Conservatives Must Read Marx

Yes, conservatives, Karl Marx, the Manifesto, The German Ideology, Capital, The Eighteenth Brumaire . . . the lot of it. Close your Hayek and Friedman, forget the Invisible Hand for a while, Reaganism is history, Edmund Burke won’t help you, the Revolution is here and you’re in it.

Start reading, now, not Marx on private property or money, commodity fetishism, or the labor theory of value. Read him for one thing: class relations, for you are a class whether you like it or not.

When the populists among you started to talk about politicians as a “class” that crossed party lines, composed of Democrats and Republicans both, you made one important mistake. Not that legislators and high officials weren’t a distinct group with their own interests—that was clearly correct. Rather, you didn’t follow out the implication that the political class’s class behavior put conservatives into a class, too. The elite has marked you as a collective problem, and they’re busy dealing with you.

It’s not a culture war, not anymore. There is no common civic ground on which liberals and conservatives meet and hash things out. In the 1990s we had genuine debates in the public arena, Stanley Fish versus Dinesh D’Souza over political correctness, Lynne Cheney versus revisionist historians over the meaning of America, Clinton Democrats versus congressional Republicans over gays in the military.

The debates are over now. The Woke brigades won’t battle your ideas. They follow the motto of that brilliant manager of men, Joseph Stalin, who reasoned quite soundly: “No man, no problem.”

The marketplace of ideas offends them—you offend them. Now, they have the power of termination. While conservatives wrote bestsellers such as The Closing of the American Mind and trounced leftist spokesmen on the cable news shows, thousands of progressives and identity politicians were claiming space in university administrations, human resources in corporate America, school boards and city councils, editorial offices, and Silicon Valley, law schools and museums and libraries, not to mention the many activist organizations that have our most distinguished liberal institutions cowed.

From those posts, usually out of the public eye, they exert their power against you. It’s economic, not cultural. When Tucker Carlson defended Trump’s Wall, his antagonists didn’t collect evidence against his words. No, they threatened his advertisers with boycotts. When Jordan Peterson refused an Ontario law mandating pronoun usage, his critics didn’t mount arguments against him. They demanded the University of Toronto fire him. Money, jobs, resources, access—that’s the target now. Academia requires that all job candidates compose a “diversity statement,” essentially a loyalty oath that imposes leftist ideology onto the hiring process. An honest conservative doesn’t survive, and that’s the point.

This was the long march through the institutions, and it’s done. An open contest of ideas needn’t happen, not when leftists control the pipelines. Why risk it when they already have the power? They are so much better at personnel than you are. They don’t have to justify what they do if everyone in the room agrees with them. No conservatives, no problem. If they deprive you of jobs, they annul your ideas. If they reject your manuscripts and cancel your TV shows and keep you out of the teaching ranks, the rising generation and mass of citizens barely know you exist.

From then on, liberal ideology looks like reality. A class-based power play assumes the guise of natural truth. As Marx put it, one class’s values “increasingly take on the form of universality” (German Ideology). This is a sign of success—he calls it a “trick”—because it obscures the material conditions that exalted those values, including the suppression of the interests of other classes. As long as people accepted the oppression they suffered as “the way things are,” not a class set-up, they couldn’t resist it, at least not effectively. What they needed was class consciousness.

Conservatives don’t like to think of themselves as a class. They reject Marx’s definition of history as class struggle. Life isn’t 100 percent economic and human beings have souls that transcend politics. OK—but the Woke don’t care. They treat you as a class, and it works. They target your livelihood, so you better start thinking about a better response than “That’s not right.”

Popular conservative thinkers warn very astutely of the dangers of class warfare and everything-is-political thinking. When it comes to advising a subordinate class how to climb out of a pit, though, they’re pretty much worthless. Marxism, on the other hand, taught scattered and powerless laborers how to become a labor movement. You, too, can learn the lessons of organization while skipping the poisonous doctrines of Communism.

Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals

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