Funeral dirges for liberalism are all the rage these days: google “liberalism is over,” and you’ll discover a lengthy bibliography of books and articles that disagree only about whether it is sick, dying, or already dead. What is agreed is that liberalism—defined as the Enlightenment-based political philosophy rooted in individual rights, limited secular government, and equality before the law—has grown decadent and decrepit, buffeted by forces of nationalist populism on the Right and radical progressivism on the Left that it lacks the will to resist.
The latest addition to the literature of liberal decline is Yoram Hazony’s recent Quillette essay, “The Challenge of Marxism.” 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.
But when the essay arrives at its lengthy concluding sections—“V. The dance of liberalism and Marxism” and “VI. The Marxist endgame and democracy’s end”—it transpires that 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.
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).
The result, Hazony argues, is that even liberals who detest Marxism (including its modern identity-based variant) are helpless before its onslaught because they cannot bring themselves to view any demand for equality as illegitimate. This makes them “supine lackeys of [the] Marxists, without the power to resist anything that ‘Progressives’ and ‘Anti-Racists’ designate as being important.”
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?
With his mocking reference to “self-evident” truths, Hazony takes a swipe at the liberal ideal articulated in the Declaration of Independence, but neglects the fact 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.
Hazony points to the French Revolution—presumably its 1793–94 Jacobin phase—and to “radical regimes in Pennsylvania and other states during the American Revolution” as evidence that Enlightenment liberalism began to turn Marxist even before there was a Marxism. But the Jacobin regime was a brief if bloody interlude in the French Revolution, and its ideological source was not the rationalist, liberal Enlightenment of Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, or Diderot, but the proto-totalitarian sentimentalist counter-Enlightenment of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed freedom lay in submission to the people’s mystically unanimous “general will.” As for the radical regimes Hazony finds in post-revolutionary America, they were small utopian communities that began with the Shakers who were millenarian Protestants, not liberal rationalists. (Secular socialist communes based on the vision of French pre-Marxian socialist Charles Fourier and British social reformer Robert Owen came later in the 19th century and got their inspiration from the Shakers.)
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.” Plenty of viewpoints have commonalities with other viewpoints. In today’s post-Soviet Russia, for instance, many supporters of Vladimir Putin’s brand of authoritarian nationalism argue that Russian patriotism and Orthodox Christianity are entirely compatible with a sympathetic view of Russia’s communist and even Stalinist past. One such pundit and politician, Elena Yampolskaya, has argued that communism and Christian patriotism alike are oriented toward “faith” and “self-abnegation”—and, relevantly to Hazony’s thesis, that both stand against “the dictatorship of liberalism.”
Likewise, 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.
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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.
Before writing off Enlightenment liberalism as a dead end, though, we would do well to remember what came before it. Almost everyone abhors France’s Reign of Terror, during which revolutionary violence may have killed as many as 300,000 people; but the French Revolution’s conservative critics rarely acknowledge the territorial and religious warfare that regularly erupted in Europe during the preceding centuries. Half a century before the fall of the Bastille, about half a million people from seven countries—mostly civilians—lost their lives in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), which broke out because the ascension of Maria Theresa to the throne of the Habsburg empire (Austria) was disputed and several other monarchs saw their chance for a land grab. A few years later, unresolved disputes from that conflict led to the Seven Years’ War, which killed about 1.3 million.
We would do well to remember the peacetime barbarism, as well. In 1757, Robert Damiens, a mentally ill servant who slightly wounded King Louis XV with a pen knife in a doomed assassination attempt, was subjected to hours of public torture (which included pieces of his flesh being torn off with red-hot pincers and boiling oil poured on the wounds) before being tied to four horses and ripped apart. Nine years later, François-Jean de la Barre, a 19-year-old destitute provincial nobleman, was beheaded for blasphemy after being found guilty of vandalizing a crucifix (a charge of which he was most likely innocent), singing sacrilegious songs, failing to kneel and doff his hat before a passing procession carrying the Eucharist, and keeping forbidden literature such as The Philosophical Dictionary. Mercifully, the more gruesome part of his sentence—having his tongue cut out—was merely simulated by the executioner.
Around the same time, a Protestant notary in Toulouse, Jean-Paul Sirven, was sentenced to be burned alive after being railroaded on charges of killing his mentally handicapped daughter, supposedly for wanting to convert to Catholicism. (The daughter was found drowned in a well; the evidence of foul play was less than flimsy.) Sirven and his family managed to escape, and Voltaire took up their cause until he finally managed to get the conviction reversed.
The litany of conservative complaints about Western liberalism bring to mind Thomas Sowell’s retort to corresponding gripes from the Left: “Compared to what?” Our pre-liberal past was far worse than our imperfect present, and attempts to build a utopian post-liberal future have invariably ended in regression to barbarism.
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.) 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.
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.
A mere 13 years after that speech, the Soviet Union ceased to exist; the liberal West won the Cold War, thanks in part to the liberal conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher. In another dozen years, Solzhenitsyn’s anti-liberalism led him to embrace Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB officer who presided over the destruction of Russia’s fledgling freedoms. Therein lies a cautionary tale.
Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist, author, and associate editor at Arc Digital. You can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63.
Image: Statue of John Locke at University College London (wikicommons)