27/08/2020

Publications

Conventions in a Time of Revolution

John O'Sullivan
Donald Trump personifies resistance to the Marxist revolution.

Writing in the online Australian journal of ideas, Quillette, Yoram Hazony provides us with a persuasive account of the recent rebirth of Marxism in the West, an ominous explanation of how it was midwifed into life by a progressive liberalism that falsely claims to be the best defense against it, and a grim prediction of how it will likely triumph unless . . . well, unless something very improbable occurs. His article is a densely argued chain of logical relationships and consequences. I can give only a brief and unsatisfactory summary of it below which will inevitably be infected by my own opinions. So you should read the whole of it here.

That said, Yazony begins with the undeniable reality that the liberalism that has dominated American life since the 1960s — my own 1997 coinage was Liberaldom — is now surrendering its strongholds such as the New York Times and the Ivy League to a rising Marxism. This Marxism, shorn of its earlier antique economic jargon, goes under several aliases such as “anti-Racism” and “progressivism,” but it retains its essential political categories under new names so that, for instance, its bourgeois/proletarian divide becomes an oppressor/oppressed one but still provides the dynamic for social conflict and revolution. Marxism has many flaws, but its insight that all societies have injustices that lead to conflicts is (a) true, (b) appealing to many people (precisely because all societies have discontented people in them), and (c) an ideological puzzle to liberalism, which views politics not as endless group conflict (until the inevitable Marxist revolution occurs and ushers in a society without conflict) but rather as a doctrine about securing rights for individuals. But when people exercise rights, they create new freedoms and inequalities, which in Marxist logic means new injustices and conflicts. And that in turn leads to what Yazony calls “the endless dance of liberalism and Marxism,” in which liberalism repeatedly yields to Marxism’s ever-germinating complaints about these divisions . . . until we reach the present moment, when liberalism demands the wilder dreams that Marxism proposed a decade ago.

Yazony points out that in arguing this case, he is standing on the shoulders of other recent conservative writers, such as the Polish scholar-politician Ryszard Legutko, who developed “a compelling analysis of the structural similarities between Enlightenment liberalism and Marxism” in his book The Demon in Democracy (2016), and Christopher Caldwell, who in The Age of Entitlement (2020) has shown how the 1960s attempt to entrench liberalism in constitutional law has morphed into today’s “Progressive” (and aggressive) politics of Marxisant liberalism. I would add that John Fonte’s 1990s outline of “transnational progressivism” was an early forerunner of Hazony’s current definition of Marxism. In short conservatives have been increasingly (and fruitfully) expressing concern with Marxism’s moral subversion of liberalism in what is now a wide variety of conservative publications — and many liberals have become increasingly worried by such signs of its growing dominance in their own institutions as for instance, the 1619 Project in the New York Times.

So what is it that binds liberalism and Marxism together and turns them into something like a pantomime horse with liberalism as its rear end? Hazony explains it as follows:

Enlightenment liberalism is a rationalist system built on the premise that human beings are, by nature, free and equal. It is further asserted that this truth is “self-evident,” meaning that all of us can recognize it through the exercise of reason alone, without reference to the particular national or religious traditions of our time and place.

That then creates a tripartite system of political ideas and choices: The worship of pure reason binds liberals to Marxists, and contempt for tradition separates liberals from conservatives. If pure reason is the test, no society can be just or stable, since some of its citizens will always be freer or more powerful than others in ways that reason alone can’t justify. That reality casts a shadow of injustice over them in both Marxist and liberal theory. But a conservative society has a definition of reason as “what we think reasonable in the light of how we do things here.” And because that definition rests on inherited social compromises that give all groups some benefits and a mutual investment in social peace, demands for changing society can be judged, accepted, resisted, and combined with tradition and social stability. The mechanism for making these choices peacefully is democracy. Conservatives can live with that reality and make adjustments to it as they go along; liberals do so in practice for periods but they feel uneasy about its deviations from pure reason and justice and find it hard to resist reforms demanded from their left; Marxists make reason and justice the enemy of social stability and condemn liberals for refusing to build a society that achieves reason and justice in a comprehensive (i.e., revolutionary) form. That means denying the legitimacy of a conservative party in a democracy and accepting the legitimacy of a liberal one only if it becomes the party of revolution by installments (salami tactics, etc.).

Both party conventions are taking place against this background of ideological politics. The Democratic National Convention (at least as seen from a beach in Croatia via the Internet) was a marvelous exercise in deception and distraction. Its policy proposals are a wish-list of progressive panaceas, from lax border control to a $2 trillion program for closing down America’s energy industries in the faint hope of halting and reversing climate change. (That’s correct: 2 trillion, not 2 billion.) But it was staged as a homespun gingham fellowship program of good feelings that united all Americans and all immigrants against the pantomime villain Donald Trump, with the added bonus that the immigrants were even more American than the Americans. To place it in ideological terms, a Marxisant progressive program was presented as a conservative one fronted by an amiable unthreatening liberal. A brilliant concept for a great show, but the early returns suggest that it hasn’t convinced the hicks in the sticks.

The Republican National Convention has foregone having an actual platform, preferring instead to ask support for whatever President Trump decides in due course — what the Brits called a “Doctor’s Mandate” in the 1931 election, which returned a conservative National Government to do whatever it took to solve a banking and currency crisis. That may not be Caesarism exactly, but it looks unseemly to me, and if the program is to be whatever Trump thinks necessary, perhaps the word “doctor” doesn’t exactly draw attention to his strengths. That may not mean overmuch, though. In the older conventional language of partisan politics, a Trump administration’s policies are unlikely to be “conservative” anyway. There’s not a green eyeshade in sight around today’s White House. But its ideological politics are a different and healthier matter. The GOP’s convention is happily uninterested in policy except as a target for attacking the Democrats. But it is a powerfully staged fiesta of popular conservative resistance to the progressive-cum-Marxist revolution that it sees ravaging Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, and wherever Democrats rule today — and threatening the rest of America, in particular suburbia, tomorrow. I think it’s hitting home.

Media, political, and cultural critics will doubtless pooh-pooh this picture. But as Andrew Sullivan has pointed out acutely (admittedly in a very different context), he was repeatedly assured that his anxieties over the spread of critical race analysis were hugely overblown until one day the New York Times abandoned such antique notions as impartiality, let alone objectivity, and published in its 1619 Project the argument that the United States was a project for the preservation of slavery from the first as . . . well, as if it were an old-fashioned truth. Schools have now declared it will be taught in their history curriculum. And it soon became clear that America’s schools, colleges, corporations, and cultural institutions were staffed at all levels by people to whom “Woke” ideology is the commonsense of our day, to the point that those who deny it can be rightly dismissed, silenced, or otherwise punished.

Like all important revolutions, moreover, it doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. In the current issue of The Critic magazine in Britain, here, Justin Elderman describes what he calls the BLM takeover of Whitehall. It makes astonishing reading. Here’s a sample:

On 3 June, Jonathan Slater, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Education, responded to the DEFRA Permanent Secretary Tamara Finkelstein’s call to “fight racism” by tweeting the Black Lives Matter hashtag and declaring his quest to “tackle the whiteness of Senior Whitehall” (both these Whitehall heads are white, incidentally). On 5 June, Stephen Lovegrove, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, sent an email (reported here and here) declaring that “Systemic racial inequality . . . has deep roots within UK society, including Defence” and, like the DfE head, signed off with #BlackLivesMatter.

On the same day, the Civil Service Race Forum, a group which coordinates BAME networks across the civil service, tweeted an official statement giving its “unequivocal support for the global Black Lives Matter movement”. For good measure, the Civil Service Race Forum also quoted Marxist academic Angela Davis enjoining people to fight their “racist society” by being “anti-racist”, blamed systemic racism for disparities in UK policing and Covid-19 lockdown fines, and retweeted#BlackLivesMatter on 28 June. Another civil service network for boosting the careers of BAME staff, called “Race to the Top G6/7“, used its Twitter feed to endorse #BlackLivesMatter on 29 May, 13 June, 23 June, 13 July and 17 July.

Public declarations of allegiance were also accompanied by internal calls to arms. On 5 June, staff in DEFRA were reportedly directed to an all-staff discussion about George Floyd and US protests facilitated by Project Race (about whom more below), while staff in both DEFRA and DfE were also told to educate themselves about concepts such as “white privilege”, “racial profiling”, “systemic racism”, “intersectionality”, “microaggressions”, and “whitewashing”. In the meantime, staff at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy were reportedlysigning off emails with Black Lives Matter logos.

Senior civil servants also made gushing confessions of past sins and narrated their Damascene conversions to the cause: on 21 June, The Critic reported that DfID mandarin Sarah Sanyahumbi used her department’s intranet to post a sermon entitled “How to be a White Ally”, describing how, after Colston’s statue was torn down in Bristol, she suddenly recognised her complicity in “the white status quo”. Her epistle to white civil servants read: “Recognise your white privilege”; “Call out racism in your family, friends and colleagues … (unintended or not)”; “Avoid drawing parallels with other types of social injustice such as sexism or discrimination of lower socio-economic groups”; “Join the Race Network, and work to embed the Race Action Plan in your business areas and continue to talk about the Race”.

As Elderman sums up: “Our supposedly impartial civil service is institutionalising far-left identity politics.” It’s not as if the civil-service mandarins are not well-informed about the ideology of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been given full and accurate publicity for the last few months. Nor is this a wholly recent phenomenon. Twenty-five years ago, a friend of mine in the John Major administration complained to me that civil servants were already institutionalizing a culture of race-and-gender quotas throughout public institutions. He couldn’t get ministers in a Tory administration to take any interest in the matter. As a result, the culture of identity politics and grievance studies has metastasized, first in the public sector, next throughout institutions dependent upon the public sector. And the Tories are still afraid to touch it for fear of being accused of racism. It is actually sinister that Elderman’s article, though a sensational scoop documented with statements and tweets by senior mandarins, has had almost no accompanying echo in other media and no statement from ministers about what is a massive political scandal.

That, of course, is the problem. It’s such a massive scandal and requires such a massive political-cum-ideological house-cleaning that Ministers don’t know what to do about it and shrink from doing anything. Every day it throws up some new embarrassment from woke reforms proposed for the National Trust to the BBC deciding (absurdly) to censor the words of Rule Britanniaon the last night of the Proms. And all Boris Johnson does is huff and puff — having first established, according to the Spectator’s James Forsyth, that the public is solidly on his side. This only advertises his impotence in governing. If Boris doesn’t address this problem seriously and openly, however, his Cowardly Lion act will eventually get the hook. And nothing short of a major inquiry into the civil service with the aim of proposing much tougher rules of impartiality (given advance credibility by dismissals and reprimands now) will meet the needs of the current situation, in which elected officials are run by unelected ones. Unless that’s done, the Johnson administration will lose its major battles with the entrenched permanent government and leave office defeated by progressives in black jackets and bowler hats. It’s that bad.

Democratic decay is less advanced in the United States. Even so, as Hazony remarks in his conclusion:

At this point, most of the alternatives that existed a few years ago are gone. Liberals will have to choose between two alternatives: either they will submit to the Marxists, and help them bring democracy in America to an end. Or they will assemble a pro-democracy alliance with conservatives. There aren’t any other choices.

The Democrats’ convention showed that they have decided to stick with the Marxists in the belief that they’ll be able to keep them under control once they have the powers and incentives of office to play with. It also showed, however, that they are uneasily aware that the populace is conservative and must be treated cautiously for the moment. For its part, the GOP’s convention signaled resistance to a revolution that has no democratic legitimacy and almost certainly insufficient force at its disposal to win by violence. Its temporary and local hegemony is a gift from Democrat-controlled mayors and local officials who enforce the law selectively in favor of Antifa and BLM mobs. That won’t survive an election victory by a GOP that has realized what’s at stake and summoned up the determination to resist — indeed, even a GOP defeat won’t dispel that conservative awakening entirely.

For, though I understand and half-share Hazony’s pessimism, I think we should both acknowledge that a conservative resistance would itself exert an influence across the entire spectrum. My one quarrel with him is his argument is that the ideological refugees are always from liberalism to Marxism, never the other way round. When the flag of conservative resistance is raised — and it’s usually raised late in the day — we witness a flight of refugees not only from liberalism to conservatism but also from Marxism itself to conservatism. Few ex-Marxists stop at liberalism not because they despise it — quite the contrary, they generally value its liberties and conventions — but because they doubt its ability to preserve those things against future attack. They go straight to conservatism because they sense a formidable determination to protect what are not only virtuous liberal freedoms but also prized national traditions. Burke in his day, Thatcher, De Gaulle, and the neo-conservatives 50 years ago resisted the assaults of revolution and soon found themselves welcoming converts from radicalism. But such revivals need resistance in the first place.

Donald Trump has many personal flaws, which rightly expose him to criticism. But he personifies resistance to the Marxist revolution that has crept up on us, and at the GOP convention so far he has transmitted that message loud and clear. Everything else is stage directions.

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