Although doctrinaire Marxism has lost much of its cache it continues to inspire various elites who cherish the ideal of a world managed by technocrats. However, this is not the most important contemporary ramification of Marxism; that dubious honor belongs to the offshoot of Marxism variously labeled as neo-Marxism, cultural Marxism, or Western Marxism. This branch of Marxism grew out of the research and writing of the Frankfurt School, a German research institute active in the 1920’s, and it included many of the leading thinkers and cultural critics of the twentieth century: Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Jurgen Habermas, Herbert Marcuse, etc. Essentially, neo-Marxism is a form of social criticism that applies the logic of class-conflict and oppression to every aspect of culture, from personal relationships to institutional structures; this way of thinking has been warmly embraced by “social justice” advocates and various “liberation” groups.
Unlike classical Marxism, neo-Marxism is not primarily or exclusively concerned with economics and economic action. Rather neo-Marxists see class conflict and economic exploitation as only one instance of the broader problem of group domination and exploitation. Neo-Marxists reinterpret and expand Marx’s account of class conflict, in which exploitative capitalists are pitted against the oppressed proletariat class. According to this new perspective, history is fundamentally the dramatic conflict between oppressor groups and exploited groups; sometimes this framework may be understood in terms of economic class, but it can also be employed to understand other areas of social conflict: race, sex, gender, international relations, aesthetics, religion, et cetera. Interestingly neo-Marxists tend to be more moderate in their criticism of structural capitalism, which may be explained by the fact that many neo-Marxists are college-educated and affluent, and have little interest or sympathy for working-class values.
Neo-Marxists identify a whole range of social conflicts that may be interpreted within the dialectic of domination, oppression, and revolution. In this approach, one first defines a dyadic relationship of domination, featuring an oppressor class and a victim class; next one identifies specific forms exploitation along with rhetorical and symbolic signs of exploitation; finally, one develops a political and cultural plan of liberation. This plan for liberation must be pressed at all opportunities and although it may be initially deployed as a finite list of demands it is really a limitless agenda for perpetual revolution. Even if the oppressor class is completely cannibalized or converted, the revolution can be advanced against symbols, cultures, and “hidden” agents of the oppressor class. In this perspective, any suffering or failure by the members of the victim-class may be attributed to continued oppression, whether conscious or sub-conscious, explicit or implicit, external or internal. Thus for the neo-Marxist it is not enough to eliminate obvious structural inequalities. Rather a total program of “reeducation” is required to eliminate every thought, feeling, or attitude that may cause pain or offense to the victim-class.
One of the essential elements of the neo-Marxist approach is the delegitimization of all potential opposition. Any criticism or challenges to the victim-dialectic may be instantly dismissed as a form of reactionary resistance. To challenge the dialect is itself a crime, a further act of aggression against the victim class and only serves to perpetuate the power of the dominating class. Indeed, even an appeal to open debate legitimizes the oppressor; he cannot be given a seat of the table because this legitimizes the oppressor class and causes further suffering to the victim. What this reveals about the neo-Marxist dialectic is that it is not about truth or reality at all. It is a form of rhetoric and a plan of revolutionary action intended to capture power and marginalize a formerly dominant group. Essentially it makes group-politics first philosophy. Nothing really matters except the suffering of the victim-group and its rise to power.
Neo-Marxism is perhaps even more flawed than classical Marxism.
First, the victim dialectic is overly simplistic. It vilifies one group as the source of all or most of the problems of the supposed victim class, even if the crimes of the oppressor group literally lay centuries in the past. Too often this ends up exonerating the supposed victim class from any responsibility for its present ills; the entire burden of any present harms is shifted onto historical crimes, which sometimes props up corrupt leaders and leads to a decline in personal accountability and a neglect of character.
Second, as already indicated, the victim dialectic, by its very nature displaces intellectual debate and a concern for truth by delegitimizing any criticism. Any objections are treated as heresies to be suppressed — anti-revolutionary crimes to be punished. Non-ideological debate is not a possibility because the critical interlocutors are simply not allowed a seat at the table. Imagine an honest debate on economics in the Soviet Union. The “two minutes” of hate encouraged by “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four is the preferred form of neo-Marxist communication. It follows logically, that truth and reality are replaced by power and “group-think.”
Finally, there is an obvious contradiction at the heart of neo-Marxism. Despite verbiage to the contrary, neo-Marxism does not really eliminate group oppression; rather, through its tactics and neglect of truth it simply turns into a mechanism of power. It is a path by which a formerly oppressed group becomes the new oppressor — the victim class becomes the new dominant class. Of course, through deft rhetorical flourishes, it is possible for the new elite to maintain their aggrieved status, but the chilling reality of a new regime of power and oppression will be felt by all of those outside of the newly “liberated” group. Indeed the “reeducation” required by the process of liberation inevitably leads to a new list of forbidden thoughts and words — thought crimes — and new cadres empowered and emboldened thought police.
Despite the manifest deficiencies of neo-Marxism it is arguably the most powerful wind blowing in modern politics today; this is especially true since the merger of neo-Marxism and progressivism that began in the 1960’s and has continued unabated ever since. This merger on the left is one of the major developments shaping the map of today’s political struggles for the soul of America.
To be continued …
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