Oh, Good, It’s 2016 and We’re Arguing About Whether Marxism Works

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Long Live Stalin, Great Architect of Communism
Joseph Stalin, hero of the working class.Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Every Marxist government in history has been a repressive nightmare. Marxists — aside from the ones who defend the remaining Marxist regimes — consider this a strange coincidence that has no bearing on Marxist ideology. I recently pointed this out, in light of the resurgence of Marxist thought among some left-wing intellectual circles. In an essay in In These Times, Tyler Zimmer writes what he purports to be a response, but that in fact confirms my point for me.

The problem with Marxism, I argue, lies in its class-based model of economic rights. Liberalism believes in political rights for everybody, regardless of the content of their ideas. Marxists believe political rights belong only to those arguing on behalf of the oppressed — i.e., people who agree with Marxists.

Zimmer begins by insisting that self-described Marxist regimes such as the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Cuba, North Korea, etc., all of whose leaders were immersed in Marxist thought, were not real Marxists at all. (Zimmer: “[T]hese authoritarian monstrosities had virtually nothing to do with [what] Marx himself said or did.”)

Zimmer proceeds to explain why the liberal idea that everybody should enjoy the same right to express their political idea is a failure, and lays out the Marxist concept of what free speech should really mean:

Marxists value free speech because they are committed to building a society where all can decide matters of public concern democratically, as genuine equals. Thus, the Marxist has a consistent way of explaining why speech that aims to dominate or marginalize others should be challenged rather than protected: it is contrary to the very values animating our commitment to free speech in the first place.

This explains why, to quote Jelani Cobb, “the freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.” It also provides a principled, consistent basis for opposing and disrupting the public acts of openly racist organizations that seek to subordinate, harm, scapegoat or marginalize others. 

[T]he (socialist) goal of cooperating and governing public life together as full equals gives us a principled criterion for deciding which forms of expression deserve protection and which don’t.

Zimmer is articulating the standard left-wing critique of political liberalism, and all illiberal left-wing ideologies, Marxist and otherwise, follow the same basic structure. These critiques reject the liberal notion of free speech as a positive good enjoyed by all citizens. They categorize political ideas as being made on behalf of either the oppressor class or the oppressed class. (Traditional Marxism defines these classes in economic terms; more modern variants replace or add race and gender identities.) From that premise, they proceed to their conclusion that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it.

It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag. The gap between Marxist political theory and the observed behavior of Marxist regimes is tissue-thin. Their theory of free speech gives license to any party identifying itself as the authentic representative of the oppressed to shut down all opposition (which, by definition, opposes the rights of the oppressed). When Marxists reserve for themselves the right to decide “which forms of expression deserve protection and which don’t,” the result of the deliberation is perfectly obvious.

In the contemporary United States, these ideas are confined by the fact that only in certain communities (like college campuses) does the illiberal left have the power to implement its vision, and even there it is constrained by the U.S. Constitution. If illiberal ideas were to gain more power, the scale of their abuses would widen.