Will Liberals Stand Up to the Cultural Marxists?

A month ago in Quillette, Yoram Hazony wrote a critique of Liberalism titled The Challenge of Marxism that is well worth reading as a Conservative viewpoint on the battle between the neoliberal centrists and the so called progressives. Today, Cathy Young responded with Reports of Liberalism’s Death—A Reply to Yoram Hazony.

Hazony—author of the 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, and of last year’s anti-liberal manifesto “Conservative Democracy”—correctly identifies some Marxist elements in today’s “social justice” movement: the crude “oppressor/oppressed” framework employed to understand all human relations; the notion that both oppressors and oppressed suffer from “false consciousness” insofar as they remain unaware of the real power structures shaping their lives; and the belief in “the revolutionary reconstitution of society” followed by the disappearance of class conflicts. He also offers some useful thoughts on what makes Marxist ideology so dangerous: the reductionist view of social dynamics, and the lack of any clear idea of how utopia is to be achieved after the underclass has seized power.

While I found little new in it, Hazony’s article was a good read.

Hazony’s real target is not Marxism at all, but liberalism: “It is often said that liberalism and Marxism are ‘opposites,’ with liberalism committed to freeing the individual from coercion by the state and Marxism endorsing unlimited coercion in pursuit of a reconstituted society. But what if it turned out that liberalism has a tendency to give way and transfer power to Marxists within a few decades? Far from being the opposite of Marxism, liberalism would merely be a gateway to Marxism.”

This is bullshit. Hazony targets both Marxism and those who, in his opinion, are enabling it to take power.

In Hazony’s view, this process is the result of liberalism’s nature. “Enlightenment liberalism,” he writes, “is a rationalist system built on the premise that human beings are, by nature, free and equal,” and these “self-evident” truths are rooted in nature and reason rather than “the particular national or religious traditions of our time and place.” Consequently, liberalism will always be vulnerable to the rational claim that any violation of equality is an injustice. Reductio ad absurdum, a male-bodied person who merely identifies as a woman can demand a place on a women’s athletic team (since arguments to the contrary would have to appeal to traditional concepts of “woman,” “man,” and fair competition) and anyone can demand admission to Princeton University (since arguments to the contrary would have to appeal to traditional concepts of private property, free association, and merit).

Here, I part company with Hazony to a degree, in that a genetic male is not a genetic male because of “tradition”, though Young’s use of the ridiculous term “male bodied person” speaks to the true weakness of her position. Private property and free association are similarly more than traditions. Denial of the most basic property right, right to self ownership, is an admission to belief that slavery is not a priori immoral. Like religious Conservatives the world over, Hazony denies that morality can exist without a basis in religion.

It is true that many modern-day liberals reflexively bow before any demand or claim couched in the language of equality, just as many Cold War-era liberals felt compelled to concede that Soviet communism, however repugnant in practice, nevertheless pursued noble egalitarian ideals. But is this mindset endemic to “Enlightenment liberalism” or a distortion of it?

Here, Young invokes the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. If no true liberal would kowtow to cultural Marxists, how is it that they have been given the keys to our universities? How is it that they have taken over Canada’s Liberal party, and that the UK’s Liberal Democrats have wasted away as Corbin’s neomarxist Labour party grew to become the opposition to the Conservatives. How is it that progressives have succeeded in pulling the American Democrats so far to the left that Trump, a “Reagan Democrat”, is now seen as the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler?

With his mocking reference to “self-evident” truths, Hazony takes a swipe at the liberal ideal articulated in the Declaration of Independence, but neglects to acknowledge that it champions liberty as well as equality. It’s hardly news that these two tenets of Enlightenment liberalism often conflict, but those conflicts are resolvable and can even be healthy if the two elements balance one another. (To some extent, conflicting forces are essential to a dynamic culture.) It is only when the importance of liberty is diminished and equality comes to be understood as equality of outcomes—not in its original Jeffersonian sense of fundamental rights or of basic moral worth—that liberalism is in danger of succumbing to the radical egalitarian or “Marxist” temptation.

I agree, and I think Hazony does as well. The problem is that Liberals have allowed equality to be redefined as equity. Today, the English department of the University of Chicago announced that they are only interested in Ph.D. students who specialize in black studies. This is not equality of opportunity.

It’s also worth noting that Christian millenarianism (a belief in the imminent fundamental transformation of society, often based on principles of total equality and abolition of property) arose centuries before the Enlightenment. Medieval millenarian sects such as the Joachimites and the Dulcinians in the 13th and 14th centuries have been described as adherents of “religious communism”; so have Reformation-era movements such as the Hutterites and the radical Anabaptists. (The German Anabaptist preacher and theologian Thomas Müntzer, executed in 1525 for leading a peasant rebellion, was hailed as a proto-communist fighter for social justice by Friedrich Engels and honored accordingly in the Soviet Union and especially in East Germany, where his image graced a banknote.) According to Hazony’s logic, this implies that Christianity too has a fatal flaw that makes it susceptible to Marxist rot. Likewise Judaism, the ancient offshoots of which included the Essenes, a thriving sect in Judea around the start of the Common Era described in the 1908 Jewish Encyclopedia as practicing “communism.”

Pure deflection here. Hazony isn’t talking about ancient movements, he is talking about the here and now.

Meanwhile, Enlightenment liberalism, far from hurtling down a slippery slope to egalitarian derangement as soon as it won, took a very long time to extend equality of basic rights to the female half of the population and to many racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Attachment to “particular traditions” led to the perpetuation of what most of us—Hazony surely included—agree were heinous wrongs, such as the enslavement of blacks in the United States and the colonial possessions of many European countries. To a large extent, it is awareness of these wrongs has made many modern-day liberals skittish about rejecting any claim of injustice that comes wrapped in the mantle of “civil rights” and “equality.”

Allowing cultural Marxists to destroy your culture because bad things happened before you were born is weakness, and things have gone far down the slippery slope indeed. It is one of the reasons that Trump was elected, though dissatisfaction with the neoliberal status quo was likely a far greater factor.

Many of Hazony’s other arguments are bold leaps and unsubstantiated assertions. For instance, he writes: “In a liberal society, Marxist criticism brings many liberals to progressively abandon the conceptions of freedom and equality with which they set out, and to adopt new conceptions proposed by Marxists. But the reverse movement—of Marxists toward liberalism—seems terribly weak in comparison.”

I agree with Hazony that cultural Marxism has grown at the expense of Liberalism, and that movement in the other direction has been less significant, though there are signs of a growing counter culture of unabashed “classical liberals” like Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Carl Benjamin, Sam Harris, Brett Weinstein, and others.

The “Great Awokening” of recent years certainly looks a lot like a “liberal flight” toward deeply illiberal—and possibly quasi-Marxist—far-Left views. But historically, there is no evidence that this movement is unidirectional; liberals’ romance with communism collapsed in the second half of the 20th century, and American and European liberalism had undergone a massive shift to the center by the century’s last decade. Even in recent years, the backlash against “political correctness” has hardly been negligible. It’s a little too early to declare defeat.

I agree that it’s to early to declare Liberalism’s defeat. My problem is that last time, it took the Gulags of Russia and the Killing Fields of Cambodia before the average person could see the true dangers of the Communist ideology. How much suffering, destruction, and violence will we go through this time before Liberals say “enough” and stand up to the authoritarian left?

Even more baffling is Hazony’s apparent conviction that reliance on “reason alone” leads to the conclusion that a person with an intact male physique who self-identifies as female should be allowed to participate in athletic competitions as a woman (or that the definition of “woman” is culturally bound). Radical transgender ideologues would no doubt be pleased to hear that; but they are certainly not confident that reason will win converts to their position—they have tried to shut down debate on such issues on the grounds that the debate itself is intolerably injurious to the well-being of trans people.

I agree that reason does not lead to progressivism. Hazony’s point is that by espousing cultural relativism, enlightenment Liberals opened the door to cultural Marxists by allowing them to coopt the definitions of words. The word “equality” is a great example. Are two people equal if they are given the same opportunities, or if they are made equal by the state? Hazony’s solution is to anchor meaning in tradition. Neither absolute relativism nor blind allegiance to tradition is sound.

Does Hazony not know that reason is out and “lived experience” is in? Or that the “social justice” Left most certainly does not regard Enlightenment liberalism as a friendly ideology? Claims that the Enlightenment was a font of racism and that liberal values such as reason and individual autonomy are a part of “white male culture” are staples of progressive rhetoric.

I think he does know. What he’s pointing out is that Liberals (by and large) allow this kind of rhetoric to go unchallenged.

Is it possible to find commonalities between liberalism and the “social justice” progressivism that Hazony and other critics classify as latter-day Marxism? Of course; among other things, modern liberalism strongly supports racial and gender equality, embraces secularism, and opposes traditional restrictions on the sexual behavior of consenting adults. But this hardly proves that liberalism is a “gateway to Marxism.”

The proof is in the pudding. Will Liberals stand up to the cultural Marxists? If not, they have indeed been their gateway to power.

In the West, conservative critiques of the modern bourgeois lifestyle with its soulless consumerism, hedonism, and hollow careerism often overlap substantially with leftist ones. For that matter, Hazony himself explicitly embraces elements of Marxism, namely the idea that liberals who defend liberal principles are privilege-blinkered oppressors unable to see the harm their preferred policies are causing to the oppressed. In his version of this argument, the oppressive principles are secular public education, freedom of expression that extends to pornography, and free trade. The oppressed, meanwhile, are religious believers, (female) adult performers, and the working class.

Criticizing Liberalism does not make one a Marxist. It is true that neoliberals are oppressive. The demand that the state educate all people and indoctrinate them with the principles of secular ideology is particularly irksome, as the school system is one of the first institutions to be coopted by ideologues. Even in the early 70’s, Canadian public schools were overrun by unionists, and we spent more time in Social Studies on the union movement than we did on the enlightenment, which I can’t recall being given more than a passing mention.

A mere three decades after the liberal order’s post-Cold War triumph, discontent with liberalism is at a high point on both the Left and the Right. But it will be a while before we are able to judge whether this is a profound and fatal crisis resulting from liberalism’s inherent flaws (such as inability to correct systemic inequities, or to provide meaning and community) or a temporary ailment resulting from a convergence of bad decisions and circumstances (the war in Iraq, the 2008 financial collapse, the surge in migration). It is also possible that Western democracies are simply adjusting to the new realities of modern liberalism, including the decline of traditional religions, vastly expanded personal choices (thanks both to rapidly rising affluence and to changing societal attitudes), automation, and unprecedented access to information and public platforms.

Agreed. Liberalism is on the ropes, but it’s not over until it’s over. [Young goes on to point out how bad things were in the past before Liberalism.]

This does not mean, of course, that we should champion liberal-progressive monoculturalism. Hazony is correct when he argues that in order to survive, liberalism needs conservatism to keep it balanced and grounded. (If nothing else, I am increasingly convinced that the survival of liberal society depends on an education that imparts knowledge of history—by definition a conservative enterprise.)

What about science? Progressives are at least as anti-science as Conservatives. A scientific, rational world view should be championed. Liberals can’t do this if they bend the knee to “progressives” who claim that science is “white privilege”. Only a culture that deals with the world as it is will prevail in the long term.

The problem is that when Hazony asks contemporary liberals to join a “pro-democracy alliance with conservatives” in order to hold off the neo-Marxist barbarians at the gate, he’s not talking about the conservatism of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher—an essentially liberal conservatism, the aim of which is to conserve classically liberal values. In America, he’s talking about the degraded national populism of Donald Trump, which is fundamentally un-conservative in a cultural sense (Trump is an agent of chaos who shares the Left’s scorn for “respectability politics” and stokes deranged conspiracy theories). In Europe, it’s the creeping authoritarianism of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

Politics are not respectable. Both neoliberals and neoconservatives are deeply corrupt. These are not deranged conspiracy theories, any more than the notion that the progressive left are cultural Marxists is, even though they claim it is. I see no evidence that Hazony is a Trumpist or supports Orban. The idea that the centre left and the centre right should come together to defeat the far left doesn’t seem outlandish, just unlikely.

A little more than 40 years ago, in 1978, a very Hazony-like broadside against the Enlightenment and liberalism was delivered by the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer, thinker, and chronicler of the Gulag. In his commencement speech at Harvard University, Solzhenitsyn attacked the Enlightenment and the Renaissance for paving the way to communism by promulgating “despiritualized humanism” and “freedom from religion.” Not unlike Hazony, Solzhenitsyn warned that liberalism was helpless to resist the forward march of Marxist radicalism—communism, in this case—because it was compelled by its nature to be sympathetic to communist ideology.

Solzhenitsyn echoed Nietzche, in that he saw the death of religion as a loss of the foundations of society. Nietzche saw this as an opportunity to evolve humanity, whereas Solzhenitsyn, being a Russian who had suffered terribly at the hands of the Soviets, saw it fatalistically. I agree with Nietzche that we have an opportunity to become something greater than we were when Christendom held sway over Europe. Yet Solzhenitsyn was right to caution us to be vigilant against the return of Communism. Simplistic ideas always remain attractive to fools, no matter how many times they’ve been shown to fail.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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