodity. While Marx may have been wrong about this, faulting him on this idea would require us to fault others, such as Smith and Ricardo as well. Additionally, faulting Marx on this is also a method of revisionism because there was much that had yet been developed in economics for Marx to have known much different.
Another often misappropriated statement is the abolition of private property. Dr. Lee Edwards from The Heritage Foundation makes this exact claim against socialism. It is important to understand that what Marx referred to as private property, was generally land ownership (as this is what it meant prior to the 18th century), but more specifically, Marx was referring to the ownership of the means of production. Therefore, when one reads “the abolition of private property” – what this really means, is that things like factories should be run by the community with no private ownership. According to Marx, private ownership over the means of production led to exploitation – like child labor camps, and twenty-hour work days – because this surplus labor is what created surplus value, which again is what led to sizable profits.
Despite Marx & Engels’ evisceration of capitalism, and despite continuing right-wing rhetoric, it is important to emphasize that Marx made no moral claim against capitalism. He distinctly distanced himself from Utopian thinkers on the matter. Marx recognized the successes of capitalism and perceived this economic process to be necessary towards the transition to communism. Mitchell Aboulafia, in the Jacobin Magazine, goes so far as to suggest that Marx was impressed by capitalism for its innovative capacity.
In other words, Marx was more of a “scientific socialist” which is to say that he was not advocating for revolution, which is what the “Utopian socialists” said (and eventually did), as much as he was saying that revolution was the product of natural phenomena, that history would prove this in time.
That said, it would be dishonest to undermine the importance of revolution. Marx and Engels strongly expressed that violent revolution would be the only real means to get to a transitionary phase towards communism. However, it’s worth pointing out that Marx gave a speech in the fall of 1872 in which he made an exception for some countries with already very strong democratic institutions – such as the United States. In other words, a violent revolution could be circumvented so long as democratic institutions were strong.
This interpretation of reality would be evident to conservatives, if they spent less time using the term as an epithet, and spent more time understanding Marxism for what it is: an observation.
Other aspects of Marxism that would be evident would be the fact that neither Marx, nor Engels, gave any actual road map to what the revolution would look like, or, most importantly, what communism would look like or function as. They left that up to the future revolutionaries.
Despite the Communist Manifesto and philosophical suggestions, Marx and Engels gave nothing solid. The reason for this was because Marx and Engels felt that they couldn’t predict the future, and more importantly that if they attempted to do so it would warp it.
Having said all of that, James Ozinga, in his 1991 book Communism: The Story of the Idea and Its Implementation points out that part of the trouble in having a good understanding of communism is because it was implemented in a lot of different ways for a variety of seemingly different reasons.
Conservatives would understand that the Bolsheviks, as led by Vladimir Lenin, fundamentally adapted Marxism. This specific adaptation allowed Lenin to manifest the necessity of revolution, rather than wait for the future to ripen first. The same was true in Korea and China.
The Russian Revolution didn’t make sense within the historical framework that Marx laid out. The same was true for Stalinism, Maoism, and Juche. These variations fundamentally intertwined different ideas that capitalized on the lack of a road map, and ambiguity about when and what a proletariat revolution would look like or should look like.
Whether Marx was “right” or “wrong” is less relevant than the impact that his ideas had on the world – and it’s undeniable that his impact was astounding in both good and nefarious ways.
A really good dive into some of the ways that Marx got economics wrong (and he did get it wrong), is Mike Beggs’ piece Zombie Marx and modern economics, or how I learned to stop worrying and forget the transformation problem. In it, he argues that even if we replaced Marx’ faulty value of labor with actual economic principles, like supply and demand, the same conclusions can be achieved. More to Beggs’ point, however, is that there is immense value in Marx’s critique of capitalism, and this alone does not vanish even if all of his theories in Das Capital were or are wrong. Conservatives could bolster their argument by adopting a similar lens of fairness.
Finally, there is a difference between Marxism, Socialism, and Communism. To conflate the three as meaning the same ultimately ignores a century of theoretical development on all three topics. Marxism, for what it is worth, is not communism, and socialism existed before Marx. A good primer on socialism is Irving Howe’s third edition of Essential Works of Socialism.
Does Marxism Promote “Us” vs “Them”? Is Marxism Incompatible With Free Society?
Beyond the conflation of all leftist politics being rooted in Marxist thought, it’s also asserted that anything that stems from Marxism is ultimately doomed to fail. Additionally, it’s asserted that such theories are incompatible with a free society, as Justin Stapley suggests. The argument goes that because people are so focused on defining each other on what makes them different, i.e. “us” vs “them,” that this ultimately perpetuates conflict.
Francis Fukuyama, in his 2018 book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, makes a similar argument. Fukuyama focuses on identity politics (which include #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and feminism), and primarily asserts that while a force for good, it’s very distracting. For example, in his 2018 article in Foreign Affairs, he states:
“…the tendency of identity politics to focus on cultural issues has diverted energy and attention away from serious thinking on the part of progressives about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality.”
He goes on to radically assert that:
“…perhaps the worst thing about identity politics as currently practiced by the left is that is has stimulated the rise of identity politics on the right.”
Among other assertions, Fukuyama also suggests that identity politics is a threat to free speech. Examples of this threat to the marketplace of ideas are the fact that a small subset of leftists is extreme with their emphasis on political correctness. This, in turn, is picked up by the right-leaning news media who then spin it.
Like Marxism, identity politics is also used as an umbrella term but is wholly misunderstood. For more information, What Even Are Identity Politics? by James Willis offers competing definitions on the issue to help shed light on what this means.
The short version is this: identity politics, which encompasses aspects of black liberation, feminism, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter, all have philosophical and theoretical roots to Marxism. Therefore, to assert that any theory that comes out Marxism is destined to perpetuate social conflict is to suggest that the above groups are therefore adversarial. This then means that identity politics is a threat to free society, as Fukuyama and others have asserted.
This logic is extremely faulty. Unlike Karl Marx’s intuitive, but erroneous, interpretation of how value is determined, the idea that identity politics (i.e., “woke” politics, feminism, BLM, etc.) perpetuates conflict because of its theoretical roots is entirely devoid of evidence to support that suggestion. This assertion puts the cart before the horse, and yet puts the blame on the horse for perpetuating a problem that it didn’t cause.
Consider, first and foremost, that “Marxist Sociology,” i.e., conflict theory, is simply a lens by which one tries to explain the world. Conflict theory doesn’t create conflict by interpreting the world based on specific examples and patterns. Does gravity, therefore, happen because Newton developed the laws of motion? Hardly. Objects were following these laws long before Newton got hit in the head with an apple. Likewise, social conflict and economic conflict and political conflict had been occurring long before Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and Emile Durkheim broke these conflicts down based on class. Thus was born one faction of sociological thinking.
Further consider that democracy, i.e., universal suffrage is a core and fundamental element on the path towards communism. One may be rightfully baffled at the persistent suggestion that Marxism is incompatible with democracy if it’s an important element to towards communism. But consider that it was the Soviet Union and the atrocities committed under the name of Communism, that has fueled this fundamental misunderstanding.
Karl Marx looked to the Paris Commune, which only ran for two and a half months in the spring of 1871, as an example of what a transition towards communism could look like. Marx believed that this experiment was fundamentally what communism was meant to look like and was moreover an example of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Central to this piece, however, is the fact that universal suffrage is mentioned six times in the Communist Manifesto.
Interestingly, the method by which the Paris Commune handled suffrage and elections, which is to say that everyone participated, and elected officials could be removed at any time for any reason, represented a modern-day direct democracy. Given that the Commune was a real-life example of a transitionary phase from Capitalism to Communism, it could be suggested that Marx and Engels supported a direct democracy and that it would be “the last will” of the people to vote the state away because it would no longer be needed.
Fundamentally, communism is stateless. Marxism is an observation of history and a critique of capitalism. Soviet Russia represented the transition from capitalism to communism – the bloody and violent revolution in order to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. Given that communism is stateless, after a long transition period builds on direct democracy and voluntarism, it’s difficult to conclude, therefore, that Marxism is what’s incompatible with “free society.”
It’s fair to say that communism is incompatible, but this isn’t necessarily accurate, either. Communism, being a stateless society, does not need democracy, which is why democracy is incompatible, because democracy most often requires a state. The fact that communism has failed because democracy and capitalism have been injected into those systems isn’t the failure of Marxism, it’s the failure of those who appropriated Marxism and revolted.
Nevertheless, in the spring of 1875, Marx and Engels wrote a scathing criticism of the United Workers’ Party of Germany, now called the Critique of the Gotha Programme. In it, the two go to bat to explain how democratic principles tend to be delineated based on class. As Marx stated in the Manifesto, “the first step of the revolution” was to “win the battle of democracy.”
Having said all of this, it’s difficult to reconcile the notion that Marxism has created conflict, and continues to do so, because of the lens by which Marxist perceive the world. Examples would be that although black American’s didn’t receive suffrage until 1870, that right wasn’t adequately protected until 1965. Women in America didn’t obtain suffrage until 1920.
How can it be that Marxism breeds conflict when long before Marx informed Civil Rights activists and Feminists, it was already someone vs someone else likely of color, or female? Marx’s prescription of class differences offered a viable explanation to a world in conflict. Consider that there were more slaves in America’s first election than there were people who voted. Marx wasn’t around then, and yet it is wholly understandable to perceive this tyranny as one perpetrated by a capitalist society that commodified human labor as capital. But this “us” vs “them” existed for more than one-hundred years before Marx would come to call this “exploitation.”
It’s also worth pointing out that the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, have brought with it social and legal changes that will have a net benefit to society – for men and white people all the same. Therefore, any root elements of Marxism within these social veins – which are small – it can only be said that they will have a net positive impact. America’s democracy is stronger for it, not weaker because of it.
Finally, the idea that these movements on social and economic justice are at the “expense of the oppressor” is wholly absurd. What has been the expense to white men, primarily, or men in general – or straight men and women – by allowing black American’s to vote, women to vote, people of different ethnicities and colors and races to get married, for gay people to get married?
The only expense lost was control over another group. White men have experienced no legal oppression through the extension of legal rights to these groups unlike the lack of legal rights that these groups experienced prior to this extension. At no expense to the “oppressors.”
Freedom isn’t at stake, nor is pluralist democracy, because Marxists, socialists, and communists, make up a small part of the left-wing in American politics. Freedom is at stake because the marketplace of ideas is being bombarded with misinformation and fundamental misunderstandings of different ideas. To appropriate a term Tom Nichols uses in his book The Death of Expertise, the perpetuation of the rightward perception of Marxism is “aggressively wrong.”
Rather than blame individuals and groups for appropriating Marx in interpreting the world as the root cause of division, maybe intellectuals ought to take a step back and offer to have a legitimate conversation in which active listening and a willingness to understand occurs. What would it take to convince those so opposed to Marxism that there is value in his critique of capitalism?
Most importantly, we ought not to blame those seeking liberation and freedom for being the cause of conflict. Maybe conflict wouldn’t be present had these groups not felt or been oppressed, to begin with.
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