You say you want a revolution

A new book examines the history and present impact of the Marxist ‘Revolution.’

Karl Marx didn’t preach revolution, he foretold it. He didn’t need to evangelize since “the economic law of motion of modern society” guaranteed it. Economic crises of increasing frequency and amplitude would impoverish the proletariat ever more until “this [capitalist] integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated,” and the communist millennium come.  

Marx outlined this by 1848 but as the decades rolled by without it happening, his disciples — the Marxists — had to reconsider. Over the decades, they made a series of “revisions” to Marx’s theory, which often bore so little resemblance to his original doctrine that they should be called “reinventions.”  

Marx dismissed trade unions, arguing they were unnecessary since the revolution was inevitable; indeed, they might anesthetize the proletariat with material progress. Eduard Bernstein undertook the first significant revision, arguing that, while they awaited the revolution, the proletariat — of whom Marx had no first-hand knowledge whatsoever — might benefit from unions fighting for higher pay and shorter working hours. Bernstein’s primary concern was to improve the material conditions of the workers, and if this could be done under capitalism, so be it.  

Others were primarily concerned with overthrowing capitalism. Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s revision repudiated a key tenet of Marx’s theory, namely that a society’s economics — its “substructure” — determined its culture, the “superstructure.” Gramsci argued that it could run the other way, that cultural change could drive economic change, and argued on this basis that Marxists should fight a “culture war.” In this sense, cultural Marxism should be called cultural Gramscism.  

After World War II, German philosopher Herbert Marcuse made a fresh revision. Marcuse is closely associated with the Frankfurt School, which Gramsci heavily influenced. Taking Marx’s concept of “false consciousness,” Christopher Rufo writes in his new book America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, Marcuse: 

…argued that modern capitalist society had created the perfect means of repression, anaesthetizing the working class with material comforts, manufactured desires, and welfare programs, which stabilized the system… 

Marcuse’s Marxian diagnosis quickly caught on and so, too, did his Gramscian prognosis. The revolution would no longer emerge from the proletariat. By the 1960s, they were doing okay materially (Bernstein would have been pleased) and were considered an “antirevolutionary” force. Instead, “[t]he only solution,” Rufo continues:  

…was the Great Refusal: the complete disintegration of the existing society, beginning with a revolt in the universities and the ghettoes, then dissolving “the system’s hypocritical morality and ‘values’” through the relentless application of his “critical theory of society”…  

This was the “New Left” of the 1960s of whom Marcuse was “the father,” as opposed to the “old left” of those patriotic, blue-collar union guys, who were increasingly worried about rising taxes and exploding crime. The difference between Bernstein and Gramsci/Marcuse was the difference between Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern, or Archie Bunker and Meathead.  

In truth, Marxism’s most eager consumers had always come from the middle rather than the generally indifferent working class, but Marcuse made this orientation explicit. This would be a revolution from above, in a socio-economic sense, and it would replace the politics of class conflict with the politics of racial conflict. Rufo argues that:  

…Marcuse posited four key strategies for the radical Left: the revolt of the affluent white intelligentsia, the radicalization of the black “ghetto population,” the capture of public institutions, and the cultural repression of the opposition.  

Once again, the revolution failed to materialize. The alliance between the “white intelligentsia and the black ghetto” was skewered by Tom Wolfe in “These Radical Chic Evenings” as early as 1970. Nixon and Reagan cleaned up at the ballot box — thanks to those blue-collar guys — as “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish” cleaned up at the box office. Meathead was replaced as the avatar of American youth by vocally pro-capitalist Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties.” In the 1970s and 1980s, the New Left reeled from a counterattack in the culture war.  

But the left — now the old New Left — followed Marcuse’s playbook. After what one of Marcuse’s students, Rudi Dutschke, called a “long march through the institutions,” it achieved “the capture of America’s institutions…the spread of racialist ideology in public education, and the rise of the diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracy.” “Today,” Rufo argues, “America is living inside Marcuse’s revolution.” Is the long-foretold revolution finally here? This excellent book explains how we got here and how we can get out.