Photo: Ralf, Flickr, some rights reserved

A big problem with the political left is that hard-left illiberality is on the rise. But the bigger problem may be that the moderate left — called “liberals” from Hobhouse and FDR on to about a decade ago — forgot their convictions, and confused themselves into thinking they were close to Marxists (the world’s Most Failed Philosophy). The result? A sharp rise in mob insurrection and social terror in the name of “the oppressed and the (socially) marginalized.”

Jonathan Chait has posted more than one perceptive explanation on New York magazine’s website in which he demonstrated that, unlike his comrades, his moderate left/“liberal” credentials have not fallen prey to the hard left line. “The problem with Marxism,” he wrote in 2016, “lies in its class-based model of economic rights. Liberalism believes in political rights for everybody, regardless of the content of their ideas. Marxists believe political rights belong only to those arguing on behalf of the oppressed — i.e., people who agree with Marxists.”

This sets up a logic that leads to tyranny. Chait argues that the “standard left-wing critique of political liberalism, and all illiberal left-wing ideologies, Marxist and otherwise, follow” a relentless and rather bizarre dialectic:

These critiques reject the liberal notion of free speech as a positive good enjoyed by all citizens. They categorize political ideas as being made on behalf of either the oppressor class or the oppressed class. (Traditional Marxism defines these classes in economic terms; more modern variants replace or add race and gender identities.) From that premise, they proceed to their conclusion that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it.

It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag. The gap between Marxist political theory and the observed behavior of Marxist regimes is tissue-thin. Their theory of free speech gives license to any party identifying itself as the authentic representative of the oppressed to shut down all opposition (which, by definition, opposes the rights of the oppressed). When Marxists reserve for themselves the right to decide “which forms of expression deserve protection and which don’t,” the result of the deliberation is perfectly obvious.

When I posted this to Facebook, I got some interesting commentary. Brian McCall wrote this:

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the socially marginalized concept myself, and the way they have so deeply fetishized it. Since no one is ever that marginalized, weak, downtrodden, I wonder if this isn’t some psychological need on their part. It reminds me of a piece I read long ago. . . .

And he refers to a passage from Isabel Paterson’s God of the Machine (1942). As always with Paterson, there is much to chew on. But she gets to the point regarding Lenin’s and Stalin’s western supporters, who should have known better:

The Communist regime in Russia gained control by promising the peasants land, in terms the promisers knew to be a lie as understood. Having gained power, the Communists took from the peasants the land they already owned — and exterminated those who resisted. This was done by plan and intention; and the lie was praised as “social engineering,” by socialist admirers in America. If that is engineering, then the sale of fake mining stock is engineering.

Why would anyone accept such criminal behavior? Certainly, many in America did — and not just self-designated socialists. The question lingers. Paterson has an answer:

The philanthropist, the politician, and the pimp are inevitably found in alliance because they have the same motives, they seek the same ends, to exist for, through, and by others. And the good people cannot be exonerated for supporting them. Neither can it be believed that the good people are wholly unaware of what actually happens. But when the good people do know, as they certainly do, that three million persons (at the least estimate) were starved to death in one year by the methods they approve, why do they still fraternize with the murderers and support the measures? Because they have been told that the lingering death of the three millions might ultimately benefit a greater number. The argument applies equally well to cannibalism.

Once you accept the sacrifice of some for others — most commonly, in rhetoric, anyway, a few for the many — there is no enormity you will not commit.

And “modern liberalism” — the one that L.T. Hobhouse, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Jonathan Chait adhere to — fully embrace such sacrifice, if on a low  level, the level where lives are not necessarily on the line. Fortunes are enough. Take just enough from the rich to give to the poor. And next year take more! Paterson argues that this principle has ineluctable consequences. One of them may explain why these “liberals” were always soft on the murderous communists, and why, in recent years, they have mistaken folks of the hard left for people who care — and not the murderous, thieving, bullying thugs they are.

Economist Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan noted a “failure of those on the left who are not an active part of the problem to have a sense of a need for self-policing of the left.” This blind spot was noticed by Clancy McMurtrie: “It’s a conscious and explicit camaraderie based on shared principles. ‘No enemies to the left,’ as I understand it.”

The self-policing issue is a fascinating one, since some might call it “in-fighting.” I noted that “the right” — by which I meant “the conservative movement in America —

doesn’t seem have that problem. Which may be why it is politically imbalanced and inchoate. National Review purged its extremists, and kept anti-Semites, anti-imperialists, et al., at bay.

Why would the moderate left feel better about its “radicals” than the moderate right feel about its “extremists”?

Well, note the two words: radicals and extremists. The former sounds better, and that is traditionally what far left extremists are usually called. This is not just a parallel to the popular put-downs: on the right it is “wing nut” and on the left it is “moon bat.” Those two seem equally derisive to my ear. But other designations, left and right, tend to form a pattern: the leftists get more respect.

From the relentlessly “liberal media,” anyway. And from rank-and-file “liberals.”

But my initial charge (stated in the first paragraph of this page, repeating my Facebook post) was that moderate leftists/center-left liberals have largely forgotten their differences with Marxism (once again, “the World’s Most Failed Philosophy”) and Marxists (the world’s worst economists and most dangerous cultists) puzzled another of my friends, Mr. Lee C. Waaks:

In what sense did moderate liberals see themselves as “close to Marxism”? Marx would have rejected their ideas, no? It seems moderate (or did you mean “modern”?) liberals are just interventionists, although, at one time, many were sympathetic to varieties of socialism but now recognize the need for markets. But milquetoast socialist is not Marxist. Am I missing your point?

I should say that by “moderate left” I meant recent “liberals” — that is, “modern liberals” not “classical liberals” — and readily express my usual vexation, that nomenclature is a messy business in politics. Which Mr. Waaks knows full well, admitting to its “topsy turvy” nature:

I don’t interact with many of these folks on the left but they seem to identify “socialism” with Sweden, as does Bernie himself. I don’t have a clue what most self-identified Marxists think of Sweden, although I did see one blog post by a Marxist/socialist who explicitly repudiated Sweden as socialist. I doubt he is anything like the typical Fannie pack-wearing Bernie supporter.

Mr. Mc Kiernan clarified matters (I am the “Timo” he refers to):

Sanders has pointed to a number of other nations, which are not as he describes them to be. When it comes to actual prescriptions, he has shown himself either still to be a Marxist or to be close to one. And people who imagine themselves as close to Sanders thus imagine themselves as close to Marxists. (Timo did not say that they were close to Marxists; he said that they had come to think themselves close.)

The Twentieth Century forced the Marxists either to abandon Marxism, or to become still more absurd. Those who stayed Marxist made more use of the always ill-defined word ‘capitalism,’ and moved fascism and the programmes of states such at the Soviet Union from the Socialist column to the Capitalist column. The world may or may not be topsy-turvy, but Marxism does not describe that world accurately, and its topsy-turvy features should be understood as confined to its incompetent description.

Mr. Waaks questions this account, noting that even “if Bernie has an affinity for Marx, he may not accept any of Marxism’s tenets (e.g., labor theory of value, historical materialism, etc.). I assume if Bernie and Marx had been contemporaries, Marx would have loathed Bernie. Bernie & Co. seem like welfarists to me.”

Mc Kiernan elaborates:

It’s possible to have protracted controversies about what is and is not essential to Marxism. For example, the importance to Marxism of the labor theory of value is disputed by Ian Steedman and others, who propose to graft Sraffan economic theory into Marxist economics. I don’t propose to wrestle with that issue here or anywhere else, merely to note it.

Sanders’ practical policy goals have generally been those shared across Marxist parties; he was for a time an active member of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyite organization. Marx himself might well have despised Sanders, but Marx was given to despise people more generally, including those of very similar political disposition. Had Engels not been his patron, Marx probably would have openly despised him. My point about Sanders, though, is mostly to illustrate one possible line of defense for Timo’s claim, though he might offer others.

I long ago lost track of people on the center-left who really knew almost nothing about Marxism and couldn’t identify what its distinctive content were or might be, but were quite sure that he’d had some very insightful things to say, because some teacher had told them as much. I’ve observed other people in the center-left who did know a fair amount about the content of Marxism and did know about some of its deficiencies, but wanted to be fundamentally sympathetic to something that they could associate with an essence of Marxism; even if they couldn’t coherently explain what it were.

It strikes me that the progressive and liberal left are both just watered-down socialists when it comes to wealth. The question is just how far the watering goes. Modern “liberals” used to accept the necessity of some private property and some scope for markets — anathema in Marx’s “scientific” utopia, of course, but one must make do with the tools ready at hand.

In my experience, having talked with many a liberal in my day, they are the kind of people who say that “communism is good in theory but bad in practice.” I have heard something like this hundreds of times. I regard it as puerile and unlearned nonsense, at best. I do not see anything good in coerced community, and that is what communism is. Socialism, argued Yves Guyot, is communism is collectivism. They all rest on force. Proponents of these ideas, when in power, cannot take a “no” (or an “I prefer not to”) for an answer. You must comply with their demands, the demands of the Central Committee, Big Brother, Politburo, or what-have-you. Because, without compulsion, there is no socialism, communism, or collectivism.

But both liberals and progressives pretend that government is a wondrous creative instrumentality, benevolent in nature — when run by them. When run by conservatives, of course, they see it in all its brutality. But when run by them — oh, what vistas open up. What possibilities for “caring”!

The blind eye that the moderate left gives to the state when run by their kind is the blind eye that they give progressives, who want even more state dominance of society. They feel the affinity in their bones. In their heads, they used to realize that Communism was pure poison. The lessons of Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot taught them that. But in their hearts?

In their hearts they have long defended — and in practice they have coddled — commies. There were indeed communists in FDR’s regime. Alger Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent. According to David Horowitz, Barack Obama was raised by communists and (because Obama never repudiated communism) remained a communist — luckily constrained by popular anti-communism.

Whatever the reason, the linkages are there: in history, in today’s reality. Even when demanding individual rights to freedom of speech, press, association and religion, modern liberals’ heartstrings strain towards the Utopia described by Marx. And, perhaps because of this fantasy, and no doubt because of fading memories of the Soviet Union’s gulag, China’s Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot’s killing fields, more and more moderate leftists tip the hat to Marx. Almost no one reads the sour old revolutionary. But they have read about him. From what I can tell, they think that though Marx erred in the positive prescription — it turns out that normal politics and compromise work in favor of ever-bigger government, whodathunkit — his analysis of the contradictions of capitalism still have something for today.

This attitude is all over the progressive left, and Jeremy Corbyn in England has stated it explicitly.

Hence the lack of patrolling the mobocracy amongst far left radicals, er, extremists.

The God of Socialism failed. Again and again. But that God was what post-christians wanted, He fit the bill. So they never cease mourning the death. And, perhaps secretly, hoping for His rebirth.

With a socialist every day is a Christmas, with goodies to be distributed all around, allegedly equally, but somehow with special treats for the very best boys and girls. Which means the cognitive elite that leans towards socialism. This tension is there in socialists, the dissonance between equality in theory and favoritism in practice, and it is part and parcel of the inevitable false consciousness that statists ineluctably succumb to. It is a Law of Power.

Still, it is good when we discover someone on the left, such as Mr. Chait, recognizing that there is a problem here.

Oh, and what a problem!

twv

P.S. I confess that I wrote this a year-and-a-half ago, closer to the time when Chait wrote his columns, but for some reason did not publish it. I have been in sort of an intellectual coma. Now that I have re-branded this blog as Wirkman Comment/wirkman.com, I am cleaning up the backlog, even as I take on new writing projects. Maybe readers will see more here in the days to come.


Photo of Karl Marx Monument, from Ralf on Flickr, some rights reserved.

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