The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 sparked a wave of optimism and triumphalism across the West. Our nuclear-armed rival and ideological enemy had suddenly disappeared, taking with it the shadow of nuclear apocalypse. But for the Left, since 1917 the Soviet Union had been the locus of the hopes and dreams of leftist collectivism. Now history, understood as an ideological game of thrones, had ended, dashing that hope. Liberal democracy, private property, and free-market capitalism had prevailed, and no credible alternative remained.
This optimism was expressed by George H.W. Bush in 1991, when he celebrated this “new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind––peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.” Yet the demise of the USSR did not mean the end of various Marxist ideals like collectivism and the “command economy,” which haven’t just survived, but in recent decades have grown stronger under progressivist rule.
How is it that an ideology so graphically repudiated by history and so bloody in its application, has managed to endure, especially in the West, which has provided the greatest and most widespread prosperity, political equality, and freedom in human history?
The survival of the Left has nothing to do with the intellectual coherence or truth of its ideas. Leftism is predicated on dubious, if not wildly absurd, assumptions and ideas about human nature and motivation: secularism, philosophical materialism, determinism, and the technocratic fallacy that “science” can discover and exploit the timeless forces and laws of human progress and social improvement. The latter claim in particular has been repudiated by Marxism’s ghastly toll of 100 million dead, and millions more enslaved in gulags and forced-labor camps like the ones we see today in Communist China’s Xinjiang western region, where more than a million Muslim Uighurs are being subjected to forced labor and brutal “re-education.”
One obvious reason for Leftism’s survival in the West is its successful “long march” through our educational institutions. It started in the universities, where tenure, unions, and a lack of accountability to voters or the market ensured that bad ideas could flourish, then trickle down into K-12 schools through higher education’s monopoly on teacher-training.
Just track how widespread transgenderism, the unscientific notion that biological sex can be chosen, has become. From its beginnings in universities and the work of intellectual farceurs like Michelle Foucault, these pernicious ideas now are shaping grammar school curricula and activities, government regulations, and corporate C-Suites and boardrooms, including the U.S. military.
As transgenderism also shows, this form of Leftism has evolved away from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, or the ruthless, dangerous work of making a revolution or organizing on the factory floor. The failure of the Marxist libretto to achieve the predicted eventual triumph of collective ownership of the means of production, and the “withering away of the state,” has made Cultural Marxism much more comfortable and profitable.
This sort of Marxism also has other attractions more suited for the affluent cognitive elites. The decline of faith in a justifying, transcendent narrative does not mean that the need for such assurance and solace disappears. Communism has long been defined as a “political religion,” one based on faith rather than reason and empirical evidence, on many points corresponding to Christianity.
Historian Michael Burleigh has catalogued the similarities between Marxism and the Judeo-Christian heritage:
““consciousness” (soul), “comrades” (faithful), “capitalists (sinner), “devil” (counter-revolutionary), “proletariat” (chosen people), “classless society” (paradise). The ruling classes were going to face a “Last Judgement” . . . . But there were far deeper unacknowledged correspondences, including nostalgia for a lost oneness and the beliefs that time was linear . . . , that the achievement of higher consciousness brought salvation, and that history was progressing with its meaning and purpose evident to the discerning knowledgeable vanguard.”
Moreover, these correspondences fit as well the master narrative of the modern West, particularly the idea that knowledge of the material world is sufficient for understanding and improving the human world, and this progress is inevitable, if only the ignorant and superstitious who “cling to their guns and religion” could be converted––and the anachronistic Constitution be replaced with a technocracy of cognitive elites.
The gratification Marxism provides from knowing one is part of that elite is another reason Marxism or progressivism, Marxism Lite, has maintained its hold on our culture. In other words, pure snobbery, the sense that one is better than everybody else. By espousing, usually in word rather than deed, the “liberation” of the “oppressed victims of capitalism,” the Marxiste snob can show off his superiority to the vulgar entrepreneurs, manufacturers of low-brow products, and commercial hucksters who generate all the wealth, while also stiring bitter resentment in many “brights,” especially academics who chronically whine that they’re underpaid and unjustly ignored.
The Leftist confection of “false consciousness” also conveniently allows the snob to champion the masses afflicted by this malady at the same time he sneers at “smelly Wal-Mart shoppers.” The snob thinks he’s superior because he knows what’s really politically true, just as he knows which films or novels or restaurants or music or fashion is superior. Leftist ideas, then, are like designer labels, emblems of class superiority. Only the vulgar rich and bourgeois parvenus vote Republican.
Another modification of Leftism is its therapeutic thrust: its sentimental privileging of the suffering masses and victims of American global depredations; and its smug displays of “conspicuous compassion,” as Allan Bloom called it. Hence the therapeutic Leftist opposes free-market capitalism because it creates winners and losers and so hurts people’s feelings, not to mention besmirching the environment. He feels bad about all the unjust suffering in the world, but he practices what Charles Dickens called “telescopic philanthropy,” the conspicuous display of sensitivity to suffering, but from a safe distance.
Endorsing Marxist or progressive illusions about the perfectibility of human life, the sentimentalist chafes at tragic limits and human corruption, seeing these as distortions of a fundamentally good and cooperative human nature. And Marxiste politics is the political program that will sweep away the economic and political impediments to this authentic human nature, one warped by traditional superstitions like free will and responsibility for one’s bad choices––which are in fact determined by an unjust political order.
Finally, “woke” identity politics, a species of parochial particularism––which, like nationalism, real Marxists would have contemptuously dismissed––has added being Left to the “woke” suite of identity markers. Hence the popularity of socialism among the young, who endorse it as a hip token of identity like being trans or gay. Indeed, as Robert Spencer reported,
“Eric Kaufmann, a Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology research fellow, says that this expansion correlates with the students’ identification with the Left: ‘The trend toward LGBT identification among young people, which has seen a threefold expansion since 2008, encompasses both university and non-university young people, white as well as minority. That said, those who identify as ‘very liberal’ are substantially more likely to say they are LGBT and white left-wing activists are extremely likely to do so, with some 70% of very liberal women who support shouting down offensive speakers identifying as LGBT.’”
Being a leftist, like being gay, is now a brand in the intersectionality of identity fashion.
In short, human weakness and frailty––its susceptibility to “black-market” religions, as Chantal del Sol defines political religions; its thirst for status and superiority, and its indulgence of showy feelings that signal one’s superior virtue and compassion––have kept Leftism alive despite its manifold bloody failures, and has helped it to persist by making it immune to empirical evidence and rational argument.
Unfortunately, the rest of us are paying for this reliance on bloody nonsense to secure status, a sense of superiority, and, of course, the acquisition of a fat income, social power, and political leverage. We will likely soon see that the cost is too high.