Last month, the conservative philosopher Yoram Hazony published an essay in Quillette on “The Challenge of Marxism.” Hazony is known for his 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, which lodged some valid critiques of liberalism, but was ultimately unconvincing in its effort to reframe nationalism as an anti-imperialist endeavor. His chosen exemplars included the United Kingdom, France, and the United States — all countries with long histories of colonialism and expansionism.
With his new essay, Hazony has jumped into the culture wars, attempting to explain and criticize the “astonishingly successful” Marxist takeover of “companies, universities and schools, major corporations and philanthropic organizations, and even the courts, the government bureaucracy, and some churches.” He concludes with a call for liberals to unite with conservatives to halt this takeover, lest the dastardly Marxists achieve their goal of conquering “liberalism itself.”
Hazony’s essay, though long and detailed, has many flaws. In the end, it’s less a compelling takedown of contemporary leftists than another illustration of why conservatives should read Marx.
The Red Menace
Hazony opens his essay with an odd claim. Contemporary Marxists, he argues, aren’t willing to wear their colors proudly, instead attempting to “disorient their opponents by referring to their beliefs with a shifting vocabulary of terms, including ‘the Left,’ ‘Progressivism,’ ‘Social Justice,’ ‘Anti-Racism,’ ‘Anti-Fascism,’ ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ‘Critical Race Theory,’ ‘Identity Politics,’ ‘Political Correctness,’ ‘Wokeness,’ and more.” Nonetheless the essence of the political left remains staunchly Marxist, building upon Marx’s framework as Hazony understands it.
For him, Marxism has four characteristics. First, it is based on an oppressor/oppressed narrative, viewing people as invariably attached to groups that exploit one another. Second, it posits a theory of “false consciousness” where the ruling class and their victims may be unaware of the exploitation occurring, since it is obscured by the “ruling ideology.” Third, Marxists demand the revolutionary reconstitution of society through the destruction of the ruling class and its ideology. And finally, once the revolution is accomplished, a classless society will emerge.
This account ignores a tremendous amount of what makes Marxism theoretically interesting, focusing instead on well-known tropes and clichés. It is startling, but telling, that Hazony never once approaches Marxism as a critique of political economy, even though Marx was kind enough to label two of his books “critiques of political economy.” By effacing this fundamental characteristic of Marxism, Hazony reduces it to a simplistic doctrine that could be mapped onto more or less anything.
If it is true that Marxism is just an oppressor/oppressed narrative with some stuff about a ruling ideology and revolution tacked on, then mostly every revolutionary movement through history has been Marxist — even before Marx lived. The American revolutionaries who criticized the ruling ideology of monarchism and waged a war for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would fit three of Hazony’s four characteristics, making them borderline proto-Marxists. About the only thing that remains of what distinguished Marx in Hazony’s account is his claim that we are moving toward a classless society, something about which the German critic wrote very little.
Marxism is a very specific modernist doctrine, inspired by the events and ideas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Marx drew on three dominant currents in European thought at the time: the German philosophical reaction to Hegel, French radicalism, and English political economy.
From Hegel, Marx took the idea that history is the story of humanity moving toward greater freedom, understood by both Hegel and Marx as the capacity for self-determination. Marx famously attempted to turn Hegel “right side up” by contending that the renowned philosopher’s emphasis on ideas was misguided: material relations, Marx argued, largely moved history forward. From French radicalism, Marx took the idea of a class conflict between workers and the bourgeoisie. He was certain that one day we would live in a classless society, where every individual could develop each side of their nature.
And from the English political economists, Marx took much of his understanding about how capitalism worked; in particular, he drew on David Ricardo to argue that the exchange value of commodities lay in the “socially necessary labor time” invested in them. This last point was important for Marx circa Capital Volume One, since it seemed to explain the mechanism of workers’ exploitation. As David Harvey has pointed out, in the later posthumous volumes things become more complicated as Marx began to theorize on the nature of “fictitious capital” in the stock and credit markets. These developments demonstrated how capitalism was able to adapt to its own contradictions, but only through quick fixes that left the fundamental tensions intact and could even sharpen them over time.
This quick summary by no means captures the breadth of Marx’s work. But it should at least suggest how much richer Marxism is than the simple antagonisms Hazony puts forward.
This tendency for crude simplification extends to Hazony’s treatment of “neo-Marxism,” which he associates with “successor movements” led by “Michel Foucault, postmodernism, and more” including the “‘Progressive or ‘Anti-Racism’ movement now advancing toward the conquest of liberalism in America and Britain.” But how or why these movements owe much, if anything, to Marxism is left extremely vague. Michel Foucault famously denigrated Marxism as outdated nineteenth-century economics and even flirted with neoliberalism. So much for class conflict as the engine of history. As for the anti-racist movements gathering steam across the world, they’re more likely to look to Martin Luther King and other totems of the black freedom struggle than Marx.
None of this is to say these movements don’t or shouldn’t draw from Marx (they should!). But reducing them to simply “updated Marxism” ignores the particularities and histories of progressive figures and movements — rather ironic given that Hazony spends a great deal of The Virtue of Nationalism arguing for the benefits of a world of particular nations, each with its own identity, history, and customs that warrant respect.
The “Flaws” with Marxism
Later in his essay, Hazony makes the novel decision to criticize liberals who believe Marxism is nothing but a “great lie.” This isn’t because he wishes to praise Marxism’s theoretical insights or political ambitions, but because he shares its progenitor’s critical appraisal of liberal individualism.
Hazony argues Marx was well aware that the liberal conception of the individual self, possessing rights and liberties secured by the state, was an ideological and legal fiction. While liberals felt that the modern state had provided full liberty for all, Hazony takes the Marxist insight to be that there will always be disparities in power between social groups, and the more powerful will always “oppress or exploit the weaker.” As he puts it:
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. He is also right that at any given time, one group (or a coalition of groups) dominates the state, and that the laws and policies of the state tend to reflect the interests and ideals of this dominant group. Moreover, Marx is right when he says that the dominant group tends to see its own preferred laws and policies as reflecting “reason” or “nature,” and works to disseminate its way of looking at things throughout society, so that various kinds of injustice and oppression tend to be obscured from view.
Hazony goes on to criticize American liberals for pushing secularization and liberalization, particularly by excluding religion from schools and permitting pornography, which amount to “quiet persecution of religious families.” Liberals tend to be “systematically blind” to the oppression they wreak against conservatives, merely assuming that their doctrines provide liberty and equality for all. Hazony thinks Marx was far savvier in recognizing that “by analyzing society in terms of power relations among classes or groups, we can bring to light important political phenomena to which Enlightenment liberal theories — theories that tend to reduce politics to the individual and his or her private liberties — are systematically blind.”
None of this means Hazony is sympathetic to the idea that workers are the victims of exploitation or anything else that smacks of left-wing critique. Later in the essay, he criticizes Marxism for having three “fatal flaws.” First, Marxists assume any form of power relation is a relationship of oppressor and oppressed, even though some are mutually beneficial. Second, they believe that social oppression must be so great that any given society will inevitably be fraught with tension, leading to its eventual overthrow. And finally, Marx and Marxists are notoriously vague about the specifics of post-oppression society, and their actual track record is a “parade of horrors.”
Of the three, only the last strikes me as at all compelling. It is true that Marx never spelled out what a postcapitalist society would look like, and this ambiguity has led to figures like Stalin invoking his theories to justify tyranny. Socialists are better-off confronting this problem than pretending it doesn’t exist, which makes us easier prey for critiques like Hazony’s.
But whatever Marx intended, we can infer from his Critique of the Gotha Program that he wanted a democratic society free of exploitation, where the means of production were owned in common and distribution was organized according to the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Whatever that might look like, it bears little resemblance to the litany of dictatorships conservatives love to point to when trashing Marxism. (Conservatives critics also skate by the central role that class struggle and Marxist-inspired parties played in building social democracies, even if those societies never transcended capitalism.)
There are big problems with pretty much every other feature of Hazony’s analysis of the flaws of Marxism and leftism. Hazony never takes on the specifically Marxist point that the relation between capital and labor is indeed oppressive and exploitative — a key point, since Marx never claimed that all types of power relations or hierarchies were illegitimate. His argument was far more specific: capitalist relations were oppressive because they were based on the systematic exploitation of labor.
Hazony might have been on firmer ground with his second criticism if he’d leaned into his critique of the teleological vision of history, which led some classical Marxists to claim capitalism was going to inevitably fall and be replaced by communism. But his contention doesn’t even rise to this level. Instead, he wants to argue that in a “conservative society,” it is possible “weaker groups [would] benefit from their position,” or at least are better-off than in a revolutionarily reconstituted polity.
And this is where things get interesting.
Marxism and Liberalism Redux
Hazony isn’t fond of liberalism. He sees American liberalism in particular as an oppressive force that has bullied religious and conservative families by advancing a pornographic, secular agenda. But Hazony is also deeply anxious that liberals will ally with progressive and “Marxist” groups — the great evil, in his mind — to further corrode conservatism.
In the most insightful part of his essay, Hazony describes the “dance of liberalism and Marxism.” Liberals and Marxists both believe in freedom and equality, and both are hostile to inherited traditions and hierarchies. Marxists and other progressives just take things a step further by arguing that real freedom and equality haven’t been achieved because of capitalism and other elements of liberal society. Under the right conditions, Hazony argues, liberals might become sympathetic to these arguments, since they often draw on the principles and rhetoric of liberalism. Liberals might even start pushing a “Marxist agenda.”
Hazony, then, isn’t criticizing Marxism in the name of defending liberalism. What he is doing trying to entice centrists to side with the political right rather than the political left. He is willing to tolerate liberals as part of an alliance to prevent the Marxist “conquest” of society.
To make this attractive to liberals, Hazony raises the stakes by suggesting the political left wants to destroy democracy and eliminate both conservatives and liberals. He argues that both conservatives and liberals are distinct in allowing — at minimum — a “two-party” system dominated by themselves. By contrast, Marxists are only willing to confer “legitimacy on . . . 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.”
Democracy, Liberalism, and Socialism
This is patently wrong. One of socialists’ ambitions since the nineteenth century has been to advance democracy in the political sphere, which is why they were central to the struggle for workers’ suffrage in Europe and elsewhere. Socialists deplore liberal capitalism for not being democratic enough. Likewise, the other progressive groups denigrated in Hazony’s essay are hardly foes of democracy: anti-racist movements have been agitating against voter suppression.
It is also telling that Hazony’s essay ignores the antidemocratic efforts of contemporary conservative strongmen, from Viktor Orbán’s dismantling of democracy in Hungary to Trump’s flirtations with canceling the 2020 election. Probably a savvy move given that none of this supports Hazony’s contention that liberal democrats have nothing to fear from aligning with the political right.
Interestingly, Hazony’s essay skirts near a deep insight, before rushing away, perhaps for tactical reasons. The insight: both liberalism and Marxism — properly understood — are eminently modernist doctrines. Both emerged within a few centuries of each other and are committed to the principles of respecting moral equality by securing freedom for all.
The march of liberalism and socialism have razed traditionalist orders and hierarchies that insisted on naturalizing inequities of power. These traditionalist orders were neither natural nor particularly beneficent, subordinating women, LGBT individuals, religious and ethnic minorities, and so on for millennia.
Liberalism often failed to live up to its principles, which is partly why the political left emerged and remains so necessary. Liberals often engaged in just the kind of tactical alliances with conservative traditionalists Hazony calls for in order to maintain unjustifiable hierarchies. But this alliance is always fraught, since a liberal who doesn’t believe in freedom and equality for all is no liberal.
The same is true of those of us on the political left, except we believe that these ideals cannot be achieved within the bounds of the liberal state and ideology. More radical reforms are needed to complete the historical process of emancipation from necessity and exploitation, though what reforms and how radical are matters of substantial debate. (My own preference is for what the philosopher John Rawls would call “liberal socialism.”)
All this brings us squarely back to Karl Marx, who was very aware of these dynamics. With Engels, he applauded liberal capitalism for both its productive capacity and, for the first time, enshrining formal equality for all. It had achieved this precisely by upending the old traditionalist order, profaning all that was sacred, and forcing humanity to face up to its real conditions for the first time.
But liberalism remained just one stage in the movement of history, and like all before it would eventually give way to a new form of society. Whether this is inevitable, as Marx sometimes seemed to imply, there are indeed many limitations to liberal democracy as it exists today. Liberals sincerely committed to freedom and equality should recognize that and ask if they are better-off allied to a political right committed to turning back the clock — or striding into the future with progressives and socialists who share many of their fundamentally modernist convictions.