American Marxism is an embarrassment. Not to the political left, which has nothing to fear from yet another right-wing diatribe about cancel culture, antifa, and the Frankfurt School. But rather to conservatives, since I imagine any thinking person on the political right could only shudder at the thought of having to say nice things about a book so lacking in merit.
The very existence of American Marxism suggests that the United States’ most prominent conservative thinkers — Mark Levin is a “seven-time #1 New York Times best-selling author,” his publisher page boasts — have so little respect for their intended audience, they don’t even write books anymore. They simply sling together copied and pasted quotes into a veritable postmodern pastiche of exhausted cliches, recycled slogans, and fevered nightmares that seem to channel slasher movie tropes (the Left is everywhere).
If American Marxism is, as the book jacket proclaims, the great conservative take on the political left, then the only conclusion one can make is that intellectual conservatism isn’t even dead. It’s mummified.
The Block Quotes Never End
If you were to liposuction out the truly vast block quotations that range across entire chapters of American Marxism, the remaining portions would barely amount to a coherent essay. Reading through the book, it reminded me of Italian rip-off films from the 1980s, when masterpieces like Alien 2: On Earth would liberally pad the length of the run time — anything to reach eighty minutes — and then pitch it to unsuspecting American audiences to make a quick buck.
In one of the most staggering examples in the book, Levin quotes all seven pages of the Green New Deal manifesto, verbatim, and pairs it with just a paragraph of analysis. This is only the most egregious instance. The following, from Chapter Four, should give you a flavor of what I’m talking about. Forgive the length — this will be the only time I pull a Levin.
Banks cautions that “[o]ne of the most challenging tasks that those of us who teach multicultural education students experience is resistance to the knowledge skills that we teach. This resistance has deep roots in the communities in which most teacher education students are socialized as well as in the mainstream knowledge that becomes institutionalized within the academic community and popular culture that most students have not questioned until they enroll in a multicultural education or diversity course…” The book is broken down into the following chapters:
Chapter 1: How to Engage Constructively in Courses That Take a Critical Social Justice Approach.
Chapter 2: Critical Thinking and Critical Theory
Chapter 3: Culture and Socialization
Chapter 4: Prejudice and Discrimination
Chapter 5: Oppression and Power
Chapter 6: Understanding Privilege through Ableism
Chapter 7: Understanding the Invisibility of Oppression Through Sexism
Chapter 8: Understanding the Structural Nature of Oppression Through Racism
Chapter 9: Understanding the Global Organization of Racism Through White Supremacy
Chapter 10: Understanding Intersectionality Through Classism
Chapter 11: “Yeah, But . . .” Common Rebuttals
Chapter 12: Putting It All Together
Banks describes the ideological agenda intended by the book: “We hope to take our readers on a journey that results in an increased ability to see beyond the immediate surface level to the deeply embedded injustice . . . injustice that for so many of us is normal and taken for granted. Looking head-on at injustice can be painful, especially when we understand that we all have a role in it. However, in taking our readers on this journey we do not intend to inspire guild or assign blame. At this point in society, guilt and blame are not useful or constructive; no one reading this book had a hand in creating the systems that hold injustice in place. But each of us does have a choice about whether we are going to work to interrupt and dismantle these systems or support their existence by ignoring them. There is no neutral ground; to choose not to act against injustice is to choose to allow it. We hope that this book gives our readers the conceptual foundations from which to act against injustice.”
CRT is now firmly entrenched in American universities and colleges, and its reach is widespread. The website Legal Insurrection, founded by Professor William Jacobson of Cornell Law School, provides the most comprehensive database of more than two hundred colleges and universities that are using critical race training on their campuses. Moreover, CRT is spreading rapidly throughout America’s public schools. Among other things, this is being accomplished with the strong advocacy and corporate machinery of the New York Times and the 1619 Project. What is the 1619 Project? Writing in Real Clear Public Affairs, Krystina Skurk, a research assistant at Hillsdale College, explains that it is “[a] series of essays published.” [And here goes another series of long quotes.]
Since I am Canadian, I feel obligated to apologize again for the long quotation. But it captures not only the book’s plodding pace, but its curious form of reasoning. Much like James Lindsay’s recent opus Race Marxism, Levin’s American Marxism is remarkably thin on actual argumentation. Quotes are put forward and ridiculed as transparently absurd before a fever dream–like transition to another, peripherally related topic, which is in turn lambasted for a sentence or two.
Despite being thin on original material, the book is riddled with errors, with Levin’s claims about the alleged influence of the “Franklin” School of critical theory only the most infamous. Levin also seems to think American soldiers fought in the “battles of Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele, Gallipoli, [and] Tannenberg,” almost all of which were waged before the United States entered the war in April 1917. He also claims that the United States was the only country to fight a war to “end slavery,” ignoring the Haitian Revolution, the first successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere. A list of all the comparably dubious historical claims might, quite appropriately, wind up being almost as long as the book itself.
To the extent that leftists should contend with the claims of their opponents — and they very much should — time would be better spent rebutting Ayn Rand or, better yet, F. A. Hayek since Levin heavily cribs from their work. But since American Marxism has become a best seller, there is some value in assembling an argument out of the postmodern pastiche of appeals Levin makes to demonstrate where they fall short.
When Marxism Is Everything
Befitting someone as determinedly red-pilled as Levin, American Marxism opens with a batch of fearmongering rhetoric that could have come straight from the Matrix. The Left, apparently, is all-powerful. “You, your children, and your grandchildren are now immersed in it,” Levin writes, “and it threatens to destroy the greatest nation ever established, along with your freedom, family, and security.” The Left’s gaze pierces shadow, cloud, earth, and flesh.
This immediately raises several questions. If the United States is indeed the “greatest nation ever established,” and the free-market capitalism that Levin endorses so transparently vindicated by “reason” and “logic,” then how has the political left become such a ubiquitous and potent threat? The answer, according to Levin, is the Left’s utopian promises — the claim that we can construct a benevolent, egalitarian society where all live in harmony. And at the origin of all these utopian projects, whatever label leftists choose to “cloak” them in, is Marxism.
What exactly does Levin mean here? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know because he declines to define or analyze the core of Marxism: Marx’s “critique of political economy” laid out in Capital. Levin himself implicitly acknowledges this limitation, since in his efforts to conflate everything from Biden Democrats to the New York Times and antifa, he resorts to waffly terminology such as “Marxist-like,” “Marxism’s tentacles,” “Marxist-Critical Theory ideology and propaganda,” and what must be close to a million others.
What seems to unite the targets of such labels are three things: 1) Levin doesn’t like them, 2) he really doesn’t like them, and 3) their fundamental outlooks bear a surface-level similarity to the Marxist bifurcation of the world into two classes, an oppressor and an oppressed class. The terminology and groups involved may change, Levin argues, but the fundamental division of the world and the political project of demanding revolutionary change remain the same.
This conception of Marxism as an endlessly flexible doctrine, twisting and turning and evolving to corrupt ever broader swathes of life, has been advanced elsewhere by conservatives like Jordan Peterson. But it’s fundamentally ahistorical. As Ben Burgis and I have written:
If thinking that one group is unjustly exercising power over another makes one a “Marxist,” then Marxism predates the birth of Karl Marx by pretty much all of human history. Spartacus, for example, was a Marxist by this standard. So was everyone involved in the American and French Revolutions. So were the authors of the Book of Exodus.
Levin Would Prefer to Keep His Head in the Sand
The only thing that really comes through in the morass of American Marxism is how little Levin bothered to understand, let alone argue against, any of the varied ideas and traditions he disparages.
As the subtitle of Marx’s magnum opus indicates, Marxism is nothing if not a critique of political economy. Yet Levin’s only engagement with Marx’s arguments about the workings of capitalism comes in three short paragraphs at the beginning of the book, where he rehashes well-worn conservative critiques of the labor theory of value and argues against claims about the violence entailed in primitive accumulation (without calling it that).
Responding to the first point, Marx’s labor theory of value is far more potent than Levin would like to admit. To this day the “workmanship ideal” — the idea that one should get to keep what one makes — ironically remains a powerful ideological appeal for conservatives like Ben Shapiro. And it’s not hard to see why: Marx himself pointed out that if you believe hard work entitles you to keep what you made, then you have to regard capitalism as exploitative since workers must relinquish the value they create to capitalists.
On the technical aspect of the theory, Marx was writing at a time when even pro-capitalist economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo viewed labor as a major, if not the, source of value. Social science has arguably moved past the labor theory as the most compelling account of how value is determined under capitalism. But none of this invalidates the spirit of Marx’s point, which is that capitalists dominate workers in that they undemocratically snatch the value workers generate.
On Levin’s second point about America’s “early economic success” owing nothing to violent expropriation, one can simply point to the illegal annexation of Texas and subsequent war with Mexico, the conquest of Hawaii, and of course the well-documented history of westward expansion, which entailed the extermination and forced removal of indigenous peoples.
All this provided vast new resources for the burgeoning American state, which were crucial to the initial development of wealth and industry. A good example is the genocide of thousands of indigenous peoples in California during the mid-nineteenth century, spurred by a major push to populate the state with white settlers intoxicated with Gold Rush fever. This isn’t to say the only reason America is rich is settler colonialism. But if Levin wants to close his eyes and decide history didn’t happen, one suspects reality will have the last word.
Unfortunately, this head-in-the-sand approach is characteristic of the truly horrendous book Levin has written.
In a world that includes contemporary masterworks like The Parasitic Mind and the collected works of Dinesh D’Souza, one would have thought these kind of pop-conservative books had raced themselves all the way to the bottom — that there was simply no downward vector left to travel unless it was to the concentric circles of hell.
This, at least, was my conclusion in 2020 after spending a lot of time reading and reviewing such books. But I was wrong and am humble enough to admit it.
American Marxism is quite simply the worst book I have ever read.