A strange figure appears repeatedly over decades of testimony for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC): the “Marxism expert.” One might expect such an expert to explain concepts of Marxist theory to the Congressional committee, even to demonstrate how they inspired alleged communist organizing. But that wasn’t their role.
Many of these “experts” said freely that they could not read Marx, that his works are incomprehensible. It might even be a bit deviant to admit anyone could understand such a radical theorist. The expert’s role, rather, was to identify communists by their vocabulary and political concerns: “progressive,” or “democracy,” or “racial chauvinism,” all code words that must be unmasked. They were there to point out witches, not discuss the finer points of witchcraft.
Many have pointed out Fox News host Mark Levin’s bestselling American Marxism has likewise, at best, a shaky grasp on his topic. Calling it a work of “staggering ignorance,” Zachary Petrizzo notes that Levin refers to the European Marxists grouped under the heading the “Frankfurt School” as the “Franklin School” on multiple occasions, even on live television. Levin also locates the origins of these masterminds of the American left in Berlin — not, as their name might suggest if he knew it, Frankfurt. There are other embarrassing errors, such as twice referring to the central Marxist concept of “historical materialism” as “material historicism.”
These errors go on and on. Yet pointing out that American Marxism gets its history wrong is like reminding a Nazi that a swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol. Like the anti-communism of red scares past, Levin’s goal is not to explain Marxism, but rather to frighten readers that Marxism is the diabolical force behind otherwise laudable goals such as ending racism or preventing climate catastrophe.
“In America,” Levin writes, “many Marxists cloak themselves in phrases like ‘progressives,’ ‘Democratic Socialists,’ ‘social activists,’ ‘community activists,’ etc…. They operate under myriad newly minted organizational or identifying nomenclatures, such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM), ‘Antifa,’ ‘The Squad,’ etc.” For Levin, these movements have not arisen from rising economic inequality or revulsion at racism, but are rather the product of sinister theories hatched by European Marxist intellectuals. They do not seek to solve problems, but rather are movements bent on “weakening the nation from within; and ultimately, destroying what we know as American republicanism.” Subversion, not survival, are the goals of social movements.
As a Marxist myself, I would love to take credit for one of the largest mass uprisings in American history and assume leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take orders from my Capital reading group. But Levin’s assertion that Marxism forms the backbone of anti-racist organizing, black freedom struggles, or Bernie Sanders–style populism has little to do with any qualities of Marxism itself. Levin nowhere describes how the ideas of Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse came to inform the worldview of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar who coined the term “intersectionality,” or Derrick Bell, one of the founders of critical race theory (CRT), or how French post-Marxists like François Schneider came to inform either the Green New Deal or Hugo Chávez.
For Levin, research, even evidence of the barest kind, is not the point. Rather he asserts that Herbert Marcuse spawned critical race theory because Marcuse “was urging the violent overthrow of American society” that “perpetuates oppression against the minority.” Yet once this wordplay conflates Marxism with liberalism, the Frankfurt School with Al Franken, Levin is free to say anything: Marxism has “been embraced and promoted by the Biden administration, the Democratic Party, the media, and institutions throughout our society and culture.” It’s the Communist Manifesto all the way from the White House down to the school house.
Levin is uninterested in a history of organizations in any normal sense, nor a history of ideas in any normal sense. He is pursuing a history of evil thoughts, in which a revolutionary in one moment might infect a revolutionary in another with their virus. In presenting ideas in this way, Levin has much in common with J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoid vision of communism, “akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic,” as he testified before Congress in 1947. For Hoover, like for Levin, those who are not explicit Marxists are more dangerous, as they may infect without even knowing they are spreading this sickness.
A conspiracy so monstrous one cannot believe it exists, as Hoover said of the Communist Party. AOC, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, the Green New Deal are all unwitting agents of this conspiracy, the Typhoid Marys of Marxism: they spread the virus more effectively than a sicko Marxist professor like me precisely because, from Levin’s worldview, they appear healthy.
Much like the “Marxism expert” of the Cold War Red Scare, we should think of Levin’s Marxism as a functional rather than historical term. The term “Marxism” allows Levin to take movements that are responses to the lived realities of capitalism, racism, and sexism, and suggest they are foreign, outside of the body politic. Their purpose is not to secure freedom, but to spread disease. Ignorance is not a liability for Levin — it is a method.
There is something particularly American in not wanting to understand the people you set out to destroy. Unlike Edward Said’s portrait of the British Orientalist who takes pride in mastering the cultures they set out to conquer, Americans have always taken a Calvinist attitude to the other, imagining them as demonic rather than simply inferior. For the early Puritan, the forest was a site of Satanic evil; for the anti-communist, Marxism was a kind of witchcraft, to be burned — or perhaps electrocuted — rather than incorporated or co-opted. For Levin, it doesn’t matter that he is not aware of the difference between critical race theory and Western Marxism; it is a mark of his virtue, proof that he is untainted by its disease.
The Enemy Within and Without
As I trudged through Levin’s prose, I was not shocked to discover he draws inspiration from an original, conspiratorial source: the Jewish communist. There is of course a longer, perhaps inseparable, history of anti-communism and antisemitism. In Paul Hanebrink’s study A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, he charts how Nazi Germany framed the Soviet Union not as a communist country in competition with an alternate mode of production, but a racially inferior Slavic nation ruled by clever, despotic Jews.
Communism, for Nazis, was a racial term, inseparable from the identity of those who practice it. The antisemitism of both the first and second American red scares traded in similar logic, with Jews accounting for both a lion’s share of the leftist deportees from the 1919 Palmer Raids, and in some years under McCarthyism, as many as two-thirds of the defendants called before HUAC. The anguished efforts of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to prove themselves patriotic Americans who loved baseball, Tom Paine, and jazz showcased exactly how un-American their persecutors who accused them of espionage for the Soviet Union imagined them to be.
In recent years, anti-communist and antisemitic conspiracy theories have been given a reboot. Holocaust denier William Lind helped circulate the term “cultural Marxism” to refer, as Levin does, to a conspiracy theory that Jewish Marxists fleeing Nazi Germany developed anti-racist and feminist theory as a means to undermine the United States. Radical Jewish intellectuals such as Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, even émigré noir filmmakers such as Billy Wilder, fashioned everything from feminism to femme fatales as a way to weaken the white American patriarch. In such a fallen state, so the theory went, the proles can finally take over.
While Marcuse may be the Jewish enemy within, Levin couples social movement actors with external threats from without, such as migrants or Chinese communists as the means by which an already weakened nation may be assaulted at its borders. “CRT’s goals are reminiscent of Communist China’s social credit system,” he writes, connecting anti-racist theorizing to the imagined totalitarian Chinese surveillance apparatus to the “cancel culture” white conservatives experience online. And most dangerous of all, the Marxists intend to “overwhelm and collapse the system” with migrants who will “change the nation’s politics, demographics, and citizenry” so that “balkanization and tribalization are certain to destroy any country.”
If that sounds vaguely familiar, it should: Robert Bowers famously blamed Jews for undocumented immigration shortly before his massacre in the Tree of Life synagogue, in much the same way Donald Trump Jr singled out Jewish financier George Soros for funding migrants to enter the United States. When we saw caravans of hungry refugees, they saw an invading army financed by Jewish subversives.
It should be noted that Levin himself is Jewish. I wish I could say that is surprising. In recent decades, the Jewish, ultranationalist far right has openly traded in antisemitic discourse, much like their gentile cousins. Yair Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyhu’s son, evoked Soros conspiracies and images of the “Jewish merchant” to defame liberal Israeli opposition. The far-right French Jewish writer and political commentator Éric Zemmour praised the Vichy government’s Philippe Pétain, known to have collaborated with the Nazis to deport Jews to death camps. And recently, the right-wing Jewish publication Tablet Magazine editorialized that left-wing anti-Zionist “un-Jews” were a threat to the Israeli state, even the continuance of the Jewish people, in language that starkly resembled far-right discourse about Jewish communists.
This brand of antisemitism is not about the 6 million Jews who live in the United States, any more than Islamophobic images of turbaned terrorists are about Islam in any substantive sense. It is a discourse of racialized, conspiratorial power, in which the “Jewish Marxist” is not imagined as a member of their synagogue board, but rather a demonic figure on the haunted fringes of society.
Lest one finds a Jew using such language confusing, one should remember there is a long history of right-wing Jewish Zionists, from Theodor Herzl to the present, describing Jews in the diaspora as weak, sickly, neurotic, and responsible for their own demise during the Holocaust. Some prominent Jewish leaders during the Red Scare were quite willing to ascribe sinister motives to Jewish communists — even to support the execution of the Rosenbergs. While it is impossible to know how Levin understands his own Jewishness, it doesn’t really matter. Far more important is how he identifies with oppressive systems of capitalism, militarism, and racism.
In that way, his obsessions are all of a piece: there is nothing surprising in his list of enemies, other than how total they are. He is against trans rights, as transgender people disrupt the institution of the nuclear family and its gender binary. He devotes an entire chapter to the Green New Deal with what he asserts are encroachment on property rights that would be fatal to both capitalism as well as the “animal spirits” of capitalism. In that sense, he is a true reactionary: any attempt at reform, however minimal, is by definition an insurrection, as it disrupts the sacred rights of property, patriarchy, and the nation-state. His is not the mind of a Tory but the paranoid vigilance of a totalitarian.
America is a paradise to Levin, “the most diverse, beneficent, tolerant, successful, and free nation ever established by mankind.” Anyone who says otherwise is a “disgruntled” adherent to a foreign ideology, who is “jealous” of those who can be successful in such a meritocratic system. As Priscilla Wald reminds us about fears of contagion, they imagine a healthy body politic into which a toxin is entered: activism can be imagined as a disease precisely because Levin imagines America as a perfect body, almost eugenic in its construction. Any deviance is not just a political difference in a democracy, but an infection in need of eradication.
For a New Red Scare
Levin concludes with a modest proposal: a wholesale sweep of “Marxists” from every layer of American society.
Educators, administrators, and elected office holders — all need to be removed from their posts. Universities and schools should be defunded, as “there is no good reason why taxpayers should pay Marxists to teach generations of students to hate their country.” Vigilance committees should be elected on local schools to ensure that any teacher guilty of teaching critical race theory be fired.
He calls for increased criminal penalties for “rioters” and “domestic terrorists” such as “antifa” and “BLM.” He calls for charges to brought against such organizations under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, and for the IRS to be used to financially bankrupt them. Levin wants a twenty-first-century Red Scare.
It’s important to remember that Levin is not just a kook in a bunker in the woods somewhere. He is firmly in the center of the Republican Party, having served in the Ronald Reagan administration before directing the Landmark Legal Foundation, a right-wing advocacy law firm that received funding from the Koch Brothers, Richard Scaife, and ExxonMobile.
He now has his own show on Fox News and has written more than one right-wing best seller. We would do well to understand Levin’s call to demonize and then remove all political opposition from public life as a call for fascism — perhaps even more far-reaching than the original red scare, as at least nominal membership in the Communist Party was then required.
Of course, one has to ask why such a sloppy, badly written, and wildly improbable book such American Marxism has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. While the Left has nowhere near its strength in the 1940s during a wave of strikes after World War II, the rise of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the insurrections after the murder of George Floyd have, for the first time in decades, issued real challenges to the comfortable assumptions by the rich and powerful that everything can continue just the way it is.
If Levin had actually read Marcuse, he might know he is in a long tradition. As Marcuse writes in Counterrevolution and Revolt, the United States has long practiced “preventative counterrevolution,” singling out radicals, intellectuals, people of color, and the otherwise marginal for selective punishment, in those moments of upsurge when they attempt to fulfill democratic impulses that the nation was supposedly founded on.
The first Ku Klux Klan, the violent crackdown on the Industrial Workers of the World, the Red Scares after both World War I and II, COINTELPRO, and mass incarceration have all been preventative counterrevolutions, terrorizing just enough people so that the vast majority, for a time, fall back into line.
The United States has always simultaneously presented itself as a liberal democratic state while banning communists and socialists, restricting labor rights, surveilling and disrupting left organizing, assassinating revolutionaries of color — violence one would only expect under fascist or authoritarian rule. Levin writes that “American Marxists” are a “counterrevolution” against the American Revolution in his first sentence.
In a sense he is correct: insofar as the American Revolution was, in part, a defense of slavery and an expression of Manifest Destiny, such radical movements as Black Lives Matter and DSA are revolutions against such forms of American authoritarianism. They are not connected in the conspiratorial way Levin describes; rather, both are social-democratic impulses for freedom and justice that grow and learn from each other in a country that promises everything and provides little but prisons and debt.
Levin’s proposed counterrevolution occurs amid a global pandemic that the United States lacks the will to control and a crisis of global warming the elites have decided is too expensive to confront. Much in the same way the second Red Scare targeted communists, and then dismantled some of the more radical elements of the New Deal, so too does Levin’s proposed Red Scare target Marxists as a means to assure no meaningful ecological, democratic, or economic reform can take place.
While Levin’s prescriptions at the conclusion of his book are ostensibly nonviolent — insofar as costing people their jobs and invoking anti-terrorism laws are nonviolent — his rhetoric hints at something more sinister.
“We have allowed the American Marxists to define who we are as a people,” Levin rails at his conclusion. “They defame us, slander our ancestors and history, and trash our founding documents and principles . . . they live off the sweat and toil of others, while they pursue a destructive and diabolical course for our nation, undermining and sabotaging virtually every institution in our society.” For such parasites in the past, he reminds us that “one generation after another has been willing to sacrifice everything, and so many have paid the ultimate price, in defense of this magnificent country and its founding principles from foreign enemies.”
Levin repeatedly brings up the many thousands of Americans who died and killed to protect the nation from Communism. In his final chapter, he lists all of the Americans who died “fighting the spread of communism,” from the tens of thousands in Vietnam and Korea, to even the thousands in the “war on terror” (who knew Al Qaeda read Marcuse?). These “noble warriors” who “fought and died” contrast the parasites who live off of the sweat and toil of others mentioned above. One gets the sense while reading that should democratic means fail, more extrajudicial methods might be on the table — and no loss of life would be too great for Levin.
There is, though, a real tradition of “American Marxism,” not just the make-believe version cooked up by Levin. That tradition can be found in the labor-syndicalism of IWW songwriters such as Joe Hill and in the radical democratic speechmaking of Eugene Debs.
It is in “Solidarity Forever,” which combines a lesson on the alienation of labor under capitalism with the anti-slavery hymn “John Brown’s Body.” It is in the theorization of race, slavery, and capitalism in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, and Richard Wright; it is in the working-class feminism of Tillie Olsen and Emma Tenayuca; it is in the radical theorizing of race and class in the speeches of Fred Hampton and the analysis of American empire in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) pamphlets by David Gilbert.
American Marxism understands itself as the product of radically uneven development, a despotic slavocracy combined with the most advanced industrial and cultural production; a violent and often united bourgeoisie on questions of empire, and a vibrant democratic culture of the grassroots.
But none of that finds its way into the book. The book is not about history, but about creating a template for a right-wing coup.
As bad as this book is, it’s also a reminder that calls for mass antidemocratic action that could easily turn violent do not need to be elegant. Mark Levin’s American Marxism is a call for the wholesale purging of intellectuals and left activists from civic life, undergirded by a structure and often-evoked history of patriotic violence. It is being read by thousands who may hear his call as more than an invitation to run for one’s local school board to support another round of cuts to one’s public university, or assault a leftist protester in the streets. Levin is not a serious intellectual, but his call to eliminate the American left is deadly serious.