How Modern Marxism Is Libertarian
Posted on August 29, 2017
Today Communism as a political system, if not dead, is on life support. It survives only in North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam — and the campuses of elite American universities. That last sphere is the one that concerns me, and it should concern you, and it does concern you, whether you want it to or not. It’s not a Communism identical to Leninism and Stalinism, but a development of it, and it’s more pernicious and successful than anything Lenin or Marx or Pol Pot could have imagined.
This evolved Marxism is the leading social vision of our time. Some call it neo-Marxism, a refinement and development of the vastly influential 19th century German philosopher Karl Marx. Others label it existential Marxism. Still others designate it Cultural Marxism or the New Left. I term this vision “Libertarian Marxism.” (I’ll explain why in a moment.) Call it what you want, it’s the reigning vision of the vast majority of cultural leaders in the West.
The Libertarian Marxists differ widely among themselves on many issues, but they’re generally united in embracing their all-controlling vision. There’s likely no intellectual movement in history that has endured so many revisions as Marxism. Sometimes it seems there are as many Marxisms are there are Marxists. At several key points this newer vision deviates from traditional Marxism, but this vision is sufficiently common and coherent that it’s correct to see it as an extension of Marxism, and its leaders certainly see it that way. It’s a way of thinking, living and being in the world. It was invented and championed by a number of thinkers. Leading ones included Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, and Georg Lukács. Their objective was to transform Western civilization from its Christian foundations to an elite-led, secular egalitarian utopia. They have been wildly successful.
Libertarian Marxism Defined
Here is a provisional definition of Libertarian Marxism by Sidney Hook, one of its advocates. It is
… a philosophy of human liberation. It seeks to overcome human alienation, to emancipate man from repressive social institutions, especially economic institutions that frustrate his true nature, and to bring him into harmony with himself, his fellow men, and the world around him so that he can overcome his estrangements and express his true essence through creative freedom.
This permutation of Marxism is by no means identical to Marx’s original vision, or to Leninist-Stalinist Marxism. This newer version of Marxism is much more germane to our Western world than old-time Marxism. The founders of Libertarian Marxism knew that violent political revolution would fail in Western democracies, so they rethought how the basic instincts of Marxism could be introduced into and capture those democracies. Marxism was all about seeing and making society the sum total of its material conditions: everything was reduced to economics. Libertarian Marxism is all about liberating humanity from the social institutions and conditions (like the family and church and business and traditional views and habits and authorities) that prevent the individual from realizing his true self, his true desires and aspirations, from being anything he wants to be — full autonomy. Original Marxism and Libertarian Marxism overlap, but they’re not identical. Libertarian Marxism is the Marxism of our culture, of our time.
Libertarian Marxism Distilled
Modern Marxism is Libertarian. An extended metaphor might help. Imagine thousands of tiny seeds, full of flourishing, fruitful potential, but they can never fulfill that potential because they’re submerged beneath hard, frozen, nearly impenetrable soil. Imagine further a sympathetic farmer who comes with a massive plow and cracks the soil and waters and fertilizes it so that the seeds can finally sprout upward.
The good seed, the bad soil, and the great plow
The seeds in this metaphor are humans as we enter the world. Recall the famous first line of The Social Contract by the 18th century French romantic thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Humanity is good at heart; we have massive, unrealized moral potential. But we’re chained. Returning to the original metaphor, we’re stifled by the hard, frozen soil, which won’t allow us to unleash our moral potential. That soil is our society, especially leading institutions like the family and church and business. We’re born into a family that requires us to curb our desires and sacrifice for other family members. Our family doesn’t provide the environment for realizing many of our desires and dreams. Perhaps our family is not well educated. It might not be wealthy. In any case, our families establish oppressive moral guidelines: you must obey your parents. You must attend school. You may not eat whatever you want, whenever you want. All life choices are not open to you.
And then there’s the church. It teaches that there’s a Triune, sovereign God to whom you’re responsible. He lays down his truth the Bible. The church establishes the boundaries of belief, or orthodoxy. You and I don’t get to decide. The church says premarital and extramarital sex and homosexuality are sinful. Ditto with covetousness and self-centeredness. If you have an unwanted pregnancy, you may not have an abortion. If you sin, you must confess your sin and repent and amend your ways. You must rely on Jesus Christ alone to save you. You don’t have free spiritual reign in your life.
Add to this your employer. You have to be at work on time. You work for your employer’s goals, and especially the customer’s. If your business exists to provide cheeseburgers or Chevy Impalas or legal counsel, you’re required to serve if you’re going to get paid. Your employer might hamper your dreams and ambitions. You feel stifled.
These social authorities — the family, church, business, as well as others — keep us frustrated and in check. Recall Sidney Hook’s definition. The Libertarian Marxists “emancipate man from repressive social institutions ….” This cold, hard topsoil prevents us from breaking through upward to realize our true selves. We should be free like an artist to paint beautiful pastels of our life onto the world we create. What we need is a plow to break up this hard soil and get it out of the way. In our metaphor, that plow is the state.
The oppression-liberation nexus
This is where Rousseau stepped in: he basically appealed, “Give me a state strong enough to wipe out the authority of these stultifying social institutions, and I’ll give you individual liberty — except, liberty from the state itself. I’ll give you your soil-wrecking plow.” This, in fact, essentially happened during the French Revolution. The church was gutted, the medieval guilds were destroyed, and the family was diluted. What became all-powerful was the state.
Why were so many individuals willing to make this trade? That’s simple enough. These other institutions, like the family and the church, demanded morality. The state doesn’t demand morality; it only demands subservience. Individuals were willing to give up political liberty in order to gain moral (=immoral) liberty. Or, more accurately, they were willing to enslave themselves to the state as long as they could emancipate themselves from moral standards. This has been the course of Leftism in the West. The state is the enforcer of the “oppression-liberation nexus.” Your freedom to practice homosexuality is protected; your freedom to start a degree-granting Christian college is not protected. Your freedom to abort an unborn baby is protected; your freedom to pass on all your wealth to your heirs is not protected. Your freedom to produce and disseminate pornography is protected; your freedom as a pastor to endorse a Christian political candidate is not protected. Virtually any sort of sexual “preference” is permitted, just as long as you acquiesce to the state’s power.
This is Libertarian Marxism: it uses the state to get rid of all that is impeding sinful man from venting his basest instincts. Hierarchies keep those instincts in check. They have to go. The traditional authorities must be enslaved, literally or culturally: men, especially white men; fathers; clergy; business owners. They and their hierarchical authority put a crimp on us, particularly a crimp on our sexual desires. So, the authority of family and church and business must be diluted and undermined to provide individuals with maximum autonomy. This is the goal of Libertarian Marxism.
They undermine family authority by using the giant plow of the state to enforce abortion rights, allow quick and easy no-fault divorce, legalize same-sex “marriage.” They break the authority of the church by forbidding it to exclude from the clergy or membership people who violate the church’s beliefs, or even by imposing punishing zoning regulations. They dilute business authority by enacting excessive environmental regulations and imposing burdensome requirements for employees. In Libertarian Marxism, the state longs to assault all competitors to its own ubiquitous authority.
When we hear libertarianism, we think of freedom from the state. When we hear Libertarian Marxism, we should think of freedom from everything but the state. The state exists to hamper all other authorities that keep us from realizing our true dreams and desires. This is the leading social vision of our time.
And it also explains why pure libertarianism paves the way for statism: if you oppose the state but champion liberation from the non-coercively, God-ordained regulating institutions like the family and church, you’ll eventually need the state to coercively guarantee your freedom to live any way you want as long as you don’t hurt somebody else. This is how libertarian support for no-fault divorce, same-sex-marriage, pornography, hard drug legalization, and Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” will come full circle to statism. Individual autonomy and state autonomy grow from the same liberty-crushing depraved root.
The Adversarial Intelligentsia
The Libertarian Marxists were led by thinkers. The Christian counterrevolution also needs a strong core of thinkers to combat the false, pervasive ideas of contemporary culture. Ideas have consequences, but only people communicate ideas. We Christian culturalists need what has been called an adversarial intelligentsia. We need godly, courageous adversaries with nimble minds to refute the massive ideas eroding our culture. Ideas are important to everybody reading these lines, but some of you are gifted and called to be the adversarial intelligentsia, or to support them by your prayer and finances.
But everybody, from homeschool Mom to pastor, college student to professor, dishwasher to CEO, has a critical role to play.
We must labor by the Spirit’s power and the inspired Word of God to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and . . . take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Humanly speaking, the future rests with us.
Professing and practicing Biblical Faith, in all of its glorious and gracious hierarchies, is the revolutionary alternative to Libertarian Marxism.
And in the end, it — and it alone — will win.