In August of 2020, Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony published an essay on the website Quillete, entitled “The Challenge of Marxism”. Setting aside the fact that the major challenge of Marxism is the inherent stupidity and vice of human beings, and their infernal urge to systematize it, Mr. Hazony set out to explain how Marxism has largely taken over once great liberal institutions and excommunicated not only conservatism, but now, increasingly, the very liberalism which welcomed them. I have the feeling that his “once great” is a little less distant than my own. Nevertheless, the primary insight of Hazony’s essay is brilliant, and I quote it at length:
“But legitimacy is one of those traditional political concepts that Marxist criticism is now on the verge of destroying. From the Marxist point of view, our inherited concept of legitimacy is nothing more than an instrument the ruling classes use to perpetuate injustice and oppression. The word legitimacy takes on its true meaning only with reference to the oppressed classes or groups that the Marxist sees as the sole legitimate rulers of the nation. In other words, Marxist political theory confers legitimacy on only one political party—the party of the oppressed, whose aim is the revolutionary reconstitution of society. And this means that the Marxist political framework cannot co-exist with democratic government. Indeed, the entire purpose of democratic government, with its plurality of legitimate parties, is to avoid the violent reconstitution of society that Marxist political theory regards as the only reasonable aim of politics.” [italics added]
Mr. Hazony concludes that Marxism is incompatible with a two-party state, and therefore incompatible with democracy. I think he is correct, but along the way to the insight, he says, or suggests, some things I squirm at, and wish to mention not so much as a critique of the essay, but as a stimulation of my own thoughts on these important topics.
As regards politics per se, Mr. Hazony writes this: “Marx is right to see that every society consists of cohesive classes or groups, and that political life everywhere is primarily about the power relations among different groups.” Insofar as this is a comment on contemporary America (and other western democracies today), he is correct. Insofar as it is a comment on most of modern political history (and probably pre-modern political history) he is also correct.
This would seem to leave little for me to take issue with, but I mention it because politics, as a way of organizing a community, depends on certain preconditions. One of those preconditions is a common culture. The less two groups have in common culturally, the more it will seem that politics is simply a jostling for power over others. If two groups of people (or three, or any number of groups you want) have a common culture, then politics becomes a different sort of enterprise, not one of navigating power, but one of guiding the community to ends which tend to preserve the culture, the symbols, the traditions, the rituals, and the values of what is held in common. It may be that within modern nation-states, culture has never been common in the sense I describe here. It may be that modern politics has always been about navigating power dynamics.
This is useful in understanding the current political divide, which isn’t a political divide at all but a cultural divide. If you see yourself as part of a common culture, culture which is shared across political divides, there are several reasonable positions to hold on almost any issue; immigration for instance. But should you start believing in open borders and the idea that anyone has the right to come to, say, America without any restrictions, you have stopped believing in common culture and started believing in multi-culturalism.
Multi-culturalism is the enshrinement of cultural division as the ultimate standard of the success of tolerance. Multi-culturalism is also a fiction; it can be entertained for some time, but not indefinitely. Eventually you get Modern America, where different groups with different cultures are vying to take control of political organs in order to safeguard what inevitably rises out of those different cultures: fundamentally different values, beliefs, principles, etc. The very fact that a country’s political system has evolved into a navigation of power dynamics is a good indication of the presence of multi-culturalism (that is: various groups with various cultures).
Culture, in another sense, means community and how a community understands itself, defines and limits itself, and experiences itself. It is, so to speak, the collective self-consciousness of a group of people. Another function of common culture is to, if I may so put it, provide shared, fundamental premises. To continue the image, if culture lays premises (or better yet, axioms), politics draws conclusions. If Hubert Harry shares the same premise and accepts the same axioms as Harry Hubert, they may reach different conclusions, but they oughtn’t to reach conclusions which are incomprehensible to one another. This is what I meant when I wrote earlier, ‘there are several reasonable positions to hold on most issues.’
When, however, Hubert Harry comes to the conclusion that a man can become a woman simply by incanting the phrase “I am a woman”, and further concludes that Harry Hubert is a bigot and therefore worthy of censure and social ostracization for reaching a different conclusion, it is very unlikely that they both started from the same premises and abided by the same fundamental axioms. It is important to bear this in mind: the destruction of symbols, the delegitimization of Western thought, the obliterating of Western canons, necessarily preceded the political divisiveness we are now witnessing.
And while we’re on the topic of canons and traditions, premises and conclusions, Mr. Hazony has this to say about Liberal Enlightenment reason, again quoting at length:
Enlightenment liberalism is a rationalist system built on the premise that human beings are, by nature, free and equal. It is further asserted that this truth is “self-evident,” meaning that all of us can recognize it through the exercise of reason alone, without reference to the particular national or religious traditions of our time and place . . . If all men are free and equal, how can you justify preventing a man who feels he is a woman from competing in a women’s track and field competition in a public school?
By reason alone, it can be said that since all are free and equal, a man who feels he is a woman should be equally free to compete in a women’s track and field competition. Any argument to the contrary will have to depend on traditional concepts of such as man, woman, women’s rights, athletic competition, competition class, fairness, and so on, none of which is accessible to reason alone.
Mr. Hazony makes the point that reason alone, unconditioned by tradition, cannot establish a satisfying understanding or practice of liberty and equality. He is right. He seems to chase his own tail though when he writes that “By reason alone, it can be said. . . .a man who feels he is a woman should be equally free to compete in a women’s track and field competition.” This is good, new-fashioned nonsense. Reason alone cannot establish this; Mr. Hazony is using an understanding of freedom that reduces to ‘being able to do whatever you want.’ That is not an understanding constructed by reason alone, but by a particular tradition of thought on the matter of freedom and equality which is relatively new, and almost entirely postmodern.
“Reason alone” means nothing, insofar as the phrase is used to denote ‘reason’ as abstracted away from an embodied human being, with feelings, sensations, and a particular life experience. Reason can transcend, but human reason cannot transcend the human being. Reason is always situated within a particular body, and that body is always situated within a particular life-experience, and that life-experience is always situated within a particular community (or lack thereof). The Founding Fathers, excepting maybe Jefferson, were not Enlightenment liberals; they were deeply read into and profound contributors to a particular tradition: the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman-English-Common-Law tradition. Although the phrase “self-evident” is a beautiful one, Mr. Hazony is perhaps right that self-evident is not really—well, self-evident.
Moreover, Mr. Hazony makes the point that both Liberalism and Marxism reject inherited tradition: [Marxists are] a revolutionary group. . . combining critical reasoning with a willingness to jettison all inherited constraints to overthrow these traditions. . . Indeed, liberals frequently disparage tradition, telling their children and students that all they need is to reason freely and “draw your own conclusions.”
In both cases, Mr. Hazony is right to criticize liberalism and declare war on Marxism. They are, in many ways, both the enemies of a free people. Next time you hear the liberal press, or your liberal professor, or your liberal friend, defending a Marxist doctrine, say to yourself: that is the sound of inevitability. That is the sound of our death. Goodbye, Miss America.
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