Conservatives Think “Marxism” Is Anything That Scares Them

One of the leading lights of national conservatism, Yoram Hazony, devotes a chapter of his new book to the “Marxist challenge.” But like so many other conservatives, he seems to think Marxism means “anything conservatives find frightening.”

Karl Marx monument in Moscow, Russia, in Teatralnaya Square, built in 1961. (Patrick Donovan / Getty Images)

Earlier this month, best-selling author Jordan Peterson declared that “climate justice” is “the new guise of murderous Marxism.” The same day, Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis appeared at a town hall event sponsored by WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshire. A voter asked DeSantis, who often rails against all things “woke,” to define his favorite term. DeSantis replied that “woke is a form of cultural Marxism.” Speaking of Manchester, a few days after the DeSantis event a member of New Hampshire’s legislature accused the city’s mayor, Joyce Craig, of promoting “Marxist indoctrination” in the public schools.

“Marxism” seems to be taking up a lot of space in the heads of contemporary conservatives. But, as they use the term, what does it mean?

All too often, it’s a catch-all term for every left-coded trend they find frightening.

Hazony and the Challenge of “Marxism”

Yoram Hazony is a conservative thinker vastly smarter DeSantis, Peterson, or Mike Belcher — the New Hampshire lawmaker who accused the mayor of Manchester of promoting “Marxist indoctrination.” Hazony is the intellectual leading light of the NatCon (national conservative) movement that’s become increasingly influential within the contemporary right. If you see him at a NatCon conference, he might be rubbing shoulders with Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán. I know from experience, though, that Hazony is fully capable of having an informed conversation about the philosophy of David Hume.

Last year, he put out a major book laying out his worldview, titled Conservatism: A Rediscovery. When I read Hazony’s writing, I don’t expect to agree with him on much of anything. What did surprise and disappoint me, though, was that Hazony includes an entire chapter entitled “The Challenge of Marxism” — and that his understanding of Marxism is fully as superficial as that of his fellow conservatives.

Hazony makes mind-bending assertions like:

By the summer of 2020, even as American cities succumbed to rioting, arson, and looting, the liberal custodians of many of the country’s leading institutions adopted a policy of accommodating their Marxist employees by giving in to some of their demands: dismissing liberal employees at the New York Times, removing President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the halls of Princeton University, and so forth. But what initially looked like a temporary policy of appeasement has since become a rout. Control of many of the most important news media, universities and schools, major corporations and philanthropic organizations, and even the government bureaucracy, the military, and some churches has passed into the hands of Marxist activists.

What does Marxism mean here? What could it mean that’s consistent with the idea that “major corporations” are in Marxist hands? One would think any “Marxist activist” would want those corporations to be either nationalized or turned over to some form of worker-ownership. Why haven’t the Marxist activists controlling them taken steps in this direction since the summer of 2020?

If Marxist activists have taken over “most important news media,” shouldn’t such media be agitating for expropriating the means of production? If they’ve taken over the universities, shouldn’t economics departments long filled with mainstream, pro-capitalist economists now be populated by, well, Marxist economists? (Perhaps Hazony gives the Marxist activists credit for respecting the bourgeois economists’ academic freedom.) If they’ve taken over the military, how is it that America’s posture of imperial military dominance hasn’t been impacted by the shift?

Marx’s “General Framework”

A clue comes when Hazony concedes that the “new Marxists” don’t use “the technical jargon that was devised by the nineteenth-century Communist Party.” This makes it sound like an organization with that name existed in the nineteenth century, which is wrong — although Marx, like other writers of his era, sometimes used the word “party” to talk about general currents of thought. We can put aside this relatively minor mistake, though, and look at the jargon Hazony has in mind.

He says the “new Marxists” don’t use terms like “bourgeoise, proletariat, class struggle, alienation of labor, commodity fetishism, and the rest” but instead “have developed their own jargon tailored to present circumstances in America, Britain and elsewhere.” But this is a dodge.

It’s one thing to avoid outdated jargon and quite another to disagree with the substantive ideas the jargon was meant to express. A twenty-first-century Marxist may prefer to talk about “the working class” rather than “the proletariat,” for example, on the grounds that it’s likely to be more familiar to her audience, but part of what makes her a Marxist is that she believes that everyone who has no way of making a living except by selling their working hours to a boss is bound together by common interests.

To make his claims about “Marxist activists” being in control of major corporations, the US military, and so on, Hazony needs to use the M-word far more broadly. He claims that various kinds of social justice activists are Marxists, because however much they might disagree with Marx on “details,” they accept the four major elements of a “Marxist framework,” which he calls:

  • Oppressor and Oppressed

Hazony writes that Marx argued “that, as an empirical matter, people invariably form themselves into cohesive groups (he called them classes), which exploit one another to the extent that they are able.” Pretty clearly, in Hazony’s hands, it doesn’t matter much if the “cohesive groups” are actual classes or if they’re races, genders, or pretty much anything else.

  • False Consciousness

Hazony is scrupulous enough to recognize that Marx never actually used this phrase. Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels coined it, not in a theoretical work but in a letter to friend, and some later Marxists ran with the concept. As such, it’s more than a little odd to call it a defining element of Marx’s framework — so much so that even those who disagree with the central claims Marx spent his life arguing for are Marxists if they adopt it. In any case, though, Hazony defines belief in “false consciousness” simply as the belief that many people within any given society sincerely understand how that society works in ways that “obscure the systematic oppression taking place.”

  • Revolutionary Reconstitution of Society

This is simply the idea that the oppressed “cohesive group[s]” will take over society to end their oppression, and…

  • Total Disappearance of Class Antagonisms

…is the prediction that this will result in a society no longer divided into such groups.

Tellingly, the word “production” appears nowhere in this entire description of Marx’s framework, even though no aspect of Marxist thought is recognizable without it. Marx of course meant something far more specific by “classes” than “cohesive groups.” Nor is Marx’s notion of “exploitation” anything recognizable in Hazony’s talk of “cohesive groups” trying to “exploit one another to the extent that they are able.”

If Marxism were nothing more than the view that whatever society any given “Marxist” found himself in was divided into groups where some of these groups treated others in an unjust way, then “Marxism” rather dramatically predated the birth of Karl Marx.

When Spartacus led a slave revolt in ancient Rome, were he and his followers Marxists? How about the peasants who periodically rose up in revolt against feudal lords in medieval Europe? Perhaps the peasants didn’t count because they were only looking for immediate improvements and mostly had no concept of a “revolutionary reconstitution of society,” but what about the French revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille in 1789? The abolitionists who railed against the evils of slavery in the American South long before Marx discovered politics? Was Mary Wollstonecraft, whose feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published a few years after the storming of the Bastille but over a quarter-century before Marx’s birth, a Marxist?

Even specifically socialist complaints about the injustices of capitalist society predated Marx. There was a thriving European socialist movement before Marxism became one of the contending factions within it. Marx’s contributions were far more specific.

What we now call Marxism is, first and foremost, a theory of history — of the different stages of historical development, of how the capitalist stage we’re now at works, and of how we can transcend capitalism and achieve socialism. Marx postulated that the legal and political institutions of every society are downstream of its “relations of production.” These are the relations between some class of “immediate producers,” who actually make the products and services that make society run, and the ruling class of any given society — for example, the relationship between slaves and slave-owners, between medieval peasants and lords, or between modern-day wage laborers and business owners.

When Marx says capitalist labor relations are marked by “exploitation” he doesn’t just mean unfairness or one group having a comparative advantage. He means that some of the hours worked by proletarians are ones in which they create the equivalent of what they get back in their wages while others are hours in which they work for the benefit of their employers — and that this extraction of “surplus labor” is essentially involuntary, since working-class people have no realistic way of making a living other than to sell their working hours to capitalists. These relations of production are in turn downstream from the level of development of the forces of production — i.e., the capacity that a society has to produce things to meet people’s needs.

It’s very difficult to imagine a human society that wouldn’t in any sense be divided into groups that might sometimes experience conflicts. When Marx used the term class, he meant classes as defined by their relationship to the means of production — e.g., factories, farms, or even restaurants where people produce food in order to make a profit. The belief that we can have a society without classes in this sense isn’t the belief in some impossible conflict-free utopia, but simply the belief that, now that we’re at a stage of history where the forces of production have developed enough to allow for generally shared abundance, we can achieve a better society by replacing individual with collective ownership of the means of production.

Some fraction of the social justice activists who so annoy Hazony might actually accept some of these Marxist ideas. That fraction, though, is in control of precisely zero “major corporations.”

The grain of truth in Hazony’s overheated description is that there really are people in positions of power in important institutions who talk a lot about various social justice concerns. Far from being Marxists, though, most of them are at worst soulless technocrats happy to read from any script they think is good for their institution’s PR, and at best radical liberals whose vision is not of a classless society but of a society in which the top slots in the class hierarchy are apportioned in a demographically fair way between different races, genders, sexual orientations, gender identities, and so on. They don’t want those “major corporations” to be nationalized and put under workers control, for example — they want more black and female CEOs.

Where Marx’s overwhelming emphasis was on changing material conditions on the ground, with changes in collective consciousness tending to come in the wake of these more basic changes, the activists who annoy Hazony are primarily focused on changing the subjective ideas in people’s heads while the material circumstances stay about the same. Any description of Marx’s framework that conflates these rival ideologies is going to confuse far more than it clarifies.

Like proponents of every other philosophy, Marxists can learn and ultimately benefit from the most intellectually rigorous critiques of our ideas. We should welcome that process. As such, I wish an enemy as smart as Hazony weren’t satisfied to do battle with straw men.