There’s No Such Thing as “Right-Wing Marxism”

The National Review frets that “populist” paleoconservatives are vessels of Marxist influence on the Right. That’s nonsense.

Conservatives are sounding the alarm bells about “Marxist influence” on the contemporary right. (Hannelore Foerster / Getty Images)

Writing at the conservative National Review, Bobby Miller sounds the alarm bells about “Marxist influence” on the contemporary right. But what does he mean? Are there people with socially or culturally right-wing views calling for workers control of the means of production? Or endorsing Karl Marx’s theory of history?

Of course not. On the vast majority of economic issues, the paleoconservative “populists” Miller is so worried about are well to the right of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party. Some of them might be skeptical to one degree or another of free trade agreements or foreign policy adventurism, but good luck finding one who supports Medicare for All or wants to make it easier for workers to organize unions. They certainly don’t want to end private ownership of economic enterprises.

While this kind of misuse of the word “Marxism” to denote even the tiniest deviations from the Right’s free-market consensus is amusing, it’s also more than a little sad. Marxism — the real kind — is a powerful tool for understanding how capitalism works and how the working-class majority can act together to create a better society. We should strive to build a socialist movement powerful enough that when the National Review writers lose sleep about “Marxism,” they’re at least worried about the real thing.

Marxism and Freedom

Miller’s note in the National Review directs readers to a previous warning about “right-wing Marxism” published by Michael Lucchese at Law & Liberty. Lucchese lumps together “integralism,” “national conservatism,” and those who want to “revive the legacy of failed Presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan” in his list of dangerous heretics from the GOP’s Reaganite consensus.

National conservatives, often known to both friends and enemies simply as “NatCons,” reject neoconservative talk of using Western military might to expand individual freedom around the world. It’s not that the NatCons see this rhetoric as a paper-thin justification for a foreign policy that has a lot more to do with protecting the interests of capital than spreading freedom to the people bombed or invaded by those militaries. And it’s certainly not that they’re left-wing anti-imperialists who believe in the international solidarity of the working class. It’s just that they reject universalist ideals about promoting freedom in favor of a focus on “national greatness.”

Leading NatCon intellectual Yoram Hazony devotes a whole chapter of his 2022 book Conservatism: A Rediscovery to fearmongering about the threat of Marxism. Ironically, he uses the word much the way Miller and Lucchese do — as a free-floating signifier of everything to his left that he fears. Liberal identity politics is, in Hazony’s mind, a disguised form of “Marxism.”

Integralists seek to make religious — generally Catholic — teachings the basis of law and public policy. They reject the idea of a pluralistic society where everyone is free to pursue their own vision of the good life. Instead, they want their own vision of “the common good” imposed from on high.

Integralists tend to be very clear on the distinction between their worldview and Marxism. One of integralism’s leading thinkers, Patrick Deneen, just published a book called Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. Deneen is more intellectually scrupulous than Hazony about distinguishing between different “progressive” ideologies, but he writes in Regime Change that “classical liberalism, progressive liberalism, and Marxism . . . differ but also overlap.” Ultimately, these are different proposed paths to “transformative progress” but they come together in opposing “the premodern common-good conservative tradition.”

While many Marxists would bristle at being lumped together with our pro-capitalist ideological enemies, there’s an important sense in which Deneen is onto something. The replacement of feudalism and divine-right monarchy with capitalism and liberal democracy — what Marxists call “the bourgeois revolution” — represented enormous historical progress. Socialists celebrate this expansion of human freedom. We “just” want to go further.

Instead of an economy where most people have no realistic choice except to accept jobs where they have to spend all day taking orders from an unelected boss, we want to expand the sphere of autonomy and self-determination to the workplace. And we want to meet everyone’s material needs so they have the ability in practice to live their lives however they want during their nonworking hours.

Under capitalism, people are legally allowed to pursue whichever vision of a good life they believe in, but domination at the workplace and the wildly unequal distribution of resources in society as a whole severely restrict the choices practically available to the majority of the population. Marx objected to this not because he wanted to regress to a premodern condition where Kings, Popes, or aristocrats could tell everyone else how to live their lives, but because he wanted to push forward toward a deeper kind of freedom.

With Marxists Like These…

How about the third category of heretics-from-Reaganism identified by Lucchese — the ones who want to “revive the legacy of failed Presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan”?

The occasion for his essay is the publication earlier this year of a book devoted to presenting the ideas of this strand of the Right: A Paleoconservative Anthology: New Voices for an Old Tradition, edited by Paul Gottfried, the man who first coined the term “paleocon” to describe Buchanan’s movement. The main thrust of both Lucchese’s essay and Miller’s note in the National Review is calling the paleocons Marxists. And that’s even more absurd than applying that label to integralists or NatCons.

Sometimes politicians who hold real-world power will attend NatCon conferences or write for integralist-influenced publications like Compact. Missouri senator Josh Hawley, for example has done both. And Hawley doesn’t support even modest social democratic proposals like Medicare for All or a $15 minimum wage. He’s not even a cosponsor of the PRO Act, which undo many of the provisions of the hideously anti-labor 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and thus make it at least a little bit easier for workers to organize unions. But it’s true that some of the politically powerless writers and intellectuals associated with integralism or national conservatism have a conception of “the common good” that would lead them to support such things.

Not so for the writers showcased in A Paleoconservative Anthology. “At their core,” Miller claims, the writers in the anthology are “Marxist-influenced thinkers” who only seem right-wing because they “also vehemently despise political correctness.”

But what do these “Marxist-influenced thinkers” actually say?

The first section of the book is called “Founding Fathers” and the very first essay is Murray Rothbard’s Life on the Old Right. It makes sense to give Rothbard pride of place; he was active in “Old Right” politics in the 1940s but in his old age he was an enthusiastic supporter of Buchanan’s proto-Trumpist campaign for president in 1992. “Life on the Old Right” celebrates the version of the Right that existed before William F. Buckley founded the National Review and, in Rothbard’s telling, convinced the Right to abandon its cautious constitutionalism and foreign policy restraint in favor of becoming big-government Cold Warriors.

The foreign policy restraint is one half of the deviation from the Church of St Reagan that has given Lucchese and Miller visions of Marxists infiltrating the conservative movement. The other half, also mentioned by Rothbard, is antipathy to free trade agreements. Rothbard situates the “Old Right” as a reaction to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Rothbard sees Rooseveltian initiatives like Social Security for the elderly as a shocking break from the American traditions of “states’ rights” and limited government. He writes:

There was a wide spectrum of positive views: ranging from pure libertarian decentralization to Hamiltonian reliance on strong government within rigid limits to various wings of monarchists. And in all this diversity and range of discourse, no one would react in shock and horror to any “extreme” views — so long as the “extremism” did not mean selling out the fight against the New Deal. There was also a great deal of disagreement on specific policies that had been open questions in the Old, pre-New Deal, Republic: tariffs vs. free trade; immigration restrictions vs. open borders; and what constitutes a military or foreign policy truly consistent with American national interests.

Rotbard is right to note that opposition to free trade, motivated not by any concern for the working class but by a desire to shelter American business from foreign competition, was a common position in the “Old, pre–New Deal, Republic.” Ultraconservative president William McKinley, for example, was an ultraprotectionist about trade. During McKinley’s lifetime, the idea that the president was a Marxist would have struck both the friends and enemies of Marx’s ideas as very, very funny.

Writing in 1994, Rothbard is still furious that the Republicans who won a majority in Congress in 1946 didn’t act decisively to undo the “Rooseveltian Revolution” and restore the “Old Republic.” In particular, he’s mad about the Taft-Hartley Act, not because it was anti-union, but because it didn’t go far enough. Rothbard wanted to completely repeal the Wagner Act, which allowed for legal recognition of labor unions and collective bargaining. “Politically,” he writes, “repeal might have succeeded, since the public was fed up with unions and strikes in 1946” but it wasn’t to be. While Sen. Robert Taft “was a brilliant man,” he was also “disastrously devoted to compromise.”

In the final essay of the anthology, Sam Francis — whom both Lucchese and Miller single out as a leading source of the “Marxist” infection on the Right — casually lumps together “multinational corporations, giant labor unions, universities and foundations” as sources of progressive, statist influence on society.

Words Mean Things

If you’ve only read one book by Karl Marx, it’s probably The Communist Manifesto. Cowritten by Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels on the eve of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, it’s a short, stirring pamphlet. You can digest it in an afternoon. And if you’ve read even the opening lines of the first paragraph of the Manifesto, you know that Marx sees class struggle as the engine of historical progress.

In the context of contemporary capitalism, Marx and Engels think that the working class — not the “alienated whites” Sam Francis talks about, but people of all races who have to sell their working hours to a boss to a making a living — is the social force that can overcome the current system and create a better world. As Marx and Engels correctly saw way back in the 1840s, the working class was on its way to becoming the majority of society. And the working class has a collective interest in extending democracy into the economic sphere.

Conservatives who don’t even like it when workers band together to win higher wages and benefits within the existing system could hardly be further from signing onto that vision. Far from wanting to redirect the hoarded wealth of the capitalist class to meet everyone’s material needs, as Joseph Scotchie notes in his introduction to A Paleoconservative Anthology, one of the policy goals of the “Old Right” is “privatizing Social Security.”

As I said, it saddens me that Lucchese and Miller have so little fear of real Marxism that they don’t bother distinguishing it from people who share most of their worldview but not their unbridled enthusiasm about free trade agreements and endless war. But, seen from a different angle, there’s something encouraging in it.

It’s good that some memory of Marx’s ideas continues to haunt the Right’s nightmares — however mangled and misunderstood their impression of those ideas might be. Going forward, though, they should be reminded of the specifics.