Marxist Kitsch and the Politics of Race
By David Horowitz (from the book Hating Whitey: And Other Progressive Causes)
The Communist Manifesto is probably the only Marxist text that the millions of activists who responded to his message actually read. Inspired by its vision of a social redemption, Marxists went on to kill a hundred million people in the 20th Century and create the most oppressive tyrannies ever known. It is almost a decade since the empire that Marxism built collapsed in ruins, but it is already evident that the lessons of this tragedy have not been learned. The progressive left and its political faith have survived even the catastrophe of their socialist dreams.
Of course few people outside the universities today think of themselves as Marxists, or will publicly admit to socialist aspirations. But behind protective labels like “populist” and “progressive,” the old left is resurrected among us and with its destructive agendas fully intact. This makes the ideas of the Manifest, discredited as they are, worth attending to again.
In fact, three destructive ideas advanced in Marx’s tract form the core of the contemporary leftist faith. The first and most important is that the modern, secular, democratic world is ruled by alien powers. According to Marx, the democratic revolutions of the 18th Century did not establish true democracies. Even though the citizens of industrial nations had dethroned their hereditary rulers and vested sovereignty in themselves, this did not mean they were free. Though liberated from serfdom, workers were now “wage-slaves,” captives to Capital, the alien power alleged by Marx to rule the modern world in a fashion analogous to the aristocracies and oligarchies of the past. Behind the façade of political democracy, governments are controlled by “ruling classes,” the owners of Capital who just as effectively keep the citizenry in chains.
The second idea of the Manifesto flows naturally from this analysis: Politics is war conducted by other means. It is this attitude that inspires the viciousness of left-wing politics, the desire to destroy the opposition entirely, to eliminate adversaries from the field of battle. It is also the perspective that creates the reckless disregard radicals have for institutions and traditions, for what has been created by the generations that went before. In order to create true freedom, the civil orders and binding faiths of democratic systems must be subverted and then destroyed. Treachery and lies are justifiable means to achieve such fiercely desired ends.
The third Marxist idea is the hope that inspires the destruction itself. The extinction of the existing order can lead without much forethought or preparation to a liberated future -- a break with the entire history of humanity’s enthrallment to these alien forces. It is a mystical creed: the very state which is to be destroyed as the instrument of class oppression, in the very act of destruction will be transformed into a means of human liberation. Animating the leftist faith is the idea that the left itself is the redeeming power, the social messiah through whom a world of social justice will be born.
Today the alien power thought by the left to control our destinies is only rarely described as a “ruling class,” although it is still perceived as that. Refuted by the history of Communist empires, the left has turned to new vocabularies and concepts to rescue it from its defeats. Today the ruling class is identified as the “patriarchy” or the “white male oligarchy,” or in disembodied form as the force of “institutional racism” or “white supremacy.” The result is a kitsch marxism that follows the basic Marxist scheme but results in true intellectual incoherence. Marx’s idea of a classless society may make a certain sense in theory even if it is unworkable in practice, whereas the idea of a race-less society or a gender-free society makes no sense at all.
The leftist agenda can be clearly seen in the heart of present conflicts over race, which pose a fundamental challenge to America’s multi-ethnic social order. Thus, the proclaimed goal of affirmative action advocates is to “level the playing field.” It is defined this way to highlight the left’s claim that traditional civil rights solutions have failed to achieve “real” equality, by which is meant equality of results. Traditional civil rights solutions were focused on the fairness of the institutional process, the elimination of legal barriers to political power and individual opportunity. For Martin Luther King and the traditional civil rights movement, leveling the playing field simply meant extending to black southerners, the constitutional protections accorded to all Americans. It meant making all citizens, regardless of color, equal before the law. Leveling the playing field meant creating neutral rules that did not encompass color or ethnicity but made both irrelevant to the contests of civic and economic life. This was the idea of a “color-neutral” society. It was not that color would be unseen or denied, but that color would not affect individual outcomes, certainly not through the agency of the state. By these standards, the playing field became level once government ceased to play racial favorites, a goal achieved through the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.
But though the civil rights battles of the Sixties eliminated racial barriers, the results did not become equal. In the left’s perspective, this could only be explained by a hidden racism. According to the left, procedural fairness merely masked an institutional bias that effectively preserves the status quo. Just as traditional Marxists deride “bourgeois” democracy as a political sham to preserve the power of a ruling class, so the civil rights left dismisses equality of opportunity as a sham to preserve the superior position of a dominant race. In the old model, an institutionalized class system subverts the democratic form of free elections to preserve a hierarchy of social power. It doesn’t matter that the political process is formally democratic, because the economic class system creates institutionalized inequality. (Of course, this Marxist idea is refuted by the fluidity of the American class structure. Currently, seventy-percent of American millionaires are first generation; in short, they earned their fortunes. Individual opportunity does exist, and thus individual freedom to succeed or fail.) The contemporary left and its liberal allies merely transpose this analysis (fatuously it must be said) to the issue of race.
According to the civil rights left, it is the force of “institutional racism” that makes equal opportunity a myth. Educational admissions tests, so it is argued, are culturally rigged to appear neutral, while actually favoring applicants of the dominant color. But this claim is easily refuted. Asian immigrants, who struggle with both a foreign language and an alien culture, consistently score in the highest ranges of standardized tests, surpassing whites and gaining admission to the best schools available. Affirmative action measures in education, are in fact often designed by the left to limit opportunities for Asian minorities, while favoring low-scoring Hispanics and blacks.
The Asian case shows that the leftist idea is impervious to factual evidence, and that when the left demands a level playing field, it is not really interested in neutral rules and equitable standards. Instead, the racial left wants to redistribute social goods according to its own plan and its own standards of “justice,” which exclude persecuted minorities like Asians, Armenians and Jews. The left is not interested in an equal process, and only rhetorically in an equal result. What interests the left is accumulating power, which it justifies as power to arbitrate what is socially “just.”
This power is necessarily a totalitarian power in the sense that to realize its agenda the left must invade and dominate the sphere of private life. Consider what it would mean to take the left’s demand for equal results in racial competitions at face value. It is true, for example, that 40% of America’s black children are poor. This condition obviously puts them at a disadvantage in any educational competition, just as the left contends. The left argues that to make up for this handicap, it is necessary to rig educational standards. But 85% of those poor black children come from single parent homes. It is that circumstance – and not any alien power like “institutional racism” – that actually handicaps them and leaves them unequal. This is the reality the left does not want to face.
A child born into a single parent family is six times more likely to be poor, regardless of race, than a child born into a family with two parents. By the time such children are ready to compete they may suffer from dysfunctional behaviors, or have developed disabling habits or have internalized cultural attitudes hostile to academic achievement, or simply lack the supportive environment that a middle class home provides. Excessive drop-out rates among affirmative action students are the statistical indicators that these handicaps are real. No rigging of standards can make up for deficiencies like this.
In the face of such realities, what can leveling-the-playing-field mean? Making up for the mistakes of the biological parents? Forcing them to get married? Compelling them to be responsible to their children? Requiring them to teach their offspring to study hard and not be self-abusive? Should the state become a Big Brother for those who fall behind, taking over their lives and curtailing their freedoms?
The level playing field that would produce an equality of results is, in fact, a socialist utopia and thus a totalitarian state. To achieve it would require a government both omniscient and wise, a state that would massively intrude into individual lives. Such a state would mandate comprehensive transfers of opportunity and wealth, and would have to conduct a relentless crusade against defenders of liberty and the rule of law. The call to level the playing field, pushed to its logical conclusion, is a call for the systematic subversion of American individualism and democracy. It is the kitsch marxism of our time.
In the aftermath of the Communist collapse, the totalitarian danger is so remote that the normal tendency would be to discount it. But to do so would be to ignore the immediate threat inherent in the assault. It is very possible to destroy the foundations of social trust without establishing a social alternative, and it is the nihilistic ambitions of the radical assault that now present the most serious social threat. The underlying the idea of racial preferences, for example, is a corrosive premise that the white majority is fundamentally racist and cannot be fair. For those who embrace the idea, the institutions, traditions and rules that white majorities have established merit no respect. The premise of affirmative action preferences is an assault on the very system of economic and legal neutrality that underpins our pluralistic democracy. By denigrating the rule of law as merely a mask for injustice and oppression, the left destroys faith in the very system that makes democracy possible.
In supporting racial preferences, the left appeals directly to the state to abandon its “color-blindness” and compel the white majority to open doors that would otherwise remain closed. It claims that minorities are “excluded” and “locked out” because statistics show disparities between minority representation in certain jobs, or at certain educational institutions, and their representation in the population at large. But discrimination against minorities is already outlawed, and there are no identifiable racists to blame for the alleged “exclusion” of some minorities, or some elements of minority communities from jobs or university admissions. The left’s insinuation is that those minority elements who have fallen behind are locked out by invisible powers. “Institutional racism” is responsible.
But “institutional racism” is a radical myth. It is merely the discredited Marxist idea that an alien power separates the citizens of democratic societies into rulers and ruled, the dominant race and the races that are oppressed. No one seriously contends, for example, that the admissions officers of America’s elite colleges are racists. In fact, admissions officers are usually desperate to locate as many eligible minority applicants as they can, while offering large financial rewards to those they find. The University of California – one of the few institutions that has been compelled to eliminate its racial preferences -- is still spending $160 million, annually, on outreach programs designed to increase its minority enrolments. Since this is the case, it is hard not to conclude that any deficiency in minority admissions is the result of individual failures to meet universal standards.
Is America a country ruled by racist powers, as leftists claim? Are African Americans oppressed? If so, what would explain the desire of so many black Haitians to come to American shores? Why were so many Haitians ready, a few years ago before their immigration was blocked, to risk life and limb to make the illegal passage across shark-infested waters? Was it their desire to be oppressed? Were they longing to be dominated by a master race? In fact, it is obvious why the Haitians wanted to come. It is because those who do come have more rights, more opportunity, more cultural privilege and more social power in America than they had in their native Haiti, which has been independent and run by black governments for more than two hundred years. Indeed, as a result of America’s pluralistic democracy, Haitian-Americans are freer and more privileged in America than they would be in any black-run country in the world. The simple truth that the rhetoric of bad faith is designed to obscure is that blacks are not oppressed in America, nor is anyone else. Yet kitsch marxism prompts powerful voices in our culture to talk as though they were.
The very presumption of the civil rights left that racial preferences are necessary because America is ruled by a racist majority is both logically contradictory and empirically false. In its hour of victory in the 1960s, the civil rights movement was supported by the vast majority of the American people, including federal law enforcement and the American military, and by ninety-percent pluralities in both congressional parties. Since those victories, public opinion surveys have shown a dramatic increase in the goodwill of whites generally towards the African-American minority, and an equally precipitous decline in attitudes that could reasonably be called bigoted. Large increases in the number of black officials elected by majority white constituencies, and huge income transfers authorized by a predominantly white electorate to black inner-city communities establish beyond all reasonable doubt the solid empirical ground of these reports. Indeed, there would be no affirmative action preferences at all if not for the support of white officials elected by white constituencies.
The very presumption that justifies racial preferences thus involves the left in an intellectual cul-de-sac. The white majority that allegedly cannot be fair in society at large is also a white majority in government itself. If whites must be compelled to be fair by government programs, how can they have designed and instituted those same programs? If the white majority is racist how can a government it dominates be counted on to redress racial grievances? The question is absurd because the premise is absurd. In fact it is America’s white racial majority that ended slavery, outlawed discrimination, funded massive welfare programs for inner-city blacks and created the very affirmative action policies that are allegedly necessary to force them to be fair.
Ironically, the move to subvert the state’s neutrality -- and with it the principle of “color-blindness” that lies at the heart of the rule of law – in the long run works against minorities and particularly African Americans who have been seduced into promoting it. Groups that are numerically larger are bound to benefit more from political redistribution than numerically smaller ones. Over time, as the displacement of blacks by Latinos in urban centers like Los Angeles already makes clear, the racial spoils system will transform itself into a system that truly locks blacks out.
Civil rights is just one battlefield in the real war of the left, which is the war against America itself. The big guns of this war are directed from the centers of intellect on the high ground of the university culture, where tenured radicals have created an anti-American ideology and forced it on the nation’s youth through the educational curriculum. The thrust of this curriculum was summarized in a text by a constitutional law professor at one of America’s elite universities a few years ago. It is the credo of the progressive left:
The political history of the United States…is in large measure a history of almost unthinkable brutality toward slaves, genocidal hatred of Native Americans, racist devaluation of nonwhites and nonwhite cultures, sexist devaluation of women, and a less than admirable attitude of submissiveness to the authority of unworthy leaders in all spheres of government and public life. (Robin West, Progressive Constitutionalism.)
Of course the political history of the United States is exactly the reverse. It is in large measure the history of a nation that led the world in eliminating slavery, in accommodating to peoples it had previously defeated, in elevating nonwhites to a position of dignity and respect, in promoting opportunities and rights to women, and in fostering a healthy skepticism towards unworthy leaders and towards the dangers inherent in government itself.
This is a vision that is now called “conservative,” but only because leftists currently shape the political language of liberalism and have been able to define the terms of the political debate. There is nothing “liberal” about people who deny the American narrative as a narrative of freedom, or who promote class, race and gender war in the name of social progress. But they have created a situation in which “conservative” describes those who cherish the constitutional and philosophical framework of American pluralism, and guard it against the advocates of a political bad faith.