Liberalism with Marxist Characteristics
Christopher Jolliffe examines the Marxist-liberal synthesis, probing its impact on society, family structure, and individual identity, while predicting its eventual collapse due to inherent contradictions.
It appears in our age that there is little reflection on what has happened to our collective ideational dispensation. Part of this can be put down to the decline of the mind, which appears to have happened in tandem with the great proliferation of things to do our thinking for us — this without mentioning our educational institutions intent on churning out credentials like Zimbabwean dollars, paid for in indulgences a little less valueless. If you prefer, we can blame that Stygian companion to post-modern life and social media, which has done more to dull our thinking than the most potent opiate. If that doesn’t suffice, lay the blame with our ever-increasing empirical bent. If something isn’t peer-reviewed, backed by several studies, and produced by a dogsbody of that Zimbabwean dollar factory, then we can safely ignore it. Scientism, and its acolytes, are everywhere abroad, and statistics are their angels; try to read Sapiens, I dare you, and prepare to believe that everything that matters is mere functionalism. Efforts to prevent our lives from feeling artificially machine-like betray the truth that, even though we have off-shored our factories, we still live inside them. Inside the machine, it is hard to take stock of its qualities.
Everything, as Heidegger would have put it, is suddenly ready-to-hand, and the real Industrial Revolution happened inside our skulls. We have all become utilitarians, without giving much thought to the animating spirit of our time, and it is hard to think about animating spirits when the machine’s components absorb all your time. It helps that there is plenty to distract us from assessing what has happened while we weren’t paying attention, assuming the ship would sail itself — something that, like any process of personal reflection, tends to involve not a little pain.
The lumpen-press of the left talks about the ‘lurch rightward’, a claim that, outside of pure neoliberal economics, makes you wonder where on earth they take their bearings.
To understand what has happened, it is necessary to return to that giant of the nineteenth century: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Once upon a time, his was the only name that rang out. I am always amused by Schopenhauer’s attempt to hold a lecture at the same time as Hegel, one that nobody attended. Today, Schopenhauer, the proto-depressive-modern, has probably more to say to the average post-modern than Hegel. Hegel’s legacy was, rather unfortunately for him, largely absorbed into Marx. When people educated prior to a certain year hear the term ‘dialectics’, it is certainly Marx they will recognise, peeping out from behind Hegel’s skirts. And Hegel, as the last of the great German idealists, remains utterly incomprehensible to modern audiences. I am far from pretending I have a firm grasp of Hegel, but refuse to play the game that everybody else plays, whereby a haze of language is spun to prevent the mutual unpleasantness of revealed intellectual nakedness. I am happy to be corrected by readers who know the subject better than I do.
Reflecting on the Hegelian dialectic — thesis, antithesis, and synthesis — I concluded that it best explains what has happened within our present metapolitical ambience. Because it is in the political world that our meta-narratives are arrived upon, this is where they play out in real time and where we must navigate our own existence. We are, in many cases, using old language to describe new things. What we see foisted upon our rapidly degenerating body politic is not pure cultural Marxism, as tempting as it is to lay the blame squarely on a single camp. Unfortunately, much of the blame lies closer to home, in a philosophical movement that has, unfortunately, become ungrounded and lost much of the gravitas that once made claiming to be a classical liberal respectable. Progressive liberalism won that particular synthesis, but there has been a broader synthesis at play, between the tenets of once seemingly diametrically opposed Marxist and liberal principles. In this synthesis, both right and left have, in many cases, failed to notice what has happened. They have been taking their cues from an outdated playbook.
How is it that the right and the left both feel, at certain moments, as though the other is ascendant? How is it that the Marxism of Lenin, Mao, and Stalin — not to mention that of Marx himself — has ended up in the ‘rubbish bin of history’, yet at the same time, should you watch Sky News, appears everywhere in vogue? What do we even mean by ‘cultural Marxism’, and how can an economic theory, derived from base against superstructure, morph into something that is entirely ideational? The lumpen-press of the left talks about the ‘lurch rightward’, a claim that, outside of pure neoliberal economics, makes you wonder where on earth they take their bearings. Nonetheless, if you are an orthodox Marxist, there cannot be much optimism left in you. Apart from the mental gymnastics this viewpoint requires — which is why, as an ideology, it is so well-suited to academics and intellectuals who delight in contorting language — how do you go about accounting for the Soviet Union, for Communist China? They tend to avoid the question, and it’s hard to blame them for that, even if we were, for once, to hold them to account for their terrible ideas.
As for the right, the sense of defeat is similarly pervasive. How is it that the popular right seems, well, so liberal? Why does it try to be a slightly less woke version of the other side, in the name of political expediency? It appears they are content to be passengers on the ship, rather than attempt to steer it. What has happened to religion — surely recognised now, by even the most vehemently atheistic conservative, as having some redeemable features as a social good — and the moral character it once inculcated? Surely, we’re not all Freudians now. How is it that global capitalism went so woke? It’s pride month. You’ve seen the corporate messaging; maybe there is more to this than slick marketing. Maybe they are true believers? Suddenly, we seem to be between Huxley and Orwell. You better tug the forelock; make a mistake and say goodbye to your employment, your good social standing, even your friends. A fanatical neo-religiosity has swept through public life, ostensibly secular in character but religious in function, and it hates you. All that time planting trees, ‘the shade of which you will never see’, just to watch them woodchipped in front of you.
We are living in strange times, where each side of the political divide sees the other as domineering. To an orthodox Marxist, not to be confused with the hippy-dippy types who followed, this is the worst of all times; capitalism and neoliberalism have taken the world by storm, and your ideas stopped mattering sometime around 1968. To a ‘centrist’, whatever that term now means, despite the great victories after 1945 and 1991, spooky shadows of ideological extremity loom on both sides of the spectrum. To a genuine traditionalist, you must concede that the last person who wrote anything that vaguely strikes a note was Chesterton or Voegelin, and that your ideas stopped mattering sometime around 1848. All seem poised to fight a great battle, but few seem to have identified the lay of the land.
Human rights, selectively applied, serve as a powerful linguistic tool to destroy the foundations of anything that isn’t presupposed along universalist liberal lines…
What we have ended up with is a synthesis of liberalism and Marxism: liberalism with Marxist characteristics, if you like. This should not be altogether unsurprising. Despite their differences, liberalism and Marxism have always been sister ideologies, born of the same modernist clutch. Both are egalitarian, emancipatory, universalist, anti-history, and intoxicated by the possibilities of utopia. Both are prescriptive, and both imagine a better world, brought about by Promethean will alone. Their routes are, well, different. One collectivises, the other individualises, but both somehow accomplish a similar atomisation. One manufactures consent, the other enforces it. ‘Communism kills the body, liberalism rots the soul’, as I once heard it put. Both are humanist; neither appear to have read Greek tragedy, and both wish to cleave away from the world that was.
Human beings manage things in dialectics; it is central to how we think, even as we spend much mental energy trying to force things together. Arguments and their opposites, night and day, male and female. It is why the person who says they are ‘non-binary’ inspires an often-unregistered response in us: this person is having an argument with reality. That is not a particularly intelligent thing to do. If nature pulls things in a dualist direction, human beings are more unitary in effort; all the bizarre gender wrangling is reflective of the desire both to make the naturally emerging subject to human will, and the need to compel final unity through force alone. We wish for all things to be under a single heading, determined by us. Certainly nothing prior to us can be allowed a claim: ‘accepting what we cannot change’ is an abomination to the post-modern. That this is easier for our minds is a double boon, lacking the computing power to map billions of variables, and ChatGPT is a long way from Laplace’s Demon. It is why we gravitate toward that Hegelian synthesis; it is us, not history, that powers that particular machine. Thinking in universal single-threads might not be how nature does it, but it is very human. There is, after all, more to life than is dreamt of in any philosophy, and all human thought must be reductionist in some degree to retain any shape.
Of this mutual collision, we must concede that liberalism got the better of it. After all, it was Che Guevara’s face that ended up on millions of t-shirts around the world, enriching the profit margins of investor-capitalists. If anything is notable, it is that the two schools switched camps. The fiercely materialist and being-creates-consciousness crowd got ideational. The latter-day liberals, hanging their hats originally on the natural law hangovers found in Locke et al., ended up more interested in numbers and Homo economicus. When they talk about rights, they don’t mean what their forebears mean. Human rights, selectively applied, serve as a powerful linguistic tool to destroy the foundations of anything that isn’t presupposed along universalist liberal lines, of anything that doesn’t work toward expanding markets, of anything that stands in the way of their Promethean project. Disingenuity with language is something the liberal learned from the Marxist.
Perhaps we might consider liberalism the Great Eater; it has managed to force nearly everything into itself, to absorb most features of modern life under its mantel. That which cannot be packaged, sold, or neutered in the face of the liberal schema must be resisted: as Jonathon Bowden pointed out, only religious foundationalism and ethnic nationalism have remained impervious to the appetite of the Great Eater — things that make claims subject neither to universality nor egalitarianism, and are not prefaced on man’s will alone. The hard left, it seems, ended up being dessert. What we have now is left-wing capitalism. It is why Antifa and BLM receive glowing coverage from liberal media outlets; they are on the same side, obviously, even as the former burns down the latter’s studio. Have you ever met a liberal Christian? They seem to positively enjoy rendering everything to Caesar. It is also why conservative movements have drifted left with time. Mainstream conservatism, I am afraid, is very much on the menu. In the last few years, it seems that conservatives have decided to save the enemy the trouble, and in the interest of saving time, have begun the process of marinating themselves.
This is why the Marxist themes of yesteryear seem everywhere ascendant today, albeit in liberalised forms. The Frankfurt School and the heirs of Gramsci did their work well, and nobody should forget that the likes of Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse found comfortable berths in the heart of the liberal academy. Have you heard of intersectionality? It is a hybrid of Marxist class theory and liberal individualism, rolled out of those Zimbabwean dollar factories to be consumed by people without brains. It has become something of a Nicene Creed for the politically aware post-modern. Against their own overwhelming Marxist-liberal hegemon, they must imagine an even more overwhelming hegemon, because without a Galactic Empire, the Rebel Alliance has no purpose. This is why we hear about the patriarchy so often, and why all the bien pensant types are so fervent in swatting counter-revolutionaries. It hardly matters that they’ve already largely won, because the battle must be imagined to be always on the brink of a Stalingrad for their underdog narrative to function. That virtually every university, school, media outlet, think tank, government department, corporate PR entity, bureaucratic club, and non-profit organisation marches in lockstep with this Marxist-liberal synthesis appears immaterial. It is a revolutionary movement, and to keep relevancy, revolutionary movements must retain the fiction that the struggle is still required. I hope you are seeing the similarities now. Consumers of the world, unite!
If you want a reflection on this synthesis played out in real time, read The Demon in Democracy by Ryszard Legutko. Living in Poland when the Wall came down, he watched the synergy happen in front of him, and concluded that the goals of Liberal and Communist Man were largely the same, and that what the post-Soviet world experienced was more costume-change than anything else. Both sought emancipation from the past; both remain hostile to previously existing forms. What did more damage to the family: the quasi-class-oppression narrative of the Marxists, or the encouragement of libertine sexuality, no-fault-divorce, and consequence-free self-expression by the liberal? It is hard to see a difference when you look at the result. We might also ask what contributed more to the breakdown of social cohesion: forced relocation into collective farms, or the mass migration of labour that followed capital wherever it went? Differences in brutality aside, both served a similar purpose. Both want you to know that it’s for your own good, but where the communist prefers rifle butts, the liberal lacks even the courage of his convictions, to be candid about what it is he is doing. If anything characterises the post-modern liberal, it is a fog of deceit: deception about themselves, about the world, about which way is up and which way is down. At least the communist is honest about wishing to derail the train on which he rides.
We are well and truly there, living in that machine without having thought a great deal about its animating spirit, now something reminiscent of Tesla’s ‘man-made horrors beyond comprehension’.
The great weakness in this liberal-Marxist synthesis is its lack of a central meta-narrative, of something corporeal that holds it together and strides forward in a manner that isn’t merely rhetorical, of something that can make it weightier than the tiny horizons of sacrosanct liberal individualism cut with generous lashings of Marxist ressentiment. The only people on the barricades for this project are the last people you’d want to recruit into any healthy movement. They are broken, half-formed types, sundered by this enormous, artificial, and over-engineered runaway utopian project. The one promise liberalism made — that of a comfortable life — rings hollow to millions of spiritually diminished people who queue on the waiting lists of psychotherapists, who will never afford a house, who are picking up the pieces after family breakdowns everybody saw coming, who half-recognise the metaphysical wasteland contemporary life has become. This liberal-Marxist synthesis cannot create good human beings, because it is not interested in creating good human beings, at least not along the lines once considered so. The ‘good human being’ created in the modern system is a left-wing activist, and moral character reduced to mouthing predictable, boring platitudes that cost nothing. These half-formed types are full of imagined grievances and self-loathing, and are utterly convinced of their own moral superiority over everything that came before. Some of us hoped we could leave the formulation of good human material to the civil organs of society, to the family, to small communities, churches, maybe even to the Scouts. Perhaps we assumed that this process was automatic, rather than being the product of generations of careful forethought, and further assumed, very stupidly, that these things could survive a zeitgeist that desired them dead. The Marxists wanted to put a stake through all those things, but it was the liberals who drove it home. Eastern Europe, after decades under the permafrost of Communism, has arguably healthier institutions than the rest of the West. This should tell us everything. It does no good to bid the geldings be fruitful.
But this great weakness will, in time, ensure that this synthesis collapses eventually. If you like irony, it will collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions. As Carlyle said, it is not to taste sweet things that gives a man’s life meaning, but to vindicate himself as a God-made man. The liberal-Marxist synthesis can say nothing to the noble and virtuous part of the soul, the part of the soul that we immediately recognise in the best amongst us. Even Fukuyama, often misread as cheerleader for Hegel’s end of history rather than caustic observer, had sage words on the subject. A liberal-Marxist synthesis that has lost sight of its pre-liberal bearings is going to run into trouble, and will risk existing without substance, rootless in the void and subject to the bad ideas we’ve watched emerge. We are well and truly there, living in that machine without having thought a great deal about its animating spirit, now something reminiscent of Tesla’s ‘man-made horrors beyond comprehension’. Comprehension is slow, but will come in the end. Every year, the cracks become more visible, and despite the mainstreamed delusions of the liberal-Marxist types, I still believe in natural law. You should, too: being on this side of the fence means we concede that man is not the measure of all things and that we should not mistake deluded thinking for what the world is really like. Natural law will out; act in a manner you can be proud of while unnatural law reigns.