The current, modern socialism that is a hybrid between economic socialism and identity politics. The roots of this identity socialism can be traced to one man: Herbert Marcuse. Socialism in America today has turned black against white, female against male, homosexual and transsexual against heterosexual, and illegals against legal immigrants and American citizens. The typical socialist today is not a union guy who wants higher wages; it is a transsexual eco-feminist who marches in Antifa and Black Lives Matter rallies and throws cement blocks at her political opponents.
In this coronavirus crisis, we’ve gotten a nasty preview on a temporary basis of what socialism would feel like on a permanent basis: empty shelves, shortages and limits on basic commodities, and a wholesale assault on our civil liberties, including invasions of privacy through government surveillance, and restrictions on freedom of assembly and religious freedom.
A review of this laundry list of proposals, however, makes it clear we are dealing with a new type of socialism. Here are a few examples: regular monthly payments to illegals, diversity commissions to review corporate governance, money to fund Green New Deal proposals, studies to determine the impact of coronavirus on racial minorities, taxpayer funding for abortion.
This is identity politics; what does it have to do with socialism? The Democratic primary this year featured all the candidates highlighting their diversity credentials and competing for victimhood in the identity Olympics: Buttigieg scored a point for being gay and Cory Booker one for being black. But they were outscored by Kamala Harris who got two points for being black and a woman. Elizabeth Warren got one for being a woman although she attempted to go for two by falsely claiming to be native American. Ironically the two final contenders were both white men, and the prize in the end went to Biden, the oldest and one might almost say deadest white male in the race.
A recent meeting of Democratic Socialists of America featured people calling themselves ecosocialists, Afro-socialists, Islamosocialists, Chicano socialist, sanctuary socialists, #MeToo socialists, queer socialists and transgender socialists. Consider, too, the new vocabulary that leading Democrats now use. Here’s a tweet by Elizabeth Warren: “Black trans and cis women, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people are the backbone of our democracy.”
The new socialism is identity socialism, a marriage between classic socialism and identity politics. This new type of socialism has transformed the Left and the Democratic Party. This is clearly no longer the party of Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, FDR would not know what Warren was talking about. Who are these people and how could they be the “backbone” of our democracy? They are, however, the backbone of the socialist Left.
Typical of the new type of socialist is Stacey Abrams, who said her campaign for governor of Georgia “championed reforms to eliminate police shootings of African Americans, protect the LBGTQ community, expand Medicaid to save rural hospitals and reaffirm that undocumented immigrants deserve legal protections.” Only one of these four planks — the one about saving rural hospitals — would be even remotely recognizable to FDR as part of the progressive agenda.
Not just the Democratic Party or the Left, socialism itself has become redefined. For Marx, socialism was exclusively about class division. The world is divided into two camps: the capitalists and the working class. The former are the exploiters; the latter, the exploited. For Marx, other divisions based on race, gender, ethnicity and nationality were merely clever devices on the part of the capitalist class to divide and conquer the working class.
Yet socialism in America today emphasizes not one social division but several, not merely the division based on class but also the divisions based on race, gender, sexual orientation and even immigrant status. For the socialist Left now, it’s not merely the rich against the poor, but also white against black, male against female, straight against gay and transgender, and legal against illegal.
The new term is “intersectionality.” What this means is that one belonging to one victim group is impressive but belonging to multiple victim groups places you at the top of the new social totem pole. Conversely, it’s bad to be white, but it’s worse to be white and male, and worst of all is to be white, male and heterosexual. The new socialism is not merely about inclusion of previously victimized groups; it is also about demonizing people belonging to designated oppressor groups as racists, bigots and Nazis.
What’s the goal of identity socialism? Ultimately it’s about trying to get people to define themselves in terms of their race, gender and sex organs. These various forms of division are intended to create large, resentful victim groups. The Left hopes to bring together enough of these victim groups to form a popular majority. In this way, they can then rule unobstructed over the rest of the population.
This doesn’t merely involve confiscating people’s money but also forcing them to conform to the social norms of the Left on pain of being ostracized, shut down or even locked up. The conservative watchdog group Project Veritas even recorded Bernie staffers talking about putting Republicans and conservatives into gulags and reeducation camps. As one of them, Kyle Jurek, addressed them, “We’re going to have to teach you not to be a f*ck*ng Nazi.”
The problem with identity socialism is that we are more than the sum of these identities. We are humans, and we are also Americans. We are neither pure victims nor victimizers; on the contrary, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. If we want to bring the country together, if we still believe in one America, we should reject the politics of division and resentment that defines identity socialism.
Marcuse’s Marxist Conundrum
To understand identity socialism, we must go back several decades and meet the man who figured out how to bring its various strands together, Herbert Marcuse. A German philosopher partly of Jewish descent, Marcuse studied under the philosopher Heidegger before escaping Germany prior to the Nazi ascent. After stints at Columbia, Harvard and Brandeis, Marcuse moved to California, where he joined the University of San Diego and became the guru of the New Left in the sixties.
Marcuse influenced a whole generation of young radicals, from Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers to Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman to Tom Hayden, president of the activist group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Angela Davis, who later joined the Black Panthers and also ran for vice president on the Communist Party ticket, was a student of Marcuse and also one of his protéegeés. It was Marcuse, Davis said, who “taught me that it is possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar and a revolutionary.”
Marcuse egged on the activists of the 1960s to seize buildings and overthrow the hierarchy of the university, as a kind of first step to fomenting socialist revolution in America. Interestingly, it was Ronald Reagan—then governor of California—who got Marcuse fired. Still, Marcuse retained his celebrity and influence over the radicals of the time. He did not, of course, create the forces of identity socialism but he saw, perhaps earlier than anyone else, how they could form the basis for a new and viable socialism in America. That’s the socialism we are dealing with now.
To understand the problem Marcuse confronted, we have to go back to Marx. Marx saw himself as the prophet, not the instigator, of the advent of socialism. We think of Marx as some sort of activist, seeking to organize a workers’ revolution, but Marx emphasized from the outset that the socialist revolution would come inevitably; nothing had to be done to cause it. The Marxist view is nicely summed up by one of Marx’s German followers, Karl Kautsky, who wrote, “Our task is not to organize the revolution but to organize ourselves for the revolution; it is not to make the revolution, but to take advantage of it.”
But what happens when the working class is too secure and contented to revolt? Marx didn’t anticipate this; in fact, the absence of a single worker revolt of the kind Marx predicted, anywhere in the world, is a full and decisive refutation of “scientific” Marxism. In the early 20twentieth century, Marxists across the world—from Lenin to Mussolini—were fully aware of this problem. Fascism or national socialism represented one way to respond to it; Leninism represented another.
I’ll focus on Lenin, because his was the approach that influenced Marcuse and the New Left in the 1960s. Basically Lenin argued that the working class was never going to revolt; they might join trade unions, but that was about it. In Lenin’s diagnosis, workers could develop “trade union consciousness” but not “revolutionary consciousness.” So then what? In his famous work What Is To Be Done? Lenin insisted that the socialist revolution would not be done by the working class; it would have to be done for them.
In other words, a professional class of activists and fighters would be required to serve as a revolutionary vanguard. Lenin assembled a varied group of landless farmers, professional soldiers, activist intellectuals and attorneys, and criminals to collaborate with him in overthrowing the czar and introducing Bolshevik socialism to Russia. Although Lenin presented his approach as continuous with Marxism, it represented, as socialists around the world recognized, a radical break with and revision of Marxism.
Around the same time, in the early 1920s, the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci made his own revision of socialist theory by introducing the concept of culture. “Hegemony” was Gramsci’s key concept. He insisted that the capitalists did not rule society solely on the basis of economic power. Rather, they ruled through “bourgeois values” that permeated the cultural, educational, and psychological realm of society. Economics, Gramsci insisted, is a subset of culture. Economics is shaped by culture no less than culture is shaped by the economic basis of society.
For Gramsci, socialist revolution under current conditions was impossible because the working class had internalized bourgeois values. The ordinary worker had no intention of toppling his employers; his aspiration was to become like them. Gramsci’s solution was for socialist activists to figure out a way to break this hegemony, and to establish a hegemony of their own. To do this they would have to take over the universities, the art world, and the culture more generally. In this way they could combat bourgeois culture “from within.”
Lenin and Gramsci provided Marcuse’s starting point. He agreed with both of them that the working class had become a conservative, counterrevolutionary force. But his greatest early influence was a third man, Heidegger. Marcuse read Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time and it inspired him so much he apprenticed himself to Heidegger, becoming first his student and then his faculty assistant at the University of Freiburg. Marcuse found in Heidegger a way to ground socialism in something more profound than better salaries and working conditions, in something that transcended Marx’s materialism itself.
The basic idea of Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time is that we are finite beings, “thrown,” as Heidegger puts it, into the world, with no knowledge of where we came from, what we are here for, or where we are going. We live in a present, yet we are constantly aware of multiple future possibilities, in which we must choose even though we can only know in retrospect whether we chose wisely and well. This radical uncertainty about our situation, Heidegger argued, produces in us anxiety—anxiety that is heightened by our knowledge of death. “Being,” in other words, is bracketed by “time.” Humans are perishable beings that for the time being are.
Yet how should we “be”? That, for Heidegger, was the big question. Not “what is it good to do?” but “how is it good to be?” Typically, we have no answer to this question; we are barely even aware of it as a question. We go through life like a twig in a current, steered by a tide of sociability and conformity. Thus we lose ourselves; we cease to be “authentic.” Authenticity, for Heidegger, means coming to terms with our mortality and living the only life we get on our own terms. We cannot rely on God to show us the way; we are alone in the world, and have to find a way for ourselves. Frank Sinatra’s song, “I did it my way,” expresses a distinct Heideggerian consciousness.
Marcuse eventually broke with Heidegger when he heard that Heidegger had both joined the Nazi Party and become an apologist for Hitler. Marcuse seems to have had no objection to Heideggers’—or Hitler’s—national socialism, although being partly Jewish, he was naturally less enthusiastic about the accompanying anti-Semitism. Even so, Marcuse continued to draw from Heidegger’s philosophy to illuminate the political problems he was dealing with.
Essentially his problem was the same as the one Lenin faced: if the working class isn’t up for socialism, where to find a new proletariat to bring it about? Marcuse knew that modern industrialized countries like America couldn’t assemble the types of landless peasants and professional soldiers—the flotsam and jetsam of a backward feudal society—that Lenin relied on. So who could serve in the substitute proletariat that would be needed to agitate for socialism in America?
Marcuse looked around to identify which groups had a natural antipathy to capitalism. Marcuse knew he could count on the bohemian artists and intellectuals who had long considered hated industrial civilization, in part because they considered themselves superior to businessmen and shopkeepers. In Germany, this group distinguished “culture”—by which they meant art—from “civilization”—by which they meant industry—and they were decidedly on the side of culture. In fact, they used art and culture to rail against bourgeois capitalism.
These were the roots of bohemianism and the avant garde. “Bohemia,” wrote Henry Murger, “leads either to the Academy, the Hospital or the Morgue.” Elizabeth Wilson in her book Bohemians concurs. “Bohemia offered a refuge to psychological casualties too disturbed to undertake formal employment or conform to the rules of conventional society. It was a sanctuary for individuals who were so eccentric or suffered from such personal difficulties or outright psychological disorder that they could hardly have existeding outside a psychiatric institution other than in Bohemia.”
These self-styled “outcasts” were natural recruits for what Marcuse termed the Great Refusal—the visceral repudiation of free market society. The problem, however, was that these bohemians were confined to small sectors of Western society: the Schwabing section of Munich, the Left Bank of Paris, Greenwich Village in New York, and a handful of university campuses. By themselves, they were scarcely enough to hold a demonstration, let alone make a revolution.
A New Proletariat
So Marcuse had to search further. He had to think of a way to take bohemian culture mainstream, to normalize the outcasts and to turn normal people into outcasts. He started with an unlikely group of proles: the young people of the 1960s. Here, finally, was a group that could make up a mass movement.
Yet what a group! Fortunately, Marx wasn’t around to see it; he would have burst out laughing. Abbie Hoffman? Jerry Rubin? Mario Savio? Joan Baez? Bob Dylan? How could people of this sorry stripe, these slack, spoiled products of postwar prosperity, these parodies of humanity, these horny slothful loafers completely divorced from real-world problems, and neurotically focused on themselves, their drugs and sex lives and mind-numbing music, serve as the shock troops of revolution?
Marcuse’s insight was Heideggerian: by teaching them a new way to be “authentic.” By “raising their consciousness.” The students were already somewhat alienated from the larger society. They lived in these socialist communes called universities. They took for granted their amenities. Ungrateful slugs that they were, they despised rather than cherished their parents for the sacrifices made on their behalf. They sought “something more,” a form of self-fulfillment that went beyond material fulfillment.
Here, Marcuse recognized, was the very raw material out of which socialism is made in a rich, successful society. Perhaps there was a way to instruct them in oppression, to convert their spiritual anomie into political discontent. Marcuse was confident that an activist group of professors could raise the consciousness of a whole generation of students so that they could feel subjectively oppressed even if there were no objective forces oppressing them. Then they would become activists to fight not someone else’s oppression, but their own.
Of course it would take some work to make selfish, navel-gazing students into socially conscious activists. But to Marcuse’s incredible good fortune, the sixties was the decade of the Vietnam War. Students were facing the prospect of being drafted. Thus they had selfish reasons to oppose the war. Yet this selfishness could be harnessed by teaching the students that they weren’t draft-dodging cowards; rather, they were noble resisters who were part of a global struggle for social justice. In this way bad conscience could itself be recruited on behalf of left-wing activism.
Marcuse portrayed Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong as a kind of Third World proletariat, fighting to free itself from American hegemony. This represented a transposition of Marxist categories. The new working class were the Vietnamese “freedom fighters.” The evil capitalists were American soldiers serving on behalf of the American government. Marcuse’s genius was to tell leftist students in the 1960s that the Vietnamese “freedom fighters” could not succeed without them.
“Only the internal weakening of the superpower,” Marcuse wrote in An Essay on Liberation, “can finally stop the financing and equipping of suppression in the backward countries.” In his vision, the students were the “freedom fighters” within the belly of the capitalist beast. Together the revolutionaries at home and abroad would collaborate in the Great Refusal. They would jointly end the war and redeem both Vietnam and America. And what would this redemption look like? In Marcuse’s words, “Collective ownership, collective control and planning of the means of production and distribution.” In other words, classical socialism.
Okay, so now we got the young people. Who else? Marcuse looked around America for more prospective proles, and he found, in addition to the students, three groups ripe for the taking. The first was the Black Power movement, which was adjunct to the civil rights movement. The beauty of this group, from Marcuse’s point of view, wais that it would not have to be instructed in the art of grievance; blacks had grievances that dated back centuries.
Consequently, here was a group that could be mobilized against the status quo, and if the status quo could be identified with capitalism, here was a group that should be open to socialism. Through a kind of Marxist transposition, “blacks” would become the working class, “whites” the capitalist class. Race, in this analysis, takes the place of class. This is how we get Afro-socialism, and from here it is a short step to Latino socialism and every other type of ethnic socialism.
Another emerging source of disgruntlement was the feminists. Marcuse recognized that with effective consciousness- raising they too could be taught to see themselves as an oppressed proletariat. This of course would require another Marxist transposition: “women” would now be viewed as the working class and “men” the capitalist class; the class category would now be shifted to gender.
“The movement becomes radical,” Marcuse wrote, “to the degree to which it aims, not only at equality within the job and value structure of the established society…but rather at a change in the structure itself.” Marcuse’s target wasn’t just the patriarchy; it was the monogamous family. In Gramscian terms, Marcuse viewed the heterosexual family itself as an expression of bourgeois culture, so in his view the abolition of the family would help hasten the advent of socialism.
Marcuse didn’t write specifically about homosexuals or transgenders, but he was more than aware of exotic and outlandish forms of sexual behavior, and the logic of identity socialism can easily be extended to all these groups. Once again we need some creative Marxist transposition. Gays and transgenders become the newest proletariat, and heterosexuals—even black and female heterosexuals—become their oppressors.
We see here the roots of “intersectionality.” As the Left now holds, one form of oppression is good but two is better and three or more is best. The true exemplar of identity socialism is a black or brown male transitioning to be a woman with a Third World background who is trying illegally to get into this country because his—oops, her—own country has allegedly been wiped off the map by climate change.
These latest developments go beyond Marcuse. He didn’t know about intersectionality, but he did recognize the emerging environmental movement as an opportunity to restrict and regulate capitalism. The goal, he emphasized, was “to drive ecology to the point where it is no longer containable within the capitalist framework,” although he recognized that this “means first extending the drive within the capitalist framework.”
Marcuse also inverted Freud to advocate the liberation of eros. Freud had argued that primitive man is single-mindedly devoted to “the pleasure principle,” but as civilization advances, the pleasure principle must be subordinated to what Freud termed “the reality principle.” In other words, civilization is the product of the subordination of instinct to reason. Repression, Freud argued, is the necessary price we must pay for civilization.
Marcuse argued that at some point, however, civilization reaches a point where humans can go the other way. They can release the very natural instincts that have been suppressed for so long and subordinate the reality principle to the pleasure principle. This would involve a release of what Marcuse termed “polymorphous sexuality” and the “reactivation of all erotogenic zones.”
We are a short distance here from the whole range of bizarre contemporary preoccupations: unisexuality—people falling in love with themselves—group sexuality, pansexuality—people who do not confine their sexuality to their species—and people who attempt to have sex with trees.
Marcuse recognized that mobilizing all these groups—the students, the environmentalists, the blacks, the feminists, the gays—would take time and require a great deal of consciousness- raising or reeducation. He saw the university as the ideal venue for carrying out this project, which is why he devoted his own life to teaching and training a generation of socialist and left-wing activists. Over time, Marcuse believed, the university could produce a new type of culture, and that culture would then metastasize into the larger society to infect the media, the movies, even the lifestyle of the titans of the capitalist class itself.
Marcuse, in other words, foresaw an America in which bourgeois culture would be replaced by avant garde culture. He foresaw a society in which billionaires would support socialist schemes that took away a part of their wealth in exchange for social recognition conferred by cultural institutions dominated by the socialists. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg are three owlish geeks who were probably ridiculed in junior high school; they don’t seem to mind paying higher taxes if they can now hobnob with comedians, rock stars and Hollywood celebrities. Why only be rich when you can also be rich and cool?
Marcuse’s project—the takeover of the American university, to make it a tool of socialist indoctrination—did not succeed in his lifetime. In fact, as mentioned above, he got the boot when Governor Reagan pressured the regents of the university system not to renew Marcuse’s contract. In time, however, Marcuse succeeded as the activist generation of the 1960s gradually took over the elite universities. Today socialist indoctrination is the norm on the American campus, and Marcuse’s dream has been realized.
Marcuse is also the philosopher of Antifa. He argued, in a famous essay called “Repressive Tolerance,” that tolerance is not a norm or right that should be extended to all people. Yes, tolerance is good, but not when it comes to people who are intolerant. It is perfectly fine to be intolerant against them, to the point of disrupting them, shutting down their events, and even preventing them from speaking.
Marcuse didn’t use the term “hater,” but he invented the argument that it is legitimate to be hateful against haters. For Marcuse there were no limits to what could be done to discredit and ruin such people; he wanted the Left to defeat them “by any means necessary.” Marcuse even approved of certain forms of domestic terrorism, such as the Weather Underground bombing the Pentagon, on the grounds that the perpetrators were attempting to stop the greater violence that U.S. forces inflict on people in Vietnam and other countries.
Our world is quite different now from what it was in the 1960s, and yet there is so much that seems eerily familiar. When it comes to identitfy socialism, we are still living with Marcuse’s legacy.