Increasingly, calls for wealth and power redistribution are dressed as compensatory justice for members of different identity groups. We see this playing out on our campuses, in our corporations, and, recently, in our streets. But when did the world shift away from a Marxism based on economic classes (the worker v. the bourgeois) into one based on immutable characteristics such as race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and even disability status?
A story has to start somewhere, and I suggest the best place for this one is a fascist prison in Italy in the late 1920s and 1930s. There languished the Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci. Now he had the time to write down thoughts he’d been entertaining for over a decade.
It had long since dawned on Gramsci that, though Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had promised almost a century earlier that the working class would rise up, overthrow the capitalists, and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, until that time revolutions had been few.
In Europe, the revolutions of 1848 had failed. The Bolsheviks had succeeded in Russia in 1917, but the rest of Europe was run by capitalists. America was even more hopeless. There, as Engels had written in 1892, “society at the very beginning started from a bourgeois basis” (though he added, wrongly as it turned out, that things were about to turn).
Where had Marx and Engels gone wrong? Gramsci came up with a meta-explanation. The bourgeoisie had acculturated the working man to do its bidding, giving him “false consciousness.” In this manner, the bourgeois did not even have to coerce the worker into submission.
The cure, Gramsci thought, was to carry out a “consciousness raising” indoctrination campaign that would convince the average proletarian he had been duped by tradition, religion, the family, the educational system, and all the cultural trappings of society. Consciousness raising would let the worker understand his true interest and induce him to renounce any idea of succeeding individually; he would thus join with those in his class in a collective effort to transform the system.
Gramsci envisioned this revolution as bloodless; it would not be Russia in 1917. The campaign would require a determined effort to take over the culture-making industries—what the 1960s radical Rudi Dutschke later termed the “long march through the institutions.” To Gramsci, this reeducation would overcome the resistance of those working men “who think only of solving their own immediate economic and political problems for themselves, who have no ties of solidarity with others in the same condition.”
Struggle sessions would transform “the facts of vassalage into the signals of rebellion and social construction.” Once cultural institutions had been taken over, they would stop promoting traditional culture—known to Gramsci as the “hegemonic narrative.” Dissent would be crushed through what Herbert Marcuse later called “repressive tolerance.” This is how we get the Reverend Jesse Jackson joining students at Stanford in 1987 in the chant, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!”
Gramsci, Marcuse, and Dutschke represent three generations of so-called Western Marxists associated with critical theory and the attempt to remake society institution by institution. Marcuse was a member of the Frankfurt School, which had an enormous impact on the founders of today’s identity politics.
Marcuse personally tutored the Black Panther leader Angela Davis and took part in student demonstrations. Today, many of the academics who teach young minds at our universities are critical theory professors, as indeed are some of the members of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Race and Ethnicity.
The Frankfurt School thinkers were not the only major influence on today’s purveyors of identity politics. The postmodernists are the other camp of European philosophers and academics, many of whom were based in Paris, to which identity politics traces its origins.
Both Marxist camps repackaged Marx for mass culture, taking his analysis out of economics and putting him into American culture, even the power dynamics of Disney. They employed similar methods and approaches: a systematic attack on Western democratic societies and their cultural norms; the belief that morality, and reality, are culturally relative, with the related rejection of universal truth and objectivity and the belief that individuals and groups have separate and equal “truths” which must do battle with the hegemonic narrative, or “episteme”; the Marxist emphasis on conflict between oppressors and subordinates; and the expansion beyond economics to culture, which is why practitioners of both schools are called cultural Marxists.
To these two schools we owe the view, so ubiquitous in our society today, that certain groups—minorities, women, and others—are “marginalized,” and that these groups participate in their own oppression when they perpetuate the hegemonic metanarrative of the privileged. This is why students in American universities, and increasingly in secondary and even primary education as well, are taught that the assimilation of immigrants is a capitulation to the oppressors.
Both the Frankfurt School thinkers and the postmodernists believed that members of subordinate groups lack unity and foolishly put their faith in success through individual effort. What they needed, then, was to be organized into a collective. Thus, Mexican Americans in Los Angeles in the late 1940s “needed” Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross to come along to teach them how to organize, and women “needed” to be awakened from their submissive torpor by Kate Millett. The children of Chinese and Indian immigrants succeeding individually through hard work and virtuous living are, on the other hand, an inconvenient threat.
The American founders were inspired by the ideas of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, an intellectual tradition that underlies America’s attachment to freedom. But the influence of certain Continental philosophers on Western, and specifically American, society are reshaping America in pernicious ways.
Critical theory and postmodernism derive from Continental philosophy and its successors. These thinkers are the intellectual heirs of the French Terror and communist totalitarianism, and despite this sorry record, their ideas have been a beguiling temptation to academics and activists for decades on this side of the Atlantic. To understand what has happened to America, its universities and its politics, we have to understand these philosophical antecedents.
Before Gramsci, Marcuse, Millett, and the rest, there were, of course, Marx and Engels. But seeing everything through the lens of economics and property produced blind spots for Marx and Engels and their followers, notably the role that race and ethnicity could play (and would go on to play) in the revolution to overthrow the ruling class.
One exception to this blind spot was Marx’s observation that, in English manufacturing cities, mutual hostility kept working-class English and Irish apart despite their supposed common interests. Marx never used the phrase “false consciousness,” but in the following passage from a letter he wrote in 1870, we can see that he deduces that something like it has made the English worker a willing accomplice in his own subjugation:
Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker…. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this (emphasis original).
Marx’s mistake was in thinking that revolutionary consciousness would emerge from “the objective (and oppressive) material conditions of working class life,” writes John Fonte. A refinement of this way of thinking would have to wait for the next wave of Marxist thinkers ushered in by Gramsci.
This essay is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book, The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics Is Dividing The Land of The Free.